Nicolas Cage fans might find themselves surprised by his most recent theatrical offering since, despite a decades-long career involving over a hundred projects, the actor now stars in his first-ever Western, The Old Way.
The Old Way is a devoted homage to the golden age of Westerns, filled with gangs, family strife and a fight for survival. Like any good Western, we have our revenge tale, centred on two outsiders: Colton Briggs (Cage) and his daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Recently bereaved and hell-bent on finding the evildoers responsible for their grief, they set off on a deadly hunt for their prey. Not even the law will slow them down.
All is not as simple as it may seem however, as terrible secrets from Briggs’s past resurface and shed light on the gruesome attack his family endured. Lines turn murky as the good and the bad begin to bleed into one another; In the end, whose vengeance is justified and whose victory assured? You’ll get no spoilers here.
We were fortunate to speak with director Brett Donowho and cinematographer Sion Michel about their newest project. Read their thoughts on The Old Way below.
So, The Old Way has officially been released to the world! How are you feeling?
Brett: I feel so excited! I had the premiere last night and I actually called Sion this morning and said “man, it went so well”. There’s nothing quite like sitting in an auditorium filled with 200 people that actually appreciate your film. You know what I mean? It can certainly be a different experience.
I have to tell you, what was so fascinating – and I’m not sure if I mentioned this to you Sion – but everyone was laughing and you could just feel the emotional tension in the room, the sense of their palpable emotions, so I just feel so excited and blessed that we have a theatrical movie in theatres, which is a very rare feat indeed post-Covid.
Yes, definitely! When you were making this film, was there ever any possibility that it would have to go straight to computer screens? Or was the plan always to have the film shown in cinemas?
Brett: Yeah, I think that as a filmmaker it is a dream to have a theatrical movie and with it being a genre such as the Western, of course, Sion and I discussed that. With the anamorphic look of the movie, our intention was always to make a theatrical movie. Plus, the Western, it has to be seen. That’s what’s so amazing. I feel bad for everyone seeing it on their computer because it’s very enveloping, you see it on this huge screen and the vistas are so amazing thanks to Sion’s work.
Was that why you were so drawn to the Western genre?
Brett: Well, there are a couple of answers to that. I grew up in Texas on a cattle ranch for about five years of my life, so I was always enamoured by the cowboy. Of course, I watched John Wayne while growing up. Then Sion and I spent a year working on a movie we have yet to make, but it was a science fiction Western called Santiago, based on the novel from 1986. So when Covid hit that shut down the movie and I was in China prepping that. Then eight months later I got sent this traditional Western. I called Sion like ‘Dude! We’ve been talking Western themes and the anamorphic aspects and science fiction. Now we actually get to make a real Western”.
How about you, Sion? How did you feel when Brett called up about this traditional Western?
Sion: I was excited after I read the script and I realised that it was true to the genre of those old-school Westerns, those films like Shane and The Gunfighter, all these kinds of classic Westerns that I had watched as a kid growing up. I realised we were going to have this opportunity to tell this very simple yet complex story in Montana, using the landscape and these characters that we don’t really know who they are. It’s a very simple story, but it’s also really complex and visual. It was a great opportunity for us to really explore this classic story.
Absolutely. Do you feel like after making The Old Way, you are even more inspired for when you do eventually make your fantasy Western one day?
Sion: Absolutely! You know, I think these types of projects always make you realise why you work as a filmmaker and why you want to keep doing it. The Old Way inspired us to keep working.
How was it to work with Nicolas Cage? Did you know from the minute you saw him that he was the one you wanted?
Brett: You know what’s interesting? When I was presented the script, I was actually at my daughter’s house in Dallas and I read it at three in the morning or something. So I read this script and I finish up and I’m like, this is such a cool movie and it’s an iconic genre that I love. But honestly, my first trepidation was the character of Brooke, because how do you find a twelve-year-old to play this? The whole movie is a make-or-break based on that performance.
The next day I go to the guys and I say I love this, let’s make it and then one of the producers is like, “You know Brett, Nicolas Cage has never done a Western. He’s done something like 140 movies but he’s never done a Western. What do you think about Nic?”. I pause for a second and go “Woah man, look at that Nic face. Yes! He needs to be Colton Briggs!”.
That’s what I’ve told a couple of people today. I feel so fortunate because it’s so difficult to get the right actor, much less a movie star, in a movie. It’s almost impossible. Yet, here we are with this great script and within a couple of weeks Nic read it, responded and called to say he was into it. I just feel so blessed that we got him because he is definitely the epitome of that character.
