Brett Donowho Shares His Experience Directing "The Old Way," Nicolas Cage's first Western

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

We recently spoke with director Brett Donowho on his work with director of photography Sion Michel, ACS on The Old Way, which premiered nationwide in 500 theaters on Jan. 6th. 
The Old Way stars Academy Award® winner Nicolas Cage in his first Western thriller. It's an intriguing tale about Colton Briggs (Cage), a cold-blooded gunslinger turned respectable family man. When an outlaw gang forces him to take up arms, he discovers an unlikely partner in his 12-year-old daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and the two set out on a quest to avenge. 

PH: Hi there Brett! What initially drew you to directing? 

Brett Donowho: I have worn many hats along my journey in the entertainment industry having started out as an actor and ultimately becoming a producer. I find that directing is the perfect amalgamation of my right and left brain and there is nothing quite like expressing yourself as an artist both thru collaborating with an amazing crew to build a world and literally “act” thru each character you are directing. Perfectly complements my artistic self. And I enjoy the high pressure great reward of being able to see the fruits of everyone’s labor upon completion after working so hard. 

PH: How have you been able to grow professionally over the years with all of the different projects you've worked on? 

Brett Donowho: I have a mentor who wanted to protect me and take the traditional route of me directing a great movie and then entering the system with a bang. After the movie we were making fell apart because of the crash of ’08 I decided to write a business plan and get busy making smaller indies. The best part of this decision looking back is I was able to practice and learn my craft along the way. As all filmmakers know making a movie is one of the hardest endeavors in life because so many “stars” have to align. And in that collaboration of art even with the best prep and intentions it always comes down to a finite amount of time and resources. I have said and will say again I am so proud of anyone that goes out and makes a movie. Whether someone appreciates your art or not you have tackled an often-insurmountable obstacle and won. So after making almost two dozen features in some capacity what I can certainly attest to is wisdom comes with experience. I appreciate all of my films for the lessons each one taught me. I have been saying to people for thirty years – even back when I was an agent – Just Do It! Like Nike. And doing it is half the battle. It’s in the act of “doing” we learn and grow and hopefully refine our art. And the older you get the more you realize “the journey is the thing” so in both success and failure enjoy the ride. It goes way too fast. 

PH: With growth, there are also many learning experiences and takeaways. What's been one of the biggest for you? 

Brett Donowho: I am an ADHD perfectionist and so the older I get the more I realize that setting some false expectation no matter how noble hurts the process. Just like in acting, where the actor strives to live one second, one beat at a time in the truth of the moment; so is life and art. So what I have learned is to make the plan and prepare for “the game”; however, enter said game without being self-critical, surrounding yourself with the best artists you can find and then enjoy the ride. Lean on the preparation so when the curve balls come (and they always do) one can make an instinctual game day decision and keep it moving. This is important not just to allow creativity to flow but also lower the blood pressure! 

PH: What drew you to your latest project, The Old Way?

Brett Donowho: I grew up for a portion of my life on a cattle ranch in Texas dressing up like a cowboy with my own replica colts at my side loving the cowboy way. Even had an uncle that was a legit cowboy and rodeo man. Sitting with my paw-paw and maw-maw watching Gunsmoke and Rawhide between my John Wayne and Chuck Bronson westerns. So to say I had a bias when I first picked up the script would be an understatement; however, it wasn’t just the homage this script possessed to the traditional plot points of loss and revenge of the classis western but the fresh take of showing this story thru the father and daughter relationship of Colton and his daughter Brooke.

The journey we go on discovering the relationship between this retired gunslinger and his daughter and the story of two people on the spectrum learning about themselves and each other. I have never seen a western like this and as one who is a huge advocate for the disabled (I grew up interpreting for the deaf) and the misunderstood of our society, I found the story of a father and daughter caught in the solitude of their own loneliness and isolation from a world they don’t fit in, inspiring, moving and irrespective of genre, a story that had to be told.  The journey of Briggs and Brooke as they find common ground with their disability and learn to find love as a father and daughter makes this a movie that I hope will both touch the viewer and inspire us all to take the journey of discovery and understanding with our friends and family.

PH: Nicolas Cage in a Western thriller! What was the experience of directing Nicolas in a role like this (which was a first for the actor)?

