Some say the Western genre is dead.
But don’t tell that to Travis Mills, an independent filmmaker who is on a mission this year to complete 12 Westerns in 12 months in one of his most ambitious projects to date.
His previous project was 52 films in 52 weeks.
He spent July in Tonto Basin filming #7 in his series and all of August in Globe, where he not only shot his 8th film – about Pearl Hart – but played the supporting role of Joe Booth, her partner in crime in the infamous stagecoach robbery. In September, he will move north again to Young to shoot a film about the Pleasant Valley War.
Mills, who graduated from the ASU Film School in Tempe in 2010, says he feels the education he got in film school fell short in providing enough hands-on, practical training. He has a theory that to get good at directing, you have to shoot a lot of films – giving as much attention to quality as your time, budget and ingenuity afford. So, shortly after graduating, he partnered with his professor to create Running Wild Films and dedicated himself to being a full-time director.
Since then he has completed more than 100 short films and 10 feature films.
It was just after completing a project as part of the 52 short films that he settled on his next big challenge: why not do 12 full-length feature films in 12 months?
He settled on the Western genre after the success of one of his earlier movies, “Blood Country,” garnered more than 500,000 downloads on Amazon Prime.
While the Western may no longer hold the sway the genre once had with moviegoers, having been replaced by today’s superhero tales, Westerns still have a strong following.
This factor is worth considering when determining if the market for a film is sufficient enough to make a profit. And turning a profit on his films is important to Mills and his investors and is what keeps him in the field making more movies.
While the idea of producing a full-length feature film every month sounds crazy, to Mills it has become his MO as a director.
“In film school we made three films in two years,” he says. “We just didn’t make enough films.
We wrote 30 essays and did three films. That’s not the way I think it should be,” he says.
Film school, he says, didn’t teach him much about casting parts, directing actors, financing a film, or marketing the final product. He learned all those things by just doing them.
It’s the “experience-through-doing” that gave him the resilience and skill set to plan the production of 12 separate feature films in 12 months.
While shooting for his most recent movie – the one about Pearl Hart, shot in Globe this August – Mills was simultaneously lining up the location and casting calls for his next movie – the one to be filmed in Young – as well as wrapping up post production on the first movie, which he shot in January, and getting it ready for release.
His leading lady in Pearl Hart, Lorraine Etchell, says that Mills and John Marrs, the assistant director, had the most grit of anyone she’s ever met. “He (Mills) is always working,” she says. “When we are resting, he’s organizing.”
While Mills’ movie sets for this project have ranged from big production sets (by his standards), with SAG actors and lighting crews on set, to lean productions that use a majority of non-actors, few crew members, and natural lighting conditions, Mills is comfortable with both. Although he says it’s easier with fewer crew and cast members.
It was the latter that defined his work on the Pearl Hart movie. He cast Etchell, a first-time actor, in the lead and shot the movie entirely on an iPhone.
Mills says he chose to shoot this movie on an iPhone because he “wanted to do something that made the viewer feel like they were there. With professional equipment, things can feel so polished,” he says.
He initially thought the lead for the movie would have to be a professional actress, until he saw Etchell read for the part. “She was surprisingly natural and has good instincts,” Mills says.
Despite a few misgivings from his crew, he moved forward in casting Etchell for the part.
After the first day of shooting, his crew was equally convinced Etchell was the Pearl they had been looking for.
Etchell, 29, attended an art academy in San Francisco before being drawn to Arizona and the Frank Lloyd Wright school of architecture in Scottsdale. With background as an artist and architecture student, she understands the use of space and how the mood can change with small adjustments to that space. It’s similar to blocking a shot for a movie and being an actor in that space. In addition, Etchell was a dancer and had ridden hunter/jumpers as a child, so working with the demands of the set design and script came naturally. Understanding who Pearl Hart really was and how to become her took more work.
After reading the script she talked with Mills about her perspective on the character. “I didn’t feel she had as much dignity [in the script] as I wanted her to have. She seemed more desperate than I felt she was,” says Etchell.
“I wanted to change one of the scenes because she was not a woman who went from bad to worse to worst. I didn’t realize how one way or the other I was going to become her.”
In a rare heated conversation, Mills told her, “You can’t put yourself in any other shoes but your own!”
It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that.
She turned to a friend, Thea Wilshire, for advice. “Use Pearl’s situation to fill this out,” she remembers Thea advising. “You have a lot more liberty as a woman in the 20th century to speak your mind. Think about what Pearl would have had to do in her time. You have to to do it in between the lines.”
She did. In a scene where her husband left her, the script called for her to be distressed and totally lost. “She wouldn’t have been upset if she left him – or that he was leaving her. That’s not how a woman would think,” says Etchell. Instead she laughed at him.
Etchell says Mills put a lot of trust in her as an amateur actress. “I was concerned at first because I wasn’t getting any notes from him and wondered if what I was feeling was coming across on screen,” she recalls.
Mills assured her he was satisfied with what he was seeing. “You’re doing great,” he told her.
Through the process of working on set with Mills, Etchell grew into the character and began to trust the process. “As an artist, I actually don’t trust a lot of people, because they aren’t coming from where I’m coming from. But being in some else’s show, where they move at a different pace, I was completely out of my element.”
Mills likes to give latitude to his actors and not get too involved with their performance the first time. “I don’t tell them what to do initially, because I want to see what they do. If I give them too many notes, I might miss seeing what they can instinctively do.”
“What if they do something that’s better than what I’d envisioned?” he asks.
Instead, he will suggest adjustments in their performance, but he rarely goes beyond three or four takes. With Pearl Hart it’s been bare bones and raw, he says. “There has been little setup and little lighting that we have to worry about. Although we have more time to do more takes, most of the time we don’t want to.”
He points to Clint Eastwood, who is notorious for only doing one or two takes. “He hires the right people. Gives them direction on what he wants, and is done.” says Mills.
“A lot of times when you’re pushing it and pushing it, you’re really insecure about what you’re getting. I look at my cinematographer Shushila (Kandola) and John (Mills’ assistant director), and if they say yes, then I know we got it.”
The shooting for Pearl Hart wrapped on August 30 in Florence, where Mills filmed the courtroom scenes in the iconic 1891 Pinal County Courthouse where Pearl Hart was tried and sentenced in 1899 for the crime of robbing a stagecoach. Dozens of extras in period costume helped to pack the room just as it had been during the trial.
The movie is due out next August. It will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.