Meaner Than Hell (2009)

This is the true story of the most spectacular failure of my life, the time I went for broke,swung for the fences, and made a feature film.

It was a ten day shoot, cost around ten thousand dollars, and clocked in around 89 minutes. It was a western.

It was Meaner Than Hell.

castwithsign2I moved from Chicago with my fiancée and son out to Los Angeles in the hope that I’d be able to make a living writing screenplays. I’d gone to school for it, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree saying I could do it, but had no ins. I spent my first two years out here temping at a major mortgage company, pretending to be busy in a cube, alternating between the same two pairs of beige slacks and basically hating my life.

Then in 2005 or so, Kaiser Permanente Hospital intervened in my future by buying the apartment building we’d been living in (we were now married and I had a little girl) and giving each of the residents $8500 to facilitate their move.

If I were smart, I would’ve put that money towards a down payment on a home which in the intervening years would have nearly quadrupled in value. We could’ve sold that house and lived almost anywhere in the country in comfort.

But I got the brainy idea to use the money to shoot an independent film. It was fresh off of Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew and my head was throbbing with Elmore Leonard stories, Blood Meridian, Leone and Corbucci.

Really, I think the idea germinated in the 20th Street Writers Group, an informal group of aspiring screenwriters who met irregularly of which I was a member.

I had once met Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, the weekend before he won the Oscar, and he advised me to never pay attention to budgets or limit your writing according to what could be done conceptually. “If your script has to be filmed on location in space, don’t worry about it.”

So all my scripts had gone that route, big epic things that only Cecil B. Demille or James Cameron could put together.  A biopic about the abolitionist John Brown, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a kick ass trucker out to avenge the death of his dog, a story of rugby players in World War I Scotland.

topeandpicaro4But with this money coming in, and with my dear wife willing to take the plunge with me and let me use the kitty for this crazy movie, I started writing to a budget, thinking about what I could pull off. I came up with a cool concept for a western that I was sure was gonna revitalize the genre. It was dirty, brutal, clever, like Chato’s Land and The Great Silence had a baby that was adopted by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.  Westerns of late, I thought, had become bogged down by reality. I wanted to bring the coolness back to them, the muddy, bloody brawls and the insanely rich tough talk that led to the big shootout. I wanted to write a thinly veiled love story between two guys where the much anticipated kiss was a gundown.

I took the title, Meaner Than Hell, from a Johnny Cash song, and a line uttered by the nearsighted kid in Unforgiven.  A sadistic bounty hunter Tope Mullins, ambushes wild bespectacled outlaw Picaro’s gang and kills them all around the campfire one night. He shoots Picaro in the foot to induce him to share the location of the loot from his last robbery before he turns him into the authorities (adding a ticking clock element as Picaro’s foot begins to mortify).  Unfortunately when they wake up in the morning, Indians have stolen all the horses, and they have to make their way back to civilization on foot, contending with the threat of attack, the harsh elements, and of course, each other, the whole way.

thescalpingI wrote the thing in a couple weeks, shared it with the writer’s group, and sure enough, one of the guys in it, who would go on to become my Assistant Director, said, “I think we could shoot this ourselves.”

I took it as a sign.

Plans kicked into high gear.

I had gone to school with an absolutely brilliant cinematography student. He lived out in LA now, worked as a set electrician. He agreed to do it for five hundred bucks.

One of the guys in the group was a pretty talented SFX guy, another an editor with a home editing suite.

My dad had a collection of black powder revolvers.

My mother and wife were both talented seamstresses.

So I asked my aunt for an advance on my inheritance, got an HD camera for $3,000, put out a call for actors in Variety, and spent a year gathering props and costume material, and scouting Death Valley and unincorporated Lancaster.

I had a very talented group of guys respond to the casting call (though my ad for honest-to-God Native American actors went unanswered) and filled most of the bit parts with friends, expanding other roles as I went to give the guys that didn’t get cast in the principal roles more to do because I just thought they deserved it.

I budgeted the thing, set aside eleven days to shoot. Two of my best and oldest friends kicked in money and scheduled time to come out and help me with the thing, playing partially obscured Indians and corpses when needed and hoisting equipment.

As game time approached, I started to run into bumps.

First, with maybe two months to go, my extremely talented DP bailed for the chance to go be an electrician on The Gridiron Gang (I think it was).  He took a much better paycheck than I could offer, and continues to work steadily in the industry to this day on A-list productions as a Gaffer, Cameraman, and Electrician.  So be it. I lost his eye. I frankly think we all did.

He lined up a meeting with a friend of his, but the guy advised me to ditch the idea of making a feature and just concentrate on a short film. I recalled an anecdote Martin Scorcese related about how he made a short film and got it in front of some executive who shrugged and said, “Now go make a feature.” I was eliminating the middle step, I thought. Besides, I’d shot four shorts in college. I hadn’t come out to LA to make more shorts.

So I decided to shoot the thing myself.

More money for the budget, I figured.

Then, the whole cast and crew….I won’t say they totally mutineed on me, but we had a disagreement.

During a read-through of the script I mentioned that I intended to shoot the entire picture without live sound and foley all the dialogue and sound FX later.

