Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Cheese Head Western...

I decided to make a full length film in 1996. I wanted to create a very simple script and the idea came to me, to do a western in the woods. The woods would allow me to shoot in any direction and not worry about sets or continuity or lighting inconsistencies. It would edit together fairly easily.

Secondly, I love westerns and wanted to be in one, and to have a calling card, a finished film to sell two other screenplay westerns I wrote.

The plot was simple, a deserter from The Civil War is waiting for his brother to arrive who is still in the war. Their cabin was burnt down by their enemies and the deserter only had a few provisions and a campfire.

A tornado hits a jail in town where the Constable is prostituting two women. The women run into the woods. The tornado was to be done with sound behind the opening credits, no big special effects.

The women run and run and eventually come across the deserter. Like something out of a man's fantasy one comes out of the woods and disrobes before the campfire light. The deserters mouth drops open and BAM.

The other woman clobbers him with a tree branch. They take his horse, clothes, food, guns and ride off.

The next day the deserter has nothing to wear but the pantaloons, He puts them on as the Contstable rides up looking for the women. They know each other and their families have been feuding for years. This comedic moment happens and the Constable rides off.

We follow the constable who eventually catches up to the women and apprehends them again, but on his way back, the deserter gets the drop on him.

The constable wakes up with nothing to wear but the pantaloons.

The idea was to do a funny, simple struggle between 4 characters or maybe 5... and that it was over a few basic props. One or two horses... a set or two of clothes, and guns.

While putting the script together I was doing a commercial job for an outfit that sold calibration equipment. One of the owners was a young man who did Civil War illustrations and re-enacting. He told me he could get me dozens of horses and men and guns...

This was a mistake to take him up on this offer although I would eventually make lemonade out of too many lemons... The script got much bigger than my original vision. I ended up in the Wisconsin Historical Society, museums and libraries researching Wisconsin during the Civil War.... This gave me some great political ideas to weave between the two feuding families.

The Foleys and the Hammonds.

I decided to make both families newspaper families, one Democratic and the other Republican. They are fighting over control and a town that is to be the site of a future railroad bridge. This is based on a real ghost town named Newport on the Wisconsin river that died when they didn't get the contract for the bridge.

I then found an old school friend who put up ten thousand dollars and I got to work. I bought period wardrobe, guns, booked horses and a campground and casted the  movie largely from friends at a bar.

Most of them were guys who had done local theater or comedy, and they were regulars at this bar. This way I could always find them for meetings, to hand out scripts and keep them excited about the project. I like working with the cosmos and serendipity.

When the weekend came for the first big shoot, I had cast the stable girls in the women parts. They were stunningly beautiful on camera. The black girl Jenn Austin I cast from a casting agent.

These two days at the campground would prove challenging for curveballs came from left field. The stable kept taking out stable rides so I kept losing my actresses and my horses and Jenn's job didn't give her the time off she said she had. So immediately I was looking at the script and trying to shoot around that mess with all the other men.

I was proud of how I managed to shoot 50 minutes of the movie in spite of the problems. My actors were pretty disgruntled but that was another lesson, keeping too big of a cast busy and confident. Had they all been being paid to be patient that would have been one thing but they were volunteers on a deferred payment plan of getting the movie in a film festival.

Back in Madison I began editing digital on an analogue system and that was a huge problem. We shot the Summer of 2000 and I simply did not have access to nonlinear editing equipment yet.

I asked a Civil War re-enactor for some ideas on getting another shoot together to finish many key scenes. Especially some big gun fights. The 1st Alabama saved my movie. Full attire, guns and horses in trailers were on my set sharp at 7AM and most my original actors showed too. One key actor didn't show which led me to have to rewrite the ending.

This day was fabulously fun, 20 men in the woods shooting guns off of horseback. A triumph thanks to this group of riders who work professionally in many period pieces. Without them my movie would have done a nose dive.

The editing room was an obsession. Eventually I got a nonlinear editing program and a computer. The learning curve and computers without the balls to handle everything kept crashing. I must have made 100 versions of the movie before I decided to shoot talking head additions and parody a History Channel type documentary with it. By now it was 2004 and luckily I could still find many of my regulars where I left them on bar stools.

All of this coupled with the idea that I had awoken as a truther by 2002 and realized that our history books were full of lies gave me the idea to incorporate the myth, legend, lies, propaganda, exaggeration, distortion, perspective and contradictions of history to the story.

Amazingly as if God were my collaborator I just found everything I needed when I needed it. The museum figures such as the lone deserter by a campfire? Jeese... Come on...How weird is that?

So if you watch this movie and realize that this subtle tongue in cheek western/mockumentary incorporated all these elements and has a beginning, middle and end, I think you should give me, the writer, producer, director, costumer, prop master, location scout, lead actor some major props for gittinherdone. I am very proud that I saw this through and for those willing to spend the full 76 minutes, I think you will find I thread the needle to make what could have been a cheesy fiasco into a pretty darn good little black comedy with some highly poignant moments and great twists and gunfights.

Gene Kalmes
Tom Patterson
Catfish Stephenson
Michael Dufer
Tom Sommer
Dennis Stalker
Jenn Austin
Kalmes "Kal" Fleming
Erin Hamilton
Brenda Hefty
Mark Groom
Laurie Groom
Amanda Groom
The 1st Alabama
The 25th Wisconsin
The 1st Brigade Band

It seems to me that if Hollywood wanted to find a writer/director that can take ten thousand dollars and pull off a period piece with dozens of actors and horses and towns from the 1860s. they might give me the proverbial break. I used to believe the American dream was rewarded for diligence, and perseverance.

Comment by eugenekalmes on July 8, 2012 @ 11:18 pm
Wow, I was looking for 2D art, this is film art! I enjoyed this, it is funny and well-done, and it looks like it was a big production.
We live in the Shenandoah Valley, VA, and the re-enactment footage sure looks like VA. You recruited some good horses to take all that gunfire! We have loads of Civil War re-enactor groups here in this area. My husband is a member of AFTRA-SAG and has done film “extra” work since mid 80s until the last movie he worked on was “Gods and Generals” which was a civil war movie filmed near Richmond, VA.
Did you receive any awards for this documentary?
Comment by eldondowns on July 9, 2012 @ 5:11 am
Eldon I think you may be the first one to watch the entire thing….
It was all shot in Wisconsin…
and I worked very hard on it… the trained horses were with the First Alabama and those guys saved my movie…. without them it would have been very weak….
they have worked in big movies like Gettysburg and others…
I am not sure whether I should tell you this because it will ruin it for the second person who watches the whole movie but….
The super secret twist is none of it actually happened…. I used real landmarks to fake it….
thus making the point a movie can fake any history…..
I will now send you a check…. how much you want for your time? ;)
Thanks a ton! Seriously….:)

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