Interview: Justin Meeks and Duane Graves Talk Horror Western KILL OR BE KILLED

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Writer/directors Justin Meeks and Duane Graves talk about their magnum macabre western opus KILL OR BE KILLED.

‘Round these parts, we heaped a helping of praise upon writer/directors Justin Meeks and Duane Graves’ hallucinatory horror western KILL OR BE KILLED (aka RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA). You can read our review here.

But although the movie was released to DVD and other platforms some time ago (via RLJ Entertainment), our worry is that not enough people have seen the picture. And that’s a shame.

The film stars Meeks himself as Claude ‘Sweet Tooth’ Barbee, the vicious leader of a band of scumbag outlaws, searching Texas for buried gold. After a series of amusing and unique adventures, the horde descends on a god-fearing family in a friendly household. A despicable crime occurs and the bandits flee the scene. But very soon, Barbee’s boys begin winding up dead, their eyes burned out and yellow, victims of a potentially supernatural force.

We loved KILL OR BE KILLED, the most recent example of a violent indie western done right (see BONE TOMAHAWK for another horse-opera gem). And because of this passion, we wanted to talk the Southern men who done made this strange, bloody and mesmerizing movie.

So we did.

Ladies and gentleman, Duane Graves and Justin Meeks.

SHOCK: The first question I have is the obvious one…the original title RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA was so damn good…why the name change?

GRAVES: Well, as you can probably imagine, that wasn’t our wish. Ultimately, it came down to marketing. We talked about the title early on and the marketing people thought it that it was too retro, but that was the idea, y’know. They asked for a few alternate ones and KILL OR BE KILLED was one we gave them. It was our tagline on our original poster and we just kind of moved that up. Ultimately, we had to yield to them because we’re not the marketing experts and we had to trust they knew what they were doing.

SHOCK: Your previous film, BUTCHER BOYS, was fun and accomplished but KILL is a quantum leap ahead. And it feels so much more confident…

GRAVES: Yeah, you picked on that. BUTCHER BOYS was invaluable for us as far as making our bones and licking our wounds. We learned so much with  BUTCHER BOYS, about working with a bigger crew and cast as opposed to our first film, THE WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD, which was just us and a camera in the woods. But in KILL OR BE KILLED, we had other people around us co-producing and we were able to focus more on the creative.

SHOCK: I’ve been loving this resurgence in indie westerns with horror affectations. From BONE TOMAHAWK to DIABLO. But your film is far more expressive and eccentric. I especially loved your editing, including key shock reaction scenes where you let the frame sit before dissolving…

GRAVES: I’m trying to think where that may have come from that inspired me. I think it must have been just something in the back of my mind that was kind of retro, something I’d seen and just stuck there. I had to be careful not to overuse things like that and use it instead in key moments, but generally we tried to give it the feel of a 60s/70s film. In BUTCHER BOYS, we were trying for an 80s affectation. In WILD MAN, a 70s Bigfoot drive-in movie. Now, some of the critics aren’t keen on  that device you spoke of, but I can’t take offense as it was totally by design.

SHOCK: How about the character of Claude “Sweet Tooth”…was the role written for Justin?

GRAVES: Yeah, we  always had him in mind while we were writing. Well, Maybe Johnny Depp at one point, but we quickly moved that out of the way (laughs).

SHOCK: You mention Depp, which is appropriate because very often the film reminded me of a color version of Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN, which famously starred Depp…

GRAVES: Oh yeah, absolutely. That was the tone.  Like that film, we have characters talking about random nonsense and then getting their heads smashed in. That movement was what we were inspired by. But there was also a Charles B. Pierce vibe here too. People know Pierce from his BOGGY CREEK movies (or THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN – ed) but he also made a string of pure indie westerns and the horror side always poked through,  especially in stuff like THE WINDS OF AUTUMN…

MEEKS: Yeah, Pierce was a big influence. THE WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD was when we kind of discovered many of his films and we tried to bring him on as a producer for that film after we had shot it, but he wasn’t very receptive. He was a true indie auteur and his westerns were just as good as his horror movies.

SHOCK: Like all good westerns, there’s a feeling here of nature being a character, of simply watching these scumbags exist in a perfectly realized, apathetic environment.

MEEKS: That was all Brandon Torres, he was our cinematographer. He had never used anamorphic lenses before but that was important for this film and he had a great crew and they figured it out. We had these natural rugged vistas in West Texas to Corpus and beyond. Brandon got right in there, climbing ladders, setting shots up; he’s no stranger to the demanding nature of indie filmmaking.

SHOCK: Justin, your character, Claude…does he have any humanity? He’s a pretty bad dude…

MEEKS: Absolutely, he does. Claude is just warped. When writing and developing the character, Duane and I wanted the audience to like the bad guys. And with Sweet Tooth, we wanted people to maybe believe in him, even if he was 100% in it for himself. We wanted the audience to have some empathy for him. For me, I had no judgements on him. The character justifies his actions.

GRAVES: Sweet Tooth is the good-bad. Blocky is evil. He parallels the evil that’s following them…

MEEKS: Yeah, and Claude keeps Blockey on his side because he’s the muscle, he knows he needs him to get what he wants so he chooses to turn away from some of the horrible things Blockey does…

SHOCK: Getting character actor Pepe Serna on board adds so much to the film…

GRAVES: Justin met him when he was a kid!

MEEKS: Yeah, he came to my school to speak when I was a kid and he was at his peak, just off SCARFACE and it was a motivational speech he gave us. We tried to get him for BUTCHER BOYS but it wasn’t SAG. So when this one came around, we had a great role for him. So I had his number, our producers connected with his agent and I’m so glad we did. We had him one day on set and he hammered that character out and he was ready to play…

SHOCK: What’s next. Another western, perhaps?

MEEKS: We’ve been writing a new script called CHOKE CANYON, set in Texas of course, kind of a RACE WITH DEVIL, a modern western…

KILL OR BE KILLED is available on DVD now.

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Weekend: Nov. 22, 2018, Nov. 25, 2018

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