Shooting Spring 2022
Writer/Director – Jason Neulander
Lead Producer – Thomas Fernandes
Producer – Jennifer Kuczaj
Editor – Mike Saenz
Composer – Graham Reynolds
Harwick – Tim Blake Nelson
Ten years after the Civil War, Helen is taken from her home by a band of Comanches. Her father organizes a posse to find her, but he’s keeping a terrible secret and nothing goes as planned.
The Transgressors is a character-driven thriller that juxtaposes the timeless and epic legend The Iliad with the myth of the American West. It features an ensemble cast in which there are no clear heroes, exploring these characters’ relationships to each other and their instincts for action and violence within the framework of the pervasive racism in Texas in the late 19th Century.
North Texas, 1875. Church Shipman and Josiah Harwick (Tim Blake Nelson), two early settlers of the territory, hire a posse to find and ransom Church’s daughter Helen, who has been taken by Red Hawk and his band of Comanches. The posse consists of three battle-hardened Civil War veterans, Zach Wilbarger, Lariat Westall, and the Comanche scout Wolf Paw, each haunted by his own experience in the war; four green young men, Will Carter, Noah Greeley, Bill Thorp, and Lariat’s younger brother Peter, who dream of becoming heroes; and Barnaby Ness, a former slave of Shipman’s who has no illusions of what the posse is in for, but who has no other choice than to join.
Harwick wants to avoid bloodshed, but the mission quickly begins to unravel as the men track the Comanches to the Palo Duro Canyon. Once there, the men start to get picked off and in their paranoia they turn on themselves. Then Harwick discovers the horrible truth that Helen wasn’t kidnapped, she ran. And Shipman isn’t out to rescue her, he’s out to kill her. By the time he realizes what Helen’s father “did to her” it’s too late to turn back. The only path forward is unspeakable violence.
Yet there is hope, if not for these characters, then maybe for their descendants. In the final moments of the film, Helen and Red Hawk dream of a future that can’t be theirs, but still might one day come to pass.
Towards the end of The Iliad, Priam, the proud king of Troy, sneaks into Achilles’ tent. He comes not to murder the man who killed his son Hector, but rather to beg for the remains so he can perform the funeral rituals that will send his son’s soul safely to the underworld. He gives an impassioned plea that equates his relationship with his son to Achilles’ relationship with his own father, defusing Achilles’ rage and ultimately heading home with his son’s body.
When I first read it, this scene made me cry. The ancient Greeks believed that anyone who wasn’t Greek was a barbarian. Yet in this scene, the “enemy”, the “alien”, the “other” turns out to be much like us — unabashedly and empathetically human. How astounding, I thought, that this story written thousands of years ago and sung ages before that still resonates so powerfully in our own time of deep tribalism. I knew immediately I needed to find a way to share this ancient snapshot of humanity with today’s audiences.
With The Transgressors, I’ve taken key elements, characters, and themes from this timeless myth and juxtaposed them with one of our own essential cultural myths, that of the American West. In this story, the Greeks become the posse and the Trojans, the Comanches.
The Transgressors is a complex and epic adventure that explores the nature of mythology — who writes it, how it shapes our identity, and how the hegemony appropriates it — to tell a story about how those in power have narrated the lives of those on the margins, often erasing those voices to tragic ends. I think not only of the Trail of Tears and the Jim Crow South, but also the Kavanaugh hearings, police shootings of unarmed black men, ICE arrests, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Muslim internment camps in China. As the onion of the story in The Transgressors is unpeeled, we discover that what seemed like obvious truths (Helen is kidnapped, a band of heroes attempts her rescue) turn out to be false and that the belief in these “alternative facts” only leads to tragedy.
In addition to myth, I extensively researched the history of Texas just after the Civil War. One key source was the book “Indian Depredations in Texas,” a racist first-hand account of those times published in the 1890s and informed heavily by the myth of white supremacy. I became fascinated by how these beliefs informed the author’s interpretation of actual events. In the 19th Century, the Comanches were a proud warrior culture actively engaged in battle with any who crossed their path, including other Native Americans. The Anglo settlers were understandably terrified of the Comanches even as they fought to exterminate them. Yet in this book, the author reduces a complex people to mere savages. Like this author, the film’s posse see their circumstances only through the filter of their prejudices, which they are incapable of recognizing until it’s too late.
Like the myths that they believe to be true, the narrative voice of The Transgressors is dominated by these Anglo characters. As the action of the film shatters those myths, the marginalized voices emerge. First Cassie’s (this story’s Cassandra), then Red Hawk’s father Swift Antelope (in an adaptation of the scene between Priam and Achilles), and finally Helen and Red Hawk (a combination of Paris and Hector) themselves. They get the last word. While there is no hope for them within their time and place, maybe sometime in the future there is.
From Hope to Horror: The Look and Feel of The Transgressors
I’m inspired not only by John Ford’s The Searchers and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but also by the cinematography of Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia) and Vittorio Storano (Apocalypse Now), DPs who understood how essential landscape can be to storytelling. The changing landscape of our storyline is itself a character in the production. The shoot is timed to take advantage of Texas’ legendary wildflower season, during which splashes of pastel color bleed through the yellow of the grassland. As the film moves towards its violent end, the landscape changes from those pastels (representing hope) to the otherworldly red dirt and spiked flora of the Palo Duro canyon (representing horror). Throughout, the camera will shoot from below the actors’ faces, making them appear mythical on screen.