If your life already feels like a soap opera or one big practical joke, then the last thing you would want to learn is that your illusions are actually reality and your existence is in the hands of some omniscient force. Or maybe it would be a relief to not have the pressure of free will weighing on you? The premise of the wonderful short film The Gunfighter by Eric Kissack explores the issues that come with dealing directly with an omniscent force. In the film, the all-powerful entity takes the form of a narrator who is voiced by Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation.
Set in a saloon in the old American West, the short opens with a cowboy walking into the bar. Every move he makes is described by the narrator. But instead of the audience just hearing the voice, everyone on screen hears it too. As unsettling as the meta aspects of this is to the townsfolk, it’s not nearly as upsetting as the rash of infidelity, murder, and bestiality the narrator describes happening within their ranks. Pitted against each other, the folks start to realize that maybe there is something more sinister at work. The voice is an evil puppet master who wants to force them in a ballet of death for his own amusement... It's pretty scary for an absurdist Western comedy.
The comedy in The Gunfighter comes from its sharp dialogue, which contains a lot of literary flourishes. It’s the type of verbiage that you only ever read and seldom hear in film. That’s probably because when Kevin Tenglin wrote the story, it was just that—a story, for print. However, was rejected for publication and was neglected until a few years later he showed it to Kissack, who loved it. Together they turned it into a short film.
“I love Westerns, so I started writing [The Gunfighter] in that old Western style, about a gunfighter named Ned,” Tenglin said. “And I'm just a silly person by nature, so as I was writing it, I was pretending I was writing one of those Western movie voiceovers. But then Ned, the character, just started being able to hear my scene descriptions and started getting pissed at me for how I was writing it.”
Tenglin mined Western movie clichés and crammed his characters full of them—from the STD-ridden prostitute and the philandering men to the dumb bounty hunters. The Gunfighter is all about execution within the tropes and there’s lots of amazing executions in it.
I chatted up director Eric Kissack about the story, the casting of Nick Offerman, and more.
VICE: How much did the story change as you made it?
Eric Kissack: It changed quite a bit. In the short story, there was just the Gunfighter and the Henderson brothers. As Kevin and I kept coming up with ideas for more jokes, we kept adding more characters. Eventually we realized that we had so many people who were pissed at each other that the only logical ending was a Mexican standoff and shootout. Clearly.
You stuff a lot of sex into this script.
There was a version of the script where we had the secrets that everyone was hiding be a lot more absurd... Like one guy was secretly obsessed with basket weaving and another was studying Immanuel Kant's writings on morality (and everyone made fun of him for it). In the end, the sex stuff just seemed more humorous. My instincts tend to go pretty sophomoric.
Was there something in particular that was more difficult about this production than your others? You went all out on the set design, costumes, guns, and even squibs.
The production was a massive challenge because we didn't have a lot of money. We knew that for the comedy to really work, everything had to feel as "real" as possible. That was the best version of the joke—a film that looks and feels like a real Western, but quickly takes a sharp left turn. So that meant getting an "authentic" set, costumes, and props, which also meant a lot of begging. Personally, I'm terrible at begging. Luckily my amazing producer, Sarah Platt, was great at it.
How did you get Nick Offerman on board?
It's funny. I was re-watching the first season of Deadwood for visual inspiration and I flipped out when I realized that Nick Offerman is in the second episode of the first season. He gets killed almost immediately and he spends a good portion of the episode buck naked, but he's absolutely amazing in it. From that moment, I got it in my head that he would be the perfect narrator. I had worked with a director named David Wain [of The State and Stella] for a number of years. David knew Nick and offered to reach out to him for us. So we shot the entire short, edited it, and had one of our friends record a temporary voiceover. Then we emailed it all to Nick with a message saying that we knew he would do a much better job than the hack we got to do the temp. A few days later, he wrote back saying that he agreed.
A feature, but not of The Gunfighter. We're content with that story and we don't think it needs expanding. So we're going to do something else. Actually, Kevin is writing one and I'm writing one, too. Hopefully we'll shoot one of them early next year.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the Senior Curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.