'BANDITS' TALK WITH FRED OLEN RAY
UPDATED THURSDAY JULY 1ST -- SEE AMC 4TH OF JULY SALUTE BELOW
I recently interviewed writer-director Fred Olen Ray on the eve of the release of AMERICAN BANDITS: FRANK AND JESSE JAMES. To read my review of BANDITS, CLICK HERE. I knew that Ray was a prolific director, but not how many times he’d sat in the director’s chair.
FRED: I don’t actually know. I stopped counting some time ago, but it’s close to 100.
HENRY: What year did you make your first?
F: The very first film I ever worked on was in 1975. The first one I directed was probably 1977.
H: You’re primarily known for crime and action, sci-fi and horror. Why did you decide to make a western this time?
F: Well, I don’t actually choose a lot of the projects that we do. We’re like anyone else, we get a job offered, and we take it or don’t take it. And we try to do the kind of films that other people are wanting to pay for. And I had made a western before that was very successful.
H: What was that called?
F: When we first did it, it was called THE SHOOTER (1997, starring Michael Dudikoff and Randy Travis). And then on the Western Channel they played it as DESERT SHOOTER. Plays pretty often on TV now. No one ever finances (westerns) any more, so you figure if you get a chance to do a western, that may be the only opportunity in your whole career, so we jumped at it. And it turned out pretty well. It had been nominated for a GOLDEN BOOT AWARD for best picture, but at the budget that it was made at, it wasn’t going to compete with the other films, and we lost out to LAST STAND AT SABRE RIVER (1997). That was a PBS or TNT thing.
H: Oh right, with Tom Selleck, from the Elmore Leonard novel.
F: Right now, the domestic market is actually looking for westerns again. There’s an upswing of westerns. Of course, when Buster Crabbe and those guys were making westerns in the 1940s, there were three or four western towns that you could film at for varying budget levels. Everyone had horses and everyone had wagons, and costumes and their stunt guys who did horse-work. Nowadays, because westerns have been pretty dead, these things don’t exist anymore. They don’t exist at the level that makes it easy to make a low-budget western, and everybody that comes to you wants it to be low-budget. You keep trying to tell them it’s very difficult to do a movie where every single item has to be a period piece. It means renting everything – a guy can’t even wear his own shoes to the set. Everything has to be rented – every prop, every gun. And you know they do a lot of CG (computer generated) gunfire now, but you can’t do that in a western, because there’s so much black-powder smoke that you feel obliged to use blanks. Then there are horses that have to be wrangled. You know, making a western now, if you don’t have a lot of money, that’s a tough way to go, but we did it. I don’t know if we’ll do it again. Everyone wants us to do another one, because the one we did was pretty well received, or at least it has been so far.
H: Talking about western towns, I just spent yesterday at Peetzburgh.
F: Well that’s where part of this was shot. I just spoke to Pete Shereyko two days ago, and that’s an interesting place. We managed to shoot a little bit outside of his buildings, but for the most part what was done there was done interior.
H: I was in the interiors, and they really looked very nice.
F: We actually cleared one half of the saloon area, and made it into the doctor’s office, and it worked pretty well. And Pete has a lot of clothes and he has a lot of guns and this and that, and it does make it a little more manageable, but you still need that all-important either country-side or exterior western town, and if Paramount Ranch doesn’t suit you, or Sable Ranch doesn’t suit you, the price starts going up dramatically. We shot at Melody Ranch for THE SHOOTER. And it was so expensive the producers wouldn’t let us shoot the interiors, because they didn’t want to pay for this big town and then be stuck inside a room. So all the sheriff’s (office) interiors and saloon interiors were all done at Sable Ranch on sets that were dilapidated and falling down, and then when they would walk out they’d be at Melody Ranch. (laughs) So as they came and went they were changing locations.
H: Now you wrote this one as well as directed it?
F: Yes, I wrote it because the budget was limited. I don’t consider myself a writer, I don’t actually like the act of writing. I do it sometimes because I know I can make the movie for the money the producers want to spend if I control that part. That’s the front line of defense, to write the script for the locations that you know, and in a way that you can make it for the money. I was interested in the Jesse James story because my family has a distant relationship to them. I studied up on that. And I am also a Civil War buff, I’m a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans. I was interested in the plight of people after the Civil War. It’s more of a post-Civil War film than a western. It’s pre-cowboy era. It addresses the tough times, the situations the people in the border states found themselves in after being on the wrong side of the war when it ended. We’re not too preachy, but I certainly portray that, and nobody’s busted me for that, so why not?
H: Why not indeed. Now Peter Fonda, coming off his recent success in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) is top-billed. How did you like working with him?
