Venice filmmaker James O’Brien returns to France with “Western Religion”

By Michael Aushenker

James O’Brien on the set of “Western Religion”

James O’Brien on the set of “Western Religion”

Call it a full-circle moment for Venice filmmaker James O’Brien.

On Saturday he will attend the premiere of his latest film, “Western Religion,” at the Palais during the prestigious Cannes Film Festival — some 20 years after his first appearance on the Croissette.

The first time O’Brien headed to Cannes was in 1995 with “Venice Bound,” his debut feature that centered on the lives of three men living in his adopted coastal community.

Since that first indie film — O’Brien describes it as a post-Tarantino thriller about “three guys who meet by chance in Venice and get wrapped up in a caper” — he’s made “Wish You Were Here” and “Hyperfutura,” both released in 2013.

“Western Religion,” however, represents a return to form for the filmmaker, who relocated to Venice from his native New Jersey in the 1990s. Gary Douglas Cohen, one of the leads in “Venice Bound,” also plays a large role in O’Brien’s latest.

“It’s kind of like a 20-year reunion [project],” said O’Brien, who pegs the $250,000-budget “Western Religion” as both a Western and a supernatural fantasy — though not in the “Cowboys & Aliens” fashion.

The story involves a mythical poker tournament that draws gunfighters to the fictional mining town of Religion, Ariz.

“It’s tucked very subtlety,” O’Brien said of the film’s metaphysical element — that the players stake their souls. “It feels like a traditional Western. I’ve always liked Westerns. There’s so much instant conflict in a Western.”

Just prior to his departure for Europe last week, O’Brien said he sees something special about taking a Western to Cannes.

“The Western was the first genre in Hollywood. I want to get in there with the first genre in Hollywood.”

Aside from obvious entries by the genre masters Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, O’Brien name-checks Clint Eastwood films “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and the classic “Unforgiven” as well as George P. Cosmatos’ “Tombstone,” “particularly for Val Kilmer’s performance,” he said.

“Western Religion” boasts an international cast and crew that includes Claude Duhamel (“Dawn Rider”), Peter Shinkoda (Marvel’s “Daredevil”), Miles Szanto (“Married”) and Peter Sherayko (“Tombstone”) as well as two actors of Apache heritage, Sam Bearpaw and Alan Tafoya.

It was Sherayko, “the weapons guy,” who kept O’Brien’s Western factually honest.

“We went to him for the period detail,” O’Brien said. “He was instrumental in making sure we didn’t do anything historically incorrect. He suggested changing our time frame, that it should be 1879 based on how we wrote it.”

Sherayko also gets credit for the film’s backdrop. After the production lost its set at Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills due to an October 2013 government shutdown, Sherayko invited O’Brien to shoot his period film across 19 days at his 2,000-acre Agua Dulce ranch.

There’s one more full-circle element to O’Brien’s “Western Religion” journey.

With his first film he was following in Quentin Tarantino’s footsteps, but this time O’Brien has beaten the celebrated director to the punch: “Western Religion” is already beginning to screen, while Tarantino’s first ostensible Western, “The Hateful Eight,” does not arrive until November.

Hey, Quentin: Your move, pard’ner!