In this Creator Conversation Q&A session, I speak with James Cotten, the director of the award-winning and critically acclaimed western movie, Painted Woman. The movie was inspired by best selling western novelist Dusty Richards’ book – The Mustanger and the Lady. The movie is available now in retail stores nationwide and all digital platforms.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your role with Painted Woman.
My name is James Cotten. I’m the director of Painted Woman. Amber Lindley and I wrote and produced the film together, but the film was conceptualized by her. She had optioned a book from Dusty Richards, one of the most prolific western authors of our time and local to her town of Fayetteville AR, and then she hired me. After reading Dusty’s book, I really wanted to try something different in the genre, to make a female empowerment story with a message. Amber and I worked on the story, kinda flipping the script on the male and female characters of the book, and then I went to work on the script. As far as how this became an Oklahoma film, I was born in Fort Smith and raised in Sallisaw, so I really wanted to bring the film home. Oklahoma has an amazing rebate program and a very talented actor and crew base to pull from. Amber met with the film office and was immediately sold on shooting the film there. It was a very cool experience to make that all happen.
What is Painted Woman about?
Painted Woman is a tragic and uplifting tale of Julie Richards (we named her after Dusty). Through no fault of her own, Julie life has always been bad… passed from hand to hand in a web of abuse and prostitution. When the story starts, she is a kept woman of a local power broker, Kyle Allison, who doesn’t treat her any better. As his world is crumbling he brings in an assassin to clean up his business. This debonair guy is attractive and well spoken, and seems to want to help Julie. That’s where it starts. You’ll have to watch to see where it goes. I think the film is very smart, but hey, I wrote and directed it.
Where was the movie filmed?
We found so many amazing locations in Oklahoma. I think one of the best parts of making this movie, was that when Amber gave me the reins to the script, I could manufacturer it to places we had scouted. I think that’s what people don’t understand about westerns, they don’t get made often because they’re expensive, everything has to be created. But when I was writing and could place things in places we could afford, places that were just sitting there, already dressed and ready to shoot, like the Overholser Mansion in downtown OKC, or the Harn Holmstead had a furnished house sitting on the property. We shot at Lake Thunderbird and on a ranch in Ames, but I think I was most proud of using Guthrie. I had been a camp counselor for the Muscular Dystrophy Association when I was young, at a camp outside Guthrie so I knew what it looked like. It was perfect and really helped me put themes into the story, because you could shoot so wide and tell the first half of the movie in a town setting without cheating. Perfect.
What was the best part about filming in Oklahoma?
The best part was definitely the crew and actors. So many talented people who love to make movies. Nathan Gardocki was our Unit Production Manager. I just don’t think it would have gone so smoothly without him at the helm. Sometimes money and creative fight, but with Nathan, I had a perfect partner in making this thing feel bigger than it should. Sam Calvin was the director of photography and probably the biggest gem I found, such a talented guy. Brent Mannon Cottrell, Toni Marlo, Jack and Jeneva of Ginger House… all these people were amazing! I also have to give a shout out to Chris Freihofer. He is a local actor, who runs classes for actors. He’s in the movie, but he really helped us find so many other great actors to fill out the cast. These weren’t the only Oklahomans involved… I even brought Oklahomans with me from Los Angeles. Corey Allen Jackson, the composer, is originally from the city. He has worked with me before and did an outstanding job on the music. Ricki Maslar cast the leads of the film in LA. She just so happened to be my first agent in Oklahoma, back in the day.
What got you interested in making movies?
I’m pretty classic in why I do this. I think it has something to do with my parents owning a movie rental store in Sallisaw. I think I was always a storyteller and I love movies. I never wrote a paper in high school. I made a film. But hey, I’m from a small town, so I wasn’t exactly encouraged to follow this career path. I tripped into it by working and acting in Tuskegee Airmen, which was an HBO movie shot in Fort Smith and Muskogee. So, with that bit of luck, having something fall in your lap… I found what I wanted to do with my life. It’s definitely made for a fun ride!
What was the greatest challenge you overcame in this production?
The biggest obstacle was the budget. Definitely. When you walk into the hardest film to make on a budget with a limited number, everything is a challenge. But if you know how to make things work for you, have good people who understand the limitation and how to exceed it, you can make something beautiful.
Why should one see the movie?
Amber and I hope that we made a film for everyone. Of course, western lovers will love this movie, whether you’re into historically accurate or just someone spinning the yarn, or a Dusty Richards fan, there’s something for you. I hope that cinephiles will find something for them, in the way we made it, the way we told the story, the artistry, the themes. And I hope that never complicates the story for anyone who just wants to lose themselves in a story for a little while. Fans of the actors, Stef Dawson (Hunger Games), Matt Dallas (Kyle XY), Kiowa Gordon (Twilight), Robert Craighead (futureman) will have something for them. Probably most importantly, we hope that people who are living in abusive situations, will see that they have worth, like Julie. And the rest of us will see that when we see someone in that situation, that we are just as culpable, if we don’t do something about it. The world is only bad when good people don’t do anything, right?
Anything else you wish to share?
The film has won 9 awards, including Best Film and Best Director. We are the 4th highest grossing western in theaters for 2017. We will be opening the Manchester International Film Festival in March.