INTERVIEW WITH ‘HEATHENS AND THIEVES’ WRITER AND CO-DIRECTOR JOHN DOUGLAS SINCLAIR
When I ran my review of HEATHENS AND THIEVES in the beginning of July, (to read it, go HERE) I was discussing a movie that few people had as yet any chance to see. Since then, this
Western Noir has been playing in festivals and garnering awards:
Special Jury Award and Best Actress Award for Gwendoline Yeo at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.
Outstanding Dramatic Feature at the
International Film Fest. Sacramento
Audience Favorite Award at the Downtown Film Festival,
. Los Angeles
Best Western at the
Gorge International Film Festival. Columbia
Audience Choice for Best Feature at the
Music & Film Festival. Sacramento
Coming up on Friday, September 21st, HEATHENS AND THIEVES will screen at the New Jersey Film Festival. In fact, this Saturday, September 8th, it’s the Closing Night film of the Rome International Film Festival – and while that may be in
Rome, Georgia, the movie is getting an international reputation: on Friday, October 12th it will screen in , at the Almeria Western Film Festival, along with other Round-up favorites LEGEND OF HELL’S GATE and YELLOW ROCK. Spain
And in October and November, HEATHENS AND THIEVES will become available in DVD and VOD – I’ll have the exact dates very soon. The film was made by OROFINO, a production company consisting of writer/co-director John Douglas Sinclair, co-director Megan Peterson, producer Peter Scott, and director of photography Pyongson Yim.
HENRY: You wrote it, but you co-directed it. Most co-directors these days have the same last name, whether it’s Coen or Singleton. How did you two come together, and what is it like co-directing?
JOHN: The way we came together was, we and the director of photography, Pyongson Yim, had been friends for a number of years. We had all been working in ‘the industry’ in various ways. But none of us doing what we’d set out to do in the first place, which was getting features made.
H: What had you and Megan been doing prior to this?
J: Well, I had been writing. I won the Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy for screenwriting, so I had been working on trying to get my own stuff made. I hadn’t been successful in selling or making it myself, and Megan and Pyongson had both been working a lot in reality television, doing some really interesting DISCOVERY and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC shows, but also less interesting reality shows. Megan was field producing, and Pyongson was shooting. Most people get into this business with either narrative features or TV in their heart, and so you have to remind yourself, hey, if we don’t do it, we’ll never get it done. So we kind of put ourselves to it, and started telling everyone that we were going to make a movie, and realized, oh my God, now we’re on the hook; we’ve got to do it.
We realized that, between the three of us, we had the ability to do this. The way it started actually was that Megan and Pyongson had been talking about doing a film, but I’m more of a writer than they are. So I mentioned maybe I could come up with a script, and Megan said, “Well, we have to do a western.” I’m like, “Why a western?” Because I’d never written a western. But it was because Megan’s family lived up north in
, surrounded by friends who have ranches and old properties and horses and things, and she said, “I can bring a lot of that to it.” Etna, California
H: I was struck by how many horses you see in one shot. Because with westerns today, sometimes you say, ‘Isn’t that the same horse the other guy was riding?’
J: Exactly! We were so lucky! When I heard we were going to get twenty-five or thirty horses, I said, “Well, I’ve got to write a stampede into this.” I really wrote around the location and the resources – what we had. Of course I threw some challenges into the script that we weren’t really prepared for, like the explosion.
H: That was huge! I that that was going to take out all the buildings on the farm!
J: It took out all the windows in the actual set house that we used, even though we had boarded them up. I grew up like anyone, loving westerns, but I didn’t have any particular special knowledge of them. Rather than go back and watch a bunch, I said, well, let’s just see what comes out. What’s in my subconscious; what kind of western would I like to see. We always knew we wanted it informed by a sense of noir, not a hyper-stylized noir, but we loved the sense of playing with some shadows, playing with some moral ambiguity, and a femme fatale at the center. I wanted everyone to have a real motive, nobody just to be a villain entirely, which I always respected about UNFORGIVEN: that was always one of my favorite Westerns. Everyone has a reason for being the way they are, even if they’re a little misguided. So that’s how we came together. And as far as co-directing, we spent a lot of time in pre-production just making sure we were on the same page on everything, and also with Pyongson, our D.P. The three of us really worked the story together so that by the time we got on the set, we were able to make decisions without always consulting with each other. For the hard stuff, we would always hash it out. But a lot of times, Megan would rush off and help establish a lighting mood with the D.P. while I was walking the characters through the next scene. We stepped in wherever we were needed.
H: You rarely run into a female D.P.
J: Yes, it’s rare, and not only is she a woman; she’s a Korean woman, which is not super-common. I felt from the beginning that no one but Pyongson could have shot this movie; she’s such a rising talent, has a unique vision.
