Justin Lee is doing his best to bring back the kind of heroes and characters that helped shape his youth with his love of Westerns in his latest film Apache Junction. While Lee didn't share his hero Clint Eastwood's passion for acting, he did follow him in his pursuit behind the camera directing. Other figures he admired were Lee Van Cleef and Gary Cooper. I spoke to the writer/director about growing up in the genre, the film's influences, the cast, and the generational appeal of Westerns.
"My grandpa got me into [Westerns], and my first movie coming into the business was a Western," Lee said. "That was what I chose to kind of make my mark with, and I have been asked to do them ever since. I think 'Apache Junction' I think is my fourth-fifth Western. It was just about telling the right story, and I wanted to tell it from a female's perspective, someone who wanted to head west and try to make a mark for herself and her particular industry during that time period. So I think the times obviously what we're going through now, it was always a big part of that, too. I wrote the script a few years ago."
Apache Junction is an Old West outpost of lawlessness, a haven for thieves and cold-blooded killers. When big-city reporter Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton) arrives in town and becomes a target, notorious gunslinger Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend) comes to her aid. Now, Annabelle must entrust her future to a man with a deadly past as Jericho heads toward a tense showdown.
When writing the film, Lee drew inspiration for Townsend's Ford from the Eastwood-starred Dollar trilogy films of Sergio Leone. Apache Junction features a wide range of talent from Taylor-Compton, Townsend, Thomas Jane, and Country star Trace Adkins. "Everyone had a great chemistry from the minute Tom showed up, and he had his little quirks," Lee said. "He wanted to introduce the character, which is the pipe. The pipe is all him. He really wanted to have a pipe that he could chew on and play with some scenes, and I thought that was so cool. He brought that to the table. Stuart and Scout got a guy to hang out with for a while, a little bit prior to shooting. So they kind of had chemistry already, which really shows. It brings out Jericho's vulnerable side, which served us so well. It was great chemistry. There was no fighting. Everyone was so easy to work with. I think that's the biggest thing I can say, which is a director that's a huge thing is to have a cast that shows up on time, does their lines, likes to collaborate, easygoing, and passionate about the project. Everyone was pretty phenomenal."
Lee previously worked with Adkins on 2019's Badland. "What I saw in that day [on my limited time with Trace] made me want to go, 'Man, I want to work with this guy more,'" he said. "So when I wrote Apache Junction, he was who I wanted as that character [of Hensley], the deep voice, his commanding presence, especially for a captain in the Army out in a lawless area. It just makes sense. It's been amazing to watch him grow as an actor because I think he is a real treasure, especially in the [Western] genre. He's just phenomenal." The director acknowledged there was a period when Westerns were struggling to find an audience.
I think they're making a huge comeback. I think you're seeing a lot more of them, which is kind of the interesting thing because for a while there, there was nothing. Tombstone (1993) and Unforgiven (1992) came out and then massive gap until the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which was like 2007. There's a huge difference and I think a lot of my influence from mine comes from those spaghetti Westerns, which you don't see in a lot of movies today other than like [Quentin] Tarantino saying apparently there's got obviously between the score and over the top violence. Obviously, he's an auteur of spaghetti Westerns. He's talked about it numerous times before. Outside of those, I don't see a lot of people doing things like that.
They're doing things like hostels and very gritty, very serious movies, which I obviously love, but they don't have that Spaghetti Western flair that is to me is what kind of defines the Western for 20 years. That's something that I love that I have a huge passion towards, because my grandpa had me growing up on those kinds of movies. So obviously that influences I try to put that into a lot of my films as well. There has been a huge gap, and I think that the time to change I know that Hollywood got a very burnt out on Westerns. They all of a sudden lost international value for a very long time. It was Western fatigue, because for 50 years, they were being cranked out like crazy.
Saban Films' Apache Junction, which also stars Ed Morrone and Victoria Pratt, is currently available in theaters, on-demand, and digital.