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Hollywood wrangler: an inside look at John Scott’s famous film sets

He got his start in movies 47 years ago as a riding extra. Since then, he’s worked with scores of Hollywood legends on dozens of Oscar-nominated films, and become something of a legend himself

Oct 3, 2016

by Michael Ganley

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John Scott
Photography Bruce Meyer

In July 2014, John Scott got a call from Scott Robertson, a Hollywood producer working on a movie called The Revenant, which was then in pre-production. Robertson wanted Scott to join him in Vancouver to meet the movie’s director, Alejandro Iñárritu, and its director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Scott, who runs a film and TV production company in the Rocky Mountain foothills southeast of Calgary, was interested. Iñárritu had just won the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture for Birdman and Lubezki, known as Chivo, was coming off consecutive wins of the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Birdman and Gravity.

Scott built his business with the help of his grandfather’s dramatic homestead and a remarkable collection of movie oddities

Intrigued, and always looking for business in what can be a feast and famine industry, Scott made the brief flight west from Calgary a couple of days later. “They asked a lot of questions about the horses and my place,” Scott says. “I provided them with pictures and Chivo said he wanted something different-looking that stood out, so that’s how we settled on the Leopard Appaloosa mare.” You might remember it from the film – the white one with black spots. Leonardo DiCaprio rode it for much of the movie, including over a cliff. Then he cut it open and slept in it.

Robertson, Iñárritu and Chivo liked Scott’s ideas and asked him to return to Vancouver the following week to meet with the movie’s production and art departments. By the end of September, they were shooting around southwestern Alberta.

Scott tells the story nonchalantly, like a man who has met with Hollywood heavyweights before. And he has. You name a star, Scott’s probably worked with them, from Richard Harris to Sissy Spacek to Morgan Freeman. He was a stunt double for Gene Hackman for a couple of movies and says Sylvester Stallone was the worst to work with. “He’d blow up at the director,” he says. “Most of them are pretty good. Brad Pitt’s amazing. Lee Marvin was great, and Clint Eastwood.” His resumé reads like a catalogue of Academy-award-winning Westerns: Legends of the Fall, Brokeback Mountain, Unforgiven.

Scott had no idea how tough it was going to be to make The Revenant, how demanding Iñárritu and Chivo would be or how many people would quit the set before it was over. He had no idea how good it would be or how well it would do at the box office, either. He’s worked on big-budget flops before – including Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 epic starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken which failed so dismally it sent United Artists into its death spiral. Scott says it’s hard to detect the whiff of failure early. “The attitude was kind of the same on Heaven’s Gate as it was on this,” he says, “big and extravagant and nobody said, ‘No,’ to the director. Then it failed big time at the box office.”

But he knew he had a contract coming that would carry his business through another year, he knew there was talent in the room, and, for a moment, he thought maybe, just maybe, he could add another notch to his Oscar belt.

MEET SCOTT, 71, IN THE RESTAURANT OF THE NEWLY RENOVATED Twin Cities Hotel in Longview. It’s mid-May and the sky is low and grey. “This is a million-dollar rain,” he says as he settles in for a cup of coffee. “Guys were getting ready to sell their herds.” Longview, population 350, is surrounded by ranch country, and the summer had been shaping up poorly with a dry winter and spring. Scott himself owns 200 cattle, 180 horses and about 100 bison, and can spend $150,000 on feed in a bad year. He, too, was planning to sell some stock. “It looked like we were in for a disaster,” he says. “You have all these animals looking at you wanting to eat. It’s not a very good feeling.” Then, this week, the rains came.

Scott Productions has 10 employees right now, but during a busy spell that number can easily swell to 30 or more. He had 30 working on The Revenant, and also hired 35 First Nations riders to gallop across Chivo’s landscapes. “They came from all over,” he says. “We had good ones from the Tsuu T’ina, some Bloods from around Fort McLeod, Piikani. They did a fantastic job through some really tough conditions.” In fact, the conditions on set were legendarily tough, with Chivo shooting the film in sequence using only natural light, leaving a short window each day in which the production could film. And they were shooting it in winter, with temperatures dropping as low as minus-40. Some veteran crewmembers say the film was the worst experience of their careers, with long hours and brutal cold.

“It was sure tough to make,” Scott says. “About 65 people quit or left or moved on because they couldn’t handle the hours, couldn’t handle the pressure.” Originally scheduled to wrap up in March, 2015, shooting continued into August and the budget swelled from $95 million to $135 million.

Scott has just come from his north property, where he was checking on the cattle. He’s wearing a white cowboy hat, green rubber boots and a bomber jacket with brown suede sleeves. His eyelids are heavy, his shoulders hunched and he speaks softly. He’d flown in from Vancouver, where he’s working on a 13-episode TV series, The Zoo, the evening before. He’s been handling grizzlies, reptiles, jellyfish and North America’s only trained polar bear, among other creatures. “Next week we have reindeer and the week after we’re going to get some horses,” he says.

