“Regardless of how much research I could do on my own, I needed to have a firm understand from those who’ve lived it, whose forbearers have lived it, and quite honestly, are still living it today.”

While Hollywood should never be reduced to a series of award season ballots, I must admit that I was a little surprised to see Scott Cooper’s Hostiles be mostly ignored come the new year. Featuring cinematography on par with some of the great westerns, and simultaneously showcasing/paying homage to the career of Wes Studi, Cooper’s film is a standout even in a genre already marked by greatness. Hostiles also provided a nice rejoinder to years of non-inclusive filmmaking, receiving high marks from the National Congress of American Indians for ‘investing in the representation of native peoples.’ In short? It’s a strong film that will likely see an even stronger shelf life.

I spoke with writer-director Cooper about the collaborative nature of authenticity and the reason he keeps telling stories about post-traumatic stress.

The screenplay that you adapted was originally written twenty years ago. What was it about that story that made you think, “This is something I’d like to refresh”?

Just this notion of two very different people with two very disparate life experiences, essentially on a forced march from one location, a very long and arduous journey. How can that speak both to the kind of dark and unforgivable past of genocide in American history? And then how can I speak to what’s happening today, which is this very divided nation, both racially and culturally, that’s getting wider by the day? How these two people from two vastly different experiences come together. It was a tall order, but I gave it my best shot.

Why was it important to locate the story immediately in the aftermath of the American-Indian Wars, where the politics have changed but the people haven’t?

If you look at someone like Captain Blocker, Christian Bale’s character, who essentially from the age of 14 or 15 – when he first was introduced into the American Civil War as a very young fighter – all the way through the end of this picture, he has been nothing but a killing machine for the United States government. For him to figure he’s becoming obsolete with the dawning of the industrial revolution and changing political winds, one has to ask oneself if you’re Captain Blocker, “All that I have experienced, all the violence that has been enacted at my hand, to what end?” I think he starts to better understand those things he didn’t understand, which is the Native American experience, the culture, the mores, the values. And questions his role as a United States government soldier and what it means to be an American.

I often ask myself on a daily basis, what does it mean to be an American? Because I feel the values that I have believed in are fought at every angle. So that’s really what I wanted to get across, the machinations that take place in Washington in our film still take place today, and what the collateral damage is of that.

The scene that stands out is the one with the journalist and his commanding officer. That contains the weight of the movie.

I tend to write for certain actors. I wrote this for Christian. I wrote the parts for both of those actors. I’ve worked with Stephen Lang, who plays the commander, and I’ve also worked with Bill Camp in Black Mass. I wanted to have a journalist, because if you look at what’s happening today and even during 1892 with the Harper’s writer, how really it’s  – through the United States government – quite a gambit. It was all about the optics at the expense of Christian Bale’s character and his men. It seemed to me to be an important scene to illustrate the changing notion of what it is to be an American and also what it is to be someone who has put his life on the line. Again, to question your superiors in the manner in which he does, but also to do it in front of a writer, knowing that that’s going to become public.

This is why he is quite hostile towards the writer, but also to his commanding officer, asking him to do something that six months ago, six weeks ago, would never have been thought possible. So he’s a pawn, essentially, in both a… I wouldn’t say a celebrity type of way, but it does speak to the notion of celebrity because even Bill Camp does say that he’s a legend. He’s taken more scouts than Sitting Bull himself. So it hopefully will speak to what we experience today on a number of levels and how, at the end of the picture, you understand the journey this man has taken. Not only from Mexico to Montana, but his entire life in serving the United States government.

Obviously, a lot of Westerns are engaged not only with the idea of the West, but the myth of the West and how we tell stories about westward expansion. Is that element of historiography, of us writing and engaging with our own history, important to you?

Critical. Think about how the American West was mythologized, even to this day, which is why [Hostiles] plays so well to a certain segment of society in America. This sense of the American mythology, the majesty of the American West. While that clearly existed, I wanted to chronicle the horrors of the American West and the American experience for those people who were experiencing Manifest Destiny. People who were in search of a better life were leaving religious persecution, economic persecution, whatever it was that you left in the past, people would go west. As we see with Rosamund Pike’s character’s family.

So it was this notion of not only that, but the idea of the American West coming to a close as we knew it. Which was why I set it in 1892. It felt like it was, again, the dawn of the industrial revolution, [where] a man like Captain Blocker is becoming obsolete. Which is why during the film, I placed him in this bespoke suite and bowler and he feels extremely uncomfortable. He’s been man unto himself on this very desolate fort that we find him at in the very beginning of the film, and now he’s surrounded by people and industry and, “What is my life, going forward?” So often that was chronicled by periodicals like Harper’s. It’s important to me to show that that would live on, the Harper’s that you see today. How well every movement our current administration is chronicled, and how guys like Captain Blocker become obsolete and are disposable, both to the United States government as well as to those you report on. It’s “What’s next, what’s the next story?”

