Tuesday, March 31, 2020



With 64 feature directing credits, and 37 screenwriting credits since 2005, you can safely call Michael Feifer prolific.  From action films to true crime to horror to Christmas movies, to ‘dog-who-saved-various-holidays’ movies, he’s delved into most genres. On Tuesday, June 16th, just in time for Father’s Day, his newest film will be coming out on home video, from Well Go U.S.A., available from Walmart and other retailers, as well as VOD download. It’s Michael’s third Western. His first was the contemporary SODA SPRINGS (2012), starring Jay Pickett and Tom Skerritt, followed the same year by WYATT EARP’S REVENGE, whose cast includes Val Kilmer and Trace Adkins. Partnered with co-producer and Western expert Peter Sherayko, in addition to A SOLDIER’S REVENGE, Michael has a fourth Western, SHOOTING STAR, in the can, to be released later this year, and three more Westerns set to go before camera: one would be rolling by the end of this week if not for the Coronavirus.

A SOLDIER’S REVENGE is a post-Civil War tale of a former Confederate soldier, Frank Connor (Neal Bledsoe), whose PTSD has made him unable to adapt to civilian life. He’s lost his marriage, isolated himself, and survives by taking assignments as a paid gunman.  The unwanted responsibility thrust upon him by a chance meeting with two desperate children leads him to uncover a gun-running scheme operated by former friend and comrade-in-arms Briggs (Rob Mayes).  

Back in 2011 I had the pleasure of spending a few days on the set of WYATT EARP’S REVENGE, at Caravan West Ranch and Paramount Ranch.  (If you'd like to read those articles, go HERE and HERE.) Just a day ago I had the chance to catch up with Michael, telephonically, about A SOLDIER’S REVENGE, and his other Westerns in the pipeline.

Frank (Neal Bledsoe) and Griggs (Rob Mayes) as 
Rebel comrades 

HENRY: You wrote the script for A Soldier’s Revenge some years ago, and as another genre.

MICHAEL: I just wrote a low-budget action movie. There wasn't particularly a plan; I was just starting to write scripts. I've written now 40 or so scripts. It's just been sitting around for 10 years. And then, Peter Sherayko called me up and said, Hey, I have an investor, Rick Pihl, for a Western. You got any Westerns sitting around? I said, I don't, but I do have this action movie that I think I can convert into a Western. So I made a bunch of changes, but it’s basically a similar storyline. The action movie was based on an Iraq War soldier. It was a PTSD story. I changed the SUVs into wagons and horses, and changed the city of L.A.  into a Western town. The original script had a DARPA, secret Defense Department compound, and that changed to Briggs' compound. Peter read it, and brought in all his Western-isms: Frank saying, I roll my own hoop, a hard-boiled egg is yellow on the inside, stuff about a curly wolf -- things like that. Peter brought that actual Western lingo to the script, which was really nice.  And Peter's like, if you want to be true to the timeline, the men who ran guns, they ran women, too. So there's the scene where Frank pulls up the stagecoach, and my wife, Caia Coley, plays one of the prostitutes. Peter came in and brought in his lingo and the right types of guns and the right timeline and the right geographical settings,  we changed Briggs into a gun runner.

HENRY:  How did you like shooting the Civil War scenes?

MICHAEL:  I really enjoyed them. You know, usually on a low-budget movie, you really don't have the money for practical effects (note: practical effects are effects that are done on-set and on-camera, as opposed to CGI). Most of the effects you see in a movie are visual effects. But we actually had Christian Ramirez, my production designer, put together some canons to blow material in the air, which is really, really nice. The civil war reenactor guys, they come ready to go with all the accoutrements and costumes, and so truly quick and easy to get into and start shooting. I would love to shoot another war movie that's just Civil War, trench warfare, or a  World War One movie.  It's just so visual and visceral and textured.

HENRY: Frank Connor's character, today we would say he had PTSD. What did they call it after the Civil War?

