"I don't believe in making films as some sort of therapy. My father is an unbelievable professional actor. I consider myself to be the same."
Kiefer Sutherland, 49, is speaking about Forsaken, a wide-screen western in which he shares heavy scenes with Donald Sutherland, 80, his father in the film and of course in real life, too. Sutherland the younger plays a Civil War veteran regretful and traumatized by his own gun-slinging misadventures. Sutherland the elder is a frontier-town preacher who views his returning son as less than prodigal; his disappointment toward him flows forth like the veteran thesp's excellent white beard and mane.
Forsaken resembles such classic oaters as Shane, Unforgiven and Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, but because the film comes freighted with the extra dynamic of bloodlines at work, the conversation with Sutherland at a downtown hotel drifts from the high plains to On Golden Pond, the 1981 father-daughter drama that starred Henry Fonda as a father who never forgave his daughter (played by Jane Fonda) for not being a boy.
The Fondas were acting icons whose bond was complicated, and so we watched that pair with heightened awareness, wondering where to split our empathy between the characters onscreen and the actors playing them. And while Sutherland had On Golden Pond in mind while he searched for a project in which to collaborate with his father, he shies somewhat from the direct comparison.
"My father and I are certainly not in that situation," says the one-time Jack Bauer (from the long-running action-thriller 24), referring to the Fondas' intricate relationship.
But Kiefer, c'mon. Your parents divorced when you were 5. You were raised by actress mother Shirley Douglas in Toronto while your father was a rebel with a Klute, carrying on in Hollywood. And you grew up to be a successful bon vivant – Christmas trees and curfews stood no chance against your public shenanigans. Any father-son relationship is nuanced, and yours wasn't likely to be the exception, no?
"Well, to say that there hasn't been conflict between the two of us over the course of our relationship and in our lives would simply be false," the Young Guns actor allows. "It did give us something to draw upon, absolutely."
Forsaken is directed by Emmy Award-winning Canadian Jon Cassar. As he helmed 24 for seven seasons, he's highly aware of Kiefer Sutherland's skill at being grim. But as for the on-set dynamic between father and son, he was less concerned with genetics than he was with chemistry – "If you get it, it's lightning in a bottle" – and simple professionalism.
"They were both incredibly prepared," Cassar says, "and they both had great ideas on what they wanted their characters to be."
Beautifully filmed in an Alberta that stood in for the wide-open Wyoming of the late 1800s, Forsaken is western of the old-fashioned kind. The younger Sutherland is John Henry Clayton, who returns to town after an eight year absence disheartened to find a sweetheart (a no-nonsense Demi Moore) long married off, a mother no longer alive and a father who harbours bitterness toward his son.
The film is character-driven, with a straightforward plot about a bullying land baron (played by the cussing maestro Brian Cox) whose gang of ruffians terrorize a windswept town. Sutherland's brooding protagonist wants to put his days of gun-toting frontier justice behind him, but we know that isn't going to happen.
"I feel you and I are headed for an inevitable conclusion," Michael Wincott's suave, cool-headed enforcer says to Sutherland's reluctant town saviour. That sure thing is a gunfight, predictable as a John Wayne punch to the nose.
"In Hollywood, everyone's getting bigger and fancier," says Cassar, "but that's not what I wanted." The result is a film that looks clean, elegant and panoramic. "No visual noise," as Cassar puts it.
The film was the idea of Sutherland, who pitched it to his screenwriting pal Brad Mirman, who penned the script. The elder Sutherland read the script and embraced idea of playing the father. The two Sutherlands had appeared together in two films previously – Max Dugan Returns (1983) and A Time to Kill (1996) – but never before had they shared a scene.
Some fathers teach their sons to fish. Some teach their boys to make a model airplane. The Sutherlands made a film together, and it wasn't just the things that happened between "action" and "cut" that made the experience rich for the younger Sutherland. The shooting lasted nine weeks – the longest period of time the father and son had ever spent together.
"We got to do this together, for 14 hours a day and six days a week," says Sutherland. "It's the thing that I love doing and it's the thing I know he loves doing, which is to make a film. It came later in life, but it's a memory I'll have forever."
Forsaken opens in Calgary on March 18 and comes out on video on demand and Blu-ray on March 29.