Bard Pitt| The Tristan Night Away

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 same woman?

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 trammeled 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 afterward, Pitt ponders the process of shooting a Hollywood 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 fresh 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.” 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.”

A lot of elements – western, war, love triangle, family, killings – [Legends is] 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.

Julia, says [Brad] “with simple chivalry, has this kind of timeless class I haven’t seen anywhere else.”

Pitt and Zwick 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 it.”

“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.”

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 internalize 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’s 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.”

“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 rumors 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 rumors 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 you respect.”

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 says.

Pitt also lobbied for [Aidan] 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, it’s time.”

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 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.”

“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. “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 hard.”

The night has truly arrived now, as headlights swing incongruously 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.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Premiere .

February 1, 1995 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links