“We have a survival story, a coming-of-age story, and the story of a woman seeking redemption for a tragedy in her past, all woven into one,” says director/co-writer/producer Taylor Sheridan, who tackled the varying elements, figuratively and literally, from page to screen with Those Who Wish Me Dead, drawing its evocative title from the collision course of challenging themes about our very humanity that converge against the backdrop of a raging fire.
When the film’s star, Angelina Jolie, read Sheridan’s screenplay she says it was the combination of these intriguing components infused in the writing that drew her to the role of troubled smokejumper Hannah. “This is a thriller with fascinating characters embarking on a dangerous adventure across unusual terrain, with the added unique situation of placing them inside a massive wildfire.”
Sheridan, who penned the script from a previous adaptation by the author, Michael Koryta, and writer Charles Leavitt, states, “One of the things that made me so excited about directing this is that I found playing in Hannah’s world—and reinventing the world in adapting it for the screen—to be a lot of fun. I began to look forward to escaping further into this world.”
The multi-hyphenate has been lauded for telling stories that feature intense action in the middle of the American wilderness while also beautifully combining pacing, tension, character development and action sequences.
Jolie adds, “I think very few filmmakers today tell a beautiful, meaningful story with such grit and wild abandon, humor and action as Taylor. Because he directs and writes, you come out with great characters, story, and soul. He has a genuine signature.”
Producer Aaron L. Gilbert says, “Taylor has a unique ability to craft rich characters and vibrant landscapes bringing the story to life in the most thrilling way, and we at BRON couldn’t be more excited to share this film with the world.”
Sheridan’s entry point as a director on the project actually came only after he began to adapt the material. “Somewhere along the line, there was a shift and I started writing it for me to direct. When you tend to direct the material that you write, this ultimately happens.”
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The story in the film veers from the book in many ways, a common occurrence in adaptations for the screen
“There are different stories to be told,” says Sheridan. You obviously want to be true to the book’s spirit, yet books are written to be read and imagined, while screenplays are written to be filmed.”
Known for a straightforward, authentic approach with films like Hell or High Water and Wind River, he adds that, for him, “It’s more about what the audience is going to see. I begin to write specific shots, implementing the visuals I’ll use, the sounds that I’ll use, the tempo and the pace of the scenes.”
Koryta says, “When I heard Taylor Sheridan was going to direct, I was ecstatic because I’d seen ‘Hell or High Water’ and the ‘Sicario’ films. Then ‘Wind River’ came along, and I walked out of a screening thinking he was the perfect guy for the project. I think we share a story sensibility, and he absolutely understands the world of the movie. He’s been on the ranches and in the mountains. He’s snowmobiled outside of the Beartooth Mountains, where the story was created. It’s really rare to find a director who knows the world of your work that well. I think he’s one of the greats and he was the perfect fit for the material.”
Once his blueprint was in place, Sheridan shares, “I sent Angie the script and asked if she wanted to do it. When you think of her essence and talent, depth of character, physical ability, and someone I would believe in Hannah’s role, Angie certainly fits all of those bills.”
“I was drawn to the strong female characters, but It really doesn’t matter that Hannah is female; it’s not about the fact that she’s a strong woman or a woman at all,” says Jolie. “I like roles like that, and I liked that it also connects to the people of service to America, telling their story.”
The film initially sets up two separate stories—Hannah’s, which introduces her not only as an elite type of firefighter, a smokejumper, but one who clearly bears wounds from her past that have not yet healed; and Connor’s, a young boy whose world turns upside down in an instant when his father recognizes they’re about to be in grave danger, and hits the road with a confused Connor in tow.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is ultimately a story of survival, wherein our protagonists must find the strength to literally rise from the ashes around them,” Gilbert observes. “The resilience of our characters in the face of hardship should resonate with audiences, who themselves have had to persevere through an unprecedented year of challenges.”
The story takes place primarily in the imposing wilds of the Montana forest—truly another critical character within the story as it offers its own range of emotions, from a calm sense of comfort to utter rage—with New Mexico standing in for big sky country.
Sheridan relates, “I’m fascinated with that line where the rule of law gives way to the laws of nature, when by necessity the rules we’ve made up to control ourselves are removed. I felt that this was an exciting way to approach a thriller, blending each of these characters’ stories together and turning them on their ear by setting them in the middle of a fire was, as a filmmaker, really exciting, and I believe it was for the actors as well. As much as I can ever make the world feel like a character, I want to do that. I think the more we spend our lives inside cities, the less connected we become to our planet, so any opportunity I have to make our planet one of the stars, I want to do so.”
Jolie tackles the role of a smokejumper
In describing her character, Jolie offers “Hannah is somebody who has experienced a real tragedy, and she feels responsible. When we meet her in the story, she is having nightmares, she suffers from PTSD. She’s somebody who puts on a brave front and acts cool, but inside she’s a broken person who carries a great deal of guilt.”
Whether that guilt is warranted or not. Sheridan says, “Smokejumpers do exactly what their job sounds like: they jump out of planes and get into these roadless areas behind fires and either set back burns or cut breaks and try to control and shift and move the fire into a place where it can go out. It’s an incredibly dangerous job and one that involves a lot of courage.
“When the least dangerous thing you do is jump out of a plane on your way to work,” he continues, “it takes a certain type of person that’s really eager to push themselves and find out what they’re made of, and Hannah fits into that category; she is willing to risk her life.”
Often thought of as the “special forces” of firefighting, smokejumpers are elite, specially trained wildland firefighters who provide an initial attack response on remote wildland fires. They are inserted at the site of the fire by parachute and, in addition to performing the initial attack on wildfires, they often provide leadership for extended attacks on wildland fires.
Sheridan says, “The kind of person who would take that job is the kind of person that has that selfless quality to them. You hear about firefighters in the city who rush into a burning building to save someone’s pet because of their devotion to others, to mission and purpose; Hannah certainly has that calling, and that calling can come with some demons that you have to face, because if your job is one of life and death, you’re probably going to know people who have succumbed to that, who didn’t come back, and you’re gonna have to figure out how to deal with that.”
In sharing her character’s backstory, Jolie says, “Hannah is an adrenaline junkie. I think anybody that does this job has to be, or you wouldn’t jump out of a plane and into a fire. I am drawn to characters who have been through something and are broken and then find their way forward and overcome it. As an artist, it’s very healing to play people like that because you see that if you can do that in character, you can do that in life, it feels good, and you hope the audience gets that same feeling and that same reminder that we can all stand back up.”
Hannah’s work is very physical, and Sheridan knew that Jolie, as his lead, would be up to the task. “Angie was game, she did it all, she did a lot of her own stunts. It’s sort of a requirement of the way that I film because I try to place the audience as a voyeur right in the middle of the action. If it’s not the actor, they’re going to see that, so it requires a real physical commitment.”
“I was happy to toughen up and get dirty and sweaty, to do things I’ve never done and feel very capable. Taylor taught me how to chop wood and start a fire. Now he needs to teach me how to ride a horse,” Jolie jests.
With wildfires and the devastation they cause around the world so frequently in the news in recent years, one might presume that fire is cast as a villain in Those Who Wish Me Dead. Not so, says Sheridan. “Fire doesn’t have an opinion. Fire doesn’t have a purpose, except to burn. It’s difficult to attribute the qualities of a villain to fire when a villain wants to hurt; a fire just is.”
Ultimately, the result of fire, anywhere it happens, is a rebirth, a metaphor for this story in many different ways. “Fire was a great catalyst for our climax and our resolution. It certainly is used with evil intent—or villainous properties—by those who start it, but then, as it must, it takes on a life of its own.”
The true villains of the story are Patrick and Jack, hired hitmen who will stop at nothing—truly nothing—to accomplish what they’ve been sent to do. Nicholas Hoult plays Patrick, the younger of the two who takes his lead, without hesitation, from Jack.
Building The World Of The Story
When it comes to world-building, production designer Neil Spisak is an integral part of Sheridan’s team, having collaborated with him on “Wind River” and “Yellowstone.” For “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” Sheridan shares, “Neil had to build a giant forest with a creek that runs into a pool off of a waterfall in a desert located 10 miles from Albuquerque International Airport, which is its own challenge. Then he had to build a fire tower—three of them, actually. One that we could place in the desert overlooking our fake forest, another in the forest and then a third one that we could put on a stage so that we could film the interior.
“So Neil had tremendous tasks,” continues Sheridan. “Like me, he’s someone who really likes to put everything in the lens and not rely on computer graphics or visual effects. The world has to look real.”
To that end, Spisak and special effects supervisor Dan Holt worked together to build a contained forest of trees to double for that were plumbed with propane. “We had 186 real trees that the greens department planted,” explains Holt. “Each one was rigged for fire up the trunk, so we had propane sources on these trees, but we fireproofed all the canopies so they would not catch fire and burn the whole set down. We also had additional 40 metal trunks to give us high, wide fire in the background. They didn’t resemble a tree, didn’t read on camera, but gave us the higher fire sources. We did many tech scouts and had a lot of safety meetings on how to achieve this. We ended up burning it in sections, probably 20, 25 trees on fire each time.”
Because fire, smoke, and ash behave somewhat randomly in the natural world and take on a life of their own, forming unexpected little tornadoes of fire that naturally occur in the wild, their job was to capture that and then relay that into the final product.
“The funny thing was once we built our simulated forest in the desert in New Mexico, it wasn’t long before birds started nesting in our staged forest trees, squirrels began running around in our fake forest, and we also found snakes, mice, and these things,” Sheridan recalls. “At first we thought it was great, and then we realized we were going to be setting this all on fire, so for about five days we had to shoo animals so that there was nothing left in our fake forest to die. But it was astonishing that in the middle of the desert we had all these animals that arrived, inexplicably, across the desert to go live in our forest.”
The action was captured by director of photography Ben Richardson and his team. Sheridan, who has worked with him on previous films, says, “Ben and I see the world the same way. We are attracted to the same aesthetic. So, the conversation becomes about how you enhance and capture the elements and give them the mood and the energy that you hope the audience will have when they see the film. For example, we wanted the fire to feel alive and threatening and dominate everything around it. That involved creating an aesthetic that allowed it to really come to life and not just blow out the landscape, which meant various filters and exposure rates.”
To achieve the filmmaker’s desired scope and sense of realism, the creative team knew they had to emulate the nature of fire as it would be in the wild. “Not to take anything away from people who rely heavily on visual effects; I just try to do everything I possibly can in-camera, practically,” the director says. “I was asked how we would recreate the wildfire, and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go out in the desert, and we’re going to build a 300-acre forest, and then I’m gonna set it on fire.’ And that’s what we did.”
Jason Chen, the film’s visual effects supervisor, and Sheridan had many conversations about what would be accomplished with visual effects, and instead of approaching it from a CG standpoint, determined the best way would be to do everything in-camera, and have the visual effects team enhance what was captured, adding to but not replacing the real thing.
Sheridan observes, “One of the interesting things about trying to duplicate fire in a computer graphic is that all computer graphics are dictated, ultimately, by some mathematical equation, meaning there’s a rhythm to it. In nature, fire doesn’t follow any of those things, which is why it’s so difficult to recreate it in a visual effect—it follows no pattern. Whatever we supplemented with visual effects had to have enough practical fire in-camera so that the computer followed its random quality.”
TAYLOR SHERIDAN (Director/Screenplay by/Producer) is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and the creator, writer, director and executive producer of the record-breaking Paramount Network series Yellowstone, a frontier family drama set on the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., recently wrapping filming Season 4 of the hit show.Sheridan is currently developing a Yellowstone prequel series titled “Y:1883,” as well as two original television shows for Paramount Network: Lioness and Mayor of Kingstown, which follows a family of power brokers between the police, criminals, inmates, prison guards and politicians, in a city completely dependent on prisons and the prisoners they contain. Sheridan previously made his debut as a writer/director with his critically acclaimed Wind River, the conclusion to his modern frontier trilogy. He previously wrote Hell Or High Water and Sicario.
MICHAEL KORYTA (Screenplay by/Book by) is the New York Times bestselling author of 16 novels. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He has worked as a private investigator and newspaper reporter. Koryta’s first novel, the Edgar Award-nominated Tonight I Said Goodbye, was accepted for publication when he was 20 years old. He wrote his first two published novels before graduating from college and was published in 10 languages before he fulfilled the “intensive writing requirement” classes required for his diploma.
CHARLES LEAVITT (Screenplay by) previously collaborated with producer Paula Weinstein when he wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed drama Blood Diamond. His other film credits include The Mighty, K-Pax, The Express, and Warcraft. Leavitt is currently working on an HBO movie for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Films, centering on the global water crisis.