Nobody wanted any part of that.

directingI argued that this was the way spaghetti westerns had always been shot, but I guess nobody liked the idea of trying to dub voices in later. The big worry was it would look stupid and amateurish, like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.

I think this was the part where I failed my movie. It was mine. Mostly my money, my vision, but I caved. If nobody wanted to do it that way, what could I do?

I scrambled to research boom mics and sound equipment, and I think, in the end, I was ill-prepared to shoot live sound and the end result suffered for it. The rattling of shingles on an old cabin by a howling desert wind can be evocative, but not when your actors are shouting over it. The sound quality of Meaner Than Hell varies pretty wildly from scene to scene.

But, mea culpa. I was the director, I shoulda put my foot down, but I didn’t.

So game day comes. My oldest friend flies in from Illinois and we bug out about how we’re shooting a movie in California over a table of In ‘N Out.

I gather up the actors, we drive out to the desert, shoot the first scene in a dry culvert.

My two principals are a great couple of guys.

Tope

Tope

Playing the bounty hunter Tope Mullins is Thomas Crnkovich, a guy whose father actually coached one of my relatives in football or something way back in the day, but who is twenty years older than me and whom I’ve never met, though we’re weirdly from the same general area. I could not write Tom as a character if I tried. When he sent me his portfolio, it included pictures of him wrestling with fucking tigers. He had worked for a time as a wild animal trainer for the shows in Las Vegas. He was a funny, funny guy, into Alice Cooper and his van. He was my pick for Tope from his first audition. Skin like leather, crazy eyes, I think his biggest role had been in Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD.  When I asked him in his audition what the first thing he had to do when training wild tigers was, he answered, in his Eastwoodian hiss, “Well the first thing I hadda do was teach the tigers not to kill me.”

picaro

Picaro

My pick for Picaro Gonnoff was a tough one. I left the ethnicity, nationality, body type, appearance, everything entirely to chance. I wanted to craft the role around the actor I chose. It was a hard pick for me between three guys, one of whom nailed the dangerousness of Picaro, the other who nailed the Tuco-esque craziness and humor, but only one of whom I thought could portray the balance between the two – be a charming, funny asshole one minute and be grinding his heel in your face the next. That was Jared Cohn (credited as Jared Michaels). Jared had a Colin Ferrel kinda look, but he brought this outrageous faux-southern accent that just won me over. He sounded like a guy that had gotten the shit kicked out of him at an early age and learned to kick back when you weren’t looking.  After I selected him for the role, I tailor made the character’s backstory for him, and wrote in some lines to incorporate who he was. I don’t know if a badass Jewish outlaw has ever been portrayed in film before or since, but that was Picaro/Jared.

jaredwithrifleguitarstyleAnyway, the guys were a little worried about my ability to point a camera in the right direction, and I remember Thomas asking to review the first shot after we’d done it. I remember it was a long take of the two of them stumbling down the gully into the foreground. It began with lots of negative space which the characters then gradually filled as they approached. I was proud of it, and apparently it alleviated their fears, because they both crowed over it and never questioned my framing again.

Film school, bitches! And extensive storyboards!

Well, storyboards which I swiftly abandoned as the day wore on and the light in the gully began to fade.

The second problem I ran into was my own insane scheduling. I really thought I could cram all these scenes into a set number of hours. I didn’t take sleep deprivation, egos, setup times, and getting lost driving in the freaking desert at night without GPS into account.

I reverted to a simple three shot set up for most of the early campfire scenes (one shot of each speaker, medium shot of the two of them).

edandcastI killed my minivan battery probably three times running the lights off of it. I remember too that Thomas had a hard time delivering his lines over the sound of the engine which he swore he could hear (but nobody else could) and we had to keep backing the van up behind boulders until he was happy. At the end of the shoot, my buddy Tom threw the wanted poster prop into the fire.

“WHAT THE FUCK DUDE?!” I hollered, snatching it out.

He had thought we were done with it. But eh, since it’s plucked off a corpse later, the big burn mark wound up looking cool. Happy accidents.

By the time we finished the initial shooting, it was dawn.

We pitched some tents and slept out there for about three or four hours and I got them up again to shoot the rest.

Two of the guys who had been rendered corpses needed to leave, but one of them was in the shot and I had to shoot several takes around the guy lying there dead and eventually getting scalped. Nightmarish.

I also remember this was the day my good friend Jeff Carter was scheduled to show up at the extremely remote cabin location of Ballarat in Death Valley to render a couple of the guys into living corpses for a dream sequence. The shoot felt so bad, I nearly abandoned the idea. We were far out of cell range, and I assumed because Jeff hadn’t heard from me, he would stay home. I very nearly went home without heading to the cabin, but decided at the last minute to do it anyway.

cabinWhen we showed up at the cabin, something like three hours late, Jeff was sitting there with his makeup kit on the porch of the little store run by the only two residents of Ballarat, a rawboned old father and son pair. I had to hide my freakin’ tears when I pulled up because I had nearly left him there and he had showed up to do his part. God bless that guy. We didn’t even end up using the ‘zombie’ shot, but we heard a passel of crazy ghost stories about Indian spirits in the mountains and jet fighters from Edwards Air Force Base crashing out in the dead lake where Charles Manson’s van still sat mired in the alkali.

