Monday, February 1, 2016
SPAGHETTI WESTERN FACTORY! PLUS ‘THE PRAIRIE’, ‘HOLLYWOOD GOES WEST’ REVIEWED, AND MORE!
Ray Watts in PRICE OF DEATH
‘PRICE OF DEATH’ NEWEST EURO-WESTERN FROM SPAIN’S THRILL-FACTORY!
Production on PRICE OF DEATH wrapped just before the end of 2015. In it, a bounty hunter hires on to transport a killer to his execution, unaware that the killer has a fortune stashed along the way, and former accomplices will do whatever it takes to recover the loot.
Many of the same filmmakers are now hard at work both on post-production of PRICE OF DEATH, and pre-production for their next, THOU SHALT KILL. Their first Western, last year’s 6 BULLETS TO HELL, has been playing the festival circuit for some months, and will soon get a general release. As the market’s appetite for Westerns is growing, companies like Chip Baker Films and Privateer Entertainment are stepping up to meet that need with a studio/factory approach.
It all started, appropriately enough, in Spain, at The Almeria Western Film Festival in October of 2012. Danny Garcia and others from the Chip Baker company were running the event, and met Texas writer/director/actor Tanner Beard, whose Western film, LEGEND OF HELL’S GATE, was screening. Soon, Tanner and Russell Quinn Cummings, one of his HELL’S GATE stars were co-directing 6 BULLETS, produced by Privateer Entertainment, with a script by Chip, Tanner, Russell, Danny, and Jose Villanueva.
THE PRICE OF DEATH, produced by Chip Baker Films, was directed by Danny. He scripted, along with Jose, and Aaron Stielstra, an actor who came to the Almeria Festival to promote his American Western, THE SCARLET WORM. He also stars in 6 BULLETS, PRICE OF DEATH, and will be in THOU SHALT KILL, to be directed by Tanner Beard. Similarly, British-born America actor Crispian Belfrage, who starred in three U.S.-made Westerns – THE DONNER PARTY, DOC WEST, and TRIGGERMAN (all 2009) – is one of the stars of all three Spanish Westerns. You get the picture – this close-knit pack of filmmakers, with ever-shifting roles, is working on their third Western in a couple of years, with more in the pipeline. I spoke to Danny Garcia, director and co-writer of PRICE OF DEATH, and principal in all of the films, about making a string of back-to-back Westerns.
HENRY: What does the label ‘independent filmmaker’ mean to you?
DANNY GARCIA: Well, to me it means freedom, not needing to respond to anyone except yourself. It’s also a huge challenge to put a production together without major support and the hours of work you put into any film is sometimes utterly insane. It’s also an exercise of blind faith as with any other art form.
HENRY: What are the advantages and disadvantages, especially in making a western?
DANNY: In theory they’d all be disadvantages because any period piece you shoot has already the inconveniences of having to sort out the correct period wardrobe, weaponry, the proper locations, the horses, props, etc to make it look real so the public can immerse themselves in the story you’re trying to tell without breaking their fantasy, because there’s an antenna on top of a hill or something. But of course, I´m making Westerns because I love the genre, despite it all.
HENRY: Was there any particular inspiration for the story of THE PRICE OF DEATH?
DANNY: Not really; the idea was to write another fun, action packed western that we could shoot within a short time frame and in a few locations within a small region. But the movie has a few references to some of my favorite films like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY; 3:10 TO YUMA, PLANET OF THE APES and MIDNIGHT RUN.
HENRY: What was it like to direct your first feature, and to do it on locations where Leone and Corbucci worked?
DANNY: It was really a great experience and a lot of fun. Working with actors like Ken Luckey, Crispian Belfrage and Aaron Stielstra, whom I had already worked with on 6 BULLETS TO HELL was very easy, because we were already acquainted and also the chemistry between them gave us some brilliant moments. Shooting in those locations was a pleasure, but it also means a lot of responsibility, because they worked a dream for all those great directors in the past and you know you have to come up with something good. But while we were shooting there, I thought of Leone, envisioned him winking at us and thought to myself: cool, we’re on to something here.
HENRY: This is your first time directing a western, but your second time writing and producing. What did you learn on the first film that helped you with the second? What differences were there from one film to the next?
DANNY: I learned a lot working with Tanner Beard and Russell Cummings, who both directed 6 BULLETS. That wasn’t my first rodeo, but I loved the way they worked together because it was very relaxed yet at the same time they put a lot of energy and tension into every scene. Also it was good to see the way they were coaching the actors and the amount of improvisation they were allowing to happen on set.
