An epic love story told amidst the sprawling expanse of the American west.
When 27-year-old Brian Duffield started Jane Got a Gun as a spec script in 2011, he had a very clear idea of the type of story he wanted to write. “I wanted to write about a woman whose big victory was going to be in making a stand,” says Duffield. After experimenting with different genres, Duffield decided to write a western with a woman named Jane as the main character.
It tells of Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), who has built a life on the rugged western plains with her husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich) and young daughter. When Ham stumbles home riddled with bullets after a run-in with the relentless John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang, she knows they will not stop until her family is dead. In desperation, Jane turns to Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), a man from her past, for help. Haunted by old memories, Jane’s past meets the present in a heart-stopping battle for survival.
As he wrote, Duffield envisioned Natalie Portman as Jane. “I liked the danger and the threat that Natalie’s size and demeanor allows the film to have,” says Duffield. So he had no hesitation in sending the finished draft to Kim Barton and Jon Cohen, creative executives at Portman’s Handsome Charlie Films. Portman’s physicality wasn’t the only aspect that made Duffield write with Portman and her production company in mind. “Natalie is also an extraordinarily talented woman.”
Portman was quick to see the story’s potential and optioned the project as her first producing venture. “I was drawn by Brian’s use of the western genre to explore Jane’s growing awareness of her own power, and ultimately using that power to protect her family.” Jane and Dan’s relationship was another factor driving Portman’s decision. Duffield recalls. “Natalie liked that Jane and Dan’s relationship was ‘wrong place, wrong time.”
The historical period Duffield references was yet another enticement guiding Portman’s decision. “The West was uncharted territory so there were many more opportunities for women to be free,” she notes. “Women could hold jobs and ranch and go to school and vote for the first time. Those rights happened for women first in the West.” Female empowerment was an essential aspect for survival. For Portman, the harshness of the environment also meant that characters – both men and women had to identify themselves as one thing or another. They had to have strong self-definition to survive.
Duffield wrote the screenplay with Anthony Tambakis.
By the end of 2011, the script was named one of Black List’s best un-produced screenplays. The distinction helped the project to gain traction and financing.
Known for his ability to adapt literary works for the screen, Scott Steindorff, and his company Scott Pictures, joined Portman to produce. Steindorff describes the screenplay “as the best script I ever read;” he was also attracted by the type of movie the script aspired to be. “It’s a story of empowerment in a western setting,” Steindorff offers. “Jane is in an unbearable situation and has to defend her family. This type of story has never been told before.”
CAA brokered the deal and committed to handling domestic rights. Terry Dougas of 1821 Pictures became a producer, as did Scott LaStaiti, who would run the production, Zack Schiller and Regency Boies joined the producing team soon after. Says LaStaiti, “I loved the idea of making a Western with a female character as the focus. And I loved the idea of Natalie Portman in the role.”
Zack Schiller was drawn by the idea that the story “ with a strong independent woman speaks to what’s going on in the world today.” Mary Regency Boies adds. “The emotional drive and strong visual aspect makes Jane Got a Gun unusual and exciting.”
Director Gavin O’Connor came with a new vision for the story. “The first time I read the script, it was the love triangle which interested me,” says O’Connor. He called in screenwriter Anthony Tambakis, who was also interested in exploring the love relationship between Jane, Ham and Dan. “We wanted to make a classic Western with a tragic love story at the heart of it; something both commercial and artistic,” says Tambakis.
The movie’s climax brings a new twist to the western genre. Tambakis continues, “What we are building towards in the movie is this arc of a woman who discovers her own sense of self and her own courage, and self actualizes, and by the end of the film there is a last woman standing, turning the traditional Western archetypes on their head.”
Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell—all bringing to new perspectives to the classic American Western.
Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”
“Jane Got a Gun was definitely a crash course in producing,” says Portman of her first producing effort. “It often seemed like Murphy’s Law in action.” There was a great sense of accomplishment amongst the cast and crew on the final day of shooting. LaStaiti notes, “What kept me going was the unwavering faith and loyalty of everyone, the cast, the crew and the investors.”
“This movie is about love, redemption, the long shadow of the past, and finding your courage in life,” suggests Tambakis. “We’re working within the classic Western framework and also adding a deeper element of an unrequited love story with star-crossed lovers who missed their opportunity at what might’ve been.”
Mary Regency Boies adds, “ Jane Got a Gun is a compelling story of a woman discovering her own strength in difficult circumstances. Her story is complemented by strong visual storytelling and interesting, emotionally rich characters which made this creative endeavour well-worth the effort invested by everyone involved.”
About the cast and characters.
With Portman set to play Jane, the filmmakers started the search to fill the male roles. After a extensive casting process, Joel Edgerton signed on to play former soldier and gunslinger Dan Frost, Noah Emmerich won the part of Jane’s husband, Ham, Rodrigo Santoro was cast as Fitchum, a member of Bishop’s gang, with Ewan McGregor playing John Bishop.
As the first actor attached to the film, Portman had ample time to explore Jane’s characterization. “I really loved seeing this woman come up against so much and really find her own strength,” recalls Portman. She found producing Jane Got A Gun an invaluable experience to bring to her role. “Jane’s process was also my process,” says Portman. “It was a relevant parallel experience of learning how to stand my ground, face difficult times and not crumble.”
Edgerton sees Portman as being a great choice, physically and mentally, for the character. “Jane’s got to be a really tough woman. There’s a softness to Natalie, but you can also see a switch of real strength in her. Her vulnerability and steeliness are hand-in-hand. That strength is going to come from inside and it’s more interesting when it’s in someone of Natalie’s frame.”
Portman sees the same qualities in Edgerton. “Joel’s ability to be both strong and vulnerable are the exact qualities he needed to bring to the role of Dan,” says Portman. “Dan makes the difficult choice and puts his life on the line to save Jane and her family. His decision is guided by his love for Jane.”
