You may have heard me mention more than once that Heart of the Gun, the last of our 12 Westerns, is my most personal Western, probably my most personal film of any kind to date. Some may have wondered why. I’ve felt the urge to explore those reasons and as the last week of production on this film and the 12 Westerns begins, it feels like no better time to explain.

Heart of the Gun emerged from the ashes of a breakup back in 2014. It was a brutal relationship, full of passion but also toxic on many levels. It left me broken and full of anger. As I announced the 12 Westerns project for the first time at the end of 2013 and started to write the earliest scripts (Deputy’s Wife and Frontier came to life at this time too), a story that channeled those emotions came to be. It was about a man named Travers (the closest name I could use without using my own) who searches for a woman, his long lost wife. But he’s not looking for her out of love; he’s searching for her in anger, in pain… and if he ever finds her, he may kill her. This woman has red hair, just like the one I dated years ago and along his journey Travers discovers another woman with red hair, a wounded traveler named Sarah. Her face is covered in scars and that’s not the only place she’s been hurt. Together, they begin a quest of violence and ultimately, redemption. I’d call it a romantic Western. Recently our makeup artist Kaylee remarked at how it wasn’t what she thought of as a romance. JD Pepper, one of our crew and cast, called it a “dark romance” and that it is. I’d argue that it is not dark but real, about the kind of struggle many of us face in love. The script has changed a lot over the years, evolving most when I looked at it in 2019 after taking a break for a few years. By the time we started production on December 5th, I believe we were working with the strongest story I’ve ever written.

The connections in this Western to my personal life don’t end with the protagonist’s name and the color of the heroine’s hair. The female names are all clues. Sarah was the name of another friend and lover who committed suicide. Gail, another name which recurs through the film, is a play off of the “gale” and therefore an ode to Windy, the stage name for the woman who committed that tragic act. In a final stroke of irony, our lead actress shares the same first name as the woman who inspired all of this…There are more connections I cannot speak of. Not now. Maybe not ever.

Regarding the narrative, no I did not go on some journey to find her. The events of the story are all fiction but the emotions are true. It was written with a raw heart. Sometimes the wounds from those days feel like the scars on Sarah’s face: they’ve healed but will always remind me. Other days, those wounds feel as fresh as they did in 2014. And finally bringing this story to life may have opened a few of them up. It has been a hard month, tough and vulnerable all at once. The moments on and off screen have recalled the best and worth of times. But one thing is for sure, every damn day I’ve felt like I was making the best film of my career.

I’ve put my whole heart into this one, saving the last of my breath for this last showdown of the year. It hasn’t been a secret to those I work with. John remarked after the first day of filming that I was given far more notes on his performance than ever before. Nick, our cinematographer, knows I’m pushing the scenes as much as I can. Every possible ounce of energy must be put into making this movie as great as it can be.

I will end this year tired, broke, not alone but most likely lonely, and happy because the 12 Westerns will be complete. Today, I am 35 years old and have 26 feature films under my belt. If this is the last movie I ever make, I’d be pleased it was this one. It represents everything I’ve learned and lived over the last ten years of being a filmmaker. It stands for what I believe about men and women, love and romance, a baptism of fire and blood to find to find peace and understanding. It has all of me in it and I have given everything I have for it.

-Travis Mills