"I went to a rodeo here not too long ago," related Everett Creach, a veteran stunt man and stunt coordinator whose credits stretch back to the John Wayne-John Ford Westerns of the 1940s. "And the clown brings the kids out (into the arena) and says, 'We want to see how you fall--like playing Cowboys and Indians.' And a kid says. "What's Cowboys and Indians?' "
Creach paused and shook his head ruefully. "A lot of people said, 'Have Westerns been that far back?' "
They have indeed, at least as a moviegoing staple. You've got to go back to 1969--and the release, within a three-month period, of the traditional-sentimental Wayne Oscar-winner "True Grit," the hip-jokey "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and the brutal-revisionist "Wild Bunch"--to find anything like a season of hit Westerns.
In the decade that followed, the public's lack of patience with the old cliches of the Wayne-style Western and its lack of enjoyment of the new cliches of the Vietnam-inspired, hate-letter-to-America revisionist numbers all but killed off the genre. And in the 1980s, the disappointing box-office return on Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider," Fred Schepisi's fine "Barbarosa" and Lawrence Kasdan's epic "Silverado" seemed to declare the form beyond resuscitation.
But then no one figured on the combined strength of an obsessed screenwriter named John Fusco and a privately funded producer named Joe Roth. Not to mention a group of upstart young actors--Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Lou Diamond Phillips.
It is because of them that much of "Young Guns" was shot recently in Cerrillos, a backwater of 300 souls in the red-sand hills half an hour south of the company's Santa Fe headquarters. Christopher Cain is directing for an Aug. 10 release by 20th Century Fox.
And it is because of production designer Jane Musky's conception of the film's setting--Lincoln, N.M., in 1878--that Cerrillos had its power and telephone lines trenched and its buildings re-facaded. Cerrillos was also outfitted with a hangman's stand, a sign hawking coffins of "pino y cidro" and a squat adobe communal shelter against Indian attack. Its asphalt main drag was covered with dirt and trampled by a neighing, braying, baying menagerie and by a breeched and bonneted make-believe citizenry whose faces hint of origins in Asia, Mexico and Europe as well as points east in the United States.
It is through this multiethnic throng that Emilio Estevez bolted in the film's opening scene, eluding an angry mob by jumping into the wagon driven by Victorian gent Terence Stamp and bookish Kiefer Sutherland. He introduced himself as "Bonney. William H.," otherwise known as Billy the Kid.
Otherwise known as John Fusco's magnificent obsession.
"I was about 10 years old when I saw my first photograph of Billy the Kid," said the 27-year-old screenwriter to a visiting reporter during a break in shooting the wagon scene. "This little 5-foot-4, rodent-faced character (in the photo) just didn't correspond with the legend of Billy, the noble bandit dressed in black--Johnny Mack Brown, Robert Taylor."
Or with Roy Rogers or Audie Murphy or Paul Newman or any of the 20 pre-Estevez actors who have played the folk figure who gunned down 21 men before being gunned down himself at age 21 in 1881. The one exception was Michael J. Pollard, but his 1972 "Dirty Little Billy" portrayal of the character as "a drooling, stumbling moron" was rendered implausible by what Fusco called "a story line that never took place and couldn't have taken place. It didn't get into the history of Lincoln at all."
Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, Fusco collected material on the town and on Billy the Kid, a period when significant new research on both subjects was being published. Though he had once thought about writing a novel based on this material, Fusco had in recent years become a screenwriter ("Crossroads" in 1986, directed by Walter Hill). After three months of research in Lincoln in early 1987, he banged out a draft of "Young Guns" in one month.
The script focuses on a six-month period in 1878 when Billy rode with the Regulators during the Lincoln County Wars.
Historically, Billy's co-Regulators were a rotating group of about a dozen late-teen-aged frontier outcasts. Fusco has composited them into the five characters played by Sutherland, Sheen, Phillips, Casey Siemaszko and Dermot Mulroney. Given food, shelter and a smattering of education by Terence Stamp's John Tunstall, in return the group protects Tunstall's person and his nascent commercial empire from L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance) in the Lincoln County Wars. In truth, as in the film, these were merchant wars in which the spoils were government contracts to supply an Army fort and an Indian reservation, rather than the range wars of legend.
