Sunday, June 12, 2016


TRADED – A Film Review

In 1880s Kansas, the Travis’, subsistence farmers, are hard-working but happy, until tragedy strikes: their young son Jake (Hunter Fischer) is killed by a rattlesnake.  Overcome with grief and guilt, his mother Amelia (Constance Brenneman), fearful of anything happening to their 17 year-old daughter Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams), makes the girl’s life unbearable.  Lily runs away, hoping to become a Harvey Girl at one of the famous restaurants at railroad stops across the country; but she never makes it to her interview.   Her father Clay Travis (Michael Pare) hurriedly traces her movements, and fears she’s been sold into prostitution.  He’s ready to do whatever it takes to bring her back.

Many will compare it to the TAKEN franchise, but I say think of it like THE SEARCHERS on speed!  As Clay races to rescue his daughter, time is not measured with the fluttering pages of a calendar but with a railroad-man’s precise pocket-watch.  En route, his farmer demeanor vanishes, and we learn that he has the sort of past that leaves him well-equipped to go against a string of villains, from those who will only provide information for a price, to those who will gladly kill to protect their income.  Pare, who became a star with films like EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (1983) and STREETS OF FIRE (1984) has kept his good looks while developing the maturity and gravitas this role demands: you do not want to get in his way. 

Seen this girl?

And among the folks he meets along the way are Trace Adkins, Pare’s co-star in THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011), who is chilling as a Dodge City saloon-keeper and procurer; and Tom Sizemore as Adkins’ unsavory competition.   Martin Kove has played many a Western villain before, memorably in WYATT EARP (1994), but I don’t think he’s ever portrayed as revolting a character as Cavendish; his daughter in the story, simply named Girl (Marie Oldenbourg) could not be less like him.
Kris Kristofferson, still a commanding presence at eighty, is striking as a barkeep who is at first reluctantly helpful, and has the most quotable speeches from Mark Esslinger’s screenplay.  

Kris is running out of patience

Esslinger’s script is smart without being smug, full of sudden, imaginative, and often brutal action.  And while the story is peopled by many cynical characters, it is not cynical itself; all of the action grows from a sincere love of family, and the knowledge that a strong person will do anything they can to protect it. 

Brittany Elizabeth Williams is missing...

Timothy Woodward Jr., directing his 10th feature since 2013, tells the story with unrushed assurance, drawing mostly strong performances during a remarkably short shooting schedule.   It’s his third collaboration in two years with cinematographer Pablo Diez, who lights and composes with elegance.  Production Designer Christian Ramirez and costume designer Nikki  Pelly are Western specialists and have again done their work with style and historical accuracy.  Of course, no film is without errors.  One character is a young woman who is supposed to be hideously ugly.  Mistake one: a very attractive actress plays the part.  Mistake two: what was supposed to look like scars actually looks like she has oatmeal all over her face.

Constance Brenneman is the mother.

TRADED, from Cinedigm and Status Media opens theatrically today, Friday, June 10th, in ten cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Nashville.   That same day it will also be available On Demand and Digital HD. 

Last November I had the good fortune of being invited by consulting producer Peter Sherayko to visit the set, when they were shooting at Big Sky Ranch.  You can read that article, and my interviews with Michael Pare, Timothy Woodward Jr., and Peter Sherayko, HERE.


At the premiere, Mark Esslinger with daughter Lana

TRADED author Mark Esslinger is the first screenwriter I’ve met in a long time who did not go to film school.  “I grew up in the northern part of New Jersey, in Bergen County.  I trained racehorses throughout New Jersey and New York while I was in high school.  I wrote from the time I was maybe ten; I was always interested in film and television.  When I was eighteen or nineteen I just decided to drive out to California and see what I could do.” 

Luckily, one thing he could do was be funny.  “I got a bunch of part-time jobs.  I hung out at the Comedy Stores.  I wrote comedy for stand-up guys like Garry Shandling and Howie Mandel when they were just getting started. I met a girl at a party, and she asked me if I wanted to write a couple of spec shows with her.  We wrote a spec TAXI.  She gave it to her father, and her father’d just got a green light for a show an NBC show at Paramount called THE BRADY BRIDES, a continuation of THE BRADY BUNCH.  Her father was (BRADY BUNCH and GILLIGAN’S ISLAND creator) Sherwood Schwartz!  So she showed it to him, and he loved it, and he asked us to be on staff, so we jumped at the chance.  I think I was 23 at the time.  And that’s basically how I got in.” 

But then, in 1981, the Writers Guild went on strike for Pay-TV and home video residuals.  “The strike hit for three or four months.  And then when it ended, THE BRADY BRIDES got cancelled because there was a shift of regime at NBC.  Brandon Tartikoff was going out, and Grant Tinker was coming in, and he didn’t like the show.  Then (my partner) went off and got married.”    Mark wrote without his partner, but didn’t get anywhere.  He went back to raising horses, while continuing to write.  “And then in ’96 I produced a film called DELIVERY, which is based on my food delivery company, which I opened in 1989.  I have a food delivery company where we deliver food from the high-end restaurants in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to homes.”