Sion: I wanted to add that while we all had our trepidation about working with him (because of backstories we heard), from the first day he arrived he was just a consummate professional. You know, he was a true actor who came prepared and was ready to work and do his best with time and the limitations we had. It was really an honour to work with him.
That’s so fantastic to hear! Do you think that perhaps his professionalism affected the other actors on set as well?
Brett: 100%. One of the actors actually did an interview recently on a morning show in Los Angeles and he mentioned that. Your number one, which is what they call it on the call sheet, sets the tone of the day and that’s what was so profound, that Nic cared about the movie.
You know, he’s not only a movie star but he’s also used to working with big studio budgets and here we are, this little indie production, the little train that could, basically, doing the best we can and he’s rolling up his sleeves like, “Let’s go man!”. Which goes back to what Sion was saying, just unbelievable professionalism.
Sion: Yeah. He never called for a line. He would have a few pages of dialogue and he would come in with the correct cadence and rhythm. His performance was just flawless! So we all just rose to our best. It was a really strong experience.
Just going back to what Brett mentioned earlier about the character of Brooke. What was it like? How did you create that character?
Brett: You know what? I am so proud of Ryan! Her and her father Dean, who plays Clark. I’ve become really tight with them, but there were thousands of auditions, right, because we opened it up to the world to find this person. Then my casting director dwindled that down to maybe four or five hundred that I would watch and literally the very last audition that I watched was Ryan Armstrong.
It was funny because she had just finished, or was wrapping, American Horror Story and she was going to take a sabbatical. Dean told me she was working so much and that she didn’t want to work, instead, she wanted to take a month off. But when I read the script I liked it so much and he treats her like a professional, he’s her father and manager, but he respects her. So he recommend she read the script and she came to him and said despite being tired and wanting a break, she had to play this role because she WAS Brooke. It’s interesting because she’s twelve going on thirty-five, she has this understanding, which is really cool.
To answer your question, she and I would discuss the emotional inability to understand, which is why I love this movie and is why I made it. It’s a father and daughter who are on the spectrum, the outsiders. I grew up interpreting for the deaf in Texas so I’ve always had an affinity for those who are less understood or who are on the fringes, so when I read this movie, while I love Westerns, as a father of three daughters I was also just so excited because we’d never seen it in the genre, we’d never seen this disconnect and I wanted to pursue and through art find that arc of two distant relatives finding their own emotional states so they can find love. That’s my favourite part of the movie.
What was it like for you to work with her, Sion?
Sion: I was equally impressed because when you watch their chemistry on set you realise how important it is that these two characters and actors can relate to each other. When we saw that over the ensuing weeks, it was just fantastic because we knew we were going to have a strong centre to the movie.
So it sounds like they were also bonding and sharing this great chemistry off-screen as well?
Sion: They had an admiration for each other. She was respectful and Nic, even though he would pretty much come to set in character, so you would leave him alone, he would always relate to her. He’d always stop and say hello to her and they would have a little chat and he would come in as Colton Briggs.
That’s fantastic to hear. Especially since with Nic being a movie star, I can imagine it might have been daunting for Ryan to play opposite him, initially at least.
Brett: It complimented it too in the sense that because he was in character and they didn’t know each other, as they got closer in real life, they also got closer on screen. So, it definitely complimented and contributed to that performance.
Going back to the idea of this epic Western. Action scenes are very important for this genre. Did your actors do their own stunts? Or were there stunt doubles?
Brett: Ultimately, I think you know how small this movie was, so we did not have studio support to have doubles all the time. I did have doubles for the posse, so generally speaking on the wide shots and stuff we wanted to protect them.
It was really cool that each actor had done some of their own horse training. Dale [Gibson] invited people, including Nic and others, to come to his ranch in L.A., so people all started to learn and acquiesce to the ability to ride a horse.
For my last question, without feeling like you have to spill secrets, do you have anything in the pipeline this year? Are there any projects coming up, or are you embracing being on holiday now?
Brett: Yeah I am not going to release it yet, but there are actually two movies that are supposed to go this year and I’m casting both of them right now. So I’m excited! Fingers crossed you’ll hear about it very soon
Sion: I’m the same. I’m just kind of keeping myself free for Brett’s film and we’ll see what the new year brings. 2023!
The Old Way is out in cinemas from January 6th and on VOD from January 13th.