A drive out to Willie Nelson’s ranch is always special. It’s down a dirt road on the outskirts of Austin, and the singer’s rescue horses graze in the grass. As the white steeple of Nelson’s chapel comes into view, four giant letters up on the hillside let you know—you’re finally in Luck.
Last Saturday, this pilgrimage to the ranch—home to Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion during South by Southwest—took on an extra meaning. Almost twenty years after it was last officially screened, the original tape of Nelson’s 1986 film, Red Headed Stranger, had been rediscovered, digitized, and would be played once more—this time on the very property where it was filmed. The sold-out event was presented by Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow; tickets were $100 (a $350 ticket got you an intimate dinner as well).
In the years after Nelson released the 1975 concept album of the same name, he couldn’t let the story go. He hoped to explore the main character—a preacher spurned by his unfaithful wife into becoming the murderous “Stranger”—in a film, but conversations surrounding the budget, director, and lead actors stalled production. By the spring of 1985, what was originally a $14 million Universal Studios film with Robert Redford in the title role had become a $1.8 million project, independently financed by Nelson and screenwriter Bill Wittliff. To cut filming costs, the team built their own set. The chapel, jail, and saloon in the tiny town of Driscoll, Montana, served as some of the central locations for the movie, but since then, they’ve also become very real fixtures of Nelson’s property.
Ahead of the screening, many of the roughly four hundred guests roamed the property, taking photos in the jail cell (now renamed “Willie’s Joynt”) and looking at artifacts from the film on exhibit from the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. Wittliff would have been in attendance, but his death in June meant that the event also doubled as a tribute to the beloved filmmaker, known for Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, and The Perfect Storm.
So on July 6, just after the sun went down over the sleepy town of Luck and the dust settled as people filed into their seats, the guests took in the magic of the Red Headed Stranger—some for the first time and others for the first time in years. In a post-screening chat with Andy Langer, Nelson and a few cast and crew members reminisced about the making of the film and shed light on a few behind-the-scenes facts:
Robert Redford “chickened out.”
Though Nelson says the film would have most certainly been better with a bigger budget and Redford in the starring role, he always envisioned himself as the lead. Beyond that, he said taking up the main role allowed him to work with Wittliff again after they collaborated on Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa. And while Nelson calls himself more of a “reactor” than an actor, he says he didn’t find it difficult taking direction from Wittliff.
“[Wittliff] was a great writer and he was also a good friend. We had a lot of luck working together. He was my buddy, and we miss him.”
The movie was a family affair.
Nelson’s daughter Lana was the acting costume designer, and her son, Brian Fowler, played Nathan—the son of Nelson’s character’s love interest. Actor Sonny Carl Davis, who played one of Nelson’s antagonists, Odie Claver, fessed up to stealing his character’s hat from the set, though he later made use of it in another Wittliff production: Lonesome Dove.
“Everyone pitched in. If it meant 20 hours of work a day in 110 degrees, they were going to do it—all for Dad.”
Luck Chapel was nearly destroyed.
Though it’s an instantly recognizable part of the property today, the original Red Headed Stranger script called for the chapel to be burned down. In a pivotal scene where the antagonists seek revenge on Nelson’s character, they take aim at his place of worship. But because everyone was so attached to the church, they decided to change things up and have the villains attack the town’s windmill instead. Like most of the other locations built for the film, the chapel is used for a number of events year-round. Across the property from the chapel, the headquarters in the film has since become Nelson’s personal “gambling hall.”
“It’s a real church. We have services there and weddings—I don’t think we’ve had any divorces out there.”
Sonny Carl Davis went Method for his role.
Not long after he began shooting at Willie’s ranch, the Texas native said he was running through his lines when he received an invite from Nelson that was too good to turn down—though he almost did.
“It was eight o’clock when we were rehearsing the scene where Odie’s getting thrown into jail. We took a break to check the lights and sound. I had about an hour. As I was walking over to my dressing room with Willie, he asked me, ‘Hey, do you wanna burn one?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, I’ve got a bunch of dialogue.’ I got back to my dressing room and thought, ‘What the hell am I thinking?’ So I knocked on the door of Willie’s bus—which I’ve continued to do to this day—and asked, ‘Is that offer still open?’ Later, they were ready for me and it was a treacherous walk from the bus to the jail. We did a couple of run-throughs when [Wittliff] took me aside and said, ‘You’ve been on the bus, haven’t you? Well, don’t look so happy—you’re getting thrown in jail.’”
—Sonny Carl Davis
Willie’s love of westerns runs deep.
Even before the success of the Red Headed Stranger album, Nelson said he knew it would make a great movie. For him, the story reminded him of the films he grew up watching out at the theater in Hillsboro, Texas. It was also there that Nelson first heard “Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, which he would play as a disc jockey at KCNC and which inspired his album years later.
“I grew up singing with Gene Autry and Roy and all of those guys and I felt like I was a singing cowboy before I could sing or ride a horse, but I acted like I could.”