It all started when Dameon signed on as part of a Civil War re-enactment group for what was supposed to be a 3-day shoot in Bend, Oregon, as one of the Holnists, the army of survivalist bad guys. Being the bad guys and all, the Holnists all had to ride dark horses. Yes, really. Since Dameon's beloved gelding, Shannar, (27 at the time) was a showy Leopard Appaloosa, he asked to borrow my handsome Morgan gelding, Magic, a dark bay (a spring chicken of 22 back then). Off he went, returned a few days later, then got called back by the film company because he'd been one of the few who actually knew how to do cavalry maneuvers and could train the other riders. So, off he went again.
Phone service was spotty; he had to drive into a neighboring town when he could to call me and give me updates. His first call started out with, "You've got yourself one hell of a horse." Not that I didn't know that, of course, but it turns out the stunt coordinators, assistant directors, camera people, and Director Kevin Costner all had different and equally vague ideas of what they wanted, and not one seemed to know much about horses or how to pull off some of the elaborate stunts they planned. Riders got carted off to the hospital every day as horse after horse crashed and burned.
Except for my Magic. And, of course, Dameon. Dameon in his crazed youth did a lot of, shall we say extreme, riding, up to and including the Omak Suicide race. Twice. In Magic, he met his match. Magic had a huge ego too, and an enormous amount of "presence" that turned heads and drew attention even on the rare occasions he was standing still. He was also athletic, agile as a cat, strong, faster than a speeding bullet, and the words "I can't" were not in his vocabulary. Morgans in general are quick to say "yes" to whatever they're asked to do, but Magic didn't just say "yes"; he said, "Hold my beer and watch this."
Every time Magic pulled off a miracle and kept himself and his rider alive and upright while galloping across crumbling bridges, leading charges into raging rivers, leaping wreckage, facing a surprise flame-thrower attack, and generally pulling off stunts that the professional stunt people couldn't manage in take after take, Dameon would get asked "Hey, think you can do…?" followed by something even trickier and more insane. By the second week, he was a platoon leader in "Company C", one of the cavalry units, and he and Magic were known interchangeably as "the Magic Man", a nickname bestowed by Costner and his Master of Horse, Riley Flynn (not credited in the film, I've noticed).
In a shoot at Metaline Falls, Washington (which stood in for "Pine View" and "Benning" in the movie), the AD asked Dameon how close he could get to the camera at full gallop. "How close do you want me?" D asked. "Close as you can get." Well, they did ask, so: first take, Dameon's right boot flashed about 3 inches past the lens as he and Magic hit full warp speed. Camera man, AD, and crew screamed and leaped backward with flailing arms. For the subsequent takes, they set out a cone 5 feet from the camera and asked Dameon to stay on the other side of it. Which he and Magic did. Every time. I don't think any of those shots made it into the film.
Costner decided he wanted the gates of Benning to get blown to smithereens while the Holnist cavalry charged in to wreck havoc. Obviously, the shot could only happen once. So, when the Director yelled, "ACTION", D and Magic led Company C in the charge. Magic hit the afterburners and reached the gates lengths ahead of the other horses, just as they exploded. The Magic Man leaped through the flaming chasm with debris shooting out around them. The incredible footage got played over and over during the daily "takes" review that night. It was an awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping shot.
Which, nonetheless, didn't make it into the film either. I later wrote Warner Bros., and Costner, and anyone else I could think of begging for that footage, but never even heard back.
But back to when I came in: a few weeks into the shoot, Dameon called to tell me they needed women who could ride to play "Townies", part of the good guy army. It was okay for the good guys to have light-colored horses, as long as they didn't stand out too much. No pintos or paints. Oops. That left my first choice, Jokata, our miraculous buckskin paint mustang mare, right out (though I noticed several pinto and paint horses on set once I got there, which roused my ire considerably at the time). I took Shannar, hoping his spots would be forgiven, and headed down to join Dameon, along with three women friends and their horses.
On our first day, Costner singled out me, Lauri, Pat, and Melissa (the girlfriends I'd brought with me) and asked us to remain in the forefront of most of the shots, because he liked our "look" and because we were among the better riders there. The camera people worked hard to shoot around Shannar (though you can glimpse flashes of spots dashing past the camera on a number of scenes. And Pat and I have a full 10 seconds on screen, just our faces, waiting to die in the final charge).
From then on, the adventure sort of mushroomed, and if I'd filmed it, I'd play most of it with calliope music on the background. This is in the era before the expression *facepalm* was invented, but it could have been coined just for that film.
