Richard Harrah Takes Us Deep Into The Canyon

Yvonne Strahovski and Eion Baily team up with Will Patton for a terrifying honeymoon nightmare this Halloween season

With The Canyon, Richard Harrah has crafted a sly little thriller that comes at you like a donkey kick in the kidneys. Starring Yvonne Strahovski and Eion Baily as recently married lovebirds headed deep into to the Gran Canyon, Harrah's Halloween treat is an intense, cautionary travelogue that offers up the best kind of nightmare scenario for any honeymooning couple. When you throw Will Patton into the mix as Henry Theodore Roosevelt Pritchard, a wily old coot with a pick-ax and a couple of spare donkeys, you know this trip isn't going to end well. The couple gets lost, they run out of food, coyotes attack them, and nothing is more dangerous than trying to find a cell phone signal. We recently caught up with Harrah to chat about this exciting new project. Here's what the man had to say for himself and his film:

Did this project arise from you're bitterness over having to endure the Brady Bunch's sunshine trip into the Grand Canyon over and over again as a kid?

Richard Harrah: No. But it definitely influenced it on many levels. I wish I could have gotten the flashlight scene in there, with them shinning their beams into the sky. That would have been perfect. There are no direct references to that episode in the film, but now that I think about it, the mule ride down into the canyon may have you reminiscing about some Brady Bunch moments.

The Grand Canyon doesn't get featured in too many films. Why do you think that is, and how difficult of a shoot did it prove to be?

Richard Harrah: Where do I start? We went in there with our fingers crossed when we scouted this film. We were wondering if we could shoot there at all, because the park service had been notoriously tight with the park. Our location guide told us that Tony Scott wanted to do a commercial there. They wouldn't let him. He said, "We'll just put a horse on the ridge." They wouldn't let him put it out there. So he said, "Well, we will just shoot on the ridge, and then CGI the horse in later." They told him, "No, you can't do that either." He was like, "What!?!" They didn't even want to give people the idea that it was okay to put a horse out on that ledge. The park has been notoriously tight with people filming there. And I think they are right. There are just way too many tourists coming in and out of the park. We scouted it. There are so many great things to shoot in the canyon. The forest service seemed to be up for it. I was totally shocked by that. We had all of our permits. We were ready to go. Then a few weeks before going, they told us we couldn't shoot in the canyon at all. The businesses said, "You can't let them film here." We just scurried. We filmed most of it in Mojave. We have a couple of scenes that are shot in the canyon itself, but most of it is all second unit and stock. Mojave is a great place. It's an extension of the canyon. And it is an amazing place to be.

There is a beautiful shot where the couple go into a cave and make out. You're telling me that area isn't in the canyon either?

Richard Harrah: No. That was shot in a place called Antelope Canyon. It's on an Indian reservation in Arizona. It's just this beautiful slot canyon. We had to finagle with the Indian Reservation and the actual slot owners to be able to shoot inside there. We thought we had it all to ourselves. Of course, we did it during the day, and they invited every tourist on the planet in along with us as well. It was a stressful day. But that is such a beautiful spot.

What is the best and worst part about working with a pack mule?

Richard Harrah: The animals were great. We had an amazing trainer. And those were some very talented mules. We never had to go into the Grand Canyon. Base camp was never too far away. So they didn't have too much to do. There was this one time, though. We were in one of those tight slot canyons. You get in those places, and it's a little rough. We literally had to squeak past this one mule. This poor thing had to pee so bad. It let out a deluge of green, vile, horrible smelling, rocket load of pee all over everybody's equipment and camera cases. Those mules can be kind of messy.

Did you run a cell phone test in the canyon just to see how plausible this scenario would actually be?

Richard Harrah: (Laughs) We could get cell reception in the canyon if we got to a certain level. If you got up to the rim, you definitely could bet it. But if you were deep down inside, it was pretty hard to get. In some areas of the canyon, where it is so incredible wide, you actually can get reception at the bottom. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. As long as you don't have AT&T, you're probably pretty good.

How often do honeymooning couples go missing in The Canyon?

