Sunday, May 3, 2015
‘WESTERN RELIGION’ PREMIERES AT CANNES – BUT THE ROUND-UP GOT IT FIRST! OUR REVIEW AND INTERVIEW WITH DIR. JAMES O’BRIEN!
WESTERN RELIGION – A Film Review
In 1879, a man (James Anthony Cotton) with a vision of turning his frontier tent city into a metropolis decides to sponsor a high-stakes poker tournament, with an unlikely prize: a cross of gold (and no, William Jennings Bryant does not present it). Disreputable but well-heeled types from all over the world are drawn to the mythical (mystical?) town of Religion, Arizona to try their luck. This is the premise of writer-director James O’Brien’s sometimes existential, sometimes humorous, sometimes grim and gritty film, WESTERN RELIGION.
This is not your standard Western in any sense. Once the characters are drawn to the town, it takes place all in that one locale, with a large ensemble cast, and no one character to be called the ‘lead’. The ‘players’ include Chinaman Dan (Peter Shinkoda), an on-the-lam bank robber; Waylin Smith (Miles Szanto), a white raised by Indians, who has a mystical connection with his adoptive father (Sam Bearpaw); Zain Mohammed (Merik Tadros), an Arab Prince touring America, who cannot resist the challenge; Anton Stice (Claude Duhamel), a mysterious gunfighter; Saint John (Gary Kohn), a train-robber-turned-preacher; Raven McCabe (William Moore), a magician and professional card manipulator; Bootstrap Bess (Holiday Hadley), a saloon-girl hoping to win enough money to build her own ‘hotel’; Bobby Shea (Sean Joyce), a handsome town carpenter, hoping to win enough to rescue his girl from the life she’s leading; and Salt Peter (Louis Sabatasso) the Viennese, delightfully decadent dilettante, adept with cards, needles and knives. There is also an impressive contingent of what Strother Martin called ‘prairie scum,’ and townspeople like bartender Southern Bill (Peter Sherayko). Oh, did I mention that one of the card-players might just be the devil?
The card-play takes place over several days, as various players are eliminated by the luck of the draw – sometimes cards, sometimes guns. Relationships are built and broken, back-stories are told, lots of folks are shot, until just a handful of players are left, some playing for gold, some playing for their very souls. The success of such a film must, to a great degree, succeed or fail by the quality of the performances, and while no face in the lead cast is familiar, they are uniformly talented and convincing. In fact, a plus of having a cast of non-stars is that you have no idea who will die, and who will survive to the end.
Sean Joyce & Holiday Hadley
As a screenwriter, O’Brien deftly intertwines the lives and personalities of his blurring array of characters, avoiding clichés, taking them in unexpected but convincing directions. Some may appear as caricatures at first, but as you learn about them they take on weight, and you care about them. As a director, O’Brien not only stages the frequent and violent action well, he takes what often is tedious in films, watching a series of poker games, and keeps it interesting. He wisely chose five card stud, a game that has four cards face up and one down, so players aren’t endlessly staring at a hand we can’t see. And he never bores you with the play of an entire hand – it’s the key moments, whether that means who wins, who folds, or who gets a knife in their intestines.
Peter Shinkoda as Chinaman Dan
I tend to be less than a fan of Westerns with supernatural or sci-fi elements – they usually seem tossed in arbitrarily. But in a way, WESTERN RELIGION is, like poker, about belief, whether in luck or in something higher, and it never gets heavy-handed, or bogged down with distracting special effects that are the antithesis of the western. I enjoyed spending a day on the set of WESTERN RELIGION, and enjoyed the finished film much more.
Gary Kohn as Saint John
Shot quickly on a lean budget, the visuals by cinematographer Morgan Schmidt never cut corners. Without being self-conscious, composition is well thought-out, and the number of set-ups in even minor sequences belies the limitations of shooting fast. Filming at Caravan West Ranch in Santa Clarita, in a tent-city built for the production, the photography, taking full advantage of the wild, mountain and desert terrain, is often striking, and frequently beautiful.
