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About The Production

THE MUSTANG writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who filmed her short Rabbit at Rikers Island, felt that it was vital for the production to be housed in an actual prison to capture the authenticity she was seeking. After consulting with officials at the Nevada Department of Corrections, however, it simply wasn't feasible to use of the state's active prisons. Instead, the film was shot almost entirely at Carson City, Nevada's Nevada State Prison, a decommissioned detention facility located just miles from Northern Nevada Correctional Center. (The round-up sequence that opens THE MUSTANG was shot on location in Utah.)

Originally constructed in 1862, Nevada State Prison was the state's only prison until 1961, and the site offered the filmmakers exactly the sort of environment they had been hoping to find. "You feel like people were there yesterday," de Clermont-Tonnerre says. "It was very helpful for us and for the actors to set up the right tone because there's something that you can't build or that you can't create. The atmosphere is absolutely inimitable."

Matthias Schoenaerts adds: "I'm glad we're able to shoot in a real facility because the walls have absorbed a massive amount of energy and life. I came to walk here at night all by myself just to experience or feel the energy. The place is really alive."

Says Jason Mitchell: "You go outside, and it's desert land for miles and miles and miles. It's eerie, you know. It makes all those different factors that you think you had to factor into your performance not even a factor because it's real. It feels real."

The challenges of shooting at a decommissioned prison were also quite real for the crew. For starters, none of the buildings had electricity, so the production brought in electricians to ensure the lights and the electric doors would work properly. The size of the cells, too, was initially cause for concern for director of photography Ruben Impens (Beautiful Boy, The Broken Circle Breakdown), but he eventually came up with a way to shoot the small spaces that conveyed just how confining they feel. "We embraced the fact that you feel the history on the walls," Impens says.

Together, de Clermont-Tonnerre and the cinematographer developed a visual language for THE MUSTANG that juxtaposes inherently cinematic landscapes and vistas with the grim, close reality of Roman's world. "We didn't want to make it like a complete documentary feel because it's a fiction movie, and we wanted to make it bigger than life," says Impens. "But it has this side, this documentary, very realistic approach for some scenes. Next to that, we were looking for the poetry and the beauty that comes with these animals. The prison we were shooting in-it was like a big studio for us. There is visually beauty to it, and at the same time, it's terrifying, all these barbed wired wires and double fences. The color palette of the movie, these orange jumpsuits, the orange-blue combination with the cream of the landscape, it's very beautiful and interesting."

Adds de Clermont-Tonnerre: "Visually, I wanted to see those hundreds of wild horses being surrounded by the barbed wires of a prison. I thought it was so odd, the contrast, and visually unique. You're surrounded by the Rocky Mountains of Nevada. And then, nested into this valley, you have this very rigid prison. Then, you have this unpredictable movement of animals inside this prison with those men."

It fell to Paris-based production designer Carlos Conti, whose credits include The Motorcycle Diaries, The Kite Runner and On the Road, to modify the look of the prison and to oversee the design of the set's prison farm, which was constructed with the same materials and in the same layout as the active prison facility nearby.

"This was perfect, this location," says Conti, whose team prepped the film in just four weeks. "We were very anxious to get the permission just to visit this place. And then we decided to do everything here, the courtyard, the cells. In this prison, we have this modern area, and we have all this abandoned area behind the prison. We could build all the pens for the horses. We could connect the prison with the horse area, and that was very interesting for us."

"Carlos is an immense talent who really took to immersing himself in this world with Laure," notes producer Alain Goldman. "We took him to a few active American prisons so he could absorb the texture and reality of what a working prison feels like: the odd industrial colors, the cheap murals, the items of a lived-in prison cell. The prison we filmed in was very stark and neutral, so his team's main task was to add some color and visual interest without sacrificing authenticity. With his design, he also wanted to support the difference between the outside world, which has more natural colors of blue and green, with the interior of the prison which is more fluorescent, harsh and unnatural."

