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Our dirty questions to Jethro Waters

Eoghan Lyng interviews the director of Gunfighter Paradise, an intriguing drama set in a very trigger-happy US; they talk the Coen Brothers, pro-gun ammunition, anti-gun artillery, religion and much more - read our exclusive interview

Texas-born and North Carolina-raised Jethro Waters is a an award-winning filmmaker, producer, cinematographer and writer. His debut documentary feature F11 and Be There was amongst the New York Times Critic’s Picks in 2020. He made his narrative debut fiction feature Gunfighter Paradise in 2024. The film dissects gun culture in the US without making judgments. Our writer Eoghan Lyng wrote about his film: “All around the characters are people acting out their secret revenge tales around them, whether it’s shooting at targets ahead of them, or reciting the Bible to guide them through their particular truth on life. Dreams swallow us all, in their own way”.

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Eoghan Lyng – Much of the film, particularly the ominous narrative voice and hallucinogenic fantasy, is pleasantly reminiscent of The Coen Brothers. Did their oeuvre influence your work?

Jethro Waters – The Coen Brothers have had an immense influence on me. I can remember watching Raising Arizona (Ethan Coen, 1987) as a kid and being absolutely mesmerised by it. I’m still mesmerised by it today – it’s a masterpiece. Their entire body of work, in one way or another, has helped shape the way I think about movies. When it comes to the ominous narrative voice and hallucinogenic fantasy in Gunfighter Paradise there are many nods to the Coens, but I’ve been just as influenced by how Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese handle narration and fantasy.

EL – Would you describe the film as pro-gun, or anti-artillery? A case could be made for either point of view.

JW – I think that is true – a case could be made for either view, depending on the audience member. I wouldn’t describe the film as taking a specific stance on guns and I certainly didn’t write it with an intention to make the gun debate a central theme. The ambiguity there has, so far, been very helpful with audiences with wildly varying backgrounds, in that it helps focus the story on one of the main issues at hand: Religion.

EL – Is it true that you wrote the music for the film, and were you inspired by Ry Cooder’s slide craft for it?

JW – Yes I did write the music for the film. The score is mainly inspired by classic Spaghetti Western scores, flamenco style guitar, and southern gospel music. The score was also a joint effort with my longtime musical collaborator, Bryan Black, who was also the sound designer, foley artist, and mixed the film. And though Bryan is a full time PhD Physicist, Professor, and Researcher in Massachusetts, he somehow made time to work on this film and did such an incredible job with his additions to the music and his work with the final mix. To answer the other question: I do love Ry Cooder’s music, but I wasn’t thinking of him specifically as an inspiration when scoring this film. For Gunfighter Paradise I was writing music in some strange land between Scanners [David Cronenberg 1981] and For a Few Dollars More [Sergio Leone, 1965].

EL – On that subject, did the actors perform the gospel harmonies during the musical number on the stairs, or did they lip sync to a recording?

JW – I love this question. Joel Loftin (Joel) and Margarita Cranke (Rhoda) performed that gospel number together live in that hallway scene. What you see on screen is their actual recorded performance on set. I put several mics in that room to get as much out of them live as possible. We did two takes of that scene, and they nailed it perfectly both times. I used their first take in the film. Both Joel and Margarita sang for their churches growing up and I think it shows, not only in the immense talent they showed off by singing those perfect harmonies a cappella, but also in the sincere spiritual emotion that comes through their voices.

EL – Was it difficult for Braz Cubas to embody the role of Stoner, a vigilante who is at best mercurial and at worst driven by sociopathic ideals?

JW – Braz Cubas is a supremely stoic weirdo in real life, so I think it was very natural for him to play Stoner. He really just melted into that role without much effort at all. It was wonderful to watch. He’s been a friend for a long time and like most everyone in the film (with the exception of the amazing and highly acclaimed Jessica Hecht) this was his first role of any kind in a film.

EL – Gunfighter Paradise queries the importance of religion in the United States. Do you think people like Stoner are pushed to Ancient Egyptian practices as a form of protest against the pervasive influence of Protestantism in the country?

JW – I believe the United States has a very serious problem when it comes to religion. It is not a new problem, but it has certainly helped accelerate the deep divisions in America at a terrifying pace over the last few decades. A human being having an inner relationship with a divine power, with God, that is a wholly subjective experience. And it is insane to me that there is this pervasive and concrete dogma (in most all major religions) that there is a right way to believe in the supernatural. And because of specific religious dogma, every other person in every other religion is inherently wrong and also doomed. I have nothing against religious belief, spirituality, whatever a person likes to call it, and in fact I think there are some truly beautiful ideas and guideposts for living life that have been born in many religions. But when the United States takes bold legal steps to bake one religion into us as the national belief system, propping up one ideology as the right one, when we forget we are supposed to be a country that separates church and state. When there is no freedom from religion, we are in deep trouble.

EL – Family cements itself into the fibre of the movie. Fathers teach their children to hunt, mothers guide their sons forward. Would you consider the importance of kinsfolk to be a central motif?

JW – Yes I think family is the most important motif in the film.

EL – My favourite line in the film is: “You got blood stains on your floor; I got toys on mine.” Is that meant to show moral righteousness from one villain to another?

JW – That was an improvised line from Christopher Bower who plays the role of the neighbour. And I think it’s the most perfect distillation of the central theme of the film – which is exactly what you mention – moral righteousness. Who is the villain? Who is worshiping God the right way? Who is making the righteous decisions and living the Christian life and who is the ungodly lost sinner when considering that these enemies (who are neighbours) supposedly believe the exact same thing and worship the same God?

EL – The movie incorporates a number of different effects – what was the trickiest one to develop/achieve?

JW – Getting the yellow fabric move and glow with the kind of otherworldly intensity I wanted, that was a difficult one. It ended up being a weird mixture of practical and post production effects.

EL – Do you think European audiences will react in a different way to Gunfighter Paradise than American viewers?

JW – Yes, I think European audiences will react much differently than American viewers. We had our German Premiere at Filmfest Bremen and the reactions and questions at the Q&As for those screenings were so incredibly different from what we’ve heard so far from American audiences. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how Gunfighter Paradise has been so deeply analysed, with such wide variation in each analysis, by audiences both in America and abroad.

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Jethro Waters is pictured at the top and also in the middle of the of this interview.


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