Q&A: Hit the Trail With the Creators of the Horror/Western “KILL OR BE KILLED”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
The filmmaking duo who first caught horror fans’ attention with THE WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD have returned with another tale of Texas terror, KILL OR BE KILLED, featuring a cast stocked with horror veterans. Writer/director Duane Graves and Justin Meeks talk up the film in this exclusive FANGORIA interview.
Now on DVD and available via Redbox today from RLJ Entertainment, KILL OR BE KILLED (originally titled RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA) also stars Meeks as Claude “Sweet Tooth” Barbee, leader of a gang of ruthless outlaws traversing the badlands of the Lone Star State. They’re out to reclaim a cash stash from a past robbery, but their chances of grabbing the loot become increasingly slimmer as they’re killed off one by one. The cast includes three actors with experience in classic rural/desert terror: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s Ed Neal, THE HILLS HAVE EYES’ Michael Berryman and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s Bill Johnson.
FANGORIA: After exploring urban horror in your second feature BUTCHER BOYS, what led you to return to the Texas badlands with this film?
DUANE GRAVES: We actually wrote this back in 2008, right after THE WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD premiered at Tribeca. We initially wanted to do it as our second project, but the opportunity came along to do BUTCHER BOYS with Kim [Henkel], so of course we had to be a part of that. We had this script in our back pocket, though, so after we finished BUTCHER BOYS in early 2012, we went back to it and did some polishing. Then we spent the majority of 2012 scouting unique locations all over Texas, asking everyone for favors, etc. Putting that extra time into preproduction really paid off in the overall look—it was crucial in giving us that authentic period feel within the limited budget.
FANG: Were you inspired by any particular past Westerns?
GRAVES: Absolutely. Most people know Charles B. Pierce as the pioneering indie auteur behind ‘70s drive-in horror classics like THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, but he also made a string of unique, beautiful indie Westerns during that decade—GRAYEAGLE, WINTERHAWK and THE WINDS OF AUTUMN to name just a few. All are fantastic movies full of colorful, authentic characters and breathtaking scenery. They’re also very organic, and have a playful quirkiness we really responded to. They were a huge influence.
JUSTIN MEEKS: I spent my younger days obsessed with spaghetti Westerns and Clint Eastwood films. The ones that inspired me were THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, but the most influential of all was ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. All of these had a grit and darkness that helped us form KILL OR BE KILLED. We wanted to focus on that same uneasy spirit and disrespect for law; the horrific edge is where ours differs and breaks from the trail.
FANG: Are any of the characters based on real people?
GRAVES: We love regional stories rooted in legend and lore, especially tales of old-time Texas. THE WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD was born from one such tale, and in a way, KILL OR BE KILLED was also, being loosely based on the ballads of real-life Texas outlaw Sam Bass and his gang, who robbed a train in Nebraska in the 1870s. Their take was something like $1 million, an unbelievable amount back then. Bass built up a Robin Hood-esque following in the rural backwoods of Texas, and managed to recruit a devoted group of hardened cases to run with him. There’s a bit of those characters sprinkled throughout the film.
FANG: Would you consider this a Western with horror elements, or vice versa?
MEEKS: This is a Western through and through, with elements of horror. We wanted to do something different, and make a hybrid giving respect to the old spaghetti-Western classics, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. We shot with anamorphic lenses to create sprawling wide shots, had horses in most scenes, and whores to boot. That equals Western—but awfully dark and bloody.
FANG: How was the film cast, and which characters do the genre veterans play?
GRAVES: One of our producers, Karrie Cox, also served as our casting director. She’s based in LA while we’re in Austin, so that helped us get the script into a lot of hands. This was also our first SAG film, so the breadth of sheer talent that opened up to us was a bit overwhelming at first. It’s a big jump for indie filmmakers, but an essential one. Michael Berryman hopped on board early as Dr. Pepperdine, as did seasoned actor Pepe Serna, whom we knew and loved from films like SCARFACE and SILVERADO. Pepe is such a versatile actor, and we were excited for him to play Rudy, one of the meanest, nastiest characters in the film. We also called up a handful of our favorite iconic genre actors we’d worked with on BUTCHER BOYS, like Ed Neal and Bill Johnson, knowing they both have incredible scene-stealing abilities. They can take a seemingly minuscule role—comedic, dramatic, you name it—and completely own it. We love that about them.