That first day, nobody talked much on the drive home, and when I climbed into my bed I broke down when my wife asked me how it was going (did Sam Peckinpah cry like a girl so much while shooting The Wild Bunch? He probably just got drunk a lot – I wasn’t budgeted for booze) .  I remember saying I felt like I was trying to paint with boxing gloves on. I was in over my head.

The next day one of the actors slept late and we lost an hour knocking on his door and windows. We drove back up to the desert and had another grueling day/night shoot, but my AD Elliott McMillan, God bless HIM, suggested we not drive back and instead get a cheap hotel room out in the desert and thus get an early jump on the next day.

That was one of the most fun nights I ever had. It was Elliott, Jared, Tom, and I with my buddy Tom from kindergarten drinking beers and half-watching a monumental Dodgers game, laughing over Tom’s crazy sex stories and just being a buncha guys.

I think it was the next day’s shoot at the cabin that was one of the best days of my entire life.

I don’t know if you’ve ever made a movie, or seen something you’ve written adapted by actors, I mean…RIGHT.

jaredwithgunAt this point in the story, Tope and Picaro are holed up in a remote cabin. They have a heartfelt moment in the night, sharing their personal stories of killing and mayhem (this is the scene I think most suffered from live sound as the wind wouldn’t die down and we had to keep stopping to accommodate the jets flying maneuvers in the distance).  When Picaro tries to shoot Tope, they wind up beating the shit out of each other (in my storyboards, their crazy brawl across the cabin floor is portrayed like a sex scene with clenching hands and tangled feet – I don’t think it came through in the final project) and at this moment the Indians decide to attack.  Tope kills an Apache in the doorway and they both look on in shock as the guy’s corpse is whisked away by an unseen comrade.

Tope makes some remark about ‘His squaw must’ve had supper waiting’ which causes both of them to forget their enmity for the moment and share an honest laugh. And in the middle of that laugh, Picaro produces a hidden Derringer and blasts Tope through the face.

It was written to be a jarring moment, and of course I knew it was coming, but Jesus Christ, I swear, when it did….when Jared and Thomas played it PERFECT on the first take….I nearly ruined it by hissing an appreciative “FFFFFFUCK!” at the end of the scene. Haha.

I don’t know. Seeing that, something just clicked.

We had to beat the sundown to get the rest of this sequence finished. At first Thomas didn’t wanna roll around on the ground, which had old nails and glass scattered across it. So I, in a t-shirt, dove down to the ground and rolled around first to show him it was OK. I don’t know if it was OK but you wanna hear the funny part? You know what made me do that? It was a line from a Larry Hama GI Joe comic – or maybe it was the cartoon. But General Hawk told somebody ‘Don’t order men to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.’ And that stuck with me through years and years of adulthood, and reared its head in my mind at that moment.

Or maybe it was something from Patton’s War As I Knew It.

I don’t know.

edandtom

Magic day

But after that, and after I expressed such unbridled exuberance for what they were doing, it was like all of us were on the same page, and we were killing it. We zipped through the scenes. And Jeff was there, and he had to create a blossom of blood – a bullet hole in the side of Tom’s face, and it seemed like slow, meticulous work that was taking forever while I shot what I could of Jared. A gust of wind blew a cloud of particles into my wide angle lens and I unscrewed the thing and handed it over to my buddy Tom (from kindergarten). We were revolving, hunched around that cabin, grabbing the footage like war photographers.

In between takes I was jumping in place urging Jeff to hurry up with the makeup, saying it looked good enough, but professional as he was, he urged me to shut up till he got it right – till Thomas’ face was a mess of hamburger and powderburns, leaking Kayro all over the place.

We shot the hell out of that scene and it was goddamned beautiful. So beautiful that years later, when I brought a promised DVD copy of the finished product to the two guys that ran the Ballarat story, I walked through that ruined cabin (half of it is collapsed now), and I started crying like I had PTSD or something.

That day, I was a filmmaker. I was a freakin’ auteur, wearing every damn hat on the tree.

topesilhouetteWhen we finished, the sun was plunging into the desert and all the land was painted orange, and out of the mountains a flock of bats came spiraling out across the desert to light on a wading pool the residents kept out there behind their trailer. They whipped all around you, little flying mice, swarming erratically but taking no interest in you.

We were all of us buzzing. It was utterly awesome and one of the best days of my life.

We shot under a railroad trestle, Elliott mimicking Jeff’s makeup on Thomas’ face perfectly. I shot him pursuing a ghost through the stark, over exposed desert while Thomas assured my two year old daughter Magnolia that all that blood was just because he’d cut himself shaving.

We shot out near the Kill Bill church.

We shot Thomas’ last scene on a hilltop – the big climactic gunfight. It looked great, but I made the mistake of telling him he could keep the black hat that was part of his costume, so when he was supposed to get drenched in blood, he kept protecting that goddamned hat.

bodieWe applauded his last scene, and moved on the next day to the mountains near Bodie, California, where a perfectly preserved 1880’s mining town sits up there as part of the National Park Service. We spent the night in some absolutely freezing cabins (one of which John Wayne had apparently stayed in at some point), my friends playing guitar and drinking beer, smoking weed with the cast. Stayed up late, had a great time, got up at the crack and went to shoot the final scenes of the movie on the steps of a period church.

