What inspired you come up with the idea for the film?
It was a rather unusual process. It started with me and Josh Riedford, my best friend who I’ve known since high school in Indiana, deciding to take the plunge and start an independent production company called Mr. Pictures. Our aim was to make responsibly-budgeted, character-driven genre films with our core team of up-and-coming creative folks. I would write and direct, and Josh would produce. But we still didn’t know what our first film would be.
In an effort to get things going quickly, we went to a script I had written several years before called “The Bad Lands,” wherein a group of friends go backpacking in the Badlands, only to be stalked by nefarious characters from a nearby town. It was based on something that really happened to me and Josh when we went backpacking in the Badlands the year prior. The script was exciting, thrilling, action-packed, and chock-full of interesting characters. It was “Deliverance” by way of Flannery O’Connor.
It was also VERY expensive. So I set out to retrofit the script into something within the budget we were going to have. This proved to be a terrible way to rewrite a script. Sure, scripts are commonly rewritten for budgetary considerations, but this was a massive overhaul. I persisted far longer than I should’ve — the idea of writing a completely new script while working full-time put my stomach in knots.
But once I finally realized I’d have to start a brand-new script, I embraced the blank page and had a wonderful time writing it. Little by little, on lunch breaks and after work and on the weekends, the script came together rather easily over about two months.
Why did you want to tell this story?
Josh and I started from a very basic place. This would be our first movie, so it should be very “us.” I had just been his best man, so we used that as a starting point for the bachelor party premise. We had also recently done the Kentucky Bourbon Trail together, and that seemed like a fun world to play in. We love camping and the outdoors, so why not film outside instead of on a stuffy stage? Finally, all this led to the practicality of filming around our hometown in Indiana — not only was the film set in that region, but we could use our familiarity with the area to save time and money. We were also hoping some friends and family would be excited and help out in some way. The evidence of people’s generosity is on display in our end credits’ “Thanks” section — the list is almost as long as the movie itself.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
In Orwell’s “1984,” when Winston is asked if the past exists concretely, if the past is still happening somewhere in space, he is forced to admit that it only exists in our memories. I am constantly fighting my impulse of longing for the good ol’ days, and the characters in “Bullitt County” are all grappling with their pasts in some form or another. It’s easy to look back on our lives with rose-colored glasses. One of the greatest struggles we deal with as humans is the impossibility of returning to the past and reliving our memories — our history is at once completely real with real consequences and repercussions and also completely non-existent.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
This is actually one of my favorite things that happened on the movie. During pre-production, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to logistically film at the bourbon distilleries called for in the script. The premise of “Bullitt County” is friends going on the Bluegrass Bourbon Trail to visit their favorite distilleries, so this became a fundamental problem. But then I realized that, thematically, it was PERFECT that we wouldn’t film in any distilleries. One of the ideas explored in the movie is that you can’t repeat the past, so I came up with the idea that they would try to revisit their old haunts, only to discover that the distilleries had been converted to wineries. This spiced up the story with a bit of humor while pushing our theme even further.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during production?
I think the most courageous decision was made by the entire cast and crew when they decided to take a chance on me and Josh. We certainly weren’t flush with cash, and we were asking many of them to come to Indiana for a month to shoot the movie. The odds are always against a movie turning out well, especially a low-budget indie, and it’s a testament to the talent and hard work of a remarkably small cast and crew that “Bullitt County” turned out so well.
Where there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
Most of our risks were logistics-related. Every single scene was shot on location, everywhere from deep woods to a secluded rural farmhouse to various small-town bars and restaurants. Anytime you’re coordinating an entire film crew to travel to obscure locations, you’re going to have a lot of risk involved — people getting lost, drivers getting tired after long night shoots, etc. It’s a testament especially to producer Josh Riedford, who meticulously coordinated everything so that people stayed safe and healthy and happy throughout the shoot.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
The story itself primarily dictated the visual style. The movie is set in the autumn of 1977, so we embraced earthy browns, oranges, yellows, and reds. Bourbon also evokes amber and oak, so it fit in nicely with our color palette. We used striking reds to cut through our earthy palette as a way to infuse the visuals with a sense of danger and aggression, and most of all, we crammed as many X’s into the frame as possible to signal death and impending doom (a concept used in all sorts of films, from the original “Scarface” to “The Departed”). Beyond that, we really looked to the cinematography of Roger Deakins, especially films like “No Country for Old Men,” “Prisoners,” and most notably “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
What risks did you take to tell your story?
When we secured funding, I had to make the difficult decision to quit a job I really enjoyed. But it’s not every day you get the opportunity to direct a film you’ve written, so I had to give up working with a remarkable group of people day-to-day — as well as a steady income — to make the movie. It’s a stressful and terrifying thing, watching your bank account drain as you put in countless hours, hoping the movie turns out well. But if the gamble pays off — and it did in the case of “Bullitt County” — it’s the most rewarding experience imaginable.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
Outlast EVERYONE. When people are ready to give up because things are too hard or not going your way or looking bleak, dig your heels in and weather the storm. As John Hammond said in “Jurassic Park”: “Creation is an act of sheer will.”
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