After waiting some time to make “9 Bullets,” Gigi Gaston was going to get her dog.
“I wanted a boy and his dog all alone. I had to have that,” recalls Gaston, of one of the images that was stuck in her head from early on in writing her second feature after deciding it would be about a young child. “Do I know why? No. I just felt it emotionally.”
People on the production had been wary of this aspect of the script when time would inevitably be tight on the indie drama, even if “9 Bullets” hadn’t been one of the first films to go into production as protocols were put into place to protect against a COVID outbreak. No matter how well-trained a canine they could bring to set, it was looking like a no-go.
“[They] were trying to convince me not to have the dog and [saying] ‘It’s really bad. We don’t have a lot of budget and what if the dog doesn’t do this and this?” Gaston says. “And I’m like, ‘Then fine! I know a dog trainer once who had a funny act. The dog did nothing he said. He picked up the fucking dog and walked with the dog everywhere! I’ll do that if the dog doesn’t listen. I’ve got to have a dog.”
Gaston wasn’t about to compromise on “9 Bullets,” having made so many others before in getting her vision onto the screen only to see those films not move forward to a green light. Even if the film weren’t inspired to some degree by her personal life, you could tell she and her lead Gypsy (Lena Headey) are cut from the same cloth, even if packing heat means an actual revolver that the latter hides in her microwave while Gaston has only her words. Named after the famous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, who Gaston had actually known growing up, “9 Bullets” sees its no-nonsense heroine putting that life behind her when she is suddenly confronted with taking care of her 11-year old nephew Sam (Dean Scott Vasquez) – and his dog Moses – after learning her brother has gotten in too deep with the wrong people, namely a crime boss named Jack (Sam Worthington).
Even if she hadn’t once been romantically entwined with Jack, the situation gets knotty fast as Gypsy is asked to take on the maternal responsibilities she long made a point of avoiding to take care of Dean and adds to her troubles by stealing a Porche with a stranger (La La Anthony) inside as she makes a getaway from two of Jack’s thugs who follow in their Dodge Ram. But rather than getting caught up in the usual action histrionics, Gaston leans towards something more off the beaten path as Gypsy swerves in and out of trouble, watching as her protective instincts kick in for the boy she seems to want to throw to the wolves herself at the start and eventually comes to realize she has more love inside of her than she could’ve possibly imagined, including some for herself after a long, hard road.
It was the biggest leap yet in all respects for Gaston, who was an Olympic-level equestrian before turning her attention to screenwriting, and with “9 Bullets” now in theaters against all odds, she spoke about how she stuck to her guns to make the female-led thriller her way, navigating as perilous a path off-screen as Gypsy does on screen and how being open to collaboration yielded a number of the film’s most unexpected and touching elements.
How did this come about?
I’ve been a writer in Hollywood for a long time. I’ve actually sold 17 scripts, two of them for $1 million and they never got made. They were [nearly] all female protagonists and I thought maybe it would be time to have a movie like this come out. And suddenly you get this idea — when I was a kid, Gypsy Rose Lee used to say to me when I was eight, the most important thing is between your eyes, not this [pointing towards breasts]. Most men don’t understand that about me because of the work I’ve done” – hey, there came my ex-burlesque dancer vibe in the movie. Then the little kid is [loosely] based on how my son opened up my heart in my life. And then the story just started blossoming.
I got very lucky. I met one producer who brought me to Cassian Elwes, a great producer who could put all the elements together, and I met Mary Vernieu, the casting director who did an amazing job for me because as an unknown, it’s hard to get a really good cast because they’re risking their life on you. She just turned me onto Lena Headey, who was amazing. And this was before the pandemic, but all the hatred in the world was just flipping me out and I thought [this was a story about how] we need a second chance in life. Then I get greenlit, which of course is during the pandemic, we’re one of the first movies out [in production] where no one knows shit [about proper procedure], but I think it saved everyone’s life, to be honest. Yes, we were listening to the news driving [to set], we had the test every three days or and we had masks on, but everyone was so focused on making the movie we weren’t afraid.
It’s interesting you say that you sold lot of screenplays, but none were produced because this film has so much personality, I suspect that’s what would leap off the page for producers, but would get diluted as it went through the development process. Did you feel you could better protect it as a director?
There’s a couple people that wanted their vision and not the vision of the movie and it took Lena Headey writing an e-mail to CAA to protect me. I owe my life to that woman. But it’s not just one person. It’s her manager, her, then Cassian Elwes, then one of the investors and it just was a miracle. But here’s the thing. I have so much respect for Lena — for example, if she said [about a scene], “No, you’re wrong. We should do this,” I would’ve listened to her. But she’s such an instinctive actress. She would do things like this scene after her [character] and Sam Worthington’s make love, I said to Lena, “I’m really worried they’re thinking why you’re sleeping with Sam Worthington because we all know you’re saving the boy, but you enjoyed [the sex] and I wanted her to enjoy it, so I want you to do a scene for me showing all your fucking self-hatred. I just want you to tear your clothes off in the bathroom.” And we were behind that day — we shot 210 shots in 19 days, an impossibility.
But back to Lena, you have to have an actress that can do it all and she comes back and in that second, she got it, said, “Love it!” We go in the bathroom and shoots it in one take – the disgust of her wanting to get rid of it because there’s some people in your life you shouldn’t be with, they’re bad people and yet you can’t help yourself. She was so brave to do that and not question it. So this whole movie took a village and what I learned from doing this movie was certain people want certain things that might not be for the good of the picture, but they think is for the good of the picture and my best piece of advice for any filmmakers out there is you all leave your ego at home. It doesn’t belong in a creative world.