We’ve seen a lot of films that somewhat justify soldiers of what they do during wartime as long as they’re good to their own men, and Hostiles kind of counters that notion. Can you speak to that, and how post-traumatic stress plays into it?

Post-traumatic stress worked very thematically into Out of the Furnace, with Casey Affleck’s character returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s something that’s very important to me: that we certainly embrace our soldiers as we send them off, and we very easily put those yellow ribbons around our tree when they go missing or when they did. But for those that come home, we do less and less, and I find that very unfortunate. So in terms of this story, it was important to have a character like Ben Foster really illuminate for Captain Blocker the thin line [between] the crimes he has committed of and what Blocker has been doing his entire life. And I really took it from a story from an Officer Bales, who – I think it was during Afghanistan – essentially killed a family of Afghanis at-will. And it just goes to show you this [thin line], this notion of, if you are Captain Blocker, and you have been this very refined killing machine for so long and one that the United States government really relies upon, what does that mean to you?

What is that going to do with you when you become disposable? When you get on this train with a woman [who’s] lost her husband and two daughters, and a young Cheyenne boy who has lost his ties to his culture, all his family, his mores, his values. And then you have a man who is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, the ‘melancholia’ that we see early in the film. You put these three people together and you realize that they are now leading lives that they never expected to lead. That was of interest to me. That was not in Mr. Stewart’s treatment, but it seemed to me to, while on one hand, one might think, “This is a happy ending tinged with melancholy,” For me it was really about, now what happens to these people? And the difficulties that they will be faced with.

You’ve talked a lot in other interviews about working with Native American filmmakers and educators. As somebody who both worked with the script and also directed it, how do you carve out creative space to bring in others, allowing them to make the necessary changes to characters and scenes to make them more authentic?

Well, it’s critical, especially when you are a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who is trying to make a story that touches on the Native American experience and culture.  Regardless of how much research I could do on my own, I needed to have a firm understand from those who’ve lived it, whose forbearers have lived it, and quite honestly, are still living it today. I’ve shown the film to the Northern Cheyenne, on whom the film is based, and they are still suffering the same type of trauma that they have for decades, unfortunately.

But I will say, in making the film, it was critical. You have to carve out the time and you have to listen to the voices who know more than you. Because if I were just a sculptor, it would just be my work. But when you’re making a film and you’re going to illuminate the human experience as a soldier, as a Frenchman, as a Native American, you really need to have a firm understanding of what that experience was like and how it might affect people today. I will say that though I’m extremely pleased at how the film was received by those that matter most to me – my fellow filmmakers, the actors that worked on the film – the reception from the Native American community has been more than I could ever hope, and it is the most important reception to me, quite frankly. It’s been really heartening.

I have a soft spot for legacy roles, roles that seem to be engaging both the actor and their body of work. With that in mind, was Wes Studi always the actor you wanted for the role of Yellow Hawk?

I wrote it specifically for Wes Studi and I would not have made the film had he not agreed to do it. And I told Christian that. I wrote the part for Christian and for Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Wes Studi, Adam Beach Q’orianka Kilcher, Bill Camp, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang.. all of these people I had in mind as I was writing this and, by a stroke of luck, I was able to get them. But Wes was critical. Whether it be Mohicans, whether it be his other film with Michael [Mann], Heat, whether it be Dances with Wolves, and on, and on, and on, he’s a real national treasure. And he can say so much non-verbally, which is where I think cinema most excels when your characters can convey something with a look or a glance – or in his case, a body of work. But not only a body of work, but an experience as a Cherokee and his own life experience with the Trail of Tears, even though he’s playing a Cheyenne in Hostiles.

So it was really important for me to have Wes. I think Wes has seen the movie six or seven times, and I remember him seeing it for the first time in Telluride and he was crying. He was speechless. And I knew that was the experience that I wanted. Wes, as we took it all over the world, would sit and watch it every time, and it really made me grateful. That not only did he play the part, but that he was able to express himself in the part. And for those people who criticize that maybe I should have told the story from his point of view, well, that, I think, should be a Native American filmmaker who really deeply understands that psyche. And they might just be in search of a different film. That’s OK, too.

Red Dots

Hostiles is out now on Digital HD and will be available on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD on April 24.