Brad Pitt and the Wild Making of ‘Legends of the Fall’

One day in 1989, something odd was happening in the thirtysomething offices. The female assistants kept disappearing. I’d walk into the bullpen and find it empty. One by one, women were making up excuses to visit the soundstage. It seems word had spread that a “dreamy” actor was working that day on an episode for the third season. His name was Brad Pitt; he had been cast as a day player with one line. In the episode, while confronting their diminished sex life, Hope and Michael come home early from an evening out to discover the babysitter in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend, played by Brad. His line, spoken when he looks up and sees the grown-ups standing there, is, “Hey . . .”

Apparently, it was enough to set hearts aflutter. I couldn’t have known then that Brad and I were fated to meet again.

thirtysomething ended, the enjoyable and disheartening experience that was Leaving Normal played out, and then I was in London to start constructing the House of Pain that was Shakespeare in Love. Returning from London after that first attempt at Shakespeare fell apart, tail between my legs, I moped around the now-ghostly thirtysomething offices, occasionally wandering down to the soundstages to watch our sets being torn down. After having observed a similar demolition of the Shakespeare sets, this was becoming an unhappy ritual. And so, when Stacy Snider—who had recently taken a job serving under Mike Medavoy at TriStar—called to resurrect Legends of the Fall, I couldn’t have been more grateful.

To do the rewrite on Bill Wittliff’s script, I turned to Susan Shilliday. It might be easier to create an unalloyed professional relationship uncluttered by the thorny dynamics of marriage, but my producing partner Marshall Herskovitz’s spouse loved Jim Harrison’s novella and we had developed a happy creative rapport when I would direct her writing on thirtysomething. Working together, we came up with a new outline that we hoped would address the problems of the earlier drafts. Eight short weeks later Susan handed in a masterful script. The key had been for us to re- imagine the story in the idiom of oral history. It is a story told by the Cree elder One Stab as he sits before a campfire, and in the vein of the great epic sagas of earlier times, his narrative hurtles forward from event to event, choosing behavior over psychological explanation. The script also returned to Jim’s original text in one crucial way; by using a rotating epistolary device, we learn of the characters’ inner lives not so much from their speeches as from their letters. When the studio read the new draft, the winds shifted dramatically and for the first time they began to talk about casting.

Medavoy was intent on getting Tom Cruise to play Tristan and had CAA send him the script. Cruise read it and invited me to come to Wyoming, where he was in the middle of filming Far and Away.

I flew into Casper, rented a car, and headed west. It’s always an awkward moment when one director visits another’s set. Everyone is nice and welcoming, but there’s the inevitable sidelong glance from a crew member, possibly someone who recognizes you, as if to say, What the hell is he doing here? But Ron Howard, whose reputation as the nicest man in Hollywood is deserved, greeted me warmly and we chatted, as directors invariably do, about actors. Ron is such a nice man I doubt he would have said anything critical even if he’d felt it, which he obviously didn’t. He corroborated what I had heard many times before; Tom Cruise was a director’s dream. As I was to learn in years to come, that is entirely true. It is also, however, a bit more complicated—but I’ll get around to that eventually. Tom came out of his trailer to greet me, as gracious and enthusiastic then as he will forever be.

“Do you ride?” he asked.
“Then let’s go!”

Moments later I found myself galloping, no, check that, racing hell-bent-for-leather across the sagebrush-covered plains. The horses on the set of a western are famously fast, reliable, trained to respond to the slightest command—imagine a Ferrari with the suspension of a Cadillac. Nevertheless, as we hurtled across unfamiliar ground, one misstep into a gopher hole and I would have been catapulted into Idaho. I wondered if this was some kind of test, but it soon became apparent it wasn’t about me at all. Tom’s unbridled glee, his absolute absorption in the moment, was infectious. His need for speed was metabolic, as if only extreme motion could match the RPMS of his internal engine.

After an hour or so of riding, or in my case holding on for dear life, we retired to his trailer. The word doesn’t do it justice. Larger than certain apartments I’d lived in, complete with a Jacuzzi, a queen-size bed, and full kitchen, I tried to be nonchalant about the trailer and not gawk overtly as we chatted. We never got to talking about the Legends script—I quickly realized this was more of a meet-and-greet than a meeting—but Tom seemed interested in the few thoughts about the movie I slipped in and asked if we could meet again when he returned to L.A. in a couple of weeks. Leaving, I ran into Nicole Kidman and said a brief hello (we’d had lunch years before when she first arrived in L.A.), got back in my rental car, and headed for the airport. I was home in time for dinner with absolutely no way to gauge the level of Tom’s interest.

We met again a few weeks later. This time, Tom had some penetrating and helpful things to say about the script. But after an hour or so, he asked about Tristan’s ethics—to which I responded that he essentially had none, and that was at the heart of the character. It was then I realized he would never do the movie. I’m told his question had something to do with Scientology, but if it did it was the only time over the course of making movies together that it ever found its way into a creative conversation. In any case, Tom eventually demurred. We wouldn’t see each other again until ten years later when I directed him in The Last Samurai—which would be one of the most gratifying experiences of my career—but for now, my hunt for Tristan continued.

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