Director Gabe Polsky and the producers of western, Butcher’s Crossing talk to Chris Evans about shooting in the wilderness of Colorado in the company of Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage ahead of the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (9 September).
Polsky first read the novel Butcher’s Crossing by John Edward Williams back in 2008 and it “hit me in the gut and the heart”, he recalls.
It tells the story of Harvard drop-out, Will Andrews, played by Fred Hechinger (Pam and Tommy) in the film, who heads into the American West to join a group of buffalo hunters, led by Miller (Nicolas Cage) on a journey of discovery that puts his life and sanity at risk.
Nearly fifteen years later, after optioning the book over and over again, Polsky finally got the chance to make the film as co-writer (alongside Liam Satre-Meloy), director and producer, and it proved to be a case of life imitating art.
“We had just 19 days to shoot the entire film in the remote landscape of Colorado where the logistics of bringing in equipment and crew from all over the place were really difficult and there was no time for rehearsals with the actors,” explains Polsky, who shot from October to November 2021.
“We had to just keep filming. It was intense. A real journey of discovery. I’m no Scorsese, but I don’t think even he could have done what we achieved.”
In Butcher’s Crossing, Will is driven by a desire for nature, adventure and the search for meaning, while Miller is led by ambition, greed and obsession in his hunt of buffaloes.
Many of these traits Polsky himself could relate to, both on and off set. He has spent a lot of time in the wilderness, exploring and skiing, as well as nurturing a burning ambition to go further in his career.
Much of it so far has been working on documentaries and TV shows, aside from drama, The Motel Life, starring Emile Hirsch, back in 2012. But Butcher’s Crossing is a whole different beast.
Shooting the buffalo (in a camera and rifle sense), for instance, had to be handled carefully. “We were on Native Indian ground and so the Blackfeet Nation were heavily involved in the production and managed the buffalo herd with care,” says Polsky. “Local producer, Jeri Rafter, really helped us working with them.”
Producers Molly Conners and Amanda Bowers from New York-based Phiphen Pictures were also on hand throughout the shoot to assist Polsky. “We had been onboard since 2015 helping develop and cast the project, and loved the book, so we’ve been very hands on,” says Conners.
UK outfits Altitude Film Entertainment and Ingenious Media have also been vital parts of the hunting party, with Andy Mayson and Will Clarke (Co CEOs of Altitude) onboard as producers.
“I actually cold-called Will when trying to get this project made and he said it sounded interesting, then called me back and said: ’it’s fricking amazing and we’ll help you get it made’,” says Polsky.
Conners adds: “Altitude really led the financing. They took the risk and cash flowed the production pre bond closing. They were wonderful partners to us.”
The production team also accessed the local Montana tax credit, which offers between 20% and 35% of local production expenditure in the state. “It was a straightforward process and the Montana Film Office were easy to work with. You could just call them on the cell and they’d help us source stuff,” insists Bowers.
All this backing and support proved vital as the production team had to battle not only with the elements in the desolate landscape, near Glacier National Park, where it was really cold, but also the transport, logistics and lack of infrastructure.
“There was a lot of unpredictability throughout the shoot,” admits Polsky. “Often what we (myself and the DoP, David Gallego) planned to shoot wouldn’t work out that way. We just had to do the best we could. It was really remote. I couldn’t believe the trucks were getting to some of the places. One of them even got stuck in a river that froze over.
“Plus, the internet was terrible, we were limited with accommodation options, my fingers swelled up in the cold, and we had to handle a lot of wild animals, including getting up close and personal with the buffaloes and horses.”
Then there were the actors to deal with, who were “demanding because they’re good”, including ‘wild animal’ Cage. A consummate professional on set, but with a personality that has intrigued, surprised and endeared many directors to him.
“I actually flew out to Las Vegas to meet with him when he first showed interest back in 2013/14,” says Polsky. “I just remember turning up and seeing him in cowboy boots and he had this real energy. Fast forward 10 years when we were casting again, I’d actually forgotten about the meeting, but remembered when someone mooted his name and I thought, ‘yeah, he’d be awesome, so dynamic.”
Cage’s slightly unhinged performance and rather shocking new look were a perfect fit for the character. “He’s certainly striking, in both the way he looks, but also his whole presence, he embodies the character of Miller, and was always looking to try new ideas,” says Polsky.
Meanwhile Hechinger and character actor Jeremy Bobb, who plays villainous hide skinner Fred in the film, had both read the novel before they were approached for the film.
“They told me they’d been trying to get involved with the project for a while, which made it easier for me because they knew the material,” says Polsky.
The director found the experience exhausting and challenging, but is very proud of the final film, which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday 9:30pm at Roy Thomson Hall. The first P&I screening is on 10 September at 8:30am at Scotiabank.
Saban Films hold US rights.
Homepage image: Butcher's Crossing. Credit: Michael CB Stevens