F: Well, he may look like he’s top-billed on the box-cover, but he’s actually last-billed on the film. He was somebody we were really looking forward to having, because he’s very iconic. And for one moment in time it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. We had made the deal, and I had spoken to him in France, and coming back on the plane, he fell on the jet-way. He busted his jaw open, and he had to have stitches. And (his people) were saying, he can’t be there on this day, and he could probably be ready in a week.
And that’s a week after the movie shoot had ended. So we thought, let’s not get ourselves caught in a tough spot here. Let’s go ahead and film these scenes anyway with a different actor. And if Peter Fonda comes in, we’ll re-shoot them. But if he never shows up, we’re not sitting here with a movie that’s unfinished. So an actor named Greg Evigan came in filmed that role. It was really tough to let go of it because Greg gave it everything he had, everybody did it to the very best of their ability, we were very happy with it and a few days later, after the movie had wrapped, we heard, ‘Okay, Peter Fonda’s ready!’ So we shot the scenes over again with (Peter Fonda), and those are what we used in the movie.
H: I just saw Greg Evigan in the other recent western, 6 GUNS (2010).
F: Yuh, that was actually made some time after ours but came out before ours. The people who made it (The Asylum) are like a film machine – they just grind them out as quickly as possible, and they’ll wrap one week and two weeks later you see it on a shelf somewhere. (laughs) We don’t operate with that kind of speed or efficiency around here!
H: How about the casting of Frank and Jesse James?
F: Well, I brought in a guy named Tim Abell, who worked for me a lot. He was on SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, INC. (1997-1999), the TV series. I had been working with Tim since the very beginning of his career. I knew he was good with horses, I knew he was good with guns, and he had that look that I thought was the way to go. And when everybody saw and met Tim, everybody agreed: this guy is Frank James. And this isn’t really a movie about Jesse James, it’s a movie about Frank James that Jesse James happens to be in. If you watch the film, you may agree.
H: I noticed that Frank gets top billing in the title, which I thought was a nice change.
F: Well you know, it always has to be ‘Frank and Jesse James’ because if you were to reverse it, then the name ‘Jesse James’ would not appear in the title of the film. It would be ‘Jesse and Frank James.’ And it was always Frank and Jesse, because Frank was older. People were asking me if it was possible that a lawman wouldn’t know which one was Frank and which one was Jesse. And I said, absolutely. They were only four years apart, and with most wanted posters being drawings of people, and people growing beards and mustaches all the time, unless somebody was extremely distinctive, there’s a good chance that you’d have to ask which one they were. Now some of the Confederate history guys commented on a few things that were probably not (historically) correct. I said, look, I can’t be the art department, the wardrobe department, and the gun department. I’m the director, I’ll drop back and blame everybody else for every little technical imperfection. I was trying to tell a story.
H: What projects are you working on now?
F: Well, you know, we have another western in the hopper, and we were all set to make it. We’d raised the money and everything. And then we started having cold feet about the foreign territory not returning the money that would justify the risk. And we may yet make that if somebody else wants to put up the money for it. So we’re going back to what we usually do, which is a sort of sci-fi/monster movie. We’re making a movie about a giant shark next.
H: I saw something online about a Sasquatch meeting a Chupacabra (the perhaps mythical ‘goat–blood sucker’).
F: That’s something we had been developing in secret, and we got wind that someone else might be jumping on that bandwagon, so we decided to go ahead and promote the Hell out of it. I’m not planning to make it for a few months. But I wanted to let other people know that we did have this project and we were planning to make it, as a way of sort of warding off copycats. Once we announced that we got contacted by all kinds of people who either wanted to provide a musical score, or wanted to be the writer, or whatever. We actually did hire one of the guys who contacted us to write the shark movie, so I guess it worked out for him.
H: I guess so. What are your favorites of your own films?
F: You know, THE SHOOTER is probably at the top of my very short list. It was well-acted, it was staged properly, I really enjoyed that film. Most of the films we make, it’s like a contractor – which are the favorite houses that you built? Most of the films, we do because someone’s paying us to do it. It’s a job, this isn’t a hobby. Any film that I do that is successful, I’m happy about. I did a film called ACCIDENTAL CHRISTMAS (2007), and Lifetime Channel picked it up as a world premiere, and it plays five or six times a year. So, I’m really fond of that film just because it was successful. And I just did a movie the SyFy Channel has run a couple of times in just the last week called SEA SNAKES (aka SILENT VENOM 2009), with Luke Perry and Tom Berenger. I’m happy with that because it validated itself and people liked it. And if Paramount or Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox buys one of my films, I’m happy with those films, because it’s hard to get a bigger, better. I’m still waiting for Universal to buy one of my films, but I’ve got all the other top labels.
H: What are your favorite westerns? What westerns have influenced you?