Richard Harrah: Oh, my god! I still get the stories, because I signed up for the little Grand Canyon club. I will get a story that says, "Marathon Runner Disappears." Or, "Young woman, totally fit, disappears and dies from sun exposure." It happens every year. It's so beautiful. It drags you in, and then you get lost. I don't know if you have ever hiked the Grand Canyon, but it gets brutally hot at the bottom. You just dry up like a prune. I remember not having enough water, and we were rationing it. I remember I felt like I was sneaking it at night. I was just so thirsty. You get pretty desperate fairly quickly. If you go to the Grand Canyon, you will see warnings everywhere. All of the posters say the same thing. You think you are looking at a Dentine commercial, because you are looking at this handsome hiker guy. It's this story about how he went hiking in the Grand Canyon and no one ever saw him again. They are just ubiquitous because they are placed all throughout the canyon. They are wherever you go. They want you to be aware of the danger. That's why they don't like people to shoot there, either. Other than the fact that its high impact on a beautiful landmark, people get over their head very quickly there.

The film has a really fun, old timey sense about it. What went into creating Henry, and what do you think Will Patton brought to it that made it so special?

Richard Harrah: It was great working with Will. He was such a veteran. I knew he was channeling some sort of Gabby Hayes character. Or some sort of Sierra Madre persona. I knew that was Henry's shtick to a certain extent, as a guide. You will meet these guides in the Grand Canyon, and they do put on the dog. They have these alter egos. Because they are a tourist guide for a living. I think that's what he was doing. He didn't like to talk about his technique at all. He kept that to himself. I'd say, "You seem to be channeling Gabby Hayes right now." And he'd seem shocked, "Oh? You know who Gabby Hayes is?"

When we are introduced to Henry, he certainly has a dangerous element to him. Was it your intention to trick the audience out? You almost set the film up as one of these new torture films, but it's not like that at all.

Richard Harrah: I may have done that on a conscious level. I knew I didn't want to make that type of torture film. I wanted to make a movie that was a drama. That got horrific quickly. But it all came from the realistic nature of it. Not the cliché of the genre. There is a formula, and you have to behave a certain way. I wanted this to be more on a human level. I wanted a young couple just setting off on their life. They are just starting out together, and this happens to them. I wanted to see those horrible consequences of nature. It's about the food chain. I did set it up intentionally. I had to throw those red herrings out there, just because, as a filmmaker, you never want the audience to know where you are going. Right? That's what is beautiful about Will's character. You're left asking, "Who is this creepy guy? Is he going to hit Nick over the head and take the girl? Is it going to become one of those types of films?" We definitely set it up so you'd get that feeling about him.

The music is so great, too. Because it really lulls the viewer into a false sense of security.

Richard Harrah: I loved Heitor Pereira. We totally clicked right from the beginning. He understood what types of instruments I wanted to use, especially when they go into the Grand Canyon. He got really ancient with the way he played. He approached it as a guitar player. But he has all of these amazing instruments. He brought a lot of earth sounds into it. I love his soundtrack. I love that someone put his personal stamp on it. This wasn't just some canned piece of music you might recognize from The Passion soundtrack. A lot of thought, energy, and creativity went into making this happen. It was one of the biggest surprises of the movie for me. And I loved the natural sounds, too. The way our guys did the sound mix was amazing. They would build winds just to give you this subtextual feeling of being there, and being thirsty. That was a whole other art craft, and it was so amazing to see someone doing it so well.

Your film will of course draw comparisons to 2003's Open Water. Did you look at that film and decide there was more to this concept? Or where you oblivious to that film's reputation?

Richard Harrah: It was one of those things I was constantly struggling against. Not to say Open Water wasn't a successful movie. Because it was. But it was a shark thing. And that is an innately prehistoric, horrific theme. You are just so at the mercy of this monster. That was a different movie.

It is a very different movie. But you seem to have taken the core concept of that film, and then moved it in an absolutely new direction.

Richard Harrah: It's absolutely astute that you say that. Because we knew this wasn't Open Water. But it had the same basic idea. In a theater aspect, they are solely in a two dimensional world, because we only see them bobbing on the surface, constantly. They are never moving. It serves the verite aspects of cheap cinema. I wanted to tell something grand. I wanted something that was always moving. I wanted this feeling that nature inside the Grand Canyon was always present. Be it mechanic, or steady on sticks.

Yvonne and Eion are a truly believable couple. What sort of work went into managing their onscreen relationship? And why do you think they click so well on screen?

