Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations to you both on the recent premiere of your film, Painted Woman, at the Bentonville Film Festival! What can you tell us about the premise of the film?
Laurel Harris: Thank you so much. It was a terrific project to be a part of and, in short, as James says so adequately, it’s a Western like you’ve not seen before! I’ll let him elaborate…
James Cotten: Thank you. We had an awesome week in Bentonville - definitely the perfect place to launch the film. Couldn’t ask for more. Painted Woman fits the BFF mission of diversity and women in film, since we are a western told from the female character’s point of view. And we really tried to tell a story about empowerment with a diverse group of characters, something I think the western genre is made for.
Plus, Bentonville is down the road from my producing partner Amber Lindley and Executive Producer Kari Whisenhunt and about an hour from my hometown. Looking out and seeing my mom and dad from our diversity panel after the screening was pretty special. This was really a perfect storm of opportunity, and we made the most of it.
Once they offered us a spotlight position, we had to race to make the deadline. We finished VFX, sound, color, and mastering in less than four weeks. But all of that was worth it to see the response and to know that the film had something powerful to say, even in a festival full of powerful messages.
Painted Woman is the story of Julie Richards. Julie has lived a tortured childhood, been passed from hand to hand, and had every choice taken from her… to the point where even a terrible life of abuse seems a step up from where she’s been. Through the film we watch two chapters of her life and two men who might offer her a way out.
BD: James, as the film’s writer and director, what inspired you to tell this story?
JC: When I was first approached, Chasing Sunsets was doing an adaption of a novel by Dusty Richards called Mustanger and the Lady. It was pretty classic western: John Wayne style. While reading, the character I was most interested in was Julie, with her mysterious past that was barely explored but informed by the person she was written to be. I wanted to tell her story. I didn’t think there was anything like it out there. The producers bought into that concept, to tell Julie’s story, a female-driven western. But then came the hard part. A western on a budget is difficult… so Amber really allowed me to take this on as an experiment in storytelling and filmmaking. To tell something differently than how it was normally told. To allow the story to inform how we made it. Give it production value. To give it something for the tried-and-true western fans and something for the art house film lovers.
I was all in. And they let me be a producer on the film, as well.
I’m going to nerd out on you. The story is told in two chapters, each with three acts. The two chapters mirror each other but are completely separate stories… shot differently, with different musical scores, and there are still three acts overall. The title is a mirrored title… coming from the Apache myth of the first woman, the White Painted Woman, or changing woman, who passes her knowledge, goodness, and wisdom to all the girls of the tribe as they ascend into womanhood. It also plays into Julie’s time in the whorehouse, where she was a painted lady.
Look, I know that most of this stuff, audiences won’t pick up on, but I believe they feel it, that there is so much going on than what’s on the surface. And if Bentonville is an indicator, I think the experiment is a success. That’s something I’m very excited about.
Once I started writing, I have to say the thing that impacted me the most was tackling a story of abuse. Taking on an issue that affects so many people, all of us really. That’s worth doing. There are many different levels of abuse people are going through, and I truly hope that if someone is going through it, sees themselves in Julie… however they do. I hope they see the message of getting out. Becoming empowered. Finding yourself.
For those of us lucky enough to live free of that… I hope you’ll see how it happens, why the abused can’t get out. People need to know that it is up to all of us to watch for signs of it, to offer others hope, help them understand that we all have choices and reach out a hand to help rather than hurt.
That’s the most important thing a film can do. Inspire.
BD: Laurel, as a cast member, what can you tell us about your experience in taking on the project, as well as working through production?
LH: I played Ellie Anderson, a real spitfire of a woman and a character that doesn’t come around often enough in my opinion. What I most loved about Ellie was her rock-solid strength, deeply rooted in the complete confidence of who she is and her role in life. She never questions her position as a woman in a man’s world of the late 1800s. She just knows who she is and wears it proudly. That’s honest power.
