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Interview by: John McEntire

At the Little Rock Film Festival earlier this summer, THE OA had the pleasure of meeting the creative powers behind an ambitious independent Western, ARKANSAS TRAVELER. The blend of Hollywood-caliber talent with DIY attitude caught our attention, and after a lively conversation about Civil War reenactors, jumping out of helicopters, and the misadventures of bored actors, we decided this was a film we had to see—even if it was just a trailer.  

Best known for his role as Johnny Burns in HBO's DEADWOOD, Sean Bridgers has patiently nurtured the ARKANSAS TRAVELER script for nearly a decade between acting gigs. Producer and director of the film, Bridgers teamed up with the enigmatically named Ffish (known to his mother as Michael Hemshoot), who worked special effects on blockbusters such as THE MATRIX, and set out to assemble an equally skilled and passionate crew who could help bring his well-aged brainchild off the nightstand and to the public—and do it right.  

Shane Seley and Ed Leydecker of Wide Awake Films, who had filmed documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, and PBS, rounded out the production team and the ARKANSAS TRAVELER project slowly began to take shape. Ten minutes at a time.  

We aimed to discover what the hype was about, especially since the title referenced Arkansas, and were disappointed only by the fact that our greedy eyes couldn't see the entire movie. Whether gunning down cowboy campfires in the dead of night, or getting reacquainted with tavern women, the lead actor and staff favorite, Garret Dillahunt, had us cheering.


THE OXFORD AMERICAN: When did the idea for ARKANSAS TRAVELER begin and how did it progress? 

SEAN BRIDGERS: The genesis of ARKANSAS TRAVELER probably happened when I was a young boy spending summers with my grandparents in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and hearing stories about the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Nations of the nineteenth century. I remember looking out the window of my grandfather's truck and imagining Belle Starr or Stand Watie on horseback, pursued or pursuing over the sloping open hills and through the stubborn scrub oak of Eastern Oklahoma.

I grew up interested in history, and as a kid I always loved those movies that took you to another time. I had this image of a Confederate in a prison camp and he had this character talking to him. The first real draft had a lot of metaphysical elements and highlighted the idea that he hallucinated and he didn't know what was reality. I used that as a jumping-off point, because it was open—anything could happen.

Once I started working with Ffish, we started simplifying it, trying to make it as clean and clear as possible. It's gone through a lot of manifestations. And that will continue even when we shoot it to a certain extent.

That's part of the whole process I enjoy. There is the script you write, and the script you shoot, and the script you edit. All the people involved are storytellers, and working with the right people, it's sort of a liberating experience. Everyone is giving their input and you're getting ideas from people. And that constantly happens.

Arkansas Traveler FilmmakersED LEYDECKER: Shane and I met Sean seven or eight years ago and he mentioned the ARKANSAS TRAVELER script to us. He was familiar with our prior Civil War–documentary work and liked the fact that we are really focused on the historical accuracy of the time and culture. Sean felt it was important to incorporate these techniques in his film. We got a great feeling from Sean's enthusiasm and desire to get this film produced. Earlier this year, we decided the time was right to produce the trailer to actually show people the look and feel of the film.

THE OA: What are your different creative influences?

EL: Our various backgrounds provide us with a unique perspective on filmmaking. Sean has an acting and writing background, Ffish has worked on the special effects side of the business, and Shane has stayed on the cutting edge of digital technology.

FFISH [MICHAEL HEMSHOOT]: While attending CalArts in the early '90s, I was exposed to a diverse range of art forms, from Paint Enema Installations to Balinese Monkey Chant ceremonies, and was greatly influenced by all of it. I am most inspired as a painter by the works of the early-twentieth-century Mexican muralists.

As a filmmaker and moviegoer, I'm inspired by the films of the Golden Age of American cinema: the '60s and '70s. Filmmakers like Hal Ashby, John Sayles, Sam Peckinpaw, George Roy Hill, Walter Hill, to name a few, are the foundation of my film sensibilities, which is then built upon by a slew of more recent filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón, Lars Von Trier, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Walter Salles.

Some of the artistic influences we've established specifically for ARKANSAS TRAVELER are daguerreotype and wet-plate photography—nineteenth century to modern—and the painters Albert Bierstadt, Andrew Wyeth, and Thomas Cole.

SB: My favorite writer still probably is Mark Twain. I loved him as a kid and still do. I will say this: I started acting because I saw Robert Duvall in TENDER MERCIES when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. I didn't know who Robert Duvall was. I was living in Tennessee at the time, and I went with some friends. So we go and the first scene in that movie is shot in this abstract, strange way inside of a hotel room. You don't really see the two people involved. My friends were like, "What the hell is this?" And I was like, "Yeah, what the hell is this? This is awesome!" My friends ended up leaving. They were bored, while I thought it was unbelievable. I hadn't seen a movie like that. I was really taken with it.

As a result of being such a fan of Duvall's work in that film, I started watching everything by Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay. Those are two of my biggest influences, Robert Duvall and Horton Foote, creatively.

THE OA: What were some of the more memorable experiences you had filming the teaser trailer?

