A VISIT TO ‘SIEGE AT RHYKER’S STATION’ - FIRST WESTERN MOVIE SET WITH COVID PRECAUTIONS
At first I thought maybe Western films could go on even as the rest of the film industry screeched to a Covid-19 halt. After all, in a Western, it’s no shock when a gang of masked men burst into a bank with drawn guns. But when the bank tellers are also masked, you know something’s wrong. So, it’s been a waiting game, and the great news is that the waiting is over, and cameras are, cautiously, rolling again!
Last week I had a chance to drive out to Peter Sherayko’s Caravan West Ranch, and watch some filming on what I am pretty sure is the first Western to shoot in California since March. Here’s how the director of Siege at Rhyker’s Station, Michael Feifer, tells the story. “This movie is about a girl named Jocelyn Miller (Skylar Witte), who marries a kind of pretentious, impetuous, annoying young man named Jody Callahan (Michael Welch). And right after the wedding, Jocelyn hears her father-in-law (Bruce Dern), and brother-in-law (Cam Gigandet) talking about how they actually killed her father. She had no idea. So she takes off -- she just gets on a horse and leaves. And they go after her.” Reminds me a little of Mariette Hartley and James Drury’s wedding in Ride the High Country. The Callahans and their gang catch up with Jody at a stagecoach stop, Rhyker’s Station, where she’s befriended Billy Tyson (Brock Harris), Red Lindstrom (Peter Sherayko), and Joe Rhyker (David DeLouise), who aren’t about to hand her over without a fight.
On the set, everyone on the show was Covid-tested twice a week – videos of actors having cue-tips driven through their noses and seemingly into their brains are on Facebook – and masks are everywhere. But one of the real health advantages is that Westerns are, as John Ford called them, “outdoor pictures,” with plenty of circulating air: the Monday before I was there, there was so much wind that sets were blowing over.
I arrived at 3 in the afternoon, in time to watch several takes of a half-dozen bad-guys galloping their horses down a hill, firing away, then stopping, regrouping, and heading back. For the first time on a set, I watched a mortar repeatedly fired for explosive effects. Though convincing on camera, especially with sound effects, the mortar is powered by compressed air, and fires a mixture of Fullers Earth and chunks of cork. Best of all, I got to obliquely watch, but clearly hear, Bruce Dern shooting his final scene of the film. Dad is none too pleased at all the trouble his briefly-wed son has made for the family, and hearing Bruce Dern blow his top will long be a favorite memory of my film-set visits. It was met with thunderous applause by the crew. Oh, and Dern was cracking jokes constantly between takes.
Michael Feifer has directed an astonishing 67 feature movies since 2005. I’d first met him back in 2012, when I visited the set of his first Western, Wyatt Earp’s Revenge. He’s directed quite a few since then, especially in the past year or so. I asked him about the challenges of making a film during the COVID crisis.
MICHAEL FEIFER: Well, nothing stops me. I shot a movie in July in Georgia. I shot a movie in August in Wyoming, and now here we are in October, shooting another movie in Los Angeles. And what more perfect movies to shoot during COVID than Westerns? The one in July was not a Western, it was like a Lifetime thriller. I've been averaging about six movies a year. Hopefully this year I'll end up with five. So it's slowed me down. Right before this whole thing. I was shooting a movie in Hawaii in February, and then we get on the plane to go home and people start wearing masks and it's starting to happen. So at least I was in Hawaii right before it all happened.
HENRY PARKE: I understand Siege at Rhyker’s Station is one of a group of Westerns.
MICHAEL FEIFER: I don't know if I'd call them a series, but a company hired me to make three Westerns in a row. By the way, (post production for) Shooting Star is going to be done in a week or two.
HENRY PARKE: And that’s another Western, not part of the group of three. I’d love to see it.
MICHAEL FEIFER: It's pretty cool. Do you know it's in black and white? It's beautiful. So, I had three Westerns in a row to do. The last one was called Catch The Bullet. This is called The Siege at Rhyker’s Station. And then the third one is called Desperate Riders. They're not related to each other, but it's an opportunity, and we like making westerns. I like them when they're not in the cold and the wind, but otherwise.