With that said, she’s more unique in that she isn’t out to prove her worth to men, or do battle with anyone to make her stance known. She just "is" this bright, futuristic glimpse of equality at its very best, in a time when it wasn’t the norm, or even accepted by many of either sex. Whether it’s a western, or modern sci-fi, any chance to bring more women like that to life is golden.
As far as production and post, James did an amazing job juggling so many challenges at once and executing an absolutely beautiful result in very little time. From deciding on the final story concept, to re-writes, to pulling off a WESTERN in a brief time frame, not to mention the tight turn around in post, he was under more duress than most of us ever knew because he was so cool through it all. As an actor, that’s invaluable. On set, he gave us room to play and bring these characters to life, and yet also challenged us with new ideas as we exchanged performances so we fit the overall direction of the film.
BD: You have quite a talented cast and crew working on the production. What can you tell us about their creative process in bringing the film to life?
JC: One thing I can tell you about my job… it never gets boring. Truly, all of these people are very talented, dedicated professionals, who have different styles and talents they bring to the table. It’s fun to bring them all to the same page and watch magic happen.. All the actors were amazing. It’s difficult to jump into a period piece or something wildly different than what you normally play. Matt Dallas came to work ready to be Frank Dean, a Kentucky Doc Holliday. That’s a far cry from Kyle XY or his other roles. He was fantastic. I have to give a huge shout out to Sam Calvin, the director of photography. He truly bit into what it was that I was going for, and it looks amazing because of his talents. We really had to work extra hard to pull off such a beautiful movie in 14 days. All of the keys were amazing. We went to Oklahoma because it was my home state and it had a rebate. What we got in return was the best crew ever. And another special call out to my friend and composer Corey Allen Jackson. His score is just fantastic. And he totally bled with me to make the deadline. He and my friends at Local Hero Post kept me running on all cylinders, getting all of it done at such a high lever in half the time that we needed. And finally, I could not have done this without my producing partner Amber Lindley. She believed in me. She pushed me. And she never wavered in good times or bad. This film is truly the best of both of us.
BD: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the film?
LH: A new hope, if you will. Perhaps people will look at how genres can be rewritten from lesser heard perspectives, and yet find inspiration and empowerment in current realities, as well.
JC: I hope they will be entertained and glad they spent the money. I hope they will laugh and cry with Julie. And I hope they will keep an eye out for all the Julie’s out there.
BD: As mentioned, Painted Woman was chosen to be a part of the BFF. What can you share with us about this experience and the significance of being chosen?
LH: Being a part of the Bentonville Film Festival was extra special, as it’s a festival highlighting women in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Playing such a strong female character in this film was a treat, but then to be supported with this festival and surrounded by films working to raise the level of women’s roles in the industry was extra encouraging. I’m a Geena Davis fan, so to watch her speak with Meg Ryan and others was really inspiring. Women like myself stand on the shoulders of so many bright and courageous women that have gone before us. I’m always aware of what they’ve done to open doors, and what still needs work. All in all, consciousness about these issues is heightened and it keeps growing. It’s an exciting time.
BD: Do you have plans to take the film to other film festivals in the coming months?
JC: We shall see. Right now, I’m just trying to decompress from the Bentonville deadline. All I truly know is that I think it’s important… it has something to say that people should hear, a number of talented people deserve to have their amazing work showcased, so I hope we can get it out to as many people as possible to see if they agree.
BD: Are the any other upcoming films or projects that you would care to share with our readers?
LH: My writing partner and I are busy crafting more films as we speak – both feature and shorts - and hope to have a short ready to go later this summer. Our focus is creating films by, for, and about women, so their voices and stories can be told more clearly. We’ve confirmed an award winning Director of Photography so far, and I’ll be sharing more great news as soon as I’m able!
JC: Anthony Diecidue and I continue to work on our comic collaboration, GANGSTERLAND. His new pages are rad. Can’t wait for that. And I’ve got a few film projects in the pipeline, so I’ll be sure to let you guys know which is next.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Painted Woman?
JC: Please check us out on all the social media platforms with Painted Woman, or through my company, Dark Highway Films (www.darkhighway.media). We also have a webpage with updates (www.paintedwomanfilm.com).