Tuesday, November 5, 2013



Writer-director James O’Brien had already directed three contemporary features when he decided to make a Western.  He thought of the title, WESTERN RELIGION, and the story came to him from there.  It’s set in frontier Arizona, in 1879, and centers around a poker tournament.  It’s being filmed – they’re pretty close to being wrapped as I write this – at Peter Sherayko’s Caravan West Ranch in Agua Dulce.  It’s less than an hour’s drive from L.A., but you couldn’t feel any more removed from the city, or the present day, than when you turn all around, and see blue sky and mountains and brush, and nothing that suggests the 21st century.

A week ago, I was welcomed onto the set for the sixth day of shooting, and even invited to be an extra in the film (you can read about that particular part of the adventure HERE ).  I had the chance to observe the day’s filming, which involved several shootings in several saloons, and to chat with the director, art director, actors, prop-men and others.

I asked the writer-director how the project came about.

JAMES O’BRIEN:  Well, I’ve wanted to do a Western for a while now.  This is my fourth film, and I think I had to really work on my game before I felt like I was ready to dive into recreating a world like this.  I’ve been doing independent films, real running-guns productions without a lot of people in them; and the costuming and the gear for westerns is very elaborate.  So this is definitely a bigger production for me.  My films are usually in the fifty-thousand, hundred-thousand range, so this is two-hundred fifty thousand, which I think is not a lot of money for a western.  But it’s an indie western --

HENRY: It’s a substantial amount of money any way you look at it.

JAMES O’BRIEN:  (laughs) For me it is, that’s for sure.  So the idea dawned on me; the title came to me.  Soon as the title came, the rest of the story came.  It’s a mining town that’s running out of gold.  They’re trying to build a town really; it’s a tent city.  The founders of the town throw a poker tournament to raise money to build their town.  And a gold cross is the prize, and it draws gunslingers and card-sharps from all over the world.  A very colorful cast – sometimes we call it an Altman western, because there are so many characters in it.  And the different gunfighters and card players have their own philosophies.  So it’s a battle of philosophies as well.  The town is called Religion, Arizona, and that ties it into WESTERN RELIGION.   

Director James O'Brien filming me in Super-8

HENRY:  I know this is your first western.  What other genres have you worked in?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  My first picture was a crime caper film.  Then I did a road drama, and a science fiction movie.  WISH YOU WERE HERE was the road drama.  Two estranged brothers take a road trip across the country, from Venice to Coney Island; one’s a concert promoter, the other’s just out of rehab.  They’re sort of at each other’s throat at the start of the film.  Then they meet this girl on the run.  They end up becoming sort of a surrogate family. 

HENRY:  Have westerns been a big deal to you for a long time?  Do you have favorites?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  TOMBSTONE is one of my favorites.  SILVERADO, SEARCHERS – I love the genre, big fan of it.  Sergio Leone obviously.

HENRY:  So this is day six?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  Yes, day six; we’ll make our first week. 

Just then a wardrobe person appears with a pair of jackets. “ Looking at some potential different jackets for our outlaw leader.”  One is too clean, another too ragged.  They settle on the third one.   “He’ll look really good in this.”

HENRY:  What’s the biggest challenge to making a western?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  I think orchestrating the action sequences is one of them.  And another one is filling in the background of scenes, so it seems like it’s real, like it’s come to life.  A lot of horses crossing, a lot of background talent crossing to fill out the frame and make you feel like you’re in a real world. 

HENRY:  Did you have to do a lot of research for this one?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  The research was just done by my own interest in the subject.  I did do some research on the language used, the Western lingo when I was writing the screenplay, so that I could work that in a realistic way.  Amazing how many words they had for whiskey: one of the characters comes in and says, “Gimme some neck-oil!” 

HENRY:  So, based on this, would you want to do another western afterwards?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  If this one goes well, it is written to be followed up upon; most of the main characters live.  If it has an audience, we may revisit it.  Certainly I like working in the genre, so I could see myself coming back to it.  Thanks to Pete Sherayko, another Jersey boy who made it out west. 

James asked me about my background, my favorite westerns.  Then he said, “I always think that anyone who’s got a real interest in western history, you’ve probably had a significant lifetime in that era that makes you want to revisit it.” 