HENRY PARKE: For this one, what particular challenges are you facing?
MICHAEL FEIFER: This one is challenging because there's a lot of characters stuck in this little stagecoach station. There's a lot of characters up on the hill shooting at them. A lot of disparate moments and actions. It's easy to shoot a scene where you have a finite beginning, and a finite end, and dialogue that sort of resolves itself. You understand what the characters are doing and what their points are. When you're shooting an action scene where one person shoots here, one person shoots there, another person's shooting from over there, it makes it a little harder to keep the continuity of the scene, the consistency of it. A lot of that material, I'm going to shoot over a period of time, but I only have Bruce Dern for a short time and Cam Gigandet for a time. So that makes it more challenging.
HENRY PARKE: Have you worked with Bruce Dern before?
MICHAEL FEIFER: I have not, and he's been a joy. I've heard more Hollywood stories in two days than I've heard in my entire life, except for maybe when I worked with Peter Bogdanovich,
HENRY PARKE: What did you direct Bogdonavich in?
MICHAEL FEIFER: A movie called Abandoned, starting Brittany Murphy, Dean Cain, Mimi Rogers, and Peter. Super-nice guy. One of the few actors that, when we finished, he says, Mike, you have everything you need? Are you good? Just a really giving guy, really nice.
HENRY PARKE: Tell me a about shooting Catch the Bullet in Wyoming.
MICHAEL FEIFER: Actually it's kind of interesting. I made a deal with a ranch in Wyoming called the TA Ranch. It’s 8,000 acres. Kirsten Giles, her family owns it. I didn't scout it ahead of time. I had somebody else scout it, so I'd seen pictures, seen video. When we got there, Peter Sherayko and I were sitting out by what they call the milk house, a building you'll see at the beginning of the movie, with Tom Skerritt, that looks out over their ranch, And Kirsten, who runs the ranch says, you know, this is the location of Johnson County War. Peter's like: what? She says, this is the exact location. The barn here is where they actually fired guns from. She showed us the bullet holes. She showed us the holes where they put the rifles through. I swear Peter almost cried because you know, the history means so much to him. Peter has one scene in that movie, and I made his scene start off in the barn. It was a neat moment, to see Peter so affected.
HENRY PARKE: Your previous Western, A Soldier’s Revenge, was released in June.
MICHAEL FEIFER: We just won The Wild Bunch Film Festival. We won best picture, best director, best produced feature, best ensemble cast, best actress, best lead actor.
HENRY PARKE: You've cleaned the slate.
MICHAEL FEIFER: We did quite well there. I was very appreciative of Rock Whitehead and his wife, what they put together, and we had a good time. Soldier's Revenge came out on DVD, so people can pick that up. And if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free.
Peter Sherayko and I sat down – at least six feet apart – and I asked him if this was his first time working with Bruce Dern. It was not.
PETER SHERAYKO: No, it's the fourth. We did Badland last year, and we did Hickcok couple of years before. And Traded. So it's my fourth time working with Bruce.
HENRY PARKE: So what's he like to work with?
PETER SHERAYKO: You know, he is really good, and he's a wealth of stories on the old west, and on different movies that he did.
HENRY PARKE: Who are you playing in this picture?
PETER SHERAYKO: Actually the third lead, a guy named Red Lindstrom who runs a freighting outfit.
HENRY PARKE: I've never been on a film set where you were acting, where you weren't also doing a few other things. What else are you doing on this picture?
PETER SHERAYKO: The costumes, the location and the guns; I'm the armorer. Kevin (McNiven) came down from Wyoming with the horses, he and Addie (Ardeshir Radpour) are the wranglers, and all the guys that they hired to ride are The Buckaroos (Peter’s group of horsemen). They can ride and shoot, so that's what they're doing. And Dan Dietrich brought the stagecoach in from Shingle Springs, California. He taught me how to drive the wagon, which I hadn't done in 20 years, and I totally was inept then. But now I feel very competent. We have a three-picture deal to do for the same company. The Desperate Riders is the third one, probably in December and probably in Arizona. We were going to do Rhyker’s (in Wyoming), but one day it was 90 degrees, two days later we had five inches of snow, and Mike said, I can't film here.
