Wes Miller had to hear it from his mother. But he didn't have a choice. He had stories he wanted to tell, that he felt needed telling. He had a desire he couldn't let go of, and in his own words, he didn't want to hit age 85 with regrets.
So he left a successful career as an attorney to make movies. Anyone's mother would be worried.
Chances of success in the industry are always slim. Miller knew that, but he buckled himself in for a lot of learning by doing. Bit by bit, shoot but shoot, he built a skill set he could rely on, and he started getting larger and larger stories to direct.
Miller has a career now, not as an attorney but as a writer/director. His latest movie, Hell on the Border, is still relatively small, but his most significant to date. It's a biopic about a real-life figure, the larger than life and legendary Bass Reeves.
Reeves is the African-American Marshall that some say the Lone Ranger character was based on. He made a recent appearance on HBO's Watchmen as a cameo character as well.
Reeves and his story have floated around Hollywood in development hell for YEARS. I know a few execs who have personally been involved in trying to get it to the screen. It hasn't been easy.
But Wes Miller seems to thrive when it comes to improbable tasks. Read his story, in his own words, and you'll see what I mean.
Let's dive into our interview and see how Miller brought Reeves to life again.
No Film School: This is a true story. It's about a real person, and it hasn't made its way into movies or television nearly enough, considering the impact of Bass Reeves. How did you get involved in this, in telling this story, and having the opportunity to make the movie?
Wes Miller: My last film, River Runs Red, was a piece that examined law enforcement in the minority community, and what happens when the justice system doesn't work. It's more of a cautionary tale, and it was a bit controversial. I really wanted to do another piece that reflected a positive aspect of law enforcement, while also dealing with African-American heroes that haven't been explored.
I came across Bass's story as part of, maybe, five or six individuals that I thought were really interesting. The more I dug into his story, the more I felt like it was relevant today. And then I heard about the Lone Ranger rumor. I looked into his life and what he had to do. I felt like his story is still our story, today. And so I really just dug in.
NFS: How did you pick what part of his life to focus on?
Miller: I kind of used Denzel Washington's Equalizer as a model, in the sense of an origin story. For us to meet Bass, see him become a Marshall. We haven't seen him become the legend. We see him on his first trek and where this story begins. He starts as a slave, subservient to Caucasians back then. So let's see that turn. And just explore that turn. Hopefully, we'll be able to tell another chapter in his story with more resources and make it a little bigger and start digging into more aspects.
With this one, I just wanted to give an origin story. Just an introduction to Bass Reeves without trying to do a biopic cradle-to-the-grave type of piece.
NFS: Sometimes people try to cram everything in. This is life so big. How did you get the project off the ground? Did you take meetings? Or was it in development and they came to you?
Miller: This was a totally independent piece. I just wrote the script, took it to a couple of producers. They were committed to making the movie. We did it completely Indie, and we just put our foot to the pedal and me and my team got it done, man.
NFS: That's awesome.
Miller: Our producers went to Lionsgate and got them involved but that was after we were starting to shoot. We were in the middle of production when that happened.
NFS: That must've been an exciting moment.
Miller: Yeah, it was. But, honestly, at that point, we are just so far in the weeds. I only had 20 days to shoot this film.
NFS: Wow! Really?!
Miller: Yeah. I'm super proud of my team. Indie film is really hard, just period. I think there's still the legacy, view in the industry that one: African-Americans don't sell, and then two: Westerns don't sell. So you combine together and it gets a whole lot harder.
NFS: This the ultimate uphill battle, right? Because you're trying to sell a period, a Western, you're doing it with an African-American lead, a historical figure, so you have a lot of pressure to do it correctly, AND then you're doing it in 20 days?!
Miller: Yes. You're 100% right. It was completely uphill. And then I'd look around and see stories like Harriet, that took 20 years to get off the ground, The Banker that took 25 years to get off the ground. This story about Bass Reeves had circulated a couple of times and never got off the ground. And you just have to ask yourself, why are these stores taking so long to get out?
But at the end of the day, we were able to put this together and release it within a couple of years from writing it.
No Film School is, technically, my film school. Learning through various mediums you see the Indie spirit, and one of the lessons I have heard is when you get an opportunity, you just make the best you can with the resources you have, prove what you can do and then bigger doors open later. That's the mentality.
NFS: How did you get started? What were your first movies?
Miller: I was an attorney, a trial lawyer for eight years. I love the law. The reason I got into law was that I really feel like I was a civil rights kind of guy. I've always wanted to do something that made a difference in the world. But once I was in the practice of law... I didn't feel like that was my space.