HENRY:  Interesting; you mean like reincarnation?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  Yeah, like there was something that happened so strongly then that it drew you back to that world.  Because you get some people who are so interested in it. 

HENRY:  The feeling people have about westerns is not like any other genre.  People will have a whole life-goal to do a western, which they don’t for a musical or any other genre.

JAMES O’BRIEN:  It’s an interesting juxtaposition, in that the east coast of the United States was so much more built up, such a modern world, but then out here, at the same time, it was completely wild and wooly; a completely different world.  That those two things were happening simultaneously I find fascinating. 

The movie is being shot with a Red video camera, which has been the camera of choice on every set I’ve visited in the last three years.  Additionally, director O’Brien is shooting some footage with a hand-held Super-8 camera.  I’m not talking about a video system; this is the old-fashioned home-movie Super-8 film, and the stock is Tri-X, a black & white stock which is known for a good range of contrast, and a graininess that might suggest newsreel footage. 

D.P. Morgan Schmidt framing a shot

HENRY:  How do you like shooting the Red camera?

JAMES O’BRIEN:  It’s the best camera I’ve used.  And Morgan Schmidt’s a great DP; it’s a pleasure to work with him.  We’ve got great lenses, great vintage Leica lenses.  So I think the Red is going to look fantastic, and we’re going to tie that in with the Super-8 black and white, and juxtapose those two elements.  See if we can create a feeling of time-travel. 

When I tracked down armorer, prop-man and actor Peter Sherayko, the man who invited me on the set in the first place, he was laying out guns and holsters for each character.  His company, Caravan West, formed during the filming of TOMBSTONE, provides props and costumes and saddles and horses,   He had a very unorthodox take on the recent federal government shutdown.

PETER SHERAYKO: Well, we were going to film at Paramount Ranch, and then our wonderful government, in its infinite wisdom, closed the Ranch down.  And I said, ‘Okay, we have the 2,400 acre ranch: we’ll build a tent city.’  And the whole story is they have a poker tournament to raise money.  I said, ‘Good.  You’re raising money to build a city.’  So we created a tent city over here.  This is what I told James, the director; this is something no one has seen in a western.  It’s not been done before.  And it does bring you back to Sergio Leone, if you think of some of the things that he did in the Spaghetti Westerns, where they had these rough-looking places.  So this is a rough-looking place.  It’s not Chicago; it’s in the wilderness. 

Peter Sherayko

We brought all the horses in, the costumes and props.  I’m playing Southern Bill, who runs the saloon.  We wrap this on the 11th.  But on the 9th, I’m leaving.  We start HOT BATH ‘N’ A STIFF DRINK 2 in Arizona; we’re doing all the guns on that.  I play the gun-shop owner, who gets killed.  I keep saying, ‘No, you’ve got to wound me,’ because there’s going to be a HOT BATH 3.  Then we’re doing a Wild West Show December 15th in Long Beach.  And QUICKDRAW, that show we did for the Hulu network, just got picked up for a second season.  So I’ll probably play the happy guy with the hookers again.  Then we have another film from Texas that we’re doing at Melody Ranch, with Michael Biehn starring in it.

Art Director Christian Ramirez and his crew were hard at work, building pieces of the town, having to turn off the power tools whenever an assistant director shouted, “Stop work!” to film a scene.

CHRISTIAN RAMIREZ:  I want to build some more facades.  The problem is we’re really short on lumber.  I want to build a façade of a building – just a storefront – here, and this one over here that we started on, if we could get some lumber to cover that, then at least we’d have two more buildings. 

HENRY:  The ‘under construction’ look is very nice for a boom-town kind of a thing.

CHRISTIAN RAMIREZ:   It is, but the problem is this production company originally wanted to shoot this at Paramount Ranch, so they have visions of Paramount Ranch, but they’re getting a boom-town out on the frontier.  This is probably more authentic than the towns your normally see in movies.  If you look at Tombstone, Freemont Street had I think it was a hundred brothels and saloons, and of those more than 50% had canvas roofs.  So this style of a canvas-roof building would actually be more common than a wooden building, depending on where you are.  It’s a problem of resources; every show is a problem of resources.   