Peter Sherayko as Southern Bill
The effective music score is by Ram Khatabakhsh; the songs heard in saloon scenes are sung by Kevin McNiven, an accomplished cowboy singer who just happens to also be the head wrangler on the film. The unusually varied and correct costuming is by Nikki Pelley.
Louis Sabatasso as Salt Peter
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I have a small ‘bit’ in the film. If, in the first five and a half minutes, during a poker game, you notice a hand on the right side of frame, with a red and white checkered sleeve, picking up cards and putting down coins – that’s me!
INTERVIEW WITH JAMES O'BRIEN, WRITER/DIRECTOR OF 'WESTERN RELIGION'
Dir. James O'Brien atop stagecoach
WESTERN RELIGION will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and May 16th. As far as I’ve been able to learn, it is the only Western scheduled to play this year at Cannes.
A week ago, I met up with WESTERN RELIGION writer/director James O’Brien, to get an advance copy of the film to review. We met at a coffee shop called DuParr’s, in Studio City. It seemed a fortuitous choice – Studio City, in the San Fernando Valley, was named after Republic Studios, birthplace of so many westerns, and the entrance to the old Republic lot, now CBS, is directly across the street from the coffee shop. It had been about a year and a half since I’d visited the set (you can read that article HERE ), and a lot has happened since then.
HENRY: When we first talked, on-set in November of 2013, you were a week into shooting. You were already thinking of a possible sequel. How about now?
Merik Tadros and Claude Duhamel
JAMES: It’s interesting; I've recently been in touch with a buyer for Showtime and HBO that wanted to discuss the possibility of turning it into a cable series, like DEADWOOD, but with a supernatural element. Working on something can change your thoughts on it. Many of the characters in the film suggest alternate stories, or following them further. It's certainly something I would entertain, though my thoughts on my next screenplay are elsewhere.
HENRY: How long a shoot was it?
JAMES: It was a nineteen-day shoot, and we used every minute of it; though we did have a day afterwards for insert photography for the poker stuff, and one additional day for a pick-up shoot in Topanga Canyon, for the hanged man opening with Saint John, played by Gary Douglas Kohn.
Claude Duhamel as Anton Stice
HENRY: You described WESTERN RELIGION as ‘an Altman western’, because there were so many characters. Is there a lead character, or is the poker tournament itself the main character?
JAMES: The poker tournament is a MacGuffin in a sense. (Note: a MacGuffin was Hitchcock’s term for the object that motivates the plot – the stolen plans, the letters of transit, or the Lost Ark.) In that it’s what draws everyone together. I don’t think that I’d term it as a character per se. I think the town of Religion is more of a character in the film. But there is one villain, so to speak, that is the umbrella under which all these other characters gather to do battle. That would be Anton Stice, Claude Duhamel, a fantastic Canadian actor that we were very fortunate to get less than a week before the production. He was the last to come aboard, and I had the phone in my hand to call another actor, and something told me to wait just another day. A few hours later one of the other actors, Peter Shinkoda, who plays Chinaman Dan, told me to look out for an audition from a friend of his. That night I got an audition on-line from Claude, and the rest is western movie history.
HENRY: What surprised you in the process of making your first western?
JAMES: Well, I knew going in that the production would be on a much grander scale than my previous work. So I was psychologically prepared for that. But of course, the day to day reality of doing it, staging all of those action sequences, I knew it would be a challenge, and it did wind up being the biggest challenge, in terms of all the coverage you have to get to make that happen. You know, I’ve been doing these run-and-gun independent films where you could just grab the camera, and jump out of the van, and do it on the fly, and often that would lend itself to the flavor of the finished product. But this one, because of all the action, I had to do it more Hollywood-style, plan the sequences to the degree I could, then cover extensively.
HENRY: Did you story-board the film?
