When his wife is butchered by outlaws, famed gunslinger Colton Briggs (Oscar winner Nicolas Cage) crosses the Wild West for revenge, accompanied by his fearless 12-year-old daughter, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Lynchings, posses, ambushes, and shoot-outs follow in a movie that evokes the heyday of the Western genre some 70 years ago.
The Old Way marks the first Western for Cage, an icon of the offbeat, and it was also an exciting new experience for young Armstrong, who starred in last year’s Firestarter remake as well as Season 10 of American Horror Story. They’re joined by a veteran cast that includes Nick Searcy, Shiloh Fernandez, Clint Howard, Abraham Benrubi, Skyler Stone, and Noah Le Gros as the film’s heartless villain.
For director Brett Donowho, The Old Way was an opportunity to return to the time he spent on a Texas cattle ranch and the hours he spent watching Gunsmoke and Rawhide as a kid. An actor and producer before he began directing, Donowho has worked on studio projects as well as independent features, commercials, and web series.
Above the Line recently spoke with Donowho via Zoom about working with Nicolas Cage, losing nine hours of ambush footage, and why he felt so drawn to the characters in The Old Way.
Above the Line: What’s something fresh or new that The Old Way brings to the Western genre?
Brett Donowho: As a father of three daughters, what I loved about the script [by Carl W. Lucas] is that it shows characters who are on the spectrum. It’s an age-old tale of revenge, but for me, the interesting take is that we’re trying to figure the characters out. That’s the throughline of the movie. I’m a little ADHD myself, that’s why I like these characters. I can relate to them in a very deep way.
ATL: What about Westerns appeals to you?
Donowho: It’s a period where the frontier basically shaped you. Every day, you’re deciding whether you’re going to be a good guy or a bad guy.
ATL: Did you always have Nicolas Cage in mind for the lead role?
Donowho: Honestly, my first thought was, ‘how am I going to find someone to play Brooke?’ because her character is going to make or break the entire movie. The casting director gave me maybe 500 audition tapes, and Ryan was the very last one. It was not an audition, she gave an actual performance. When they came to the set, her father, Dean, said she was completely wiped out from American Horror Story. But she told him, ‘I have to play this character, I am Brooke.’
A producer brought up Cage. I’m a huge fan, and when I learned he had never made a Western, I thought this could be an amazing opportunity. He’s got this iconic look that could translate to the genre. He read it quickly and his response was, ‘You know what? I love the script. Let’s do it.’
ATL: Were you concerned at all about how to direct him, given his style and experience?
Donowho: Do you actually direct Nicolas Cage? He doesn’t need direction, but he is an artist and a collaborator. I grew up as an actor, so we spoke the same language.
The reason he wanted to do the movie is that he thought about Colton the same way I did. He calls him a “mysterious alien.” He’s an anomaly and an enigma.
The big thing I was able to contribute [to] our collaboration was that I wanted to see that narrative arc where Colton found love. At first, Nic was like, ‘Do you think Colton’s really going to go there?’ But to me, that’s the whole point of the story, that both of these characters need to change enough to let the other one in.
ATL: So what was that process of collaboration like with Nic?
Donowho: On the first day, he rolls in, he’s at the wardrobe fitting and says, ‘Brett, let’s talk about this monologue.’ He immediately goes into rehearsal for the scene with his daughter by the campfire.
ATL: That scene between Colton and Brooke is the emotional high point of the movie.
Donowho: Discovering the beats for that scene [and] identifying the turn the character takes, was an amazing experience. Off-book, he says, ‘I’m gonna change this line,’ and then goes back into character and continues. We worked on it for a while and then I got Ryan, who was around the corner, and it became an impromptu rehearsal.
ATL: Can you talk about shooting the actual scene with the two of them? It’s night, they’re sitting by a fire, and Colton reveals everything that haunts him.
Donowho: I wanted to cover it simply and let the actors be at the center. I had six setups, with two wides and two reverses, basically with two sizes.
I started on the wide, which is what I normally do. For me, that’s the rehearsal. Then we kind of fine-tune it [and] discuss it. By that time, I’m into the tights. For this scene, I did the tight and medium shots at the same time on each of them. Not including setup time, we probably shot that in four hours, with two cameras. In general, I do four takes. I don’t want the actor to get out of the moment. When I’m editing, on average, I’d say I use Take 4 [about] 60 percent of the time.
ATL: When you say you fine-tuned it, what were some of your notes?
Donowho: For Ryan, I adjusted her reaction when her transformation takes place. I pushed it a little bit. I really wanted to see the transformation, where her psychosis comes out.
With Nic, we just kind of discussed how emotional to take it. He made the choice to kind of go for it. I loved it. Actually, most of our notes were about how far to push Briggs emotionally. Usually, I would want him to pull back a little bit, but we still needed something there. When he loses his wife, I didn’t want him to be too elevated or saccharin. I wanted him to be stoic, but [to] still break.
What I love about directing is that I get to act through my characters. I’m sitting there behind the camera watching them, and I’m either believing it or I’m not.
ATL: Speaking of Ryan, her character has a scene in a candy shop that really shows that she’s on the spectrum.
Donowho: I accentuated that moment, I think, to the point where I’d have arguments [with] people. You know, [they’d say stuff like], ‘Do you think that scene’s too long?’ And I’m like, ‘I want to see it.’ It’s a moment that establishes that she’s a little off, that she thinks differently. It sets the table for what we’re about to watch.
ATL: There’s also an ambush in a canyon that must have been a nightmare to prepare.
Donowho: I was scouting on the Story ranch, which [is] where a lot of the movie takes place. It’s in Paradise Valley. Nelson Story led a cattle drive there from Texas in 1866 — an inspiration for Lonesome Dove.
When I saw that canyon, I could just see the posse coming around the corner. I sat where the Marshall (Nick Searcy) sits and plotted where to shoot. I used an app to approximate different lenses, mapped out beforehand how the crew would move through the canyon, [and] how to deal with the horses. Most people have no idea of the complications involved. It’s [a] puzzle you have to put together when you’re shooting out of order, or in a large location like that.
As any filmmaker would probably admit, you’re never quite satisfied, especially at the indie level. You’ll always think you could’ve done better. I haven’t told anyone this, but nine hours of footage was lost from that ambush. I won’t say what happened other than there was a grave mistake.
I think there were 94 setups originally. I had a lot more grandiose shots that I lost and I could not get those back. I did have to reshoot the next morning to cover what I lost, but I had to abandon a lot. I just went with simplicity.
ATL: Before I let you go, can you talk about how you collaborated with your cinematographer, Sion Michel?
Donowho: We’ve known each other for probably 18 or 19 years. We met on a film I produced and remained friends. We shot on an Arri Alexa because it’s hard to beat in that space. And we decided to go anamorphic as an homage to old-school Westerns.
Sion was going to shoot Santiago, a sci-fi Western I was prepping at the end of 2020. It’s based on a 1986 novel by Mike Resnick. I was working in China, and then the movie [was] shut down because of Covid. I was evacuated in February. All of our lives were upended. When I got the script for The Old Way, I thought it was funny that Sion and I had been talking about Westerns for a year, and now we get to do a real Western [together].
The Old Way is now available to buy or rent on all major digital/VOD platforms.