F: I enjoyed FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965). Of those Italian-type westerns, that’s probably my favorite. I worked with Lee Van Cleef in ARMED RESPONSE (1986), another of my very short list of films that are my top favorites. I like the Leone westerns. I liked DJANGO (1966), I liked a movie called KEOMA (1976) which was another Franco Nero film. In THE SHOOTER there are nods to KEOMA. In that film, I believe the guy looks up at one point, there’s a lightning flash, and an old woman looks like a young girl from his past. And I did that when Michael Dudikoff is crucified, he looked down at this prostitute holding an axe. And the lightning flashed, and he saw a woman who you’d only seen in a photograph in his Bible, which was he dead wife. You see her for one brief moment looking up, and then it flashes back, and it’s the prostitute. That came right from KEOMA. There’s probably some other things.
H: How about American westerns?
F: I watched STALKING MOON (1968) recently, I enjoyed that. John Wayne films from the late fifties to the late sixties are my favorite. I liked RIO LOBO, I liked RIO BRAVO, I liked CHISUM, BIG JAKE is one of my all-time favorites. Not a fan of THE WAR WAGON. I kind of like the one with Rock Hudson, where he’s the Confederate, UNDEFEATED. THE SHOOTIST is a great picture. I was lucky enough to connect up and direct John Carradine in some films as well, toward the end of his life, so we had a chance to talk about all of that. I’m doing Billy the Kid next – that’ll be the next one.
H: Can I announce that?
F: Well, that’s what everybody wants. It’s not what Fred wants, but you know what? People say, you’ve got to have a famous character name, and they want Billy the Kid. It’s going to bend all the rules, and we’re not going to follow the real history. I’m going to follow Billy the Kid as if Buster Crabbe was playing the role again. I’ll just make a story about him.
H: I love those old Buster Crabbe, PRC things.
F: You know it’s very funny because I directed Buster Crabbe in a movie.
H: Really, what was it?
F: It was called THE ALIEN DEAD (1980), and it was one of the last things he did. At one point his career sort of stopped. I said, Buster, why did you choose to stop acting? He said, “Well, I’ll tell you, kid. The budgets on these westerns had gotten so low. It was the end of the day, the sun was going down. The producer took me aside, he whispered in my ear. I got on my horse, I raised my hand to all the guys in my posse, I said, ‘Guys, we’re gonna ride to the bottom of the hill, we’ll dismount, and take ‘em by foot.’ And they all rode to the bottom of the hill, jumped off their horses and ran up the hill on foot because at five o’clock the horses went into overtime, and they didn’t want to pay for it.” Buster said, “That was it. When I went home that night I said, that’s it, I’ve had it!” And he retired from films for a while until he did CAPTAIN GALLANT in the fifties. But he sure did make a lot of films.
H: What more can you tell me about BANDITS?
F: We all very much enjoyed making AMERICAN BANDITS. It was originally called SCOFIELD .45, named after the gun, and nobody wanted to call it that but me, so I said, great, I’ll put that title in my back pocket, you’ll be sorry. They wanted to call it AMERICAN BANDITS, I said, dude, there’s a movie called AMERICAN OUTLAWS (2001) about Jesse James already. I don’t really care what you call it. But when you see the film, it’s not a shoot ‘em up. I said, we can afford to do some action at the beginning, some action at the end, and maybe something in the middle, but it has to be about something. And I think that is why people like it, because it’s about something, about these people, and you give a shit. And I felt like it plotted itself out really well. I thought Jeffrey Combs made a very good villain. You don’t think of him as a western star, but, you know, everybody wants to be in a western.
H: Certainly every guy.
F: Yeah, when you say you’re making a western, people come out of the woodwork. I don’t know if it’s because everyone wants to dress up like they were a kid again. They want to ride up, and they’ve got to have that hat and that gun – a lot of people will buy their own gun! They want that gun when the movie’s over, they want to take that gun home. They want to get on those horses, and people will tell you they can ride horses who haven’t a clue how to ride a horse. They get on and you can see they’re terrified. These horses – I don’t even like to stand next to them – they’re gigantic beasts that weigh a ton, and they’re not as controllable as people think. But I felt like the film succeeded because it had a good story between the people, it was sort of a bittersweet thing, and it’s not a rousing western, you know? It’s not cookie-cutter. But we’ll see, won’t we?