And it was about, I don't know, 2012, 13-ish, when the DSLR craze was happening, I picked up a T2I, T3I, one of the two, and was like, "Oh, I can make cinematic images."
I did like a little couple of shorts just playing around, just learning. Then I realized, all right, look, if you want to do this, you have to learn how to tell a story. That's the distinguishing factor. Everybody can pick up a camera and get basic coverage, but you have to learn to tell a story.
"Then I realized, all right, look, if you want to do this, you have to learn how to tell a story. That's the distinguishing factor. Everybody can pick up a camera and get basic coverage, but you have to learn to tell a story."
I didn't want to wake up at age 85, one day and say, "I wish I would have." So I just walked away from the law practice, sold it, had some savings that would help me bridge things a little bit. I had to listen to my mother think I was crazy for walking away but had supportive friends.
So I just did it. I did a couple of shorts and then did a really no-budget feature was called Lily Grace, with a couple of friends.
Then went to another budget level at about 100,000 with Prayer Never Fails, and another one, Atone, it's actually on Netflix also at about 100,000. And then did River Runs Red, had about 430K to make it below the line. Now, this one where we had about a million to make it below the line.
"...it's a craft and it's about learning, and I consider myself a blue-collar filmmaker. That means I get better by doing."
So I've just kind of progressed up and pushed hard. And, honestly, it's a craft and it's about learning, and I consider myself a blue-collar filmmaker. That means I get better by doing. I can read it all day, but I need to go apply it and see how it feels.
For me, this one[Hell on the Border], I watched it and I thought, "Okay, this is a cinematic piece. I know how to tell a cinematic story now. What's next?"
NFS: What did you shoot on for this?
NFS: How did you arrive at those choices?
Miller: Firstly: budget. We wanted to try to keep as much money going on the screen as possible. Cameras are hugely important. The VariCam, to me, has one of the prettiest images next to Alexa. I just love the aesthetic. I love the texture. I love the depth. And the GH5S allowed us to move fast. It's not quite as creamy. It's a little bit sharper but still a very capable cinematic camera.
We shot on vintage lenses to help give that older feel.
NFS: This is a Western, it's a true story though, so you have to kind of balance that. This is also a real story and it's an important one. Yet Westerns and their tropes have been one of the popular genres for 100 years, how did you put that all together?
Miller: That's a great question. So the first part of that is as a writer... With this material, there's a decent amount on Bass's life, but there is a lot of gaps for specifics. So what I wanted to do is make sure the broad strokes were 100% consistent, so there was a real Bob Dozier. Bass did go chase Bob Dozier. They did have a final battle in a ravine in the woods. My North star was to always ensure that whatever the dramatic tool is utilized that they be consistent with who Bass was and the reality.
For the second part of your question, I looked at movies like True Grit, both the original and the remake. They start in a bigger town and then work us out into the wilderness. I looked at what the Coen brothers did with their Fort Smith. We couldn't afford to do that, so we did the best we could with turning that downtown Bessemer into Fort Smith. Then I went and looked at older African-American Westerns. There were maybe 9, 10-ish total that were accessible.
We have Magnificent Seven, you have Posse, you have Django, and then you have to go back to the 70s. There was a dearth. There are 20 years between Posse and Django.
NFS: Production-wise you had 20 days and not a ton of money. It's a huge thing to try to pull off a Western. How did you guys tackle it?
Miller: A: I have an amazing team. And just to add to that pressure we didn't have more than a week of pre-production together. I was able to go down and scout, but we didn't have a lot of time. We just had a really strong team that came together. I used two cameras, we utilized gimbals, and Ronins, it allowed us to turn around quick. For every setup we're able to get two angles, another setup, two angles. So, yeah, we were able to move quickly. I didn't want it too handheld, because, again, the Western aesthetic isn't. It locks off. =
But I couldn't achieve that and finish the film, so we found that medium balance, just a little movement here and there. I was talking to one of the Wranglers today, and we look back and we're like, "How?"
NFS: Were there times when you thought you weren't going to make it? Days wouldn't be made?
Miller: Yeah. There was one difficult day. Scenes where we're out in the big prairie, the big area. We had one day to shoot three or four scenes out there, and the day started off horribly. The address was wrong. People were going to the wrong location. We didn't even get to the location until two hours late, and so the day just started badly.
Then there were other issues. We were just sitting there trying to protect the process. I thought, "I don't know what we're going to do, but we got to do it."
Somehow made it. It was a testament to the actors, because my process is, generally, roll the rehearsal. We block it, we talk through it, work through it together, and I film every rehearsal, and then we just dig in and go. They were on point, and I think having amazing actors really was an X factor in a sense. We could get two to three takes per set up and then move. That gave us ample coverage and nice angles.