HENRY PARKE: Not good for continuity.
PETER SHERAYKO: (laughs) There's no continuity. It's bad enough here with the wind yesterday, fog in the morning, today's a totally different day than yesterday.
(At that moment, Molly the costumer appeared to ask Peter if he has a pair of 1880s period glasses, the kind with circular lenses, for one of the actors. He assured her he’d bring them the next day.)
PETER SHERAYKO: This is why I started the business. Because as an actor, I always brought whatever props I needed. I would look at my character, saying this I want, this I want. I want to have a match-safe with matches, or I want to have a cigar or I want to have glasses. Or a walking stick. So I would bring them. And I started bringing my own guns, talking to the director saying, can I use these guns? It drives me crazy when actors come in and then all of a sudden, they go, can I have this? Especially on small budget movies that we do, the prop people have no time to pull everything for every character. There's one actor I've worked with six times. We've been friends for 30 years. And when we're working on a movie, I'll call and I'll say, Marty, what do you want? And he'll say, I don't want anything. The day he's there, oh, can I have this? Can I have that? It's not in the script. So that's why I started the business, because I wanted to make things more efficient.
HENRY PARKE: How many pictures have you done with Michael Feifer?
PETER SHERAYKO: Eight; the next one will be the sixth one as an actor. I like Michael because he doesn't shoot fast, but he gets everything he wants done. We had a nine o'clock call today and we'll be out of here by six.
(We were interrupted a few times by phone calls. A man wanted to rent props. Another wanted to rent the ranch to shoot a rock video.)
HENRY PARKE: You’ve got your ranch working all the time.
PETER SHERAYKO: You know, on a normal year without COVID we do 40 to 60 shoots: commercials, music videos, TV, movies. Last year we did six movies, and they brought two stagecoaches in for one of them. We keep on working because everybody knows that I'm cost-effective. A producer called me this morning; he's having a hard time raising $500,000 to do a movie. He used to work for Showtime, and now he's been trying to independently produce. He said a couple of years ago, shows were a million and a half. Now the low budget shows are all down to four, five, $600,000. They're not bigger than that. Even all the shows for Hallmark are way down. This year, their budgets had to go up $2 million just for COVID testing. And they had to cut a lot of other stuff because Hallmark says, no, we're not giving you any more money. So they had to really pull back, all those networks: USA, Lifetime, all those movies are less than a million dollars. A couple of years ago they were one or two million dollars. He says, the biggest budget you can have is a million two. If you go over a million two, they won't be able to recoup the money, because there is so much product out there.
HENRY PARKE: That's very interesting. I'd never thought that protection from COVID would be pulling money directly out of a budget, that that would not be something added on.
PETER SHERAYKO: Well, they already have a budget, and a budget is a pie, cut up in pieces. Line producer says, okay, camera's going to get so much. We have so much for props. We have so much for costumes. We have so much for talent. We know that we have to have your A-list person, your major star, or you're not going to sell it. We were going to film this movie a couple of months ago, but the money people gave Michael a list of 10, 12 actors. You have to get these. Some of them turned it down because it wasn't enough money. Bruce was on the list, and we had to increase his pay to to get him, or they wouldn't get the money (for the movie).
All photos from Siege at Rhyker's Station are by www.barryjholmes.com.
‘THE COMEBACK TRAIL’ DECEMBER 18TH!
Back in 1982, a very talented, quirky filmmaker name Harry Hurwitz, who’s The Projectionist (1970) became a cult classic, made the wonderful but rarely seen black comedy, The Comeback Trail. It starred Chuck McCann as a failed movie producer who tries to get rich by hiring a broken-down former Western star, played by Buster Crabbe, to star in a movie, insure him for a fortune, and kill him. It’s been remade, and while I usually don’t get excited about remakes, the trailer looks hysterical. And it stars, as the producers, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, Zach Braff and, as the broken-down Western star, Tommy Lee Jones.