Joel Edgerton sees Dan as a former soldier and gunslinger who gets a second chance. “Dan’s become an alcoholic because he’s lost Jane. It’s a love story about two people finding each other again and understanding their pasts. They discover the truth under very difficult circumstances and get back to the place they were before, under very difficult circumstances.”
“Joel’s work ethic is astounding. He does something great not only in every scene but in every take,” offers LaStaiti. “I feel honored to work with him at this point in his career. We’ve been so lucky to have him for the role as Dan. He, Natalie and Noah have laid a great foundation for this story.”
The third point of the love triangle, Bill “Ham” Hammond, becomes Jane’s husband after rescuing her from John’s gang. “Ham’s got a deep moral center and is a good man, who fell in with a group of outlaws,” explains Emmerich. His relationship with Jane brings happiness and purpose but also places them both in peril. “Jane marries Ham as a way out of a terrible situation,” says Portman. “What started as a need for a protector changes when she grows to love him.”
Emmerich adds. “There’s this great love triangle between Jane, my character Ham and Joel Edgerton’s character, Dan. I’ve never seen it in a Western. So the film has the male essence that we associate with the Western, but it’s interesting to have a female voice in the middle of all that.”
The Bishop gang’s attack on Ham becomes the turning point in Jane’s life. “In order to save her family, Jane has to stop running and start fighting,” explains Portman. “She decides to take control, and by doing so, discovers aspects of herself she had always sought in the men in her life.”
“This is not necessarily a story that ends well, but ultimately for Jane there is a real development and something inspirational for her,” explains Edgerton. “What she’s gone through has damaged her, but also gave her something to live for, and the realization that she doesn’t really need the support of other people to move forward.”
“The Western aspect of this movie is a metaphor for love, and the ways we hurt each other and we can’t take it back,” explains Portman. “Once you do something, you can damage a relationship irreparably. The devastating thing about Dan and Jane is that it’s just too late for them.”
Jane’s nemesis, John Bishop, is played by Ewan McGregor. He describes Bishop as
“someone you wouldn’t want to cross. He is able to employ charm to get what he wants in a manipulative sort of fashion, but I certainly don’t think of him as being a charming character in the true sense of the word.” McGregor had no reservations about portraying the villain of the story. “Who doesn’t want to be in a Western? And who doesn’t want to play the villain in a Western? You can’t approach a part playing a bad guy or a good guy. You have to play a human being. So I didn’t approach it any differently than I would any other part.”
Portman comments. “Ewan is such a phenomenal actor, and I don’t think we’ve ever really gotten to see him play a villain before. He’s so charming that you can see how he could really charm you into destroying your own life, the way he does with Jane.” Steindorff agrees. “I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Ewan’s amazing and the best choice to play John. He has the charisma, the energy and the excitement to bring to the role.”
To prepare for his role as the outlaw Fitchum, Rodrigo Santoro studied Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. “He’s an outlaw, lost in the desert. He’s part of a gang and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a living.” Fitchum represents another threat to Jane. “Fitchum was probably always into Jane. He never got the chance to do anything about it. He got shot in the face and then looking like that, it’s a little bit more difficult,” Santoro reasons.
The cruelest of the Bishop gang is John’s half brother, Vic, played by Boyd Holbrook. “Vic is basically Bishop’s dog, says Holbrook. “He’s got a pretty good sense of humor about other people’s misfortunes. He’s ruthless and unforgiving.”
Holbrook sees the movie as being about “an unforgiving world. You’re constantly fighting the elements and other people’s interests. This world is a place where you’re lucky to survive. The story reflects the reality of the time.”
About the production…
The story for Jane Got a Gun is set in New Mexico, a few years after the Civil War. And so, the filmmakers opted to shoot on location in Santa Fe, utilizing the region’s sprawling and rugged beauty to add to the realism of the story. The cinematography emphasizes gorgeous, expansive landscapes, while the production design contrasts that scenic beauty with a reality-based authenticity predicated on historic research into the 1860s and 1870s.
The world in which these characters exist reflects the harsh environment of the time. “This is an unflinching approach to the old West. This isn’t `Gunsmoke.’ This is a very real, very violent, very volatile world,” Stashwick points out. Portman agrees, “This world is very austere. You have this incredibly beautiful landscape but it’s dry, with mono colored desert tones except for the sunsets, which are devastatingly beautiful.”
Co-production designers Tim Grimes and James Oberlander conducted intensive research into the 1860s and 70s to ensure the authenticity of the period. “We were going for realism,” explains Grimes. “We wanted to present the West as a lawless part of the country that is often glamorized in films. We wanted to make it the dark place it really was.” As a result the film’s muted color palette relies on shades of gray, black and brown.
The primary location for the film was Jane and Ham’s cabin, constructed for the movie in a remote area of San Cristobal Ranch south of Lamy, NM, a half-hour’s drive south of Santa Fe. “This was a very virgin site. We’re the first ones to put a cabin up here,” says location manager Dennis Muscari. The cabin location was chosen for the rocky cliffs on one side and the arroyo on the other, with expansive views of the New Mexico plains. “We needed something remote, backed up to a big escarpment. Our research unearthed a photo and we based our design on that historical reference. The walls are rough-sawn wood, the floors are smooth,” says Oberlander. The house was darkened to enhance the desired look. Most of the buildings are wooden structures, others with rusty corrugated tin. “We wanted everything to be dirty and have texture. There was nothing clean about living in the desert with the wind blowing dust into your house. We wanted a layer of the West on everything,” Grimes adds. O’Connor notes, “it’s a very realistic film and we wanted to have the juxtaposition between it being really dirty and the beautiful scale and scope.”