NFS: Did you feel like you had enough? In post-production. And what was your post-production process like? What did you edit on?
Miller: We had a lot of material, and candidly, I would have liked to had a few more weeks with it, but they put us under deadline, we had to get it out. But I'm still a newer filmmaker and editing is such an amazing process. It's just amazing, so I would have loved to have an opportunity to experiment, like some of the guys I look up to like the Scorsese's and Soderbergh's who can have the time to really manipulate the material, and test it and push it and pull it. But at the end of the day, it was cool. It was cool and it was a good relationship with the editors..
NFS: Are there any things, specifically, you look at the movie and do you think, I wish I'd had this resource or I wish I'd been able to do this differently?
Miller: Always. Yeah. And so for me, the post-mortem is always as a creator, taking an honest look at what can we do better next time? And really, again, really proud of it. I feel like it's very cinematic. It moves. The characters are amazing. I would have liked to have been able to afford to have my own Western town to do a lot of stuff in. And in post-production, there are a couple of things I would like to have tried to see if they worked, like tweaking some flashbacks.
NFS: So I have another sort of larger question. You come from a background in law, and this is a story about law enforcement like you said. But today is a really important time in a way to depict an African-American law enforcer of such legendary status. There's a lot happening in this moment, and in our history in general, but how did all that filter into your sense of the responsibility of this story and how you told it? It feels like it's a lot to take on and to try and portray responsibility-wise.
Miller: It is. And I'll say this, I think the first thing David [who played Bass Reeves] and I were both on the same page about, as that we wanted to make sure that we told Bass's story, and that it didn't get whitewashed. Or minimized or like some other African-American heroes stories have been. We wanted to honor his legacy. We did screen this for his family in Tulsa over the weekend. And, honestly, it's probably... it was one of my best, most rewarding experiences as a creator thus far.
Seeing their reaction, and their appreciation, and their love of the film... So that was the answer to the first part of the question.
As for the second part, we did feel overall- and I'm not going to call it a burden but, yeah, a responsibility in that regard.
And I will say this, today, with the divide between the black and the blue, so to speak, I think a lot gets lost in it. I don't believe the African-American community is anti-law enforcement, what they are is pro-accountability.
I feel like Bass Reeves epitomizes the best of law enforcement, and what it is in its purest form, which is a necessary component to the social contract that we have with our government. That you keep us safe, we will follow the law. And at the end of the day, I feel like the justice system is that one component that caused or help create a civilized society.
He epitomized that, and I think he, again, exemplifies the best of what law enforcement can and should be, no matter what your color is.
NFS: That's beautifully said. It's amazing that you got to screen for his family. In a weird way, as we started talking you said you needed to make I felt movies to have an impact. And it almost feels like you did that here on some level.
Miller: Yeah, I feel like that. As the craftsperson, this is my best piece to date... but it's not the best to come. I have a lot of stories I want to tell. We just finished a screenplay on Joe Frazier's life that we're starting to package. I've got to keep working and building my muscles as a storyteller.
I still think I need to find my voice, per se. I don't have a Wes Miller style. It's just, what does this screenplay call for? And just try to tell the story the best I can. But on the emotional side thus far it's just like, honestly, after that screening[For the family of Bass Reeves], I was like... I can emotionally move to the next thing and commit my heart to it, because the family has seen this and they honored it and they respected it, and we did Bass well.
NFS: That's amazing. How would you advise people who are trying to find ways to get their stories made, to package ideas? And to also have the opportunity to make a movie, and then you say like you said, okay, that's not my best work. I can do another one and get better, and then I could do another one and get better. How would you advise people to do that?
Miller: Yeah, I would say one thing, is if you look back at the masters like Fellini, and then if you look at John Ford, you don't hear about their very very early work as much, because they were working and learning the craft. You hear about 8 & 1/2 when it breaks through, and then the work subsequent to that. You hear about The Searchers. When they've attained a certain level at the craft. This is a craft and it is hard, and if you don't have a burning desire to do it, you will be a one-and-done.
With the advent of social media and the internet and everybody posting about their successes and hearing about people, the outliers who have one or two films, and they both are amazing.
You don't hear as much about the 100 craftspersons who are just working every day and working at their craft. Don't let the noise distract you. Work at your craft, take an honest assessment of what you need to do, and how do you get better, and just continue the work.
I mean it's like when I practiced law, if I would have gone out and tried a murder case my first week out of law school, somebody would have been on the death row. So it's no different, it is a specific language, it is a specific skill to be able to tell a cinematic story.
I would say you shoot, you learn, shoot again, you learn. You can get your work out. It may not make a lot of money, initially, but if you're in it to make money, then you will be short-lived.