H: Visually, it has a DESPERATE HOURS kind of a feel, where a great deal of it is taking place on one night, in one place, so what the interior looks like is hugely important. There was a tendency in westerns, in the late 60s and 70s to bounce-light everything, and it was always too bright. And after that it got terribly murky and dark. She did a beautiful job of using shadow, but not making everyone pitch black, making the lighting seem motivated.
J: Thank you. One of the things she was up against was, we shot it on the Red One camera, and it was kind of experimental because none of us had used that camera before. She wanted to use that noir shadow thing, but she didn’t want to lose detail by not lighting enough. And so she was walking an interesting line there, to have enough to play with on post production. And I should say that the four of us, we raised the funding ourselves, so that between the four of us we would have complete creative control, and live or die by our own sword, instead of someone else’s. So the four of us brought together whatever talents we could.
H: Tell me about that huge explosion.
J: Steven Riley is the guy who was responsible for setting that all up. He is one of our executive producers, he and David Poole. Steven’s the pyrotechnics and special effects coordinator in the last eight or ten Clint Eastwood movies. He claims that for GRAN TORINO, he’s the only man who’s ever shot Clint Eastwood dead in a movie. He’s done SPIDER MAN, he’s done
PEARL HARBOR, he was the head guy on the train crash in SUPER 8. We were so lucky to get this guy. Basically he was in a point in his career where he was doing this for years – his first movie was PETE’S DRAGON, back in the 70s. And he said, I want to learn the producing side a little bit. He came on as executive producer. His son Ryan Riley became the special effects coordinator, with his father kind of overseeing, and together they brought up their 46 foot trailer with everything you could ever want, and we really couldn’t have done it without them setting up the explosion. They even brought out the guy who was responsible for overseeing pyrotechnics in TITANIC for the day, and he helped oversee as well, because it was super-dangerous apparently.
And when we’re ready to do the explosion, he calls the local volunteer fire, to arrange for a permit for the day. And they said, what day of the week are you planning top do this? Tuesday. They said, oh, we’re off that day. Go ahead: do whatever you want. Half the town came out and watched. We had warned them because we didn’t want any unpleasant surprises. This is one of those dream situations where you’re bringing up a village of people from
, and then combining them with a village of locals who came together – the locals were our extras, they were our carpenters, they were our horse wranglers. Both sides learning from each other; they’re learning the movie business, and we’re learning all about ranch living. Hollywood
H: You shot it all in Etna
J: Yes, almost all in Etna and the surrounding valley. It’s 11 ½ hours north of
Los Angeles, you’re maybe an hour and a half from the border. The reason we chose that setting is because we had access to it. But it inspired us too. Because so many westerns have been made on the dry, dusty plains, that kind of Oregon feel. There are some, but not as many that take advantage of that forest-y feel. New Mexico
H: You’ve got the green west; not the tan.
J: Exactly. And because I knew we were doing it there, I thought, what is unique about that area, when I was trying to think what kind of western. I thought that the Chinese element is something that’s been really overlooked. In DEADWOOD you have that element. But when I was researching, I could only find one American western that singled out a Chinese woman as a major character, and that was A THOUAND PIECES OF GOLD, with a young Chris Cooper in it, back in the 80’s. I don’t think it’s ever even made it to DVD. It’s not a very well-known movie.
H: It certainly isn’t. There was the AMC miniseries, BROKEN TRAIL, and of course you have the lady from BROKEN TRAIL, Gwendoline Yeo.
J: When I saw BROKEN TRAIL I thought, my God, she’d be perfect! And she really wanted to do it, she loved the character,. But she said, ‘My agent has warned me, if you do this, don’t make it like BROKEN TRAIL. Make sure that they let you look prettier. More made up.” Because in BROKEN TRAIL she was out on the road and had no make-up on.
H: I hadn’t thought of it before, but in a way her character is very much a parallel character to Claudia Cardinale’s in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
J: Yes, very much so, but I hadn’t thought of that either. That isn’t what I modeled her on, but I’m sure that was buried in my psyche. I love those Sergio Leone’s – those are my favorite westerns. Along with UNFORGIVEN, and some of the earlier Clint Eastwood ones, JOSEY WALES. Those are the kind of westerns that I really love.
H: As you said, you weren’t setting out to make westerns initially. Did you watch westerns very much as a kid?