H: We sure will. (Photos, from the top, Fred Olen Ray, Tim Abell as Frank James, Tim Abell ans Siri Baruc, Michael Gaglio and Anthony Tyler Quinn, Ray directing Peter Fonda)
ANTHONY MANN FESTIVAL AT NEW YORK’S FILM FORUM
What a treat for all of you that live East but love West! From June 25th through July 15th, the Forum will be presenting 26 movies – most in double features and a few in triple bills! -- directed by the great Anthony Mann, whose post-war westerns brought a new-found maturity to the form, and gave James Stewart a chance to stretch as an actor as never before. In addition to the westerns being shown, Mann's fine crime and war stories will also be on view. Among the westerns: BORDER INCIDENT (1949) and DEVIL'S DOORWAY (1950) on Wednesday, June 30th; THE LAST FRONTIER (1956) and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958) on Thursday July 1st; MAN OF THE WEST (1958) and a new 35MM print of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) on Friday and Saturday July 2nd and 3rd; BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) and a new 35mm print of THUNDER BAY (1953) on Sunday and Monday, July 4th and 5th; CIMARRON (1960) on Monday July 5th, THE FURIES (1950) and THE TIN STAR (1957) on Tuesday July 6th; THE FAR COUNTRY (1955) and THE TALL TARGET (1951) on Friday and Saturday, July 9th and 10th. To whet your appetite -- and this is for everyone, not just New Yorkers - CLICK HERE to see trailers of several of the Anthony Mann westerns.
AROUND LOS ANGELES
THE AUTRY NATIONAL CENTER
Built by cowboy actor, singer, baseball and TV entrepeneur Gene Autry, and designed by the Disney Imagineering team, the Autry is a world-class museum housing a fascinating collection of items related to the fact, fiction, film, history and art of the American West. In addition to their permenant galleries (to which new items are frequently added), they have temporary shows. Currently they have HOMELANDS: HOW WOMEN MADE THE WEST through August 22nd, and THE ART OF NATIVE AMERICAN BASKETRY: A LIVING TRADITION, through November 7th. I've seen the basketry show three times, and am continually astonished at the beauty and variety of the work of the various tribes. The Autry has many special programs every week -- sometimes several in a day. To check their daily calendar, CLICK HERE. And they always have gold panning for kids every weekend. For directions, hours, admission prices, and all other information, CLICK HERE.
HOLLYWOOD HERITAGE MUSEUM
Across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, this building, once the headquarters of Lasky-Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) was the original DeMille Barn, where Cecil B. DeMille made the first Hollywood western, The Squaw Man. They have a permanent display of movie props, documents and other items related to early, especially silent, film production. They also have occasional special programs. 2100 Highland Ave., L.A. CA 323-874-2276. Thursday – Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. $5 for adults, $3 for senior, $1 for children.
WELLS FARGO HISTORY MUSEUM
This small but entertaining museum gives a detailed history of Wells Fargo when the name suggested stage-coaches rather than ATMS. There’s a historically accurate reproduction of an agent’s office, an original Concord Coach, and other historical displays. Open Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Admission is free. 213-253-7166. 333 S. Grand Street, L.A. CA.
4TH OF JULY WEEKEND JOHN WAYNE SALUTE ON AMC!
Starting Thursday night, July 1st, AMC will run a marathon of John Wayne pictures which, with the exception of a few infomercials and Three Stooges Shorts, will run through Sunday night, Independence Day. The films will be hosted by the husband and wife team of Ty Murray and Jewel. He is the champion bull-rider who did so well on DANCING WITH THE STARS this season. She's the very attractive and talented singer/songwriter whose impressive acting debut was in the excellent Civil War film RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999). The movies, most of which will be seen more than once, and begin at 12:30 Friday morning with THE WAR WAGON, include THE COMANCHEROS, HONDO, RIO BRAVO, THE HORSE SOLDIERS, THE WINGS OF EAGLES, OPERATION PACIFIC, THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, MCLINTOCK!, CAHILL, U.S. MARSHAL, NORTH TO ALASKA, CHISUM, THE COWBOYS and THE SHOOTIST. Check your cable of satellite system for the proper times -- and have a great 4th!
TV LAND - BONANZA and GUNSMOKE
Every weekday, TV LAND airs a three-hour block of BONANZA episodes from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. They run a GUNSMOKE Monday through Thursday at 10:00 a.m., and on Friday they show two, from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m.. They're not currently running either series on weekends, but that could change at any time.
NEED YOUR BLACK & WHITE TV FIX?
Check out your cable system for WHT, which stands for World Harvest Television. It's a religious network that runs a lot of good western programming. Your times may vary, depending on where you live, but weekdays in Los Angeles they run THE LONE RANGER at 1:30 p.m., and two episodes of THE RIFLEMAN from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.. On Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. it's THE RIFLEMAN again, followed at 2:30 by BAT MASTERSON. And unlike many stations in the re-run business, they run the shows in the original airing order. There's an afternoon movie on weekdays at noon, often a western, and they show western films on the weekend, but the schedule is sporadic.
I've got a few other items I'll try to get listed today or tomorrow.
Copyright June 2010 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved