The C&I Movie Award-winning filmmaker is back in the saddle again.
For writer-director Justin Lee, the first few months of 2020 were the best of times and the worst of times.
In February, the prolific filmmaker was pleased to learn his indie-produced western Badland had dominated the third annual C&I Movie Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Screenplay (both for Lee), Best Actress (Mira Sorvino) and Best Supporting Actress (Amanda Wyss).
One month later, he was greatly displeased when, while on location in New Mexico shooting Apache Junction — his new western currently available on streaming platforms and in limited theatrical release — production had to be shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while he was at home awaiting the resumption of filming, his spirits were lifted by some totally unexpected great news: Badland — which also included Kevin Makely, Bruce Dern, Jeff Fahey, Trace Adkins and Wes Studi in its cast — had started trending in the Netflix Top 10 list.
“It’s unreal,” lead player Kevin Makely told Adrian Gomez of the Albuquerque Journal. “When it came out to Netflix, there wasn’t any advertising. The fact that it has organically grown throughout the entire country and peaked at No. 3, it’s mind-blowing. I have so much gratitude, and I still don’t know how to process it.”
After months of delay, Lee finally was able to finish work on Apache Junction, his drama about an inquisitive reporter (Scout Taylor Thompson) who needs help from a notorious gunslinger (Stuart Townsend, pictured above) and a sardonic barkeep (Thomas Jane) when she goes looking for stories about the outlaw inhabitants of the titular town controlled by a cynical Army captain (Trace Adkins). That the finished product looks so seamless is quite a tribute to the talents of Lee and his cast.
We caught up with Lee recently to talk about the high and lows he has experienced during the past 18 months. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: So what did it feel like when you heard Badland was such a popular choice for people who wanted to Netflix and chill?
Justin Lee: You know, it was kind of weird and surreal because, coincidentally, I’d been filming Apache Junction, and I had just got home from COVID having broken that movie. And so I arrived home from New Mexico, and Badland all of a sudden was trending — and it was kind of a second wind for Badland, which was really interesting. And I was like, “This is happening!” There was a whirlwind for like three or four weeks — and then, just like anything in good old movie land, once it kind of died down, it died down. They were on to the next thing. But it was really crazy. I don't think anyone expected that. I don't think anyone expected a Netflix deal for it. And I didn’t even know it had a Netflix deal until it was No. 9 on Netflix. Then it went up to seven, and then it went up to three. I mean, it was just kind of a crazy wild ride. And I was already coming off of the high from your magazine’s movie awards, so it was quite the awesome experience with that whole thing.
C&I: That must have helped you cope with COVID interrupting your Apache Junction shoot.
Lee: Joe, it was really nuts. We were watching this whole thing unfold before us. Did you see Idris Elba’s movie? What’s it called, The Harder They Fall?
C&I: That’s right.
Lee: Well, they were filming across the street from us. And when news broke that Elba caught COVID, we were like, “Hey! They’re literally across the street from us.” And then it was like this is shutting down, that is shutting down. We kept going and going, and we pushed it. And finally the producers were like, “Justin, should we break this movie?” And I said, “Let's give it one or two more days.” And we went one or two more days before I said, “OK, it’s probably about time we get out of New Mexico,” because things were getting a little crazy. And literally, no joke, we shut down that night, and the next morning the whole state of New Mexico was on lockdown.
So we pushed it as far as we could go, and got every single thing we could shot. We still had five days of shooting, and we came back seven months later and we finished it. But what a crazy time to be making a movie and have that happen. And it was quite the experience.
C&I: Couldn’t help noticing that, while Trace Adkins makes a strong impression in all of his scenes throughout Apache Junction — almost all of those scenes were shot in just two locations. So it raises the question: Just how many days was he out there with you in New Mexico?
Lee: [Laughs] Well, if you’re very familiar with Trace, you know Trace is always on tour and doing stuff. And so it’s not even about whether he wants to do more — it’s like, between his travel time and then having to go back to do a show, he only really has like two, three days between that kind of stuff. And so you kind of have to whittle stuff down if you're going to have Trace on something. And that’s kind of what I had to do here is. I knew we wanted Trace for that character. And I said, “Well, it was already written that way.” And I think we got a few more scenes actually out of him than what was originally planned.
But at the same time — that’s also the character. That character is a captain, so he doesn’t leave much, right? You’re always in your office, doing whatever. And it worked out really great. I had amazing set design on this one. I mean, I was really in love with a lot of my interiors on this film. And so his office was one of my favorite sets that we had.
C&I: The only other place we see him is when Capt. Hensley appears unannounced at the saloon run by Thomas Jane.
