Some films are ones to watch for their striking visuals. Others aren't anything spectacular visually but tell an interesting and engaging story. I was lucky enough to come across one recently that has both these pillars of great cinema firmly in place.

I caught up with director / writer / film-maker Usher Morgan for a very illuminating chat on film-making, movies, visual style, the spaghetti western and the soul of noir in his first dramatic feature film, Pickings, on a limited theatrical run now. For more info on theaters playing it and the film itself, head to Pickings' Facebook page here or on the web at http://www.pickingsfilm.com.

It is amazing how close film noir and the spaghetti western really are – the spaghetti western as an aesthetic is quite often referred to as the "noir-tinged" western. Its trademarks are the extreme close-ups on the dramatic expressions across the faces of the protagonist and villain, the gun battles, grit, human frailty largely in the form of crime, and of course the death and dismemberment of the “happy ending.” All of these things, in the noir and the spaghetti western, see their primary reliance on character psychology – psychology develops the narrative, and indeed the visuals.

This psychological impetus is primarily where the spaghetti western dovetails quite nicely with film noir. Pickings as a film really accentuates how perfect these two genres fit together within that psychological peg.

"When a short-tempered mobster (Michael Gentile) and his gang of thugs try to shake down a neighborhood bar, they're soon confronted with the wrath of its owner – a mysterious southern mother (Elyse Price) with a dangerous past."

PICKINGS Red-Band trailer.

It's pure lethal fun – an incredible ride from the beginning monologue delivered in a quintessentially world-weary tone by Price's Jo Lee-Haywood as she drags slowly on a cigarette while enveloped in a blanket of heavy shadow – all the way through to the rapid fire ending when we are privy to more of the southern femme fatale's past and perhaps where she is going.

It's sexy as hell – a feast for the eyes for everyone, not just diehard fans of noir as an aesthetic. If one had to approximate a title with visuals close to Pickings, it would undoubtedly be Robert Rodriguez's Sin City – sans the uber-stylized HDR photography; Pickings instead employs a richly varied color palette that is simultaneously unafraid of the darkness noir deals in – and the occasional faux-animated tease which gives certain pivotal moments the edge of a graphic novel.

This is far from a carbon copy of anything, however. Make no mistake, Pickings IS Usher Morgan's elegant and brutal vision as writer and director. Orson Welles once said, "Create your own visual style. Let it be unique to yourself yet instantly identifiable to others." An apt descriptor for Pickings and one that makes me believe we will be seeing much more great stuff from the bold creative behind it.

Hello Usher and welcome to The 405! I was hoping we could start by giving our readers a bit of an idea of your history – what got you into film as your art form?

Thanks for having me.

Ever since I can remember, I've always wanted to be involved in movies in some capacity or another. When I was a kid I thought I was going to be an illustrator, then when I was about 13 years old or so I watched the "behind the scenes" of The Matrix at a friend's house and became obsessed with visual effects, movie-making and computer animation – that was what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I spent a good chunk of my early life learning everything I could about visual effects and decided that I was going to go to Los Angeles and study VFX at the Gnomon School – then The Lord of the Rings came into my life, and I started shifting my goals towards screenwriting and filmmaking in general (I was obsessed with that series of books / films).

What ultimately sealed the deal for me was my father – as I began to express interest in making films for a living he sat me down and "forced me" to watch The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that was the movie that started it all – it followed with Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, The Grand Duel, Once Upon a Time in the West, Singing in the Rain and many more, I'd spend a night with my parents, twice a week, watching movies and talking about them. He basically opened my mind to the magic of old cinema and that, combined with my love for new-age cinema (at the time), sparked a new fire within me. I was obsessed with making movies.

A few years went by. I left my hometown and migrated to New York City to start a book publishing company (books are cheaper and faster to produce, also I love reading books so that was a perfect business for me). I ended up going homeless for a while, and operating my business out of a motel room in Jersey (funny story for another time).

Still from PICKINGS.

Elyse Price as Jo Lee-Haywood in PICKINGS.

