“…miles of beautiful sun-baked sand… No one will set foot in this hell… Except you and me”
The sun set on Almería’s golden age as a film-making mecca with the decline of the Euro-western in the mid-Seventies. There has been activity since, of course – the occasional blockbuster has paid a visit, most famously Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade spent three weeks in the region in 1988; the tank chase was shot in the ramblas of Tabernas – but not enough to rekindle former glories. Westerns have been made, too, but have tended towards parody (Sons of Trinity; Here Comes Condemor), pastiche (A Dollar for the Dead) or nostalgia (the poignant 800 Bullets). None has made an impression internationally.
Now, shimmering on the horizon, there are signs of a new dawn. Restoring a degree of lustre to the region’s cinematic credentials, and providing much-needed stimulus for the deeply depressed economy, Ridley Scott recently decamped to this picturesque province to shoot much of Exodus – more than half a century after an earlier generation of Hollywood big shots took advantage of the consistent climate, spectacular scenery and low labour costs to make their own mythological spectaculars on Spanish soil. (An added incentive for these ‘runaway productions’ was the welcome afforded by Franco’s government. The general, under the moderating influence of his Minister of Information and Tourism, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, was desperate to bring Spain in from the cold – what better way than by harnessing the propaganda potential of the Hollywood dream machine?)
At the opposite end of the budgetary scale, and more encouragingly for fans of the genre that really put Almería on the cinematic map, is a parallel development spearheaded by a fledgling Spanish production company called Chip Baker Films. Not only have its frontmen, Danny García and César Mendez, organised three successful western film festivals, based at the expanded Fort Bravo studios; in collaboration with Americans Tanner Beard and Russell Quinn Cummings of Silver Sail Entertainment, they are fine-tuning their debut feature, Six Bullets to Hell, a revenge saga shot in the hallowed gullies and ravines of Tabernas and the town sets at Fort Bravo and Oasys/Mini Hollywood – Leone’s El Paso. To judge from the footage that has been glimpsed so far (a rough trailer was screened, to rowdy acclaim, at this year’s Almería Western Film Festival), directors Beard and Cummings – who both have parts in the film – aim to generate the overheated emotional tone and tongue-in-cheek machismo of the old Italian-Spanish classics. Olivier Merckx’s restless camera feasts on desert vistas, and the score promises to be a mash-up of original compositions (contributors include Clash alumnus Tymon Dogg, guitarist Chris Casey (an SWDB veteran), and Lexie Beard, who scored Beard’s The Legend of Hell’s Gate) and pieces from the spaghetti-western archives.
“We definitely captured the essence [of vintage Euro-westerns] with the look, feel, style, music and, of course, sets we used, but the movie is going to be a new take on an old style,” says Tanner Beard, for whom For a Few Dollars More was a particular inspiration. “It is such a great film. We would go back each night, watch that DVD and look at those sets, which we had used that day.”
This reverence for the classics is shared by co-writer, producer and actor (as ‘Son of a Bitch Brother’) Danny García: “Death Rides a Horse and Hannie Caulder, for sure, I love those films. But Six Bullets to Hell is really a homage to Leone, Corbucci, Sollima, Fulci and all the great Italian and Spanish directors of the spaghetti-western days.”
They have engaged a suitably multinational cast: American Aaron Stielstra, whose most memorable role to date is the baleful assassin (alongside genre veterans Dan Van Husen and Brett Halsey) in indie western The Scarlet Worm; Spaniard Antonio Mayans, who appeared in a clutch of spaghettis in the sixties and seventies; even genre scholar Ulrich P. Bruckner (currently living in Switzerland releasing spaghettis with his Explosive Media label), from Germany, in a minor role as ‘Skunk’.
The assembly is headed by Briton Crispian Belfrage, who methodically constructed the role of an aggrieved husband on the trail of his wife’s murderers; not quite Brando, perhaps, but a long way from Anthony Steffen. “When I first got the script, I saw this film as a love story, so the revenge aspect had a very strong meaning,” he says. “The older spaghetti westerns were brilliant in their way, but the male actors of that time had more of an ego about how a man should respond to pain. For me, this part was all about the loss of the deepest love in this man’s world – for the first time in his life, he had found a person who cured him of hatred and hardship, and here it was taken away.
“It was vital for the film and the character to show this element, but it was a challenge to get the right level of emotion,” he continues. “So I built up pictures of a character who’d had a very hard life: from being an orphan, he’d ended up an alcoholic and a bounty hunter. This would be the back story, and when the film starts he has left that life behind and fallen madly in love. For an audience of today, I feel they need to see the pain rather than just the hard ego of a man, which you see for the rest of the film as he takes revenge.”
Scheduled for a summer 2014 release, Six Bullets is not a one-off. Chip Baker Films is preparing another western, Reverend Colt, to star grizzled American James Russo, last seen in Django Unchained. The synopsis suggests similarities with the old Guy Madison vehicle of the same name: “Armed with his Colt and Bible, a former preacher known as The Reverend hunts down outlaws in the wild frontier using his faith and brutality. But this time, he faces his most evil enemy: the infamous Jack McCall and his gang of murderers.” García is quick to point out, however, that this is neither a remake nor a tribute: “Our script has nothing to do with the story in Leon Klimovsky’s movie. [The actual director was almost certainly Marino Girolami.] Also, having a great actor like James Russo on board means a lot to us. He’s someone who not only worked with Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in America, but he loves European westerns as well.”