I wouldn’t have guessed this was a COVID production given because most of the films you’ve seen emerge from the early days of this new normal have been limited locations and cast and crew, and this covers a lot of ground. But beyond that, you can only shoot so long with a child actor on set. Did you get most of what you originally envisioned or would you have to make adjustments?
I just knew I had to get my days done and I knew what I had to get. Here’s a great example of that brilliant kid who I’m madly in love with. You won’t believe this. The set SAG teacher is there [on the set] and I’m allowed one more take [for the day] — and I need five more set-ups. It’s the last scene [of the movie]. How do I do that on one take? It was like three scenes [leading] up to that last scene and I had to do that last scene, so I did three scenes in one. I grabbed this kid and was like, “Dean, listen to me, this is why I believed in you. You and I have to perform a miracle. We’re at war and you have to bring it home for me because the whole movie is riding on you.” I literally said that to him. I’m only allowed one take, so he did one part of the scene and I never yelled “cut.” And I grab him here [in one part of the set] and I’m like, “this…and this…and this… here.” Didn’t yell cut and I am telling you when I finally yelled “cut,” the whole cast and crew of 70 people or whatever it was screamed and yelled and that kid grew ten feet tall. [laughs] He will never forget that and I had no idea if I got it. The camera moved around a lot and I was pretty sure, but he was amazing. We would’ve lost the movie if that 11-year old kid didn’t have that in him.
Did Lena and Dean have time together to get a rhythm going beforehand?
Oh yeah, but the bottom line is as a filmmaker, you’ve got to make sure the chemistry is there [before] and the chemistry was there, so I knew anything could happen would elevate the movie. They really had this amazing thing and certain things happened like the scene where they’re in the hotel room and he brings out a flower to her, I didn’t tell her that [was going to happen]. We did the takes a couple times and I go out and get a rose outside — and my finger’s bleeding and like oh God, I hope I don’t have to worry about that because it’s at night and I’m on some set — but I [say to Dean], “Give this to her on such and such a line.” And he did and look at that moment! So I always try to create surprises. But they create a lot of surprises. Lena Headey creates surprises, Sam Worthington too, and Barbara Hershey, all of them.
And La La [Anthony], you don’t get to see it because they didn’t allow me to have it in this cut – this was one fight I lost, but La La really does die in the script, but in this movie, you really don’t know. There’s the most amazing moment that we shot where Martin [Sensmeier] takes her and is almost kissing her as he kills her, and oh my God, chills. And he looks and you see the regret and from that moment on in in the movie, he doesn’t want to be a hit man anymore. He wants out. Martin brought that in himself. Did I write the kiss in? Yes, but from what happened after that kiss, he layered it, and it was a beautiful moment. I wish someone could see it some day. But everyone just brought so much to this movie and I’m just so grateful and I’m glad that I was open. We’re all boats and we’re all the river and we’re all one and we have to just be there to receive.
You’ve got quite a soundtrack with a Sophie B. Hawkins’ rendition of “Silent Night,” after you made a documentary about her, and you’ve got a Diane Warren original…
Can you believe that?
No, how did it happen?
I’ve seen Diane a lot of times and the music supervisor Bonnie Greenburg was like, who do you want for your end title [song]? And I’m like, “You don’t think Diane would write one for me, do you?” And Diane was like “Sure.”
It’s just that easy?
She asked me what the movie’s about. I told her it’s about second chances and about redemption, women empowerment, a woman making the right decision — even though she doesn’t want to take care of this fucking kid, she makes the right decision. And she’s like, “Okay.” Crazy, right? And Sophie and I had a kid together, and [the movie’s about] this kid in my life who I don’t get to see as much because she’s no longer in L.A., so I wanted to let him know he means so much to me because separations are hard. It’s really a dedication to him and his effect on me and it’s never gone away.
It’s a lovely tribute. Something that I picked up on throughout was how you’ll use quotes throughout the film – is that actually a building block for you when writing?
Never before. And what’s really interesting, I had Barbara Hershey say the line that my mother said to me as she died in my arms, which Lena Headey [subsequently] gave me as a wrap gift — a tattoo on my wrist. “Be strong. Don’t quit.” And it was subconscious that I gave that line to Barbara Hershey. When she said that to Lena, I was like, they have a mother-daughter relationship and Lena had remembered me telling this story when we first met, so the way she plays off that line, the layers she put in that look — oh my God. Because I know she knows where it came from, so that quote came out there and then the other one [from Henry Longfellow] about “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night,” I was raised on that. You’ve got to work. That’s what [Gypsy] keeps telling this kid. You’ve got to work in life and if you work, it’ll pay off and you can’t give up. “Be strong. Don’t quit.”
What’s it like to get out into the world?
When I’ve been talking to people and they’re like “I liked this” and “I loved that,” it’s like, “Oh wow,” because you’re fighting so much and I’m not talking about just people. You’re fighting to get it made with no time, no money, with limited scenes with limited shooting days and you’re like, “God, if I had one more second, if I could’ve just snuck this in…” All of that stuff goes into your head as a writer or director, so I’m just so touched that all I could focus on was the relationship between Lena and that kid and the other flavors that came in and out of their lives. I hope it moves people. I hope there’s one line in there that someone takes away and goes, “Wow, I’m not going to quit.” Because after the thousand nos that paved that bridge to the yes, I’ve had many bridges of nos, but I kept walking and then there’s that yes.