“They dream it up, and we make it happen,” Lelan Keffer, leadman of the set-dressing department for the new locally-shot western Appaloosa, tells SFR.
The dream that Keffer, who has lived in Santa Fe for 28 years, refers to is the cinematic dream: the dream of a film completed. As a leadman, Keffer sits perched smack-dab in the middle of the chain that, in big-budget films, brings those dreams into physical reality. Well, “reality,” that is, if you can call an entirely fake town “reality.”
Keffer leads the set-dressers, who do the actual painting, hammering and, as Keffer says, “whatever it takes.” He answers to the set decorator, who picks out the actual stuff of a film, from the chairs to the paintings that hang on the walls. And the set decorator, in turn, takes his or her directions from the production designer, who conceptualizes the overarching look of a film—the entire spaceship or, in the case of Appaloosa, the entire frontier. The New Mexico town of Appaloosa was created largely on a private ranch an hour from Santa Fe, has a 360-degree civilization-less view and is outfitted with a western set that was originally constructed for 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma.
Since our very job as film watchers is to suspend disbelief—to ignore the unreality—it makes sense that we often take the set design and all the hard work that goes into a film’s look for granted. We’re supposed to. But an incredible amount of research and creative energy goes into “making it happen.” Santa Fe-based set dresser Ginger Dunnill [full disclosure: Dunnill is a friend of the Screener], who worked under Keffer, tells SFR about the attention paid to detail in Appaloosa, from making sure the nails were “period” to learning how people used to stack wood on old wood-burning trains. As Dunnill puts it, “You can’t put a lamp or a stove in that was invented in 1860 if the movie is set in 1790.”
Appaloosa looks great, from the rugged New Mexican exteriors to the saloon interiors. It’s also, dramatically, a funny and entertaining—if not overly ambitious—western, a genre that has seen somewhat of a mini-resurgence in recent years. Adapted and directed by Ed Harris, whose last and only other directorial effort is the 2000 biopic Pollock, and based on the novel by American crime writer Robert B Parker (writer of the “Spencer” novels, which were turned into the TV series Spencer: For Hire), Appaloosa stars Harris opposite Viggo Mortensen as a pair of gunmen-turned-marshals charged with bringing a despotic rancher (Jeremy Irons) to justice for the murder of their predecessors. Renée Zellweger plays a comically disloyal widow who arrives in Appaloosa and complicates matters as much as fish hooks complicate the lives of fish.
The chemistry—by turns tender and hilarious—between Harris and Mortensen is palpable, so much so that one detects in their partnership the slightest hint of a Brokeback Mountain prequel. But, as a director, Harris makes no motions toward social allegory or poetic depth, so often found in westerns both modern and classic. He prefers, instead, to mix quick bursts of violence and well-choreographed action with straight-ahead, fairly simple storytelling and charming scenes of domestic squabbling. There’s something undeniably enjoyable about seeing two taciturn gunslingers forced to discuss curtain choices (Harris’ character is partial to the lacy ones). It’s so enjoyable, in fact, you won’t even notice that those curtains are perfect period antiques.
Directed by Ed Harris
Written by Ed Harris, Robert Knott and based on the novel by Robert B Parker
With Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons
Regal Stadium 14
114 min., R