Nicholas Barton brings small town history to life in his new film Death Alley. I got to speak with Nicholas about creating a film on the town that fought back.
Death Alley is based on the true story of Dalton Gang who wanted to become the most famous outlaws in the United States, but that turned out to be a nightmare. In 1892, the outlaw Dalton brothers, Bill (Justin France), Bob (Tristan Campbell), Gratton (Jake Washburn) and Emmett (Joshua R. Outzen), along with the rest of their gang, have set their sights on the impossible: to simultaneously raid both banks in the allegedly ‘No-Gun Town’ of Coffeyville, Kansas during a brazen daylight heist. Already on their trail is the tenacious Marshal Heck Thomas (Mark D. Anderson), and from the beginning their plan goes awry. Nervous that the lawman is so close on their heels and fearful they would be recognized, alterations are made that result in the gang becoming hostages in their own scheme while Coffeyville’s citizens, angered at the boldness of the assault, prove their unwillingness to acquiesce to the desperado’s demands and reveal they aren’t as unarmed as the Daltons believe.
Check out my conversation with Nicholas.
What inspired you to tell the story of the Dalton gang?
Nicholas: I am a Kansas kid. I come from the middle of the country and there’s such wonderful and rich history from the 1800s in the parts where I’m from. When I first set out to kind of put a story together, I loved the idea of a group of characters whose perfect plan goes awry almost instantly and the improvisation required to kind of try to salvage it and the survival mode instincts that have to kick in. So, I started doing some research on whether any true stories about a bank robbery going wrong that was interesting and could give me something to kind of call on. I love true stories so I thought maybe this is a good way to kind of take a look at what’s already not been told and I guess, admittedly, embarrassingly enough as a Kansas kid at the time, I had never come across the Dalton Gang’s story. When I read about it, I was like, ‘boy, this feels like this is meant to be. I kind of feel an obligation to bring this back up.’ In the 1940s there were all kinds of stories and TV shows and movies and books written about the Dalton Gang, and for whatever reason or another, it just kind of eroded from published consciousness. Everybody’s seen multiple iterations of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James and Billy the Kid and I thought, you know what, I need to give a fresh perspective of an honest and true story Western that had a lot of drama and a lot of action, a lot of intrigue and so I hope we’ve done the story justice.
Well, I absolutely loved it. I love hearing stories about real people.
Nicholas: Me too… I think that the world is so rich and has so many great narratives and people and stories that we should really kind of do a deeper look at what just hasn’t been told. We have an obligation to kind of carry them forward.
Now are you from that area? Have you been to Death Valley?
Nicholas: I have. I’m not from that area, but we did actually get to do a screening for the community about a month ago and they were so welcoming and supportive. Yeah I’ve actually, I’ve been to the real Death Alley and they’re still actual bullet holes in the wall. The original bank is actually still intact. There’s a museum directly across the street from it and you can actually tour and go into the space that Grat Dalton and Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers all all went into. It’s a town that’s rich history has retained a lot of the original artifacts in the area, there’s actually a museum there called the Dalton Defenders museum. I grew up in a small town in the middle of Kansas called Great Bend and Coffeyville, where this story takes place, is about three and a half hours away from there. But I have actually visited the actual Death Alley, I’ve walked down that path, I’ve gotten to speak with the docents and kind of carry through the exact path that the gang took, where they tied their horses to where the gang members are buried. There are special features on the DVD where we actually go there and interview the historians who walk us straight through Death Alley, it was really cool. I got to hold Grat Dalton’s original gun that was recovered by some of the townspeople, I got to see a lot of the original artifacts. I tried to separate going there while I was making it because I didn’t want it to hamstring me and what I was trying to create, but the second the movie was done, and there was an opportunity during COVID to go there and and tour it privately so that there were social distancing in place I went there and it was just a truly fun day.
Is Defender’s Day still celebrated?
Nicholas: It is, yep. People come from all over the country for it. It is that town’s moment of pride. That little town gets flooded with people, every hotel room is booked, the main streets are slammed and they do reenactments. It’s actually a huge rite of passage to be able to play one of the original gang members for the community during Defender’s Day. They still do it to this day. It’s still a very well attended event. I highly recommend to anybody who’s making a pass through the middle of the country to go up and spend some time there.
Westerns are rare nowadays, what was it like shooting a Western in 2020?
Nicholas: It’s hard. It’s so hard to do and you’ve got to have an entire team of people around you who are fully committed to embracing it. I mean, we have an obligation to tell a story first, and a genre second. And for us, everybody committed to the story. I had a mentor early in my career, who said there’s only one reason to make a movie and that reason is to tell a story. And if you do it for any other reason, if you’re doing it because you’re trying to get rich or if you’re trying to get famous or you’re trying to be cool, you’re going to fail. But if you do it because you have a story to tell and everyone around you commits to telling that story in the best way they can, then no matter what the public perceives the movie to be, you’re going to be proud of it. I was fortunate because I had a phenomenal production designer, Mark Anderson and art director, Ryan Johnson who dove straight in, headfirst, trying to kind of recreate the world, building the sets, pulling original artifacts, doing recreations, making original replica posters for backdrops, I mean they went to huge lengths to try to recreate that world. Tim McGill did a ton of research about what guns were actually shot by different townspeople and each gang member, so what you see are replicas or authentic artifacts of the original weaponry. I had phenomenal costume designers, Andy Humble, who actually did a ton of original creation work. He’s a leather smith, who made original saddles and holsters and belts. I mean when you make a period film, you have so many people you have to surround yourself with to do it successfully. It takes a village, and I was so fortunate to have such a dedicated team who just went all in. To make that world three dimensional, authentic and something that even historians can look at and say, ‘wow.’ You can taste the grit in their teeth and in order to make an independent film work at a period level, you have got to hit the details right and I am just really proud of what the team came up with.
