THE TRISTAN NIGHT AWAY - by Fred Schruers
Free to emote as his vampire Louis could not, Brad Pitt ignites tears, strife
and passion on the rain-plagued set of Legends of the Fall. Well, what else
would you expect from an epic tragedy about three brothers who fall for the
We’ve had a lot of dying and crying on this one Pitt tells Fred Schruers
Tucked away behind a set of plywood walls, on a bed in the middle of a curling
rink west of Calgary, Brad Pitt is making love. He’s got Toad The Wet
Spocket’s Fear playing on the ghetto blaster, and Elizabethan beauty Julia
Ormond in his arms. A hushed and diffident skeleton crew is looking on. Blue-gelled
moonlight spills across the rumpled linen and director Edward Zwick, in his
ninth week of shooting Legends of the Fall, hunches nearby, exuding sensitivity
and carefully trammelled elation. This, after all, is his second try to get
this sequence right. As the crew rapidly changes a wall, leaving the cinematic
lovers and the camera in their original spots, Zwick dashes out for a quick
word with his producer (and longtime thirtysomething collaborator) Marshall
Herskovitz. One more shot and we’ve got it, he says. This is the second
reshoot in two days (he’ll see the results of yesterday’s tortured
jailhouse scene tonight), and the eyes that have lately been glowering out of
his black nimbus of hair and beard are finally smiling.
There have been enormous obstacles keeping these two characters apart, says
Herskovitz about Pitt’s Tristan and Ormond’s Susannah, the central
pair of Legends of the Fall’s numerous couplings. So there’s an
enormous hunger in this scene which really has to play itself out. As so often
happens in a film, you get one moment to establish that passion, and everything
else follows from that. The vulgar blaaatt of a bell and the whirl of a red-domed
lamp signal that it’s time for the passion to recommence.
Soon afterwards, rangy limbs flung against the front seat of a car as he lights
up a cigarette, Pitt ponders the process of shooting a Hollywwood sex scene:
It’s not the most romantic setting, you know? Very anti-erection, if I
can say that.
Though this is a staple opinion of most actors flesh from engaging in filmed
bed scenes, he winces at the tape recorder’s red eye winking in the dark.
My poor mom!... So you throw a little music on, and you try to forget about
all the people staring at you. I got that, actually, from Ridley, because he
let us play music during that Geena Davis scene. (Even most people who never
saw Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise know that Pitt’s iron-abbed
J.D. sexually enlightens David’s Thelma.) Pitt chortles over the goofiness
of the stiffie question: It’s one of those things: damned if you do, damned
if you don’t. Sorry, I did... or sorry, I didn’t.
Brad Pitt has to be the aw-shucksingest screen heartthrob in recent memory.
He might have a CAA agent, a full-time publicist and a canny sense of what may
work in his career, but the bouts of self-deprecation and befuddlement seem
genuine enough under the interview microscope. Would a truly calculating celebrity
move into a country house with his female co-star for reasons purely practical
and platonic? At first the one-time journalism major failed to foresee how his
temporary domestic arrangement with British newcomer Ormond (Nostradamus, The
Baby Of Macon) might titillate the local media. When he was tailed home by an
inquisitive reporter from a Calgary newspaper, he walked down his driveway to
discuss matters. Don’t do this, he told the tail, I’ll give you
an interview later if you’ll lay off. Older and wiser, Pitt regrets the
impression conveyed: We fed them that story, right? We knew that was coming.
Sooner or later. A palms-up gesture. It was completely convenience. It’s
In the blowing mist that blankets the two-lane road to Pitt’s remote rental
abode, an overloaded lorry, going fast and extending a foot into the wrong lane,
roars past the car we’re riding in. I got hit by an 18-wheeler once, Pitt
observes. Not much left of the car. Took the roof with it. Just turned into
us and took us with him. No one was even hurt. It was just kind of like once
we had a roof and now we don’t.
If the basic tenet of Pitt’s philosophy is shit happens, the attraction
of the Legends story may have been that both in Jim Harrison’s 81-page
novella and in the film’s screenplay, a whole heap of it happens. A lot
of elements - western, war, love triangle, family, killings - right? It’s
bold, it’s big, like a great bottle of wine or something. Harrison’s
story takes the Ludlow family through a half century of history in which love
does as much damage as the more usual forms of violence. Colonel William Ludlow,
played with typical verve by Anthony Hopkins, is the patriarch who quits the
US Cavalry in disgust over the government’s treatment of Indians and then
builds a ranch on an isolated tract in the foothills of the Montanta Rockies.