When Tunstall is killed, the Regulators embark on a vengeful reign of terror. Eventually, what Fusco calls their "adolescent defiance" brings down Murphy and his corrupt political cronies.
The script's view of Billy, according to Fusco, is that "he was riding for all the right reasons; his cause was just. It's very easy to see why he became a hero--he had a lot of support from the farmers who were under Murphy's heel.
"But it was the way he went about it. He was monomaniacal about friendships, about justice. He killed anyone remotely involved or whom he suspected of being involved (with the Murphy faction), and he killed in a very crafty, unheroic way."
Estevez said, "Killing, for him, was very Zen--I don't know how else to describe it. He was fascinated by how a man coeld just change (shift) his weight and change the course of history."
Estevez did without prosthetic makeup and relied only on the cast of his eyes and mouth--and perhaps some acting Zen--to transform his pleasant features into Billy the Kid's rodent-like look.
Fusco admitted that his passionate pursuit of "the real Billy" was alloyed by a certain pragmatism. He doubts whether he would have indulged a comparably strong interest in Wild Bill Hickok, had it existed, "because I would feel there wasn't even a remote chance of breaking through. But I knew that someone would tap into this and say, 'Of course, Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio, Charlie Sheen--you get the boys together.' I'm expecting people to say, 'Well, they made these guys young so they could cast the Brat Pack on horseback.' But the truth of the West is that most of these guys were 21 years old or younger."
Even so, Tri-Star, which had a "first look" arrangement with Fusco, passed on "Young Guns."
"The most amazing thing to me," said Christopher Cain, "is the people who didn't respond to the script--at studio levels. It was: 'Oh, it's a great script--it's a Western.' 'Oh, it's exciting--we don't want to do it.' "
So Cain, who wanted to do "Young Guns" after reading only 20 pages, took it to Joe Roth, the producer for whom he had made the Robert Duvall-Glenn Close "Stone Boy" and the Brazil-filmed "Where the River Runs Black." Said Cain: "He had a situation available whereby we could put this picture together in what I think is the right way to make a movie. Which is, use the studio to release it, period."
Roth's "situation" is as follows: James Robinson, his Baltimore-based, Subaru-distributorship-rich partner in Morgan Creek Productions and the co-executive producer of "Young Guns," fully financed the film's production and, in a further bid for autonomy, will cover its advertising costs. The independent financing alone would have enabled Roth to make the film with a non-union crew, which is exactly what he did, at a cost he put at "just north of $11 million."
That's an amazingly low figure considering that Roth is paying his cast "their market prices," and considering the cost of making the first large-budget Western in many years. "It's almost like making a Western for the first time," said Everett Creach. "You've got to have horses that have worked under the presence of gunfire and people around them, and because they've pretty much become a thing of the past, we've had to train most of the ones on this show. They've had to redo all these wagons, all the harnesses, had to find period saddles."
But the $11-million figure is perhaps less amazing when you consider that 75% of the 90 horses being used in the film and 21 of the 30 wranglers managing them were local. So were 10 people involved in making the film's period costumes and 50 of those who painted, plastered and hammered Cerrillos into a replica of old Lincoln. (The hiring and training of these latter workers, at $350 for a 32 1/2-hour workweek, from the ranks of otherwise unemployable post-adolescents who have what one Cerrillos resident called "drink and drug problems," did much to neutralize local complaints about the film company. The complaints, according to another resident, had to do with the fact that "they approached the owners of the homes and businesses they wanted to use individually, but never approached us as a community. Which they should have, because in one way or another their presence affects us all.")
