It was a warm day in January in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley when I visited the set of horror icon Tony Todd’s upcoming film, The Cold Descent. When I got word that he was making a genre Western set in the 1800s, I was ready to saddle up and herd some cattle – imagine my surprise when I arrived at a nondescript campus of soundstages in a cement-covered back forty.
The Cold Descent actually takes place all within the cars of a train – think: “Hell on Wheels” meets Snowpiercer with a dash of Agatha Christie and a touch of Angelheart, and you’ll have some idea of what it’s going to be like.
They were on the next to last day of shooting when I arrived, so Todd and his cohorts had lots of tales to tell about the making of the film, which is expected to be released later this year.
Tony Todd – actor
DC: Tell us a little bit about the movie, and how you came on board (so to speak).
Tony Todd: Well, it’s an independent film. The director Michael Steves is condensing the spirit of the West into a train, because train movies and Westerns are two of my favorite things. Also, it’s set in purgatory. These are people who don’t have a chance, and they come to realize what they have to do about it. It’s character-driven: who they are, why they’re here, what it is they want to do. There’s actually been four different versions of the script. When I came on board, it was about 105 pages of script and then it exploded, and Michael got really excited and expanded it to 119. All of our effects are practical, so at one point we had these slave demons who come on board, and also there were going to be dog demons, but that got in the way because we had only 18 days to shoot this. So the current script is 100 pages, all character-driven.
DC: Aside from yourself, there’s quite a cast. It’s impressive. I understand you and Michael Eklund have a lot of scenes together. And you worked together before?
TT: We’re surrounded by great actors. Michael is wonderful; he and I have a chemistry. Yeah, it was back in the “Smallville” days [when we worked together before]. He was just starting out actually, and I remember him whispering to me, “We’ll work again,” and here we are. And then Richard Riehle and I have been on three different films including Hatchet and a wonderful film called Driven. Lance Henriksen and I worked together twice; he was here yesterday. So they got the names that it’s going to take to get it out to the fans and the supernatural base. And we have a damn good chance of getting picked up by one of the majors because we’re giving them something that’s already shot.
Did you get a look at the set yet? The art department was very ingenious and there are four different cars on the train. So we shoot out each segment. We went from third class to the dining car to first class and the caboose. So we shoot out all the sequences in each particular thing, and they take a day to redecorate it, and then we’re back and running. And then we have the little practical effects; we have the walls shaking in the train, and then later we’ll add in the SFX’s and the CGI stuff. You know, long train shots. We might sneak in a horse or two.
DC: I am sure you have tons of offers all the time. So how much does the opportunity to shape and collaborate on your character, as I am told you do here, factor into your career decisions?
TT: A lot. Where I am these days, I like to meet with the writers, whether it’s a big film or a small film, and talk and discuss and trade ideas. So there is a lot of input that I gave with my character, and Michael’s gracious enough to incorporate it with the dialogue.
DC: Who is Jericho Whitfield?
TT: He’s an ex-slave whose daughter was massacred and scalped viciously [by his enemy, played by Eklund]. So the switch in his brain flipped, and the only way he can make her father feel the pain that he felt is to send him her scalp, but things happen in the course of the journey and then things get redirected. He is also a bit of a collector, his total body count is something like 48 scalps. He is sort of roaming around in the back woods of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and everywhere, scalping overseers and slave drivers. He is a bit of a collector, like this shirt piece I’m wearing — it belongs to the son of a slave driver who drives the fear, and me doing business with his daddy and hence the scalp. There is also a glimpse of his humanity; he was educated by my master and is well-read. I can discuss Plato and Socrates and Shakespeare, and at the same time I’m a father whose family has been viciously divided from him.
DC: How far along are you in the schedule? I heard some people are done tomorrow. How about you?
TT: We have two more days of shooting, and nobody is hanging their head low, everybody truly gets along. If you saw, we all gathered together for National Hug Day, in spite of who we are and who we’re playing. Today is a hectic day. We’ve been shooting nine pages a day. Michael and I are the leads so that means we’re here every day at 7 o’clock doing the thing. I just want everyone to know that this is legit, this is not some amateur made movie, people parading around swamps somewhere; this is a story-based, character-driven, supernatural Western.