HOW THE WEIRD WEST WAS WROUGHT
an interview with michael flores
Artist, writer, model maker, producer, entrepreneur; Michael Flores wears all of these hats and many more. He’s also the creator of and driving force behind Western X, a webseries that combines Lynchian weirdness with a western setting and sensibilities, along with more than a little epic fantasy thrown in to spice things up. Here, he discusses how he and his crew built Western X from the ground up, and the more-than-full-time job it is to make sure that things keep going smoothly even after the cameras are done rolling and a season is in the can. As it turns out, an artist/writer/model maker/producer/entrepreneur’s work is never done…
Ziggy: What do you consider yourself to be first: a writer, a filmmaker, or something else? How did you get started with each?
Michael Flores: I’m not really sure what I consider myself. I think a lot of people are too quick to call themselves filmmakers. My personal feeling is that you should have a body of work to truly be called a “filmmaker,” but that’s just my opinion. I guess I feel like I’m somewhat of an artist. I really enjoy the art of filmmaking, and I will always consider myself to some degree a pupil and fan of the cinema. Since I was a child I wrote short stories, comics, screenplays etc., but I never took it very seriously. After years of working within the fitness industry, I ended up going back to school, and I started writing again. Once I got a taste of film school, I quickly got sucked in and I decided that film is what I wanted to do.
Ziggy: What was the genesis of Western X?
Michael Flores: I don’t like waiting for hand-outs, so instead of depending on others to make my career for me, I decided to work on a project that could showcase my talents. Originally, I had written a very bleak vampire type story that dealt with the last human colony amongst a growing vampire nation, but I realized pretty fast that I didn’t have the budget for something as high concept as my vampire saga. Eventually, I ended up taking a few ideas from that screenplay and started forming a new idea: something that I would be able to do on my own and slowly piece together. This inevitably led to Western X.
Ziggy: What would you consider your greatest influences as you developed the story and the production style?
Michael Flores: Pinpointing my exact source of inspiration is tough because it comes from so many different places. At the very core, Western X is a western; it has all the elements that make a true western, from the archetypal character of the “man with no name” that Clint Eastwood made famous, to the greedy blood thirsty soldiers of the Civil War era. That being said, one of my biggest inspirations for Western X is what I call the fantasy epics, i.e. Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time series. Stories of ancient evil resurfacing after years of hiding play a part in many fantasy stories and many times are a must have element in the genre. It’s subtle, but if you’ve watched episodes 1-8, you will see that it’s there. Another inspiration is the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, i.e. Once Upon a Time in the West, Sabata, Django, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Ziggy: The story of Western X is very complex. Did you ever think that maybe the story’s ambitions were too much for what you could accomplish as a homegrown independent production?
Michael Flores: Once I scrapped the original concept, I started writing things that I knew I’d be able to do with limited funds, so I never felt like I was being overly ambitious. Although, there were times when I felt that my vision won’t be conveyed to the audience the way I would have liked it to because of working with a relatively low budget; but so far, all has worked out.
Ziggy: What made you choose to go the way of the webseries instead of the traditional movie route?
Michael Flores: I have always loved television, and when I first started with Western X, the web series medium was just getting started, so I felt like it was the best way to tell my story. I couldn’t think of a better place to start than a place with no boundaries or rules. The internet has given me not only a chance to distribute my story, but a place where I can connect with the audience and build strong, lasting relationships, which is important for an indie show to do. It needs to find a special place in the hearts of the audience; otherwise, it will never succeed.
Ziggy: What were your greatest obstacles starting up, and how did you overcome them?
Michael Flores: The biggest obstacle was probably finding all of the western wardrobe pieces for first three episodes. Western gear can get very expensive, and we were already spending most of our money on cameras and lighting, which didn’t leave very much money for anything else. Fortunately, I was able to get in contact with a cowboy stunt crew that performed in Arizona, and I offered them roles in the show, and that took care of most of the wardrobe expenses because they came with their own clothes.
Ziggy: Describe that first day when you had Episode One edited and ready to go. How did it feel?
Michael Flores: It felt good to see all the hard work complete and on the computer screen. I worked so hard on the model of the Demon Valley that it was very cool to see it actually come to life before my eyes.
Ziggy: Western X got a shot in the arm from new investors after Episode Three. Did that all come from sources you were actively cultivating, or did some come as a surprise? What do you think was the tipping point that brought everyone on board?
Michael Flores: There was one source that I was working with during the production of Episodes 1-3, and they were waiting to see what we could accomplish with the budget I had at the time, and the others came through the course of promotion and marketing. The tipping point that brought everyone on board was probably the rough footage and the large fan support that we had already built online. Also, one of investors liked the fact that I had already put a lot of my own money in the project. It made him feel comfortable knowing that I was willing to spend money to make money.