Though his wife soon retreats to Boston, he stays to raise his three sons there:
Aidan Quinn’s Alfred is the eldest and seemingly most solid; Henry Thomas
Samuel is the all-too-fervent youngest; and Pitt’s Tristan is the middle
brother, magnetic, unknowable and haunted. When the zealously idealistic Samuel
insists on volunteering to fight the Germans in World War One, Alfred protectively
enlists with him; so does Tristan, partly because he feels guilty about his
attraction to Samuel’s youngest fiancée, Susannah (Ormond).
For many, Julia Ormond may constitute the surprise of the film. The apparently
platonic symbiosis Pitt and Ormond have achieved offscreen makes an interesting,
counterweight to their fictional, cinematic story, in which a love that neither
can ignore or put aside tears apart their own lives and the lives of those dearest
to them. For those watching Ormond gallop across a field on horseback or Pitt
shuffling onto the set for a bordello scene, deschabille in no shirt and loosened
pyjama bottoms, the pair’s apparent restraint off set seems all the more
remarkable. Julia, says the actor with simple chivalry, has this kind of timeless
class I haven’t seen anywhere else.
To make the studio, TriStar, comfortable with the casting of a relative unknown
in the film’s pivotal role, Zwick mandated a screen test that Ormond hastily
shot in London with an actor friend. By that time, Pitt and Zwick had partnered
up, and not just aesthetically. One way we got this movie made, says Zwick,
was for me to defer a significant part of my salary and for Brad to become my
partner, doing that for himself as well. With Pitt scaling back his rapidly
escalating price, Zwick was able to pursue Hopkins, who’d told his agent
a while back that he was in the mood to finally do a western. In December 1992,
TriStar launched the $30 million production. I think, frankly, it was Brad’s
involvement that encouraged them, says Zwick, and Tony’s that cemented
As Zwick busied himself in preproduction - living the kind of director’s
existence in which each day brings so many decisions that, as he says, I open
a menu and try to think about what to order for dinner and I’m ready to
burst into tears - Herskovitz attended to the psychological care of the cast.
Marshall said something to me in the beginning that kind of grooved things for
me, recalls Pitt. What you see on the page is a guy gutting animals, a guy who’s
scalped people, who breaks horses, all this stuff. But because of all that stuff,
you can let him feel all the more, right?
Marshall said, You have the luxury here to feel as much as you want.
With that theory in place, Pitt was ready to take on a role that requires him
to go from savage to tender and back several times. Though his own time constraints
caused the shooting schedule to juggle the story’s continuity even more
wildly than is typical, Pitt felt ready - but an unavoidable lurch in that schedule
set him and Zwick up for an explosive disagreement.
Scene 202, nestled deep in the story’s third act, is described in the
script merely as INT JAIL CELL/Susannah visits Tristan in jail It’s designed
as a teary one-on-one between Tristan (behind bars and despondent) and Susannah
(now married to Alfred and tormented by her love for Tristan), in which the
characters face the impasse that fate and tragic errors have brought them to.
Despite the scene’s climactic importance in the story, rainy days meant
it had to be filmed during the first week of shooting. At that point, the jail
scene wasn’t right, wasn’t written right, didn’t fit in, says
Pitt. When we shot it, I said, This is a mistake. Zwick however, insisted on
trying to pull it off.
Perhaps two well-schooled British actors would have simply muddled through,
and indeed, Ormond’s pragmatic view of the shooting schedule was that
you have to be quite careful finding your stepping-stones, because it’s
all out of order. In any event, Pitt and Zwick’s heated exchange over
the scene apparently turned sufficiently harsh that the crew opted to abandon
the immediate vicinity. Tales emerged of furniture being tossed. If a chair
or a stool was thrown, says one source who should know, it certainly wasn’t
thrown at anybody. Ultimately, the cameras rolled, but when they finished Zwick
told Herskovitz they’d have to find time to reshoot the scene.
Brad has to internalise an enormous amount to express a scene’s truthfulness,
says Zwick, speaking with the tactfulness of a man who has ended up good mates
with his star. And the explorations he’d asked to make in this part are
difficult. Sometimes when I’m directing, I feel like an interpreter at
the United Nations - you know, the esteemed representative from Botswana has
to be made knowable to the assistant undersecretary from Her Majesty’s
diplomatic corps... Later he adds, Sure, we went at it, and that too is part
of the process. And certainly by the next morning we were contrite and desperately
eager to make it up, not hold onto it, and go on to the next thing.
Pitt having arrived home without interference from large lorries, opens a beer
and leans back in his chair. Yeah, Ed and I had a tough day that day, which
is good. It’s good if two people care. Cause at the end you’re going
to come up with something good - and that was the result in the jail scene we
got now. This time, it was written right, it was done right.
Zwick shared his confidence, Pitt recalls. He came around the corner and went
- Pitt mimes a triumphant home-run gesture - and that was it. I didn’t
say a word. There was all this press that came out that we were not getting
along, these rumours in Hollywood that it’s not going right. You know,
this is a gamble, and even TriStar’s gambling on me, putting me in this
kind of movie. So people want to hear it’s going bad. I find myself having
to defend Ed, cause these rumours are going around. But that hasn’t been
the case; it’s been pretty easygoing.
Any disagreements you have are fine, Pitt adds quietly. It’s that passion
The work Pitt and Ormond do in the jailhouse scene, and in the film’s
frequent other emotional twists and turns, will be what makes or breaks Legends
for audiences. Ormond, playing someone approaching madness, shows considerable
craft while Pitt, heartbroken three times over but still somehow untouchable,
meets her halfway. We’ve had a lot of dying and crying on this one, he
Pitt also lobbied for Quinn to play Alfred, which he saw as probably the toughest
part in the movie. It could have easily gone wimpy. We needed somebody who’d
be equal to Tristan, bring nobility and strength to the role, and sexiness,
of all things, and that’s Aidan. Somebody give this guy an Oscar. I mean,
For his part, Quinn believes Pitt comes of age in a scene at a graveyard that
figures heavily in the film: I happened onto some dailies that were on tape
and saw him at the grave, and he was just devastating. Brad’s got a very
traditional, manly kind of persona, so to see that man fighting the emotion
and not winning was just so powerful, watching it spill out.
Both Quinn and Pitt are chuffed to be working with a pretty fair country actor
names Sir Anthony Hopkins. Here’s a man who’s been through everything
and back, says Quinn, who has this wonderful, joyous spirit. The first week
I met him on the set was a particularly difficult week, everybody tired, long
hours, and he came on the set and was hugging everyone, talking about how happy
he is to be here.
By day 59 of an arduous and rain-plagued shoot, an enervated Hopkins seems
ever so quietly ready to eat somebody’s liver with fava beans and a nice
chianti. Unavoidably, due to Pitt’s stop date, he has spent a fair amount
of time on hold, lurking near the set and waiting to be called to play the Ludlow
patriarch at who-knows-what-stage of the character’s many decades of history.
Dressed in Ludlow’s buffalo robe, a shock of white hair jutting horizontally
outward, he eschews full-out grumpiness with a king’s restraint. His scenes
have been all out of continuity. We’re all over the place. That’s
what you do when you do a film. It doesn’t matter.
Not far away, a technician readies a shotgun Hopkins is to use in the climactic
scene. I play a hard man, but I’m not so keen on guns, the actor admits
distractedly. I think you ought to be very responsible and calm around guns.
How hard is it for Hopkins to portray Ludlow after the character has suffered
a crippling stroke? I just come on, twist my face about it a bit, let the arm
go limp, let the right leg go limp, and do it. (This analysis later draws a
bemused look from Zwick, who knows Hopkins has studied the topic intensively.)
What I’m trying for is to avoid the pomposity of acting, the self-importance
of it all. When I was doing Hannibal Lecter, people kept saying, How do you
come out of a part like that? Just get in the car and go home.
After today’s gunplay, Hopkins can do exactly that, and he’s finally
called to the set to shoot the film’s hearteningly conclusive climax.
Zwick positions himself on a crane that will hoist the camera up and away from
the scene. The bad guys are arrayed around a 1925 Ford in front of the Ludlow
homestead, and the ranch’s extended family is facing off with them. Pitt
notices that his costume lacks the spurs he wore in the scene’s front
end weeks ago. Are we gonna see his feet? asks Zwick, watching the late-afternoon
sun of Pitt’s next-to-last-day about to tuck itself behind a nearby mountain.
An aide relays the message, Spurs travelling, and the capstone of the scene,
with its freight of family reconciliation, plays out in handsome amber-orange
sunbeams. A throttled Yesss! comes out of Zwick. In the afterglow, hugs are
given, with the farewells hurried along by exhaustion and the evening chill.
This has been a good deal, says Pitt. It’s been the hardest thing I tried
to tackle, and as I look back, finishing up, it’s been good - to work
The night has truly arrived now, as headlights swing incongruosly across the
ancient-looking ranch house behind Pitt. It appears that what’s left of
Tristan’s wardrobe, and more than a little bit of the character’s
psyche, will go off into the night with him. This story was one of the only
ones where I’ve ever said, I’m the guy for this one. I’ve
always felt there was someone else who could do a little better. But not on
this one: this story I felt like I knew from the beginning to the end. I knew
the stops and I knew the turns. This one meant more. When Pitt turns to go,
he picks a route that’s just a few yards out of reach of the headlight
beams raking across the outskirts of the set, and in seconds he has disappeared
up the muddy road.