But Scott’s bread and butter is the American Western epic, complete with stunning, mountain-backed vistas. If it weren’t raining so hard, it would be easy to see why. Thirty-five kilometres west, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains set the horizon. But while the landscape might be crucial to the success of Scott Productions, it takes more than that to consistently attract the best in the world. For that, Scott has had to work. We leave the Twin Cities Hotel and drive south. Longview was a hub of oil and gas activity until the late 1940s, when the industry mostly left and headed to Leduc. A few pumpjacks still nod lazily, including one in the middle of town, but now, the economy is driven by ranching, tourism and movie-making. Scott frequently teams up with other ranchers in the area on projects, and the spin-off businesses include those run by his three daughters; one runs a catering business with her husband, one is a driver and the other a transportation coordinator.

“We should have had the best year ever, because of our accolades for The Revenant and Fargo, brand new studio and a low dollar. Instead it’s shaping up to be the worst year we’ve ever had.” – John Scott

At the edge of town, we turn east and head a few kilometres down a county road. As the rain picks up we approach Scott’s property, which is marked by a plain, white ranch gate. He chooses to not broadcast his location because Scott Productions is a living museum as well as a business, and he’s had problems with theft. We stop by a large Quonset hut and a couple of long storage buildings. The Quonset is packed with wagons, buggies and sleds of various shapes and sizes. One row is filled with black buggies used in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “The horses had to be black, the wagons black, the actors’ hair was black, wardrobe was black,” Scott says. “They were making a black movie.” The two other buildings are full of set decorations: tables, beds, chairs, glassware, skulls, anything a set decorator might need for a dozen scenes or more. Scott picks up things from auctions, estate sales and previous movies. He bought a small Quonset hut – unused, for 50 cents on the dollar – from the producers of Interstellar. It’s filled with tumps and skins used in The Revenant, as well as three remarkably realistic charred bodies from the scene in which DiCaprio wandered through a burned village. Scott gathers stuff so he can offer it – together with the stunning vistas and his livestock – to interested producers.

At the end of the road is the heart of Scott Productions: one barn for meetings and others for horses, tractors and farm equipment. Roads lead from the central parking lot to fields to the south and east.

Scott had been planning to do some branding this weekend, but it was rained out. The same rain has turned the ranch’s roads to mud, and Scott’s not sure he can take me for a tour. “I can’t take you to the movie sets today,” he says. “We can’t get down the hill. It’s just too wet.”

Scott’s phone goes off. His job includes a lot of logistics, and his phone rings a lot. His first question to the person on the other end is about the weather. His second is about how many horses they need for an upcoming project. “We’ll bring about 35 head,” he says after a minute. Then he enters the barn to confer with his ranch manager and a couple other staff.

John Scott Film Television
Photography Bruce Meyer

SCOTT GOT HIS START IN MOVIES WITH LITTLE BIG MAN, A 1970 Western dramedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway. He’d been doing some rodeo since graduating from Calgary’s Crescent Heights High School, and met some cowboys – including legendary stuntman Hal Needham – in Montana. They were shooting the movie there but coming to Alberta for the winter scenes, and asked Scott to put together some riders and horses. “I started off at $25 a day as a riding extra and I thought, ‘Boy, this is great,’ ” Scott says. “Then I got moved up with the stunt guys and was getting $100 a day and I thought ‘This is really the business.’ I was blown away by the fact you could ride horses and have fun and get paid for it.”

After Little Big Man wrapped, Scott followed a couple of the wranglers back to Hollywood to learn about the business. He lived in Los Angeles for a few months, working his way into the industry. “I cleaned the manure out of the trucks and fed the horses and brushed them for nothing to get on sets like Gunsmoke, Alias Smith and Jones and Big Valley,” he says.

He was hooked. He returned to Alberta and started collecting harnesses, wagons and the endless paraphernalia that comes with ranching. He began buying horses and building a contact list of riders. And he offered it all to anybody who might be interested in shooting a film in Alberta.

He caught a break in 1972 when Prime Cut, a gangster movie starring Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and Sissy Spacek, came through the region. It was shot at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in Calgary and at a farm east of the city. Scott scouted locations, helped with props and transportation and put the needed animals together. He went on to be Hackman’s stunt double for a couple of movies including Eureka, for which he travelled to Jamaica. “He’s a great actor, very professional,” Scott says. “Guys like him and Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. They move their feet two or three inches and they’re in the middle of the camera.”

Scott learned early that the movie industry is a ruthless one in which you’re only as busy as your next contract stipulates. There wasn’t too much after Prime Cut until 1975, when he landed three big pictures back to back to back: Paul Newman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Joel McCrea’s Mustang Country and the family classic Across the Great Divide. Scott took the money he made and bought the land his grandfather had homesteaded from his uncle’s estate. “Every time I did a big movie, I tried to buy some land,” he says, asking that I not publish the extent of his land holdings. “I don’t advertise that,” he says. “It’s a tradition here that people keep their land value private.”