Mark Esslinger, daughter Lana, Michael Pare

We talked about his breakthrough script, TRADED, and what led to his writing it.

HENRY: I notice you’ve written a few films about Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.  I take it you’re a fan of American history.

MARK:  Yes, I am.  We made a short called GRACE BEDELL, maybe five, six years ago, that won festivals in Burbank, Buffalo and Vancouver.  It’s about a little girl who wrote to Lincoln when he was running for President in 1860, and she suggested that he grow whiskers to help him win the election.  And he took her up on it.  It’s based on a true story.  

HENRY: Was TRADED a story you developed on spec, or were you hired to write it? 

MARK:  I wrote it on spec.  I submitted it to The Black List (note: an annual list by studio development pros of highly regarded but unsold script), and it got two really excellent reviews, and it got me a lot of intros; a lot of interest.  But since they considered the (Western) genre basically dead, they didn’t want to do anything with it.  I kept pitching it here and there, and I ended up putting it on this website called InkTip.  It was on there maybe two or three months, and then I get a call that someone is interested in it, and is it still available.

HENRY: And that was Status Media, the folks who made it?

MARK: They outright purchased it – there was no option involved.  We just went back and forth, and negotiated the contract for two or three weeks; actually, while we were negotiating they were lining up locations and casting.  By the time I signed the contract, they were shooting.  They started shooting it immediately, or even before immediately, if there is such a thing

HENRY: Where did the original idea come from?

MARK: I wanted to do a Western, and I started breaking down what kind of a Western I wanted to do.  Maybe something that was a little more contemporary, that hadn’t been seen in a Western.  I know there’s THE SEARCHERS, where they’re hunting the niece, and I wanted to use the daughter; I wanted to do something in that realm, and TAKEN was a big hit a few years earlier.  From all the research I’ve done, they’ve never done a western where a father has to track down and rescue his daughter.  I just broke in an outline, and it came out kind of easy.

HENRY: I’m glad you brought up THE SEARCHERS, because while the parallels are obvious, THE SEARCHERS story takes place over a long period of time, while TRADED’s story is compressed to just one or two days.  Why?

MARK: I don’t really know; I think that’s just the way I write.  It helps with the time clock and the thriller elements. If it was prolonged, it would end up like THE SEARCHERS.  Just for the urgency factor I just had to make it quick.  I think the lead (character) has a sense that he has to get her back as soon as he can, before she becomes too much of a whore in Dodge City.

HENRY: You spoke about doing a lot of research among Western plots.  Did you do a lot of historical research?

MARK: I do a lot for everything I do.  I get as many books as I can on the time period.  And on the internet now you can get so much stuff.  I actually read the newspapers of the time period; it helps to give a sense of how people think and what they do during that time period, and how they react to certain things.  The government in each city at that time period – how it works. 

HENRY: What are the challenges of writing period stories for a modern audience?

MARK: Westerns that got produced weren’t very risky back then.  I mean, they wouldn’t have made a DEADWOOD thirty or forty years ago, and I think DEADWOOD is the ultimate, ‘what it was really like’ kind of thing; that’s what I strive for.  I’m trying to make it as realistic as possible to the time period. Back in the 50s or 60, most of the Westerns were pretty sanitized. 

HENRY: True; of course all films were when you go back far enough.

MARK: True; and especially television.

HENRY: How close is the finished film to your original vision?

MARK: It holds true maybe 80 to 85 percent.  There are some instances, because it is a low budget film, that they had to cut corners on.  As written, their son gets killed because of a bee attack.  Now they couldn’t do that because the bee wrangler would cost like $3,000, and that wasn’t in the budget.  So they changed it to a snake-bite.  But it loses my recurring theme of honey.  When I write something, I want to tie everything in, so everything has a reason; the foreshadowing.  When you have to cut some corners you’re going to lose a lot of that stuff. 

HENRY: You’ve done something with your script which many of us screenwriters find very difficult to do, which is to write a story that can be filmed for a reasonable amount of money.  How do you do that? 

MARK: I was conscious of that, mainly because I figured if I’m going to write a western, it’s going to be hard enough to sell it.  So I’d better make it that it can be shot for the minimum amount of money possible.  I tried to keep it low.  I’ve got the one train chase which they thankfully kept in the film.  And most of my stuff is character-driven anyhow, so the stories generate out of what they’re doing, as opposed to throwing in this big action sequence with a balloon or something that will cost a lot of money.   

HENRY: Quite a cast: Michael Pare, Kris Kristofferson, Trace Adkins, Tom Sizemore, Martin Kove. 