As a director and producer you have to deal with everybody all the time, and there’s no such thing as a day’s rest during the shoot. On days off I had to prepare the scenes for the following day so it’s nonstop. I tried to apply everything I had learned in the past and studied how people like David Milch worked on the set of DEADWOOD for instance. All you gotta do is watch a bunch of ‘making of’s and learn from the best to figure out how to do it.
HENRY: What advantages are there for making films, particularly Westerns, in Spain?
DANNY: Working in Spain still has the same advantages it had back in the 1960’s when the great Italian directors made those landscapes world-famous. Basically it’s all to do with the terrain, the light and the amount of hours of daylight you can shoot in one day; plus the economic aspect which of course is also very important. Shooting in Spain is still a lot cheaper than shooting in the US or Canada and that’s why there’s a growing number of foreign films and TV series being shot in Spain every year.
HENRY: In the last two films, and others you have upcoming, you use many actors and crew members repeatedly. You are creating a stock company, as did Leone, John Ford, and many others. What are the advantages of having a Danny Garcia stock company?
DANNY: It’s funny because when you shoot a western the cast and crew become a family almost instantly, perhaps a dysfunctional one but still, a family. And that’s what actors like (late Spaghetti Western stars) Frank Braña or Nicoletta Machiavelli told me in the past; that there’s something about shooting westerns that makes it different from any other genre. It might be the fact that you’re working with animals and gunpowder that turns it into a sort of circus. Anyway, the idea is to work as much as possible with those who you feel comfortable working with and that you know will deliver and bring in new people each time so the family keeps on growing. And I’d call it a Chip Baker Films stock company in any case.
HENRY: In the script you have a climactic shootout in the snow, but I understand that sequence had to change.
DANNY: I’m sure it would have been hard to shoot but the reality is that when we got to the top of the mountain there was no snow whatsoever, although it was late November, so of course we had to shoot it without it. That’s one of the things when you’re producing independent films, the need to adapt to every situation. One of my favorite things is to have part of the crew dress up in period wardrobe as well and have them walk past the camera whenever they’re free. I even do it myself, mainly because it’s a lot of fun.
HENRY: What else should I know about you, your life, your vision as a filmmaker?
DANNY: My uncle’s cousin was Otto Preminger, so growing up I’d always heard stories about him, and we watched his movies. Actually, I watched classic Hollywood films with my parents every night when I was a kid so I guess that’s where all my filmmaking fantasies come from. It’s all thanks to them. My plan is to keep on directing, writing and producing quality films in the next few years. I have a couple of scripts that hopefully will be produced this year. The idea is to continue working and growing as a filmmaker.
HENRY: 6 BULLETS TO HELL was a spaghetti western, an homage to the films that came before, and even had a post-dubbed dialogue track. Do you consider THE PRICE OF DEATH a spaghetti western in that sense, or would describe it in some other way?
DANNY: 6 BULLETS TO HELL is a full-on spaghetti western, and a tribute as you say to those who rode in that desert 50 years ago. THE PRICE OF DEATH is an action/western film. It’s obviously influenced by our love for spaghetti westerns, and not only Leone and Corbucci; I personally love the work of Tonino Valerii, Ferdinando Baldi, Antonio Margheriti and Demofilo Fidani as well. And same goes for Aaron Stielstra and Jose L. Villanueva, who co-wrote the script with me and are also fanatics of the old Italian westerns.
In the next Round-up, I’ll have my interview with one of the stars of all of these films, Crispian Belfrage.
THE PRAIRIE – A Movie Review
So much of what we think of as a Western story comes from Owen Wister’s ground-breaking novel THE VIRGINIAN that it’s exciting to see a story that predates that overwhelming influence. James Fennimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first great Western novelist, best remembered for LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and his final Leatherstocking Tale, THE PRAIRIE (1827), is the basis for this movie.
In 1803, the Bush family has lost their Kentucky farm to taxes, and on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase, head west in a couple of wagons, looking for new land, and a new start. They’re lead by the well-meaning but tyrannical patriarch Ishmael Bush (Charles Evans). The rest of the party includes his brawny, shirtless six sons, his pale and vague wife Esther (Edna Holland), and her shiftless brother Abiram (Russ Vincent).
Their lives are a daily struggle for food, and an endless, monotonous trek through unchanging prairie until Abiram and one of the sons, Asa (Jim Mitchum, in his first film role) witness another group of pioneers all but wiped out by a buffalo stampede. The lone survivor, a young woman named Ellen (Lenore Aubert), is almost taken by the Sioux until the two men drive them off. They bring her back to camp, Ishmael begrudgingly agrees to take her along, and with one desirable young woman among seven single and lonely men, tensions quickly rise.
The inexperienced pioneers are helped by Paul Hover (Alan Baxter), a map surveyor for the government they despise, but the only aid they can find. It doesn’t help that Ellen is more taken with Paul than with any of the other men in the party. When Sioux steal their horses, intending to pick the party off one at a time, the pioneers must unite to make a stand.
