I’m a sucker for a Western, always have been. Not sure how that came to be; maybe it grew alongside my childhood love of horses, or maybe I was a cowboy in a previous life and part of my soul misses something from that time.
Either way, good, bad or ugly, I will almost always check out a modern Western, even when I know I will be comparing it against a long history of powerful and iconic films that were made in a different time with a different type of vision, and I know that I am not typically forgiving when disappointed by overhyped newcomers who miss the mark.
Outlaws and Angels is a new Western, and to my delight, it has a lot going for it, including being a little hard to clearly classify (not that that’s a bad thing). Director JT Mollner also wrote the screenplay, and we had a chat about story-telling, pacing, and of course, Westerns.
Summer: JT Mollner is the writer and director of a new, I’m going to say Western / Thriller / atmospheric adventure called Outlaws and Angels, which will be available in theaters on July 15 as well as video on demand, and I for one was very entertained by this, thank you.
JT Mollner: I’m glad you were! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a very specific kind of film, people have very intense, visceral reactions to it. A lot of people really love it, and some people appreciate it but don’t really know what to make of it, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Summer: I’m a sucker for a Western, I grew up with westerns — my mom got me hooked on them, probably before I could talk — I have always had a weakness for Westerns, and in the past, I’m going to say 15-20 years, there haven’t been a whole lot of creatively done Westerns that have made me stop and think and go “Wow, that was pretty intense, and different”.
JT Mollner: Thank you. You know I have the same feeling, as you do. I grew up with westerns; my grandfather used to watch them with me. Ever since I was a kid I’ve seen everything from John Ford, to Peckinpah to the newer ones like Unforgiven and The Proposition a few years ago. I’ve seen all the westerns.
What I’ve always felt in the western genre, that even though there had been envelope-pushing films, like The Wild Bunch, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Proposition — there were so many envelopes still to push, so much space that hadn’t been mined within the genre that it felt like the perfect genre for me to work in first.
I don’t know if I want to make another western because I feel like I kinda did what I wanted to do here, which was really set up those genre stereotypes and traditional story tropes in the first act and then rip them to shreds as we move on. we call this movie a feminist revenge drama and, it slowly became… it was an interesting approach to start off with all these traditional archetypes, lead the audience in certain direction and then pull the rug out from under them.
So I made the western I that was craving after seeing so many paint by numbers westerns and films that went in directions that I expected them to go — I made the movie that I felt would be unexpected, and I made the movie that I’d like to go see. I wanted to be existential and self aware, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just violence for the sake of violence. I wanted to make sure we were making a comment about violence, and the cycle of violence, and the cycle of revenge and how damaging it can be. how it doesn’t always equal a moment where you should clap and root… sometimes revenge can rock somebody to the core, and hatred and more violence would just perpetuate something completely insidious.
This film was based on true stories from the American West. There were some pretty awful and kind of unthinkable things happening out in the middle of nowhere, in the frontier in the late 1800s, and we really wanted to explore this kind of pessimistic approach to humanity in this movie, although it’s not necessarily how I feel in day to day life.
Summer: I don’t know if I’d call it pessimistic; I’d call it grim, and dark, and more… showcasing how easy it is for humans to fall into baser patterns when they’ve got nothing else to experience, or not a whole lot of people around to balance them out.
JT Mollner: Absolutely, lack of regulation, desperation, all of these things come into play with kind of this microcosm of humanity out in the middle of nowhere. you have this family, and morals and ethics start to become ambiguous. People start to do what they have to do and what they’re driven to do, and some of the baser instincts sometimes come to the surface. So that’s what this film is really about, it’s about humans and how they react in certain situations…. you definitely got it, it’s definitely that.
I think… when people were that far out, and alone with their families, and you know about the cabin fever associated with that, and then you have the desperation of criminals meeting up with this family and then it’s just a pefect storm, a deadly mix. That’s definitely what our goal was.
Summer: Now, with this film, Western is the main genre, but I’ve been struggling where to “pigeonhole” the other elements, I’m not sure there is just one pigeonhole. Like I said, I’m a fan of westerns and I don’t want to get into spoiler territory at all, but a lot of people who like some of the thriller/horror type films that don’t go in for gore but go in for suspense and agonizing tension may enjoy this. What I see this film as it’s not so much a revenge tale, but more retribution & punishment story… because everybody who gets it kinda really has it coming!
JT Mollner: You have a great point there! There was a line in the movie that was eventually cut out: “Sooner or later we all get what’s coming”, and that line has been used as a tagline on a few posters, but that definitely is the underlying theme of the film, and you definitely got that. It’s definitely something that’s there and I believe it’s hard to classify the film — that was always the point of it, it’s not really one single genre.
I will say it was most inspired by the claustrophobic early Polanski films like Cul-de-sac and Knife in the Water, the post-modern European cinema that involves a nice ensemble cast and unpredictable things happening, whether it’s Bergman and Polanski or any of those guys who were making films back then. Thats really where the influence came from.
There’s a lot of Straw Dogs influence in this movie too. If there’s any Peckinpah film that this movie is influenced by the most, it was probably Straw Dogs, which ironically is one of his non-Westerns, but that’s there too. There’s also definitely kind of a home invasion genre that is part of this film, that I’ve always been drawn to.
