The sun rises just after 7 a.m. in Monument Valley, Utah and the fog kicked up from last night's thundershowers looks to be holding off long enough for Chili Thom to get his shot: a gunslinger riding off into the glowing yonder amongst the towering sandstone pillars that make Monument one of American cinema's most iconic landscapes.
This is John Wayne country, a standard backdrop for golden-era westerns since Stagecoach was shot here in 1933, and Chili is recapturing some of that dust-coated glory for his final film. Of course, Chili's "horse" is a stuffed animal head on a stick, and the final riding shot is as much Monty Python as it is John Ford, but for the co-creator of B-Grade HorrorFest, making do is an integral part of the process.
"Real horses would have been impossible," Chili says. "It's difficult enough wrangling 26 people and 1,000 miles of motorhoming to film locations none of us have ever seen before."
Chili's latest effort is pure gonzo filmmaking, a script-less improv piece built around meticulously curated costumes, his "usual suspect" cast of friends and family, and a single prop discovered in a Montana thrift store.
"I found this badge that says 'Brothel Inspector,'" Chili says, "so I figured the script would pretty much write itself."
Three hours later, in a dry-creek gulch on the side of Highway 92, more of the plot starts to emerge. Burned out of work and home, a group of prostitutes is on the run with the Dry Twat Gulch gang in hot pursuit. The Brothel Inspector is on the case though, and those prostitutes aren't going to just roll over either. One thing is certain: those lowdown, whore-bothering, cattle-rustling lowlifes had best be on alert.
Chili has pro quality blanks for all five of his guns and multiple outfit changes to movie-magic eight buddies into 24 bad guys. He has stunt falls, explosions and a friend cooking bacon in a motorhome so no one runs out of steam. Still no script...
Independent filmmaking is a couple decades into a form-shattering digital renaissance and, 18 films into it, Chili Thom has crafted his own style and way of doing things. He builds and explains each shot on location, and while the movie may not end up exactly as he plans, Chili will end up with a movie.
"You can make a movie in a weekend," Chili says. "More people should. With a bit of creativity and the support of some good friends who still believe in fun for fun's sake, it's amazing what you can actually pull off."
And while Chili's creative vision sometimes exceeds human practicality on this road-trip western movie, he counters with tenacity, adaptability and a team willing to go the distance. And the Dry Twat Gulch gang never knew what hit 'em.
Halloween week is usually the most important event of the year for Whistler's independent film family. For the past 14 years the freaks have converged for HorrorFest, a Chili co-creation designed to push every envelope and give filmmakers a venue, an audience, and an excuse to get batshit crazy.
There is no HorrorFest this year. Chili has been battling cancer for the past year and we're circling the wagons to support him at his favourite time of the year. His energy levels are low but he can still shoot straight and there's nothing he'd rather be doing this week.
"I always wanted to be a cowboy," Chili says. "This is my last movie so I had to make it happen. It's just being creative for the sake of seeing what you can do. It's about getting the best people you can and figuring out how to make something great out of very little. It's like life, it's a puzzle."
So get out there and make some movies kids. Happy Halloween.
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