MICHAEL: They called it Soldier's Heart, the original name of the film.  Peter was the one who named the film Soldier’s Heart. They didn't really have an understanding of what it was, but they knew that something traumatically would happen to you in war, and seeing such terrible things. The movie is being released as A Soldiers Revenge because that title had a little more of an action feel to it than a drama feel to it.

HENRY: When I talked to Peter about it, having been a Vietnam War veteran himself, and  having friends who suffered from PTSD, the theme was very important to him. I was wondering if you've had a response from any other vets.

MICHAEL: Oh, you know it's interesting. Peter's a gang of background actors that work on the movies, we call them Peter Sherayko's Buckaroos, many of them are vets, and many of them came to me during the shoot and thanked me for making a story where you have a character who's suffering from PTSD, suffering from soldier's heart. They found a lot of moments that really expressed their feelings, and appreciated that it was being explored. And the more light you put on the subject, the more people could come out from their own personal shadows and get help and feel that there's others like others like them. So a lot of guys actually came up and, and, and thanked me.

Neal Bledsoe and AnnaLyne McCord

HENRY: You've certainly taken us far out of the 21st century with this one. Where did you film it?

MICHAEL: We filmed on three ranches in Los Angeles. Caravan West Ranch, which is Peter Sherayko's production facility, in Agua Dulce. We filmed at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, which is where The Little House on The Prairie was filmed. We shot at Rancho Deluxe, in Santa Clarita. Big Sky Ranch is where the yellow house that's where Briggs' house is. People might be familiar with that from Westworld ‘s first season. There used to be more Western towns in Los Angeles. In fact, Paramount Ranch burned down, and another fantastic West town was torn down. So there were more options, but you know, L.A. is where they shot all the old westerns and what we're still doing here.

HENRY:  How long was your shooting schedule?

MICHAEL:  17 days.

HENRY: Wow -- that's tight!

MICHAEL: Not for me, (laughs). Actually that's four days longer than my normal schedule. Shooting Star, the last one, I actually did that in 19 days, which was even nicer. You know, a studio film, they might shoot 45 to 90 days. When you shoot independent films, specifically Western, you’ve just gotta work fast, you've got to have a well-oiled crew working together. You could tell when a movie is gonna really work out when you're on on-set, when everybody's really enjoying the process.  And the fruits of our labor will be revealed to the world on June 16th.

Val Kilmer, Michael Feifer, Neal Bledsoe

HENRY : What part of making a film is the most fun, or the most challenging?

MICHAEL: Actually the most fun and the most challenging is directing. I just thoroughly enjoy putting the pieces together, conceptualizing scenes, picking my lenses, camera movement, telling my crew, my cast what I need them to do. Everybody works together for one final goal. It’s just the complete creativity of directing a movie. I went to school for architecture, I was a graphic designer as a kid. I was a photographer and sculptor and drew, and directing movies is the aggregate of all of that together into one. If I couldn't direct movies, I would want to be a professional baseball player. It's like being a pitcher on the mound and you're in control of that game. And you only have those 17 days. That's it. There's no pickups or re-shoots on independent films; there's no budget for it. I'm so hyper-vigilant about getting the day started as quick as possible and shooting everything I can within a day.

HENRY: What is your favorite part of the finished film?

MICHAEL: There's a part where the kids are sleeping on a horse, and Frank leads them, comes to a spot and stops. He's leaning on the horse and he tells the kids, basically tells himself, and tells the kids while they're sleeping (something crucial that would give too much of the plot away!) There's something about the scene's really beautiful to me. I think Neil Bledsoe, his performance just hearkens back to Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s. It's just a sweet moment, one of the kids kind of looks up and then looks down again cause she was listening. That’s Savannah Judy -- Savannah and Luke Judy play the kids. You know making moments where people are shooting each other and riding quick and killing somebody are really fun to do and really exciting. But when you could draw the emotion in the middle of a big Epic Western, and it's just him with the two kids, I think I might like that scene the best.

