When I told people I wanted to make an ultra low budget western I was usually met with a cocked eyebrow and a look of incredulity. Did I know how much movie horses cost? And period clothing, isn't that expensive? I did know, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. Just because a film is low budget doesn't mean it needs to be small in scope."Dead Man's Burden" is a western set on the New Mexico frontier five years after the Civil War. It's the story of a veteran who sacrificed his family to fight for what he believed in, and a young woman, strong and empowered, willing to do whatever necessary to survive in a harsh, unforgiving land. The film explores the difficulty of seeing past dogma and differing ideology, and the cost of not being able to do so. More, it asks us to consider the wounds caused by the Civil War, wounds that I think still exist today. Again, Low budget doesn't mean small.
There were three major decisions I made that I think were instrumental in putting this film together for a price. First I knew the script needed to be written carefully. So I set out a list of rules that limited locations, cast members, extras, and horses. But I also crafted a story that made use of those limitations. Martha (Clare Bowen) is a character who has been emotionally traumatized by the isolation of her world, living on a lonely homestead a three day ride from the nearest town. The empty desert would become a character in its own right. Making the hard decisions in writing the script meant never having to sacrifice my vision while shooting the movie.
Second, in terms of crew, I wanted people who had experience working on period films, who understood what went into making something feel authentic. So my producer Veronica Nickel and I went after seconds (ie. people in junior positions) on Hollywood productions. People who worked as costumers or art directors, who would see "Dead Man's Burden" as an opportunity to show what they could do at the head of a department.
Third, I attached my cast and crew as early as I could. It was May and we were aiming to shoot in the fall. If I had brought on my team in September as is customary, I'd probably have had three weeks before the shoot. If I could get my keys and my leads by the end of June, I'd have three months to work with them before the first day of prep. So all summer long I had long conversations with my cast, answering their questions, sharing research and building trust so that by the time everyone arrived in New Mexico we all knew the characters intimately. The added benefit of bringing everyone on board so early was that the film became a true collaboration. Courtney Hoffman, my costume designer, would think of a costume idea, which would help influence Barlow Jacobs performance as Wade. Or Clare Bowen and I would discuss Martha's motivations and Ruth De Jong would then find a way to incorporate those ideas into the production design.
When you watch this clip I hope you can see the hard work we put into making this film a true Western. Take notice of the textures in the clothes, the weight of the dirt on their hands and face, and the rough grain of the 35mm film capturing Wade as he arrives at a homestead only to be told his entire family is dead. But he doesn't realize that inside the house, his sister Martha waits with a loaded rifle.