J: I was aware of westerns. I remember seeing some John Waynes, the original TRUE GRIT, as a kid. I think it would be hard to grow up in this country and not be aware of westerns; they’re in our psyche. But at the same time I never was particularly drawn to them. When I saw GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and UNFORGIVEN, that opened my eyes – I wasn’t aware of this kind of western earlier, and that’s what excited me. My manager jokes that anytime anyone asks what genre I’m into, he’s like, ‘Pick a day.’ I just finished writing, for another director a script for hire, an independent documentary. There’s a lot of recreations and things, so it’s very narrative, and I’d never done that before either. That’s what I love, to pick up a challenge; there’s a story for every genre’.
H: Do you see yourself primarily as a writer or a director?
J: I really feel like I want to write and direct, both. Writing has been the base of my career; I’ve always been a writer, trying to sell scripts for other people to do. But once I got a taste of directing – I started off with some shorts, separately, as did Megan, but when we did this feature I realized: this is the reward! All the pain of writing – this is the fun part, going out there with an army of talented people! We had a production designer and art director who really just excelled in finding authentic stuff from that time period and making it feel real. And our costumer – she had done a lot of independent film before; she’d done CHUCK AND BUCK and REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES. And that’s what brought her onto our set; she was looking for a western because it was the one thing she hadn’t done, and she wanted to try her hand at it. I have to say, all of us up on that set, surrounded by mountains and horses and guns and everything! It really brings out the six-year-old kid in everybody, to do a western – even if they didn’t know they were western fans at heart.
H: How long a shooting schedule did you have?
J: We had a unique case. We shot it in two parts, over about two weeks in the spring, then took the summer off, to raise more money, because we knew we didn’t have enough money to shoot the whole thing. So we took a real risk in saying, let’s shoot about a third of the movie, and we’ll cut the footage into a trailer, and try to excite more interest to bring everyone back together. So we came back in the fall and shot for close to a month; five or six weeks shooting (altogether).
H: What sort of scenes did you shoot in those first two weeks, to raise the rest of the budget?
J: We shot almost entirely interiors. We realized that the weather was going to change vastly from spring to fall, so if we shot outdoor scenes, they would look very different (and not match). And the only exterior scene in the movie that we shot that first spring period was a nighttime shot, because no matter what the weather, it will look like night. It’s when he’s sneaking out of the bunkhouse with his boots off.
H: What was your budget?
J: We’re really not supposed to say. If we hadn’t gotten so much from people giving their time, their services, their resources, I would say it would be a two to four million dollar movie, if we had to pay for everything. The explosion alone would have been a good portion of a million, probably, if Warner Brothers had done it.
H: The production is very impressive. You really feel like it’s all on the screen.
J: That’s why we ran out of money so often. Like when we finished in the fall, we had to raise money to do post (production), because we wanted to do it right; we didn’t want to short-change what was on the screen. We were so lucky to have so many good people. And Don Swayze, Patrick’s brother, became such a great force on set; I think he gave just a riveting performance.
H: He was terrific. I love that he was a villain that doesn’t think of himself as a villain. And I think it’s a tribute to your writing; I’m sure what appealed to these actors so much is that everyone is playing a really solid character.
J: On a practical level, too, when you’re doing a small independent movie, you don’t have a lot of money to throw at actors. You want good actors, and the only other way to get them is if they feel like these are really meaty roles to play. It’s not what I set out thinking, but in retrospect that’s really important, I think, not to overlook the practical side of filmmaking. When I started on the story I knew that we would be limited, that we wouldn’t have a cast of hundreds. We’re not going to have a big town like DEADWOOD or anything like that. So I realized that every character becomes more important, because you have so few. I first thought, what kind of western do I like? And I thought THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Well, what’s that about? It’s about three guys after the same thing. That’s the whole story in a way. And if you stick to something simple like that, then each of their motives – it’s less about plotting and more about who they are and how they collide with each other.
H: It’s like the MALTESE FALCOLN isn’t about the falcon; it’s about all the people who want to get it.
J: Like the gold or the falcon, it really doesn’t matter: it’s about the people, and what they’re willing to give up, or do to each other.
H: How did you get your cast together?
J: We cast over a period of, like, six to nine months. We saw tons of people. Some of the small characters, Pearl, the blonde in the saloon, and the deputy, Joel Barry and Cecelie Bull, they were friends of mine and Megan’s, and I wrote those parts with them in mind. Everyone else came in various ways. For Gwendoline, we had a friend who had acting classes with her, so he sent her the script, and she was cool enough to come to an audition. And she was responsible for bringing us Don Swayze and Boyuen, who plays her husband in the movie. Again, she had had acting classes with them in the past. The moment she saw the Col. Sherman Rutherford role, she’s like, I know the perfect guy for this. Don came in and auditioned with Gwendoline, and he’s throwing her against the wall, and they’re beating up on each other, falling on the floor, and I’m like oh my God, these two are perfect together.