Zack Smith setting saloon props

Before the night was over, two complete new facades would be in place, along with an outhouse. Prop-man Zack Smith was everywhere, arranging bottles in the saloon sets, moving furniture to make sure the most authentic pieces were nearest the camera.  Wranglers Kevin McNiven, in from Wyoming for the shoot, and Ardeshir Radpour, also a professional polo player, rode by.   Although only interior scenes would be shot that day, the two frequently were called upon to ‘cross’ back and forth in front of the saloon, to give the background of the shots life. 

Wrangler Kevin McNiven

I talked to a number of actors with large and small roles.  A number of them were producers as well.  Their motivations for being in the movie were varied.  I was struck by the number who were more experienced in the music industry than filmmakers, but they all looked the part.  This was a result of both a sharp eye for physical casting, and Nikki Pelley’s wardrobe. 

Wrangler Ardeshir Radpour

One actor, Sean Joyce, had a highly personal motivation for his involvement. 

SEAN JOYCE:  I play two characters.  I play Bobby Shay, traveling carpenter, and his identical twin brother Tommy Shay.

Sean Joyce

HENRY:  And you’re not only an actor in the film, you’re one of the producers.

SEAN: I am one of the producers.  I helped raise some funds through an Indiegogo fundraising campaign.  Very humbling and inspiring to have a lot of my friends and family contribute to this film.  Once James told me he was going to write my brother into the movie, it became a very personal thing for me.  My twin brother Tom died in college, in my arms, and James rewrote the backstory into this, so it’s heavy stuff.  It’s deeply personal, but it’s beautiful, and James brought my brother back to life, really, in this film.  So when I revisit his death in the movie, I still get to bring him on to the movie; it’s kind of a double-edged sword, very cathartic.   I’ve loved westerns; growing up as a kid watching the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns.  It’s just not a genre that’s made that often.  Couple of the biggies – UNFORGIVEN, 3:10 TO YUMA, DJANGO UNCHAINED, but to make a western indie film is true renegade style, and that’s James O’Brien, he is a true renegade. To work with a visionary author like James was an offer I couldn’t refuse. 

Billy Jinx has a perfect look for a prospector, and if he’s not a trained actor, he knows something of the real western lifestyle.

Billy Jinx

BILLY JINX:  I grew up western, in Iowa; eastern Iowa.  Grew up in the horse business.  I play drums; hand drums, tom-toms.  I met James O’Brien back in April when I came out to play the drums for the man who provided music for his last movie, WISH YOU WERE HERE.  We hit it off; I came out here a couple of days ago; kickin’ butt.  Been helping to set up props, to build the saloons, whatever comes up.  James said just look around, and whatever you think you ought to be doing to help, just jump on it.

Brian Chatton, who plays the piano-player in a saloon, is also a musician, which helps make things more realistic – even though the piano doesn’t work, Brian tickles the silent ivories, and you can almost hear ‘Camptown Races.’  Being in a Western is a culmination of a wish he expressed years ago, in a hit song.

Brian Chatton at the ivories

BRIAN CHATTON:  It was called, ‘I Want To Be A Cowboy.’  And it was a hit in the ‘80s.  The band was Boys Don’t Cry.  I wrote all the music, and the three other guys wrote the lyric.  We had a couple of mediocre hits.  But ‘Cowboy’ was a biggie.  I can still buy my chocolate from the royalties, and that was nearly thirty years ago.  And my ibuprofen drugs.  Here I am, about thirty years later, fulfilling my dream, I suppose.  Can’t get away from it now.  Other than that, I’ve played with B.B. King, Phil Collins, Meat Loaf, The Hollies, Eric Burden.

HENRY:  Did you really always want to be a cowboy?

BRIAN CHATTON:  Yes, apparently.  When I had my first-ever gig, I was dressed up as a cowboy.  I was eight years old, playing in a holiday camp in the north of England, and I ended up singing ‘Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley’ with my cowboy hat on, and everybody began to laugh.  And I wondered why, but they clapped and laughed, and I thought, hey, they liked me.  And when I finished I turned and walked away, and I felt really uncomfortable.  I looked down; I had been wearing brown khaki shorts, I’d wee’d in my pants, and they’d seen it all.  (Laughs)  My first ever gig, and I’d wee’d in my pants!  But that’s never going to happen again.

