A western finally rides into the sunset
Bringing the western “3:10 to Yuma” to the big screen was more than a labor of love for director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) and his producer wife, Cathy Konrad -- it was a magnificent obsession. And it was their passion that kept them determined to make the film even after a studio put it in turnaround -- and logistics presented nightmares.
Mangold, 43, first saw the classic 1957 original directed by Delmer Daves when he was a 17-year-old teaching assistant to British director Alexander Mackendrick (“Sweet Smell of Success”) at CalArts. The filmmaker showed the sagebrush drama, based on a 1953 Elmore Leonard story, in class. Van Heflin stars as Dan Evans, a struggling farmer and family man who agrees to take Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), a charming bad guy, to a nearby town to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma so the villain can be tried for his crimes.
“I would watch it on 16-millimeter, and we would break down the dramatic structure of the film,” Mangold recalls. “This one really got under my skin, partly because it always really moved me. It also felt original in scope in that it was very claustrophobic and character-based, building up to a thrilling climax.”
Years later, Mangold even named the character Sylvester Stallone played in his 1997 crime drama “Copland,” Freddy Heflin, after Van Heflin.
Mangold introduced Konrad to “3:10" while they were working on “Copland.” “He had mentioned to me that the two films he was really interested in making were a film about Johnny Cash -- and ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” she says.
Mangold’s revisionist take, which opens Friday, stars Oscar winner Russell Crowe as Wade and Christian Bale as Evans. The new version beefs up the action, adds characters and expands the plot. Whereas the majority of the original takes place in the hotel room where Wade and Evans are holed up while waiting for the train, the updated “Yuma” follows the posse’s arduous journey accompanying Wade to the train.
“Yuma” was originally to be made at Sony. “They had been very supportive of the development of it and we had arrived at a draft we were very excited about,” Konrad says.
Konrad and Mangold had also developed “Walk the Line” at Sony, only to have the studio unable to do the film. (The project eventually found a home at Fox.)
So Sony, says Konrad, was “excited to get a second chance to have us back. We were working on the budgets and having conversations with actors.”
Tom Cruise had expressed a strong interest in playing Wade; Eric Bana was also interested in Evans. Then, says Konrad, “as is often the case, everything comes together in a very fragile way. Certain things happen that start to undo the architecture, and the next thing you know you are in sort of limbo. . . .”
Cruise and Bana fell out of the picture. But Crowe, who been their first choice to play Wade, was suddenly free. Bale was cast as Evans.
Still, says Konrad, “when push came to shove with Sony, they ran the numbers and decided they couldn’t find a way to make it work.”
Though Sony put the project in turnaround, Ryan Kavanaugh at Relativity Media, who was one of the studio’s financial partners on “Yuma,” was passionate about the material and stayed on.
“It was a very good stroke of luck,” Konrad says. “The amount of money he had allocated for the movie was what we needed budgetarily once we re-looked at the material.” An added plus was that the production was given financial incentives by New Mexico to shoot there.
Even with the $55-million budget and cast in place, says Konrad, distributors weren’t lining up around the block because feature westerns are a dicey proposition these days. “We shopped it to every studio, even with that cast, and they passed,” she explains. Then last September, indie Lionsgate agreed to distribute the film.
Mangold and Konrad had planned on beginning production last summer on “Yuma,” but when Sony pulled the plug, the western didn’t start filming until October. The weather stayed relatively stable until January; then on New Year’s Day it snowed for five straight days.
“We had so little cover,” Mangold says. “There were so few scenes under a roof that there were days you had to deal with whatever nature was throwing at you. Cathy and I would come home, and you would think we were people who had just come off of Everest. You are out there in 6 degrees cold with equipment -- your hand freezes to anything that is metal.”
“And you are up to your knees in mud,” Konrad says.
There were also environmental issues the production had to address. “We were shooting in a lot of locations that were very restrictive,” she says. “Access getting in and out was very challenging, because there were certain safety issues with horses -- what terrain can a horse gallop on -- where you can have a fire, where you can fire a gun. There was a lot of stuff logistically going on. It was very rustic and very primal. We were out there -- us, the land, the weather and the cows and the horses.”
Adds Mangold: “There were locations we hiked to with mules. There were no trucks anywhere nearby, and you had the water you carried.”
“We were faced with a lot of daylight issues,” Konrad says. “Because it was winter, we only had nine hours of usable daylight. Three of those were carved out for lunch and driving, so you had 5 1/2 hours to shoot.”
The weather and logistics also conspired to make the shooting of the climactic arrival of the train especially difficult. About half a mile of track was built on site, but there were only two operational steam engines available to use, Konrad says, and the one in the movie came from Arkansas.
“We had to time the building of the track to the arrival of the train,” she says. “And it was en route when the snowstorm hit. We had to dig everything out virtually by hand and shut down for almost two weeks to come out of the 3 1/2 feet of snow.”
At one point, the production ran out of money, so they couldn’t complete the building of Contention, the bustling town where the train station is located.
“If you notice, there are some buildings in Contention that are half-built,” Konrad says. “That’s the reason why.”
“But it looks great,” offers Mangold.
“Some of the things that happened unfolded so organically in the right way, we were pleased with the results,” says Konrad.