Below is my conversation with Dylan Query, the director and co-writer of Cold Cross, a dramatic Western film being screened at Indy Film Fest. We talk about shooting a period film in Indiana, and the research process involved in making the film. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Cold Cross started out as a short film, correct?
Dylan Query: That’s right, Cold Cross started out as a short film titled Cold Creek, and we used that short film as a pilot, so to speak. We used the pilot as a proof of concept, a proof of quality, of what a small, local team can produce. And we used that to generate a lot of money, locally, from a very small town where very few people know or care about the film industry. But we were still able to prove to people that it was worth investing in, and we raised $20,000 completely locally. We’re super proud of that and we’re super proud of the support that we’ve had from friends and family and members of the community. But it definitely started out as a short film, but it grew to be so much more.
BS: So was the plan always to make it into a feature eventually?
DQ: No, I don’t think so. I would like to say it was according to plan, but as these things work, it was by complete accident. My film partner, Jacob Steineker, had never been part of any film production before, he’d never acted before, and we had worked on a very small short film that I hired him for, and he became so inspired by that one project that he came back to me a few weeks later and said ‘hey, I have this script for a Western. Would you be interested in making it?’ And by recognizing that the process had inspired him, I wanted to encourage that. So I didn’t grow up a Western fan – it’s not really my interest – but I couldn’t say no. I said ‘yea, let’s do it’, and that’s how Cold Creek was born. And from there we won some awards, including an international award at the Pop Con Film Festival in Indianapolis. And from there we had enough interest in the local community and our fans, and they wanted something more, so that’s how Cold Cross was born.
BS: Was there anything difficult in expanding that short film and making it into feature length?
DQ: Yea, there’s a lot of complications, but my team are amazing problem solvers, and Jacob and I worked closely together to develop the story and expand it. The difficult part of that is doing something that’s within our capability. I think a lot of people will write scripts and they’re not thinking about what resources or locations they’ll have available. And so what was interesting with Cold Cross is that it’s a neo-Western style film, but it’s set in the frontier. We had a lot of friends and family with property, so it was very easy for us to think ‘hey, we can talk to this person and film on this property’, and that cuts down on cost and travel, so little things like that and problem solving, but working within our means. I think that was really key. But that’s not to say there weren’t things that we wanted to do that, to be honest, we didn’t know how we were going to pull it off. But like I said, I have an amazing team, and we were able to think outside the box and create a Western right here in Indiana.
BS: So what is it that you like about the Western genre?
DQ: That’s an interesting question. Like I said, Jacob is the Western buff. I grew up not really liking Westerns at all; in my juvenile ignorance I considered them to be very boring. But when I started working on Cold Creek, there was something about it that I grew to really like. I liked the simplicity, I liked the option of utilizing a lot of natural light to make the film feel more natural, like it’s out in the wilderness. I really liked that aspect of it. I like these classic revenge stories, and Jacob took this kind of cliche, classic revenge Western and we tried to morph it into something more modernized. A lot of things that people have said when they watch Cold Cross, they say it’s a Western, but there are a lot of modern techniques that they didn’t expect. I think that was actually because, with me being the director and cinematographer, since I wasn’t a western fan growing up, that was actually our benefit. We were able to blend old with new and create something fresh.
BS: Speaking of the look of it, the film doesn’t look like a lot of traditional Westerns. When people think of Westerns, they think of big, expansive prairies or deserts. What made you want to utilize the Indiana landscape?
DQ: I tried to limit myself with how I was influencing myself. What I didn’t want to do, when I first started this project, was to start watching a bunch of Westerns because what would happen is I would essentially be influenced by these other films and I would start stealing things unintentionally. So I tried to limit myself a little, but there were certain things that I wanted to explore. One thing that we really enjoyed was the Hatfields versus McCoys, which feels like a Western but it’s set in the same time period as the Wild West. We just really liked that, and it was within our capability to film in the frontier, so to speak, in the Midwest. It was our way of making a Western slightly different from your normal Western.
BS: You make a good point about not wanting to steal other filmmakers’ styles. If I was to make a film, I would want to make it look like a Scorsese film, but then I’d be labeled as a Scorsese imposter. So it’s important to develop your own techniques.
DQ: I agree, when I studied at Ball State University, there’s a small film community there, and I would constantly have people asking me ‘have you seen this’ or ‘you should see this.’ I just try to limit myself because what a lot of people in my craft tend to forget is that films are a distraction. I’d much rather be out there honing my craft, creating my own style for my own projects, instead of watching things that other people have created. Some people might disagree with that, and that’s fine, but I think it’s important to develop your own style, and that’s how you differentiate yourself from the people around you. It’s very easy to copy Tarantino or Scorsese when you’re submerged in all of their content.