HENRY:  Why?

BRIAN CHATTON:  Depends!  Never go onstage without ‘em. 
And of course, no saloon is worth a damn without a saloon-girl or two.  Beautiful Daniela Torchia filled the bill, and loved the experience.

DANIELA TORCHIA:  I am playing a very sleazy little saloon-girl who likes to comfort all the cowboys. 

Bruce Chatton and Daniela Torchia

HENRY:  Is this your first western?

DANIELA TORCHIA:  Yes, it’s my first western, absolutely.  I love it.  I want to move in to the tent city.  I’ve got a sleeping bag, and I see there’s a water-well.  I’ll just brush my teeth in there. 

A Anthony McCarthy was sporting a badge, but he knew he wouldn’t be sporting it for very long.

A  ANTHONY MCCARTHY:  I’m playing the border marshal; we get gunned down in the first scene, me and my deputy.  It serves to show how fast and mean the one character is.  That’s what I’m here for, to provide that contrast. 

A Anthony McCarthy

HENRY: Done a lot of westerns before?

A  ANTHONY MCCARTHY:  I’ve never actually done a western movie before.  I just got done doing a run with Theater Unleashed playing a marshal named Dad Eakins, based on a real guy from Texas history.  The other guy is sort of a Texas Robin Hood, and Dad Eakins is sort of the Sheriff of Nottingham, to be honest.  I just got done with two runs with them, and that was a blast.  This one, it’s not as big a role, but it’s still fun, and to play a marshal is always cool.

I asked Claude Duhamel, if he was looking forward to killing the marshal, the deputy, and anyone else who walked in from of his sights. The tall, imposing actor grinned.

CLAUDE DUHAMEL: Can’t complain.  Four down one day, two the other day – up to six. 

HENRY:  How did you get involved with this project?

Claude Duhamel about to dispatch a pair of varmints!

CLAUDE DUHAMEL:  My friend Peter (Shinkoda), who plays Chinaman Dan, said there was one part up for grabs.  They were looking for a world-travelled crazy man.  I called the director, sent him a tape, he brought me in to read, and I guess they liked it.  I did a Western last year.  It was called THE DAWN RIDER, with Donald Southerland, Christian Slater.  I had a rape scene with Jill Hennessey; I tried to rape her, she shot me in the face.   It’s a John Wayne remake.  I’m from Canada; I’m a recently landed immigrant here.  Just got my acting visa, so I’ll see what happens. 

I’d been on the set since 8:30 a.m., and twelve hours later, I was still waiting for my scene, as a background poker-player in another saloon (though actually shot in the opposite side of the same set)   For commercial and voice-over actor Jeff Hendrick, who would playing  the  dealer at the foreground table, this appearance  was something of a culmination.

JEFF HENDRICK: This is a bucket list thing for me.  I grew up on westerns, I’ve always wanted to be in a western, and now I’m doing it.  If I wasn’t as tired as I was, I’d be giddy. 

Jeff Hendrick

HENRY:  What were your favorite westerns growing up?

JEFF HENDRICK: The first movies I recall seeing were the Spaghetti Western trilogies.  Once you’re raised on anti-heroes, you’re kinda done.  (laughs)  Clark Kent?  Yawn.  It’s funny, I was thinking about that today.  There were very few movies where Clint Eastwood actually had a name.  JOE KIDD.  The DIRTY HARRY series.  But most of the other westerns…

Waiting to go on with us was Louie Sabatasso, whose character, Salt Peter, would be the focus of the poker-game and subsequent killing.  I asked him how he got involved with WESTERN RELIGION. 

LOUIE SABATASSO:  James and I did a previous film together called WISH YOU WERE HERE, an independent road movie.  About eight months ago James and I got together and James said he wanted to make an independent western.  He had a rough kind of idea, he wanted to call it WESTERN RELIGION, about a card game, and different people that come together, and I said I’m in.  I was the lead in WISH YOU WERE HERE.  I said I wanted to do it, and I started to describe the character I wanted to play, which was the most out-of-the-box character you could play in a western.  I said I wanted to play a sexually ambiguous dandy-boy from Vienna.  Who’s a hedonist drug-addict, but also a straight killer.  James said, ‘Done; and his name is Salt Peter.’  So that’s the character I’m playing, and we’re doing it through my production company, 3rd Partner Productions.  There’ a lot of producers on this picture, but the main two producers are  James and myself.  And we’re starting to have a lot of fun.