Brett Donowho: I started as an actor so Nick and I hit it off as we both spoke the same language and had many conversations about what some would say is the lost art of acting. Directing is being able to communicate a vision and then collaborate with the cast and crew you assemble to hopefully create a solid piece of art reflecting the talent of those under the “big top” if you will. I am really proud to say the cast and crew came together and we made something really special here. Everyone contributing their own perspective and art form with me steering the proverbial ship. Cage needs no “direction” but as a pro and talented artist, joins the team to collaborate and contribute his vast wisdom and experience to the collective art. I am honored to have been able to work with him and look forward do doing so again.

PH: Can you share some of your processes and approaches to this film? 

Brett Donowho: I am a minimalist nomad living on the road hotel to hotel, location to location, so in general what I do and did here is I “moved” to Montana months before the production was to begin. In this way I can integrate into the community. Make friends. Learn the terrain and soak in the environment ‘if you will’. This helps me not just have extra time as I serve as my own initial location scout traveling around but once locations are found gives me additional time to shot list and contemplate the overall look, feel and vibe of the film within the location, which is rare if not usually prohibitive in indie cinema just based on the limited resources. While this is happening, I break down the script from a narrative and plot perspective and start identifying and making decisions on the attributes and three-dimensional characters I want to inhabit this world I am sitting it. Then I proceeded to find the best actors I could to inhabit these characters not just based on their own exceptionalism but also their essence. Looking for actors exceptional at their craft and whom embody said character. I have this approach for each department, every crew member, every nuance of the film. And while unlike studio movies I don’t have a year or two I try my best to focus all my energy into pulling together the best “family” consisting of both crew and cast within the time allotted. There is nothing quite like the traveling circus of a feature film and for each one I must pull together to the best of my ability as the captain of the ship, those players that will hopefully present the best “show” possible at the end of the process.  

PH: How did you envision the father-daughter duo of Colton and Brooke? How did that translate on-screen?

Brett Donowho: Some of this has already been eluded to above but it’s the reason I wanted to make this film. As Cage describes, these characters are a mystery and it is my hope this will compel the audience thru the storyline not just to see what happens with this revenge journey but more importantly what will happen to the relationship between Colton and his daughter Brooke. As they are both emotionless individuals it is the journey and discovery of this disability and the commonalty of how father and daughter view the world that allows them to open up and communicate with one another and hopefully find love in the midst of tragedy and pain. This relationship to me is what the entire film is about. So to be able to take my experience as a father of three daughters, having ADHD myself and showcase this flawed distance between them and watch as they find themselves and find familial love was special.

From a visual storytelling point of view one will notice that the movie starts with wide sweeping anamorphic shots featuring these great landscapes in the background, with the blocking in the foreground always showing the distance between Colton and Brooke in each scene in the first act. As the film progresses the framing gets tighter as they do. The grand Renault painting created by Sion’s mastery gets starker and we begin to crunch the blacks and the film goes into a funnel if you will as we get to the finale. So all of that was planned and to me represents visually what we are experiencing emotionally with the characters as the stakes are raised simultaneous to Colton and Brooke finding familial love. 

PH: What was it like working with Sion? How did you collaborate to get the look and tone of the film to translate the way you wanted it to? 

Brett Donowho: Sion and I worked together almost eighteen years ago on a film I produced and co-starred in and have been friends ever since and have been looking for that perfect project to collaborate on. He is a consummate professional and while a master technician what I love is he is an artist. And on a side note he is very zen so balances my wacky ADHD frenetic personality. ;)  We spent a year working on a neo science fiction western called Santiago based on the Mike Resnick novel and after six months of prep in China covid  shut us down. It was pretty interesting that we had spent a year discussing and researching westerns in order to apply some of those homages to our science fiction opus. How apropos that all that energy and time spent with us discussing and researching westerns could now be put to good use in a traditional western.

Before we settled on Montana, Sion and I flew there to scout and as mentioned above after that decision was made I moved up there. It was during this time I would be scouting and deciding on the locations and while I am using the Cadrage app to begin shot listing and check out various shots and lenses, Sion and I were watching movies and discussing tone and looks and he was taking stills from those films and sending me files on Shotdeck. I do really love how new technology helps in such a great way to be on the same page and have a smooth definitive communication process. 

PH: What other upcoming projects (if you can share) can we look forward to?

Brett Donowho: I am attached to several projects and we are out to cast. Look forward to sharing this soon I hope. 

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