ALPHA VIDEO’S BOB STEELE, EDDIE DEAN, ‘END OF AN ERA’ RELEASES
Alpha Video always seems to come up with something unusual, and this pair of new releases is no exception. After 120 starring roles in B-Westerns since 1927, Thunder Town, a 1946 Producers Releasing Corporation film, would be Steele’s last. Two years later, P.R.C.’s The Tioga Kid would not only be star Eddie Dean’s final B-Western, it would be the last B-Western that P.R.C. would ever make.
Steele had begun his career as a kid, co-starring with his twin brother in a series of shorts, The Adventures of Bill and Bob, directed by their father, Robert N. Bradbury, who would later direct John Wayne’s Lone Star Bs. Bob starred in Western Bs for fly-by-night outfits, as well as Poverty Row ‘majors’, often one-offs, but also in series like The Trail Blazers for Monogram, Billy The Kid for P.R.C., and in the final years of The Three Mesquiteers at Republic.
Though not so well remembered as his contemporaries, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, Steele was extremely popular in his day, especially with young boys. Their sisters may have liked his good looks, warm smile, and wavy brown hair, but the boys loved Steele because, while standing no more than five and a half feet tall, he could convincingly whip the tar out of six foot six villains.
He was also a far better actor than most B-Western stars. In 1939’s brilliant Lewis Milestone production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he plays hateful Curley Jackson, working amongst some of the finest of America’s stage and film actors: Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney Jr., and Charles Bickford.
In his final B, Thunder Town, Bob Steele plays Jim Brandon, who receives a cold reception in his home town when he returns from prison on parole. Of course, Brandon says his bank-robbery conviction was a frame-up, and although his ranching partner committed suicide, supposedly over guilt in letting him take the rap alone, Brandon thinks it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And who might be behind it all but the Duncan brothers, led by the older brother, played by hissable villain Charles King. And Duncan just happens to be legal guardian to Brandon’s girlfriend (Betty Morgan), and is pressuring her to marry his kid brother.
It’s an interesting film, and a nice performance by Steele, who is shunned by many and, being on parole and having to keep out of trouble, has to eat a lot of dirt. This is one of the few times he wears a mustache, which not only makes him seem all of his 39 years, but makes him resemble J. Carrol Naish. Syd Saylor is adequate as the sidekick.
After Thunder Town, Steele’s next part would be arguably his greatest A role, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Acting opposite – and beating up – Humphrey Bogart, he plays Canino, the sadistic henchman who grins as he bullies Elisha Cook Jr. into drinking poison. Maybe Steele, about to turn forty, wanted to move to character roles in bigger pictures. Sadly, it didn’t happen. He would work steadily for years, but mostly lending support in Bs until they petered out. Surprisingly, in the 1960s he achieved his most enduring fame, and showed his comedy skills, on F-TROOP, playing Trooper Duffy, who endlessly bragged about his time at The Alamo. The Golden Boot Awards, which from 1983 to 2007, celebrated the contributions of actors and crew members to Western film, was the brainchild of Gene Autry’s sidekick, Pat Buttram. He created them specifically to acknowledge Bob Steele, whom he felt had not gotten the credit he deserved. Along with Thunder Town is a fascinating short also from 1946, Shanghai: The Falling Horse, featuring ace stuntman Fred Kennedy training his horse to take convincing falls without being injured. You can buy Thunder Town here: https://www.oldies.com/product-view/8361D.html
Eddie Dean, maybe the best singer of all the singing cowboys, stars in 1948’s The Tioga Kid as himself, a lawman; and as the outlaw he’s sent after, the infamous Tioga Kid. The movie opens with a montage of the Kid’s privations, and PRC must have lifted shoot-outs, chases, bank-robberies, and blown-up houses from a dozen movies, some of them silent, and including an outstanding nighttime train wreck, interspersed with Tioga Kid newspaper headlines. With the help of sidekick Roscoe Ates, Eddie tries to save the ranch of feisty and lovely Jennifer Holt, and bring his evil twin (might they really be brothers?) to justice. A remake of Dean’s 1946 film Driftin’ River, much of the cast and plot – and footage – was repeated. The one song that is added, “Ain’t No Gal Got a Brand on Me,” is definitely the best of the three featured.