Richard Harrah: I think they were attracted to each other. Because they are beautiful people. They have this beautiful quality about them. Its not a traditional, superficial, Melrose Place kind of beauty. While they are quite beautiful, you get the sense that they could have been Mid-Western kids next door. And I think they were instantly attracted to each other, too. We all drove to Utah and various other parts of Arizona. They drove together. They immediately got into that couple feeling. That was fun for them. It was their chemistry. They liked each other and clicked instantly. It was really natural.

There are some great teeth gnashing scenes in this film. I certainly don't want to give anything away. So lets be ambiguous and start with the snakes. How difficult was that scene to pull together and make believable? Because it looks awesome, and may be one of my favorite scenes from a film this year.

Richard Harrah: The snake scene? Wow! Thank you for saying that. A ton went into that. Everything is on a wing and a prayer. You are fighting the elements. The sun is going down, so the rattlesnakes aren't doing anything. They are cold. You have to wait for that one moment when they are actually striking. We had real rattlesnakes. We had a real dead rattlesnake. We had a beautiful silicone snake that was animatronic. We had several of those, actually. Then we had some computer-generated snakes for the moments that were a little harder to pull off.

I didn't notice the computer generated snakes at all, and I'm pretty quick to pick up on that kind of stuff.

Richard Harrah: I am really glad you said that, because we worked forever to get it perfect. Once you see it, and you recognize it, you can see that the tones are slightly different, and that the glow coming off the snakes is slightly different. The gag is up. As a director, you don't want to have to go that route. But sometimes it just works; hopefully. And that's great. I wonder if this is going to be one of those Crying Game moments where people say, "Just go see it!" There are three of these moments in this film. Where the story takes a turn you aren't expecting.

Your make-up work in this film seems pretty accurate. Did you do a lot of research on snakebites to get just the right take on what they would look like after a certain period of time?

Richard Harrah: We did a lot of research. The guys that did the special effects make-up had the most grotesque pictures. It got to the point where the actor in question said, "I don't want to do that. It looks too fake and cheesy." But then we showed them the pictures, and they were like, "Oh my God!" We had to tone it back. We had to get rid of this ballooned hand. The actor would have to wear this rubber apparatus that blew up. And it looked like Popeye's arm. The actor wasn't very happy with it. But it was cool. When we researched this, we saw people getting bit by certain types of rattlesnakes and spiders, and it was so ugly!

Did you guys actually eat the snake out there in the wild with your actors?

Richard Harrah: I will never tell (laughs). You can get it on the menu anywhere out there in that part of the world.

Bold|How difficult was it to wrangle the wolves? It looks like you actually have them attacking Yvonne.

Richard Harrah: The person is being attacked. We had stunt doubles, but we still had to be very careful. These wolves are huge. You are literally walking onto the production, and it's in the middle of nowhere. You'd walk into this dry riverbed, and you would see this anchor chain. It is holding down you don't know what. You'd come to the end of it, and there is this giant animal. Which is this wolf. They are terrifying when they are just lying down. The trainers had to work very carefully with the animals.

Were the wolves at all friendly? Could you walk up and pet them?

Richard Harrah: No! You could be around them. But they were very unpredictable wild animals. They didn't want to do some of the stuff we asked them to do. A dog can be trained. But the wolves are so much harder to train. They don't do anything except maybe with the encouragement of food. And, still, they do very little with that. We were shooting so much footage. Hopefully, it could be put together in the end. I was quite happy with what I got.

bold Lastly, the leg amputation scene. It is filmed and edited with such precision; I thought it was actually happening. What went into pulling that bit of magic off?

Richard Harrah: Do you play music at all? Are you an athlete? There is a thing called "Being in the pocket". It's when you are in the zone. You find your rhythm. When you are editing a movie, you just feel if it's off. Or wrong. There were so many things that I cut out. They were weighing the movie down. The overall picture was kind of disappointing for me, even though I had all of the greatest parts accounted for. The whole is suffering. You have to find that rhythm. If something is out of sync, you can instinctually feel it. It's an esoteric thing.

What did you cut out of the film?

Richard Harrah: A lot. There was so much going on. I almost hate to talk about it. There will be some stuff in the DVD. There will be some alternate scenes. There were a lot of great scenes that Eion came up with for his backstory. He had a lot of liberty to do so. I gave him a lot of rope. But I found that it was detracting from keeping the film clean and simple. I wanted this to be about two people anyone could relate too. Not just about an individual and his struggles. I cut a lot of that back. There were some fantasy scenes that I wanted to include, but they felt forced. It felt contrived, so I cut it out. Because of that, the film stayed really pure. And it feels classic, I think.