I thought it was incredibly interesting that Emmett, the youngest Dalton brother, an outlaw, the bad guy, he kind of thing turns out to be almost like a hero at the end.
Nicholas: It’s funny how perspectives change and some of the Coffeyville historians kind of commented that a lot of the story is pulled from Emmett’s autobiography, which anybody who writes the story, essentially writes themselves into the hero character. But the reality is, I mean, at one point I was a 21 year old guy and at one point, I would have made really really stupid choices in my life that, hopefully age and wisdom and patience and sincerity and compassion kind of help you reflect on and find out that you can triumphantly kind of overcome that and I also think they’re just authentically in the story. There were a lot of things that kind of bound them together, blood included, that a couple of their smarter members kind of knew, at the time, they were making mistakes, but they really couldn’t pull away from it because these were their brothers. I think that dichotomy of knowing that they were foolish, they were young, but they also were in their own minds, good people. I don’t want to tell a story in which everybody’s a hero and is perfect. I think human beings are three dimensional and so, depending on the perspective, somebody can be a hero and a villain at the same time and I just think the best way to do that, and I think Josh (Outzen) in the role of Emmett did it so charismatically, is to just tell an authentic and honest version of who we perceived him to be.
I just keep thinking about that, like he’s an outlaw, how can he be a hero?
Nicholas: I think that’s a testament, a lot that goes to Josh, because I’m a fan first, but I think Josh is one of the most talented young actors I’ve ever worked with. And he is so dedicated to the subtext of the work and he’s such a professional in every way. He’s a polite young man, he’s very sharp, he asks great questions and he brings strong choices. He’s really kind of a director’s dream to work with and I really hope that for our incredibly talented young cast, people see the movie and go and research them and find out what else they’ve got coming out because everyone and Josh, especially, I think does such a phenomenal job in their roles.
I’ve been fortunate enough in my career because I’ve gotten to work with so many actors over the last 10 years. And working with Josh and Tristan and Justin and Jake and Ryan, this was my all-time favorite cast I’ve ever gotten to work with. They were so cohesive and they committed to it, they became expert horse riders, they did their own stunts, they did their own fight choreography, and they worked their tails off at bringing these characters and they were so supportive of one another. There was never any tension on set, there were never any egos, there was never any complaining. There were multiple extremely long days, and at the end of long, you know, 12 or 13 hour shoot days, Tristan and Josh, if a crowd of people gathered on the outside of our barricades to kind of watch, Tristan and Josh would go over after they were struck from set and go and sign autographs and take pictures with kids. They’re just kind people and for having been in this profession for as long as I have, you want to see people like that win and succeed. They are exactly what I hope the next generations of actors are all going to be like.
You played John Kloehr. I hear he played a pretty big role in stopping the Daltons.
Nicholas: We took a very strong interpretation of him. And to be honest, I’ve always said I’ll only play a character if there’s something very unattractive about them. So, our strong interpretation of John had to be that. I love sneaking in and kind of being a chameleon with a role. I have no interest in being a lead in any way, I’m not an action star, I’m not a leading man, I’m not a model or of any of those things. I love being kind of a chameleon. And it’s really fun to watch the movie with friends and family because they actually don’t recognize me at first. I have a very distinct kind of natura, generic, bland, Midwestern look. I’m usually in jeans and black T shirt and a baseball cap and tennis shoes and so I’m really kind of nondescript. And so when I get to play a role, and grow facial hair or put on a costume or get to do visualization, it’s really fun to see people around me not even know that it’s me at the time. It’s like, ‘wait a minute.’
John Kloehr was an interesting historical person who, I guess the best analogy I can give would be the big fish scenario where the longer they got away from the shootout, the bigger the fish that was caught on that day of the shootout. So somehow, a drunkard who everybody said was passed out in stables, by the end of five or six years of telling his own story, had shot almost every member of the gang single handedly, which by anyone else’s accounts of the event, wasn’t actually true or accurate. But John actually, in real life, became quite a global celebrity. He got to go on the lecture circuit, he got to do interviews all over the newspaper and the media junkets and he actually became quite an American hero for what he had done despite the fact that there were a lot of conflicting reports from both the police reports and eyewitnesses that he wasn’t quite as active as a participant. We tried to kind of reflect on that and tell a version of the story that we thought was probably more accurate because it came from more than just a couple sources of perspective.
But we all agree he killed Grat Dalton.
Nicholas: That’s true. That is the guarantee, everyone unanimously agrees on that. For anybody who actually goes and does research on the actual event of the Death Alley shootout, at the end they can see the geography and the streets. The gang basically ran right to him. So by basically just staying put and having a gun, he was in a prime position for the fight to come to him.