There have been almost as many Western sidekick characters as there are Western films, with the late, great Walter Brennan being chief among them. But with the new film The Ballad of Lefty Brown, the sidekick—a title character brilliantly portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Bill Pullman—is reluctantly thrust into the job of Hero when his longtime partner (Peter Fonda) is elected senator and promptly assassinated, leaving a suspicious widow (Kathy Baker) looking for someone to blame. Another member of Lefty’s old crew, Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), seems to have turned on Lefty as well, and it’s up to the old man to not only find who really killed his former boss but stay alive while he solves that mystery.
The film comes courtesy of writer-director Jared Moshe, whose previous film Dead Man’s Burden was also a Western. He comes out of producing primarily documentaries and television series, and shows a genuine touch for creating lived-in characters and the landscapes they occupy. Lefty Brown is especially fascinating and distinct because it captures the last gasp of a bygone era. Lefty and his gang were the stuff of legends and even had comic books drawn about their (exaggerated) exploits. But power struggles and politics have crept into the West, and Lefty is left wondering what his place in the world will be even before his boss is murdered.
I had the chance to sit down with Pullman and Moshe last October during the Chicago International Film Festival, where the movie had its Chicago debut. Their mutual affection for Westerns and the characters that inhabit them are quite clear, and I had a great time chatting with them, especially Pullman, whose filmography is immense and impressive—from Spaceballs and Independence Day to While You Were Sleeping and The Equalizer.
The Ballad of Left Brown opens Friday in Chicago at the AMC River East 21. Please enjoy my talk with Bill Pullman and Jared Moshe…
I first saw this at the SXSW Film Festival [in March 2017], and then again more recently just to refresh my memory. Was that an important thing to have it premiere in Texas?
Jared Moshe: It’s a Western. Where else would you want it to premiere but the West, right? It’s where you want to walk outside and be in the land where this all happened.
When I saw the film, I immediately picked up on the fact that Lefty is like Walter Brennan becoming the lead of a movie, which never, ever happened. Was that the idea, what happens when the sidekick suddenly becomes the one seeking justice?
JM: Yeah, that was what inspired it. I loved those old John Wayne Westerns where you had Walter Brennan, this character who other characters make fun of, the audience laughs at, and can’t really seem to do anything right. Yet, there’s always like a point in those movies where John Wayne goes out, and Walter Brennan is left with their supplies. He is the last line of defense. In Rio Bravo, he’s the dude that’s got their back in case everything goes wrong. I was really interested in that dichotomy. How do you have this person who we all think is a joke, but John Wayne relies on in this very intimate, very powerful way? And I wanted to try to tell that person’s story.
And it immediately makes you think there’s something in their history that makes John Wayne think this is a good idea. This is the only good idea in this scenario. That’s as much a backstory that you get on that guy, but at the same time, if you get John Wayne’s stamp of approval, what else do you need? Bill, you’ve done a few things where you’ve been on a horse before, but not anything like this character. Getting the script, what do you remember latching onto and responding to about Lefty?
Bill Pullman: Well, the fact that this was the guy who was, at this stage of his game at 63, really having to have a birth, almost, and be born into the world as a man.
I’ve heard it called a coming-of-age story, which makes perfect sense.
JM: A coming-of-age Western.
BP: Yeah, I think always there’s the third wheel. There’s a guy and a girl, then there’s the third wheel. In some ways, he is the third wheel that [Kathy Baker’s character] has tolerated somewhat, but Johnson [played by Peter Fonda] really wanted him along, and I think that whole thing of being kind of open and candid, like he is, he must have liked that part of him. In terms of companionship, this was somebody who always could give some advice and be able to amplify things for him. I’ve seen those kinds of relationships in life, but I hadn’t seen many on film. So I thought, here’s a really good chance to explore new territory.
You’re almost unrecognizable in this thing. Not just because of the beard, but your posture is wrecked, your voice is completely different. Tell me about working on that. How long did you work on the physical appearance?
BP: I was desperate to find somebody in real life that had a limp. I was in an airport, and I saw this woman who ended up being a Vietnamese woman who was in her 60s, and she had a limp, and I just thought “This is too good; I’m going to follow her to the bathroom and video her from behind while she’s not looking at me.”