SS: We had a great cast and crew who helped continue Wide Awake Films' set atmosphere. We try to create a vibe that's purposeful but laid-back. It is also very egalitarian. Egos are checked at the door. Sean and Ffish subscribe to the same philosophy. That's why we all gel so well. 

EL: For me, it was when Garret Dillahunt and Angela Bettis said it was one of the best and most memorable shoots they had experienced. They really complimented our crew and the way everyone worked so well together. They felt it was amazing that no one argued on set and that everyone was so comfortable to work with. When actors and production crew work well together, you can really create some magic! 

THE OA: Since Wide Awake Films specializes in documentary films, how did you make the transition to fiction with ARKANSAS TRAVELER?

EL: Our work around re-enactors, horses, and loud explosions prepared us for this type of filmmaking. Working in intense weather and terrain conditions over the years prepared us for the long days of filming needed to complete the trailer.

SS: It was a bit daunting until we got into the filming, then things fell into place and it seemed like old hat. The biggest difference I see is that for documentaries you shoot for three to five second clips—narrative require much longer takes. That's why your actors are so critical.

Arkansas Traveler FilmmakersTHE OA: Ffish, having worked with special effects on large budget and influential films, what is it like going from Hollywood to independent film? 

FFISH: In my experience, the obvious difference between big-budget films and independents is the amount of production resources at your disposal. On big films, these resources are abundant, but on small projects, they are precious and sometimes nonexistent. From an experiential perspective, big projects are much more of a machine that functions best when every cog is in its place at the right time, and every role is filled with a professional who knows their specific task very well.

In the independent world, I've experienced much more multitasking, somewhat purer forms of collaboration, and a mix of talent that can sometimes range from phenomenal to not-so-great. Both worlds have their pros and cons, but to me what it all boils down to is making movies. In our own production process, we try to utilize the experience we've gained on Hollywood film sets, and blend its strengths in procedure and organization with the creative and collaborative benefits of being independent.

THE OA: The distinct visual aesthetic is immediately noticeable in the trailer. How did you come up with the idea for the visual style of ARKANSAS TRAVELER?

FFISH: The visual aspect started when Sean and I began our collaboration, bringing both of our perspectives to his story, and recognizing the opportunity to use the emerging digital technologies I had been dealing with daily, to tell that story in a different way. When we first began talking about this, it was around the time O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? came out, which in my eyes really pioneered the use of digital color manipulation as a storytelling device. Sean and I were dreaming about a visual style that would be digitally enhanced, but based on traditional features we grew up seeing in our favorite Westerns and Civil War photography.

THE OA: Sean, will your work as an actor, specifically your role on HBO's DEADWOOD, affect your vision or plan for ARKANSAS TRAVELER?

SB: One of the great experiences working with David Milch, the creator and writer of DEADWOOD, is that it's all very organic. He's watching what you are doing as an actor and you inform him to a certain degree with what he wants to do and where the story will go. There are plot points you have to hit—you know Wild Bill gets killed and all that—but in terms of the characters, it has to be alive with the actors. You never had to worry as an actor about your character doing something that didn't seem emotionally true, because everything he wrote for you was based on either behavior he had seen from you as the actor in the character or sometimes just behavior he had seen from you while telling a story at lunch. He uses everything

David and I once had a very brief conversation about being thrown in jail. Something we both experienced, and he said to me "just remember its all research." And I kind of kept that. You know, it is all research.

Still from the movie Arkansas TravelerTHE OA: What audience are you aiming for with this project?

SB: Our idea is to make a kickass Western. We hope that the more literary crowd gets a lot out of it, but at the same time I just want to reach people I grew up with, or my grandfather, who is no longer with us. He was a farmer from Arkansas, so he's got to dig it, too.

Southerners are really good storytellers. I grew up with great storytellers. People would just sit down and tell you. You're driving in the truck with your uncle and he tells you a story, and you won't have forgotten it thirty-two years later. That is really the key.

THE OA: Good Civil War movies are hard to come by. There are some obvious classics, like GETTYSBURG, GLORY, or THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, but many fall prey to stereotypes and generalizations. How do you think ARKANSAS TRAVELER will stand out?

SS: For one, the material culture—the costumes, the sets, the weapons, the dialogue—is rooted in authenticity. From our experience when you get the history right, things fall into place and good mojo develops for your project.

SB: For me there are different stories I want to tell that are set in different times in history, and part of that is just visually, I think that they are interesting. This story could be set in the Peloponnesian War or it could be guys coming back from Iraq, but we set it in the Civil War because I think that is the great trauma of American history. If you think of the American Revolution as the birth of a nation, then the Civil War is the great trauma of the nation's adolescence, which shapes you, and it shaped who we are, in most ways for the better.

There is nothing more brutal than a civil war. What we're dealing with is a man who's been living and existing, as well as millions of other people, in what has to be considered a living hell. To survive, he has reverted to his darker nature. That's something that happens during war. That was true in Vietnam, that's true in all wars. That's what's so horrible about it. It's not like monsters commit these atrocities. It's very normal men like you and me that become monsters, and then they bring that home. How do you shut that off? You have to become another person. Some people can and a lot of people can't. Even though he is physically back, the more interesting story is how he gets his soul back.

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