Now as I mentioned, I couldn’t get any real live Indians for the shoot because none responded to the casting call. So I put my eldest son in a black wig, and my buddy Dan, who is Mexican, and a guy named Maeis who was the only guy that came to the Indian casting and was Middle Eastern or something. On the ride up there I spied an Indian Casino, and I had the guys walk through there and offer seventy five bucks to anybody who’d come to the two hour shoot, suit up, and participate. I budgeted for three guys. Jared brought me one, a guy named Richard Sallee. But damn if he didn’t look the part.

tragedyWe put him in Apache costume, and set him front and center to offset the questionable Indians. I think he worked out great. Plus he got paid three times what I offered him since he was the only guy there.

Meaner Than Hell was a wrap. The back of my van looked like we had birthed a calf back there.

We moved into a slow editing process.

I inquired into getting the rights to two professional songs, Johnny Cash’s God Is Gonna Cut You Down for the credits (which we originally cut the ending to) and Bill Monroe’s haunting My Last Days On Earth, which I envisioned as the recurring theme throughout the picture, and which we cut the trailer to.

But the price was, in the words of the Duke, “absolutely re-god-damned-diculous.” indiansIt was almost two thirds of my entire budget. So I picked up a guitar, having never played before, brought a Jaw harp and a harmonica to my buddy and editor Ryan Gerossie’s apartment, and somehow he mixed the disparate elements together into a cohesive theme which you hear now on the soundtrack. We attributed it to John McGovern, a portmanteau of his relatives and mine, but that’s us. Believe it or not, I was originally in talks with Vince ‘Rocky IV’ DiCola to do the score, but it fell through.

We ended up having to foley some of the sound in a makeshift sound booth that basically consisted of Tom Crnkovich, Jared Cohn, and Robert Vertrees taking turns in Ryan’s hallway with a microphone and pillows and towels stuffed under the doors. I think those scenes have some of the best sound work of the movie.

bloodytiger2SFX, we had a blast doing those, selecting various gunshots (at one point Elliott and Ryan put this ridiculous cannon explosion over the shot of Jared’s Derringer going off which made all of us lose it hysterically). We did Rebel Yells, officer calls, volleys of fire, Indian screams, all from a Westwood apartment.

We shot pick ups out in the desert, and even brought the desert home to Ryan’s back alley for the shot of Picaro’s foot getting a bullet (it was actually, I think either my foot or Ryan’s).

We premiered the thing at a bar in Hollywood. Thomas and Jared showed up with their character’s hats. Jared introduced me to a few people who never called me. I got the drunk on hard hard liquor for the very last time in my life, until I puked up my guts in the street afterwards. It surprised me the people that turned out for the thing – old coworkers, friends of friends. It surprised me who didn’t show too.

5652_112203793691_112183918691_2319596_6612763_nI didn’t get to give a speech or anything before the movie ran for the only audience it ever had. I kept everybody waiting up to the last possible minute, affording no time for a proper introduction. I don’t know that I had anything to say. I think maybe by that time I hated Meaner Than Hell. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted to accomplish, and I was sick of it. Much of the crew had stopped believing in it, dismissing it as crap. I guess a lot of it is.

In the intervening years it garnered no attention. I submitted to all the big indie festivals and a lot of the small ones. Nobody wanted it.

I had, in my mind, taken the best shot I could, and nobody had turned their head. Nobody had noticed it. It sat on Ryan’s computer. I made half hearted attempts to put it on Netflix and Amazon over the years, but always turned to other projects. Thomas would call me out of the blue and ask about it now and then. Everybody had their DVD’s. Every actor had been paid (except Alex Bakalarz, who played the wounded soldier – I owe him fifty bucks for the two hour shoot still). I couldn’t even look at it anymore.

jaredwantedposterAnd over the years, as my tenuous connection to the film industry dwindled and my fiction writing began to supersede it in terms of success, Jared’s, conversely grew. I started doing script work for his projects, and now the guy seems to be directing a movie every other month. I see him on Netflix and all over Facebook, shooting in freaking Thailand. His movies show up in my newsfeed, getting reviewed on major websites. He’s a driven guy.

Thomas….last year, Thomas called me again. “This is Tope,” he said, as always, and by God he was.

He told me he was playing Dillinger, in an indie film shooting back in the Midwest, where he was currently living. He asked me about Meaner Than Hell as always, and about any other projects I had going. But I was just writing novels now and had nothing for him.

Elliott and I had such plans for Thomas. One late night ride back from the shoot we talked about how we wanted to do a kick ass Lone Ranger movie, and Thomas and Lance Henricksen would play the Cavendish brothers. Thomas would be a Lash LaRue type character with a bullwhip. When I was still writing scripts, I put a role for him in an unrealized zombie project, as a cantankerous caretaker of an amusement park. I even talked about redubbing Meaner Than Hell the way I wanted, if I could get Thomas and Jared together to do it.