Example: if you've ever seen the film, you may have noticed that all the Holnists are decked out from head to toe in orange and black. This is because in the book, the Holnists are described as wearing tiger-striped camo. *rimshot* And *facepalm*.
In the book, the Holnists are led by a fanatical, charismatic, former-military cyborg warrior whose men hold him in terrified awe. In the film, the Holnists are led by Will Patton, a wonderful actor who is about as scary as a cheese sandwich. His character is a former photocopier salesman without any military training whatsoever. The Holnists fear him because otherwise they'd hurt his feelings, and follow him with varying degrees of reluctance, obviously feeling bad about having to do mean things to people when so ordered. Those poor Holnists.
My first day on-set, we filmed an ending that never made it into the film, for which audiences everywhere should give thanks. At the end of the climactic battle scene between the Postman and Bethlehem (the Holnists' Fearless Leader), Bethlehem is defeated, making the Postman the new Head Honcho. He tells the Holnists they don't have to be bad guys anymore. Gosh, we don't? Hoo-ray! The townies and Holnists all cheer and hug, someone brings out Bill the Mule (supposedly killed and eaten early on) to be reunited with the overjoyed Postman, and we all go skipping off into the sunset singing kumbayah…well, okay, we didn't actually hug and there was no singing. But, you know… *Facepalm*
Now, I admit, I'd always thought of Shannar as a good horse, but not quite in Magic or Jokata's league. Jokata was a living legend in our circle, one-of-a-kind, a level-headed lady of uncanny intelligence and immeasurable heart. Magic was…well, Magic. He should have gone through life with a big red "S" on his chest. And he knew it. I'd always figured poor Shannar had gotten to be as good as he was because he'd spent his life struggling to keep up with those two.
On the set, I learned just how badly I'd underestimated the old man.
Toward the climax of the film, the Postman leads an army of townsfolk armed with whatever they can carry to a showdown across an open field from the entire Holnist army and their mechanized weaponry. Costner wanted lots of footage of this massed charge from every angle. We were filming on a private cattle ranch, and to get the shots he wanted, we were to start out in one huge pasture, gallop across it to a narrow, dirt road, and race down that to the much larger pasture where the confrontation was to take place. The road, barely wide enough for a truck, bordered a 30-foot boulder-strewn drop into a river on one side, and on the other, a steep hill, almost a cliff, blocked off by rocks and a lot of loose barbed wire from the remnants of a fence that had seen better days. Just where it reached the other pasture, it dog-legged around a deep ditch or shallow ravine, depending on your point of view, that the river had gauged out sometime back.
Cameras lined the cliffs above us, filled the backs of trucks that ran in front of us, and waited, surrounded by protective cones and nervous film crews, at various points along our proposed route. They had us charge across the first field, yelled "CUT" just as we reached the road, followed a few moments later by the inevitable "Back to One" (film speak for "return to your exact starting point and get ready to do exactly the same thing"). We must have galloped across that field a dozen times. It only took the horses about 3 takes before they learned what the word "ACTION", roared over the bullhorn, meant. On the 4th or 5th take, I was on the ground, giving Shannar a break, when the AD yelled, "ACTION!" Shannar took off, and I made my very first flying cavalry mount from a standstill. Yea, me.
Lauri, Melissa, Pat and I had marked our "one" with a small pile of rocks around a yellow flower that somehow hadn't been trampled into mire so we'd always know exactly where to return to, but somehow we kept ending up farther and farther back in the mass. A few snide remarks directed toward us enlightened us; the other extras resented the way we were always pushing our way to the front of every shot (never mind that we'd been told to do exactly that by Costner himself) and were trying to cut us off in order to have their turn in front of the cameras. We retaliated with varying degrees of surprise, indignation, and irritation, followed by a certain level of smugness when one of the A.D.s or a crewmember keeping an eye on continuity would order everyone back to their former spots. Nyah, nyah. Okay, yes, we were probably being jerks about it.
Then came the charge down the road to the big meadow. Costner had us line up 4 abreast, which was, I thought, too much for that narrow road. I was glad to be on the far right, farthest from the river, but I was a little concerned for Lauri, Melissa, and Pat, on my left.
