2016: A Wild Year
After six years of literally running wild through an array of feature and short films, you’d think we’d be slowing down. But it has been 2016 when our engines really started revving up.
The year began the premiere and release of our biggest film yet, a behemoth in terms of budget, time and energy compared to our other efforts. This movie, Durant’s Never Closes, was a high stakes poker game for us: our first time with Hollywood talent, our first nationally distributed movie, and we also lost our virginity to the struggles of working with a union and foreign distributors.
What this said about our “wild” spirit was less seen in the wealth of press or the well-attended premiere and more in how even this big local film was (for this small team at least) just another step. What I mean is that every movie, short or feature, from the beginning of Running Wild has been an equal step forward. And also, with every foot we place towards our future as a film company, there are always half-steps back.
We did not rest to dwell in the glory of this achievement. No, we were already moving towards the next peak. And this was a new frontier: Mississippi. Before Durant’s Never Closes premiered, our shoot dates were set for Porches and Private Eyes, to be shot in the Southern state where I have roots, and where we had begun to make connections.
Like a “band of outsiders” or “dirty dozen”, a stripped down Arizona crew caravanned across the country and worked at our usual breakneck speed to complete this feature film in fourteen days. It is our eighth, depending how you count and if you include one that we are still finishing and another that we jumped off like rats leaving a sinking ship. I think I speak for everyone when I say this may have been the most fun to make.
Is that because our bellies were full of warm Southern food? Or perhaps the new scenery enchanted us? I believe there are many reasons Porches and Private Eyes felt like our best effort yet but the one that always stands above the others is culture. Mississippi, and specifically the town of Brookhaven, has a culture. The people know where they’re from and what it means. They are proud to see this identity showcased on screen and passionate to be involved. I honestly can’t say I have seen this elsewhere (yet) and it was a breath of fresh air. The Southern actors were hungry for good roles, the local crew members took to our wild ways, and the community embraced our endeavor. I left Mississippi feeling like this place had the right-minded culture to develop a film movement and then my journey took Running Wild around the country…
The road I am fond of and would much rather travel on it than in the air. This was put to the test on a tour with Durant’s to various cities and towns around our United States. We traveled like a rock band playing shows, only the band was a duet: me and my Boykin Spaniel Bandit.
From Mississippi to Alabama, there to Detroit (would you believe that only takes twelve hours?), next Chicago followed by a trek east to Delaware, north to New Hampshire, Maine, back south to Pittsburgh and further south to Kentucky and then west to home.
Our vehicle was a Toyota Camry which I wrecked in Indiana after leaving Chicago where I was happy to be joined by one of our team, James Alire. The wreck was careless, at best the result of pushing myself too far, at worse a stupid mistake which thankfully didn’t cost my life or my dog’s. After the air bag deployed, I reached to the back seat to find him. He’d flown into the passenger seat and dropped down. His head popped up, confused but happy to be with me, unaware that one of us might have not seen the other again.
Part of me considered going home but I rented a car and finished it, this wild journey. Everywhere I went I looked for this culture I’d recognized in Mississippi. What I found varied: some cities felt hostile. Many of the ones most loved by Americans I didn’t care for at all; they were hollow at the core. But some I did. Detroit is a great place with true culture and I am determined to one day make films there. Maine and Kentucky also have fertile ground for “independent filmmakers”, whatever that term means anymore.
My destination, the internal one, was a place where home did not mean what it has in recent years. This and other developments which I will get into has reshaped my sense of belonging. I love Arizona, where I feel our work will always be based. I love Mississippi. Neither of them are home. Now the road is home. Wherever I make a film is where I belong for that time. Wherever Bandit and I can curl up whether in a truck bed, hard floor, or mattress is home. The road allowed me to see the possibilities of Running Wild across the country. The crash didn’t slow me down; it reminded me that there is only so little time and what time I have to make movies I will not take for granted.
Upon returning to Arizona, we did not stop to breathe. I bought a used truck because I had places to go: Tucson, where I would act as only a producer for the first time. I’d signed up to work with Alex Cox, a director who made some good movies in the 80s and made one great film, Highway Patrolman. What I admired and still do about Alex is that he never stopped making films. His contemporaries and even the generation before him of directors who had far more opportunities and made much more money have mostly fallen into a whining mode, complaining that Hollywood won’t fund their dreams anymore. Alex keeps making movies. He is now working on “our level”: getting whatever budget he can, shooting where he can, and employing students, local actors and crews. I chose to work with him because of this, because he came to our Arizona to make a film, because I wanted to learn.
Some of our team joined me down in dusty Tucson where we filmed at the Old Tucson lot, famous for its Hollywood Western history. It was comforting to see these film warriors from my clan show up among the strangers we’d banded with to make this film. Some of those strangers became friends, others nothing, and a couple enemies. Surrounded by armed Earps and outlaws in this revisionist take on the Tombstone story, perhaps there was whiff of anger in the air: I will admit I wanted to “make a fight” with some one or two of the crew. On any film I’ve been on there are people, in front of and behind the camera, who do their job and pull their weight. And there are also those who don’t out of selfishness and laziness. For these, I have and always will be merciless, making a mark in my mind to not go into battle (and making a feature is being in the trenches) with them again.
