Photograph by Taylor Allen on the set of Bonfire Legend’s Terror on the Prairie. 

I always knew that 2021 would be harder than 2020, that contrary to what most of you might think post-production and distribution on twelve movies is a lot more difficult than filming a feature every month for a year. One reason for that could be the lack of camaraderie in the editing and releasing phase; it’s mostly a solitary battle whereas the filming process is a group effort. And it provides as much stress as the pressure rises to make these films as good as they can be… and most of them can only be so good. Back in 2019, I was already mentally preparing myself for what would be the final step of this ambitious project. Of course, I had no idea how hard this year would turn out to be.

These many months have been full of tragedy. I think of it as “a time of death”. From June till now, we lost four people who worked on the 12 Westerns. That was followed by the loss of an actor I worked with on the Montana Western. And of course, I lost my best friend Bandit. I think of him every day. I often dream about being with him again. My heart is haunted. But even before Jay Pickett and Daulton Brewer tragically died within a few days of each other this July, I was on the verge of burning out. Though I truly feel my work on Jay’s project Treasure Valley was my best so far, I knew it was time for a break. The prospect of jumping into 2022 with new projects like the Western series Contention no longer seemed like a healthy decision. I needed some time to put all this in perspective, to breathe a little and figure out the next step in my career. Yes, I have been going hard the last three years on these 12 Westerns but this non-stop pace really began back in 2010-2011 when I started Running Wild Films. When I stop and ask myself if there’s ever been a time in those ten years that I wasn’t in pre-production, production, or post-production on a film, the answer is no. And often I was doing all three at the same time! A friend recently asked me how I was doing and I told her that my life was non-stop busy. She said, “But that’s how you like it.” I don’t blame her for having that impression but it is, along with a lot of other assumptions about me, incorrect. There’s a huge difference between what I like and what I’ve felt was necessary. The soldier may be good at fighting but that doesn’t mean he likes war. By my choice, I set challenging goals that required immense dedication to accomplish. But no, this way of living is not what I like.

The “time of death” made me question my own mortality as tragedies like these often do. I’ve never been afraid of death and know that it could come at any moment, but an overwhelming question persisted, “If I went right now, would I be content with my life?” The answer would be yes, on a professional level I would be. Though I haven’t achieved fame or fortune (those were never my goals), I’ve created 25 feature films in a decade, a body of work that will continue to have a life of its own. However, the answer to that question would be a resounding no if I thought of my personal life. I would characterize that part of my existence as sometimes turbulent, often disappointing, and mostly non-existent. Therefore, I’d like to make an effort to change that answer. For ten years I have been married to my film work. My life has not been my own; it belonged to the movies. Perhaps it’s time to devote more energy elsewhere.

Operating camera on Terror on the Prairie. Photograph by Taylor Allen.

When one of my favorite directors Howard Hawks made the financial failure Land of the Pharaohs, he took four years off before his next picture. During that hiatus, he traveled the world and thought about what really makes a good story, then he returned to make what might be his best film and certainly is one of the greatest Westerns of all time, Rio Bravo. His perspective on what makes a good story had changed and his work showed the difference. In the film industry, I feel there’s a persistent idea that if you take a break or walk away, you might lose your momentum. I’ve certainly adopted this mentality over the years. And even if it’s true, I’m willing to take that risk. Like Hawks, I not only need a good break but I also need some time to figure out what kind of films I want to make going forward and how I want to make them. I know one thing for certain: I don’t want to keep working the same way.

If the last ten years and twenty-five feature films were an experiment in low-budget independent filmmaking, I’d say the results showed a fair share of failure and success. Though some films were both profitable and generally well-received, I was never satisfied with my model of working as a sustainable system. For every Blood Country there was a Cornbread Cosa Nostra; one film continues to succeed to this day and the other never found its footing. I learned quickly that no matter how good a film was (or at least how good I felt it was), its success was not only unpredictable but impossible to control. The 12 Westerns project was the culmination of this experiment, taking everything I’d learned before and applying it to this behemoth of an endeavor. The jury is still out on the impact of the 12. It’s too early to tell and that is another good reason for pause, to let these films live a little in the world and see what lessons are learned from their experience.

