Veteran actor Bill Pullman is having a big weekend at the annual South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Not only is he winning rave notices for his starring turn in the western The Ballad Of Lefty Brown which had its World Premiere last night (“Bill Pullman is riding tall, ranks with career best,” said Variety), but he also has a supporting role in the hunting drama Walking Out, a Sundance premiere also screening at SXSW today and the rest of the week.
Last week before heading out to Texas, Pullman told me that the film is about to be bought by a distributor, while Lefty Brown is looking to get buyer action out of its successful premiere last night. Having previewed the film in Los Angeles ahead of its SXSW debut, I can say The Ballad Of Lefty Brown is an enormously entertaining throwback to when westerns were westerns, and Pullman’s fine character turn as a sidekick, out to avenge the death of the Wild West legend (Peter Fonda) he rode with, is as good as it gets.
Pullman describes the character as a guy who was eclipsed by the legendary cowboy and was kind of like a kept man who always had somebody watching out for him. But now he’s on his own for the first time in his life and must rise – and ride – to the occasion despite doubts everyone, even himself, has about him in these dire circumstances. “It is kind of a coming of age movie for a man in his 60s,” laughed Pullman about the role, reminiscent of the kind of standard western sidekicks often played by the likes of Walter Brennan, Gabby Hayes and my personal favorite Andy Devine.
“You need to galvanize everything you are, and your whole identity is now at stake and no one believes in you,” he says. “You want to do this more than anything else at whatever the cost. I think westerns are always so great for clearing out the clutter and the ambiguities, and getting right to the broad strokes of that kind of situation.”
Although never completely out of the picture, westerns, particularly those in the mold of classic oaters like this one, seem to have been replaced in large part by science fiction movies, Pullman thinks. Certainly the current Wolverine smash Logan has been compared to western classics like Shane and Unforgiven even though it is set in 2029. Star Wars is pretty much a space western. It’s nice to see the real thing come along every once in a while.
“It’s such an urban culture now and gadgets are a big part of everyone’s life so science fiction went right to the center of it all,” says Pullman. “It’s amazing to me that they (westerns) live as strongly as they do, this genre. I noticed that in The Revenant, as much as it is a good story of revenge and endurance, there are times that you get to escape with a story like that. This closed-in urban existence gets thrown away and you are in the natural world again. Maybe that has kept them alive.”
Certainly Lefty Brown director Jared Moshe has an affinity for the genre, having also directed 2012’s Dead Man’s Burden. Clearly there are influences like John Ford’s The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo but it works on its own terms with a compelling story that feels new in an old sense. From my point of view seeing this veteran actor in this kind of role sort of reminded me of watching Lee Marvin go to town (and an Oscar by the way ) in Cat Ballou, although this is far more dramatic. Pullman thinks it helps to have passion for these kinds of projects.
He has dabbled in it himself as star and director of the 200o TV movie The Virginian, as well as playing Ed Masterson in Wyatt Earp in 1994.
Horses have been a big part of his own life on the Montana ranch he has had for the past 25 years. In fact, Montana is exactly where he got to film Lefty Brown, as well as Walking Out. He still can’t believe that kind of luck. “It was surreal like a dream that (Lefty Brown) ended up here. For the first half of the shoot I was staying at my place and I was the closest member of the cast or crew. I was twenty minutes away, ” he said.
Pullman feels that this film is sort of full circle for him since he first went to Montana forty years ago to be part of a theatre company doing Shakespeare. He even got a job teaching in Boseman for a couple of years before heading to New York City and the screen career that started exactly 30 years ago with roles in Ruthless People, Spaceballs, The Accidental Tourist, Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping among others.
Pullman has never before been to SXSW but is glad to see his movies here, particularly one where he is a title character. He describes the movie as a “perfect storm” for him and the life this 63 year old actor leads on and off the screen.”I am doing a story about an old codger, and most of the people I know in Montana are old codgers so I even roped some of them into being extras,” he laughed.