Redemption Trail is a contemporary Western primarily set in Sonoma County (but actually shot in Marin). A reclusive vineyard manager, Tess, the daughter of a former Black Panther, lives a simple life “off the grid”, tending to the vines and reliving, in her dreams, the tragedies that mark her past – the murder of her father and the subsequent rage “against the machine” that led to her own incarceration. Riding her horse, Searcher, across the rugged backwoods one day, she discovers a white woman, Anna, sprawled under a tree, half dead from an attempted suicide. This unexpected encounter, and the unlikely alliance that forms as these two survivors find themselves called to heroic action in defense of a vulnerable community of migrant workers, changes the vision each woman has of herself, and of her future.
The screenplay was initially inspired by a newspaper article I read about a man whose momentary inattention, while working at home, led to the drowning of his 5-year-old child. Around the same time, having recently moved to the East Bay from San Francisco, I was thinking about the history of Oakland, and particularly about the Black Panthers. The stories of the individual figures involved in the Black Panther movement – Huey Newton, David Hilliard, Emory Douglas, etc. -- are compelling. Some of the actions taken by these revolutionaries (and those who followed in their footsteps, like the BLA) were radical, and controversial from many standpoints, but these were passionate people fighting for, and willing to die for, the dream of a better world. Taking the tragic fate of Fred Hampton, who was murdered in front of his son by the FBI, as a loose inspiration for the background of the character of Tess, the story evolved from a tale of self-forgiveness into a meditation on surviving. Perhaps all of us have experienced some deep personal loss, a devastating political oppression, or committed some irrevocable, ruinous mistake. The two main characters in Redemption Trail, Anna and Tess, have experienced such a fall – they have looked into the abyss, and rejected the future -- but ultimately, even unconsciously, they give way to the gentle, relentless pull of life.
Mark Bennett, our Casting Director, worked with me on making offers for the lead roles. We were thrilled when Lisagay Hamilton came on board, and shortly thereafter Lily Rabe read the script and signed on. From there, we quickly found Hamish Linklater, and Jake Weber, whom LisaGay Hamilton had known while attending Julliard. The key roles of Ruby and Juliette were written with the actors in mind. Beth Lisick was a friend of a friend. The rest of the local cast, which was substantial in number, was found through auditions held at Berkeley Rep with our local Casting director Amy Potozkin, who guided us in finding just the right people.
We shot for three weeks on location at the Stubbs Vineyard in Marin County and one week in Oakland. Filming at the Vineyard was a great adventure, but extremely challenging. The property is exquisitely beautiful, with its long road of olive trees, wind-swept vistas, massive gnarled live oaks, and with a crew of 20 and cast totally about 40 overall, there were huge logistical challenges to overcome – especially with our very low budget constraints.
About half of the crew slept in tents and converted wine barrels on the Stubbs property, using an outdoor shower thoughtfully put in by the Stubbs, and holding nightly campfires despite the freezing fog that rolled in every evening after a blisteringly hot day. The main cast and a few key crewmembers stayed in Petaluma at the Metro Hotel and at Pt. Reyes, commuting in each morning. The cold at night and early morning was arctic, wind toppling the light stands, and most of us wearing parkas more suitable to Alaska than to Marin in full summer. During the day, by contrast, everyone sweltered. The crew, composed of local professionals and also students from San Francisco State University, where I am a professor in the Cinema department, were valiant in lugging equipment up and down hills, setting up lights with a generator that always seemed to fail just as we were ready to take a shot, and chasing after llamas when they escaped – since they made our horse star “Tug,” who plays Tess’s equine companion Searcher, extremely nervous. To accommodate Tug and his “Entourage Horse” (who knew that horses had to have a friend nearby to keep calm), Nevada, we needed to bring in massive amounts of water, schedule plenty of breaks and trailer them in and out each day. LisaGay Hamilton took horse-riding lessons prior to filming, but on meeting the massive Tug expressed some reservations about whether she could control him. After a lesson with Ellis, she gained confidence in her abilities, traded in her helmet for a cowboy hat, and rode Tug with fierce authority. Early in the shoot, Hamilton was thrown when Tug startled at a snake — she did a flip in the air and fell to the ground. The whole crew, located about a half mile away shooting her in the distance, gave a collective gasp. Luckily, she was unhurt, if shaken. As director, my first thought after ensuring that LisaGay was unharmed was that we had an important scene later that day in which LisaGay needed to canter after the outlaws — it seemed impossible that we could go ahead with the scene we were presently filming, and very possible that LisaGay would not ever want to risk falling again. Not only did she get right back on the horse, she was absolutely fearless in galloping down a dirt road, rifle in hand, looking as tough as Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun!
In addition to the memorable moment when LisaGay Hamilton was thrown from the horse, we had the usual catering snafus, port-a-potty adventures, our giant silk would topple and nearly kill someone, a generator would blow in the middle of a great performance, etc. On one occasion, a well-meaning intern washed the picture truck that actually needed to look dirty in the scene -- and we put him back to work to remuddy it again. Lily Rabe suffered mysterious spider bites and did a scene while lying (unbeknownst to us) atop poison oak branches. Bradley Sellers, the cinematographer, had particular issues with Tug, the horse who played Searcher, who had a habit of presenting his rear end to camera the instant that his wrangler, Erin Ellis of Triple Creek Horse Unit, stepped out of frame.
Once we got to Oakland, for the final ten days of the shoot, the biggest logistical challenges were behind us. The most memorable moments during this part of the shoot, aside from filming Hamish Linklater and Beth Lisick in front of ten of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe paintings, were filming Ruby’s accident scene and other horse actions. Lily Rabe had a lot of fun riding between takes on Bailey, the horse provided for her character by Redwood Ranch Stables. Fabulous motorcycle stunts were performed by David LaBree, the son of Cathy Greenwold, one of our Executive Producers, and the whole crew was mesmerized when Sophie Verges, daughter of Executive Producer Scott Verges, rode a beautiful white horse against the inky black sky, sailing over jumps like a mythological creature. The moment was not in the script, and we didn’t know where we would use that footage, but we knew it had to be in the film. When Editor Christopher Munch came on board, this footage was of central inspiration in building the dream sequences that link Ruby/Anna’s world to that of Tess.
We shot on the Red Camera, using a beautiful model generously provided by Meets The Eye Studios, along with a gorgeous set of prime lenses. This was my first digital project. Our budget was under the Ultra Low Budget SAG agreement and so totals with deferrals under $500,000. Money was raised from private equity investors through Dire Wolf, LLC. We are very proud of the look of this film, which, despite our guerilla resources, has the look of a film made with ten times the budget.
Orton - "Gnossieme"