I had the chance to speak with director Gigi Gaston about her new film The 9 Bullets, an action thriller starring Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Sam Worthington (Avatar), and Barbara Hershey (Black Swan). Gaston has a long history as an artist writing and directing in film, theater, and television.
9 Bullets is a story about second chances through the lens of a stripper (Headey) who goes on the run with a young child (Dean Scott Vazquez, soon to be seen in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts) who is targeted by her crime lord ex (Worthington). Gaston is a great interview – open and insightful – with a ton of interesting stories to share about her history, her filmmaking process, and the greatness of Lena Headey.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Gigi Gaston on her road to filmmaking and 9 Bullets
I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about your film today.
Gaston: Well I’m very grateful you’re having me.
I understand you have an atypical background for a filmmaker, a history as an equestrian athlete. I wanted to let my readers and viewers learn a little about you and how you came to filmmaking.
Gaston: Wow! Well you have a lot of hardship and heartache as a kid. I had some things happen to me that were tough and you just escape in film. They give you hope. They encourage you to reach for the stars and to try what you can never do and want real love. That’s how I got into it. I was riding horses. I was getting kind of depressed about all the drugs in horses. I just kept thinking “wow. We’re shooting them up with Equipoise, a steroid, shooting up with this or that. I just thought it was my time to leave. So I realized I have all these crazy stories in my mind. So I started writing in between the horses. I’d go do all the jumps and then I’d set up on my trunk by a horse and start writing. That’s how it started!
How did the idea for 9 Bullets come about? Does that date to your equestrian days?
Gaston: No. My first script during the equestrian days Drew Barrymore and Harvey Weinstein bought. Miramax was happening. It was my story – the story of a tomboy who doesn’t know what most girls know. I’m 5’9” so I was always called sir when I had my cowboy hat on. I’d go thanks and ::covers her face::. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a woman because then they’d go “Oh my god! You’re a girl!” and stare at you like you’re a freak. She ends up stumbling in to a drag bar and sees men that are more feminine than she’s dreamed of being and gets the older drag queen to teach her how to be a woman. It was My Fair Lady in drag. That was my very first script. This script came to me in 2017.
What inspired you to tell this story of the Gypsy Moon character?
Gaston: I think because I had gone through a divorce and I needed to believe in second chances. You don’t know where they’re coming from. You think it’s your book deal, but it’s really the love of a little kid that stands as a second chance. Purposefully, we didn’t cast her thirty. The older you get, the less people think you’re going to get second chances. But age is just a number.
Crafting an action film about a woman in her 40s
That’s one of the things I found most interesting about the film actually. There aren’t a lot of roles like this especially in the action or quasi-action genre for leading women in their 40s so I was curious about your thought process in building out this role, and if this had always been the intended age bracket for the actress. I was also curious how you came to Lena Headey and her performance here.
Gaston: I owe it all to Mary Vernieu, who is one of the best casting directors in the business. Mary and I talked about it and I really felt like it needed to be at the edge of a woman who maybe shouldn’t be stripping. Which is not Lena! Lena looks like fucking 35. Her body is fucking amazing. Even though Lena would say “No! No! No!” she actually told me that it was the hardest thing in the world for her to strip. She worked with a very famous Burlesque dancer. I wanted it to be closer to 50 because your time is limited so that raises the stakes.
The greatness of Lena Headey
It makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of vulnerability in her performance and it makes sense that would be such a stressful moment as an individual, but I think a lot of the texture of her work comes through in the way she’s grappling with the trauma from her past. I was curious about your process of building out this role with her. I think Lena is really excellent in the film.