We shot that movie in six days. The movie is called Tombstone-Rashomon. Every night we slept in a desert mansion. Bandit and I enjoyed the open air, sleeping under the stars on one of its many verandas. We may have had company. The kind that comes so close and wraps around you during that wild creative journey then drifts off like a dust devil in the arid landscape. Since we left the set, I have become distant from this film out of choice and circumstance. Some movies you shepherd to completion. Others you aren’t able to. As with most of our work, what remains more for me than the finished film are the memories, good and bad.
Next on the horizon was another film to produce (and not direct) and another after that. It’s only now that I look back and realize that for the first time in the company’s history, my workload during the year was characterized by helping others bring a film to light.
The one which came first also had the oldest roots. Somewhere in the middle of Running Wild history, Gus gave me a script he’d written. I can’t remember the original title though now is the time to dig it up and dust it off for the fun of comparing the source to what it turned into. I changed black characters to white ones, a New York setting (from my recollection) to an Arizona one, and gave it a new title: Don’t Come Around Here (inspired by the one Tom Petty song I really like). The script set and though it was one I initially intended to direct, I grew indifferent to taking the helm. Navid, who joined up with us in early 2015, had produced a long short film called Pawn based on other writing of mine. He’d done a good job and I proposed he make his first feature. We were certainly overdue to have another directing voice. So we proceeded in the way we often do: make plans to produce the film without all the pieces you need, knowing they will fall into place, though “fall” doesn’t really give the hard work and intuition of producing much credit.
It was odd to step back and give final authority to someone else on casting, locations and decisions on set. Yes, the Alex Cox picture presented the same situations but here the dynamic was different. I’d been with the film from the “start” and therefore had ideas rolling around this head of mine which sharply contrasted what Navid had in his. So our heads butted before, during and continue to. Thankfully, a language and approach is taking form and though it is still very much in formation, I hope it will allow this collaboration to continue.
For the first time I had to do what many have done for me over the years: step back and let directing decisions play out, whether good or bad. I don’t like to be in the car with anyone driving but myself. And here I was, in the passenger seat, able to help navigate, support and even criticize but in the end it was and is not my foot on the gas pedal, nor my hands on the wheel.
We returned to Mississippi for Don’t Come Around Here. It was not the same this time for many reasons. For one, we filmed in a smaller town (but equally as proud of their place) called Bogue Chitto. The film is raw, not a light piece like Porches, and this cornered it away from the broader community. It was nine days, some the slowest I can recollect. We would actually wait for the sun to go down whereas we usually squeeze every bit of light and time there is.
There were old crew and new crew, some of them like cornerstones in our foundation and others like sand. There were old actors and new actors, some who I did not care for and others who proved themselves as worthy to always be considered.
Being on the other side allowed me to see many things I’ve been missing when captaining the ship. Suddenly I had to deal with dirty dishes. This new insight revealed what I and most of our team have taken for granted. The urge to define our principals as a team and hold to them reached a peak as we neared the end of a year that had to been characterized as a trial of who we really are.
And that leaves me to chiseling away of what Running Wild is at the end of 2016. Well first there was one more film, a winter adventure in Colorado (our first movie there) to make a Kung Fu/Comedy by another first time feature director, Jason Phelps. That can be described as all our film productions can (at least from this perspective): hard and fun. It was also cold, the most physically challenging shoot yet. Nearing the final day of production I grew quite reflective, of not only our position as a film company but my own as a filmmaker.
In 2016, we brought four feature films to existence and shared two with the world. One of these latter two was an abstract biography crime film, a very Phoenix story. The other was a lightweight comedy/murder-mystery, informed by people and places in Mississippi. The movies we made, including the one just mentioned, also included a revisionist Western, what I would call a kitchen-sink drama and a slapstick action movie. How do these all fit together? Is there a pattern? Does these genres and all the places we went to this year mean that we have become scattered? I don’t think so. Our own world of cinema is growing, but also zeroing in on the target.
As I spent most of the year running from state to state, film to film, the focus of Running Wild made itself more clear than ever. This is the backbone, the core of our work: 1. Never stop making movies. 2. Develop local cinema.
At a year end meeting with a couple of our team, I confessed the intense desire to “own” our position as indigenous filmmakers. I use that word because it does more justice to our pursuit than the term local. We are in essence missionaries of cinema, encouraging the development, execution and faith in homegrown stories. We bare witness to storytellers wherever we go and join in to help start their own movement, not somewhere else, but right here on the ground beneath their feet.
Like missionaries, we are a small group. We are often understaffed and underfunded. But it does not discourage us. We are not like other filmmakers, in Hollywood or elsewhere. We cannot be classified with the other independent filmmakers. What we are doing is not only unique in the landscape of cinema but bold. It will be recognized even if we are not around to know it.
At the end of 2016 looking into the coming year, I believe we are more than ever running ahead, perhaps at a faster pace than before and even more wild.
-Travis Mills, Director of Running Wild Films