Kill or Be Killed Interview
Duane Graves and Justin Meeks co-wrote and co-directed Kill or Be Killed, a new take on the classic Western genre. In our exclusive interview, we spoke the filmmakers about the film, the creative process and more.
Did you always want to be involved in the entertainment industry?
DG: I was definitely interested in video and movie cameras at an early age. My father worked as an engineer for the CBS-TV affiliate in San Antonio when I was growing up. His job was to resurrect expensive cameras when videographers dropped them in rivers and stuff. He was never inclined to do anything creative with them, but he would often bring them home and encourage me to. I got into public access TV when I was in high school in the early 90’s, and that’s really when the idea of creating stories with moving images really came alive for me. I was about 16.
JM: I always have loved the entertainment industry, from comedy to horror. As a young kid, I would constantly be putting together something with the vhs camera. I had a very outgoing group of childhood friends that are still with me today. They encouraged my continuous involvement with film ,and gave me inspiration and encouragement.that We often would act out SNL skits, and movies to the point of annoyance. Looking back, what some thought where childish games, was actually early training for where I am today. As I got older I began to hone my writing and acting skills, which has spilled over into directing, as well.
Justin, Can you talk about what drew you into acting? Do you prefer behind in front of or behind the scenes more?
JM: When I first saw, “The Outlaw Josey Whales” by Clint Eastwood, I knew I wanted to create and be a part of something like that. I started to respect actors and filmmakers, and drew from
certain ones that motivated me. I love creating a character and slipping into his skin. Being a director makes me a stronger actor, and as an actor I have become a better director. . I love both
creating and molding characters and all the details in between. Being among actors I direct, as an actor, gives me an inside look and control on the timing and tone of the scene. It would be hard to
pick one over the other, but telling and creating stories that have impact, is what I want to do.
Do you have a favorite genre? Horror, western or other?
DG: Honestly I love all genres, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Horror, as ultimately I’m always lured to the darkness. I’ll try just about anything though. If everyone says it’s “the worst film I’ve ever seen in my life,” that’s like a beacon for me. I go straight for those.
JM: I am a big fan of slapstick comedy! I was raised on Mel Brooks and SNL. But, that’s just to make me laugh. I would love to do a slew of westerns, no question. Working with horses and guns brings a whole new level to storytelling, and respect to those who have done it prior.
What was the inspiration for you to create Kill or Be Killed?
DG: We pulled from many classic Westerns that we grew up watching with our fathers and grandfathers. Mostly those made in Italy by Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci in the 60’s and 70’s. We mostly loved the quirky characters and vibes they created more than their hyper-stylized aspects. Our favorites tend to be the ones that meld a variety of tones. High Plains Drifter is a great example of a Western that introduced darker colors into the traditional Western palette. Later Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man did a fantastic job of making us laugh and cringe at the same time. The Westerns of Charles B. Pierce were also very inspirational. Most people know him for his drive-in horror classics like The Legend of Boggy Creek, but he did several Westerns that deserve to be dusted off and re-released. Winds of Autumn, Grayeagle, Winterhawk — all fantastic, organic, beautifully shot movies with colorful, unique characters (including Pierce himself).
JM: Duane and I had been in the talks of doing a western for a long time. We were invited to Tribeca, with our creature feature, “ Wild Man of The Navidad”. This led to a meeting with the Weinstein film Co., where we pitched several of our idea’s, one being the western. They seemed to like it, and that motivated us to flesh out the script. It never went further with the Weinstein Co, and we decided to make it happen ourselves. We wanted it to carry a dark tone, similar to Clint Eastwood’s, “ High Plains Drifter”, but at the same time capture the character and likeability of the old European westerns, like “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. We really believed in our script, and slowly but surely our vision unfolded.
Can you talk about the writing process on that film? How long did it take for you to write the script?
DG: It took us about 8 or 9 months to write this back in 2008, mainly because I had a day job working for Apple Computer at the time. Kill or Be Killed was born from a pitch we gave the Weinstein Company during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, where we were premiering our first film The Wild Man of the Navidad. As far as process, we tend to do a lot of brainstorming sessions first. We spend a lot of time putting together a detailed outline before we write a single screenplay page. We’ve never been the type of writers who just run with a story and see where it goes. We need a detailed roadmap, even a title, before beginning our journey. We want to know exactly where we’re driving to instead of circling around block after block trying to figure that out.
JM: I would say we spent 6 months on the script. We spent many late nights at each other’s homes, hammering out the details and trying to stay authentic with dialogue. The length of
time, was longer than normal, due to our detail in the dialogue or language we used. We wanted
the dialogue to be authentic, harsh and fresh to our viewers. We spent the time making sure this happened, choosing a mix of southern slang, and old school phrases that helped form the world our outlaws inhabit.
Justin, did you find it challenging to be the lead in Kill or Be Killed as well as being the co-director?
