Breathing New Life Into an Old Genre

'Cowboy Smoke'

Will Moore
Will Moore (Photo by Mary Sledd)

Barely enough money for the first two weeks of filming, gritty rural locations at the ready, and a young filmmaker with an ambitious script that takes a classic genre and transmogrifies it into something fresh. If it sounds like the classic low-budget film dream, it is. Meet Will Moore and his film Cowboy Smoke, which transports the Western to the modern day while alternating between laughter, a hot-button political issue, and in-your-face stylized gunplay.

The hero is Joe, the classic wide-eyed kid of the genre (think Ron Howard in The Shootist) who longs to be a real cowboy while working in a convenience store and honing his aim with a quick-draw video game. Add Wes (the title character of Moore's first film, Wesley Cash) as an outlaw on the run in the vein of the archetypal no-name character Clint Eastwood portrayed with moral ambiguity in three Sergio Leone films, a lawman in pursuit of Wes, and a flashy bad guy, and you have a showdown in the making. "It's a push and pull," Moore says of setting a Western in today's world. "I wanted to have believability while still honoring the tradition of the spaghetti Western and the way it goes over the top."

The tone changes from light to deadly serious as Joe talks his way into a ranch-hand gig and, thanks to his marksmanship, is assigned to shoot illegal immigrants crossing the ranch. He balks and finds himself in the middle of a town surviving on the human smuggling trade. The plot twist was inspired by the 2003 deaths of 19 immigrants outside Moore's hometown of Victoria, Texas, from the stifling heat inside the 18-wheeler used to smuggle them from Mexico. Cowboy Smoke was shot just a few miles from the incident. "I started doing research on the immigration issue and actually found instances where landowners had shot immigrants who were crossing their property," Moore says. "There was an article I read where one landowner stated that he was 'defending his property.' That just blew me away."

Moore took an unlikely path to filmmaking. A walk-on tight end on the University of Texas football team, he was a second-teamer under coach John Mackovic, but bad grades kept him off the team for a year. He came back under new coach Mack Brown and discovered he'd lost his passion for the sport. Instead, his father, film costume supervisor Stanley Moore, hired his son to hand out clothes during the shooting of Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty, where he got a close look at a big-budget film set. Stanley Moore had sold his barbecue restaurant when Will was young and moved his family to Los Angeles in search of his own dream film career. He ended up working as a security guard while finding his place in the industry. "I saw my dad's work ethic," Moore says. "He had a drive and desire."

Will Moore took the same trip to Los Angeles after graduating from UT with a history degree. He read up to 20 scripts a week for the Gersh Agency and learned the secrets of storytelling. Back in Austin, he took Steve Mims' filmmaking classes and began to plan his first feature, also shot near Victoria using a 16mm camera he bought on eBay and later resold to fund postproduction. Financial backing for a larger-budget second film fell through, so he instead created Cowboy Smoke and has been spurred to learn more about the producing side of filmmaking. "Lots of people in Austin now are making short films but are not conscious of the fact that if you want to continue to make films, you have to sell the films you are making."

Saturday, Oct. 18, 7pm, Alamo Lake Creek; Tuesday, Oct. 21, 7pm, Rollins Studio Theatre.

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