What sort of fantasy scenes are you talking about?

Richard Harrah: There would be hallucinatory scenes that Eion would be having. He would be at the beach drinking something, and a horrible storm would approach. Then a wolf would appear. It was a very surreal dream. And Yvonne has a dream where Henry comes back, and they speak Hopi. It was really great, because Will, Yvonne, and I learned to speak Hopi from a guide. We learned all of these sayings. We could have whole conversations, and it was really a lot of fun. But it didn't fit into the movie. It slowed the pace down, and I had to keep it moving.

The ending is a little ambiguous. I don't want to ruin it for those who haven't seen the film yet, but why did you leave it so open ended?

Richard Harrah: It was ambiguous how?

I wasn't quite sure about the state of things there at the end. Did they or didn't they? Did I miss something? Did I misinterpret how this all played out?

Richard Harrah: Oh, you wanted one of those "tells"? Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't say anything. I think we should keep what really happens an open-ended secret (laughs). This is the kind of movie that will catch you off guard. It has stuck with a lot of my friends. Especially a lot of my wife's friends. The story is so relatable to them. They will say, "That story haunts me. I think about it while I am driving. What would I have done?" They totally get the romantic aspects of it. I think this is a great date film.

bold It's certainly an alternative to what is out there for Halloween.

Richard Harrah: I agree. It's a thinking person's horror flick.

Not to mention, a lot of people just don't like Saw. They are kind of tired of it.

Richard Harrah: This is Saw on a different level. You could call it "Hack & Chop" maybe? I don't know what you would call it.

There isn't too much purposeful cruelty. Everything happens naturally. It's a fight against the elements.

Richard Harrah: That's what I find personally refreshing about it. It's done in such a caring way. When we were writing the music to that horrific end scene, we knew it needed to be a tender moment. Its an act being done out of love. Lets convey that with the music. We could have gone either way with that.

Did you see The Ruins? It had a similar scene. But that film didn't work for me in a way that your film does.

Richard Harrah: Right. For me, that was the apex of the film. What is this movie about? What do we do for each other? What is this connection we have with each other? That is why the film is book ended with a look at the canyon from space, and where we are in this whole grand scheme of things. Tthe drama is so incredible. In this crack on the floor of the world, there is this horrible story unfolding. That's life. That's what the movie is about.

How did you pull that final shot off?

Richard Harrah: It's a lot of satellite imagery. There are a ton of tiny images blown up with great resolution. It took weeks to build it. It was really difficult. I couldn't just say how long I wanted that shot to be. I would tell them I wanted it twice as long as what they originally gave me, and it would be two weeks before they would come back with a finished shot. And it would be incredibly long. Way too long. I'd be like, "Can you maybe trim it?" They'd say, "No! You need to be as specific as possible with how long you want this shot." So I told them it was fine as it was. I told them "I love it! Perfect!" Its not one of those things you can just dial into. It was a long, tedious process of building this animated view from space.

Do you think we will ever see a prequel starring Will Patton as Henry? I'd certainly like to see the past adventures had by this old drunken dog.

Richard Harrah: A prequel! What actually happened to Henry? I will let Will know that it's wanted. There are some beautiful scenes with Henry that we had to cut. You get a real glimpse into the character. Its before they get to camp, and you can tell his persona has dropped. It's gone. He is in a rare moment of confession, and he tells what happened when someone got killed. It was because of his drinking. He confesses his sin in this moment of unconsciousness. It just didn't fit. It was one of those rhythm things. So I had to cut it. It was one of the hardest cuts in the film that I had to make.

Will we see it on the DVD?

Richard Harrah: Hopefully it is on there. We put about a half dozen alternate scenes on there. That one with Will was one of the more illuminating scenes.

What do you have planned for the future? Are you prepping another film?

Richard Harrah: I have a ton of stuff I am working on. I have half a dozen scripts, and there are three that I am actively working on. They are my own. I really want to get this out there, because I am a relatively unknown guy. You want to go into the marketplace having something that says "he can do it or he can't". I have high expectations for The Canyon.

Richard Harrah's The Canyon opens this Friday in limited release.