A year went by, I moved to Indiana, lived in Las Vegas and then, as my position improved, full-circled back to New York City. I was so involved with surviving and making money that I had to put the filmmaking dream aside for a while, my thought was "if I make enough money selling books, I can turn them into movies", a thought that actually came true, incidentally.

One day I was given the opportunity to produce a documentary film based on a book that we published with renowned Disney composer David Friedman. That experience re-triggered my passion and obsession with film and I began to take this idea of making movies more seriously. I took courses, attended seminars, read books and learned about screenwriting and filmmaking. About a year later I made my first "real" short film, Prego¸ and a year after that – I was in production for Pickings, and now I just want to keep making these for as long as I'm alive.

Quite the life story Usher. I admire the perseverance and hard work in it – very cool. Other favorite films and directors? I'm curious about which you would consider most influential on you as an artist?

Wow. "Favorite films" is a question that's pretty hard to answer – I love all types of movies, and most genres, but if I had to pick the artists that I believe influenced me the most, it would be Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese,  and Wes Anderson

Yeah [Laughs] that question is meant to be a little tough. Great selections, too. Favorites in the film noir ("classic" or "neo") and western space?

My favorite noirs are The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, Siodmak’s The Killers, Road to Perdition, and Sin City.

Momo (Michael Gentile) opposite Jo Lee-Haywood (Elyse Price) in PICKINGS.

Notice the geometry of this still from PICKINGS. A close derivative of the Dutch Angle.

I don't think anyone had the on-screen magic of Bogie and Bacall. Funny too, I was just thinking Hawks and Hitchcock are absolutely on my favorites list for The Big Sleep and Vertigo, and of course Hemingway’s The Killers. Such a great old noir. Ava Gardner in it too – wow.

The next question is related, what makes a great film?

A great film is a film that leaves a big foot-print in your mind. These are the types of films that you keep thinking about and watching more than once, the movies you implore your friends to watch and the ones that make you "feel" (cry, laugh, think or get excited). There are 3-4 movies being released every year that fit that description in my opinion and I love all of them.

So true. I like the metaphor you used there of a big foot-print in the brain. The best ones do live rent free in one's head.

Getting back to noir – and as it relates to Pickings – I could speculate a bit on noir influences in the film. A still that really struck me occurred near the beginning where Jo Lee is holding her gun on the thug (Nathan Shapiro) and we get a straight-on POV view down the barrel of her revolver – this very much reminded me of Ida Lupino's first director-credited noir The Hitch-Hiker from 1953 – also the very first Hollywood noir to be directed by a woman. The Hitch-Hiker's poster has a very similar pose. What was your initial inspiration for the project?

1953 poster for Ida Lupino's THE HITCH-HIKER.

That's actually pretty funny; I've seen that movie and that poster but never made the connection. It's possible that it snuck into my subconscious. Most of the times the decision to shoot something a certain way may come from another film, but you don't realize it – other times you do realize it and you do it deliberately – I'm not shy about that.

That's good. I find influences tell a lot about an artist.

I actually showed my DP Louis Obioha shots from Wes Anderson movies, and Once Upon a Times in the West, Sin City, Dark Passage and The Killers while we were on set, prepping the next shot and camera move. Other times I'll shoot something and then a few months later I'll re-watch a movie and go, "hey –Pickings!"

Nice. [Laughs]

As far as specific inspiration, we borrowed our use of light and color from Sin City, Dark Passage, Gangster Squad and Road to Perdition. A big source of influence were these old magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective, that's where Sam "Hollywood" Barone (Yaron Urbas) came from.

"Black Mask", May, 1952.

"Dime Detective", May, 1947.

The old pulps are really something. I dig their aesthetic too.

They had a classic mafia-noir feel to them, but they managed to integrate some western themes in their covers and stories. That's where that noir-western genre hybrid was born, in my mind. 

