Interview with Mike Plante, Director of New Wyatt Earp Doc ‘And With Him Came the West’
Part of our ongoing Doc Nights series, AND WITH HIM CAME THE WEST screens July 17 at 7:30 PM at the AFS Cinema with director Mike Plante in person. Purchase tickets. Plante will also join us the following night for a Moviemaker Dialogue on short films.
The gunfight at the OK Corral was a legend made famous by Hollywood studio westerns over many decades, from John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) all the way to George Cosmatos’ ‘90s blockbuster, TOMBSTONE. In his provocative documentary, filmmaker Mike Plante examines the Hollywood legacy of Wyatt Earp through the many films that rewrote history to immortalize him. Plante will be in attendance for the screening on July 17 and also participate in a Moviemaker Dialogue at Austin Public on July 18.
Here he shares his thoughts on what inspired him to make the film and some of the questions it poses:
What is it about the story of Wyatt Earp that inspired you to make this film?
I grew up in western Colorado, so besides seeing western movies and reading tons of books about the “real” wild west, I was always running around ghost towns. It was fun as a kid, but strange too. Going to a fully formed city that was super rich for a few years that had collapsed into a shell was surreal. It was also beautiful, and sad and broken—a mysterious comic book come to life.
As an adult I realized how insane these frontier towns were. The immense circumstances that everyone had to overcome, the harsh locations, the mountains, the deserts. The community that had to come together to survive. I also realized the brutal politics of manifest destiny. The complicated history of the individuals involved, both good and bad. The truth is far more fascinating than the mythology.
In the late ‘80s I moved to Tucson, Arizona, and lived there for a decade. Tombstone is nearby and I became more interested in that specific town history. There were not that many duel-style gunfights in the west, most were myths, so the OK Corral stuck out even more.
After I learned that Wyatt lived long enough to go to Hollywood and visit movie sets, this particular story became even more surreal. Lots of western characters reinvented themselves in their own lifetime—but for Earp to go to filmmakers in Hollywood and ask them to make a movie about him, to help form his legacy, that’s next level.
Were there specific films you watched growing up that influenced your understanding of the Wyatt Earp story better than others?
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s so the western was not a popular genre at that moment. It was western characters in outer space instead. I saw the older Earp films on TV. I liked them but they felt like a bygone era that was completely removed from modern times, closer to King Arthur than Al Capone.
The old films really blended together over time—one of the ways movies create American mythology. You start to think that this many movies on one subject couldn’t possibly lie to you, which is absurd. And then the revisionist DOC is from 1971 but was never talked about, I never saw it on TV. Something like MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) is incredible, not about a historical person yet so realistic and deep. But I never saw it on TV. We didn’t have a revival movie theater in town, and these weren’t the big VHS tapes of the moment.
There were a few non-Earp westerns that really influenced me in terms of their style, films that felt absolutely true and vital even though they were not realistic. The spaghetti westerns ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) and MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973) are still amazing to me. They paid off in terms of overboard action and big story, but they’ve got complex characters in the middle of them.
In ONCE, Henry Fonda is heroic and beautiful but a terrible villain. Claudia Cardinale is a strong female lead fighting for her land, this ain’t a 1930s western. NOBODY is a satire but succeeds in the same way, with Fonda (in his last western) even stating, “there were never any good ol’ days.” It’s with these films that I started to think maybe the west was much more advanced, weird, and messy, and that people in their day were very modern.
When THE LONG RIDERS (1980) came out, I was obsessed with it. Again, a modern movie with stylish camera and editing, with characters more nuanced into a grey hat, rather than a white-hat black-hat simplicity. But this time the characters had the names of real people (the James-Younger gang). What I wanted as a kid was not clean propaganda, but messy realism. What did it look like to be in the same place as these people? Including all the mundane moments. That film is almost a musical, the soundtrack is not booming but true to life, complete with a wedding dance and characters playing instruments.
So then when I saw the Earp films again as an adult, GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957) for example, they felt strange. The style was great—Technicolor-delicious—but the acting was really stilted and the story was so jumbled. There’s some fascinating stuff, like how the town had gun control and some awesome gambling scenes. But there’s a lot of forced romance and no bad language. The fun parts were fun, but the G-rated-ness made you wonder what happened in real life.
As a film fan doing historical research for years, I started to piece together the scenes and the lasting effect movies have had on history. Once I started seeing incredible found-footage movies, like Craig Baldwin’s TRIBULATION 99 (1992) and Naomi Uman’s REMOVED (1999), or even Cindy Sherman’s photography, I got a blueprint for the ideas. I’m working in the vein of Thom Anderson’s LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (2003), just ‘Wyatt Earp Plays Himself.’
By the way, I don’t think I’m anywhere near the level of these filmmakers! I’m just standing on shoulders.
Why do you think Hollywood has returned again and again to the retelling of Earp, Tombstone, and the gunfight at the OK Corral?
Money. That’s the main goal of studios, Hollywood is a business. Westerns fall in and out of popularity, but they can always relate to the current times in one way or another, and action films make a lot of money. This story made money before, it can again.
But you can also look to individuals who really believed in the story and the complexity, who then had enough pull in the industry to get a film made, like Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. They seem to understand the modern connections between today and the wild west, not only in social issues but in the type of people who reinvent themselves into legends.
And it’s probably a helluva a lot of fun to make a western.
Throughout it, the film explores the blurring of lines between reality and fiction. In the end, is that distinction important, or does it no longer matter?
I think it matters. We need to believe in history. I think it starts to matter more because people run with what they want to believe, and that is what I’m trying to explore.
Even if an elevator doesn’t put the number 13 on the buttons… there is still a 13th floor. Why do we do that to society? I’m really interested in how that blurring happens and how it’s often just accepted. Humans want to feel safe on this huge planet and we create things to be comforted.
The mythology of the past can be incredibly artistic and inspirational. I think most people know that when you read about the past, there is a layer of interpretation involved. From the writer sharing the information to the person reading it. So, you figure out what is trustworthy when you need to, and what is just fun and entertaining. And that’s why professional journalists and serious historians and librarians really matter.
In the film, I give my take on what happened, but I don’t tell the audience what to think about the events or how the films have warped history. This is a poem about Wyatt Earp, not an encyclopedia. I’m giving you the information and we should all have a discussion about it. The real danger is not talking about history.
At the same time, let’s have fun. I often wonder if people with opposing opinions would get along once they realized that they all believe in UFOs.
The film also takes us through the very beginning of film and its evolution as a means of storytelling – in this instance the story of a real historical person. What do you think is the next wave of Westerns and filmmaking technology and why is it important that moviegoers continue to be interested in history?
We like to remember our own lives as movie scenes so it’s not a surprise to keep making these connections to history as entertainment. Some historical figures are so nuts, so fun, it makes a great movie. Let’s laugh and cry and learn together, that’s what both movies and history are for.
The western is such an enduring genre and filmmakers keeps pushing the limits of drama, comedy and action. I love to see crossovers with other genres. The Zellner Brothers’ DAMSEL (2018) is great, basically a romantic dark-comedy in the west. The ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINE series by Tsui Hark should be counted among the great westerns. Or just more stories with unique characters, like Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010). And I’m definitely not the first to explore the western in a documentary—everyone should be watching Neil Diamond’s REEL INJUN (2009). Nor am I the first to do a remix, like the amazing short by Peter Tscherkassky, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A LIGHT AND SOUND MACHINE (2005).
We need the dystopian western. The technological advancement of the old west was ridiculous, fueled by the gold rush. Like THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) by Jeunet and Caro—you can’t even tell if that’s the past or the future, it’s so magical.
And why not more bombastic spaghetti westerns?? Just don’t use real historical names and make it weird.