JAMES: Myself and the DP, Morgan Schmidt, made shot-lists for the action sequences; we wrote out the shots we planned on doing. Sometimes we stuck to it, sometimes we improvised. My first assistant director, a very good friend of mine, Ken August, wouldn't let me on set for the actions scenes if I didn’t deliver the shot lists with Morgan. My fellow producer Louie Sabatasso agreed that it would be needed to make our days. I feel very comfortable improvising on-set, but they asked for it, we delivered it, and that’s partly why we got the shoot done in nineteen days.
HENRY: Morgan Schmidt’s photography is just beautiful. Has he done any period pictures before?
DP Schmidt, 1st AD August, Dir. O'Brien
JAMES: I knew that he had done at least one other Western film. He's shot a number of features across many genres, but was also known for doing high end commercial photography. I met him at a party, and within a few minutes of talking to him, I said I’m doing this Western about gunfighters with different philosophies, and you’re going to shoot it. He said, ‘Deal,’ and it came together in ensuing months.
HENRY: Speaking of shooting, I remember you were shooting some 8mm TRI-X on the set. Did any of that find its way into the movie?
JAMES: Indeed it did. We experimented with using it throughout the movie, but it became a little too much like NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which I love as a film, but for our movie it took you out of the flow. But I did wind up using it in the rather extensive end credit sequence, where we take you through the characters with the Super-8 footage, so it did what I wanted it to do; we show you the movie, and the last shot of the movie is black & white, Super-8, and then it goes into the end credits, giving you the sense that all of this actually happened.
HENRY: What were the best and worst parts of making WESTERN RELIGION?
JAMES: Well, the best part was gathering this incredible group of talented people out there in Agua Dulce at our caravan of trailers, where everyone got to take part in a feeling of time travel, by leaving Los Angeles and journeying back in time to our sets. You mentioned that you couldn’t see any examples of the modern world when you were out there. We never could have done that at the Paramount Ranch; we had very tight restrictions of hours, and the amount of people who could be there. Being able to get that location, and gather the group that we did was the most thrilling aspect of it. It was kind of our indie Camelot. And I would say the most difficult part would be the pressure of having to raise money as we were shooting it – it’s not something I’d recommend. But we committed our lives to doing this movie, particularly Louie and I, and we went into it without the full budget, raising it as we went along. So the day-to-day pressures of, do we have enough money to make it into the next week, was probably the toughest part.
HENRY: All movie productions have challenges, but WESTERN RELIGION had a whopper, losing the Paramount Ranch location in the National Park shutdown. How much time did you have to swing things over to Peter Sherayko’s Caravan West Ranch?
JAMES: About two weeks. Right at the start of the month, Tony Hoffman, the Ranger who runs Paramount Ranch, called me and said there was a slight possibility that the government could close down all of the National Parks. He thought it was unlikely to actually happen. I hoped we we'd be fine, until his call, two weeks from our start date. The Government had officially closed all National Parks. The Paramount Ranch, our set, was one of them. That day we had a group meeting at our office. Pete Sherayko was there, along with Louie, the department heads and Gary Kohn. Pete started taking out all these old photographs of tent cities. And he just lit up like a kid in a candy store. He said, this has never been done, a western tent city done in a historically correct style. Hollywood actually invented the aesthetic of the western town. In reality, most of the mining towns of that era were tent cities. Our focus shifted from a traditional western set to, hey, we’re going to recreate things the way they really were. Once we made that decision, the wheels got set in motion, but we didn’t have a lot of time to do it. A big factor was clearing the land so we could actually build it. Which we got right on top of. But it really wasn’t until several days in that we had the beginnings of a set.
HENRY: I remember well when, between takes, the hammers would start swinging, and during takes the hammers had to stop. Because you were building the sets, whole structures, for the next scenes. I found it invigorating, because it seemed like a real town growing out of the wilderness.