Ziggy: Did the story you initially intended to tell change once you found you had more backing with which to tell it, or did it remain fundamentally the same? Were new characters or arcs added to the story?
Michael Flores: Before I even shot Episodes 1-3, I had a rough outline of where I wanted the story to go, but once I received financial backing, I actually sat down and wrote the eight seasons that I wanted to do. There were a few characters that I added in order for the story to go where it needed, but the major players were always in place. A few of the characters have spawned spin-off shows that I plan on doing just because I felt that their storyline is just too good not to tell eventually.
Ziggy: Do you already know how the story at large and all of its arcs play out, or do surprises come up for you as you go along?
Michael Flores: There was no way I could just go in without having an idea of where everything would turn out; especially with this type of storyline, it would have turned into a complete mess. But that didn’t stop any surprises from happening. We had an accident on set that created several setbacks, and I had to quickly add some new characters and create a few new story arcs in order to fix the plot hole that was created when one of our actors/stuntman got hurt. It all turned out well in the end.
Ziggy: Western X has an excellent cast. How did you find everyone?
Michael Flores: Arizona has a wealth of talent, and I spent a couple years getting to know a few actors before doing Western X. I guess I was secretly casting roles in my mind, because when the time came I knew exactly who I wanted put in each role.
There were two characters that I took a bit more extra time with. The first one was “Hecate,” who is played by Deneen Melody. I was looking for someone very specific and unique looking. In Arizona I was having difficulty finding someone with the right look, so I took to social media and started going through Facebook pages and Myspace profiles, and after several weeks of searching I stumbled upon Deneen’s page. I contacted her, we discussed the project, she was excited, and I flew her out to Arizona. The second character was “The General.” Now from the very beginning I wanted this person to be a recognizable face: someone with fame and someone that could carry the prowess of a king-type character. When I found out one of my stunt guys had a previous relationship with Vernon Wells, I didn’t hesitate to offer him the role. To my surprise, he loved the part and was excited about doing it.
Ziggy: A plot this tight and complex seems like it would need to be highly controlled. How much of the characters’ personalities would you say comes from the actors’ invention, and how much comes from the writing?
Michael Flores: The writing is the blueprint, but I allow the actors to deviate if I feel like it adds more. I don’t believe in hindering the actor; if he or she wants to change or tweak a character I’m always open to it, so long as it doesn’t alter the meaning or the story. Don’t get me wrong; there are certain elements that must be conveyed in order for the audience to understand the true meaning of a scene, but for the most part each actor understood the role and didn’t deviate much. Richard Anderson, who plays “Colonel Lee,” worked with me a lot on his character. Colonel Lee is a complex character and it was important that Richard and I were on the same page and that we understood each and every action the soldier made and why he made it.
Ziggy: Of the cast, who do you think is most like the character he or she plays, and why? What about the least?
Michael Flores: I’d have to say Dustin Hale is a lot like “X”. He’s quiet, calm, and doesn’t say much. Richard Anderson is the least like his character. Lee is arrogant, obsessive, and very bipolar, and Richard is none of those things. Richard Anderson is the complete opposite of Lee.
Ziggy: Who in the world of Western X would you be?
Michael Flores: I’d be the old man in the bath tub.
Ziggy: Now that you’ve got a groove going, an established fan base, and funding you didn’t have when you started, do you feel more pressure when you’re at work on the production, or less? Can you breathe yet, and does it ever get easier?
Michael Flores: The pressure never stops. I actually feel more pressure delivering material that will live up to what the audience wants, and having someone else’s money is stressful. Although I do feel more accomplished as a producer, and it does get a bit easier with each episode that is released.
Ziggy: Which do you find more challenging to deal with on a day to day basis: the filmmaking side of working on Western X, or the business side of it? Why and how so?
Michael Flores: On a day to day basis, I’d have to say the business side. Marketing Western X is a full time job. I spend 40 hours plus a week marketing the show in chat forums and social media sites, and I really don’t have the luxury to take a day off, because the numbers dip every time I step away for a bit. Eventually, once the show starts paying for itself, I will probably hire someone to run the social media side of things.
Ziggy: Regular television series count on big ticket ad slots and/or cable subscription revenues, and movies have box office, rental outlet, and home video returns to pay for them. Western X is freely available on the web. Surely web ads can't pay for all of the high quality stuff that shows up on the screen, so ultimately, how do you and your investors make the money back for producing the show and keeping it up?
Michael Flores: Right now our biggest way to make money is through donations. On the website (www.westernxtheshow.com), we have two different donation amounts: $3.00 and $5.00. But typically, I usually suggest 99 cents per episode. Other ways we will earn the money back are through DVD sales (when the season is complete) and a slew of other distribution methods. Merchandise plays a vital part as well.
