The Wild, Wild West: Film festival in Willcox celebrates the genre

By Laura Latzko

Rock Whitehead spent his formative years watching Westerns. They made a profound effect on him.

“They just never left me,” Rock says. “I still enjoy Westerns if they are good ones.”

Rock and his wife, Brenda-Marie Whitehead, owners of BenRock Productions LLC, will celebrate that genre with the Wild Bunch Film Festival at the Willcox Historic Theater from Thursday, September 30, to Sunday, October 3.

They founded the festival in Oklahoma but soon moved it to Willcox. With Willcox’s proximity to Tombstone and movie studios in Benson, it was a logical move.

Rock says attendees, filmmakers and actors get into the spirit by wearing cowboy hats and sometimes full Western attire.

“We get a lot of those guys and women who dress up for the occasion,” Rock says.

In the past, the festival has had appearances from celebrity guests such as country singer John Carter Cash, the son of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash.

The festival will be held in conjunction with the 71st annual Rex Allen Days, which will feature a rodeo, a parade, car and gun shows, a carnival and live music.

Cattlerest RV Park and Saloon will host an afterparty on October 3 with music from Nashville artists Eric Hamilton and Sweepy Walker.

Throughout the weekend, the festival will offer special screenings of independent Western films, created by emerging filmmakers and screenwriters.   

One film,  “Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story,” tells the story of country singer Cody Johnson, who got his start in the rodeo. Directed by Shaun Silva, the film features a guest appearance by country singer Reba McEntire.

Select film screenings will see actors, producers and/or directors talking about films and their projects during Q&As. Audience members can ask about their filmmaking processes and behind-the-scenes stories.

“It’s amazing how the audience really gets involved in asking questions. They really get into it,” Whitehead says.

The Sunday night awards ceremony will be hosted by actress and stuntwoman Bobbi Jeen Olson and her husband Jim Olson, an author and historian, and their son Rowdy Olson. The three appeared on the TV show “Western Trading Post.”

The festival highlights filmmakers at different points in their career. Each year, a number of first-time and student filmmakers have a chance to showcase their work.

A Tucson native, Rock now lives in Oklahoma. He says his love of Westerns started with the film “Gunsmoke,” along with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films.

To further explore his hobby, Rock frequented Old Tucson and watched TV shows and films, like “The High Chaparral” and “Stagecoach,” being filmed.

“I would get up there as close as I could to see the action. I got to meet all kinds of people,” Rock says.

In the last few years, Rock has noticed more diversity in the Western genre, especially in terms of female filmmakers.

The films are partially chosen by five judges. Each year, they choose about half of the 100 submitted short, feature, animated and documentary films.

“You have to critique really carefully and just pick the best of the best, if you can,” Whitehead says.

The films span different subcategories, including horror, sci-fi, comedy, mystery-thriller, modern-day and spaghetti Westerns. The films were shot in United States and Canada. Previously, the festival also received submissions from countries like Spain, Sweden and Germany.

Rock is often impressed by what the independent filmmakers can do with little money.

“I’m amazed that some of these filmmakers can pull some of these Westerns off and give them the look of Hollywood on such a low budget or sometimes no budget,” Rock says.

Rock says many newer Westerns still try to capture a traditional aesthetic, although many are gorier than films in the past. Some filmmakers, including Travis Mills, are using new technologies, like smartphones, to make movies.

Rock says he feels Western films capture audiences’ attention in different ways.

“A good storyline is always good. A good beginning and good end. A lot of action is always good. The more action the better, actually,” Rock says.

This year, the festival will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1971 film “Shoot Out” with a special screening at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 2.

Dawn Lyn and Nicolas Beauvy, who played Decky Ortega and Dutch Farrell in the film, will participate in a Q&A and autograph-signing sessions following the film screening. Lyn’s autograph signing is 11 a.m. to noon Sunday, October 3.

Lyn has also appeared in “Gunsmoke,” “Mannix,” “My Three Sons” and the “Walking Tall” trilogy, and Beauvy was in “The Cowboys,” “The Virginian,” “Camelot” and “The Toolbox Murders.”

The festival will also host Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecilia, who is an actress, producer and director. She worked on the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary “Brave Miss World” and the documentary “Shut Up & Sing,” which has won awards and prizes at Aspen, Sydney, Woodstock, Chicago and Toronto film festivals.