Summer: Now, as you’re the writer and the director, I do want to talk a little bit about the pacing. Because part way in I realized that there seemed to be a very deliberate care taken with the slow pacing of everything, and for me that sort of intensified those moments of violence. And , that pacing believe it or not reminded me of Once Upon A Time in the West.
JT Mollner: That’s ironic… I mean, that’s great you’d say that… you’re really insightful when it comes to the film. That movie wasn’t something that I thought of as an influence of this movie, but that’s probably my favorite Western. I like the pacing of Once Upon A Time in the West, I like Leone’s pacing. I also like Terrence Malick’s pacing, I like the pacing in Badlands. I always thought Badlands was a very intense film, it’s a slow burn, and that’s how Once Upon A Time in the West felt as well.
That’s always how I’ve been interested in pacing my films. I want to take my time, I like long takes, I like staying on the characters and getting some complexity from those characters. There’s a great scene in Once Upon A Time in the West that has inspired me as a filmmaker, but not necessarily specifically inspired this movie. There’s a scene where Claudia Cardinale is looking into a mirror and she’s looking at herself, and the camera stays on her for what feels like 5 minutes, but it’s really only a minute and it just kinda of tells her whole emotional story in that shot of her face.
JT Mollner: If you have good enough actors, you can linger on them and tell a story, and that’s what we do a lot in this film with Teri Polo who’s so tremendous, and Francesca Eastwood, and also Chad. I just like to take my time, and technically speaking in modern terminology, this movie could have been a littler shorter and cut away from things quicker, but I feel like I wanted to create an uncomfortable environment, and I wanted to have that slow burn because I thought without that slow burn it would play like an exploitation film, and that’s never what we wanted to do. So I love it that you noticed the influences of Leone and Once Upon A Time in the West, it’s a brilliant film, it’s one of my favorite ever.
Summer: Once I realized that the revenge and retribution was playing more to the theme of the whole movie, that was the first one I thought of, so golf clap for that one.
JT Mollner: I’ll tell you a little secret… in the opening scene, there’s a bank robbery, and the bank is called “Frederick Sykes Bank and Trust”, there a big sign… and Sykes was the rich baron in Once Upon a Time in the West, so there’s actually a reference to Once Upon a Time in the West in the film.
Summer: Wow, that shows you truly are one of us, a fan of the Western.
JT Mollner: Haha, thank you.
Summer: The writing of this… what you managed to put in the script and pull out of Teri & Francesca & Chad to me was very expressive and deliberate, because you see… especially in Francesca’s behavior… the slight smile she gets when she realizes she can use these outlaws to fix what’s broken in her life, even though what’s broken in her life is her family. The subtlety in that really really struck me.
JT Mollner: I’ll tell you, it amazed and struck me as well, and I’d like to take some credit for that, but that’s all her, and it’s all Teri and it’s all Chad. I mean these are very well trained, talented actors. Of course I told them that I wanted there to be that subtlety there, and of course I told them I wanted to see the emotions, and not have them “emote” but they were able to do it. And I’ve worked with actors before, some who have been able to it and some who haven’t, so you really have to cast properly in order to get those moments. I was just in heaven with the talent on this film, these are tremendous actors.
As far as the writing goes, the language in the film… that was another thing that bothered me about a lot of westerns, the language in a lot of these westerns sounded too modern. So I did extensive period research and all the dialogue is incredibly accurate to that exact year and that exact time and that place, so we took a long time to do that. Hopefully people will notice, who like westerns.
Summer: Well, I encourage people who like westerns to also check this out, like I said, i have an appreciation for the deliberateness of the slow pacing… there’s no speeding up of people’s emotional reactions, or pacing or environmental features, none of that. It kind of hooks you, just pulls you in and hooks you, so that sort of attention to detail to both writing and filmmaking is something that i greatly appreciate, so thank you for that.
JT Mollner: Oh, thank you so much! You’re exactly the audience we made this film for, so I’m really thankful you appreciated it. thank you
Summer: I did, I did! JT Mollner, the director and writer of Outlaws and Angels from Momentum Pictures; check it this week out on video on demand, and in select theaters. Thank you so much for your time, JT.
JT Mollner: Thank you, and it was shot on Kodak motion picture film, so in theaters is the place to see it, if you’re close to one. If not, get it at home.
Summer: Hopefully people will get to enjoy this on the big screen because some of those shots deserve to be seen on the big screen.
JT Mollner: Oh, thank you so much.
Outlaws and Angels is available in select theaters and VOD on July 15.
CAST: Chad Michael Murray, Francesca Eastwood, Madisen Beaty, Ben Browder, Frances Fisher, Keith Loneker, with Luke Wilson, and Teri Polo
DIRECTED BY: JT Mollner
WRITTEN BY: JT Mollner
SYNOPSIS: When Outlaws on the lam invade the home of an unsuspecting, seemingly innocent, frontier family to hide out for the night, an unexpected game of cat and mouse ensues, leading to seduction, role reversal, and ultimately, bloody revenge.