The biggest thing to being successful and earning money back is building the fan base. The only way to do this is by being involved with the audience and being interactive. Bottom line, build the fan base and everything else will follow.
Ziggy: What has been the most satisfying moment for you so far on the set of Western X?
Michael Flores: When we shot the very last scene [of Season One]. Normally when shooting films, you don’t necessarily shoot linearly, but it turned out that the last scene was also shot last. When we wrapped the final scene, there was a feeling of accomplishment that I had never felt before. It was a long process that spanned two years, and it felt great to finally have the entire first season in the can.
Ziggy: What has been the roughest moment so far?
Michael Flores: The accident. During the first round of shooting, the stunt coordinator for Western X landed wrong during one of his stunts and suffered a major head injury. Fortunately, he ended up being okay, and he returned to set after a few months. He wasn’t at full capacity for almost a year, but he was lucky to have a full recovery.
Ziggy: Is there anything that’s coming up with the series that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Michael Flores: Vernon Wells. I absolutely cannot wait for Vernon to show up on screen for the audience. His acting ability is phenomenal, and it was such a treat to be able to have him on set.
Ziggy: Are there any other projects on the horizon for you and your crew, or is it all about Western X for the foreseeable future?
Michael Flores: There are at least three more projects within the next 24 months, including a Western X spin-off called A Six Gun for Lobo.
Ziggy: I see that Western X has a collectible card game in the works. How did that idea come about, and how's the response been?
Michael Flores: I’m always thinking of new ways to market the show, and with a show like Western X, the limits are endless. The mythology, the rich plot and the characters are so complex that the source material would make a very diverse and entertaining game. Additionally, it’s a great way to market the show to a totally different audience, and so far the response has been great. I’m very excited about the prospects and new roads that this game can open for the show.
Ziggy: Tell us about Cazador Radio. What was the genesis of that, and what can audiences expect to find there?
Michael Flores: Cazador Radio started December 2010 as a way to promote Western X, but I quickly realized that I needed to separate the audiences because of the mature nature of the radio show. Eventually we created a radio program called “Men With No Lives”. The radio show was really well received, and it quickly became an entity of its own. The show is comparable to and is in the same vein as The Howard Stern Show and Adam Carolla.
Because of the success of the radio show, we started a network for live radio and podcasts that are available for free online at www.cazadorradio.com. We have a geek girl radio show titled “No Elfin’ Way” that is actually hosted by Deneen Melody. Also, Dan Narciso and Ed Vanderlee, who are both involved in Western X, have their own show called “1980 Something”, where they discuss pop culture of the 80s. Other shows that can be found on the site are “Four Eyed Critics,” “Weird West Radio,” “Comic Book Chaos,” and “Weed Smarts.” I never thought of myself as a radio guy, but I have that entrepreneurial spirit that is both a curse and a gift, and if the audience is there, then why not do it.
Ziggy: Do you ever sleep?
Michael Flores: No.
Ziggy: Once upon a time, the term “season” for a series could be roughly equated to new episodes airing in the space of a year. Now it seems like some shows have three seasons a year, while others can have single seasons that stretch for eons. As a webseries creator, do you think that the term “season” actually means anything anymore, and if so, what?
Michael Flores: That’s a good question. The web series world is such a new medium and it’s still growing and evolving each day, so it makes it hard to really draw any conclusions on where the “structuring” of a web series will end up. However, I do believe the term “season” will always play a part in the distribution strategy of a web show; I’m just not quite sure how and in what type of capacity.
Ziggy: Outside of your own work, what are you watching on the web as a member of the audience? Got any favorites?
Michael Flores: My top 3: 1. The Confession. 2. Divine: The Series. 3. Aidan 5.
Ziggy: How about on television or at the movie theatre? What are your favorites there, past and/or present?
Michael Flores: Favorite Television: Breaking Bad; The Killing; Boardwalk Empire; Battlestar Galactica; Supernatural; Spartacus; True Blood; Fringe; Dexter; Californication.
Favorite Movies: Kill Bill; The Usual Suspects; Unbreakable; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Great Silence; Alien; Blade Runner; The Empire Strikes Back.
Ziggy: What kind of cheese and alcohol would you pair Western X with? Why?
Michael Flores: Haha. I like this question. I’d have to say Cheetohs and wine. I spent so many nights sitting in front of the computer editing Western X while munching on Cheetohs and drinking wine.
Ziggy: And what do you pair well with?
- Interview conducted by Ziggy, May, 2012
- copyright 2001-2013, Ziggy Berkeley and Cinema on the Rocks, all rights reserved.
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