1992’s “Unforgiven” often finds itself ranked highly on many best Western films of all time lists. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and set in the 1880s, the film follows William Munny (Eastwood), a retired gunslinger-turned-widowed father and farmer. He takes one final job to collect a bounty on the deaths of two unscrupulous cowboys placed on them by a group of sex workers after the men sliced up one their faces. The film, along with 1990’s “Dances with Wolves,” helped breathe new life into a genre that had practically been declared dead. It won Eastwood his first Oscars in his nearly 40-year movie career at the time, picking up the awards for Best Picture (just the third Western to do so), and for Best Director.
Before the Oscar glory, the script had an almost 30-year journey to production. According to Cinephilia and Beyond, “Blade Runner” co-writer David Webb Peoples penned the script back in ’76, and Francis Ford Coppola optioned it, but years passed, and the legendary “Godfather” director failed to do anything with it. The script landed in Eastwood’s hands. He liked what he read and gained the rights from Coppola. He secured a distribution deal with Warner Bros.
The movie was shot in 39 days, and the set for the fictional Western town Big Whiskey was built in the village of Longview in Alberta, Canada, about an hour drive south of Calgary. Production began in the fall, Eastwood’s preference for any Western. But when winter knocked at the door and threatened the final days of filming, Eastwood et al. devised a plan that skirted every studio rule.
Mother Nature Is Locked And Loaded
According to an excerpt from a piece published in the now-defunct American film magazine Premiere (via Cinephilia and Beyond), the “Unforgiven” crew was about a month into shooting when, one Saturday evening on set, they learned local weather reports anticipated 12 inches of snow on Monday and freezing rain for the remainder of the week.
It was the worst timing because they were scheduled to have Sunday off and on Monday and Tuesday had planned to shoot the outside scene under the pine tree where the sex worker, Little Sue (Tara Frederick) rides in on her horse and hands Munny the cash reward for killing the two cowboys. There, she tells him the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), killed Munny’s friend and partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman).
It’s a crucial scene. Professional and amateur screenwriters alike would recognize it as the must-have crisis moment that propels the protagonist into the final act of the story. In this case, it sends Munny back to Big Whiskey, where he annihilates Little Bill and his henchmen. The scene was far too important for Eastwood to pack up the crew and shoot it back home in the U.S., as he wanted Big Whiskey looming in the background. But he also wanted no snow visible in the scene. He was faced with quite the dilemma.
The Wild, Wild Solution
According to the Cinephilia and Beyond excerpt, David Valdes, the executive producer of “Unforgiven,” proposed the crew continue filming into 2 a.m. Sunday and drive an hour back to the hotel for a four-hour nap. Only giving the team four hours of sleep and calling them in to work on their off day is bad, but I’ve experienced worse as a journalist working in breaking news. OK, let’s continue. Valdes then pitched that they return to location and spend all day shooting the sequences originally scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. After the sun sets, the crew would then spend the rest of the night and into Monday morning — before the predicted snowfall — shooting the rainy scene where Munny leaves the saloon after killing Little Bill and company. Sounds like a plan, right? Except it doesn’t include giving the crew any breaks. Making the crew work 21 hours straight without food on their off day would prompt a slew of labor violations per the studio’s rulebook.
Valdes and Eastwood proceeded without informing the top brass, but that didn’t stop more roadblocks from popping up. As the temperature dropped, bodies chilled, and the water that sprouted from the rain machine needed to film the showery saloon scene began to freeze. The horses struggled to keep their balance on the slippery pavement, and the riled-up crew demanded food (pizza) to be exact. “We’re in Bumf***, Alberta, and there’s no Domino’s around the corner,” Valdes retorted, per the excerpt. By 5:45 a.m. Monday, everything was complete. And when the snow started to fall, the crew was already heading back to California to eventually collect its Oscars. Now that, folks, is the kind of behind-the-scenes tea fans live for.
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