Forsaken Director Jon Cassar on Catching Lightning in a Bottle with the Sutherlands

Jon Cassar has made a career directing and producing popular American TV series like 24, The Kennedys, and most recently, ABC’s Wicked City, but most people probably don’t realize he started out as a camera operator working on Canadian productions. Before working as a steadicam operator on films like The Dream Team (1989 Michael Keaton- starring comedy shot in Toronto), Cassar spent 8 years as a film critic on an Ottawa public access TV show called Film Facts. Needless to say, we at Dork Shelf felt a certain kinship with him when we learned these facts and took the opportunity to chat with him at TIFF about his first feature film, Forsaken, a Western starring Donald and Kiefer Sutherland.

How did you become involved with Forsaken

Kiefer and I used to talk about our dream project, and we both wanted to do Westerns. Myself, because I think every director wants to do a western. And then from his case, he’s a real cowboy. I don’t know how many people know this, he does’t even tell people, he was  a rodeo star for a while. He dropped out of movies, he had a ranch and the whole  thing. He’s a real cowboy, he won buckles, the whole deal. That’s why when you see him on a horse in a movie, it’s pretty realistic because he knows what he’s doing. We were talking about it, then he wanted to do a movie with his father and so we kinda put those two things together, more he put those two things together and then he hired a writer, Brad Mirman, who we’ve worked with before. He put the script together and then came to me and said do you want to be involved? We’ve done so much television together, let’s make a movie together, and I said yeah, absolutely. You’re going to give me Donald and Kiefer Sutherland in a movie together? Are you kidding me?! I think everybody was waiting for that so to be part of it and directing it is very exciting. 

Did Kiefer ride his own horse in the film? 

He had a horse that came out of Calgary. He has his own horses of course but I think most of them are in LA. He found one that he liked which was a magnificent horse. It was one of the biggest horses I’ve ever seen. He knew that it had the spirit he wanted his horse to have. It had to be a good horse to ride it the way he rode it. 

So you have this brain trust from 24, how did it become a Canadian production? 

I think Kiefer wanted to do it here. I think that was one of the things. We’re all Canadian. The writer happened to be American, then Demi Moore and Brian Cox, after that everyone’s Canadian. I worked in Toronto for years. I was in the Camera department for year in Toronto. Rene Ohashi our DP, I used to be his camera operator. It was kind of like a family thing and we knew that if could come up here we could utilize all these people. It was a Canadian show to us, just set in Wyoming. 

Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland

What was it like directing Donald and Kiefer as father/ son? 

Every actor is going to bring a little personality and his own life and his own experiences into a part, it doesn’t matter what it is. Now you’ve a got a father and son, every father and son has a complex relationship, there isn’t a single one that’s simple and straightforward. Whatever the complexities of their relationship is, and I don’t really know it is, because I don’t know them that well personally, especially as father/ son. Some of that’s going to leak into what they’re doing, especially in the emotional scenes. Actors can’t hold that back completely. Some if it’s going to leak into it, and if we can capture that when it’s happening, that’s lightning in a bottle. That’s what you’re dying for when you’re a director. I was excited about what that could be. 

Were there any particular Westerns you used as a frame of reference when discussing Forsaken

I’m a movie fanatic, I watch 30-40 movies a month so they’re just all in my head. A lot of what I was going for was the old fashioned westerns anyways, but I don’t sit and watch and go I wanna do this. Even with a DP I don’t do that, we just talk about what I think the look should be. But as I thought about the westerns in my head, it was more the old ones. Not the 70s and 80s Clint Eastwood movies, even those started to be kind of stylistic and I wanted to go back to the 50s and 60s where they were making hundreds of Westerns a year. Here’s a shocking fact I just found out the other day, back in the 50s we remember Gunsmoke on TV and Have Gun – Will Travel, I can tell you maybe 4 or 5, but there used to be about 30 western shows on television, it was crazy. People were crazy about westerns back then and they all were really kind of simple. They were very very simple in the storytelling, so that’s what I was going for. Like Shane, even Stagecoach is very straightforward. 

Cassar at Comic Con 2014
Cassar at Comic Con 2014

What’s on your Dork Shelf? 

I am bad. I collect all kinds of cards. I collect sports cards, I collect movie cards, the original Planet of the Apes movie cards from the original films. I collect comics. I have all the comics that are now so hot that I had way back when, like Akira and 300 and all those things that have now become movies. I’ve got figures. I’m one of those guys. It’s really interesting to see what’s happened with the world, how this has all become in now and seeing what’s happening at Comic Con, but there are the true blue guys like me that have been doing it for years. I’ve got a Star Wars Revenge of the Jedi poster. That’s when I was a film critic, from the press kit. You got them so early that it was still “Revenge” before they turned it to the “Return”.

Where were you a film critic? 

When I came out of school I was on Ottawa cable vision. When I was in college there was a group of us that wanted more production time so we went to Ottawa cable vision and said we want to do a film review show. We just wanted to do a Roger and Gene ‘what do you think?’ kinda thing and so we started our own show and it ran for almost eight years! It was called Film Facts. Because of that we started getting press passes so I used to come to TIFF as press and the first year we came was 1982 when The Big Chill was the movie of the year. 

Do you remember the first film you ever reviewed? 

No but I remember I gave Road Warrior a 10 when it first came out and everyone went ‘are you out of your fucking mind? It’s a stupid sci-fi b movie’ I’m like no, it’s way more than that. This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Everyone thought I was crazy but I was right, it was a 10, it’s still is a 10. 

Foresaken is available on Digital HD March 1st and Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand March 29th.

Read our review here.