Before writing this retrospective of the year, I returned to my thoughts about 2021 and what I presumed was the direction of the coming year. Last December, I made two proclamations which can now be read with a sense of irony:
Statement #1: “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.”
Statement #2: “‘If I [died] right now, would I be content with my life?’ The answer would be yes, on a professional level I would be… 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.”
If you’ve followed my journey through 2022, you already know that taking a break from producing my own films didn’t go as planned. Just a few months in the year, I found myself in a predicament: for-hire gigs with Bonfire Legend or any other companies had yet to come to fruition and I was quickly running out of money to sustain myself. For more than a decade, I’d survived for the sake of making movies; I never thought I’d end up in a position of needing to make a movie to survive but there I was. An opportunity arose to direct a Western for a certain company that makes micro-budget genre pictures and releases them in Walmart among other places. The project, a remake of the early John Wayne-starring BLUE STEEL, seemed like a challenge and it would keep me afloat for a couple of months. I was given a meager budget of 20,000 dollars for production, an amount I could work with until unforeseen demands of the company spun things out of control. Soon, my shooting schedule was changing on a daily basis, the budget was getting harder and harder to control, and I was butting heads big time with the people who hired me. At the last minute, they pulled the plug on BLUE STEEL but offered to still provide the budget for “another Western.” Within a week, I came up with THE FIVE (a remake of a crime film I made in 2013 called THE MEN WHO ROBBED THE BANK) and was able to salvage most of the cast, crew, horses, and locations we’d already lined up.
Some of you have already read my reaction to making THE FIVE (available here) to summarize the experience, it was a sobering reminder, a kick in the head wake up call of the realization I already had at the end of 2021… that I didn’t want to make low-budget films anymore. My storytelling abilities were and have been severely limited by those budget constraints and the stress of making such films has increased over time. I’ve outgrown them but haven’t found a way to get away from them, yet. More on that in a short while, first an aside about my personal life, which I so desperately wanted to give more attention to at the end of 2021.
Around the time of THE FIVE, I started seeing a lady who lived in Tucson. I was careful not to jump into a serious relationship too fast, or at least I thought I was, but by the middle of June she accompanied me to the premiere of TERROR ON THE PRAIRIE in Nashville and I was proudly calling her my girlfriend. Over the summer, I spent most of my time with her, giving us the time and attention I may have neglected with women in recent years. There were issues and, in retrospect, some pretty glaring red flags. However, I believed whole heartedly that we were working through our problems and learning from each other. We loved each other or at least we both said so. In August, in a moment of true irony we were talking about OUTLANDER, a show I’d turned her onto which is all about working hard for a relationship, and she hinted at how romantic she felt marriage was. A few days later, she decided to end the relationship because she’d lost faith in our ability to make it work.
It was a punch in the gut, one that hurt more than I realized it would at first. If anything good came from that situation, it’s that I learned what saying “I love you” means to me at this point in my life. It means I won’t give up on us; it means I’m going to fight for this relationship until there is no other choice. I’d reached that point with her. I was ready to keep working hard for us no matter what. She wasn’t and it’s as simple as that even though it isn’t easy to understand. Looking back, I was so desperate this year to have a good relationship, one I could give time and attention to, but we weren’t right for each other for so many reasons, the biggest being the desire to work hard for each other. I will be more careful the next time I say “I love you” because now I know what it means.
Soon after a tough August, thankfully a new gig in Kentucky distracted my attention. I was hired to help produce a drug/crime drama called M30 OXY. Off I went, leaving Tank behind with my friends John and Cara, for a month in a different place to work with people I’d never met before. The big question at the back of my mind was, “Is this something I want to do more often? Produce for filmmakers who can benefit from my decade of experience?” That is one of the reasons I took the job, to find out if such opportunities were worth exploring in the future. And after a few weeks of hard work, fun and frustration, I can confidently answer yes.
Going into production, I made a choice that might sound unusual to some of you: to do my job to the best of my ability for the sake of the film regardless of what the cast or crew thought of me. It was liberating and ultimately rewarding to not care if anyone liked me or not. I believed some did, some didn’t, and that everyone respected my contribution to the project. Perhaps some of us will collaborate again. You grow close to certain people on a film set and then sometimes never see each other again. That is the way of this work.
Another realization I had during the Kentucky movie came when telling stories to some of the crew about all my filming adventures during these twelve years of Running Wild. Suddenly, it dawned on me… I’ve been through a lot. My life has been quite an adventure, from growing up in the Comoros Islands to all the daring challenges and experiences I have put myself through since becoming a full time filmmaker in 2010. For the first time in a while, I came to peace with my crazy lifestyle. A couple of months prior, all I could think was “life is a disappointment so what now?” Would I ever find the kind of relationship I wanted? Would I ever reach the level in my film career I so desire? It certainly can be a disappointment and maybe always will be to some extent, but moving forward I took pride in what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, and embraced the wild story of my life, one that might be worthy of its own movie someday.
And so I returned to Arizona in better shape than when I left. With a few months left to finish out the year, I was in the same predicament as before: I needed to make a movie to keep paying the bills. What would it be? I needed to be careful with the investment dollars at my disposal. Also, I didn’t want to make another 15 to 20k movie like THE FIVE again. After much deliberation and throwing out a ton of ideas, the solution came to me one morning. I would produce a documentary about the making of our 12 Westerns. It would be a cost effective project I could shoot on my iPhones with a little help from my friends. And it would be get me through the year. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the process of filming our interviews for THE LEGACY OF THE 12 WESTERNS would be a cathartic experience. This was the right time to look back, for myself and others. I hope this coming year when I release the film that it will also have a strong effect on our audience.
Pursuing that final project also provided a possible new direction for my career, which has been in limbo since wrapping the 12. As stated, I want to work at a higher budget level. KILLIN’ JIM KELLY, funded at 100,000, is a good start. From there, my goal is to find 200 to 250k in funding for a new feature to be filmed in 2024 or 500k plus to finally make our Western series CONTENTION. But what can I do in meantime? While raising funds for bigger budgeted projects, I could still make little movies on my iPhone to keep creating and living as a full time filmmaker. And therefore that is my strategy moving forward: to reach the next level of financing and exposure for key projects while feeding my passion for filmmaking with small, personal films. For every CONTENTION, there might be a BRIEF ENCOUNTERS or another documentary. I only have so much time left and there are a few stories I would really like to tell before I’m gone. Of course, I remain open to working for other productions, lending my experience to new directors or serving as a “Swiss Army Knife” as I did with TERROR ON THE PRAIRIE. There are some promising opportunities on the horizon and I will see where they take me.
To close, my friend John recently recounted a conversation he had with another Western filmmaker. While scouting Gammons Gulch, the subject of the 12 Westerns came up. The other filmmaker admired the ambition and asked John, “What is Travis going to do next?” John replied that he didn’t know what challenge I might take on in the future. Well, sorry to disappoint expectations but I have no desire to complete another quantity-based endeavor. The answer is much more simple yet just as difficult: I want my work to astonish people. I’ve put myself through more than a decade of training. Now, it’s time to make some great movies.