5652_112212353691_112183918691_2319636_882466_nBut around Memorial Day Thomas got killed by a train, almost out of nowhere. Well, out of nowhere for me. That guy palled around with tigers. I thought he was unflappable, untouchable. The obituary said it was deliberate, though. I don’t know. Friends of his I’ve talked to doubt it. I don’t know what I think.

My affection for Meaner Than Hell grows with each subsequent viewing now, though.

It’s no masterpiece, but I really believe there is a good movie in there. Maybe I should have shown the Indians more. Maybe I should have cut the dialogue down. My biggest regret about the whole thing is that I feel like I failed the talent involved. There was a great group of guys that gathered together and believed in this thing while they were doing it, and in the end, I guess they got nothing from it. Or at least, it wasn’t something they felt proud of, could point to, or that (perhaps most importantly) got them more work.

But I’ll tell you what. I firmly believe that at the fifty five minute mark to the end, I made almost exactly the movie I wanted to make. It’s right there. It started for real on that day I wrote about above, when I nearly ruined a take with my own excitement.

And how many people can say they did that?

I like Meaner Than Hell. How can I not?

Anyway, if you want to watch it, we put the whole thing up on Youtube now. You can watch it here. And if you get bored out of your mind, fast forward to the 55 minute mark I guess and give it a half hour of your time.

It’s a very slow burn, but I lit it with the help of some good friends.

DT Moviehouse Review: Bad Company

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Appropriately enough for the first movie review of the new year, I take a look at the first western of the list, Bad Company.

(1972) Directed By Robert Benton

Screenply by Robert Benton and David Newman

Tagline: They’re young, desperate, dangerous….a long way from home, but a short way from hell.

bad_company_xlg

What It’s About:
During the American Civil War, young Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) flees home with a hundred dollars and heads to the western frontier to avoid conscription in the Union Army. He winds up falling in with a group of like minded orphans led by charming and swift talking young con man Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges). Drew cons the ‘gang’ into thinking he robbed a hardware store and dips into his money to outfit them all with horses and supplies for their joint excursion. Times are hard, and after being robbed by a band of outlaws, the boys turn to crime themselves to survive, schooling each other on honesty and loyalty along the trail.

Why I Bought It:
I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges and the so-called revisionist or acid westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s (like Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, The Hired Hand, and Dirty Little Billy), and actually bought this movie sight unseen after seeing a couple stills and reading a synopsis. This gambit almost never plays out for me, but this time it did.

Bad_Company-1972-084The movie is very minimalist, with an almost cinema verite approach (in the same vein as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez – see my post The Reel Real West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Never Seen). It’s very diffuse, almost sepia toned like an old photograph, and everything, the acting, the admittedly meandering plot, and the sudden and extreme violence, is very realistic.

There is a scene I love where the boys surprise a rabbit on the prairie and all open fire on it. After running through a virtual firing squad of misses, one of the bullets finally blows the rabbit open, and when Jake commands the youngest of their number to skin the animal, he quickly finds out to his vociferous exasperation that none of them knows how to clean a carcass. He proceeds to show them, and from his readily apparent disgust, it seems he hasn’t ever done it either. Although the skinning of the rabbit is just offscreen, I can’t believe by Bridges’ reactions that he’s not actually cleaning the kill. He’s too young an actor at that point to be able to portray honest revulsion so well.

Bad_Company-1972-058The interactions between Brown and Bridges are the highpoint of the movie, with Brown a pampered, well educated, cowardly hypocrite, espousing high virtues at every turn (refusing to actually rob a store, refusing to avail himself of the services of a prostitute etc) and yet every bit the con man Bridges’ character is, and plainly less honest (maybe even, for all Jake’s worldly bluster, a little less naive) and loyal. Bad_Company-1972-061The movie is a morality tale of sorts, about going bad and yet also about retaining personal honor. Brown’s character allows the rest of the gang to go hungry even though he has nearly a hundred dollars hidden in his shoe the entire time. At one point this actually costs one of the boys’ their lives when they try to snatch a cooling pie off the sill of an open window and the resident shoots them dead.

P1030135 (Medium)Young Joshua Hill Lewis does a good job as Boog, the aforementioned boy. There’s a scene where Brown is reading Jane Eyre to the gang and Boog interrupts with a breathless story about his murdered father that plays very nicely.

The movie has a host of familiar faces in great ‘character’ roles. David Huddleston is excellent as outlaw chief Big Joe as are Geoffrey Lewis and John Quade as raggedy gunmen. John Savage plays one of the gang, and Jim Davis (a Republic western veteran who appears in my all time favorite Kung Fu episode, The Soul Is The Warrior) is a severe, authoritarian marshal.