For costume designer April Napier (Lady Bird, The Cell), the key question centered on how to differentiate the characters when so many of them would be wearing standard prison-issue uniforms. Using some of the extensive research de Clermont-Tonnerre had gathered during her years of working to complete the script and conferring with consultant Kathleen O'Meara, Napier began to formulate her approach.

"Because you're handed a uniform, you have to then find your own place inside of it to embellish it, or the way you wear it, to claim your own identity," Napier explains. "Jason wanted to wear a hoodie so that he could be more street about it. Then we have Tom, our Native American actor, who has his beautiful, long braids, and he wears a bandanna. And then each of them also chose a special necklace that they might have. Matthias has his beautiful hand-knotted rosary."

Her color choices were specific-orange and blue. Although orange is typically only worn by inmates during prison processing, Napier took a certain amount of creative license with the costuming, realizing how vibrant the orange would appear on screen. "We decided to keep the orange in here for visual reasons," says Napier, "then to change them when they go out into the corral working with the horses. That's when we put them in blue-jeans, shirt, thermal, hoodies, any kind of blue. Even if it's blue, they have to be really beat up."

The prisoners' tattoos also speak volumes about their identities. Makeup department head Galaxy San Juan was tasked with applying the tattoos to Schoenaerts and the other actors playing inmates (an unexpected bit of serendipity-San Juan grew up on a horse ranch and has loved the animals since she was a girl). Fittingly, Roman's tattoo work was the most intricate with San Juan applying roughly 18 separate tattoos, all of which chart the character's personal growth.

"He has some tattoos that show maybe a disruptive life, a rude life, coming all the way to where he is, with a more holy life," San Juan says. "We have some tattoos that are negative and then we have some tattoos that have gone a little bit in the holy direction. His body already tells a story in itself."

The tattoos took between 45 minutes and two hours to apply. "In the prison, obviously at night time, you're in your boxers and a tank top, or just your boxers, so he'll be in full body tattoos," San Juan says. "That takes about two hours. If he is going out into the yard in the mornings, he's normally wearing long sleeves, so we'll have to do the neck tattoos, and the face, and hands."


As part of her commitment to bring to the screen the most authentic story possible, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre insisted on including real mustangs in the cast horses. Twelve rescued mustangs that had never been handled by man before were trained and gentled in six weeks so they could participate in the film. The expertise of Jim Hicks became an invaluable asset. An accomplished professional horseman, the Utah-based Hicks, along with his wife Donnette, owns Sage Creek Equestrian, and is a committed student of the horse who takes pride in helping others relate to their horses in a way that leaves both horse and rider successful in their partnership. Hicks has become a noted clinician worldwide, and he frequently works with and trains the horses owned by THE MUSTANG executive producer Robert Redford.

Redford put Hicks in touch with de Clermont-Tonnerre while she was in Utah developing the script at the Sundance labs. "She and I talked a lot about the different aspects of the mustangs, the different thought process, some of the training aspects of it," Hicks says. "She wanted to portray what it was going to be like for a wild animal to be in captivity, to let people see what their instinct in nature would look like."

Wild mustangs have been the focus of Hicks' work since the 1980s, and his primary mission is to showcase the trainability and the usability of the mustang. "The majority of the horses that have come through our program, we can track it back to one success after another, wild horses being adopted, put into captivity," Hicks says. "With correct thinking and correct training, they can be good citizens. Some mustangs and some people are never going to work together. But the majority of these horses, if they're put in a situation where they can feel confident of their safety and their well-being, after some time they generally will settle in to the domestic lifestyle."

Hicks also had first-hand experience with the Wild Horse Inmate Program-he had trained horses that Redford himself had adopted through the program that was operated out of the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, Utah (though that facility has since been closed). "I saw it as a valuable way for the inmates to do something that would help them look at their lives a little bit differently," Hicks says. "What's nice about a horse-and the mustang in particular-is that they live in the moment. Humans, we tend to live everywhere but in the moment. We're thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or what we want to get done. Horses require us to become present. They are living, breathing beings with their own thoughts and concerns just like we are."

