Wichita has been the setting for many Westerns, but none like Nicholas Barton’s “Wichita.”
“It’s a Western that’s not really a Western,” the local writer/director said earlier this week about his first feature-length film, which was made in and around Wichita.
Actually, he said, it started out as a “modern noir story that turned into a period piece. A cat-and-mouse drama.”
“It married two of my favorite genres of movies,” Barton said.
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It also ventures into other territory, as well, including crime elements. It perhaps feels reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ tone in “Blood Simple,” if “Blood Simple” had horses and Wyatt Earp. It also isn’t afraid to go to some dark, dark places.
Wichitans can see for themselves when the film has its world premiere Friday night at the Orpheum. The screening kicks off a 30-city, six-state tour, hopefully followed by a film festival run and eventual release on DVD and On-demand.
The story starts with Ben (Blake Webb), who has clearly just escaped from prison, literally with blood on his hands. He’s questioning someone, rather brutally, and gets information that will lead him to the sleepy town of Wichita.
Meanwhile, young farmgirl Mary (Reylynn Caster) and her older sister Samantha (Karina Wolfe) encounter another drifter, Jesse (former Wichitan Justin France) on their farm. Samantha asks him to leave before threatening him with a shotgun, which prompts the charismatic Jesse to move on into town where he befriends a kindly widow who takes him in.
But Jesse is drawn to Samantha, who ignores all his advances, though she opens up to him slowly.
Then danger sets in when Samantha’s gambler, alcoholic father (David Dillinger Jefferis) gets in over his head, which prompts Jesse to take matters into his own hands.
Things come to a boil when Ben arrives in Wichita, and a bounty hunter hunts both of the drifters down, as their pasts are revealed.
A lot of the film was shot at Cowtown, and Barton says shooting a period piece had its unique challenges.
“There are so many things you have to be conscious of and aware of. We couldn’t have planes flying over, cars driving through the background. We always had re-enactors on-set,” to keep it authentic, Barton said.
It also helped that the actors gave it their all, he says. Only two of the leads (Webb and Wolfe) were brought in from L.A. All other roles were cast locally.
“There are tons of talented people here,” Barton said, including actors, crew members and more.
“My job as a director is not to micro-manage these people, but to just be a conduit so that all these creative people can work together,” he said.
Barton credits executive producer Ryan McGuigan, who also did location sound and design, his wife, Laura Ashley Weir, who acted as executive producer, and cinematographer Alec Walterschied as being crucial to the production, although he said there were many, many more.
“I’m enhanced by having so many talented people around me,” he said.
And that’s coming from a self-taught writer, editor and director. Barton learned everything on his own, but knew he had a love for film early on.
“I was that kid at 11-years-old going, ‘How did they do that?’ ” he said. “I really stopped watching movies for pure entertainment and started studying the nuts and bolts of it. I loved everything about it.”
He hopes filmmaking is a lifelong endeavor.
“To me, it’s like the ultimate life form. It’s got music, it’s got feeling, emotion. It really just speaks to me.”