Bad_Company-1972-109As a western nerd, there are some anachronisms I feel the need to point out. If it’s the 1860’s during the Civil War, it’s maybe eight or ten years before cartridge ammunition and revolvers, but they’re prevalently used here. In a great scene after the capture of Big Joe, the lawmen ask him to demonstrate the ‘Curly Bill Spin,’ a gun trick which he claims to have taught to Curly Bill personally. The Curly Bill Spin (variations of it are shown in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Young Guns, and The Outlaw Josey Wales) was when you passed your gun to a man butt first but kept your finger in the trigger guard so as the man reached for it, you flipped it up (or spun it up) into your palm, cocking the hammer and gaining a surprise advantage. It was once known as the Road Agent Spin or Border Roll, but Curly Bill’s name got attached to it because he supposedly employed it to gun down Tombstone Town Marshal Fred White in 1880. Again, nearly two decades after Bad Company would’ve taken place.

Bad_Company-1972-048Paul Rodgers of the band Bad Company did not take its name from this movie as I had always heard, but their hit song does (“rebel souls, deserters we are called, chose a gun, and threw away the sun”), and actually shares the introductory three chords with the movie’s score.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly, but it’s a great character piece and a fine study on the harsh realities of the outlaw trail and making a living as a scavenger and badman.

Best bit of Dialogue: (Drew, writing home to his family) I shot and ate a skunk today. Taste didn’t enter much into it.

Best Scene:
Bad_Company-1972-047The wild and clumsy shootout and the character revelations concerning Drew’s watch are pretty great, but the scene that sticks out in my mind is when the boys encounter a broken down farmer and his wife headed back east with a wagonload of possessions. The farmer tries to warn the boys that there’s nothing but trials and tribulations on the frontier, and winds up offering to let them have sex with his wife for ten dollars. Jake readily accepts and helps the woman down, walking off with her arm in arm into the grass as the husband rolls a cigarette and the other boys argue about what order they will follow Jake in. Not ten seconds pass when Jake lets out a boisterous crowing and a yahoo and comes stiff-walking quickly back, a huge grin on his face, fastening his belt.

He climbs into the saddle of his horse and declares –

P1030136 (Medium)JAKE: THAT was a deal!
The bewildered farmer, who hasn’t even lit his cigarette yet, stares open mouthed as Jake mounts.
FARMER: Are you done already?
JAKE: I do not waste my time, mister. After that ride I gave her, I expect she’ll be too tuckered out for the rest of you boys.

The goofy expression of pride and self satisfaction on Bridges’ face is just priceless. Funny, and at the same time, in the context of the scene with the farmer’s initial warnings, heartbreakingly naive and portentious.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes. Great movie.

Up Next In The Queue: The Beast Must Die

Writing The West: A Reference Guide

Charles M. Russell’s In Without Knocking

I often write stories set in the Old American West which is why the adage ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really fly with me to a point. If everybody simply wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age or the Galaxy Far Far Away. Of course, the real interpretation of that saying is to find what you know and relate that to what you’re writing about. Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, and the battles and reflections of the soldiers in Middle Earth reflect that to an extent. Robert E. Howard was an iconoclast living in a disapproving little town, and Conan’s ‘barbaric’ reactions to a decadent society are his author’s own. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

But when you’re talking about writing in a real place and time, you’ve got to do your research. I’ve said it a thousand times before. Slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make a weird western, and putting boots on your protagonist doesn’t make him a cowboy.

In the course of my writing, I’ve amassed a reference library of course. Writing to me is a learning experience, both in terms of craft and in terms of the settings I choose. I like to write about the past, and about other cultures, and to challenge myself by writing about things I don’t know too much about. Graham Masterton is an Englishman, but he writes stories set in the US.  If he does his job, you never question his birthplace.

For those interested in writing or just reading about the American West (and I mean the Old West of gunfighters and free roaming Indians), I have a core of books I always find myself going back to.

The New Encyclopedia of The American West, Edited by Howard Lamar – This is the jumping point for any story I write set in the West. In preparing the Merkabah Rider series, I read the Jews In The West entry, and in turn sought out the books cited there. This is an astounding (and thick) reference work with entries on most every state, territory, event and individual you can think of, dating from the early Lewis and Clark days through the waning of Tom Mix’s movies up to the recent present.  It opens with a handy timeline dating from 1785-1998.

 The Look Of The Old West, by Foster-Harris – I recently picked up this gem of a book to familiarize myself with western cavalry uniforms and accoutrements. Besides being written in an extremely present and familiar folksy style, its loaded with invaluable illustrations on every minute aspect of frontier life, from firearms to women’s wear and modes of transportation. It’s quickly become one of my favorite books.

The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal – This book is an alphabetical listing of the more notorious western gunmen with cross references of men they’ve faced as well as lesser known personas like William Blake and Heck Thomas. If they were in the west and they ever fired a gun at another person, they’re likely to be in here. There are some great lists in the beginning too, including a timeline specific to gunfighters and a ranking of the most well known gunmen in terms of kills, lifespans, causes of death, and occupations.

Forts Of The Old West, by Robert W. Frazer – A breakdown of military outposts of the frontier period arranged by state, with brief entries on the histories and uses of each.

 A Treasury Of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin – This is a great potpourri of American frontier culture, including humorous stories and songs from the period.

Dictionary Of The American West, by Winfred Blevins – Another of my favorite books. An alphabetical listing of some wonderfully colorful terms from the American Western lexicon, including a great list of synonyms for the more popular pastimes (dying, getting drunk, getting buried, etc).