Before shooting began, de Clermont-Tonnerre and Matthias Schoenaerts traveled to Utah to visit Sage Creek, and Hicks worked closely with the actor to personally give him a solid grounding in the basics of horsemanship. "We worked with Matthias for two days in a round pen and started introducing the concept for how to get the horse to turn, how the body language affects the response," Hicks says. "It's not about badgering the horse into what you want. There's a lot of non-verbal communication that goes on. They're masters at reading expression because that's what they do in the herd. So, there is a way to present yourself that will elicit a positive response or a negative reaction."

Marquis was portrayed by two domestic Andalusian horses (the same Spanish equestrian bloodlines as mustangs) and one untrained mustang. It was important to de Clermont-Tonnerre to have several horses with a range of personalities and abilities to fully shape the personality of Marquis. There were practical concerns as well, however. "On a set, everything is on a schedule, on a time frame, and if you don't have a horse that's willing to go along with the program then you've got to find one that will," says Thomas Smittle.

To capture certain shots, director of photography Ruben Impens had to think on the fly and come up with creative solutions if the horses didn't necessarily hit their marks. "I don't have experience with horses," Impens says. "I did a couple of shoots with horses previously, but not a movie like this. You have to be flexible. Of course, you can reposition them, but they're animals. You can't talk to them."

Although mounting a production centering on wild animals presented certain challenges, producer Alain Goldman says every effort was undertaken to create a safe working environment-for both the cast and crew and the animals-that could allow this important story to be told.

"First features have to be made on a tight budget and a tight schedule," Goldman says. "Adding horses into the mix adds a layer of unpredictability that was admittedly concerning. Fortunately, we had many horse experts helping us to cast the right lead horse and handling the horses on set. We also spent a solid week blocking out the complicated horse scenes. This way we had accurate timing on how long each scene would take and how the team would need to dance around each other on set. Safety for the horses, actors and crew members had to be just as important as getting the shot."

Kathleen O'Meara spent much of her time on set standing with the Humane Society veterinarian and says she was relieved to see the horses were so well cared for. "I was very comforted by how protected the animals were," she says.

For Schoenaerts, developing a rapport with the animals took hours upon hours, but the investment paid rich rewards. "It's training," the actor says. "It's spending time. It's bonding through exercise, but it's also bonding through proximity, just being close to the horse, just standing next to it, just looking at it, talking to it, and then training with it. That eventually leads to a situation where you're comfortable enough to ride it and make it do what you want it to do."

"The horse is kind of a mirror because it feeds off your energy," Schoenaerts continues. "If you give it aggression, if you give it violence, that's what you're gonna get back. The more you're genial, the more you're relaxed next to the horse, the more you're gonna receive the same. The wild animal is the wild animal, and it will never pretend to be anything else."

De Clermont-Tonnerre says that, as she watched Schoenaerts deliver his performance from behind the camera, she was overcome by the level of detail and nuance he brought to Roman. "Matthias knows horses, but he's also a bit scared, which is wonderful for the character," de Clermont-Tonnerre says. "You see him overcoming that fear and overcoming his anger and being able to connect with an animal who doesn't speak. There's an invisible dialogue between them-you can see how they respond to each other. It was an emotional and body language. Matthias, as soon as he was in an arena with a wild horse, his face, his eyes, his response would change so much. He has this vulnerability and this humility that was exactly what I was expecting for my character."

Bruce Dern also was quick to praise Schoenaerts' talent and the fearlessness with which he approached the role. "Gary Cooper, you know, he filled a doorway," Dern says. "Matthias has that, plus he has great instincts. He's just very, very good. And he's a risk taker. I wouldn't go in the pen along with that horse. That's not a trained horse to be in movies. That's a horse that's been broken so he could very easily snap at any time. So, he's doing dangerous stuff. But I really like him."

Schoenaets, though, credits de Clermont-Tonnerre's vision, tenacity and insight for making THE MUSTANG truly possible. "She really embodies that screenplay," he says. "She knows every transition, every beat. She masters all of it, but at the same time, she's very open and receptive and creative. She directs like a painter, actually. She's very intuitive."


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