How Students Turned $10K into Western Shoot-em Up

Decades-old oater 'Vengeance Trail' comes back to life thanks to A.I.

This is basic advice given to first-time filmmakers.

  • Start with what you have.
  • Write what you know.
  • Make the movie you can make this year.
  • Avoid stunts, children and animals.

“Vengeance Trail” broke all these rules.

A film professor knew a historian with vintage guns, props, costumes, sets and horses in his backyard. The professor would direct. The film school students would be the crew.

The historian would dust off an old screenplay. They would cast their friends and pull many favors. The film professor thought a profitable feature film could be made for $10K with all these in-kind resources on the table.

Westerns were hot at the time.

In theory, I believe this could have worked. Even today, I meet people who make features for $1,000 and are happy with $1,500 from Tubi the first few months.

Then they hired Stephen McCurry as DP, who was referred by another DP who thought the job was too small.

You could call this a mistake. Why? Let me tell you a story.

Vengeance Trail from Ian Max Eyre on Vimeo.

Stephen was a serial entrepreneur from his teens. In high school he promoted bands and their events. He was a sound engineer for many famous musicians in Atlanta. He took a position as assistant stage manager for the Batman Stunt Spectacular at Six Flags Over Georgia.

I met Stephen when I was cast as alternate Batman and I took a position as stage tech. I grew up without a television and had only seen 3 movies before my teens. I didn’t know how the sausage was made but was adventurous and curious as a budding mechanical engineer.

Since high school, I had been in love with pyrotechnics and stunts, and now I was fighting bad guys while ducking the Batmobile and 1,500-degree fireballs.

The Batman show led us to stunt actors. Stephen was friends with musicians. Five of us started making short films that always had stunts and great music. Cops were called on all our shoots, but they appreciated our young, naive earnestness and turned a blind eye. It was the ‘90s in Georgia, and nobody was jaded by the film business.

All five of us moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘90s and continued making shorts and working in the business. I welded roll cages into cars for Joe Rogan’s “Fear Factor.”


When “Vengeance Trail,” the low-ambition student feature, hired Stephen, they inadvertently got a package deal with some ambitious filmmakers who didn’t see stunts as a problem for low-budget movies.

We intended to make an action movie that we would want to watch.

But, you, young filmmaker, should finish your first feature film as quickly as you can, so the importance of the wise film-school advice above is to finish on budget and prove yourself with the big dogs.

Keep your risks low. Make that scrappy relationship drama, with hints of genre that can market the trailer, and sell that genre, B-movie with no stars.

See what you can accomplish with the first $10K and all the resources and relationships you can parlay for free.

We didn’t go to film school, but we had the common desire of our crew of film students to get on-the-job training. Taking the reins of a feature film was our golden opportunity. We already knew enough about stunts and pyro to be dangerous, but we added a child actor and plenty of horses to the rule-breaking.

At this point, we were hiring more experienced crew, along with generators and caterers. The writer’s wife was frantically making costumes. And we brought on Oliver Keller, an equally ambitious stunt coordinator who wanted to prove himself getting shot off horses and falling off buildings.

Our movie didn’t get finished that first year, 2002. We spent closer to $35K and shot 60 percent of the script. But that’s still a pretty good accomplishment, isn’t it?

Everyone got paid — glorified extras wages — which was great because it kept the wolves from the door (wolves being those bread-and-butter jobs we were avoiding).

Stephen spent the winter editing and rewriting the script with the writer. The next year, Stephen and I took over producing, and when the film professor moved on to other passions, Stephen took the reins.

‘Vengeance Trail’ Needed More TLC

Reshoots were extensive. My stunts were cut, but I became second unit director. We multiplied our budget by many factors, but by this time we had visual proof — something to show for our efforts, and the investors held their cards.

We had a very strong movie in the works. And the main investor was able to sell some vintage movie guns to collectors and keep us in cash. We finished the movie with much higher production value than the year before.

As an aside, we learned all about the issues that plagued the movie “Rust.”

Alec Baldwin waved gun around on Rust film set before fatal shooting, court hears

In fact, we couldn’t get insurance for our blank-firing, vintage guns due to the recent (enough) death of Brandon Lee on “The Crow,” until we hired a Civil War reenactor for squibs and got his insurance.

Stephen finished the movie by 2006, with an amazing original score. But we had no stars and the movie was shot on Standard Definition interlaced, the quality of your grandmother’s CRT television. A distributor put the movie in Walmart and Blockbuster.

Stephen and the main EP toured America with the lead actress, attending Western and shooting events and selling DVDs. I think they covered the first year’s budget. Walmart made us buy their unsold DVDs back and the EP would sell a few here and there.

“Vengeance Trail” was a tax write-off.

Fifteen years passed. By now, I had a career in stunts and 20-plus years of learning screenwriting and producing and directing short films. I was transitioning to directing my feature directorial debut.

That required learning to raise money. I wasn’t part of developing or selling “Vengeance Trail,” but I was now creating business plans and trying to learn SEC rules, etc. I needed a track record to show investors, to prove I would have integrity with their money and seek to make a profit for the life of the movie, which could be decades.

I learned that there were ways to de-interlace old footage and blow up the picture by creating new pixels instead of stretching them. I started collecting the assets from the movie, but they were incomplete due to hard drive crashes.

Then Artificial Intelligence tools began to appear. I made up my mind to do a test with the trailer. I would drop the trailer from the DVD into my timeline and align the original footage on top, then see what that looked like blown up to 1080p HD.

I was elated. The new trailer looked great.

So, after three years, I finished the movie last December. Now, I’m on a crash course to learn marketing and self-distribution — that’s another discussion. See for yourself the results, with the trailer and first 12 minutes for free, and follow the filmmaker blog at

What’s the point of all this? Never give up? Even the studios dig up old movies, enhance them digitally, and re-market them to a new generation.

Ian Max Eyre is a stunt coordinator at and movie producer at based in Los Angeles and Memphis, TN. He is developing a slate of genre movies for young adults.

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