Lee: But that’s also in the story. It’s about those conflicting characters. They’re the ones who struck the chord together. And so it made sense to really only see each one in their own respective areas. And then if we saw them together, it was going to be in Tom’s bar. I think we had Trace for, like, three days, so we did everything in those three days. And that’s obviously why we had limited scenes. But Trace had a lot of big, hefty dialogue scenes in this movie. And I got to tell you, it's always a pleasure to work with Trace. He’s one of my favorite actors that I work with.
I just shot a movie in Hawaii with him this summer and he’s just a blast, man. He's a hoot, he’s fun to work with, he keeps it light — but he really prepares. Apache Junction is such a different thing for him. And I love it when anyone says, “Oh yeah, Trace is the villain,” or whatever. And I’ll say, “But is he a villain?" He’s actually out there on this lawless front, just trying to do his job. He’s trying to do it with all the tools at his disposal, which is to rid the land of all these outlaws. But yet he can’t, because his troops need supplies that he can’t get from his own government. It’s a really complex character if you think about it.
C&I: Given the fact that relatively few westerns are produced these days, you don’t really have a large pool of actors with experience making them. Does that mean you find it difficult to cast films like Badland and Apache Junction?
Lee: There's so many variables and factors that go into it, because you don’t get a hundred percent of what you want, right? Whether that’s because producers or other people, investors, are saying, “Hey, you have to cast these three or four people that you’ve never heard of, that you don’t know who they are,” when you have different ideas for people and you’re being told you have to cast these people. Or you’ve got 20 days to shoot and, all of a sudden they’re like, “Hey, we're cutting five days.” You're up against it all the time, Joe, all the time. And you have to figure these things out. So you kind of have to pick who you can really rely on.
Obviously, Trace is someone I've been able to rely on, and a handful of other ones, Ed Marrone is someone else who I can rely on 10 out of 10 times in every movie I make. And in Apache, I think he gives just one hell of a performance [as gunfighter Oslo Pike]. But you’re right, you have to cast people that fit the roles. And that can get hard, because sometimes you get someone that doesn’t necessarily fit the role. You really have to work and say, “How can I make this believable?” That’s a big challenge in filmmaking in general. So you want to at least get some people in that cast that, again, you can rely on and you can give a heavy burden to, to help get you through it.
C&I: Looks like you got exactly the cast you needed for Apache Junction.
Lee: Actually, believe it or not, I wrote the script before Badland ever got written. So I had my producer, Daemon Hillin, come to me and say, “Hey, what do think about Stuart Townsend?” I’d worked with him before and I said, “I love Stuart Townsend.” And he goes, “He wants to do this movie.” And I said, “I didn't even know he read the script.” So he goes, “He really wants to do this movie.”
And so, I talked to Stuart on the phone, and I was like, “Wow, this is great.” But I’ll tell you: The day it really clicked with me is when my costume designer, Samantha Kuester, sent me photos of them doing a fitting with him. And you love westerns as much as I do. So, you know when you see a character and they have the perfect hat on?
C&I: Oh, yes.
Lee: Well, Samantha sent me a photo, and I went, “That’s the character! That's it! That’s Jericho Ford!" And Stuart was just great, man. And he has that flair you don't see that often. To me, that’s very Clint Eastwood. And he's got the jawline, he’s just got the swagger. I just love Stu. And he is very passionate. He always wanted to do a western. So that was awesome to have him come in and be so loving of the script and the character, and treat it with such care, and really want to collaborate. That’s very rare that you get an actor who wants to really do that.
So I couldn’t speak more highly of Stuart. Same with Scout Taylor Thompson. Scout also got proposed to me by Daemon. I was a fan of Scout because I loved Rob Zombie’s Halloween. I said, “Man, it would be great to get her out of the horror genre and do something different with her.” And she had this innocence about her that I was looking for, for that particular character, that Annabel Angel character. And so I think she did a great job.
And then Tom Jane came with his own ideas about his character in mind, and it was something I did not see on the page as that character. And I could not have fallen more in love with what he brought. The day he got there, they introduced me to Tom and he just said, “Hey, let's go for a walk.” So we start walking, and he says, “So, what do you think about this pipe?” And I go, “It's great.” He goes, “I just started smoking these pipes last week. And I think this is this character. Do you like it?” And I go, “I think it’s a really cool thing.” And then what he did with that pipe in the movie where he plays with it, and he chews on it — it’s just an added layer for an actor, and for a character. And it’s those things that are so much fun to get to watch and direct. It makes a scene sometimes.