In The Ballad of Lefty Brown, Bill Pullman plays a sidekick character who suddenly finds himself front-and-center in a Western drama about friendship, corruption and sacrifice. Directed by Jared Moshé, Lefty embraces the tropes made popular by John Wayne and John Ford, but with an underdog twist. Pullman, who has long owned a ranch near Whitehall and taught filmmaking at Montana State University before he ever starred in Space Balls, Lost Highway and Independence Day, is taking The Ballad of Lefty Brown on a Montana tour. He and Moshé will screen the film and do Q&As in Billings, Bozeman, Livingston, Whitehall, Helena and Missoula. In advance of the Missoula screening at the Roxy, we spoke with Pullman about the film.
Jared told me he came up with the character of Lefty Brown, but that you developed him together. Tell me about that process.
Bill Pullman: It was a good collaboration. Jared was generous in terms of the character, and he understands it’s going to be a real performance if he can go back through the script line by line with the actor. We did it in the beginning when I met him more than a year before we shot the thing, and then again as we got closer to pre-production. By that time he had settled on Montana as the place to shoot it.
Other places were considered first?
BP: His first ideas were New Mexico and Calgary. Once Montana became the setting, Jared rearranged the circumstances to fit the 1889 period when Montana got its first territorial capital in Bannack and was dealing with all the issues of trying to shed the vigilantism of the gold rush days.
What do you like about the Lefty Brown character?
BP: I think it was an unusual choice to do a different kind of male in a Western. The stock nature of the alpha male is [present]: A friend of his gets killed and he will endure whatever pain it takes to get vengeance. But this guy, Lefty, is the one character least capable of that. Because he’s the sidekick, he’s not the alpha male. Lefty has always been eclipsed by his friend, whom he loved very much, and the loss of him was a bigger loss than any he had sustained. So the film is, as Jared likes to say, a coming-of-age story for a 63-year-old man.
Are you a fan of Westerns in general?
BP: Yes, I am. I directed and acted in The Virginian in 2000, and that was deeply satisfying. A lot of people think that Owen Wister’s novel really galvanized the whole genre. Up until that time, Westerns had been largely hyperbolic tales about Buffalo Bill and different legends like that with stories of being captured and escaping. But with The Virginian, he has the [narrator] getting off the train in Wyoming and meeting the man with no name, the Virginian. John Ford said he based five of his movies off the ingredients of The Virginian, so it’s a real seminal piece. There were a couple other versions that were done, and TV movies, so it’s a story that’s like an American Hamlet. I enjoyed doing an adaptation that really kept a lot of the original dialog from the book, which I found telling of the psychology of the characters. We did it in a very spare way so it’s a little Bergman-esque. But I don’t get to do enough Westerns, so it’s really satisfying to be in one that has an unusual premise, but with a kind of classical construction.
When did you first come to Montana and how have you stayed connected here?
BP: I started living in Montana in the 1970s. I was hired out of college to do [Montana] Shakespeare in the Parks and was in residence there pretty continuously. I went to graduate school for directing [at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst] and … I taught at Montana State University for two years. I decided either I leave now or stay forever because it was a pretty good gig, I was enjoying it, but I had it in mind that I wanted to try New York City, and so in 1981 I left. My brother was training to be a doctor and he looked all around and picked Butte. He found a piece of ground that had some grazing permits. We bought some cows and have been expanding the ranch since then.
I read an article in Food & Wine from 2012 about your orchard and preserve parties at your Hollywood home. Do you have an orchard in Montana, too?
BP: Yes! I have an orchard in Montana that has apple trees and gooseberries, red currants, chokecherries — lots of different things that are zone 3 hardy. Buffaloberry, as well. It’s a different kind of orchard altogether from the other one.
I was standing right next to you at the Red Ants Pants Festival in 2011 in White Sulphur Springs, so I’m guessing you’re also a fan of country music?
BP: Oh that’s wild! That was a good rendition of it, wasn’t it? Glad we saw the same thing. Yes! Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band — that was one of the last times I think Guy Clark played in a big venue. It was classic. I have a photograph that I took as Guy was leaving. He walked into the frame so he was all in silhouette with his back turned to the audience and he raised his arm in a wave goodbye.
What is the significance to you of the Whitehall screening?
BP: I guess I’ve had it in my head we’d have a Montana hometown premiere in Whitehall at the Star Theatre, so to me that’s the centerpiece of the whole thing. A lot of people from around there were involved with the movie and it’s a good way to celebrate that. I got together with the guy who has the theater and said we ought to make it a benefit for the Jefferson Valley Museum, which is an old pioneer museum in Whitehall that honors the ancestors. They need to raise some money to renovate the wood siding on this barn that they’ve turned into a museum.
What else are you looking forward to on this tour?
BP: I love to go town to town. And I’ll be with Jared, his wife, their 2-year-old baby and my wife, and we’ll be in one car just like the old days when you used to take the film prints around. When the Whitehall theater showed 35mm prints, the guy would play the movie in Whitehall and then carry the film print up to Boulder to show the next night. It was a good tradition of bringing movies around Montana.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown screens at the Roxy Sun., Jan. 28, at 7 PM, followed by a Q&A with Bill Pullman and Jared Moshe. $8