MARK: I think it worked out great.  When they told me Michael Pare was going to be the lead, I was really excited, because I was a big fan of EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS and STREETS OF FIRE.  I think he did a great job in the part.  And if you can get Kris Kristofferson and Tom Sizemore in the movie, you’re way way way ahead of the game.  And then they’ve got Trace Adkins in it, who is a country superstar along with Kris Kristofferson, so it’s going to appeal to all of his fans too.  And he does a great job.  He doesn’t have that much acting experience, but you’d absolutely not know it from the performance he puts in.

HENRY: Did you grow up with westerns? 

MARK: Yeah, I did.  I was born in the late ‘50s, so I grew up with the typical BONANZA, and probably my favorites were WANTED: DEAD OF ALIVE and THE RIFLEMAN, the two half-hour shows.  As far as films, I think my favorite Western film is Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN.  Growing up I was always a big fan of THE HORSE SOLDIERS.  I thought that film was really ahead of its time.  I read that John Wayne and William Holden didn’t get along.  But I think it helped the whole film.  Also Jimmy Stewart in SHENANDOAH.  I could go on and on – I also like all Randolph Scott Westerns.  RIDE LONESOME and BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE.  I thought Randolph Scott was just a great Western lead.

HENRY: Do you think there’s a real resurgence in Westerns?

MARK: I prefer writing period stuff, so I certainly hope so.  Like I said before, I think you can inject contemporary themes that were not available to use back when the majority of Westerns were made.  And that’s what I tried to do with TRADED; I tried to bring something new to the genre that wasn’t seen back then.  Even the taking of a daughter and basically trading her in to slavery, that wasn’t in a Western film back in the fifties or the sixties. I would love to see the whole genre make a comeback.  I’d like to see more on Television.  DEADWOOD is probably my favorite hour show – I think it was fantastic.  I wrote a pilot called SOILED DOVES that I’ve been trying to pitch for the last few years.  It’s DEADWOOD-ish, but it’s got a female lead, and it’s set in Alaska, during the Yukon gold rush. 

HENRY: What’s your next project?

MARK: I just finished another Western, I’m about to start getting out now.  It’s called DASH; it’s about a Kansas farmer whose about to lose his wife and his farm, and he’s offered a bounty-hunting opportunity. 

HENRY: So, the release of TRADED is imminent.

MARK:  It’s getting a ten-city release on the 10th.  It’s going to be released on iTunes the same day.  There’s going to be a couple of deleted scenes, and a ‘making of’ film.  I don’t know what the deleted scenes are – I’m kind of scared to find out!  As long as it all makes sense, I’m fine. 


Quentin Tarantino, the ever-controversial and ever-entertaining filmmaker, got his ears boxed by feminists once again, this time for a casting call placed on Facebook, for roles in a new Western he is producing (though not directing).  Here’s the text:  “Casting Whores for Quentin Tarantino project. Caucasian, non-union females, ages 18–35. Western film shoots June 21st-25th in Los Angeles. No highlights, natural eyebrows, natural breasts, natural hair color to be true to the period. Dress sizes 2–8. Please send photo, including sizes, and write ‘Whore’ in the subject line.” 
I was a little surprised at the word ‘whore’, especially in the subject line, but not as surprised as when I was old enough to figure out what Miss Kitty’s girls were doing upstairs.  The Women and Hollywood website was particularly appalled, saying in part, “Putting a casting call out for, or including women in your script with the description of ‘whores,’ is not OK. Nor is asking actresses to submit their photos and information for consideration with the subject line ‘Whore.’ …  It would’ve been just as easy to have said that the project was looking for actresses to play prostitutes, saloon girls, or brothel workers… Words carry weight, and the word ‘whore’ comes with a lot of baggage.”  Okay.  Actually, I would have guessed that what they’d be upset about is that the casting notice asked for ‘Caucasian non-union’ whores.  Wrong again!  By the way, the film is written and directed by a woman.


Franco Nero signed this box from 
his 2nd DJANGO film for me!

It’s been long rumored but now confirmed that LONE STAR writer/director John Sayles will do the same chores on DJANGO LIVES!, and that Franco Nero is still set to star.   A project that’s been discussed since DJANGO UNCHAINED re-invigorated the DJANGO franchise, the project has shifted through many hands, but the premise is still the same.  Django, Franco Nero’s character from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film, is now much older, living in Los Angeles and, as Wyatt Earp and other real lawmen actually did, is working as a technical adviser on silent Westerns, when something happens that necessitates his strapping on his guns again.  A new description says he’s a wrangler and extra on the set of D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION.  The film is set to roll camera in September. 


My most recent guest column for the INSP blog, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE GOOD-HEARTED BAD GUY, examines how the image of some hero and villain actors changed as their careers progressed.  You can read it HERE.  And please leave a comment if you like it!


Hunter Fischer (right), with a pal

Production Designer Christian Ramirez, with Mrs. Smith 
& wrangler Troy Andrew Smith

Here’re a few pictures I took on Wednesday night at the Beverly Hills premiere of TRADED.  I’ve got several more stories I wanted to include, but I didn’t want to make this Round-up more than one week late!  Happy summer!

Happy trails,


All Original Contents Copyright June 2016 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

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