How ‘Old Henry’ Writer-Director Potsy Ponciroli Used Location to Create Tension and Conflict

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews writer-director Potsy Ponciroli about his new Western 'Old Henry', how location was the leading vehicle in story and character discovery, and the importance of research. Plus, Potsy shares first-hand advice on writing period pieces.
Author:
Publish date:

Old Henry is an action-Western about a widowed farmer and his son who warily take in a mysterious, injured man with a satchel of cash. When a posse of men claiming to be the law come for the money, the farmer must decide who to trust. Defending against a siege of his homestead, he reveals a talent for gunslinging that surprises everyone, calling his true identity into question. 

This film is a well-crafted slow-burn Western that takes you on a wild and fun twist, thanks to the creative world-building and direction by Potsy Ponciroli. I had the utmost pleasure speaking with Potsy about using location to create tension and conflict, landing on his core characters and his start as a filmmaker. Plus, he shares great advice about re-writing on set.

Tim Blake Nelson as Henry in Old Henry, Shout! Factory.

Tim Blake Nelson as Henry in Old Henry, Shout! Factory.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What inspired you to write this story in particular?

Potsy Ponciroli: It's kind of funny, we were on location scouting for a different project we had and we're on this 2,500-acre property outside of Nashville and just kind of walking around and we found this house down the hill there and it was a 100-year-old house on these rocks and I was just kind of sitting in there, walking through the rooms and  I got that weird feeling of you know because I live in the downtown part of Nashville, so the country is a scarier place [laughs] especially at night - it gets really dark, really quiet - so I kept thinking like, 'what would I do if I was out here alone and somebody came up?' That was kind of the genesis of the story. It first started as just a guy who comes to your door, you let him in and he tells us he's the good guy and then a couple more guys show up and they say they're the good guy and now you're trapped in that scenario that they brought to you. 

Our company and Shout! had kind of partnered so it was like OK well this can spin easy and put this in western times, it's even scarier because now you have no police, you're your own self-defense, and it kind of evolved further and added, without spoiling it, but added the historical element to it. It kind of came in steps but it all came from the location really and kept building from there.

[How 'Adventures of a Mathematician' Writer-Director Thor Klein Found Story in the Details]

Sadie: Location, location, location! What you were able to do with building tension and the conflict just all in one location is well crafted. Especially with the character development and the theme of falsehoods/false identity, and discovery with each character. I'm curious how are you choosing these characters and building to that twist?

Potsy: The idea of this guy that has a past, it's his past that he's corrected now and this area of the country. I did a lot of research into Oklahoma in this time period and actually where we had to be in the timeline because this person was a historical figure so that puts us in the modern world - there were cars and there were tractors - so the only place that was still unsettled was Oklahoma territory and Indian Territory, it was still divided. So, putting this man there that has this past and then giving him a son to raise that he's really trying to shelter from all of his mistakes and he doesn't know what that's gonna bring out of his son. There is that piece of his son inside of him that is wild and is what he was you know, he's done everything to kind of subdue, he knows that lies deep down in Wyatt. And then you don't truly know anybody. You meet somebody and you don't know them, just like Wyatt didn't know his father. Henry doesn't know the guy he lets in. He doesn't know the guy that's saying he's the sheriff. Everyone kind of has a secret throughout, except Wyatt. I have children too, so it's easy to try to stop them from making the mistakes I made, but you can't, they're gonna make them. They're gonna fail. And that's just part of it. 

Sadie: You just hope it doesn't hurt as much.

Potsy: Right, exactly, but it will. [laughs]

Sadie: There's something great that you did too from a screenwriting point of view of which is giving your character something to do. For instance, having Ketchum carving a bird out of a piece of wood he found that was deemed "out of place", it's just so unnerving and eery. 

400x400_3cs_360x

Potsy: I don't like when two people just talk even though there's a four and a half minute dinner scene where they are just talking, a lot of the scenes are moving and they're busy. And so two people aren't face to face talking because you don't do that normally in the real world. You kind of do your thing, and then you're having conversations. But that's where in the dinner scene, the gun, it wasn't written at the beginning, but that was to build tension in that four-minute scene. This historic figure did like to toy with people. I read some of the history on it everything and that was something that he was really like, he was playful, and even though our version of him now, he's kind of lost that, I think that starts to come out. And that's where laying that gun on the table. turning this back to him. It's almost like tempting him, let's play this game. How far are you gonna take this? So right, just trying to build the tension in those moments.