"The industry," producer Roth elaborated, "is operating under a 10-year-old definition of what non-union film-making means. To most, it means small-scale, 'specialized' material. But everybody is trying to come up with product, and at $20 million a throw"--the figure most recently cited as the cost of an in-house studio production--"that means a lot less product. I'll probably be hanged for saying this, but I believe you can make any movie you want non-union. And I think 'Young Guns,' which is an attempt to make an 'A' picture non-union, will prove that."
Roth noted that if "Young Guns" does the roughly $17 million in domestic rentals done by "Silverado" (which cost somewhere between $19 and $26 million, depending on your source), it could prove that the Western can be profitable.
Invariably, when asked, "Young Guns" cast members said they were attracted to the project "because it's a Western and how often do you get the opportunity to do one?"
For Kiefer Sutherland, it is, more specifically, "an opportunity to explore what I think a cowboy should be." Sutherland explained what that is by way of analogy: "If you've ever camped out or spent a lot of time alone, there's a great kind of inner strength you come back with. You feel, I spent the week out there and I was by myself and I survived and I'm all right. Whether or not it was actually dangerous, you felt it was and you feel self-sufficient and like you've got an edge on everybody else. And that's what I think someone who would ride the trails like these six characters do would feel."
The second refrain heard among the actors as they pinpoint the appeal of "Young Guns" is "because it's an ensemble piece."
"It's a relief, once in a while, not to feel that you're responsible for carrying a film," admitted Charlie Sheen, who has had major roles in "Platoon" and "Wall Street." Sheen, 22, plays Dick Brewer, the Regulators' stable voice of reason. The role not only put him in frequent conflict with his 3-years-older brother, Estevez, but also placed a spin on the relationship they enjoyed while growing up as the sons of actor Martin Sheen.
"As the oldest kid in the family, Emilio always assumed that role of the one who set the example, the King of Responsibility and all that," Sheen remembered. "So it's really strange now to be giving him orders (in the film), after taking for so many years. But we're really having a blast."
Yet Estevez admitted that he "had a problem up front with the material"--a responsibility problem. "It was difficult for me to accept killing another man on screen. I wrestled with that for a while. Then in doing the research, in learning more about Billy, the homicides became justifiable and easier for me to do on screen."
Local adolescent girls were out in full force on the set, either to work as $40-a-day extras or simply to rubberneck, and their ever-changing perceptions of who the actors are were triggering schizzy, hormonal mood swings. Estimations of "nice" or "snobbish"--and concomitant feelings of beautification or mortification--flowed according to whether the beloved had said "hi" or smiled the last time he passed by.
The set seemed like a vast open-air high school corridor and the actors last Saturday's gridiron heroes. Certain fantasies were smashed by the information that Lou Diamond Phillips is married (his wife, Julie Cypher, is a "Young Guns" production assistant), as is Sutherland (who's a new father to boot).
As for possible competitive clashes among all the "hot" young actors, stunt man Creach insisted, "There have been no ego problems on this set."
"The fact that we are all really very different types and would never be up for the same role reduces any sense of competition between us," explained Phillips, who plays the knife-throwing, peyote-ingesting half-Mexican, half-Navajo Regulator Chavez y Chavez.
But there was, Terence Stamp thought, a self-consciousness about the young actors, a sense he himself felt--along with such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay--in the England of the early 1960s. "We too were aware that we were involved in a movement and that there were a lot of us." Stamp, who in the last quarter-century has worked with film makers as diverse as Wyler, Losey and Pasolini, compared Christopher Cain to his "Spirits of the Dead" director, Fellini. "Chris uses his own natural humor the way Fellini does--getting people to do things by making light of it."
Told of this, Cain guffawed and said: "It's a bit of a con game, I suppose, directing a film. You find yourself being kind to people you maybe don't like as well off the set." But he stressed that this was not the case on his most recent set. "I'm really proud of these kids. The performances have made me happier than anything else because the movie really is the characters--everything else is background.
"We're dealing with six outcasts, but they all have a goodness about them, each in his own way. I think that after people"--and box-office figures--"have decided whether or not we successfully revived the Western, they will remember the heart that these kids have."