Two Gorehounds Go West
Horror directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks take on a period Western
The sun glints through the spindly trees as two figures come into view. The cowboy's hair is long, his beard scraggly. His legs drift down from his horse, and he points to the campsite. The doctor, clutching a heavy bag of potions, follows on foot toward a man writhing in the dirt by a campfire. In close-up, we see the bullet has passed cleanly through the man's foot, leaving a jagged gash. The doctor examines the wound, cleans it by working a cloth through the hole, and says, "This man's gone septic. In this heat, gangrene will set in quick." Time to cut off his leg.
Ben Ploughman, special effects makeup wizard, removes his hand from the syringe through which he's been trying semisuccessfully to ooze bloody puss. Instead, he paints it directly onto the prosthetic leg he modeled after his own, complete with hair. "It looks gross," says the doctor – or rather, says actor Michael Berryman, best known for his unique look in films like The Hills Have Eyes and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He smiles in approval.
Welcome to the set of Red on Yella, Kill a Fella, a dark Western with hints of horror that marks a sort of coming-of-age for co-directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks. The pair met up in a screenwriting class taught by Kim Henkel, co-writer of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The pair went on to film their own Texas bigfoot tale, The Wild Man of the Navidad, on weekends with a handful of friends on the Meeks family ranch in Whitsett. Henkel co-produced.
Then came Boneboys, a Henkel-penned story about cannibalism that, save the different character names (Amphead instead of Leatherface), could be mistaken for another Chain Saw sequel. (Henkel dubs it a modern take on Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal.") Boneboys premiered at Montreal's Fantasia Fest in August and is close to being sold. "[There are] offers," Meeks says. "It's just a matter of choosing one and going with it." Co-directors Meeks and Graves looked harried when I last saw them during the film's late 2010 shoot in downtown Taylor. The leap from weekend film warriors to managers of a large crew wasn't as easy as they'd expected. "There were 25 people in the art department," Graves says of the Boneboys production. "I didn't know some of these people. I guess on a Hollywood movie it would be that way, but I want to be more intimate."
That's exactly what he and Meeks have got with Red on Yella, though the six-week shoot has been hectic. Inspired by the Sam Bass gang, the film follows an outlaw gang in 1900 who set out on a quest from western Texas to the Gulf of Mexico in search of lost loot. It's a last hurrah in changing times, but something mysterious starts taking the men out one by one. Meeks, whose subtle acting carried Wild Man, stars as gang leader Claude Barbee. Shooting with a mostly Austin crew, the filmmakers have been on their own quest, hopping through locations including Corpus Christi, Mathis, Gonzales, Bartlett, and Granger (which features the same wide street used in the Coen brothers' True Grit). The directors spent eight months perfecting their script and scouting locations. "We make Texas a character," Meeks says. "They take a beating, not just from the outlaws, but from the land."
The duo talk with film-geek pride of using an anamorphic lens to achieve the look of the spaghetti Westerns they admire, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, then just as quickly throw out Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man as an influence. The cast includes cult stars like Luce Rains (Appaloosa) and Pepe Serna (Scarface). "We also sprinkle [the film] with a little horror to satisfy our fans," Graves says. "But make no mistake, it's a straight-up Western with robbing, killing, shooting, and pillaging."
The last two weeks are being filmed in Austin, on this day at Pioneer Farms, a living history site in Northeast Austin that abuts a subdivision of single-family homes. Meeks and Graves look relaxed despite the constant string of challenges that pop up on the set. Today's scene has to be stopped to wait out a woman walking with a baby carriage in the far background of the scene. Then an airplane passes loudly overhead, then another. A crew member's cell phone goes off. A horse whinnies. A truck's engine roars in the nearby parking lot. Today marks the 15th flat tire since the production began. On the edge of the woods, producer Karrie Cox points out a growth of poison ivy that recently resulted in welts across the face of her husband and producing partner Marcus Cox. Another scene take commences, and Graves jokes, "Cue the airplane." Later at lunch, a bee attracted to his soda can will slip into Graves' mouth and sting his tongue.
Yet, this is by all appearances a calm and happy set. The trimmed-down crew is at the ready to solve problems. First assistant director Michelle Millette tries to keep everyone to a schedule and mostly succeeds, calling "grace" as the lunch break runs a few minutes late. Horse wrangler Brennan Wells, who rents horses for beach rides on Padre Island, keeps the animals happy with ample hay and a soothing hand as the camera rolls. Art director Matt Dayton and production designer Kate Morter thrive on finding creative solutions on an indie film budget: making chains for a chain gang out of PVC pipe, mimicking an old-time photo flash with gunpowder and the trigger from a craft rocket, re-creating a candy store by haunting post-Halloween sales at Randalls and Walgreens, constructing what passes for a period bicycle with a Frankenstein's-monster-like hodgepodge of parts from the Yellow Bike Project. "It's what I enjoy most – getting to be MacGyver," Dayton says. "I get to piece things together."
That is the endless challenge of making independent films, and Meeks and Graves relish it. "You just have to jump in running and bite off a little more than you can chew," Meeks says. "You might just surprise yourself."
For more images of Joe O’Connell’s set visit, go to austinchronicle.com/photos.