JAMES: It really lent itself to the atmosphere. The old saying of art imitating life. It felt like we were living in a real pop-up town, much like the towns from that era.
HENRY: Next week WESTERN RELIGION is having its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. How did that come about?
JAMES: Twenty years ago I went to the Cannes Festival with my first feature film, VENICE BOUND – that was one of the great experiences of my life, and I always had my eye on going back there with the right project. I know that they sometimes do a spotlight on American independents, so I sent everything on our film to the people who run the Marche du Film there, Danielle and Tomas. And they said, well, we have a few night screenings at the Palais, that we make available to independents, and we wound up being one of the fortunate ones who got one of those slots. May 16th, 8:30 pm, Saturday night at the Palais.
HENRY: Are you planning your next film?
JAMES: One of my screenplays, THE BACKWARD PATH, a noir film about a detective investigating a case in Hell, is on the rails with Louie Sabatasso's new production company, Drawing Pictures. As far my next movie as a director, I'm angling to do a fantasy film: WARRIOR, MAGE, THIEF. It's being developed as a traditional picture as well as for the emerging Virtual Reality technology. I’m writing the script now.
HENRY: The poker tournament that WESTERN RELIGION grows out of, was this something that was common in the old west, or was this your creation?
JAMES: I believe poker was a way of life in the old west. I don’t know if they threw poker tournaments as elaborate as the one in our movie. But for sure, poker drove the saloon culture. It was a dangerous environment full of grifters and outlaws. I’m sure there were more battles over poker than anything else, except perhaps women.
HENRY: And usually women were pretty near the poker tables, although rarely allowed to play.
JAMES: Well we have one, Bootstrap Bess, played by Holiday Hadley, in our movie, who’s a card-playin’, whiskey drinkin’ gunfighter, so she got to the table. It’s interesting the way a film – you go into it with certain intentions, but then it takes on a life of its own. And it has a way of changing lives in ways that you never even imagined. I just found out that two of the actors, Sam Bearpaw and Alan Tefoya, who are of the Apache tribe, are going to be attending the Cannes Film Festival; it’s the first time that anyone from their tribe has left the country. And they’re leaving to attend our premiere in the south of France. I never could have imagined that I could have influenced something like that. It’s an honor for the film, and an honor for myself.
HENRY: What was the genesis of WESTERN RELIGION?
JAMES: It’s interesting to see things come full-circle. The movie began as a…I don’t know if you’d call it a pipe-dream, because it actually happened. But there was a group of us doing a demolition job on a house – (laughs) – it almost seemed like a chain-gang. I was on that job with Louis Sabatasso, my producing partner on WESTERN RELIGION.
HENRY: And an actor with quite a prominent part, as Salt Peter.
Waiting for ACTION!
JAMES: The ever colorful Salt Peter. And also Sean Joyce, who plays Bobby Shea, the traveling carpenter. He literally was a travelling carpenter on that job – he travelled cross-country, to put his hat back on in Hollywood. He was working with us and Gary Kohn, who was also one of the co-producers on the film. It’s interesting to harken back to us swinging sledgehammers on a demo job, saying hey, we’re gonna make this western. It was almost like Butch and Sundance talking about going to Australia. We needed to believe it. One day Louie, Sean and I met over tacos at lunch on the job and made the decision: we’re all in on this. We set as start date of Oct. 21st. It was 8 months away. We didn't have a dime in our accounts but we decided to burn the ships behind us, and commit to this as if there’s nothing else after it. We laid out a campaign that started with crowd funding, then shifted to private investors. In its own way everything went according to plan, though it always came through at the very last second, like Maxwell Smart walking underneath the closing doors. It was all about Faith really. The bridge shows up under your feet with each step. It’s fun to look back on that time now, and know that we’ll be in the south of France next week for the premiere, and the indie dream really did take shape.
HENRY: Do you have distribution set?