Cowboy Slang, by Edgar ‘Frosty’ Potter – I love hearing those western metaphoric sayings like ‘There ain’t enough room in here to cuss a cat without getting a mouthful of hair.’ I always wished somebody would collect them into a book. While I was at Yuma Territorial Prison over the summer doing research I came across this book in their gift shop, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to what I want. The entries are a little G-rated at times for my liking, but it’s still a pretty good book.

Daughters Of Joy, Sisters Of Misery, by Ann M. Butler – Before you go writing a peachy complexioned Miss Kitty swinging her legs on the piano, her heart of gold fairly brimming from her eyes, you owe it to yourself to read this book, the best I’ve found on the stark realities of frontier prostitutes.

In Their Own Words: Warriors And Pioneers, by TJ Stiles – A great book of first hand accounts from various individuals involved in the period. Includes excerpts from Geronimo, Custer, John Wesley Hardin, and Buffalo Bill Cody among others.

Conversations With Bushwhackers & Muleskinners, by Fred Lockley – Much like the book above, but more unpolished, and thus, a little more valuable. Whereas In Their Own Words includes stuff taken from autobiographies, Conversations is just a collection of anecdotes from plain old folks, most of them relative toOregon. But it’s great just to read the vernacular speech of the time and get a feel for it.

 The Encyclopedia Of North American Indian Tribes, by Bill Yenne – When I write about Native Americans, this is my starting point. A lot of people think of Indians as the Plains variety, all buckskins and feathered bonnets.  If you don’t even know there are some five hundred different tribes of Indians each with their own individual and distinct cultures, this should be yours. The color keyed map at the front showing the general stomping grounds of the various nations both prior to after white encroachment is worth the price alone, but then you get an alphabetical listing of tribes, detailing their languages and some of their customs. Funny enough, I recently noticed the guy in the music video for Europe’s Cherokee is shown holding it.

 Saloons Of The Old West, by Richard Erdoes – Another of my favorites, detailing the evolution of the saloon from colonial times onward. There are some great anecdotes about Oscar Wilde’s forays in LeadvilleColoradoas well as information on hurdy-gurdy gals, dance halls, the prices of the spirits and what they were called.

The Encyclopedia Of Civil War Usage, by Webb Garrison – Like the Dictionary of The American West, but focusing on the War Between The States, invaluable if you’re writing about the time directly after, when the gunfighter first started making his mark.

 Age Of The Gunfighter, by Richard Collins – I cherish this book not for the general text on the more famous gunfighters like Billy The Kid and their theaters, but for the awesome annotated photographs of period firearms taken from the Autry Museum and various private collections.

The People Called Apache/Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, by Thomas E. Mails – If you’re writing about either of these tribes, these books are indispensible. Mails writes indepth about everyday life and customs and includes brilliantly detailed illustrations of even the smallest ornamental items.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown – The greatest, most accessible history of white and Native American conflict ever written.

Black Red And Deadly, by Art T. Burton – A fascinating history of African American and Indian gunfighters on both sides of the law in Oklahoma/Indian Territory.

The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative Of The Negro Cavalry In The West, by William H. Leckie – THE book on the African American cavalrymen.

We live in a visual era, and the way the West comes alive for most people is through film. If you want to get an inspiring look at the West, I’d also recommend these pictures…

The Searchers

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

The Long Riders

Unforgiven

The Wild Bunch

Dances With Wolves

Open Range

The Missing

Bad Company

The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wyatt Earp

Tom Horn

The Culpepper Cattle Company

The Shootist

Of course if you want to be inspired creatively, you can always take a look at the spaghettis, but I’d confine myself to Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. They have a look that although not always entirely accurate, is all their own.

I’d also recommend perusing the works of some western artists to get you int. Charles M. Russel, Frederic Remington are the two tops, but James Bama does some great western character studies, and I personally like Charles Schreyvogel.

Frederic Remington

Happy Trails.

The Real Reel West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen

I am an immense western fan. I remember watching The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid as a kid on Sundays, but moved away from the genre for a long time. Like most people do nowadays, I just thought it was a dead end, with nothing to offer me, just white hats/black hats and Indian stomping. When I was in high school I got on a Dirty Harry kick, and that led me to The Good The Bad and The Ugly, which changed the way I saw westerns forever, and in turn led me to re-evaluating John Wayne, and even Roy Rogers. I finally found Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy.

I can safely say that now I’m an avowed fan of all things western. I rabidly absorb any movies I haven’t seen, usually thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant.

In recent years I’ve come across a bevvy of pictures I had never even heard of.  I believe they’re a part of the cinema verite movement that hit in the 70’s, in which you see a lot of naturalistic lighting and set ups, meant to evoke a more realistic experience in movie watching. I’ve heard them called ‘acid westerns,’ intended to subvert the sort of top shelf Randolph Scott/John Wayne kind of vehicle, but I don’t entirely agree with that appellation – at least not for all of these.

