Twenty days. No, scratch that. Eighteen Days. Two were lost to rain. VFW was a blitz of a shoot. Joe Begos practically walked off the set of his last feature, Bliss, and right onto the set of this raging, bloodbath of a siege film. With little time to think and even less time to cast, the director charged into the project with total confidence of self because to waver was to invite defeat across the threshold. Hell no, there would be none of that.
VFW is a movie maniac’s dream. A group of crotchety old tough bastards put their backs against their favorite bar and make their stand against a horde of vicious, soulless, drug-addled drones foaming to the command of Travis Hammer. The melee beats to a John Carpenter beat courtesy of Steve Moore. The odds are forever never in our heroes favor, but with Stephen Lang calling the shots, and cats like William Sadler, Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly, and George Wendt taking orders, there is little doubt they will grind plenty of meat before the runtime hits its wall. Where’s the beef? All over.
Begos was jacked to make this flick, but he’s always jacked to make any flick. “You’re always trying to make movies,” he says. “Fangoria was going to do this whole slate, this and that. I was like, ‘All right, whatever. I need to go make this other movie. I wrote this really tiny one, Bliss, and I just got financing for it. I’m going to go shoot it. If VFW comes together, I’ll put it on the side and I’ll go cut it up later.'”
Fangoria publisher Dallas Sonnier wanted a gore-engorged film to live up to their brand, and based on Begos’ previous efforts, they knew he was their guy. They were willing to wait, but not too long.
“So, I’m racing through Bliss because I know that something with VFW could happen at any time,” explains Begos. “Then, just as we finished the edit, Dallas is like, ‘All right, we got to start casting.’ I was working on them back-to-back, and we were able to get Bliss close enough where I could then go to Texas and start VFW. I was remotely finishing Bliss when we were shooting VFW. It’s been a fucking whirlwind.”
The whirlwind is half the attraction for the cast. Shooting at a run-and-gun pace, the production strips the process of hangups. There simply is not enough time to worry about the choices an actor is making. They’re done. That’s what we got. Move on and get the next bit of madness in the can.
For William Sadler, the easiest part was forming the bonds between actors. “The characters are confronting this threat from the outside,” he says, “but the actors are also in a trench fighting for their lives. Trying to remember lines, trying to figure out what’s the block, because the way Joe works is so fast!”
“Joe thinks we move as fast as the camera,” adds Martin Kove. “You had to fill in a lot for your character. You had to just go for it in certain places, and then if you couldn’t get to that place about whatever the line was about, you’d play off the actor. We were so free playing off each other and because everybody could throw the ball, and the other guy could catch it.”
“There are directors who will rehearse,” continues Sadler. “They’ll set marks, you hit your marks. If you don’t, you’re not in focus and blah blah blah. And Joe’s set is just like a free-for-all in the midst of which you’ve got to keep track of all the relationships and what you’re doing as actors without the structure from the outside.”
Joining the pack was a no-brainer for Stephen Lang. The actor read the script; he saw The Wild Bunch in his mind. As one of his favorite films, that’s all the convincing he needed.
“The thrust of it was terrific,” says Lang. “Some of the dialogue was not terrific, but that didn’t matter to me because I really felt there was going to be opportunities — and I’m glad I was right — to massage it and to do things with it. Joe creates an atmosphere where that can happen.”
Lang has been a part of a whole swath of films. He delights in all manner of genres, tones, and quality. The trick is to figure out what you want the film to be and then lean hard into it. Go big or cry yourself home.
“The is clearly a genre picture,” he continues. “But there’s some other stuff going on in here just by nature of the fact that it deals with veterans. I think that’s important. If it was a B-movie, by the time we were done with it, it was a B-plus.”
The input is why Begos makes movies. If he wanted to sit in a basement and solely scream his twisted thoughts to an audience, he could direct them to a printed page. He’s here to make movies, and to do that required the bloody musings of a devilish group.
“This is what filmmaking is about, we’re all here for the common goal,” says Begos. “We all trust each other because we’re here. Let’s figure it out. Every time we’re able to work together with no ego, and nobody had any ego, we found the best fucking conclusion and the best way to present the scene.”
And remember, this movie had to move fast. Eighteen days. Performance bombardment. Drop your payload and on to the next target.
“With the speed involved there’s no time for diplomacy,” says Lang. “These guys are such old pros, the shorthand comes immediately. I felt very comfortable saying to Sadler, ‘Billy, do you think you could just shut up there for a second, just shut the fuck up while we do this and then fucking do that?’ That would be accepted with absolute perfect grace and understanding.”
VFW is a metal AF movie that moves, not at the speed of thought, but at the speed of passion. The wheels are greased with skill and ten thousand hours of practice. Everyone involved was there to have a good time and deliver a kickass adrenaline rush, and the trust experienced amongst them got the job done.
Begos armored himself with a cadre of badasses who take no shit, and the line between character and performer was blurred. You’d stand with these guys if anyone dared threaten their best juke joint. If they ever gathered again to make a movie, they’d shoot that beast in 15 days. Two of which would be lost to rain. No biggie.