To tell an epic - and historically accurate - tale of the Lone Star State, producer's of History's Texas Rising sent a distinguished cast and crew, plus extras by the hundreds, into the mountains of Mexico.
There's good reason no Hollywood production has shot in Durango, Mexico, in some 20 years.
The wi-fi is unreliable. Cell and satellite phones don't work. It's just the cast and crew battling the extreme elements.
For History's Texas Rising, which shot in the northwest Mexican locale over a 120-day period in 2014 — much of it during the rainy season — that also meant a crew of 1,000 navigating mud ditches on steep mountainous passes,
But director Roland Joffe and executive producer Leslie Greif wanted to create a world that could double for the Lone Star State circa 1836, a land teeming with natural beauty and untouched by sprawl.
They decided that Durango — once the mecca for many Hollywood Westerns, including the John Wayne classics The Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon and Chisum — could serve as the ideal backdrop for their ambitious eight-hour limited series, which begins airing on Memorial Day (May 25).
The series is set during the Texas Revolution, when colonists rebelled against the Mexican government with the aid of the lawmen known as the Texas Rangers (the rebellion led to the formation of the Republic of Texas, which existed until 1845, when the region became a U.S. state).
To depict the struggles of the era, Joffe and Greif mobilized their cast — sometimes as many as 800 extras and dozens of horses — on this rugged terrain that encompassed Wayne's former ranch
"I wanted people to feel when watching this that they were there in Texas in 1836 — they could almost smell it, they could feel the heat, breathe in the dust, the hardness of the landscape, the toughness of it all," says Joffe, who also is a producer on the series,
Climate-controlled sets be damned.
The idea for Texas Rising was hatched not long after History launched Hatfields & McCoys in 2012 to mammoth ratings.
That six-hour project, also executive-produced by Greif, averaged 13.8 million total viewers during its three-night run over Memorial Day weekend. The final night notched 14.3 million viewers, making it the number-one entertainment telecast at the time on ad-supported cable. Hatfields & McCoys, which marked History's first foray into scripted TV, went on to nab 16 Emmy nominations and five wins.
Given the surprise success, Greif and Dirk Hoogstra, History's executive vice-president and general manager, were eager to reteam.
"Leslie came in with Texas Rising, and it was one of those pitches where half the pitch I was saying, 'That's true? That really happened?'" Hoogstra recalls of the meeting in his New York office.
"The real history blew me away. You just couldn't possibly make it up. I was hooked."
Greif was looking to explore a subject that was familiar — but not really. He was particularly intrigued by the idea that most people have heard of the Texas Rangers. After all, a Major League Baseball team bears their name.
But few know anything about their significance. Similarly, the names Hatfield and McCoy are synonymous with feuding families, but outside of scholars and history buffs, few could cite the cause of the beef before watching the History film.
"I realized that everyone knew about the Alamo," Greif explains. "They've made a million movies about the Alamo, but no one really knew what it was about or what happened afterwards."
So Greif began writing the script with Hatfields & McCoys producer Darrell Fetty (Ted Mann also cowrote the first episode) and set out to find a director who could execute his large-canvas vision, which would include the massive Battle of San Jacinto.
He called Joffe in his native London and offered him the job. Though Joffe began his career working in TV in the 70s, he had worked almost exclusively in film ever since, directing the Oscar-nominated dramas The Killing Fields and The Mission. The director was skeptical.
"I make movies, and I love the wide screen," Joffe recalls telling Greif. "He said, 'That's why we want you. We're going to do this like a film.' And I said, 'Well, can we do it wide screen?'"
Indeed. Texas Rising is one of the first TV projects to be broadcast in Cinemascope, "the only way to make a Western," as Joffe notes. In addition, the first installment will be released theatrically on 500 screens on May 20.
Still, back in 2012, it was just the seed of an idea for Greif, who began reassembling much of his Hatfields team, including cinematographer Arthur Reinhart. He approached Hatfields star Kevin Costner to play the hero, Sam Houston, but the actor couldn't make the schedule work with his numerous film commitments,
But the performer who shared top billing in Hatfields, Bill Paxton, was available. And in a serendipitous twist, the star of HBO's Big Love hails from the same bloodline as Houston — a fact discovered only after he was cast.
As a child growing up in Fort Worth, Paxton remembers being told he was related to the iconic Texan. After some sleuthing, he learned that Houston, who died in 1863, is a second cousin three times removed.
Ready to dive into the psyche of his famed kin, Paxton embarked on a road trip, hitting the highlights of Houston's life.
He started in Huntsville, Texas, where the mayor brought Paxton into the vaults of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum to look through Houston's papers and handle some of his personal effects. The actor then spent a day on Tennessee's Hiwassee Island, where Houston had lived from age 17 to 20 among a Cherokee tribe.
The land is now a nature preserve and protected by the state, so Paxton had to arrange the visit ahead of time with park rangers.
