Walmart shoppers grabbing a DVD of the new Vision Films Western Dead Men, directed by Royston Innes, starring Ric Maddox and cowritten by the pair, might be surprised to learn that the three-hour drama first rolled camera more than six years ago.
“The flashbacks work so well because Ric and the others look so much younger,” Innes says. “It had literally been a couple of years, and the age shows.”
“A couple of Hollywood years,” adds Maddox, with a chuckle. “You know, a Hollywood year is like five years on a Texas ranch.”
Which is where Maddox grew up. Innes left Australia when he was 19, “and lived on several continents,” before he arrived at Playhouse West in Los Angeles, California. Maddox, fresh from the Iraq War and from New York’s Stella Adler Conservatory, met Innes doing a play. Each was impressed with the other’s intensity and commitment.
To make their Western, they drew their inspiration from nearly the same source. “My favorite movie is Lonesome Dove; his favorite book is Lonesome Dove. I keep threatening to read the book,” Maddox says.
But Dead Men didn’t begin its life as a movie. “Our focus was to get a Western in the hands of a younger generation, 18 to 35, people who normally had little interest in the [genre],” Innes says. “We did it as a web series, to bring in the younger crowd.”
Although their project first screened on the Internet, the format, in many ways, is an update of the Republic-style serial, telling brief chapters of a dramatic story, often with a cliffhanger ending.
“It was to be a celebration of a certain type of man,” Innes explains. “The type of spirit that we wanted to bring back; that grit, that feeling of anything is possible.
“And we’re living examples of this. Our grit, and the fact that anything is possible, is the only reason this thing got made.”
Working with boundless enthusiasm and precious little money, the first season was posted in 10 eight-to-10-minute chapters. Shot in Western movie towns and rugged locations all over Arizona, the story is about Jesse Struthers (Maddox), who barely escapes when his father is murdered by a hired gun (Craig Hensley) for his gold mine claim. When Jesse, his father’s close friend (Brent Rock) and Jesse’s ne’er-do-well brother Jake (Aaron Marciniak) try to go up against claim jumper and would-be politician Cole Roberts (Richard O. Ryan), blood spills. Jesse nearly dies, only to be rescued by an Apache warrior (Sam Bearpaw).
That is just the first 20 minutes!
Although Innes and Maddox transformed their webisodes into a movie, their chapter format plays better as a two-part miniseries, which is how German TV is airing the movie.
The cast may not be marquee names, but they are a fine ensemble with extensive credits on TV and in features. The longer-running format also gives secondary characters the chance to have their own intense stories.
“Roy’s catchphrase, that I love, was ‘Let’s get salty, boys.’ By that he meant, let’s be intense, not namby-pamby. Roy was superb; he’s an actor’s director. I’m impressed as hell with what Ric and Roy pulled together,” Hensley says.
Salty indeed, the film features powerful, memorable action scenes, including a knife fight between Brent Rock and Malcolm Madera, elegant bullwhip-work by Anthony De Longis and a ferocious battle between Apaches and outlaws, all beautifully coordinated by the film’s villain, Ryan.
Did Innes have any qualms about the amount of brutality in the film? “Well yeah—that it couldn’t be more so. I have no problems with brutality if it’s earned. The 18- to 35-year-olds see a lot of Quentin Tarantino-esque violence,” he says.
“But what I found within the first couple of months that we’ve been out, we’ve had a lot of success with the older generations as well, who’re just looking for a good old-fashioned, honest Western. So that’s been a win.”
The role of Apaches grows as the story progresses, including a wife for Struthers, played by Marisa Quintanilla. “Hollywood tends to amalgamate tribes, and we wanted to stay true to who the Apaches [are],” Maddox says. “I think I’m the only white guy speaking Chiricahua Apache, but there’s just something really powerful in that language, and I wanted to honor that.”
Innes was grateful that the Indian actors stuck with them: “A lot of these guys came all the way down from White Mountain Apache reservation, six hours away. I’m so proud of the Apache attack at the end; all Apaches, and great riders, too.”
The satisfying ending leaves an opening for a sequel. Innes says, “If this ends up being successful enough to be able to make the second chapter, we’re ready to do it.”
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com.