There are whispers of a new western called Another Man’s Gun. The men behind this project are director Jon Gries and screenwriter Derek Walker. Jon best known to us for his roles in LOST, Napoleon Dynamite and both entries into the Taken franchise, is following up his 2010 feature debut comedy Pickin’ and Grinnin’, with a journey into America’s past – Nebraska 1840 to be precise.
To help fund pre-production aspects of the film, Jon set-up a Kickstarter campaign that is going on through to January 31st. Just as HeyUGuys’ mascot Chunk in The Goonies liked to make a little noise, we thought the least we could do was speak with Jon and make a little noise of our own.
Another Man’s Gun sees Jon following in his father’s footsteps. In 1968 Tom Gries wrote and directed Charlton Heston in the western Will Penny. There are similarities and contrasts alike that can be drawn between the two plots, but in speaking with Jon his interest to journey into America’s past is in part thanks to his father, and perhaps Derek’s script found a way to rather touchingly intertwine life and art on a number of levels.
To begin, could you set the scene for Another Man’s Gun?
Even though Another Man’s Gun encompasses the Western as a genre, it is a universal story of a son who has lost his father. Along with his mother and his sisters he is taken in as indentured servant on a ranch in the unorganised territory of Nebraska in 1840. Buck is only sixteen years old, and he realises that he has to figure out some way to save his family, because the man who runs this ranch is abusing him and his sisters, and is making a move towards his mother.
So an opportunity arises for him to take the wagon his father had left behind, and his horse for a $100 dollars and go to Louisiana to pick up a teacher for the territory. He bids for the job and actually wins it, partly because he’s so young, and partly because it is such an arduous journey that they think it might be easier for him physically. It’s going to take him anywhere from six months to a year, and on this dangerous journey a lot of things will happen along the way. Edna, the teacher turns out to be quite young herself, and on the way back a whole other side of the journey unfolds between them. At first there’s a lot of acrimony, but through the hardship and their circumstances they discover a kinship.
Earlier in the film Buck picks up Clew, a guide he has previously been told about, who turns out to be a pretty cantankerous character. Clew has robbed somebody – another robber it turns out. It’s not like Clew is working against the system, but rather he’s sees himself as a modern day Robin Hood, but this individual while looking for Clew pursues Buck and the teacher who he believes are in cahoots. The story has an interesting resolution when they get back to the town.
From its earliest inception, the western has been pre-occupied with themes of morality, from the white and black hats to Sergio Leone’s subversion of the romanticism of the west.
One of the things that attracted me was that first and foremost it is historically very accurate; as far as the way life was at the time this film takes place. I appreciate that because I didn’t want to get into the white and black hat thing. When Derek first brought me the script I felt that the bad guys were not clear. So we spent a good amount of time really fleshing those characters out because they are after all human beings and it’s not as if they are that bad. There’s one who’s bad but the others are out of work and join up with him because it is a way of life as opposed to not having any kind of a job or anything much else. There’s just the feeling of the strength in numbers and that maybe there will be some opportunities. Some are from the east coast; some are straight over from Ireland, but there is the sense that these guys are just trying to figure out how to get ahead; what life on the plains is about.
By spending more time with the bad guys we are privy to their arguments, and we see the things that are going on between them with a sense of what they are pursuing. Some of these guys don’t want to go all the way out to the West. Some of them are frightened of the long journey, and so it becomes vastly more humanistic than the white hat and black hats approach.
Could the Western genre go back to that traditional mode? Because the way the genre has evolved that vision of the west arguably belongs to a certain time, to a certain set of filmmakers as well as to a certain America.
Whether or not it does I would say yes, because we have witnessed a lot of westerns that are more stylised, and even with Wild, Wild West becoming like a video game. Well I don’t know if people are ready for it, or if they are even interested in it. But there is a large contingency in the south west of America that is just hungry for that historically accurate Western with a style to it, and interesting and fun characters. My feeling is if you make the characters interesting and real, people are going to want to see it. Even though it was a stylised western, there is something iconic about all of the characters in Tombstone; particularly Val’s character. I believe there’s a small sense of understanding that sort of supersedes the western genre and which gets into the characters more, and that’s the way we have tackled the writing of this script.
One of the popular lines of thought in film is the importance of a sympathetic cast of characters, which often underestimates that first and foremost is the need for an interesting cast of characters.
What we have in this case, and where we are lucky is that we have both. There are so many interesting characters in this movie, but we also have a very sympathetic character in Buck through what he’s trying to achieve. That was the first thing I related to because I understand the sense of frustration of trying to help out… His sisters are much younger and he wants to be the man of the family. I think men can relate to that and women can also relate to that in the sense that it’s a role that as people in society we all essentially wish for. It is a role we would hope to play even in the most naïve way in the beginning of relationships, before we all realise that relationships are more complex. But in young Buck it just feels that we have this sympathetic and emphatic young character.
You can treat the western with historical reverence, but it also lends itself to imagination. Having just watched Heaven’s Gate which deviates from historical record, I can understand why people are hungry for historically reverent westerns that can serve as a window into America’s past.