BS: What was the most difficult scene to film, either from a practical or emotional standpoint?
DQ: There were two particular scenes that were incredibly difficult to film. The first scene was probably the night chase action scene, in the middle of the film. That particular scene was very difficult for us, not just because of the lighting, but because that was a full, packed day for us. We were filming from dawn to dusk that day, and past that. We started filming around 6am that day, and trying to get as much done as possible, then the night scene came. So we were filming from the break of day until about 2 or 3am. I would say that we were very close to pulling a 24 hour day. By the end of the day though, we were at each other’s throats and we were grouchy, but we finished what we needed to, and that was awesome, but it was very difficult trying to cram that much into one day. I think if I could go back, I would probably have split it up, but on paper I thought it would work, but in reality it didn’t really work the way I wanted it to.
Additionally, I’d say the final scene of the film was very, very difficult. Jacob, with this being his very first feature-length film, and his first writing opportunity, watching him grow throughout this process is something I’m incredibly astounded and proud of. We filmed Cold Cross almost completely chronologically, so what you see is, whenever you see Jacob at the beginning of the film, you’re seeing an early actor. And what’s great about that, is his character is kind of portrayed as being young and ambitious but kind of ignorant about the reality of the world. So as he continues on throughout the film, and as Jacob gains experience as an actor, you’re seeing that level of depth increase in the character itself. What’s amazing is you get this sense of character development with William McCarthy throughout the entire film, and a big proponent of that is that Jacob’s depth as an actor is increasing as the film goes on. And that culminates in the final scene, where Jacob literally gave it his all, and it’s by far the best acting that he’s ever done. It’s in this final scene where things are the most tense and tragic. There was actually one moment during that scene where Jacob had pushed himself so far, and to be honest I think this was a fault of mine as a director, I could have managed him a little better, but there was one moment where he pushed himself so far that right after I said cut, he collapsed. He was clutching his left arm, he couldn’t breathe, and it was a very scary moment, and after that I said ‘OK, we need to be careful.’ It was a slap to the face for me because whenever your talent is in their role, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they’re acting and you might think that they’re just acting their role, but if they’re really into it and getting into this sort of Method acting sort of style, there’s stuff happening internally to them as well, that you have to try to be aware of. That was an eye-opening experience for me, to try to be a lot more observant and aware of my talent and what they’re putting themselves through. But the results speak for themselves; that final scene is just jaw-dropping for us. I hear it from a lot of people, that that was their favorite scene. I owe a lot to Jacob for his efforts and consistent diligence to grow and improve as an actor, it was very profound.
BS: What went into the decision to shoot the film chronologically?
DQ: There were a few exceptions, but we tried for the most part to do it chronologically. We did it that way because we were employing certain tactics like Jacob growing his hair or beard out. We were trying to get this sense of time progressing and I think it was just easier for us to do things chronologically, but it was difficult. We did this thing over the course of two years, so trying to get things to match up scene to scene was sometimes difficult.
BS: What kind of research went into the writing process? There must have been a great deal necessary to get period details right.
DQ: Absolutely, and I think there were a number of things we could have done better, but with our limited budget, we put a lot of effort into props and locations and costumes. We were able to find websites where we could purchase authentic costumes and props. We also turned to friends of ours who are owners of old-style navy revolvers and things like that. All of the gunfire in the film is actually black powder pistols, we’re not using blank cartridges, it’s just black powder without any projectile. So that was really fun and it creates an amazing effect on screen that you just can’t recreate with special effects, or at least not with our budget. As far as the details, I defaulted a lot to Jacob on that. He’s very knowledgeable about what is accurate and what’s not. My expertise was the technicality of production, and Jacob’s expertise was the time-period accurate details, so sometimes we’d be setting up a certain set and I would be setting up a lot of the gear and Jacob would go in and take a look and make adjustments, add certain props, and do what he could to make the set feel more authentic.
We also were in this constant revisionary process with the script. We were editing the script prior to each production day, making very small changes, and I think that was to our benefit. We were consistently improving and updating the script as we went on, and one of the things we would update was adding in little details to make the environment feel more authentic.
Cold Cross will screen at Indy Film Fest on April 23 at 4:00pm at the Kan-Kan Cinema in Indianapolis. Buy tickets here.