Luke and Savannah Judy

HENRY:  I was delighted to see Jimmy Russo in the film.

MICHAEL:  Well, he's a fascinating guy, really a legendary actor. I was just watching him in Open Range the other night, with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner. My favorite part of his was in Extremities, with Farrah Fawcett. We have a friend in common, Jay Pickett, who's also in Soldier's Heart, and Jay Pickett and James Russo coached baseball together; their kids were on the same baseball team. I needed a really, really strong actor to start off the movie. Frank goes to take care of one of his bounty hunting jobs, which is to take out James Russo's character, Artemus Walsh. It's a long scene and it's a tension-filled scene and it has great moments. I needed someone to really start the movie off with a bang, no pun intended, and a really strong performance. Someone who's gritty and just real, and James came to mind.

And onset was actually fascinating to watch him. We get onset, rehearse it, block the scene, and once we shoot the master, you kinda know what you're doing. When you get to the mediums and close-ups, you can evolve the moments more. Russo grabbed Neil and just set out a couple of directors chairs while the guys are lighting the set and just started working with Neil: let's work it, let's work it, let's do it again, let's do it again. Generally with independent films there's no rehearsals, there's no money to do rehearsals ahead of time. But we had this moment in time because we were lighting the set and James was just working with Neil and was like, let's do it again, and Mike, do you mind if I change the words here?  And Neil's really an actor's actor too, and he was loving it.

HENRY:  It was so nice to see Val Kilmer as Frank's father. Haven't you guys worked together before?

MICHAEL:  We worked together on Wyatt Earp's Revenge. And I did that in 2011 and filmed him at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. One day, 13 pages. It's one of those just sort of amazing experiences. But we had so much material to do. I didn't have time to get to know Val, to talk to him. Fast forward, eight years later, and I emailed him and said, Hey Val, do you remember when we got together for Wyatt Earp's Revenge? I’ve got another Western. And he emailed me back, yeah, I remember, good times.  In fact, if you watch, I'm sure a lot of people recognize that Val's gone through some health issues, but there's a certain sort of pathos to his character, that he was able to bring out, that I think is really just fascinating to watch. Even with the health issues he's been having. I'm just so impressed with Val, he's such a good guy. Such a nice, a nice person who's really very giving and just wants to do the best he can and help his fellow actor. And it was a pleasure to work with him.

HENRY:  I understand you have several other Western movie projects in the works.

Mike Feifer and Peter Sherayko

MICHAEL:  We shot Shooting Star in October, and it's in post. Shooting Star stars Drew Waters, Heather McComb , Peter Sherayko and Michael Pare, Jake Busey, but it also stars two young actresses who've never acted before and just blew me away. They were brilliant. One is Lyana Ferrino who plays the young girl, Blaze, who gets hurt at the beginning of the film, and is sort of the impetus for the entire story of the film. And then the lead actress is Brooklin Michelle. We'll probably complete post production in a couple of months. Then I have three more Western's coming up: Catch the Bullet, Desperate Riders, and The Siege at Rhyker's Station. We were supposed to shoot Catch the Bullet April 6th, but unfortunately with the Coronavirus and the quarantine, we have to delay that. And Val Kilmer was going to be in that movie too.

You asked about something challenging. Probably the most challenging thing other than just directing a Western movie, is the horse-riding. It's very hard to find experienced actors who can also ride horses; not just ride a horse, like gallop a horse, but control a horse. And it's very difficult to get. So on Catch the Bullet, there's a gang of bad guys and there's three good guys chasing down the bad guys and they all have to ride horses. So for Catch the Bullet, I'm hiring cowboys and stunt men who ride horses to play the roles, rather than actors and teaching them how to ride. I want these guys to be able to ride like there's no tomorrow, so the scenes just feel more dynamic and more real.  (laughs) In Shooting Star, I used a yoga ball. I’d put the actors on a yoga ball and have them bounce up and down, and make like their on a running horse. Sometimes we put the yoga ball in the back of the pickup truck and drive the pickup truck with the yoga ball. There's all sorts of techniques you have to use.