Directed by German expressionist Frank Wisbar, who’d fled the Nazis in 1939, this tiny budget, 61 minute film is remarkable, and looks like no other Western I’ve ever seen. Except for occasional stock footage, the film is shot entirely on one large prairie set of waist-to-shoulder-height grass, against a vast cyclorama of sky. Artificial though it is, it captures the sense of endless, unchanging prairie to a degree that an actual location never could.
It’s atmospheric, dreamlike, unmistakably Germanic in its starkness. The almost final sequence, where a character who’s gotten away with murder is overpowered by his own sense of guilt, is nightmarish and haunting. Storywise, it’s unusual in that the Indians are not all the same – Pawnee are friends and Sioux are enemies. And they’re played by actual Indian actors: Chief Yalwalachee; Jay Silverheels, TV’s Tonto; and the screen’s first Tonto, Chief Thundercloud. And Ellen, rather than just being a prize for the men to compete over, has more gumption than any of them.
While the film features no big stars, it’s full of familiar faces. Alan Baxter was a busy actor since the early thirties, usually playing villains rather than this sort of sympathetic character. Lovely Austro-Hungarian Lenore Aubert played slinky ladies in comedies with Bob Hope (THEY GOT ME COVERED – 1943), and wielded a sword as THE WIFE OF MONTE CRISTO (1946), but is probably best remembered as the gorgeous doctor who claimed to be madly in love with Lou in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). THE PRAIRIE, from Alpha Video/Oldies.com is available HERE.
HOLLYWOOD GOES WEST – A Coloring Book Review
No, I’m not kidding: I’m reviewing a coloring book. The increasing popularity of coloring books among adults is a curious phenomenon, but it’s understandable. I think we all have an artistic impulse to satisfy, and getting lost in any artistic endeavor is good medicine for a stressed brain – and who doesn’t have one of those? Some of you may remember from the 1960s the fad of the paint and pencil-by-numbers kits. With coloring books, you get to choose your own colors, and you can even color outside the lines if it makes you happy!
Mark O’Neill is a gifted caricaturist and clearly a western nut like the rest of us, and his book is precisely the one we would have made for ourselves. He celebrates the great Westerns of the big and small screen, focusing on the big stars of films, the casts of the great TV series, and the unforgettable character actors. While coloring books have for decades featured Roy and Dale, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, did you ever dream that you’d be able to choose the hues for Royal Dano, John Dehner, Morgan Woodward and Jack Elam? Or Bruce Dern? There’s the cast of THE RIFLEMAN, family portraits of the Cartwrights and the Barkleys, a romantic pairing of Leif Ericson and Linda Cristal from HIGH CHAPARRAL, and both Matt Dillons – TV’s James Arness and radio’s William Conrad, and much more, each picture with an explanatory caption.
Both Matt Dillons!
You can color in The Duke, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. You can decide how RAWHIDE and MAVERICK would have looked in color. And you can do it all for ten well-spent dollars! Order it HERE.
MONDAY IS ‘HIGH CHAPARRAL’ REUNION REGISTRATION!
If you want to attend the Reunion on March 17th through the 20th, the registration deadline is Monday, February 1st! It’ll be at Old Tucson Studios, where the classic series was filmed. Coming back to their old galloping-grounds will be series stars Don Collier, Rudy Ramos and BarBara Luna. They’ll be joined by a posse of stars from other Western series, including Robert Fuller from LARAMIE and WAGON TRAIN, Darby Hinton from DANIEL BOONE and the recent TEXAS RISING, Roberta Shore from THE VIRGINIAN, frequent John Wayne co-star Eddie Falkner, and Stan Ivar from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Also on-board are HIGH CHAPARRAL producers Kent and Susan McCray, and writers and historians Boyd Magers, Charlie LeSueur, Neil Summers, and Joel McCrea’s son Wyatt McCrea.
The packages vary from a bare-bones $30-per-day deal to $475 with all the trimmings. To take your pick and make your reservations, check out the official site HERE.
And here’s something special for all HIGH CHAPARRAL fans, and it’s free! Last year the Reunion inaugurated a live Webcast of the event. It was not cheap, but it was very entertaining and informative. HIGH CHAPARRAL REUNION Top Hand Penny McQueen has decided that this year’s Webcast will be FREE!
THAT’S A WRAP!
With Friday’s release of JANE GOT A GUN, joining THE REVENANT and THE HATEFUL 8, there are now three major Westerns playing in theatres at the same time. How many decades has it been since that happened? I’m guessing the last time was in the 1970s, but it may be even farther back.
Have a great week, and catch a Western or two. Or three!
All Original Content Copyright January 2016 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved