As the year comes to an end, I look back in this retrospective piece about my journey through 2023. Above: select crew and cast during the final week of filming THE PENDRAGON CYCLE, photograph by Dávid Lukács.
2023: YEAR OF THE PENDRAGON
Around this time last year, I was preparing for our first iteration of the Tombstone Film Festival and I was speaking with producer Dallas Sonnier (BONE TOMAHAWK, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE) about coming on board his new project with the Daily Wire, a TV series based on Stephen R. Lawhead’s Arthurian novels THE PENDRAGON CYCLE. Dallas and I had last worked together on the Gina Carano Western TERROR ON THE PRAIRIE. In the year and a half since, myself and others anxiously waited to see what he would do next. The time had time and I didn’t know it but my life was about to take a new turn.
Less than a month later, I packed most of my belongings in my Hyundai Tucson and “moved” to Nashville. After working as an independent filmmaker for so many years, setting my own pace and schedule, it was a different speed coming into the Daily Wire office Monday through Friday. For a few weeks, it felt like having a “regular job” for the first time in forever. Dallas, myself, and a few others were starting prep on PENDRAGON from scratch and as usual, I took the bull by the horns and started to push the project along in any way that I could. That mostly meant preparing our team for a big location scout in Wales, our destination for production. I prepared a detailed plan with some help from our collaborators in the UK and suddenly February passed by in the blink of an eye and we were on a plane across the Atlantic. We scouted for ten days in March, a group of nearly 15 of us piled into two vans roaming the Welsh countryside seeing everything from castles to stunning landscapes. It was a crash course in working with some of my collaborators, seeing the way their minds worked and how quickly those minds could change, leading us in a new direction.
When we returned to Nashville, we jumped back into pre-production with plans to return to the United Kingdom in less than a month to begin “hard prep” with a quickly approaching start date for filming. And then the direction of the show took a drastic turn… for many reasons, we made a decision to not film in Wales and to take PENDRAGON to Eastern Europe. Long before I came on board, that region of the world had been a consideration. Now, it was a reality. With only a few days to organize our trip, I scrambled to put together a new location scout which would include Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. It wasn’t until we were waiting for our connection at Heathrow that our team decided to add Romania to the mix. I re-structured our scouting days to include the fourth country and we would eventually add a fifth to the mix, Italy. Throughout this process, I had to learn very quickly how to hit all the curveballs that were coming by way. I remembered my good friend Bill Perkins’ mantra, “A problem is only the opportunity for a solution”, a philosophy that got me through the 12 Westerns. It was in full force as we moved quickly from location to location, finding new ones along the way, and working with some incredible people in each of the five countries. I look back on that trip as a defining moment for PENDRAGON, not only as our new destination came into focus but also as I came to know my team better. A few days before the scout ended, I looked across the table while we dined at a restaurant in Romania and told Jeremy Boreing that I should probably stay behind while the rest of the group went back to the U.S. There was more to discover; we still hadn’t found some of the show’s key locations. He agreed and when the others left Italy in mid-April, I went back to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and then also scouted Slovakia. It was one of the most challenging work months of my life as I moved from hotel to hotel at a breathless pace, not taking a day off until the month ended and I finally returned to the U.S.A.
I wasn’t back for long. After seeing my parents for a couple of days and spending the rest of the week debating with our team about the best places to film PENDRAGON, I packed my bags again and set out for Italy, one of the two countries chosen for our production. The other was Hungary where I am now and as I write this, I haven’t set foot on American soil nearly eight months. Back in Europe, scouting continued and prep commenced. I never had the luxury of true “prep” time on my low-budget work in the past; there was never enough money to pay anything to prepare the film so I just did it all myself. And there I was, living in the countryside north of Rome, responsible for spearheading the pre-production on a multi-million dollar series. It was an enormous task but like the expression goes, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Soon, more of our American team arrived on the ground in Italy but by the end of the June, another curveball was thrown our way: prep would move to Hungary. We uprooted our production two months before our filming start date and resettled in Budapest.
It was there that my work on PENDRAGON came into focus. We conducted interviews and built a strong team of department heads and production coordinators. Since I’d never produced anything remotely close to the scale of this show, I developed certain practices to keep myself on track as much as anyone else. Some of these, my daily briefings and “game plan” emails which I will share more details about in the future, became fixtures of the production and ideas that not only myself but others plan to carry into their next projects. It was clear that every day of prep was an opportunity to make THE PENDRAGON CYCLE as good as it could be. Once production started, we’d be in the trenches and there would be little to no time to work ahead. More than ever, I bore witness to the value of preparation on this project. The final month went by very quickly and all of a sudden, we’d reached the start of production. I recall that first day of filming, at a lake outside Budapest, seeing all the people and equipment, realizing the scope of what we were about to create, what we’d already worked so hard to prepare for. CUT TO: December 22nd, 2023 – the final of day of production on season one of THE PENDRAGON CYCLE. Exhausted, we filmed one more scene on a cold, windy morning and hugged each other with a great sense of accomplishment. None of us had ever made a series before. Most of us had never worked overseas. And we did it. We finished the work.
There is so much more to tell about those months leading up to that first day of production and the ones that would follow as we filmed for five weeks in Italy and eleven in Hungary. If I wrote a book about our adventures, it would be the size of a Russian novel. I did record my thoughts in a journal as I’d previously done during the 12 Westerns and perhaps one day those pages will be published one way or another. You’ll see some of those stories told in the behind the scenes videos coming out now. Others I’ll be able to share with time. And the rest will be kept only as memories and secrets. I can tell you it was a period of great learning. There were people I sometimes thought were enemies who were actually my truest friends and there were friends who I eventually realized were enemies. Of course, the greatest enemies of all were doubt and resignation. I cannot how often we heard “no” and had to turn that around into a “yes”. It is imperative as a film producer to combat this kind of resistance, often caused by insecurity or pride, to find a solution. An equal foe is the tendency for humans to give up, to take the easiest way out, but the greatest movies were made in the daily fight to achieve something great without surrendering to mediocrity. You may get the impression that I describe the filmmaking process as if it was a war. It feels that way sometimes. I believe a filmmaker needs to have the physical stamina of an athlete and the mentality of a soldier. It is no mistake that one of the few books I read this year was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War…
I still have much to learn about the art (and warfare) of producing but without a doubt I have lived and learned the true meaning of what it is to be a producer. I see now how much even a good director needs a producer, and although I wore those hats at the same time about as well as anyone could given the circumstances, I also know now that I would have benefited from having a good producer by my side through all of the years of making my own movies. I will be eternally grateful to Dallas for bringing me along this journey and for fighting with me every step of the way to make something unforgettable. I am so thankful that Jeremy trusted me with the responsibility to help produce a project he cares so much about, a dream that has lived in his mind for many years. I am proud of the collaborators who toiled through it all with me every day, who stayed loyal and steadfast even when we wanted to strangle each other, who never gave up when the going got tough.
I predicted that I would collapse when it was all over but knowing what we accomplished has filled me with peace and a sense of completion. A close friend said that I “left it all on the field” and knowing that has put me at ease. Even my mother, who came to visit Budapest for Christmas with the rest of my family, kept asking when I was going to “come down” from production. Surprisingly, I don’t feel the need to do so or to recover as I have on past projects. I am content to simply rest and be alone with my thoughts, besides the ones that I have shared with you today. What will happen from here, I do not know. Will I go on to produce more projects like THE PENDRAGON CYCLE? Will I return to directing my own work? The future is unknown and I embrace that uncertainty, ready for the next adventure.