Imagine having the opportunity to watch one of your favorite movies ... on the set where it was filmed ... followed by a live Q&A with its star. A few hundred people were lucky enough to live that reality on July 6, as Willie Nelson attended a screening of Red Headed Stranger at Luck, Texas, the small town Nelson built more than three decades ago on his Briarcliff property to serve as one of the movie’s sets.
The 1986 film, starring Willie, Morgan Fairchild, R.G. Armstrong, and Katherine Ross, was largely filmed in Luck, which was constructed after owners of other faux-western towns tried to overcharge the production. While some of the original structures and facades no longer stand, Nelson and family have preserved the main buildings featured in the film, including the church and the saloon.
The church, which was slated to be burned down in the original script until the Nelson family objected, still functions as a church, hosting the occasional wedding, funeral, and an annual Easter service. The film’s saloon, which was enhanced many years ago with modern amenities, now serves as Luck’s World Headquarters (a spot Nelson goes to unwind and entertain and the scene of numerous poker, chess, and domino games over the years).
The audience, who got there early to enjoy some free libations, popcorn, and camaraderie, didn’t let the 90-plus degree heat temper their excitement. Before the screening, attendees had the opportunity to see some of the film costumes and artifacts on display courtesy of The Wittliff Collections.
As the film began at dusk, cheers rang out (followed by an extra loud roar the first time Nelson appeared on screen, not to mention any time he delivered a meaningful line or took out a bad guy). In Red Headed Stranger, Nelson plays a preacher who travels from the big city to a small town and creates trouble for himself while trying to find a solution to the town’s water problems. Things take a turn when the preacher murders his unfaithful wife and her lover, but he eventually finds redemption.
The movie was a labor of love for Nelson and writer/director William "Bill" Wittliff, who took to raising funds themselves to get it made after several false starts with major production companies. Wittliff (who passed away in June) also worked with Nelson on Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa. He based the script for Red Headed Stranger on Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name.
After the screening, Nelson appeared on the porch of his World Headquarters for a question-and-answer period about movies, music, and philosophy. He was joined by art director and set architect Cary White, Sonny Carl Davis (Odie Claver), Bryan Fowler (who plays Nathan and is also Nelson’s grandson), wardrobe designers Lana Nelson (his eldest daughter) and Sharon Ely, and more. It’s clear that even after all of these years the film still holds a special place in Nelson’s heart.
The event was the brainchild of Danielle Thomas, director of Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow. According to organizers, making Saturday night happen began with a painstaking search for an original 35mm print of the film. Once found, the print was then put into a digital format.
The inaugural screening was a collaboration between Luck Productions (who is behind the annual Luck Reunion one-day music festival during SXSW) and Rolling Roadshow. Organizers say they are considering hosting additional movie screenings in Luck in 2020.