Quite a lot in noir history was born in those pages, I think. The visual language in Pickings is sexy as hell and strikes a brilliant balance between that spaghetti ("noir tinged") western and classic film noir – I think creatives like John Alton would've really dug it – the lighting around her smoking in the beginning scene really struck me for instance. Could we get an insight into what your creative process looked like in crafting the sleek as a stiletto visual style here?

Because I knew I was going to have the privilege of directing and producing this film while I was writing it, I was actually writing the visual style of the film into the script. So when our protagonist first makes her appearance on film, she is written as being a "mysterious, noir silhouette". Once it came time to make this movie, I screened a couple of films with my cinematographer, Louis Obioha and it was a question of "what was possible to achieve?", I'm very glad he was open-minded enough to experiment the way that he did. The Red Epic is not a low light camera, so we were forced to do some heavy lifting in post-production to get that look the way we wanted it.

"Mysterious noir silhouette", Elyse Price as Jo Lee-Haywood in PICKINGS.

Bringing out the hard-boiled: Joe Trombino as Jimmy Marcone in a pivotal scene in PICKINGS.

Nice. I think those experiments absolutely succeeded here – yet, visuals are, of course, only a part of the story. The craft of character in Pickings was incredible too. I identified with the characters because my family has been in the liquor business in Illinois since the mid 80's. Illinois is, of course, Capone-land – so I was regaled when growing up with a lot of the history of Prohibition, the black markets, speakeasies, cathouses, and skid rows that were here a few generations before.  

Many of the film's characters reminded me very much of stories of little-known real-life characters I had heard stories of over my life. Which leads me to ask what your process as writer is like? I'm sure the actors added many dimensions to the characters as well, especially Elyse Price as Jo Lee-Haywood and Joel Bernard as the laconic Uncle Boone – kind of a Robert Mitchum / Clint Eastwood hybrid with his own style.

That's funny. I grew up in that same family-business environment as well. My father owned a winery and so we had to deal with a lot of alcohol dealers and shady characters in that industry. The screenplay for this film actually started out as a short, and later developed into a full-length feature. I spent about a year writing and shaping the script and the characters in it were heavily inspired by some of the films I mentioned earlier, others came from real life research. For example, you can see a lot of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson's character in Key Largo) in Sam and a lot of Harmonica (Charles Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West) in both Boone and May (Lynne Jordan).

Yep. Johnny Rocco himself being based on Al Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

It was after casting Elyse Price, Katie Vincent and Joel Bernard in their respective roles that I started making some adjustments to the ways these characters spoke and behaved, it was like I was writing characters for specific actors, a privilege that not a lot of writers have.

We also had the good fortune of spending two and a half weeks in rehearsal – which gave us time to shape the film and understand what it was going to look like, feel like, and what the pace was like. This also helped shape the script, so as a writer, after every rehearsal session, I would go home and write. That's the way this particular script was developed. The casting definitely had a big impact on the way these characters talk, walk and act.

Absolutely. That craft of character really gets into the hard-boiled nature of Pickings too. We get to see the human sensitivities of the characters – like Jo Lee relating to her children – but the entire story is uncompromising in looking at those dark themes so characteristic of hard-boiled as a genre of crime fiction, where I think they are usually tempered in most cinema, likely to increase viewership. I think true fans of the genre will appreciate that Pickings didn't skimp on those qualities and is still hugely entertaining. What were some of the challenges on the project?

I actually remember one actor putting a note down during the first table read, asking that we remove one of the darkest moments in the film, and then by the end of the table read, he crossed it out and wrote "never mind, it works". I'd say that Pickings does have some dark themes, but I think the overall feel is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Absolutely… It balances both of those things well. I think others in the genre can occasionally unduly dilute the dark parts though. The end of True Detective Season 1 would be an example.

The serious moments are serious, and the lighter moments are light, which adds a lot to the impact when serious themes do get introduced.

Certainly.

As far as challenges are concerned, I can say with confidence that this is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life, and that says a lot.

A more obvious nod to the western: Joel Bernard as Uncle Boone Haywood in PICKINGS.

The bar environment in PICKINGS. Scarlet Lee-Haywood (Katie Vincent) and Mike (Nathan Shapiro).

