JT Mollner was very nearly a pioneer.
The Las Vegas native, best known until recently as one of the twisted minds behind the Freakling Bros. Haunted Houses, was raised on Westerns, he says, “watching everything from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah with my grandfather.”
For his first feature film, “Outlaws and Angels,” which opens Friday at AMC Town Square and on video on demand, Mollner set out to make what he calls “the first really ultraviolent American Western.”
“Unfortunately for me, it took me three years to make my film. And there was another kind of ultraviolent Western that came out this year as well, from a much more high-profile director, that was developed quickly,” Mollner says, letting neither the names Quentin Tarantino nor “The Hateful Eight” past his lips. “Since we came out months later, it almost looks like we may have copied that other film. I will promise the audience that our movie is very, very different.”
There are, however, more than a few similarities. Both movies took the retro approach by shooting on film — “Shooting the movie on film was as important to me as shooting the movie,” Mollner says — using vintage Panavision lenses and cameras. And both films involve strangers spending a good amount of time in an isolated cabin where little is what it seems.
“There’s a lot of ethical ambiguity in the movie,” Mollner, 37, says. “People you think are good don’t turn out to be good. People you think are evil don’t turn out to be all evil.”
“Outlaws and Angels” focuses on an outlaw named Henry (Chad Michael Murray) whose gang pulls off what should have been a simple bank robbery. But when a U.S. Marshal is killed and a massive bounty is placed on their heads, they take a family hostage so they can hole up for the night.
“I’m really fascinated by the American Western, and I realized that even the more kind of dirty depictions of the American West that came from guys like Sam Peckinpah, there was still that good and evil element.,” Mollner says. “There was never really a true exploration of some of the things that were going on on the frontier. And I really wanted to get into that kind of twisted family drama.”
Some of that twistedness stayed with Murray, the one-time “One Tree Hill” teen idol who got good and grizzled for the role of Henry.
“I always tend to take my characters home with me,” Murray says. “The characters, they attach themselves to you, they climb on, and you take ’em for a ride for … however long you’re shooting. For me, it took me about a month to get rid of Henry. Even my wife was like, ‘We’re done. We’re done. Let’s get Henry out. We’re done with him.’ ”
Mollner was born into a showbiz family of sorts. In 1977, his parents, Duke and Jenny, started setting up Halloween attractions in their yard. “We had lines down the street when I was a kid,” Mollner says. “It was a great household to be from, because you’re instantly the most popular kid in school.”
In 1992, Mollner’s dad and brother, Daniel, took the enterprise commercial. Daniel has since dropped out, but Mollner, who moved to L.A. a decade ago, still blocks out late August to early November each year to move home and work in the Freakling Bros. family business.
Mollner has been on both sides of the camera. He starred as Tony in “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” for about a year, and he took beer commercials and bit parts once he got to Hollywood. But his first love always has been writing.
“Writing for me is more of a compulsion. … If I don’t write every day, I don’t feel right. However, when I do write, it’s miserable most of the time. It’s very lonely. It’s not fun. I feel great once it’s finished, but while I’m in it, it’s not always the most pleasurable circumstance.”
Up until now, Mollner has spent his time in L.A. earning what he calls “a modest living” directing commercials and music videos. “I had many opportunities to make movies, but they were $200,000 microbudget films, shot on video with no stars. And I just didn’t want to make my first feature like that. I knew I had one chance to make a first impression. So I was very patient.”
In addition to Murray, the “Outlaws and Angels” cast includes Luke Wilson, Teri Polo, Frances Fisher and — as the family’s youngest daughter, who becomes an object of fascination for Murray’s Henry — Fisher’s daughter Francesca Eastwood, whose father also happens to be a director with a fondness for Westerns.
“Her last name almost prevented her from getting the role,” Mollner admits, “because I thought it might be too much of a distraction.”
Noting that his leading lady has the charisma of both Frances and Clint, Mollner says, “Francesca and I got along so well from the very beginning. She made it easy. She never brought up her history and her lineage. She just listened.
“She’d say things like, ‘You’re one of the two best directors I’ve ever worked with.’ And she’d do that while we were working so I would feel more comfortable. The idea of her was intimidating. But it wasn’t intimidating once we were working together.”
Murray also heaps praise on Mollner, despite his initial concerns about working with a first-time feature director. “But the second I sat down and talked with JT, I realized how knowledgeable he was about film, about the craft, about the art and what he wanted to accomplish. We had the same vision.”
“He’s just the man. He’s the epicenter. … You never question him for a second,” Murray continues. “I’ll go to war with the guy any day. He’s awesome. He’s my brother for life.”
“Outlaws and Angels” premiered at Sundance, something Mollner calls “magical” and “a dream come true.”
But he sounds nearly as proud of casting Las Vegan John Lombardo, the Tony he replaced in “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.” (That’s him getting punched out by Luke Wilson).
More importantly, Mollner was able to continue working with his father, whom he cast as the sheriff in the movie’s opening scene.
It’s just another case of his two worlds coming together.
“I’ve always liked being a provocateur,” Mollner says, “and inspiring heated conversations and getting people riled up and making people feel something.”
That goes for his haunted houses as well as his movies.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.