Gabe Polsky on Navigating Treacherous Territory in “Butcher’s Crossing”

“I haven’t seen the film in a little bit,” Gabe Polsky told me earlier this week about “Butcher’s Crossing,” a film he spent the last decade pouring his heart into and can be as proud as relieved now as it’s about to be released into the world. Polsky may describe himself as a relative newcomer to filmmaking when the adaptation of John Adams’ revered novel set in the Old West is just his second narrative feature – he’s also directed the docs “Red Army” and “Red Penguins” – but he’s a consummate one, first starting out as a producer with his brother Alan, and it might take someone of youthful ambition and a consciousness of having an eye for making the most of a budget as much as the frame to pull such an epic off, having only 18 days to film a story in which a change in seasons is a crucial plot point.

Still, having once presided over the production of Werner Herzog’s wild “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Polsky was ready for anything and offers that film’s star Nicolas Cage another incredibly memorable role as Miller, a fortune seeker in frontier times who believes there’s money to be made in hunting buffalo for pelts, waiting for nearly a decade for someone crazy or unaware enough to follow him into a remote valley in Colorado Territory where others fear to tread. He finds a willing mark in Willie (Fred Hechinger), who rides into the titular township in Kansas after leaving his prescribed path of a Harvard education and perhaps following in his father’s footsteps as a pastor’s son, but when one of the men his father helped get back on his feet in Boston (Paul Raci) isn’t about to help him get work corralling cattle on the plains, Miller provides an alluring alternative with the charisma not only to convince him that they’ll be back to the bar they’re sitting at in just six short weeks, but luring over the comely barmaid (Rachel Keller) to add to the sense that the mission will make a man out of Willie.

Yet “Butcher’s Crossing” was always about Willie seeking out something more profound as he heads into the wilderness with Miller and two other hired hands (Jeremy Bobb and an unrecognizable Xander Berkeley), believing in spite of what his father taught he could find heaven on earth, a reasonable enough conclusion when in fact as Miller promised, a black sea of buffalo await on one side of the mountain, though bringing them back over is the hard part, and while “Butcher’s Crossing” basks in the beauty of the wide open pastures and glorious sunsets, a harsh winter is also on the horizon, brought about in part by the men who get greedy about what they try to take from it. Although a gripping survival thriller takes root as Miller and his crew try to keep their bounty intact and make their way out of the treacherous territory, it makes a compelling case for all they have put in peril by believing they have no responsibility to nature.

With Cage joking at the film’s premiere in Toronto, he was making his way to the stage earlier than his traditional Midnight Madness slot at the festival, it is in fact only a tick-tock or two away from the witching hour and the film proves to be tantalizingly terrifying as its characters dance on a knife’s edge and Polsky spoke about how he felt he was doing the same thing when he had little room for error on “Butcher’s Crossing,” delivering a taut drama under less than ideal circumstances and could infuse the people on screen with the same drive he had to pull off the impossible.

From what I understand, you first read John Williams’ novel ten years ago and it was an uphill climb ever since to get this into production. What grabbed you about it?

It was definitely an uphill climb, but the themes of the story just resonated with me. I felt they were fundamental about life and, the search for kind of meaning and purpose and the curiosity about human nature and the ego and what is it that drives us to do what we do. What happened to the buffalo is a story that never was really told on film, and I have a love for the outdoors and the mountains. But mainly I just felt like the story said a lot about what we all go through in life, from maybe being a little bit naive about it and romantic to seeing some things that happen and then what do we do with that after we experience that and sometimes participate in it. I thought that was a beautifully tragic story.

With your background as a producer, how did the stars align to make this happen?

It was tough. I started off more on the producing side, and [originally] this was something that another writer brought in. But I fell in love with the book and then ultimately started developing it with another studio and with Sam Mendes was attached to direct. The movie didn’t happen, but because I was so personally motivated by this story, I felt I had the ability to write and direct this thing, whether it was naive or not, but I just wanted to go for it. Ultimately, I co-wrote the script and went about trying to put the movie together. It took forever because it’s hard for a younger, earlier stage filmmaker with a narrative to get the right actor to get the movie financed and the subject matter is not super easy. It just took a while to get all the right pieces together, and sometimes it felt like it was going to happen and it didn’t. There were many times where I nearly gave up on it, but I just ultimately pulled through on it.

