I took a chance on the 2003 movie Westender, based on the DVD cover image to the left. I love fantasy films, and this one seemed unusually somber and even (dare I hope?) thoughtful, instead of the usually mayhem and scantily-clad girls (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
It turned out to be just that: a meditation on redemption, shot in the forests of Oregon with a minimal cast and a lot of creative energy. It also backed up something I’ve always believed: that low-budget genre movies aren’t terrible because their budgets are low, but because the people involved aren’t very talented. Here’s a low-budget film starring actors you’ve probably never heard of, shot essentially in the filmmakers’ back yards, and it’s just shy of brilliant.
I contacted screenwriter Jefferson Brassfield, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about this long-ago project.
Me: There’s a melancholy, world-weary quality to both Asbrey, the hero of Westender, and the overall story. You were all pretty young when you made the film, so where did that come from?
Jefferson Brassfield: For me, I think that pathos came from the divorce of my parents in my teens and then my first real romantic heartbreak my freshman year of college. I tend to approach feelings with an Apollonian reverie more than a Dionysian embrace, and did so especially when I was younger. Those two world-shattering-to-me events were very difficult to process and express in my logical fashion, so they got internalized, compartmentalized. Keeping issues with that much personal gravitas unaddressed and unresolved will slowly grind a person down, infect them with a melancholy and world-weariness they may not understand. From that place, it was easy to find a voice in Asbrey, a soldier who solves problems with violence. Burden him with a broken heart; a problem that no amount of violence will resolve, and he is helpless. He will slowly disintegrate. We meet him on that decline.
I’ve found that the trick in fantasy dialogue is finding to the balance between period distance and emotional immediacy. Also, it’s hard to suggest the speech of another time without sounding silly. Did you have any issues with that? How much of the dialogue in the film is directly from your script?
Most all of the dialogue is directly from the script, and I’m about 40% unashamed of that. For better or for worse, there’s not that much dialogue in the film. We knew that we weren’t dealing with a lot of serious, committed actors, so we didn’t want to slather up the dialogue with incongruous accents and purple prose. If we went too far trying to be clever with period vernacular, we ran the risk of not being able to pull it off. If we went too contemporary, it might seem insincere. Since it was an ambiguous fantasy setting, we tried to straddle the line between those two without annihilating suspension of disbelief. It was definitely an issue we were conscious of. Some scenes Blake Stanton (Asbrey) would feel right away that what he was saying seemed wrong and we’d work to fix it, but most of the time we just went with the script and hoped it would all come together in the editing room. A few scenes were successful in that, a few scenes weren’t.
How much of the visual symbolism was written, and how much discovered on set?
Most of the visual symbolism was conceived prior to filming. Westender was originally intended to be a long-form short film, and its structure grew out of two things: the locations in the Oregon wilderness we so loved and wanted to shoot, and the concept Brock (the director) had for the character of Asbrey. Blake and these gorgeous natural visuals were going to have to carry the film. Once I started working through the story itself, and once our short film became a feature, more appropriate symbolism emerged in the writing and brainstorming, and most all of it ended up in the movie. I’m trying to think of anything in this regard that arose in the moment or was realized in the editing room, but nothing is coming to mind. That stuff was all very conscious.
How much of a consideration was the budget to the writing process?
Huge. As I mentioned before, Westender was originally meant to be a lengthy short film, so we knew we were going to have almost nothing to work with, budget-wise. The locations, the story, the film-making, and Blake’s performance were all we had. We couldn’t afford anything more than that. No crowds, no stunts, no elaborate shots, no fancy sets, no visual effects, tiny cast, and tiny crew that were both willing to eschew a warm soft bed and personal hygiene for a week or two with no pay. A few scenes were shot on our shoe-string budget and then production halted for for a series of forces majeure I can’t specifically recall. The footage was good. Brock pushed and fund-raised to make it into a bigger project. Once he had secured a healthier budget, we could make it into a feature with a few more bells and whistles, but we still had to cut every corner we knew we’d be turning. Not a heck of a lot was added into the script with our new budget, we just upgraded what was already there and what we already wanted to do. We could increase the amount of people to not pay.
How has the film affected your subsequent writing career?
We developed a Westender TV series with Gavin and Greg O’Connor, then it germinated at Paramount for a while, but it never happened. I really like the pilot script. I’ve written a few other screenplays, but nothing produced. I certainly feel like I’ve learned a lot from writing Westender. It’s a flawed film, but it’s the film we set out to make. I don’t really have a writing career, so I reckon it hasn’t affected my subsequent writing career too massively.
Thanks to Jefferson Brassfield for taking the time to talk with me. Westender is available on DVD, and through Netflix.