I live in a Gold Rush foothills county that has served as the setting for many a movie and TV Western.
From "The Half-Breed" in 1916 through Clint Eastwood’s "Honky-tonk Man" in 1982, film companies have found the ranch lands, river gorges and historic towns in Calaveras County great locations for Western stories.
The latest Western shot here was made by local folks who love the mythic Old West and the challenge of creating art out of nothing but heart.
"Livin’ by the Gun" is the brainchild of James Miller, a high school special ed teacher with a creative streak as wide and deep as Lake Tahoe.
He and local meat cutter Darren Knapp teamed up to produce this full-length feature film.
A newspaper ad for actors brought 90 people from miles around to audition. Fifty-two got speaking parts; the rest filled in as extras. None were professional actors.
Local ranchers, historic hotel owners and others donated locations. And folks throughout the region contributed buggies, wagons, stagecoaches, rifles and guns, costumes, horses, saddles and more.
Calaveras Public Access TV studio supplied all production equipment – cameras, microphones, lights -- free of charge.
James wrote, directed and produced the film. Darren shot and edited it, his camera artistry a magic portal to another time and place.
And for the past three years, those involved have worked every other weekend to make "Livin’ by the Gun" a reality. Imagine that: every other weekend for three years. For no pay, just the thrill of making a real movie together.
Everyone involved in this creative accomplishment donated his or her time, talent and effort.
Saturday night, Oct. 23, they all celebrated as the finished film was shown for the first time in its entirety at the Bret Harte High School Performing Arts Theater in Angels Camp. (Angels Camp, by the way, was the location for the 1937 film "Wells Fargo" starring Joel McCrea. So, in a sense, James and Darren and all the others who made "Livin’ by the Gun" are just carrying on a long, local tradition).
Sweetheart Al and I were among those who watched "Livin’ by the Gun." We knew several of the people who were in the movie, most of the shooting locations, and had a vague concept of the story. But we really had no idea what to expect.
What would a movie made entirely by volunteers be like?
It turned out to be good. The story was a dark one – all about anger and revenge. And there were lots of killings. In fact, I counted 17 deaths by gunfire.
But the quality of the production was excellent. And the story behind the movie – the fact that dozens of regular people worked together for the pure love of doing it – made the film special for us.
We were glad to add our applause and cheers to the celebration.
"Livin’ by the Gun" reminded me about the magic of creative endeavor – how all the differences between people that sometimes cause grief -- age, race, gender, political persuasion, religion, sexual orientation, economic and social status -- evaporate in the pleasure of creating art together.
How I wish that we could all find artistic causes to absorb our energies, so that we would grow closer to one another through the work, and have no inclination left to argue or fight over our differences.
James and Darren have submitted "Livin’ by the Gun" to several film festivals. I hope the movie garners a big and enthusiastic audience. It sure had one here in town last Saturday night.
[The photograph posted here is of James Miller, writer, director and producer of the Old West feature film "Livin’ by the Gun."]