You might not want to put that out there, by the way.
BP: Well, then she came out and sat down, then I came forward to her, and said, “This is really going to be a strange thing to hear, but I appreciate your condition and I need to know more about what kind of damage happens to somebody that makes them walk this way.” She was a little bit not wanting to talk to me, and fortunately her daughter was with her, with her husband, and they said, “Oh, you’re Bill Pullman going up to my mother in this airport to have a conversation with her.” So that was really interesting.
Then there’s a guy in Montana—we have this ranch together, my brother and I—and there’s this small town nearby, and the guy who runs a restaurant has a limp. So he really became that thing that I really observed. You can just sit in his restaurant and watch him move around, because he’s making sandwiches, coming around the counter, serving, getting up from chairs—that whole thing about what that does to somebody. So that was the start of the physicality of it.
Lefty clearly has never even considered a life outside of the one he has with the Peter Fonda character, and he just seems incredibly lost in the beginning of the film, until he assigns himself this mission. But it looked like there was going to be some issue with his life on the ranch either way that he might not have even been aware of. His life was going to change even before Johnson is killed.
BP: Good point, Steve.
JM: He always felt like, even if his life was going to change, he always had this person who was going to have his back. “I’m not me. I’m just Johnson’s guy.” Even if he’s taking over the ranch, or he feels like he’s taking over the ranch, for him it’s just like “I’m going to do what Eddie does. I’m just an extension of him.” Suddenly that backdrop, that safety net is gone. So being thrust out of the shadows suddenly, he has to make hard decisions on his own, and that’s what makes this so difficult for him. I think as a sidekick, it’s an easier life because you don’t have to make any of the tough decisions, you don’t have to hang people, you don’t have to have responsibility when things are going badly because someone else is taking that, and this is the first time Lefty has to have responsibility.
Weirdly enough, I had just seen this documentary recently about blues sidemen—not the headliners, but all the guys who have been in the band for 20-30 years. And you think that if the lead singer dies, they can just go on to another band. But the attitude in the music world is “If he’s dead you’re dead. That’s it, you’re done.” That really reminds me of this guy. That’s how he sees himself even. “If he’s dead, what am I?”
JM: I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting. Yeah, it is that same relationship. Very much so.
BP: That picture of the four of them, that myth of what they all came through together, and it seemed so monumental, and yet it really gets shattered entirely in the course of the story. His faith in it, his understanding of it, shifts entirely.
When we talk about Westerns, we often discuss moral codes. This film is also about all of those codes being betrayed by these other people. Money and power come in and corrupt everything, and Lefty is the one guy who knows one way and he’s never been tempted by these other things. Talk about that aspect of it.
JM: I think for Lefty it very much is a way of life. We all live in the stories we tell ourselves, and I think Lefty lived this story of who they were so much that even as everything falls apart and he realizes people who he thought would always have his back aren’t going to have his back, he refuses to let go of the ideal of what that could be. He’s going to be the person that they couldn’t be, and really at the end of the movie, he is still that guy. He’s the hero, but he’s the only one that holds on to the ideology, the myth, which is one of the things we’re trying to do on a meta level with this movie is say, we had the Western, then we had the revisionist Western, which said Westerns are awful, throw them out. I think what we’re trying to do with this movie is say “Yeah, there’s a lot of awfulness in this world, but there’s also something very personal and very important and very human, and you can look at the awfulness and still see what the good is in it.”
I will admit my parting thought of the movie is I wanted to look one year ahead and see if somebody does a comic book about Lucky finally. Speaking of comic books, there aren’t that many Westerns made anymore. But when people write about Logan or Guardians of the Galaxy, they call them Space Westerns.
JM: Logan literally has Shane in it.
When they compare them to Westerns, they do them so favorably. So why is it so hard to get a Western made in this day and age?