He then ventured to tiny Maryville, Tennessee, where Houston taught in a one-room schoolhouse to pay off some debts. Finally, Paxton stopped in Lexington, Virginia, where Houston was born.
"I traced his life, but kind of backwards," quips Paxton, who further immersed himself in Houston's legend by reading several biographies, including The Raven by Marquis James.
Houston's main adversary in his quest to gain independence for Texas was General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Greif and Joffe enlisted the dashing Olivier Martinez — a Frenchman of Spanish ancestry — to play the charismatic Mexican leader.
Martinez came up as a stage actor and French film star, but he is probably best known to U.S. audiences as Paul Martel, Diane Lane's lover in the feature Unfaithful, or as another lothario, Pascal LeMarchal of ABC's Revenge (in real life he's married to Halle Berry).
During the audition, the actor was immediately struck by Joffe's technique.
"The first time that I read for him, the way he was directing me even then was extremely interesting," Martinez remembers. "We did the scene a few times in different ways — angry, calm, sad, happy. I think he wanted to see the different colors that I could bring to this part because this character is larger than life."
Martinez fought hard for the role, and says his equestrian skills, which he learned as a boy, helped.
Unlike Paxton's horse, which was even-tempered, Martinez's mare was nervous and high-strung. During the filming of the Battle of San Jacinto, the horse's disposition became particularly challenging.
The complex shoot required more than 400 actors on the battlefield at one time, including 120 foot soldiers charging toward the woods while hundreds of Mexicans took a stand. Then a wave of horses came thundering down as more Texas soldiers charged.
"She was beautiful, but she is not trained for a movie," Martinez says of his steed. "There were times where I'm almost being thrown off the horse. But that's good. I loved that."
Ray Liotta, who plays a man hell-bent on revenge after Mexicans murder his family, had little experience on horseback before the project, but he trained for months with stuntman Dale Gibson at a Los Angeles ranch.
"I became addicted to riding," says Liotta, who is best known for his bad-guy roles in films like Goodfellas but also won an Emmy for a guest appearance on ER, where he played a dying patient.
"I never really had a hobby. Now I would say horseback riding is it. I think there's a saying that goes, 'What ails the inside of a man is comforted by the outside of the horse.'"
For Paxton, it was the combination of horses and weaponry that proved especially vexing.
"We're on horseback, and there's explosions and gunfire," Paxton says. "And we got about 40 riders behind us and more men coming behind [on foot]. We're using aluminum swords, because you can't really use rubber swords if you're charging — they look like they're wobbling.
"So all you're thinking is, you don't want to fall off a horse and get impaled. There were a few moments when only the laundry man knew how scared I was."
While it may have felt like chaos to the actors, Joffe says he had the choreography down with military precision.
"The planning had to be immaculate," the director explains. "I storyboarded pretty much every scene, especially the battle scenes. When we went out, I knew exactly what we were going to do because there is no time to repeat. With the Battle of San Jacinto, we had men running, firing muskets, fighting.... I think that probably was one of the most exciting directorial days of my career."
And though Hoogstra says the budget went up considerably from Hatfields & McCoys, the number of TV hours also increased, from six to 10. Furthermore, the scope widened considerably as clans turned into armies,
"It was what I could only imagine a Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg production would be like, except we were doing it for pennies on the dollar," Greif says. "When Roland couldn't get a shot with a piece of equipment, I saw him rig a camera on bungee cords and pulleys and invent an old-school way to make a high-crane shot. It was very imaginative."
Costume designer Karri Hutchinson, another Hatfields & McCoys alum, says she also had to find thrifty solutions, given the many actors and actresses she had to clothe.
"Our budget was low, so every piece of fabric had to be stretched to the limit, from that red moleskin and gold bullion that crunches just right for the Mexican Army uniforms to the extravagant clothes we made for a scene that takes place in New Orleans. We had so many extras — frontiersmen, pioneers, soldiers, children."
And given that the series is a History production, all members of the Texas Rising team had to carry out their mission with the mandate of keeping the project grounded in accuracy.
Greif worked closely with historian and author David Marion Wilkinson, who has written several books on the period. Greif also relied heavily on period novels and newspaper articles to capture the speech and the cadence of the time.
"What I'm most excited about," he enthuses, "is that when you watch this, you're listening to dialogue that we feel is very representative of the way people spoke in those days."
Still, the overarching mission was to create compelling content that would be relatable to a 21st-century audience. If hard-core history buffs complain, then so be it.
"The key with any historical movie is, you can't be archeologically rigid," Joffe says. "You have to use your imagination to make people feel what it felt like to be there. Obviously you have to be accurate about the armaments and the uniforms, but at the same time, you have to give it a modern slant so that people don't feel that it's distant.
"I think that good history on television needs to be entertaining first," he concludes, "and accurate a very close second."
Photos by Kevin Lynch