Texas Frightmare 2012: Tales from 'Tombstone'


Tombstone cast reunion

Few genres have been as seminal a part of American and world cinema as the Western. Before the talkies, good guys in white punched and shot bad guys in black. While the genre has faded in recent years, several Western gems have stepped to the forefront. In 1993, Tombstone was such a gem.

Texas Frightmare Weekend held a reunion for the movie with Austin actress Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as well as Michael Biehn, Joanna Pacula, Michael Rooker and Buck Taylor. The men in the cast chatted about working with gunfight experts and living with their weapons for weeks to get the feel for it. The women were proud of their authentic costumes, with this drive for authenticity made more important to them when they learned of the competing film Wyatt Earp being shot at the same time. Tombstone was the underdog going up against the Kevin Costner Western.

It didn't take long for the fun anecdotes about playing with guns and fitting for cool costumes to give way to the same tension that plagued the Tombstone set. Beginning with what was, by all accounts, a brilliant script by Kevin Jarre, the production immediately dealt with the stress of dealing with a writer/director who didn't understand the delicacies of working with actors. Jarre felt that the actors were just there to say lines and bounce light. As the morale dropped Disney realized that Jarre wasn't getting coverage of the film, preferring to shoot the whole thing in wide shots. The studio learned of the frustration that the actors were facing from day one.

Jarre was promptly fired and George P. Cosmatos was brought on to capture the visuals of the film while a collection of the actors, including Kurt Russell, and producer James Jacks rewrote the script. This rewrite and the final cut of the film was the center of tension that Michael Biehn still feels today.

In Biehn's opinion, Jarre's script painted the gunfight at the OK Corral as a gray battle devoid of heroes and villains. While Biehn admits Disney was making a good business decision in reworking the film, he was disgusted that his character Johnny Ringo and the gang of Cowboys were painted with a more black-and-white brush. Including in this reworking of Tombstone was a scene where Ringo (Biehn) shot a priest, a scene he publicly apologized to the family for during the panel.

Efforts to steer the conversation into more pleasant territory proved futile. All the actors were disappointed with the lack of the historical accuracy and the moral simplicity of the final film. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, who played Mattie Earp, spoke about being asked to make her character more "bitchy" to satisfy a test audience that was not happy with a drug addict being left for another woman by the hero (Russell's Wyatt Earp). She refused, telling the production staff they would have to fire her.

The conversation came full circle in discussing the change to the Cowboys and Biehn's character. When the moderator said he felt that some moral ambiguity was conveyed, Biehn shouted him down, pointing out that Disney made a business decision to create a black hat/white hat feel. The studio wanted heroes and villains and that's what it got.

Michael Rooker, who played Sherman McMasters, broke the tension by reminding us how cool it was to get to carry a gun around. Laughter filled the table and the panel wrapped up with a hearty thanks to the fans of Tombstone. All the cast present were proud of the movie, despite the changes it went through before it finally reached theaters.

[Photo credit: "Michael Biehn, Joanna Pacula, Michael Rooker, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and Buck Taylor" by Carlo Rodriguez]