Louie Sabatasso

HENRY:  Do you find it difficult working on both ends of the camera?

LOUIE SABATASSO:  There’s stress for the producer on any film, but my only respite has been when I put the funky wardrobe on, and go play Salt Peter.  The producing can be stressful and daunting.  Playing Salt Peter, there’s no stress, everything’s cool, it’s fun. 

I went to a thing at the Director’s Guild, like six years ago.  Ron Howard and Brian Grazer were showing clips from their favorite films.  And at first I didn’t know what it was; were they going to show clips from their films?  But they were showing clips from their favorite films.  And their whole thing was that as a filmmaker, you have to look at all the films that have been your favorites from when you were a kid, a teenager, a young adult.  Figure out why they were your favorite films; then go make those films.  That’s the trick; that’s the secret to knowing the kind of films that you want to make.  It’s like I love Kubrick.  And that’s the kind of stuff I go back to, and look at, and try to remember what got you excited in the first place. 


I've been contacted by Eric Zaldivar, one of the producers of the fascinating Western THE SCARLET WORM.  He’s headed to the American Film Market to pre-sell DJANGO LIVES, which will bring Franco Nero back in the role that made him a star, nay, an icon!  Set in Los Angeles in 1915, an older Django will be working as a technical advisor in the film industry, something several lawmen like Wyatt Earp, and outlaws like Al Jennings, actually did.

The producers need our help getting the word out about this worthy project.  They're asking fans to temporarily switch their profile pictures to the DJANGO LIVES postcard you see above.   It’s a strange thing to ask, but not too much to ask, so I’ve done it.  Care to join us?  LONG LIVE FRANCO NERO! LONG LIVE DJANGO!


The annual Encampment at the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley, will feature Western music and art, a wagon train, pioneer costume contest, gold-panning, wood-carving and needlework displays, rides to historic desert sites (bring water!), and cowboy poetry!  To learn more, visit their website HERE 
Or call 831-818-4384.


More than 180 American Indian artists from over forty tribes will take part this Saturday and Sunday, November 9th and 10th, in the largest Native American Arts fair in Southern California.  Artists work in every conceivable medium, from wood to pottery to silver to stone.  The Marketplace is open from ten ‘til 5 on both days.


Readers and fellow western writers are mourning the loss of one of the grand old men of the Western novel, Bill Gulick.  Gulick, along with the recently deceased Elmore Leonard, were the last links to the generation of Western writers who made their names in the post-war years. 

The author of twenty Western novels and histories, his BEND OF THE SNAKE became the film BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), directed by Anthony Mann, and starring James Stewart, Rock Hudson and Julie Adams.  In 1955, THE ROAD TO DENVER was filmed at Republic by Joe Kane, starring John Payne, Lee J, Cobb and Mona Freeman.  In 1965, THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL was made into a rollicking western comedy, directed by John Sturges, and starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick.  One of his short stories was adapted for the short-lived but excellent series HOTEL DE PAREE, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, and starring Earl Holliman and Strother Martin. 


Sorry this Round-up is appearing on Monday rather than Sunday, but I hope you’ll think it was worth the wait!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved


  1. Henry, thanks for your help in our getting Django Lives off the ground. Just getting the rights has been a struggle and now getting some production support and funds to actually make it happen will be even harder. We've gotten interest from actors who want to be in the film and Franco Nero's full support so all of us involved are keeping our fingers crossed the project actually sees the light of day. Your support is greatly appreciated.

  2. Thank you for your kind review of Shadow On The Mesa- a friend sent it to me - your research is correct, I take Burt Kennedy to work with me on ever project, he taught me a lot, as did Virgil Vogel.. DAVID S. CASS, Sr.

  3. Thanks Henry. Lovely meeting you my friend. Cheers