Gaston: She’s amazing in the film! She took my character from here and brought it was up there! It’s just who she is. She’s so diverse and has so much in her. I didn’t even know that she had that much in her because I wasn’t that familiar with her work. And Mary Vernieu kept saying “watch this thing!” and “watch that film!” There was one thing and I told Lena this – and I know sometimes Lena looked at me like I was kind of out there! But we just bonded! – but there was that moment in Game of Thrones before she walks naked through the thousands of people, which we know is CGI’d. Before that, she’s in prison and she just squats up in the corner and touches the wall. It was all in how she touched that wall. Everything was said in that moment. And I thought this woman is IT. She has all the facets and the moments and the nuances, and she did. We were really collaborators. I’m much more of a sentimentalist American and she’s much more of a Brit. We would work through those things. Here’s a funny story, well I hope you think it’s funny…
Gaston: The first costume situation I could tell wasn’t working. I had shown up at that moment because I didn’t think it was going to work. The first person who was on it didn’t understand what I wanted. So I’m there and I thought Lena would know. I’m watching Lena and I can tell she’s not that happy. I had actually written the role… you might be too young but remember that movie with Melanie Griffith where she’s running through the streets of New York in a tight skirt and high heels? [Editor’s note: Working Girl] It’s such a great visual and to me as a kid in high school seeing this? I wanted to recreate that. I went outside and made a call to one of the producers and said “I don’t know if this is really going to be a good situation, but let’s see.” Out comes Lena and she had changed the wardrobe to a leather jacket and jeans when not on stage. She said “this is what I’m going to where.” And I said “Ok.” That’s totally different than what I thought, right? I thought she knows what she’s doing. It’s like most actors come to the set looking like me and then they’re glamourized and come out looking like movie stars. I thought she knows exactly what she’s doing, the heels may break, whatever. We’re working and are 3 weeks into it. Actually less than that, we only had 19 days to do 210 set ups.
That’s an ordeal!
Gaston: I know! Someone kept calling me Lena. And I would hear them call her Gigi. I looked down and realized what do I wear? Leather jacket and jeans! ::Laughs!:: That’s my outfit. I went up to there and went “Did you…?” And she said “I was wondering how long it would take you to figure out that I was dressing like you!”
A part of me, not exactly me. And I was like “Fuck!” She goes “Glad you’re directing me and really aware!” ::Laughs!:: We just joked with each other all the time. It was such a great vibe. Everything was going wrong in the world. We were terrified of the pandemic, it was the beginning of it. No one knew what the fuck was going on. For me, it saved my life. It was humor and working together to get through these insane days and discovering all these wonderful moments.
Gaston on her lead character’s sexuality
Gaston: Remember the scene after she’s made love with Jack, Sam Worthington, who I loved working with so much. Every actor in this gave me everything. Remember when she comes in and tears off her clothes in the shower.
Gaston: That was thought of in the moment and we were behind. I went up to her and said a lot of people don’t get why you fucked him. Oh wait! Am I allowed to say that?
Be my guest!
Gaston: They all know you fucked him to save the kid, but you enjoyed it and you hate yourself for enjoying it. Do you mind? And she said I’m in! And we shot that in one take as she’s trying to get rid of him and she’s hating herself. I don’t know if it happens with men, but with women you sometimes end up sleeping with a guy that you don’t want to sleep with or the girl that you don’t want to sleep with because you can’t help yourself. It’s just that great.
I think that’s a natural human experience that cuts both ways.
Gaston: So all those little moments that come in, and to have someone like Lena who takes an idea and elevates it. I wish I could take the credit, but I can’t. I just gave her the reins. On a horse, you throw the reins a way and just trust them.
Balancing directing, writing, and producing
You’re sort of talking around one of the questions I wanted to ask you. This is really your baby – you directed, you wrote, you produced – and I was curious what your process is like and how you differentiate your writer brain from your director brain. I have to imagine the writer brain has these infinite ideas and the producer brain is thinking through “how the hell do I get this thing shot?” So I’m curious how you balance the different hats you have to wear on a film like this.
Gaston: I rarely stay in my producer brain. That’s my fearful brain so I just throw that one out. Was I lucky to bring in investors? Yes. Did I bring them in? No. A friend of mine invested who just believed in the movie. I didn’t even ask her. She’s just so fucking killer, Jane Holzer, she was a big Andy Warhol star and my buddy riding horses. She invested in a movie called Kiss of the Spider-Woman. She called me up and said “I read your script and I want to invest in this.” I just have a feeling about it. I was shocked. She’s fucking brilliant! That’s my only producer thing. Other things were too, but I can’t stay in that worry. I did a couple movies for Lifetime to learn and to get on a fast schedule and boom-boom-boom learn how to move. I didn’t write those. You have to, as a director, be in the moment. I think it’s more exciting than writing. You’re in the moment with the actor and it’s all about their moment. You’re watching and it’s all “can you do this? Can you try that? Can you bring this out? Can you move the camera this way?” I like going in closer and closer and closer, which sometimes drove my DP crazy. I just love that. I want to get in there. I want to see it. I want to feel it. The first time the little kid touches her tears that are falling he went like that! ::Sharp motion with her hand:: And I said “Oh no no no! Her face is glass if you touch it, it might break.” And he himself tore off that tissue, that little napkin, and it was all in that moment. I didn’t write that. It came from the moment of creativity. I love that directing part.
