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South Of Heaven, West Of Hell doesn't sound like a fun place to go. But for Dwight Yoakam, there's no place he'd rather be than in his new movie. The film with the formidable title is Dwight's baby - he wrote it, starred in it, directed it and composed the soundtrack.
"I'm very proud of it," says Dwight of the flick he describes as an "off-beat, Gothic western." In it, he plays Valentine Casey, a small-town Arizona territory marshal who, as an orphan, was raised by criminals. "It's a morality tale," explains Dwight, "about a former foster son having this collision with his foster family, who are a band of outlaws." When Casey's "family" rides into town wreaking havoc, the morally responsible marshal must seek justice.
Before filming began in Arizona, Dwight labored with co-writers over the screenplay. After the first few drafts he
wasn't happy with it. Taking advice from his friend and Sling Blade co-star Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight took the reins himself. "When Billy Bob read the script, he said I should rewrite it as a director would write it. He also suggested it should be the first thing I should direct. So in 1997 I began rewriting."
When he finished, Dwight found himself with a whopping 212-page screenplay. "I had to trim it several times," admits the prolific writer, with a smile.
Filming began in May 1999 at Old Tuscon Studio's Mescal set, where the movies The Quick And The Dead and Tombstone were filmed, as well as Brooks & Dunn's "South Of Santa Fe" video. Dwight hand-picked most of the cast, including Billy Bob, Paul Reubens, Vince Vaughn and another Sling Blade co-star, Natalie Canerday.
Also starring in the movie is Bridget Fonda - Dwight's longtime off-screen love. The two generated plenty of chemistry on-screen. "Initially, I wasn't going to prey upon Bridget to be a part of my first directorial effort and subject her to that," confesses Dwight, laughing. "But she really liked the character."
What should have been smooth sailing turned into rough waters when Dwight's financial backers pulled out of the movie a week and a half into filming. The singer turned to his longtime friend and sometime duet partner, Buck Owens, for advice. "He's been a good counsel to me," reveals Dwight. Buck reportedly loaned his friend $1 million to save the movie.
Set in the early 1900s, the film pulls no punches when it comes to violence. Shootings are as prevalent as the dust covering the town - and Dwight took pains to convey the stark desolation of the Wild West. "I deliberately left the town 'undressed,' " he explains, "except for the fact that we strung power lines to illustrate there had been light there. In the movie you'll see a mix of oil lamps and early electric lights, because that was a transitional period. I wanted the town to appear almost vacant, with people only existing in the shadows."
Playing a moral man is in stark contrast to Dwight's best-known role as ne'er-do-well Doyle in Sling Blade. But he welcomes the chance to play a wide range of characters - and realizes that his other life as a successful singer/songwriter affords him that luxury.
"Most working actors find themselves having to make compromises just to maintain their livelihood," he says. "I'm fortunate in that I don't have to depend on my acting to sustain myself. But for the most part I've been offered good roles. I just want to continue working with talented and capable people."
South Of Heaven, West Of Hell is currently on DVD and video, with limited showings in theaters. Dwight admits he's even snuck into a few theaters to find out what people really think of his "baby." And he was pleased with their reactions.
"It's kind of nice to smell popcorn, be in the dark with other people and watch it with a real audience," he says. "I've had a great time."
- Wendy Newcomer