MEEKS: Ed Neal plays a scumbag, broke-dick carpetbagger who has a bad run-in with the Barbee Gang. He gives a comedic performance, and the part showcases Ed in a different way than anyone has ever seen him. Bill Johnson plays a judge headed to Austin—but does he make it? His role is very dramatic, and it showcases him in a way that his fans aren’t used to seeing him. Michael Berryman plays a town doctor whom Claude Barbee brings to help one of his ailing henchmen. Berryman told me that his dad was a doctor, and bringing that experience to a Western was easy for him. He was a blast to be around.
FANG: Can you talk about the locations you used, and your experiences filming at each?
MEEKS: We used Texas locations from Van Horn to Corpus Christi, and everything in between. Literally, our crew followed the same steps our outlaws do. The West Texas area was full of unforgiving, jagged rocks that destabilized many tires on our crew trucks. We shot in the hill country of Dripping Springs and Gonzales, where the ground was hard on the horses’ hooves, and they became edgy and skittish. Bucking became a problem in some scenes, but our actors held their own—mostly. We captured some beautiful photography on the beaches of Corpus Christi, where the humid air and the gritty sand of the beach almost disabled our cameras, and we went to the Mexican border for some pickup shots, where your skin would start to crack after a couple of days in the arid desert sun.
But Duane and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We knew we had to make the jaunt, we knew the problems we would face and we weren’t sure if we were gonna be able to pull this off—but we knew in our hearts we would die trying, and our crew had the same spirit! The trip across Texas created a bond between crew and actors that lent to the quality of the film. Getting grub out to the crew in those remote areas was an enormous challenge, and our craft services guy, Daniel Hartzog, had one of the hardest jobs. Luckily, we had great producers taking care of us, and our first AD, Michelle Millette, kept everything running smoothly. That was key. The most difficult aspect of shooting by far, though, was the horses. Their personalities are as varied as humans’, and they’re super-smart and finicky too. Waiting on them can make it harder to make your days, but ultimately they were a joy to work with. Since our head wrangler Brennan Wells owned the animals, he was familiar with them all and had relationships with them. That made it easier.
GRAVES: About half of the film was shot inside a living-history park in the middle of Austin called Pioneer Farms. It’s this large undeveloped pocket of land encroached on by suburban homes, and it has an amazing assortment of historic dwellings, antique tools, farm animals, etc. It was the most fun location to explore and shoot on, because it’s basically a functioning museum. We used every square inch of that park.
FANG: Were you familiar with the other Westerns and horror/Westerns being made around the same time, and why do you think that form is making a comeback?
GRAVES: Production on our film wrapped in December 2012, just before DJANGO UNCHAINED hit theaters, and two years before cameras rolled on BONE TOMAHAWK, so I couldn’t say we expected any horror/Western hybrids at that time. We had hoped for a Western revival immediately following DJANGO, and there certainly were a few, but the big resurgence we’d hoped for didn’t really occur until last year, leading up to and following THE HATEFUL EIGHT. That’s one of the main reasons it took three years to get this out there. It was definitely hard sitting around with a finished movie, but we’re thrilled the timing worked out so we could be a part of this awesome new wave. Quentin Tarantino is a huge reason for the comeback, to be sure, and I think his films coming out back to back has helped introduce the classic spaghetti Westerns to a whole new generation of young moviegoers. What’s old is new—and cool—again.
FANG: Anything else you want to say about the movie?
MEEKS: This was a passion project for Duane and myself. We bit off more than we could chew, on purpose—it gave us motivation, and sparked a creative independence we needed at the time. I got my love of Westerns from my grandfather, Otto Goebel, whom we dedicated the movie to. He died a day before I had a rough copy to show him, but I know he would be proud of us.
GRAVES: The movie’s original title was RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA. We would like audiences to watch the film knowing this, as we feel it really ties into the movie well and adds another layer of meaning to the whole experience. We don’t want this title to die, so we’re hoping it might live on in a “movie trivia” kind of way.