The rain lets up and Scott changes his mind about the tour. We climb into his four-wheel drive and, with me opening and closing gates, we trundle around the ranch. His grandfather homesteaded this land in 1904, and, as he was clearing the land and tilling the soil, he could hardly have considered how perfect it would be for Westerns. It has a number of elevation changes, a couple of dry creek beds, and the Highwood River running along one side. The Rockies provide one dramatic backdrop, the winding Highwood River another. The river decimated the town of High River in 2013, and those same floods tore through his property. Some of the trees at water’s edge are skinned 10 feet up. “The power of that water was unbelievable,” he says.

Scott has developed three Western sets on his property. One homestead was built for The Virginian, starring Bill Pullman, a town set was built for Tom Selleck’s Monte Walsh and a third, more rustic cabin setting was made for the straight-to-TV movie The Legend of Butch and Sundance. Scott, who handles his own contract negotiations, gave producers a deal on the location rent in exchange for the sets. “We needed more sets at the time,” he says. “To get a town set off a movie is quite a deal.” Because of the elevation changes, none of the sets are visible from any of the others, meaning shooting can happen in 360 degrees.

AS WE LURCH ACROSS THE RUTTED ROADS, Scott talks about the state of his business. Last year he had several projects going, including The Revenant, the AMC series Hell on Wheels and HBO’s miniseries Lewis and Clark. This year, not so much, despite the opening of the $28-million Calgary Film Centre, which Scott says is a major new asset for the industry in the province. “We should have had the best year ever, because of our accolades for The Revenant and Fargo, brand new studio and a low dollar,” he says. “Instead it’s shaping up to be the worst year we’ve ever had.”

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The sets are designed and built new, then painted and roughed up to look old.

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One of the available sets. Scott’s property was originally homesteaded by his grandfather in 1904.

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Because of elevation changes on the property, none of the sets can be seen from any of the others, allowing for shooting in 360 degrees.

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A set designer can find everything they need.

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Scott has scores of buggies, wagons and sleds, representing every era.

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Scott bought this Quonset hut – unused – off the makers of Interstellar for 50 cents on the dollar.

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Charred bodies from The Revenant. Scott buys or barters for props to build his inventory for future filmmakers.

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One of the three sets on Scott’s ranch. This one was built for The Virginian, starring Bill Pullman and Diane Lane.

Photography Bruce Meyer

Some of that is simply due to the cyclical nature of the business, but Scott is also critical of the Alberta Media Fund, the provincial agency that supports the industry. It has a $36.8-million budget this year, which it spends through a production credit that will cover up to 30 per cent of project costs in Alberta, up to $5 million per project.

The fund has been fully subscribed in most years, and Scott is critical of the cap, which means the fund doesn’t help much in drawing the big productions to the province.

But Bill Evans, the executive director of the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA), disagrees with Scott on this point. Evans calls Scott a “living legend” and “pioneer” (Scott won AMPIA’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award 15 years – and dozens of productions – ago). But he says there’s no point increasing the cap. If the provincial agency which administers the fund, Alberta Film, did so, one production could eat up the entire budget.

Evans says the Alberta system is popular with AMPIA members because of its simplicity and the speed with which the rebates are delivered. And he says it’s doing its job. “The fund is priming the pump and allows producers to go to the bank and get a line of credit or go to private funding or through the Canada Media Fund or other sources of national funds,” he says.

The provincial government estimates that $400 million was spent on film and TV productions in Alberta over the past five years. Evans says that sum has been climbing quickly and that, with the right policies, including a tax incentive, it could double in the next five years. He says Alberta has the talent, and says jobs in film and television production are creative and well-paid. They also provide some diversity to the economy and, while The Revenant gets the headlines, much of the work in the province is far more local. “If we don’t tell our stories, then people will do it for us, and they tend to see us as a bit of a backwater and cultural wasteland,” he says. “We want to do everything we can to dispel that myth.”

Or to create new, epic myths: a frontiersman seemingly returning from the dead to find the man who left him behind; bloodlust to avenge a murdered friend; gay lovers on a mountaintop; Scott’s been a part of making Western myths for almost five decades. His latest big-screen effort has done the same, and it garnered 12 ­Oscar nominations, winning three of the big ones: Best Actor for DiCaprio (his first win), Best Director for Iñárritu and Best Cinematography – his third in a row – for Chivo. And as of August, it had topped $530 million in box office receipts worldwide, almost four times its cost.

Scott doesn’t spend much time thinking about all that (although a picture of DiCaprio being mauled by the bear now features prominently on his website). For him, it’s just one more remarkable notch in a remarkable career, and he’s looking ahead to what’s next.

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One Response to Hollywood wrangler: an inside look at John Scott’s famous film sets

  1. rno says:

    Be thankful you don’t live in Saskatchewan. The current government eliminated the film industry tax incentive several years ago. No explanation even though the Chamber of Commerce has said that this has had an overall negative impact on their economy.