In one of the more tender scenes in Jared Moshe’s stirring second feature “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” the titular seen-it-all cowboy (Bill Pullman) is tending to a wound suffered by his young protege Jeremiah (Diego Josef), regaling him with stories of the Old West to take his mind away from the pain. It is 1889 in Red Bluff, Montana, so there are plenty of tall tales to be told about all the men Lefty has ridden alongside, but Jeremiah, even in his state of semi-delirium is conscious enough to ask Lefty why he doesn’t seem to tell any stories about himself, to which Lefty can only reply, “That’s not as interesting.”
“The idea of this movie [was] what happens when the stories we tell ourselves fall apart,” says Moshe, who succeeds at proving Lefty wrong by placing him squarely in the middle of the action in the movie that bears his name. Beyond serving as a corrective for all the Leftys in screen history — the sidekicks who are often seen as comic relief and confidants to the main hero who aren’t afforded the opportunity to carry the day themselves, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” becomes endlessly fascinating because Lefty wears the role as loosely as the well-traveled hat he wears fits atop his head, making things truly unpredictable when he must bear the responsibility of protecting the family ranch of his boss Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), soon to head off to Washington to become a senator, and finds himself in the middle of a plot to steal the land from under him and Johnson’s wife Laura (Kathy Baker).
As Moshe did in his previous film “Dead Man’s Burden,” the writer/director refreshes the western not only with the sophistication of modern camera techniques and other production tools, but by taking into account all the viewpoints that have been shuffled off to the side in previous narratives informed by his encyclopedic knowledge of other westerns. The result is truly inspired while retaining the satisfaction that comes with spending quality time in the open range, particularly with a guide as feisty as Lefty, played with great relish by Pullman, who appears to have been waiting to sink his teeth into such a part. With the crowdpleaser arriving in theaters after a celebrated festival run that began this past spring at SXSW, Moshe was recently at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles to talk about how he was able to use every small detail in the film to create a tale so rich that it could easily travel as much as the very best legends of the Old West, having a leading man all too perfect for the role of Lefty, and finding the perfect locations.
It doesn’t seem often you see Westerns that use the pull of a federal government job as a starting point for a story, but rather local. How did you come up with this?
I really wanted to set this at that period when the frontier was closing. We’re two years off from the famous Frederick Jackson Turner [speech] “The Closing of the Frontier” and there’s a sense that the West is ending. We’re moving into a new phase and part of what this story is is how these characters are moving into a more civilized world and what they’re taking with them is the violence and the part of the west that made them who they were.
How did Lefty come into the picture?
I’ve had this character of Lefty in my head for a long time. I’ve always been inspired by that Walter Brennan/Gabby Hayes character who, we as an audience and even the other characters [in the film] laugh at, but who the hero takes super-seriously. John Wayne, for instance] relies on [“Stumpy,” Brennan’s character] in “Rio Bravo.” He’s the last line of defense. And I wanted to try to find a real human being behind this archetype and look at the dichotomy of comedic sidekick yet relied upon lieutenant.
Apparently, you didn’t need to look far. I’ve read that Bill actually lived 20 minutes away from where you shot…
That was completely random.
Was it a chicken or the egg thing?
We were looking [to film] originally in New Mexico, where I shot “Dead Man’s Burden,” and I love New Mexico, but it didn’t feel right aesthetically for what I was trying to achieve. So we looked at British Columbia and Montana, and in Montana, I had fallen in love with the city of Bannock, which is three hours from where Bill lives, which is close by Montana time, but we couldn’t really find a ranch. We drove all over to place after place after place and nothing worked. Then the last place we looked was this ranch house that was perfect and I looked through it and was like, “This is amazing.” I called Bill and told him [what] we found, and he’s like “Where is that?” It took me a minute to say the name, and I knew it began with a W, so he was like, “Is it Whitehall?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think that’s it.” And he’s like, “You know, Whitehall is 20 minutes from where I live.” So it turned out, because we couldn’t find a hotel within 40 minutes of this location, he was closer to the ranch than anyone else. [laughs] I took 40 minutes to get to set and he took 20.
What kind of collaboration was this like with Bill? His kids are in it, so it seems like it became more than your typical actor-director collaboration.
Yeah, Bill Pullman was a spirit producer of this in a lot of ways. He was attached [to the film] for a year before we started production and it’s really important for me to collaborate with my actors, so once we brought him onboard, we’d sit down, we’d go through the script, we’d talk through the characters and really tried to bring out the themes, which is how I like to work. And I remember I met his son Lewis, who [Bill] told me was an actor, and when I met him, I was like “Ooh, this guy’s got some talent,” and I had a part that I was thinking of expanding, so I did for Lewis to be in the movie. Montana’s a giant family [to begin with] and you want to have that sense of community on set, so bringing in Bill’s family and friends was just a great opportunity to feed into the feeling of community when we could.
Was this all around the same area or were you piecing this together location-wise?
In Montana, everything’s super close, but 40 minutes away from each other, so we basically were based in two areas – Ennis for half the shoot and in Dylan for the other half and we would drive different places from there.
Since the light proves critical to setting the mood for many scenes, was that something you could plan for naturally?
We shot this in 20 days, so everything was super tight, but light is really important to me, so I would work through it with my [cinematographer] Dave McFarland and try to build our schedule taking into account the best time of days to get the best light. One of the great things about working with Dave was he could spot those little beauty moments that were around happening. [There’s a scene when] we were shooting on top of this mountain and we could only access it through four-wheelers and [when] we got up there, he saw the moon. We were in the middle of nowhere, there was no light and because we were so high, the moon just looked gigantic against the sky, so he instantly had the right idea and knew what lens to go and he saw it and got it.
There’s no shortage of beautiful landscape shots in the film, but the camera doesn’t often stay still, helping to create an energy. How did you figure out how you wanted to shoot this?
We wanted it to feel both intimate yet epic, so the idea was we were going to use our camera to really be with our characters in their space and illuminate what their emotional and mental feeling is. For example, the shot [with Kathy Baker’s character Laura Johnson when she brands a horse, and the camera pivots around her], she’s so focused on the task and [now] she’s the person who’s in charge of this ranch. That’s one of the things that Kathy and I talked about so much – how she’s stepping into this role of the rancher and making sure that this place doesn’t fail, so being with her, you see the rival experience [of the skeptical cowboys who work the land] through her eyes rather than externally.
The hats also are often used as a window into the soul. What went into figuring out who would wear what?
Jonny Prey, my costume designer, and I really talked in great detail about how the costumes should really externally reflect the characters in certain ways. Lefty’s the type of person who never going to throw anything away, so his hat should be a little bit floppy, the type of hat that he’s had and fixed and had and fixed, whereas Tom Harrah, played by Tommy Flanagan, is proud a little bit of being a marshal, so [the hat] should reflect that aspect of him.
As part of the festival run of this, Bill Pullman has been collecting lifetime achievement awards left and right at such festivals as Woodstock and Hawaii. Since there was even an entire movie based on the fact that while he’s a leading man, he’s often adjacent — “The Baxter,” based on what happens to Pullman’s character Walter in “Sleepless in Seattle” — what’s it been like to see him get such appreciation with this, not unlike the film?
It’s been wonderful to be with Bill on this journey and I’m so happy because he deserves all the attention he’s getting. He gave the performance of a lifetime here and I want everyone to see it because I really think it’s something special. And I’m loving this – to be there with him.