I love Heaven’s Gate, and there was a film made some time back called The Grey Fox with Richard Farnsworth. What I loved about that film was that they tried to encompass as a character the hardship of the time. It was equally prominent in the story as are the characters that we are dealing with in relation to this overall hardship. The Grey Fox was shot in the Pacific Northwest and it was raining a lot, it was muddy and it looked messy, and of course it made it clearly difficult for anybody to catch this guy – the robber known as the Grey Fox.
One of the things that inspired me for Another Man’s Gun is that whilst it should not be the most prominent character, it should be a character, and it should be a character of the time which augments the story and the drama without making it the brightest thing under the spotlight of the story you are telling. Obviously the brightest things are the relationships of the characters, but the back-drop is this incredible time, and so it’s important that we remember it and we depict it fairly. My father was a western aficionado. He had an amazing library of western books, many of which were written in the late 1800s – remembrances of cattle drives and remembrances of living in small towns in the west. They are fascinating to read because unlike those Zane Grey pulp western magazines they are actually written by people who lived that time which gives you the sense of how it was. It’s pretty amazing, and there was a lot of fortitude in those people to be able to live day in and day out.
You have a Kickstarter project up and running to fund some of the pre-production aspects of the film. Could you share with us your thoughts on the Kickstarter project and the current status of the project as a whole?
The budget is significantly higher than what we are asking for on Kickstarter, and so what we are trying to do, albeit Derek and I are a little bit at cross purposes here, but we are leaning towards the same goal. My feeling about Kickstarter was that I would rather people put up a dollar each and we get 100,000 or 200,000 people and turn it into a social thing where people aren’t financially exposed. The idea that we both agree on is that the money is purely for the development of the film. It will give us the opportunity to shoot a short segment that we can present to the people that have asked for it. We are in conversation with some money people down in Texas, Oklahoma, but these are people who have never put money into movies before. They have the money, and they are very interested because of the genre, and because of me, and so what they have asked us to do is put together a couple of scenes so that they can see what it would look like. As much as they can read the script and get an idea, they need something visual, something a little more tactile besides just what they are reading on the page and what they are seeing in their minds. So that’s what the Kickstarter campaign is for. It is just for development, because the movie is certainly going to cost a lot more than $100,000 or $200,000. We imagine it is going to be a minimum of $2.5 million to $3 million, and that’s Derek being very optimistic. I think it will be more like $4 million because of the horses, cattle, small towns, the people, the clothing and such.”
I know that we could probably do it cheaper but I don’t want to sacrifice what this film could be. I’m the first guy to say, “Let’s shoot it cheap” because I can do it. I’ve done it and I’ve proven that I can do it. But I just want to make sure that I am not begging for favours from wranglers to use their horses as opposed to making sure the horses are well fed and that they are paid and taken care of. I have done westerns before and I know how involved it is and what goes into it.
Are you still rewriting or is the script locked in?
The script is essentially there. We spent almost two years alone on the script. Derek would sometimes meet me once every week, or once every two weeks. We would sit down and spend a good four and a half to five hours each time talking about the script, and breaking it down and reshaping it. Even though I am not credited as a re-writer, I was a writer on it, but I didn’t want to take that credit. I just wanted to help him out to show him what my vision as a director would be. He was amenable to the idea, and he would certainly tell you straightaway today that he’s very happy with where we have taken the script together.
First off you’ve got a great title, and I’m hoping you are successful in getting this off the ground because we need to make sure there is a steady flow of westerns. Along with the gangster film it the only other pure American genre, and it would be a tragedy if in twenty, thirty, forty years’ time this cinematic treasure will have become a rarity.
First off I so appreciate that you feel that way; it’s nice to hear because lot of people here in America seem to think the western is a purely American genre, and that Americans particularly like it but people overseas don’t really have a case for it. I disagree, and hearing you speak so highly of the genre corroborates my feeling. Ultimately any story that’s told, if the characters are engaging, true and believable, and the circumstances are universal, it is going to catch your attention. You are going to want to see it, and know what this is about and who these people are. It just so happens that the western in and of itself is unique. I could sit and watch western movies all day long.
Hopefully Another Man’s Gun can make a home for itself in the western genre and can be a film that we western aficionados can look forward to experiencing in the future, with it doing its part to help sustain the genre.
I so appreciate that, and I’ll tell you I think that it is going to be more than just people that appreciate the genre. I feel the story is so sweet, and it has such a myriad of colours and nuances. There is a really sweet, amazing relationship that happens between this kid and this teacher. I have to give kudos to Derek because the other thing that struck me about the screenplay was his attention to the language. There is a different way of speaking, and he really captured it. Having read some of those books from my father’s library, the screenplay immediately perked my ears up because that is exactly right. He got the rhythm. There is a difference and I don’t know how else to say it but that’s why Deadwood always upset me. I felt that these people were constantly swearing at each other, and saying horrible things. The truth of the matter is that in many of these books that I read and which were written by people who lived in those times, when people are walking around with guns on their sides you are very polite. You show quite a bit of deference, quite a bit of respectfulness, and you are sure to be very clear in what it is you want without in any way insulting anybody. Of course it’s true. I think the language immediately captured my ear when I was reading the script.