JM: Because if you talk to anyone in Hollywood, they say Westerns don’t sell over seas, nobody wants to see them, there’s no audience, they’re too expensive. I think it’s something that people do want to see. I think “Western” is the only genre that Walmart is like, “Yes, I want this movie. I don’t care who’s in it. I want it.” You go into Montana, and you go to those little gas stations that still sell DVDs, and they have the “Blockbuster” section and they have the “Western” section. There’s a huge demand for this, a hunger for this. I think it has to be something that’s done for the right budget, and I think Hollywood is just scared of it. There’s also Firefly, you know that Joss Whedon show?
JM: I heard the story, he originally pitched it as a Western, and it got passed everywhere. Then he said “It’s a Space Western,” and he turned it around. But if you watch that show, it’s literally after the Civil War, a bunch of guys who refuse to surrender. That’s what it is, except it’s space. I think the opening credits have cowboys on horses in them. The second you say the genre, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
I saw your film Walking Out at Sundance this year. It was so good. I hope people get to see it. You shot both of these in Montana, right? You mentioned you had a ranch there. Was that a selling point or just a bonus that you got to make them there?
BP: Walking Out was made a good year before, and I had done two movies in Montana before that. Cold Feet, which is a movie we shot in Paradise Valley with Tom Waits and Keith Carradine. Then I did Bright Angel, which was an adaptation of Richard Ford short stories, in Billings. Then for a while, not a lot of movies made in Montana, but Walking Out was made by the Smith brothers [Alex and Andrew], the twins, and their mom and father were a big part of what movies are in Montana, so that was like they needed a guy to take that part at some level of recognition. I’d only worked a couple of days, but it looks like I was there for a long time because I keep coming back and keep coming back. But this one was, when we first talked, it was New Mexico. What was the journey on that?
JM: So, it was New Mexico originally, because that’s where I shot Dead Man’s Burden, and I love the New Mexico landscape. But I had two reservations about New Mexico after thinking about it for a while. One, I feel like the sets were played out there a little bit. I don’t remember what it was, but I saw some Western and I was like “I totally recognize these towns,” and they had been from like four other Westerns and I felt like I’d seen them all a billion times. And second, the drought had made New Mexico, which is cattle country and was good cattle country at one point look like not very good cattle country. So it opened my mind to some other options.
I ended up meeting the Montana Film Commissioner at an event randomly, and at the time, they were really looking for some movies. He offered to fly me out to Montana. I was in a bar watching their video, they had a little reel going, and I was like, “This is actually really beautiful, and it looks like what’s in my head,” but I’d never heard of anything shooting in Montana. So I went and looked and I fell in love with the town of Bannack, which is the town in the movie and had never been filmed before. For me, you see something that has never been filmed before and I’m just like, “This is amazing.”
So Montana was in the back of my head. I was nervous because they couldn’t find a ranch house for me to save my life. We started to look at some other places—Calgary, Colorado submitted some stuff, but Montana stuck with me. So I brought my producers back out, and we said, “Okay, Montana, can you find this ranch house for us?” And they flew us back out, and they did; they took us to this ranch. I called Bill and I was like, “I think it’s going to be Montana. I found this ranch.” And he’s like, “Where is it?” “Somewhere in the Western side of the state. It’s not near Bannack, but it’s not that far from Bannack.”
BP: You said, “It begins with a W.” I said, “Is it Whitefall? That’s our town. That’s 11 miles from our ranch.”
JM: Yeah, he was the closest person to set. And you think I would have planned it for him, but no. I can’t take credit for that.
I want to ask you about this Dick Cheney film that you’re doing [Backseat, written and directed by Adam McKay, starring Christian Bale]. I know you’re playing Nelson Rockefeller, but I don’t know the connection between the two. Have you shot that already?
BP: I shot one day on it. We’re shooting again in November. Cheney came from Wyoming, and in the ’70s, that was the time when the Republican party had Rockefeller Republicans. So for Cheney and Rumsfeld, they wanted to take the party on a hard right turn, and Rockefeller’s in the way. So the middle part of the movie is the pivot.
So you’re our hero?
BP: Yeah, he takes a bullet.
JM: He’s a tragic figure.
BP: The tragic figure, yeah. Because he was pro-environment, pro-education, pro all this stuff, and there were a lot of dirty tricks.
Thank you so much. It was really great to talk.
JM: Thank you so much. Good questions.
BP: Yeah, good perspective. Thanks for that.