Sadie: Tell us about your filmmaking journey, what influenced you to get into this business?

Potsy Ponciroli

Potsy Ponciroli

Potsy: I mean, if you ask my aunt, I've been saying this since I was 10. [laughs] I always had a camcorder growing up and I went to school for it. It's always hard to figure out how to get into this world. When I got out of college, I took a real job because that's what you do. And I worked there for like nine months, and I quit one day, I walked to my boss and was like, 'I can't do this. I just need to go.' And he's like, "all right.' I found a film set, driving around and I just walked up to the first person I saw and said, 'I need to do this, this is what I went to school for.' He eventually hooked me up with a producer and I hounded her for weeks and weeks, and she gave me one job as an intern. And then that just kept building. I basically did every position and I wanted to learn as much as I could and see every aspect of it. And I think that's helpful because if I'm asking for something, I know how long that takes because I've done that. 

I think it's always been just something I've been building towards and and I always lean towards comedy, which is weird that now this, but this was this was so much fun in a different way. 

['Birds of Paradise' Writer-Director Sarah Adina Smith on Capturing YA Storytelling with Dancing]

Sadie: What was your collaboration process with your DP like and setting up those shootout sequences?

Potsy: John Matysiak was the DP, he was fantastic. I think he got a call 10 minutes after our premiere in Venice, he got a text saying, "Hey, we have a movie for you." He's getting a lot of work. Well deserved. But he and I sat out there. I mean, we were out there a good three or four weeks before we started shooting, we lived on set, and we would just walk around and we would look at it and we'd walk through the scenes and we basically shot listed every single moment. And then we'd get to set and I'd say about 85% to 90% of it would stay. There was one time when he was standing in the corner, he was talking to me and there was the painting on the wall and the glass is kind of beveled and he goes, 'Oh hey, look at this.' And I came over and we're like, 'Oh, we got to do a scene here, let's adjust the shot.' There was some creativity that still came through after but really we sat out there all day, every day, and just looked at it and walked through it and would try to find cool angles. It was an amazing collaboration with him. He worked with me on the TV show and we've been friends for years. It's an easy win, an easy vibe. In the mornings I'd pick him up, we'd go to set and he'd make me stop at McDonald's because we had to get McChicken's. [laughs] We'd ride around in the four-wheeler and have a pocket full of McChicken's that we'd eat halfway through the day. That's how we prepped for the movie. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] There's something said about having someone on your team to be on the same wavelength as you, especially when you're shooting something like this. How many shoot days did you guys have on this?

Potsy: Well, I had 23. And then the first-day shooting, the budget kind of gets restricted. So, we did a lot of cramming, we ended up at 21. Which was a lot. It was tough. The final shoot-out in the woods. I think we had two and a half hours for that. That was tight. Literally everything you see there is everything we shot, you couldn't edit it any other way. There are no other takes. It's just it kind of worked out perfect.

Stephen Dorff as Ketchum in Old Henry, Shout! Factory.

Stephen Dorff as Ketchum in Old Henry, Shout! Factory.

Sadie: It works out great. General advice for screenwriters, or writer-directors who are writing and filming a period piece?

Potsy: I think the biggest thing is just research. You can have your script and then once you get an actor, then you go back through and change that voice of the character. Once Tim signed on Tim's character changed, once Stephen Dorff signed on his character changed. And then once we start getting into tying in the location more to Oklahoma with little dialogue bits and things here and there. And I think it's just the small details that can make the world feel thicker and make the location feel like a character and really get into it. And, and I guess really, the script is never done. Make the script perfect, then you shoot it the best you can, and then the edit, you can still change it a little and that's it. So it's really those three stages. But it all starts with that script. It's got to be perfect. Or if you can't, it's just kind of that work in progress. And don't ever be happy. [laughs]

OLD HENRY THEATRICAL POSTER North America 2700x4000

Sadie:  Writing is rewriting. 

Potsy: The final shoot-out, two days before we shot, it was the last thing we shot and had to rewrite it that two days before because the water that we were supposed to drown one of the characters in, the water had E. coli in it. So, we had to rewrite the whole thing, two days before so yeah, it was evolving up to the last day.

Old Henry is now playing in Theaters.


Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!

SU script university pro promo 600