Almería may be more developed than it was in the Sixties but, crucially, extensive areas remain relatively undisturbed, save for the dust kicked up by film-makers eager to exploit its evocative allure. For Tanner Beard, a native Texan, the arid Andalucían terrain conjured up his own nation’s formative years: “The vast amounts of land capture that desolate time in our country’s history when each town had to do its best to survive.” This is a testament to Almería’s versatility as a backdrop, whether doubling for the American southwest, North Africa or the Australian outback. Danny García asserts the area’s practical value as a location: “Besides the desert of Tabernas, there’s Níjar and also the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. All of these places not only are very picturesque, they are all pretty close to one another. So the diversity of the landscape is definitely a great benefit of shooting in Almería, as well as the quality of the light, which all photographers talk about. Also, the local stunt performers are good professionals, as well as the cooks. The food here would have to be another benefit.”
Then there are the sets, which, when they’re not playing host to tourists or helping to promote Pepsi, remain concrete – and adobe – reminders of the region’s cinematic heritage. “I could easily say they are the best western sets in the world,” says Beard. “They offer what you can’t build today – without spending millions of dollars anyway.”
The need to rein in expenditure forged a sense of unity and a multi-tasking mentality that especially impressed Crispian Belfrage: “The film was a mad undertaking at the budget we had; there were times when we thought, ‘How the hell will we do this?’ We worked 20-hour days and had hardly any sleep, with everyone helping in as many areas as they could. It was the best team effort I have ever been part of or witnessed.”
Chip Baker and its collaborators also possess the guerrilla spirit that enabled a past generation of mavericks to overcome production obstacles and, where necessary, circumvent regulations. In Danny García’s experience, bypassing official channels has become a necessity. “The difficulties of working in Almería include the poor organisation of the local film commissions and all the politics around the region’s ‘cinema people’; it’s all corrupt, like the rest of Spain. So the best thing in Almería is to go there and do your thing.” In other words: shoot first; ask questions later.
Presumably, if your name is Ridley Scott and you will be contributing something like 43 million euros to the local economy – according to the Andalucía Film Commission’s accounting – the authorities will do everything short of parting a body of water to help you make your movie.
Looking further ahead, there is an even more tantalising prospect: a sequel to the cult favourite El Puro, expanding on a fake trailer shot at Fort Bravo during this year’s Almería Western Film Festival. The working title is The Resurrection of El Puro – fittingly so, given that Robert Woods’ tormented gunfighter was killed at the end of the original film. Woods, an admirably sprightly 77, is keen to get back in the saddle. “My plans for the project are to re-introduce the spaghetti western to a new audience and to help put Almería back in the mainstream. As far as my approach to the role is concerned, I would like to build a more profound character based on his wisdom and experiences, with universally understood emotions and reactions – a kind of tribute to everyone growing older.
“Thanks to HD, the budget should be acceptable to all backers and we really should not have any problem financing and/or distributing it, provided the script comes close to the above mentioned criteria and has the strength I envision, from beginning, to middle, to end – and with nothing frivolous in between.
“The action should be engrossing and the inaction entertaining; I like a bit of humour with my violence. In short, I am looking for something as close to perfection as possible… but will settle for a totally easy to relate to, engrossing vehicle.”
El Puro’s is not the only revival being mooted. Django, the most iconic Italian-western character of them all, is being lined up for a third – and final – ‘official’ sequel, with Franco Nero agreeing to reprise the role for Texas-based Point Blank Pictures. “I participated in the interview with Franco Nero for Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime documentary back in 2008,” explains co-writer and producer Eric Zaldivar. “Since then, Franco and I have been friends. With Tarantino’s Django Unchained on the horizon, I figured to draft up a half-page treatment for another Django movie. I gave it to him at a dinner we both attended and he immediately took a liking to it. Things just snowballed from there.”
The plot of Django Lives posits the aged gunfighter as an adviser on early Hollywood westerns – à la Wyatt Earp – before the altruistic urges that governed his actions in Django Strikes Again spark a confrontation with gangsters. If locating the character in a defined historical setting sounds controversial (no more so, however, than transporting him to the tropics for …Strikes Again), it is reassuring that Zaldivar, director Joe D’Augustine (who helped restore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for MGM’s 2004 re-release) and co-writer/producer Mike Malloy are all affirmed spaghetti aficionados. This is obvious from the synopsis, which includes an outlaw named Cuchillo and the obligatory showdown in a cemetery. Zaldivar is even hopeful that Tomás Milián will play Cuchillo, reuniting him with his old compañero Franco Nero, although he stresses that Milian’s involvement is only “tentative” at this stage.
“My introduction to the world outside Leone was Corbucci’s Django, as should be the case with everyone, I think,” continues Zaldivar. “It is the quintessential non-Leone Italian western.” He is confident that his plans will bear fruit: “We’ve taken care of the rights issue and we’re now looking for funding. In a post-Django Unchained world, it shouldn’t be that difficult.”
All in all, 2014 promises a measure of recompense to fans reeling from all those departures to Sad Hill in recent months. If these film-making endeavours are successful – and the talent, passion and commitment are unquestionable – then the fiftieth anniversary of A Fistful of Dollars could be another landmark year in genre history.
My book: Any Gun Can Play