The Punisher and Hung star Thomas Jane is the lead star in Murder at Yellowstone City, a Western out today in theaters, on demand, and digital that blends mystery with gunfights and a town full of secrets. ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Jane about the film, what he finds so intriguing about the genre, riding horses, and more.
“The once peaceful and booming Yellowstone City has fallen on hard times, but when a local prospector strikes gold, things seem to be turning around,” reads the official synopsis of the film. “Any hope is soon shattered when the prospector is found dead and the Sheriff quickly arrests a mysterious newcomer. But nothing is so simple in this sleepy western town, and more than a few of the locals have secrets to keep and reasons to kill. As the brutal murders continue, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Yellowstone City goes down a bloody path to a final showdown that not all will survive.”
Tyler Treese: I love that this film was actually filmed in Montana at the Yellowstone Film Ranch. It just looks incredible. How was it being there on location?
Thomas Jane: Well, we built that town for the movie. So, all the Western towns out there have been used multiple times on multiple films, and they paint ’em different colors and change the signs and stuff, but it’s the same town. And you can tell if you’re a Western fan and that’s fine. Sometimes that’s even fun to see the different movies recreate the same town, but the producers on this movie built this town from scratch. They built it to last, they wanted a fresh town, a fresh look. They also had a fantastic location with mountains in the background and around the different roads that come into the town. So we’ve got ways of shooting where you can get some dynamic angles of the town instead of just being one flat street or maybe two, we actually built a little community there and we were the first film to shoot. I think they call it Yellowstone City now, and they rent it out to other Westerns that had come in after us. So it was a blast to shoot and really well made, all the buildings are built to last, they’re real buildings. You go into the church, it’s a church, you go into the Sheriff’s office, it’s the Sheriff’s office with the jail cell and all that. And so all of the buildings are actual buildings. You can shoot inside and outside. We popped its cherry, we were the first movie to shoot there. So that always something sort of exciting about that. You feel like you’re breaking in some new ground.
You’re riding horses in the film. Are you a big horse rider? I know working with animals can be a bit crazy. How was it on this?
Well, I had the good fortune of doing two westerns in Montana in 2020. And this one, we used the same horse wranglers as we did the first one. The Schultz brothers, Schultz clan, really, there’s all kinds of Schultz. I don’t know how many, three or four, but they’re really terrific with their horses. That’s an integral part of any western, you got to have horses that are trained for different skills. You got to have a stunt horse, you got to have a horse that’s gentle enough to work with actors who are not familiar with horses, and then sort of everything in between, and different training goes into different films. So you got to hire these guys early and give them a script so they can deliver the horse that can do what you’re going to ask of it to do. For instance, you can’t just show up with a horse and start shooting blanks off out of your gun, that’ll spook the horse. You got to get them used to that. You got to get ’em used to having gunfire going off around him, or an explosion, or a cannon, or whatever the hell you need. And I had the good fortune of doing back-to-back movies with the Schultz brothers.
So the horse that I use, I got to use multiple times, and train with the horse, ride with the horse, take the horse out on weekends. He’s your buddy, you got to get to know him. You got to get to love that horse, and it shows, it shows on camera, whether that horse likes you or you like that horse, or you guys work together as a unit, all that stuff shows on camera. And I’ve always loved horses. I got an affinity for animals in general, but horses, in particular horse riding. I’ve done that for quite a few years. And it’s a magical experience getting on a horse and going for a ride. Whether it’s here in LA, they have Griffith Park, you go up to the top there, they’ve got some stables. You can pull a horse out and go along these dirt trails all up in the mountains here, to Montana to all over, if there’s horses around and they want to be ridden, and I’m a rider.
You’ve been in quite a few Western films. This one’s interesting, it has the whole murder mystery twist on it. It’s such a wide-ranging genre, you can explore so much about humanity through Westerns. So what about that genre has always really appealed to you?
Well, with the Western, baseball, jazz, comic books, in a way these are purely American inventions. The Western is an American myth, but its appeal has spread throughout the world. I think that’s because it explores the tension between individual freedom and the confines of living in a society. So it’s sort of the individual versus the town, and you need the town because everybody’s got to work together in a society to support one another, and yet you’re craving a sense of individual freedom and self-expression. If you’re too strong, the town generally shuns you. You become an outsider, you can’t be too strong, you can’t be too weak.
There are confines that we all experience, and the Western is a way of expressing that tension between individual freedom and the rules of society. That’s why we usually have an outsider who comes into a town. The town is either generally, basically good but weak, and therefore open to the predations of murderess villains, or the town is strong but bad. It’s got a corrupt sheriff as we do in Murder at Yellowstone City. Corruption is creeping throughout the land.
You’re right, you have so many different interpretations of the Western. There’s kind of two different views of the American West that is explored in a lot of Westerns. And that is the garden versus the desert. The West is either depicted as a garden that is in danger of being corrupted by people from the East, right? Big business and land owners and all, there’s a creeping corruption that has infected the East and is creeping West, or the West is a savage land, a murderous, savage land in need of taming in need of civilization, right? So you’re bringing civilization to a savage land, or you’re trying to protect the garden from being destroyed by corrupt outside forces. So and within that, you’ve got so many different sorts of ways to tell a story. But these are the basic sort of pillars of the Western, the individual versus the town, the idea of a savage land or a garden.
These are basic pillars of the Western that offer you so many different sorts of ways of interpreting that. That’s changed and evolved over the years. It used to be the standard Western story was the outsider came into a town that was too weak to protect itself. That usually got represented by a helpless woman that the hero had to rescue. Well, then we got into the sixties and women said, “You know, that doesn’t speak to me at all. I’m a strong person too.” So then we started seeing strong female leads, strong females, capable of partnering with the hero to defeat the bad guys. So the relationship changed as the society changes and in our movie, Anna Camp plays my wife, and she turns out to be, which I think is real interesting, she starts out as kind of the preacher’s wife, sort of standing behind her man, supporting him, but basically weak and in need of protection, but it turns out that’s not her at all. She’s actually a strong woman who can take care of herself. So I like the twists and turns, but we remain within the classic confines of the Western with capital W.
In 2005, you actually started in a Western video game, Gun. What were your thoughts on doing the voiceover for that and working on a video game?
Yeah, I don’t think there were very many Western video games at the time. I didn’t know of any others. So when they came to me with it, it sounded unique and fun. I spent a few days in a little room with a microphone doing all the different lines and the grunts and all that stuff and had a good time with it. I’m glad that that game found success and then did real well. I guess that was sort of my first experience with the Western genre, I think that’s right.