JM: It was very challenging, but I had played parts, and directed before, so I knew what I was up against. This role in particular was very dear and personal to me. I had captured the essence of
Claude some time before we started shooting, and that helped in my decision process for casting.
How involved were you in the casting process of Kill or Be Killed?
DG: Very involved. Our producer Karrie Cox also served as the casting director, and she is based out in LA, so that helped us get the script to a lot of agents and actors through her contacts. This was our first SAG film too, which gave us access to an army of talent all over the US that heretofore had been off limits to us. It took a long time going through all the prospects, whittling them down, etc, but we were there through most of the call backs and ultimately had the final say in who was cast. We are very proud of the amazing cast we managed to put together for this film.
JM: We were in the room with the actors every day, reading actors, and picking who fits the character the best. We were tied closely to the script and the characters, and had very specific qualifications that each actor needed to have. Duane and I made the final decision on every actor or actress.
As you were writing the movie script, did you have any specific actors in mind for the roles? And if so, were you able to get any of those actors to join the cast?
DG: Definitely. We always have specific actors in mind when writing characters. Sometimes they’re famous A-list actors that we’d never be able to afford, sometimes they’re friends of ours, or other people we’ve worked with on previous projects, etc. Those actors/actresses do actually wind up filling the roles sometimes, but often we discover new talent in the casting process that bring something fresh and original to the part. That can sometimes open your eyes to parts of your story and take you in new directions. Often times we’ll have a list of actors that we love and we’ll try to find a way to work them into our cast somewhere.
JM: Absolutely! We had Ed Neal in mind for the carpetbagger, that he played! Also, Pepe Serna, was a top pick from the beginning as well. As for the Barbee gang, we had to go through quite a few, to get the gems we did.
Can you share about where you filmed the movie and what the circumstances were like during filming?
DG: We filmed Kill or Be Killed all over Texas – literally from the wastelands of West Texas all the way to the Gulf Coast city of Corpus Christi. We covered hundreds of miles in the first three weeks of production, and our cast and crew were troopers. There was no other way to do this film. Texas is a gigantic state with a multitude of landscapes, and we wanted all those flavors in our Western. It wasn’t always easy, of course. Getting everyone out to those remote areas, and keeping them all comfortable, was a challenge for sure. We had about 20 flat tires during the whole process. Patience was tested, bonds were formed. The last three weeks we shot in a living history museum/park in the middle of Austin called Pioneer Farms. They have a creek area, some densely wooded areas, several historic homes and buildings, farm land, animals, you name it. We used every square inch of that place.
JM: We filmed this movie from the cliffs of west Texas to the shores of Corpus Christi, and every nook and cranny in between. It was a travel piece, and we loaded up our band of gypsies, and set out to make it. It was hard work! The crew worked long hours and endured harsh weather and many technical difficulties. We were subject to many elements of bitter weather, and the long distances where rough on the vehicles, which broke down often. The horses, were unpredictable, and often honry from the long hauls across Texas. These struggles helped bond a relationship with our cast and crew, and where a big part of making it to the finish line. We hand picked a crew and cast, like we were going to war, which in a way we were. Taking on a western, on an Independent budget? Who would do such a thing? Ha.
Do you have a dream project that you hope to work on in the future?
DG: Any project is a dream project in this business. If you’re able to make any film you’ll be a lot happier than not making one. BUT, if I had to pick, we would love to do a slapstick comedy. We’ve always wanted to do something Zucker Brothers-esque, but that’s a really risky proposition on an independent film level. Very hard sell, and difficult to pull off with unknown actors.
JM: Duane and I are writing a blue collar truck driving meets prison break screenplay at the moment, called “ Choke Canyon”. So, I would love to get that off the ground! And, I alway have wanted to do a caveman movie, or apocalyptic piece. I like situations in which norms have changed, liberties have been taken, and the society has to survive without.
Are there any TV shows that you’re currently watching?
DG: How the Universe Works. Honestly I watch very little TV. It’s just a format I have trouble getting into.
JM: I have been a big fan of Sons of the Anarchy, Vikings, and Game of Thrones lately. It seems that television has been cranking out some quality shows.
What advice would you give someone who is striving to get into the industry to act, write and/or direct?
DG: Writing is free. It’s be best way to flex those cinematic muscles. Enter your scripts into some contests that offer feedback as part of their entry fees. With so many cheap cameras out there these days it’s a lot easier to get a group of friends together and create a short film. Even if you think it’s horrible, it will build your confidence and the next one will be better. Don’t expect to make one feature and suddenly you’re the festival darling. Those stories are so, so rare. Understand that directing is really about collaborating with creative talent in ALL areas of production – not just actors – and keeping that amazing team focused on the common goals of preserving the script and making the best film possible at all times.
JM: I would say to follow your heart, and take advice from those that have been successful. Never think that you know everything, or have nothing to learn, and stay hungry. Learn to
motivate yourself ,and know your limits. Be ready for a long road if you want to be successful, and above all keep a positive proactive attitude in all you do.