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Billed as a “micro Western”, the film — from Shout! Studios and Hideout Pictures — follows Henry (Nelson), a farmer with a deep secret who comes up against a posse of gunslingers at his small, isolated ranch after he takes in an injured man. Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Stephen Dorff and Trace Adkins also star in the feature, screening out of competition on the Lido on Sep. 7.
Ahead of the red carpet premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Nashville-based writer-director Potsy Ponciroli about how Nelson honed his sharp-shooting skills, taking a deep-dive into Western history and conspiracy theories and why Venice audiences will probably just assume he’s a local filmmaker.
Where did Old Henry originate? Have you always been a fan of Westerns?
I didn’t realize I was as big a fan until I started getting into it. I grew up on a Westerns like Young Guns and Tombstone and of course I loved Deadwood the show, but once I started doing this I really did a deep dive into the old Westerns, like McCabe & Mrs Miller, which is fantastic. But this started when we were actually scouting for different projects and came across this house, about 40 minutes outside of Nashville. It’s this little house, which sits down this hill and I just started thinking, “I wouldn’t want to live there, because it’s quiet and scary and dark.” Then I started thinking of the idea that if you’re sitting at home and someone showed up needing your help, so you brought them in and then a couple more people showed up and they’re like, “Hey, that’s the bad guy were the good guys,” so you don’t know who you’re trusting. That kind of spurred me into thinking how you could set this in the West. So it just kind of kept building from there.
Where did you end up shooting?
We were actually supposed to shoot in Oklahoma but three weeks before we couldn’t get the tax incentive letter in time, so we pulled it. Then Shannon [Houchins], my partner, was like, why don’t we just go back to the house? So we did. It was awesome. We built the whole porch area and the hog pen and the horse corral, and really did a lot of work to the house, but it was really nice being there. One thing we didn’t notice at first was that the ceilings in the two rooms up front are maybe six feet tall. Luckily Tim’s not the tallest person. But there were a lot of trick camera angles.
It’s a great performance by Tim Blake Nelson. How did you get him involved?
We got the script draft to Tim, he read it and wanted to do a Zoom call. So we had about an hour-long Zoom call, and he was a great guy. And he asked if I’d be willing to work on his character with him. So even before he signed his contract I think we’d spent about a month on the phone just talking and working.
He’s got a very unique gunslinging style in the film. Where did that come from?
He took a gun home really early and would just sit in his room and play with it. So he came to the shoot knowing how to spin a gun and he would practice loading it every night. We were really mindful about wanting it to be realistic — a lot of shootouts in films are just chaos, with endless bullets. But we wanted to be mindful about how many bullets were in a gun and how much power comes from one pull, because one pull is deadly. Each shot we wanted to keep track of.
That last gunfight with Tim and Stephen Dorff is excellent.
We only actually had an hour and 45 minutes to shoot the whole thing. I’d only written it two days before because we were supposed to end up in a creek, but we tested the water and it had E. coli because there was cattle at the property, so we couldn’t shoot there. So it was a bit of a work in progress!
There’s obviously a very big twist towards the end of Old Henry that draws on historical elements and Western folklore. Was that an idea you had right from the start of writing this?
Actually the original movie I’d written was called Old Dan, who was a just an old farmer and also a badass. But when Shout and Hideout partnered up, the idea was to make a Western based on historical figures. So I went down a huge, huge rabbit hole of conspiracy theories on what happened to certain figures and whether they actually died or not.
Do you think people who know the subject will realize earlier on? Are there clues in the film?
I’m hoping not, but some true, authentic Western fans might get some of it and recognize the names. But I really want you people to get that “Oh my God” feeling when he puts on that belt and hat. And then you know what’s about to come.
Nelson has described the film as a “micro-Western”. What does that mean?
I think it just means it’s down to the basics. It’s good and evil. It’s doesn’t have to be this huge set in a big town with a saloon. It’s just this story of good and evil and it’s on this tiny piece of land, but it’s extremely tough. Living back then was really hard the decision to pull a gun out of its holster was basically you saying: Either I’m gonna die or that person’s gonna die. There weren’t any cops. You couldn’t call for help. You lived and died by the gun — that was the law.
How does it feel to be bringing this film to Venice?
It’s my first Venice experience, so I’m pretty excited. When we saw what category we were in it’s like Ridley Scott and Edgar Wright and I’m thinking, I’m the only one nobody knows about. The only downside is that because of my name they’ll just think I’m some Italian director. Actually one of the trailer reviews said I was an Italian director. I might actually get more work!
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