Making a movie of that scale on such a shoestring budget brings with it many different challenges, every day was a different kind of battle, and you have to be in a constant state of awareness. Messing up means putting everyone under a lot of stress and you have to say no to people all the time and make sure your standards aren't being compromised.

To add to that, most of this film was shot in overnights, which meant almost 30 days of filming from 11:00pm to 11:00am, traveling back and forth also added a lot of anxiety for everyone involved. In addition, I wanted to avoid CGI as much as possible, so we ended up using real blood squibs, real blanks, and real stunts – which added a lot of logistical complications.

That avoidance of CGI and use of the genuine article added a layer of rawness, too.

However, this experience taught us all more than any film school ever could, and I can't wait to do it all again!

We've all built friendships and relationships that will hopefully last a lifetime. At the end of the day, if you love it and it's FUN and you bring a lot of excitement to the set, people can feel it, your set will be infected with it, and they'll ignore the stress and go the extra mile to help you get your vision made.

At least that was the case for me; I got lucky by landing a really good team of people who stood by me when things got tough.

I couldn't agree more. Will we be seeing more from the Dames Gang? You created a fascinating universe here that I think most people would love to see more from.

We're actually going to be releasing a Pickings novel at the end of the year, so people who like the film can dig in a little deeper and read all about the storylines and characters that got cut from the film due to time, budget and other constraints. The book will be published by Library Tales Publishing. Check out the Facebook page for information on that as it comes in.

Also, we have a soundtrack coming out on March 23rd, 2018. If the film does well enough to justify a sequel, I'll probably consider making a prequel, which I think could be a lot of fun!! Which is what this whole thing is about, really.

I hope it does! I'd love to see that too.

Example 1 of diegetic sound in PICKINGS. Jo Lee loading shells into her revolver.

Example 2 of diegetic sound in PICKINGS. Jo Lee's spurs clank on the concrete of the bars basement.

Speaking of a soundtrack, the use of sound in Pickings was gritty and perfect and really added to overall mood – both the diegetic sounds of like Jo Lee loading her revolver as her spurs clink on the concrete to Katie Vincent's incredible music. 

What did the creative process there look like both in the diegetic sounds and on Katie's soundtrack? How important is the sound to evoke the atmosphere of solid noir in your opinion?

Also, the Buddy Rich-esque drum track towards the movies beginning: will that be on the soundtrack? I know it isn't very long, but damn that's been an ear worm ever since I watched the film.

Oh, sound and music were both major contributors to the overall atmosphere of this film and to any film, really. For us it was done mostly through trial and error, since we are not professional sound mixers and have no experience composing music, so we had to play around with different elements for every scene to get the results we were after.

In that Momo and Jimmy (Joe Trombino) scene, we had 30-40 different layers of musical elements building over each other, it took a while to find that sweet spot, but when you finally find it, it is very satisfying.

Once Katie came on board as a musical supervisor, she contributed greatly to the soundtrack as well as to the musical notes that are playing in the background in some of those scenes. For that Sam and Linda (Megan Corry) scene, we tried using "dramatic" music and failed miserably, I was playing around with Beethoven, Mozart and other classical sounds but eventually we decided to go with Big Band.

As soon as we put that Buddy Rich tune in there, the scene transformed into something completely different. Suddenly new emotions were evoked and the scene took on a different meaning. That's the true power of music and sound (or lack thereof), it has the power to evoke all sorts of emotions that image on its own may not.

Katie Vincent performing "Trouble is" from PICKINGS.

That drum track did add a whole other frenetic dimension to that scene. Interesting to see the process in arriving at it. Last, what is next for you?

I’m hard at work on my next feature film, which I intend to shoot early next year, if possible.

I am also writing the Pickings novel, which will be released at the end of the year. You can read more about me and my work at www.ushermorgan.com and about the film at www.pickingsfilm.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pickingsfilm – it’s still playing in New York City, so the best way to support it would be to go to the theater, buy a ticket and watch it on the big screen.