JAMES: The plan is for a theatrical release in the U.S. We have just signed with sales agents Michael Lurie and Jeffrey Giles of Automatic Entertainment, and they'll be representing the film at Cannes and beyond. It’s possible we’ll have a deal before Cannes, but the film will be at its highest profile when we screen it there, so that’s likely where we’ll make it all happen. After the incredible journey of making Western Religion, we're excited to finally share our vision of the Wild West with the world.
‘CALL OF THE WILD’, ‘GOOD-BYE MY LADY’ MAY 9TH AT UCLA/BILLY WILDER
As part of their William Wellman – Hollywood Rebel series, UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theatre will screen CALL OF THE WILD (1935), Wellman’s brutally poetic adaptation of Jack London’s stunning novel. The film stars the radiant Loretta Young, and the man you wish you were, Clark Gable. The script is by Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins, and the black and white photography by Charles Rosher will make you shiver along with all the snow-bound prospectors. It’s teamed with GOODBYE, MY LADY (1956), Wellman’s only film aimed at children, and stars Walter Brennan, Brandon DeWilde, Phil Harris and Sidney Poitier. Both films are shown in 35 mm. The program starts at 3 pm, and the director’s son, William Wellman Jr., will be there starting at 2, signing his book, WILD BILL WELLMAN: HOLLYWOOD REBEL. More details here: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2015/05/09/call-of-the-wild-goodbye-my-lady
GREGORY PECK IN ‘YELLOW SKY’ MAY 9TH AT THE AUTRY
As part of their monthly ‘What is a Western?’ series, the Autry will screen YELLOW SKY, at 1:30 pm in the Wells Fargo Theatre. Director William Wellman and screenwriter Lamar Trotti, who teamed in last month’s offering, THE OX BOW INCIDENT, this time tackled a W. R. Burnett (LITTLE CEASAR, HIGH SIERRA) story, about a pack of outlaws hiding out in a ghost town populated only by an old prospector and his daughter, Anne Baxter. Also in this drama, suggested by Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, are Richard Widmark, John Russell and Harry Morgan. The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture and Firearms. Admission is included with museum admission, free to members. Learn more HERE
CONEJO VALLEY DAYS – THOUSAND OAKS, MAY 7-10
You can celebrate the area’s Western roots and history, with plenty of live music, carnival rides, games, a western saloon, out-house races, food, hands-on exhibits, Kids Korral, and dog adoptions. Participants include the Chumash Indian Museum, Joel McCrea Ranch, and The Stagecoach Inn Museum. Go here for details: http://www.conejovalleydays.us/entertainment/
FIESTA CHARITY HORSE SPECTACULAR MAY 9 AT BURBANK EQUESTRIAN CTR.
The focus is on Spanish horses and other breeds, and music and dance and food, and raising funds for Kure It Cancer Research. Learn more here -- http://www.fiestacharityshow.com/ -- and check out the video!
NORCO RANCH TOUR – MAY 9TH
Tour six local ranches, enjoy pony rides and wagon rides, Cavalry displays and demonstrations, raffles, hot dogs, and more! Learn more here -- http://www.friendsofnorcohills.com/
‘WORD ON WESTERNS’ RETURNS TO THE AUTRY MAY 20TH!
As noted here a couple of weeks ago, Rob Word’s fun and fact-filled A WORD ON WESTERNS programs will be returning to the Autry starting on Wednesday, May 20th, with A Salute to Duke. They’re going to be every other month, so the next one will be in July. No word from Word on guests yet, but I’m posting the clip below as a teaser. Rob went on location for this one, to Monument Valley!
THAT’S A WRAP!
Next week I’ll have my review of the long-forgotten but worth-watching SHANE TV series, starring David Carradine, and now available from Timeless Media. And hopefully I’ll have the final part of my TCM Fest coverage. The picture is of me, from the set of WESTERN RELIGION – keep your eyes peeled for those red and white cuffs!
All Original Contents Copyright May 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved