First, let us introduce ourselves. We are Carolina Alvarez and Tessa Markle, the co-founders and operators of Femme Regard Productions, a film production company centered around telling stories from the female perspective while giving more opportunities to women in front of and behind the camera. Founded in 2018, Femme Regard Productions has produced award-winning shorts, began releasing a weekly podcast all about indie filmmaking, and are currently in post-production for our first feature film.
Upon creating our company, we realized that we share a love for period pieces and wanted to create something that would allow us to explore that. Out of that idea came Desert Flowers, a western that tells the story of two estranged sisters seeking revenge in the Wild West. Because it was our first project, we decided to film a proof of concept that told a compelling story through the biggest action scene in our feature-length script. That was how we learned what went into creating an action-packed western. We produced, directed and starred in the film so we’ll cover a little bit of everything from finding the right location to what gear to consider to horses. Because it would not be a real western without some good horse chases!
There are many elements to consider when deciding on the right location to film. Do horses come with the property? How about some horse wranglers? We searched the California Palm Desert far and wide and learned very quickly that ranch owners wanted to charge us our entire budget just to supply us with horses and their patch of land. This was disheartening until we discovered our dream location: Caravan West in Santa Clarita, home to many western films, big-budget HBO shows and commercials. Maybe it was partly our naiveté but we struck a deal to work together with our very low budget. The biggest takeaway here is to know your bottom line and don’t be afraid to ask! We came to find that they work with all kinds of budgets and offer full production services through their partner, Snakebyte Productions. This meant offering us, on top of land and horses, a location manager, horse wranglers, stunt men, costumes, guns, props, and even some equipment! The location owner, a man named Peter Sherayko became our western guru and even wrote a book called “The Fringe of Hollywood: The Art of Making a Western” which helped us stay accurate to the time period.
After you land a location, weather should come top of mind. What time of year do you plan to film? Will your idyllic yellow grass valley turn green? Will high winds prevent you from being able to use any of your sound? Will you and your horses be sweating through the period costumes in the beating sun? We considered all of the above and landed on wintertime, which in southern California, still means lots of sunshine. But even with the best laid plans, we ended up having to reschedule because of both flash floods and forest fires.
But before we get to our rescheduled shoot day, let’s talk more prep. Even though our short was only two-and-a-half minutes long, we needed everything to look professional. That meant brushing up on our horse-riding skills and learning how to handle an antique firearm. And while we prepped our skills, our DP prepped his shots. Because a crane was definitely not in our budget but we wanted an overhead shot to showcase the wranglers circling in on us, we landed on a drone. Take it from us, be wary of strong winds for your drone! We enlisted the services of an experienced drone operator, tasking our DP with the challenge of executing tracking shots of our horse-mounted cast. We rented what is called a Black Arm to attach to a truck that could follow or lead our horses. But if you didn’t already know, horses are easily spooked. That meant we had to make sure our horses were ready for that. “Movie horses” are horses that have been desensitized to all the things that may occur on set. That means they wouldn’t be afraid of the trucks or the gunshots and could even “hit their mark.” Caravan West’s horses were highly trained and able to handle most of it. However, horses aren’t humans. You can’t tell a horse to move a few inches to their right, therefore you need to be the one who is mobile and flexible. The lesson here is to plan for double the amount of time it normally takes to reset a shot. Horses also get tired and don’t care if it’s just a few more shots left so don’t overbook them! At the end of our shoot, our lead actress, Tessa, needed to discharge her firearm while mounted on horseback. Fatigue had taken its toll on the horse, causing the horse to turn around completely mid-shot which meant Tessa had to shoot backwards. That was a wrap for Charlie horse. Luckily for us, it ended up being a really cool shot!
After much prep, it finally came to shoot day. We knew the sun set earlier in the valley of the desert, so we made call time before sunrise so we could use every minute of light before sunset. That still meant that the light would be different throughout the day, which was something that proved difficult to match in editing. Also, because we ended up shooting in January, the winds were so high that our mics were unable to pick up most of the dialogue, which forced us to ADR in post. But we made the best of it and began shooting.
Early in the day, we had our first mishap. One of our wranglers got kicked by his horse and dislocated his wrist. Thankfully we had insurance to cover his trip to the hospital, but like a true cowboy, he didn’t wait around for the medical rigamarole and ended up popping it back into location himself! Later in the day, we had mishap number two: our other wrangler’s horse lost its footing on a hill and started running backwards downhill, which is very dangerous Thankfully, he was able to recover and both horse and rider were fine, although it nearly gave us heart attacks.
We realized the final issue that we encountered couldn’t be rectified day-of but certainly taught us a lesson. Directing and acting at the same time is difficult. Directing and acting on a horse at the same time is nearly impossible. You don’t have time to dismount, watch a take, give feedback, and do it all again. So we had to trust our crew and Peter, who was always honest with his feedback.
In the end, we would have done things differently. We would have planned for two shoot days, other options for sound, an associate director, and more PAs. But we did what we could on a tight budget. We managed to spend only six thousand dollars on crew, equipment, location, horses, costumes, props and insurance, which believe us when we tell you, is a steal! Our biggest takeaways are these:
-Prepare, prepare, prepare: do your research to make sure your location has everything you want, you’re filming at the right time of year and consider things like weather and sunlight, review your options to find the best prices, and make sure all of your costumes and props are period-correct.
-Make sure you have the crew you need: skeleton crews are great but a handful of people can only do a handful of things. If you want an assistant to run for lunch (because remember, you’re in the middle of the desert), and take BTS shots, and help on set, you’re going to need multiple PAs. And of course what we already mentioned about directing.
-Be prepared for anything to happen on shoot day: Floods and fires causing you to reschedule, winds ruining your sound, horses misbehaving, injuries. It’s literally the wild west and we highly recommend giving yourself more than 10 hours, even if your finished project is only going to be a few minutes. Action and animals always require more time.
Shooting any period piece isn’t easy. Shooting any action film isn’t easy. Putting them together in a western is a challenge. But it’s still doable! This was our FIRST PROJECT and we honestly believe that worked in our favor because we were confident we could pull it off if we took our time and trusted our team and we were determined to just dive in. Do your research and make sure you’re prepared, watch westerns-old and new-and know what you want with your final product. Trust your team, and bring in an expert like Peter if you can. Then all that’s left is to strap in and giddy up!