Interview – ‘The Stolen Valley’ director Jesse Edwards on making a modern-era Western

A Navajo girl (Briza Covarrubias) and an outlaw (Allee Sutton Hethcoat) rob a pawn shop and, in order to reach Alta Valley, must outrun the men tracking them down.

With The Stolen Valley launching on various VOD platforms in Australian on April 17, Nick L’Barrow had the chance to chat with the film’s director Jesse Edwards about the inspirations behind his modern Western, exploring important themes, and the similarities between filming dance sequences and shootouts!

Director Jesse Edwards (centre)

Nick: Jesse, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and thanks for taking the time to chat!

Jesse Edwards: Thank you for taking the time to do this! I’m excited to spread the word of this movie!

Nick: I’m excited too, man! I want to kick off by asking about this film’s modern Western aesthetic. What were the important key elements, like lighting, the landscapes, or colours that you wanted to construct in order to bring that classic Western feeling to life in a modern setting?

Jesse Edwards: Well, it’s funny, I don’t watch a lot of Westerns! It’s not a genre that I’m a big fan of. I’ve seen a couple of modern ones that really inspired this story, like Hell or High Water.

Nick: Oh, I love that movie!

Jesse Edwards: Yeah! Taylor Sheridan. It’s a fantastic film. Just how dry all the landscapes look, and a lot in the colour fade. But really, it’s in the framing. It’s in the locations you pick. It’s in the time of year. Getting all of that right, and then keeping it consistent for the film, that’s how I go about like setting that tone. How do we stick with this and execute this?

Nick: I do think you capture that feeling incredibly well! I’m curious about two scenes that are tonally so different, but I feel like have similarities in regard to the filmmaking aspects. There’s the dance sequence in the bar, and then there’s the various shootouts. I feel like there are similarities in the choreography, the blocking, and the rhythm to those scenes. Do you feel like there are similarities from a filmmaking perspective when you’re crafting those scenes?

Jesse Edwards: That’s a great observation. Nobody’s called that out before! I think good sequences, whether it’s dialogue, the action, or dance, always has a rhythm. I’m a drummer or used to be a long time ago! And the same for my editor Zach [Prichard], who’s a fantastic editor.

We’re always talking about the pace of things, the rhythm of things. There is always this call and response. It’s the same with the dance. They’re actually moving to a rhythm, and that was actually harder [to do] than the fight scenes! The fight scenes are just fighting, they don’t have a music track that they’re dancing to.

In the dancing scene, we had to find the rhythm, there’s the song, we’re keeping track of them moving to it, and then there’s how we tell all these different story points, whilst also staying in rhythm. Then there’s bad guys that come in! It was definitely the hardest scene to shoot, and the hardest one to edit! We spent more time on that than the fight stuff.

Nick: As much as this is a Western film, with those big set pieces, it’s also a very personal story that explores themes like racism, sexism, societal power dynamics, Indigenous cultures. How important is it to you to highlight and explore these themes in your work? Does the movie look any different if you don’t include these themes?

Jesse Edwards: Yeah, that’s where it all starts for me honestly. You could package this same story in a romantic comedy, in black and white. You could tell this story many different ways. But for me, it all starts with those themes, and then made a Western movie out of it because of the connections I had to a location manager in Knapp, Utah.

We were planning to show in Nashville, where I’m from. And it was during COVID19, and it was too many people, too many indoor scenes. And this was towards the end of 2020, so we planned to do something more remote with a small outdoors crew.

So, once that whole thing was planned and moving, I wanted to focus on making a movie that mattered and tell an important story. I had two daughters at the time, now I have four kids! But at the time, for my two older girls, I wanted to make a story that when they’re old enough to watch it, they could look at the characters and look up to ones that are courageous, that made brave decisions and choices in the middle of very difficult things.

I started with thoughts about what it’s like to be a woman and being treated a certain way because of the colour of your skin. I tried to empathise with that and then create something that’s eye opening for people who don’t know about the Navajo people, or even Native American people. Something that is inspirational to people who have never seen women depicted this way before. For me, it was something I wanted to be able to pass down and say, “This is a story worth telling”.

Nick: There’s a scene early on in the film that highlights the importance of storytelling to the Navajo people. How did you find working that aspect of their culture into your own form of storytelling?

Jesse Edwards: Yeah, even just the language itself, very, very few films depict it or show it. There’s a few out there, Windtalkers with Nicolas Cage is the big one. But it’s an endangered language. Very few people know it unless people are speaking it.

I wanted to have scenes where the language is captured on camera. It was hard to find an elder from Navajo nation who could come and help coach our actors on how to speak the tongue. So, it was really special to do those scenes. Those scenes were also hard to shoot because it’s a very hard language to learn!

It was an honour, a huge honour! It’s one thing to have the intention and hope to do it. It’s another thing to do it and to include the Navajo people in it. There was a lot of work done sending the script to Charles Robinson, who was the native consultant on this film, and it was important that I consulted the elders. It was cool to hear what they resonated with. I got a message from a group of them who went to see it and they said, “Great job!” We were so happy that they said that!

Nick: That’s incredible! Without spoiling anything major, the ending of The Stolen Valley alludes to the fact that Maddy and Lupe could go on more adventures together. Is their story something you’re interested in continuing?

Jesse Edwards: It felt good for the script to end with them having something to do based off what they’ve learned. I think it was the right way to end the film, showing that in the aftermath of this story, Maddy has some purpose and she has a desire to connect in a different way than you ever thought she would have in the beginning. I think that’s a good ending!

I also think it would be really fun to keep telling this story, but there’s no plans for it right now. But should the opportunity arise, I know everybody would love to get back together and spend more time with those characters!

Thank to you Jesse for his time, and to Walkden Publicity and Lightbulb Films for organising the interview. The Stolen Valley is available on various VOD platforms from April 17.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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