When we were shooting in the spring, Don’s brother was dying. And he was really just filled with rage and sadness and fury, so he said he kept himself sane by pouring it into that character, just letting it go. Every night he was on the phone with his brother, and hoping that Patrick wasn’t going to die when he was up there, and Patrick kept telling him, you’re doing the right thing, this is a good role for you. Patrick didn’t die until the shoot was over, so Don, thankfully, was able to be with him.
H: Andrew Simpson, the male lead, is interesting because he has virtually no credits. But he’s very good; he’s someone the camera really likes.
J: He’s doing a web series now, but we get to say he’s our discovery, because he hadn’t done much. When we were looking at guys for the lead, I realized, and Megan realized that the great western leading men of the 1960s, like Clint and Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson – those guy were real men, and you could believe that they had killed people, you know? Or they could live for a week in the forest. Whereas it’s hard to find leading men of that age-range now that feel like that. Even when you look at the big
Hollywood movies now, they’re all too pretty.
H: Pretty and soft.
J: Yeah! We don’t want an Orlando Bloom, someone like that. When we met Andy, at first we weren’t sure what we thought of him; he came to read for Moses, the man in black. Then we saw him and said, why don’t you read for the lead. We tried him against Gwendoline, and again, of all the guys we put against her in the audition, (he was) the only one that seemed really able to handle her. He felt to me like he was tough, but also had that wounded element to him, like a prize-fighter, who’s had some rough knocks in his life. And we felt he had the right presence, so let’s see if he can carry this feature.
This isn’t explicit in the movie, but in my mind, this story was, you have your archetypal ‘man with no name,’ but how did the guy become that guy? Where did he come from? And in a way, Andy’s character, Saul, I feel is the guy that, the next time you see him, he’ll be riding into one of those dusty towns, a man with no name, cold and hard, but with maybe a little bit of warmth inside him. But he’s a killer now; he’s a hero and a killer. To me the story was about getting him there. Even the name, Saul. Biblically, he’s Saul before he becomes Paul, becomes that transformed guy. This is his Saul stage. That’s not something everyone’s going to look into and see, but for me, creatively, those were sort of important elements to his arc.
TYRONE POWER in MARK OF ZORRO at the AUTRY Sept. 8
As part of their continuing series, What is a Western?, the Autry will screen one of the greatest of swash-bucklers, THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940), starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, and directed by the maestro of BLOOD AND SAND and DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE, Rouben Mamoulian. It even features, from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, the greatest of all sword-wielding villains, Basil Rathbone, and the most delightful friar of them all, Eugene Pallette. Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms, will lead the discussion before the film, which screens at 1:30 in the Wells Fargo Theatre.
And if this one puts you in the mood for more of the bold renegade who carves a Z with his blade, come back to the Autry on Saturday, September 15th, when, as part of the Latino Heritage Month celebration, the Autry will screen episodes of the 1990s ZORRO series, and of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, all featuring actor Henry Darrow, who will be signing his autobiography.
EASTWOOD AT THE AERO
The American Cinemateque at the Aero is featuring several Clint Eastwood Westerns in September. On Wednesday, Sept. 5th it’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES; on Monday, Sept. 10th it’s a 20th anniversary screening of UNFORGIVEN; and on Tuesday, Sept. 25th it’s TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH, co-starring Shirley Macaine, directed by Don Siegel, scripted by Budd Boetticher, with an amusing score by Ennio Morricone.
‘THE VIRGINIAN’ RETURNS ON INSP!
Not content to rest on their laurels, after announcing the return to the airwaves of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, INSP has announced that THE VIRGINIAN will be added to their Saddle-Up Saturday schedule! Coinciding with the series’ 50thAnniversary celebration at the Autry on September 22nd, a VIRGINIAN marathon will play on INSP, and the following Saturday it will become part of the regular line-up. Premiering in 1962, it was the first western series to run 90 minutes; in effect, it was a weekly movie. Based on Owen Wister’s novel, it ran nine seasons and 249 episodes, all of them starring James Drury as the title character without a name. Drury says, “I am thrilled that THE VIRGINIAN is coming back to television. And there’s no better place to call home than INSP. They have brought back so many of the shows that
still loves, and THE VIRGINIAN is sure to fit right in with their western line-up. INSP and THE VIRGINIAN prove that good television never goes out of style.” America
That's all for this week! Next week I'll have info about an upcoming RAMONA event, The Western Writer's of America's Round-up Magazine's take on direct-to-home-video westerns, my review of two different published screenplays for CHEYENNE WARRIOR II, and more!
Hope you had a great Labor Day! Uh-oh, it's dark, and I' haven't brought the flag in yet!
All Original Contents Copyright September 2012 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved