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The cast of new movie ‘Savages’ rehearsed for two weeks before principal photography began, but throughout the production, director Oliver Stone utilized elaborate blocking rehearsals before filming. Occasionally, they lasted hours, as he and the actors went through long sequences that would play out over the next few days. After they completed privately working out the physical and emotional beats of the scenes, Stone invited the crew in to watch what had transpired, and served as the narrator. In the process, he gave everyone involved an instructive macro overview of the work ahead. For a movie with as many characters and plot points as ‘Savages’, the blocking rehearsals were critical.
This was nothing new for the filmmaker. “I’ve always done blocking rehearsals,” says Stone. “The scenes in this film were incredibly complex. We had five or six main characters, and the actors all had significant script input. These run-throughs are practical. First of all, you have to know where you’re going in the scene and what it’s about. Hopefully, you’ve agreed upon that beforehand, but the blocking is where it all plays out. The actual filming plan comes out of that. If you haven’t prepared before the blocking rehearsal, then you’re going to have a mess. But questions do arise, and the worst place in the world is to have some brouhaha on set…and things do reveal themselves in the process.”
This process, a hybrid of preparation and spontaneity, is one Stone enjoys, according to producer Eric Kopeloff. The producer notes: “We plan as much as we can in advance, but Oliver loves the experience itself. Some directors want to create the perfect moment, but he loves to see it evolve. That’s what makes his sets so interesting: the incredible drive and determination he brings, the aspect of discovery. He knows the direction he wants to take, but he explores it with the actors. He has a real love of characters, story and especially dialogue. It’s so important to him that it’s right, that the actors feel it’s right. It’s not about him and the script; it’s about how it ultimately appears on screen.”
One of the most elaborate rehearsals occurred atop a broad mesa in the stark Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles, the site known to the company as the “Desert Bowl.” Stone, many of the principal actors and the entire crew ran through the film’s operatic ending. This became a prep that began in blazing midafternoon sun and lasted long after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains.
The director shares his rationale for the protracted workday: “I knew it was going to be a long rehearsal because it was just too big and too important a scene. I did pare it down to six people, a desert, a showdown and snipers on the outer ring. There was the simplicity of a Western. But all of it had to be worked out: when the shots were, when the glass breaks, how many shots there would be.”
Stone is a longtime proponent of technical advisors, whom he employs to make sure his films appear as authentic as possible. A crucial part of his process was stunt coordinator Keith Woulard. The director commends: “Keith was the key person in all that. An ex- SEAL, he never lost his cool, and there were some tough moments for him. He was the most patient of men.”
Woulard had a particularly enthusiastic and able partner in Taylor Kitsch, who thoroughly enjoyed Chon’s willingness to deploy massive firepower whenever possible. One particularly complex move on the mesa required Chon to burst from behind an SUV and run in a crouched, zigzag motion across an arid expanse. His guns blazing, he had to race toward the targets of Lado and Elena, with multiple cameras trained on him. Kitsch was so in tune with the character and his mission that he nailed the scene in one take. It helped matters that Kitsch is very athletic and knows his way around a fight.
The actor was fortunate enough to receive experience in the methods and mannerisms of a warrior. “I trained with a SEAL prior to beginning Savages,” Kitsch says. “He was incredibly open with me. It wasn’t just about learning how to shoot semiautomatic weapons. He’d tell me stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, all of his buddies. It was special to be a part of an incredible opportunity that helped me to understand who Chon was. What I love about the SEALs is that you can walk by them on the street and you wouldn’t think twice. They don’t telegraph. But if you see them in their element, they are something to behold. I’m fortunate to call some of them friends now, too.”
Image Courtesy of Savages