Writing? You write that part but you never know what’s going to happen in the moment. Now that I’m talking to you it occurs to me that it’s kind of like riding horses. When you’re on the horse you have like 28 jumps and you know you have to do all the jumps, 1 to 28, in order just like a script. Let’s say between jump number 6 and 7, your horse stumbles. Well then you’ve got to haul them up and rebalance and readjust them for the next jump. It’s the same thing with directing. You’re just in the moment. They can scream cut because the sound is gone or a helicopter flies by or some great thing can happen and someone does something so wonderful you just keep the cameras going, which Lena did all the time, and La La Anthony and Barbara Hershey and Sam and Martin Sensmeier. You just have to know when to yell cut and when to let it keep going.
Newcomer Dean Scott Vazquez’s big future
With Dean Scott Vazquez, he was green, and now he’s got five Transformers.
Gaston: He’s gonna be in the next Transformers and then he’s signed on for four more. How cool is that?
I have a four year old son so something tells me I’m going to see a lot of him in my life!
Gaston: Oh my god! You totally are! Your kid would love him. He’s the most generous little kid. He’s what America is all about. Immigrant, worked hard, family works hard, look what happens. He’s like “I’m going to give to my home. I’m going to send money to my relatives in Puerto Rico.” An eleven year old saying that.
It’s very sweet.
Gaston: I mean my god! I love this child! Sometimes at first he was a little nervous so I’d walk by Lena and say “we’re shooting rehearsal ok?” So Lena and I were really on track. I’d try to explain something to him and Lena, Lena has kids. I’m not with my kids so I’m less…
Gaston: Attuned. Yes. She would go “Hold on! I think I’ve got a better way of saying that.” He would go “I don’t get it Gigi!” Go for it Lena – she has two kids. Egos should be checked at the door. That’s the only thing I think that spoils movies, to be honest, egos in the making of them.
Balancing action, comedy, and tragedy
One of the things I think is always so interesting is the tone. I like to see how filmmakers approach it on movies that are a serious drama on one hand but also have comedic elements to them. Obviously, a lot of Sam’s line readings are funny and I think the scene with Dean and Lena, where Dean makes the quip about how her skirt is too short for her to be going out, is very funny stuff. I’m curious how you approach that balance of the comic and the tragic here.
Gaston: I’d like to tell you that I’m this big hotshot and I thought about this and that, but I’m just going to say I have a gift that is “open.” I don’t get in the way. It may be there on the page, but I really really revere actors. I learn from them. I may goose it a little bit, but it’s trusting in your actor and your team. I really feel we all trusted each other. I am nothing without actors. It just gelled. Byron Werner, my DP, was so specific. In the moment I change a lot, and he’d say “we have to do the shot list. I understand you’re gonna change them but we have to do the shot list.” It’s doing the brick laying so you have that freedom. It was there on the page, but it’s the actors.
The place for films like 9 Bullets in an evolving industry
I gather we’re coming close to the end of our time, but I did have one bigger picture question which is that I think it’s interesting to see a female led, female starring action film like this. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how the industry can shift to highlight work like this more. It feels like things have become very monolithic, and I don’t mean to throw shade at Marvel movies or whatever else, but it seems like there’s a very particular sort of thing that the industry is entirely geared on. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how incremental tweaks can be made to improve things.
Gaston: Well I hope this film makes money. ::Laughs!:: All the people that believed in me. Screen Media has been amazing. I think it little films like this get support and word of mouth. We don’t have the budget of a Marvel to get it out there. We’re getting a theater release. How great is that? If it makes money that will penetrate the bigger studios to want to go and make more of these. I have another movie that’s an action movie that’s kick ass too and I want to do. I’m doing another movie first, but then I want to do this movie that I wrote. It’s like a love story set in Deliverance – very cool! We just need to keep making them. If some big fancy director wants to make it? I’d be willing to give it to her. There’s so many great women directors out there.
Everything you say makes a lot of sense. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Gaston: I love your kid! Say hi to your kid!
I really appreciate it, and I wish you the absolute best with this release and I look forward to what you make in the future.
Gaston: Thank you for your time.
9 Bullets is out now in select theaters and available on video on demand platforms.