Talking Westerns and Perfect Shots with Vincent D’Onofrio

The legendary actor discusses the origins of his new film 'The Kid' and working with both longtime collaborators and new faces.

Vincent Donofrio Westerns
Shutterstock/FSR Illustration

In Vincent D’Onofrio’s latest film, The Kid, the actor-director weaves the classic western tale of gunfighter Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and lawman Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), with the fictional coming-of-age story of the young Rio (Jake Schur). When Rio kills his violent father, he must go on the run with his older sister, Sara (Leila George), in order to escape the wrath of their Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt), who’s out for revenge after his brother’s death. When Grant catches up with them and takes Sara, Rio has to decide who to turn to for help: Billy, a charismatic outlaw who maintains his innocence, or Pat, a no-nonsense sheriff with faith in the system and an intention to bring Billy to justice. The film follows Rio as he nearly crumbles under the weight of the decision, knowing that he’ll inevitably grow up in the shadow of whichever man he chooses.

D’Onofrio, who appears in a small role in the film, has been acting for over 30 years, and The Kid marks his second time stepping behind the camera for a feature-length film. He also developed the film’s story along with Andrew Lanham, who then penned the script. D’Onofrio’s cast is comprised of several people whom he has frequently acted alongside over the years, such as Adam Baldwin (who also appeared in Full Metal Jacket, D’Onofrio’s breakout film), Hawke (the two have worked on over five films together) and Pratt. But the film’s stacked line up also features some new collaborators, including Schur (in his first ever role), DeHann, and D’Onofrio’s daughter, who stars as Sara.

What draws you to the western genre?

I’ve always wanted to make one. I’ve always wanted to make a western. So there were all these ideas, I wrote one years ago and nothing really happened with it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the men that I’ve met throughout my life that have affected me, some in bad ways, some in good ways. And I thought it would be interesting to do that from a young man’s perspective. And then I thought, well I could put a fictional character into a factual situation. And the thing about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is that because Pat Garrett was law enforcement, he was basically a cop, you can track his movements and events that involved him. That history is recorded. A lot of what’s available to us about Billy The Kid and Pat Garrett are actual facts, and less myth than most bandit stories, you know? I can put a fictional character within these factual events, and use these two men as icons that are affecting this boy’s life in a good way and a bad way.

Rio looks at everything in his life in a nuanced way and mostly resists classifying people as heroes or villains, and as a result, struggles against a society that looks at things in black and white. Do you consider your film a revisionist western?  

I mean, it definitely has those aspects. I would say the answer to your question is yes, but Rio’s point of view is a bit romanticized. But other than that, yes.

So the title has a dual meaning, which seems to speak to how the film doubles as a coming of age story. Is that something you wanted to explore?

Yes. Yes, the idea that this kind of rock star bandit, Billy The Kid, he’s living his life, and the truth is that he’s not considering the path of destruction behind him. So there’s that kid. And then the real kid, the kid who’s growing up, the kid who’s being affected by his environment.

How did you decide to weave the fictional narrative of Rio, his sister, and their uncle, into this true story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett?

Well, we needed a reason to see what kind of man Rio turns out to be at the end. There had to be the last plot point, to give him a test of what he’s going to be. And that starts with his confession to Garrett about his past. Will Garrett still accept him as a good person? Will he help him? And in turn, Rio helps Pat at the end by killing the bad guy, during the distraction of his sister coming out. We had to see something happen. We had to see what he is turned into by the end of the movie. And that’s why that extra story point is in there.

Did you find the prospect of telling the story of Billy the Kid, about whom several movies already exist, intimidating at all? 

There’s only one film that I ever really liked that had Billy the Kid in it, and that was also a very romantic kind of look at the situation, and which was Peckinpah’s film [Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a 1973 film directed by Sam Peckinpah]. You know, with Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan and stuff. A very romanticized version of the story. But I haven’t really seen any other versions. Maybe The Left Handed Gun. I’ve never seen the most popular one, from the 80s, Young Guns. I never saw that. So I only really had that one Peckinpah film to go off of. Instead, we were concentrated on the movement of those two guys. It took us reading and researching a lot of books to figure out their movements through New Mexico during that period of time before Billy was killed.