It would be P.R.C.’s last B-Western not because of collapse, but because of a change of business model. The studio was absorbed into British filmmaker J. Arthur Rank’s Eagle-Lion Pictures, to produce low-budget second-features to be teamed with their British releases. While superior competitor Republic would continue making B’s into the 1950s, it was the end of the trail for most. While sidekick Roscoe Ates would move to Republic for a time, and have a very busy career in television, Dean would never do another movie, and precious little TV, aside from an unsuccessful try at a Western series, The Marshall of Gunsight Pass, costarring with Roscoe Ates, which you can find on Youtube, if your eyes can take it. It was Jennifer Holt’s last film as well. Tioga Kid is accompanied by a 1949 short, Hold ‘Em Cowboy, featuring cowboys preparing for a rodeo, and some very interesting early footage.
You can buy Tioga Kid here: https://www.oldies.com/product-view/8363D.html
BIOGRAPHY – KENNY ROGERS – A DVD REVIEW
The A&E biography of music superstar Kenny Rogers, who passed away this March at the age of 83, is built around his 2017 Farewell Concert in Nashville, and its cavalcade of stars paying tribute to Rogers. The 86-minutes film traces his career from his early days with The New Christy Minstrels, splitting off to form the more rock-oriented First Edition, his ups and downs professionally as he struggled to make it as a single, and his career-making shift from rock and pop to country. The interviews with former bandmates, producers, and songwriters are illuminating, and his friendships with Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton are illuminating, not only of Rogers’ character, but of his professional technique.
But the gaps in this telling of his story are jarring. An ex-wife is interviewed, their child mentioned, and Rogers’ widow is seen, though not spoken to. But Rogers had five wives and leaves five children. While too much time is spent on some songs, other important hits like “Coward of the County” are not even mentioned. Neither is Rogers’ hugely successful (for a time) foray into the restaurant business, the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain.
Much is made of his hit song “The Gambler”, and the fact that it was made into a TV movie. Not mentioned is that there were four sequels, a film based on “Coward of the County”, as well as the Westerns Wild Horses and El Diablo, a couple of crime dramas, and the theatrical film Six Pack.
In addition to being a wonderful singer and entertainer, Rogers also had a sense of humor, and put up with friend Johnny Carson’s frequent needling about his chicken restaurants. And while he had a well-crafted image that he was careful to maintain, he could still laugh at himself. In an article about performers and plastic surgery, he confided to TV Guide that he’d had so many face-lifts that his sideburns were now behind his ears, requiring him to shave there. In fact, in later years he had so much plastic surgery that if not for his voice, he would have been unrecognizable. As an informal celebration of Kenny Rogers’ music, the documentary is very entertaining. As a biography, it falls short.
One more thing…
A lot of famous people have passed away recently, including the great Sean Connery, and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. But often, important people who work behind the scenes pass away with little notice. Screenwriter William Blinn died in October, at the age of 83. He created several TV series, including Starsky and Hutch, wrote the groundbreaking mini-series Roots, and Brian’s Song. He wrote for a number of Western series, including being the story editor on the short-lived but excellent TV series Shane, which starred David Carradine and Jill Ireland, and is available from Shout Factory. He gave me a great interview about his Western writing career. Here is the link: https://henryswesternroundup.blogspot.com/2015/05/carradines-shane-series-plus-interview.html
And please check out the November issue of True West magazine, featuring my interview with Earl Holliman!
And that’s a wrap!
All Original Contents Copyright November 2020 by Parke – All Rights Reserved