You must’ve had an ace in the hole with Nicolas Cage, going back to “Bad Lieutenant.” Was he in mind for Miller from the start of this?

Ultimately, after I had written the script for “Butcher’s Crossing,” he was the first guy I went to and I think he is a tremendous actor, but for Miller, it’s not that hard to believe this guy to play that kind of role. So I did go down to Las Vegas and meet with him and he had read the script and he really liked it, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get the movie together at first and then I started directing other things, and by the time that I went back to Nic, I had almost forgotten that I had gone to him [to begin with]. His name came up and I said, “Oh yeah, I think I met with Nic and I think he liked it.” And I was like, “That was stupid. Why don’t I talk to Nic again about this?” And that’s how it ended up happening.

He’s usually deeply involved in the look of his characters, but I hear that you get credit for the bald head. How did that come to mind?

Nic tells the story that I said, “Well, what about Michael Jordan?” And it is true that we did talk about Michael Jordan a lot and that competitive energy and that drive. Michael Jordan was notorious [for not being] the nicest guy to his teammates, and he was intense and driven more than anybody. And we’ve seen Nic in so many different films. And I wanted something a little bit different. We were just sort of playing with ideas. And then I said, “Well, what if you shaved your head?” And then Michael Jordan came up, and I just thought it was an interesting choice, for this role. Different, and I hope appropriate, but I think it fits him. I really like the way he looks in the film.

You’re making those interesting choices throughout and I imagine some were necessary when you had just 18 days to shoot. What was it like to plan for?

Yeah, it’s not “The Revenant,” which has nine months and $200 million. It was just the hardest thing professionally that I’ve ever done. The pressure was incredibly high because of the amount [of scenes] that you have to shoot in a day and the amount of things that were changing as the shoot progressed from a moment to moment basis with the weather and with the buffalo. There were just a lot of moving parts and the name of the game was to be improvisational. If you told any filmmaker that this was shot in that amount of time, it’d probably be pretty hard to believe, and I tell the story about a day before the shoot when I was told the time we’d have, and I called Werner Herzog and he told me, “Even a magician couldn’t make the movie in that amount of time.”

It’s not the thing that I needed to hear from him on the day before shooting, but he said that and I decided, you know, obviously I had no choice. And I think if you were in my shoes, you would do the same thing. You just hope for the best and do your best and I had faith that I would figure out solutions as we go to make it as powerful as possible and to really capture the essence of each thing you need to capture. Even if you strip everything down, it was just making sure you get that. With independent filmmaking, it’s about being creative. You never know some of these limitations and the solutions end up being interesting and that happens all the time.

You prominently acknowledge the Blackfoot Nation for making this production possible at the end of the film. What was the collaboration with them like?

Yeah, I’m not sure what would have happened without them. First of all, they have a pretty big herd [of buffalo] up there. There’s not a lot of big ones together in the United States. Secondly, their knowledge and experience with the animal was critical in all aspects — with the way the way that they’re hunted, the way that they skin, the spirit of the animal — the stuntmen and the buffalo handlers were critical in pulling this very difficult shoot off and in a small amount of time. It was incredible. Then we did a lot of ceremonies with them before we shot with the animal, which was incredibly special. [Given] the whole history of our country and the animal, to do it with them was special and necessary.

What’s it like having this off your shoulders after carrying it for so long?

I hate to say it, but I don’t know what to think. I’m just thinking now, well, how do I feel? I think when you release a movie, there’s a whole lot of emotions that are coming. There’s a little bit of nervousness, even though you’re proud of what you did, you just never know anything. I’m glad to move on. I want to continue making other things. Obviously, if you’re a filmmaker, you want as many people as possible to see your work and you’re trying to connect with people about story and material, so that’s just the bottom line. You just hope that you’re connecting with as many people as possible. That’s all this is. Nothing else. You’re telling a story. You don’t tell a story to yourself. You’re trying to have an audience to share with.

“Butcher’s Crossing” opens in limited release on October 20th.

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