I thought seven was a nice ”magnificent’ number to list the best I’ve seen of this particular style. I’m sure I’m leaving some out (Buck And The Preacher comes to mind, late in the game). While not always historically accurate, they ‘feel’ pretty dang real. So if you’re interested at all in The Old West, and you’re looking for a movie that does a pretty decent job capturing what it must’ve been like without the Hollywood gloss (and I’m talking hardcore here – ‘Unforgiven’ seems like a Busby Berkely musical compared to the movies on this list), you could do a lot worse than these pictures…

1. Bad Company (1972) – Supposedly Paul Rodgers took the name of his band from this movie, which is my favorite of this bunch. Starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown (and including some familiar faces – Geoffrey Lewis, John Savage, David Huddleston) as a pair of teens dodging the Civil War draft and heading out West with a gang of orphans who wind up outlaws. The movie’s pretty stark and realistic, almost without musical accompaniment. It’s basically about the loss of innocence or the attainment of maturity (which is pretty much the same thing). It’s got a couple of anachronisms (cartridge revolvers and mention of the Curly Bill spin in the 1860’s), but it’s quite authentic. I would swear Jeff Bridges skins a real rabbit just offscreen (otherwise he’s an even better actor than I thought). Bridges is brilliant as Jake, the b.s.’er who is out-b.s.’ed by Barry Brown’s Drew, who provides the movie’s infrequent narration in the form of letters home to his mother (which I think are never sent). The cast is winsome, the story engaging, the violence (some of it involving children) at times soberingly brutal. A great western, readily available on DVD. Check it out.

The ubiqitous Geoffrey Lewis (here, in High Plains Drifter) – you know the face, if not the name.

2. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) – Edward James Olmos stars as the titular character, who is embroiled in a revenge killing and becomes the fugitive in a massive manhunt in 1901 Texas, all due to a mistranslation of Spanish. An engrossing tragedy. You’ll forget you’re watching a narrative.

3. The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) – Gary Grimes leaves the family farm and his could-care-less mother to sign on with a cattle drive bossed by Billy Green Bush, and quickly finds the life of a cowboy is a lot of hard work and drudgery, even though he’s nothing more than the cook’s assistant. When Grimes’ frequent screw ups result in the loss of some horses to rustlers, Mr. Culpepper enlists the aide of some old friends of questionable morality (including again, the great unsung Geoffrey Lewis) to help out. When they come across a religious sect being bullied off their ‘chosen land’ by a local land baron, a bloody climax is in the works. Bo Hopkins is particularly good as one of Lewis’ gunfighter cronies.

4. Dirty Little Billy (1972) –

I particularly like this poster.

Michael J. Pollard stars as Billy Bonney in this realistic (and amazingly muddy) picture loosely based around the early years of Billy The Kid, prior to his departure for the Southwest. Pollard plays Billy as a bit of a bumbler, who leaves an abusive stepfather to basically live in the back room of a ratty saloon with a gunfighter and his prostitute. Slow paced, but enthralling. When Billy finally picks up a gun, it’s like seeing ‘Wart’ draw the sword from the stone.

5. Harry Tracy (1982) – I just watched this one last night, and it got me thinking about others of its ilk. Bruce Dern (who, if you remember, famously killed the Duke in ‘The Cowboys’) gives a great performance as real-life Pacific Northwest bank robber and former Hole-In-The-Wall-er who in the opening sequence literally collides with Helen Shaver while on the run from Gordon Lightfoot (yes, the singer)’s posse of US Marshals. The two hit it off in the brief moments they’re together, and he promises to visit her later (in Seattle, I believe). Numerous robberies and escapes later, he and his partner arrive at last in town to seek her out, but are double and triple crossed by a conniving lawyer with political aspirations and wind up incarcerated. But then they escape…fairly slow, but engaging and nice to look at. Dern made the movie for me, and it had a good ending.

6. The Spikes Gang (1974) – Ron Howard, Gary Grimes (again), and Charles Martin Smith (who, amusingly, appears in Culpepper Cattle Company as a friend of Grimes who does not leave home) leave the boredom of their respective farms with a mind to make themselves notorious after they hide a wounded outlaw named Harry Spikes (the incomparable Lee Marvin) in Howard’s barn.

Lee Marvin gives The Spikes Gang a vital lesson.

They seek out and find trouble pretty quickly, and run into Spikes again, who agrees to take them under his wing.  Gunplay and ultimately betrayal ensues. Great flick.

7. The Hired Hand (1971) – I guesss if there really is an ‘acid western’ on this list, this is probably it. Peter Fonda’s follow-up to ‘Easy Rider’ stars himself and the always entertaining Warren Oates as a pair of saddle tramp cowboys who along with a third, stop off in a nowhere town to plan their next outing. When their friend is brutally murdered by a bunch of outlaws led by the settlement’s boss, Fonda and Oates shoot the boss’ legs up and depart, heading to the ranch of Fonda’s long estranged wife, Verna Bloom. Basically a romance, The Hired Hand depicts Fonda and Oates working the ranch, while Fonda and Bloom gradually become more comfortable with each other again. Of course, by that time, the boss of the town and his gang show up and kidnap Oates….this is a beautiful piece of art and a good western to boot. Amazing cinematography.

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in ‘The Hired Hand.’

Michael J. Pollard as Billy Bonney in ‘Dirty Little Billy’

Edward James Olmos in ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’