Jake Busey takes aim!

Shooting Star is going to be entirely in black and white, going to be reminiscent of westerns of the fifties and sixties, and we're going to do the music a very similar way. It looks spectacular in black and white. I'm really excited, really excited, and I'm not going to change it. People think, if you do it black and white, you're not gonna make any money. I'm like, ah, no, we're actually going to make a lot more money!"


Jack LaRue and Randolph Scott

Back in the early 1930s, Paramount brought ten Zane Grey Westerns to the screen, all starring young leading man Randolph Scott. Low-budget, but not B-Westerns in the usual sense, not aimed strictly towards kiddie matinees, some very fine films were made, all with strong casts, some with fine directors. Alpha-Video has released a double-feature pair, TO THE LAST MAN (1933), and THE FIGHTING WESTERNER (1935).

TO THE LAST MAN, directed by the wonderful Henry Hathaway (TRUE GRIT 36 years later!), it opens after the Civil War, with Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher), going home to the Kentucky hills, but only long enough to take his three kids to live somewhere away the deadly feud that has killed many in his family, and the opposing family, the Colbys, led by Jed Colby (Noah Beery Sr.). When Jed murders Mark’s father, Mark’s decision to have Jed arrested and tried rather than shooting him, is considered cowardly and dishonorable by both sides, and when Jed gets out of prison after fifteen years, he’s determined to destroy Mark as slowly and painfully as possible.

Randolph Scott, as Mark’s eldest son, doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into this just-over-an-hour movie, but when he does the film belongs to him, and to lovely Esther Ralston as Jed’s daughter Ellen – if you sense a Romeo and Juliet vibe, you’re not wrong. The supporting cast is delightful, with many actors you’ve never seen so young before, including Fuzzy Knight, Jack LaRue as Jed’s former cellmate, Buster Crabbe as Mark’s kid brother, Gail Patrick as their sister, and Barton MacLane as Mark’s son-in-law. It features a very early role for John Carradine, and the very first screen appearance for Shirley Temple, who is utterly charming.

Delmar Watson, Randolph Scott, and in her very first
scene in a movie, Shirley Temple

It’s a pre-Code film, which means, yes, Esther Ralston really seems to be skinny-dipping, and some of the violence is startling brutal. There’s one moment as tough as the scene in LITTLE CESAR when the gangster is brought home. Most interesting is a moment where Ellen asks cousin Eli (James Eagle) how a fine lady dresses. As he describes how his mother would dress, we realize what neither he nor Ellen do, that his mother was working in a brothel.

THE FIGHTING WESTERNER was originally released as THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN MYSTERY, and is in fact more of a Mystery than a Western, and not a very involving one at that. Randolph Scott is a mining engineer who arrives at a radium mine to find he’s there to replace a murdered man. All of the heirs have come for the reading of the will, and someone is bumping them off. Scott plays Watson to Sheriff (and vaudeville comic) Chic Sale’s Holmes. Also in the cast are lovely Ann Sheridan very early in her career; lovely Kathleen Burke, best remembered as the Panther Woman in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS; and David Belasco discovery Mrs. Leslie Carter.  It was the second film directed by talented journeyman Charles Barton, who the previous year won an Oscar for Best Assistant Director – yes, they used to give Oscars for that job. He would make his reputation directing some of Abbott & Costello’s funniest films, including ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. He has one wonderful sequence here, a fight-to-the-death at the mine’s stamp mill. Both films are from badly scratched but high-quality prints. Alpha Video’s offices are currently closed due to the Coronavirus. But when things get back to normal, you can order them HERE.


Have a great week, keep washing your hands and hiding from your neighbors!
Happy Trails,
All Original Material Copyright Mach 2020 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

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