In the meantime, what is the next phase of my career? I know a few things. First, I need to focus on becoming a better writer. My scriptwriting process has always been rushed. I would pump out a draft in a matter of weeks and declare the start of pre-production, claiming that I’d rewrite the script and fix any issues as we went. Though that is possible to a certain degree, there was never enough time to really dedicate myself to the weaknesses in these screenplays. As I look back on these twenty-five movies and especially the 12 Westerns, I see some good scripts but no great ones. And that’s what distinguishes the movies we watch over and over again from the ones we mildly enjoy and move on from. That’s the difference between Tombstone and any other Western made today, including my own. Range Detective, which I wrote earlier this year, is probably my most accomplished script yet. I learned from the mistakes of the past. But it still is not good enough so this year I am dedicated to improving this side of my craft.

As mentioned before, I don’t want to make movies the way I have been. What does that mean? Well, for years I’ve raised the money myself, produced mostly on my own, hired local crew and cast, shot fast and frugally, struggled through post-production with no budget left, and self-distributed the film. Like I said earlier, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but every time it was exhausting and stressful, especially the burden of releasing the film and hoping to make a profit. Why didn’t I work with distribution companies? Well, I did with my biggest film to date and got so burned that it make me very skeptical to do so again. To this day, I’m still paying the price of that mistake. The films I’ve made aren’t big enough to attract legitimate distribution companies and it’s hard to know who to trust. Furthermore, my budget limitations on these projects have limited who I could hire. Frequently, I had to work with crew members who had little to no experience. I had to cast local actors who delivered a variety of results, some spectacular and others left a lot to be desired.

This year, working on Terror on the Prairie with Dallas Sonnier, I got a taste of something different. Bigger budgets don’t solve all the problems and if anything, the experience showed me what I’ve been doing right as much or more as what I’ve been doing wrong. However, it gave me a glimpse of what it is like to work with true professionals. From the Oscar-winning makeup artist Jeff Dawn to the stunt coordinator Brian Christensen to producer Amanda Presmyk, these working relationships were a breath of fresh air. After the experience in Montana, I became determined to bring this level of skill and dedication to my next film. I still want a small crew but the right crew, a select “Dirty Dozen” of the best I can find. Instead of hiring who I can afford, I need to find the money to afford who I want. The same goes for casting. Over these many films, I have met and worked with some incredible local actors. Many of us have evolved together, getting better with each project and helping each other grow. No longer am I willing to cast who is available or to put myself in a position where I have to work with someone because they’re my only choice. I want to hand-pick from the best I’ve worked with and reach for the best I’ve yet to work with. When I watch my movies, I often cringe. The film might be going along well until it comes to a certain scene where a bad performance spoils the moment or the limitations in the skills of a crew member become apparent. I don’t want to cringe in my movies. Yes, the creator will always be dissatisfied with his or her work to some degree but I would like to decrease that feeling as much as possible with my next films.

A contemplative motive while filming Terror on the Prairie, captured by photographer Taylor Allen.

Along these lines, I have always been disappointed with collaboration and need to discover what that looks like for me going forward. Many of you are relatively new to my film family and don’t remember the days when Running Wild Films actually had a “team”. For years, I put blood, sweat, and tears into developing these fellow producers to build a bigger company. Where are they now? All I can say is that it wasn’t worth the time and effort but I can’t say I learned my lesson as I continue to struggle with this aspect of the creative process. It seems nearly impossible to find collaborators who can keep up with me, on or off set. I’m always asked why I do so much myself and the answer is that I can’t find anyone who could do it as well. So during this time of contemplation and redirection, one of my goals is to determine what I can actually expect from collaborators and to decide if the idea of having partners is possible for me or if I’m better off a lone wolf. For the time being, that is what I shall be, focused on writing and acting. These are two pursuits for which I can mostly rely on only one person… myself.

I will continue to work for hire on other people’s projects, when the people and the project are right, and I truly hope the collaboration with Dallas continues to flourish. He is making the kinds of movies I’ve always wanted to make and I’m grateful to “battle together” as I have told him multiple times. This break from producing my own films will hopefully allow me to find a balance between the personal and professional so that when my time comes, I will have a different answer to that question. Hopefully this “break” will also allow me to gain the perspective to come back and make a better film someday. Perhaps it will be my Rio Bravo.

Regardless of what happens, I’m grateful for the work I’ve created and everyone who has helped me so far. The first ten years of my career as a filmmaker has been an incredible journey. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. But now it is time to look forward at the next ten years, a new adventure.

-Travis Mills