As well I should have been. At the cry of "ACTION", we took off. *Poof* Within yards, my comrades vanished in a cloud of dust. I couldn't see the road, the horse ahead of me, the rocky hill I knew was immediately on my right. I was wearing goggles, but even so, my eyes got hit with what felt like a hundred hot needles as half the road fought for a place under my contacts. Through the thunder of hoof beats all around me, I heard shouts of alarm and noises that sounded suspiciously like screams. The horse in front of me went down; I know this because Shannar leaped over the thrashing body and I caught a glimpse of the rider's face, a teenaged boy, looking up at us from the ground with mouth agape. We landed and raced on, and behind me came the tell-tale sounds of a major pile-up. I kept my attention forward, by then focused solely on remaining aboard and helping Shannar keep his feet.
Suddenly, I felt his haunches bunch and we were again airborne. I caught a glimpse of what looked like the Grand Canyon below us. I hadn't seen the dogleg around the ditch at the end of the road, but somehow Shannar had and decided to take the direct route. We landed, and suddenly the dust cleared and Shannar and I found ourselves racing across a meadow amidst a cluster of riderless horses.
Cut. Back to one.
I said hell with it and bowed out of the next several takes; I couldn't ask the old man to pull a rabbit out of the hat like that twice. The number of riders abreast went from 4 to 3 to 2. Shannar and I watched from behind one of the camera crews as, for take after take, mostly riderless horses emerged from the cloud of dust and raced across the meadow again and again. Melissa and Lauri were two of the few to remain a-horse; Pat had also pulled after the first take.
Shannar caught his breath, I sucked it up, and we rejoined our merry band for the next set of shots, galloping across the final meadow toward the Holnist army; you know, the one with the machine guns and cannons aimed our way. Hey, it worked for the Australian cavalry in WWII, right? Of course, the Aussies didn't stop and stand in a line waiting for the Germans to lower the artillery sights…*facepalm*, but what the hey.
Surrounded by a wall of Holnists and Townies, the Postman and Bethlehem duke it out, until Our Hero emerges victorious and one of Bethlehem's own men shoots him. The Postman calls out for a re-writing of the Rules of Eight, the laws the Holnists live by. So Holnists and Townies call out new laws while the Postman approves. I felt so sorry for some of the actors, whose only lines during the entire film were in that scene, which, like so many others, ended on the cutting room floor. But they were great. Peggy Lipton had the line, "Everyone has to learn to read," delivered with passionate conviction. There were two young actors playing Holnists who made a point of doing their lines differently every single take, but always made them believable and perfect.
Costner had the last lines. And blew them consistently for 18 consecutive takes. It was late afternoon and about a zillion degrees by then, and we really, really wanted to get out of our heavy "nuclear winter" costumes, have some water, untack our horses, and collapse. By about Take 10, we were all silently mouthing his lines along with him, desperately hoping that this time he'd get it…nope. Cut. Back to One. I notice our faces are all blurred so you can't see our mouths move in what remains of that scene in the final film.
By the way, I have great respect for Kevin Costner. The man was one of the kindest, most polite, most patient professionals I've ever worked with, and an incredibly nice guy. As a director…well…he was one of the kindest, most polite, most patient professionals I've ever worked with, and an incredibly nice guy.
And he made a miracle on set. For the town scene where the Holnists take the Postman prisoner, they'd hired a local "special needs" school to provide kids to play townies with birth defects caused by nuclear fallout. Around twenty kids came on a bus, along with their parents, teachers, and counselors. There were kids with problems ranging from Down Syndrome or severe autism to full-on mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. For many, no one and nothing else seemed to exist; they lived locked away in some inner world. Others were completely unmanageable, more like wild animals than children. They were only really needed for one shot, but none of us could imagine how anyone could pull this off. We prepared ourselves for a very, very long day.
Finally, after many struggles and general chaos, Costner approached and asked the frazzled adults if he could try something. He knelt before the children, and smiled. "Hi there," he said, as easily as if he spoke to a group of old friends. "Can you do something for me?"
It was like watching flowers respond to the sun. Every face turned to his, dull eyes lit, smiles blossomed, even on those who hadn't seemed aware of their own parents. They listened, and they did exactly as he asked. As the day wore on and they tired, attentions wandered, some shots didn't go as smoothly. But Costner's patience never frayed, his voice remained smooth and relaxed, and his smile was always there, ready for any child that needed it. And he got his takes. Every one of them.
In retrospect, I can't say the experience was an unalloyed rollicking good time. I carried a lot of bad memories from it that, at the time, overshadowed the enjoyment. But after this many years, what stands out are the moments of heart-stopping excitement, the shared laughs with my husband and friends, and especially my pride in and love for my two wonderful old friends, Shannar and Magic. Whatever version of Heaven they're in, I hope they're enjoying regaling their horse buddies with tales of their adventures as much as I do remembering them.