I understand you were shooting on the actual locations where the true parts of the story occurred. Was that important to you?

Yeah, and it’s just really cool. The idea that we can kick up the same dust that they were kicking up. That’s a pretty cool thing, you know.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with some legendary directors in your career. Are there things you took from your experiences working with people like Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick that you found yourself putting to use in The Kid?

Yeah, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that question lately. I’ve always kind of stuck my nose in everybody’s business when it comes to artistic stuff that I’m involved in. But I never consciously felt as if I was being taught a lesson, you know, in a very literal way. So I never really thought of it before in a clear way until I started directing. And then suddenly you realize that, in fact, you have been taught, I have been taught many lessons by these men and women that I’ve worked with. And it’s pretty amazing to consider that. That over the last 30 odd years, there’s all these lessons, and all this intellect, and all this inspiration that these people have given me. It’s there in the way I execute things on a daily basis and that’s pretty awesome, you know? You have to put yourself in the shoes of a director to actually realize that, and now that I have, it’s like a new thing for me. It’s pretty cool. You know, there’s some shots of Dane DeHaan in the movie that are very Kubrick. There’s a lot of influence from a lot of people. And I can see it know. I saw it when I was doing. It was a very cool realization. I hope that answers your question, it’s as close to an answer to that question as I can get. That’s just really how it works.

In a recent interview, Chris Pratt talked about how your style as a director is to be extremely direct, to just tell people what you want. Does that come naturally?

Yeah. I consider these people my peers, and vice versa. I know when they’re ready. I know when they’re prepared. I know when… a second before they come up with the goods, I know they’re going to come up with it. I can see it coming. My job, you know, I’ve been doing the same thing that they’ve been doing for so long. My job is to make them understand that. We would keep the camera rolling, and I would step into the scene and talk to them and have a real conversation, an honest conversation with them, not anything silly. Really connect with them, into each other’s eyes, and really speak about what we’re dealing with in that moment, and then I’d just walk out of the shot and they would go. So there was a lot of that going on. You have to be very direct. Again, I’ve learned that the best directors I’ve worked for, men and women, are very direct. They’re like, “You must do this here. You have to do this here you have to do it like this to get away with it.” And it’s like “okay.” It’s helpful to be guided.

They know what they want.

Yeah, and guidance is important.

Many of the actors in the film, like Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, and Adam Baldwin, are people whom you frequently collaborate with. Does it make it easier to work with people you’re so comfortable with?

I think it does, yeah. But I don’t think that it’s impossible for that ease to stay… how should I say this… It doesn’t feel because of Dane, and Dane and I never met before, because of the fact that Dane was there, and Jake was there, Jake Schur, the kid. These are new people in my life. I feel like there is an ease in working like that, that’s going to be okay whether I know people or not, because of those two. Especially Dane, Dane is such a good actor and he comes so ready and well prepared. For him to fall into the way that I direct and to be able to inspire each other, meaning him and I inspire each other, in that kind of work is a unique thing. It had a real ease to it. So that was a really good sign that, basically, that it’s going to be okay even with people that I don’t know.

Ethan Hawke The Kid

We’re always interested in curating perfect shots. Do you have any favorite shots from the movie that you want to talk about?  

There’s a couple. I love the shot of Rio walking alongside the cart that’s carrying Billy’s dead body as they’re leaving the Ranch. The colors in it, and the movement of the camera, it’s really telling the story properly and it looks really pretty. It has almost a painting kind of feeling to it, it’s really nice. And then there’s some shots of Dane… there are particular shots of all the characters that are really great. The composition of them, and the color of them, and how the camera is not moving just for the sake of moving, but the camera is moving to help tell the story and all of that. Sometimes it all just falls in perfectly.

Ethan Hawke, who gives a stellar performance here, has said that he thinks all directors should learn to act. Do you agree? Do you think you have an advantage coming to the craft of directing with such an extensive acting career in your back pocket?

I think it makes a difference, yeah, but I don’t agree. I don’t think every director needs to know how to act. I think it’s just fine that some directors don’t know how to act. I don’t completely agree, but I do think that it is helpful for sure.

Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.