You never know where and when inspiration will strike.
Tanner Beard's eureka moment occurred several years ago when he stopped for coffee at the Nutshell Eatery & Bakery in Granbury's historic town square.
"There's a mural painted on the wall of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth," says Beard, an actor and filmmaker whose parents live in the Hood County town. "I was like, 'What's that all about?'"
This wasn't the first time Beard had come across some North Texas reference to the infamous assassin.
"I couldn't help wondering why people were so John Wilkes Booth crazy in Granbury," he says.
So Beard went to the library, did some research and learned a story that captured his imagination.
A man known as John St. Helen -- a secretive, Shakespeare-quoting bartender who lived in Glen Rose and Granbury in the early 1870s -- reportedly made a deathbed confession that he was, in fact, Booth and that, although widely believed to be dead, he had been in hiding since 1865.
If true, this would be one of the great conspiracies of American history.
Naturally, Beard did what any savvy filmmaker would do with this information. He made it an integral part of the movie that he was writing, The Legend of Hell's Gate: An American Conspiracy.
Tuesday, after a couple of years of limited release and playing on the film-festival circuit, Hell's Gate becomes widely available on DVD from Lionsgate. It's also available via Video on Demand.
Beard's movie is an old-style, down-and-dirty Western that was filmed in North and Central Texas. The title references a familiar North Texas landmark, the towering limestone cliff formation at Possum Kingdom Lake known as Hell's Gate, and the plot recounts how Hell's Gate got its name.
Again, Beard -- who wrote, directed and co-starred alongside a cast of well-known Texas actors -- didn't have to look far for his ideas.
"I grew up going to the lake," he says. "I went on fishing trips, learned how to water ski out there, learned how to wakeboard out there. Hell's Gate was always a place to go while we were there.
"One day I was reading something in a brochure or a real-estate directory. It was an excerpt of a Western story about the story of Hell's Gate, and I got incredibly interested in it. I started researching it, talking to people who had lived in the area for years, learning about their family histories and stories.
"And one thing led to another. Each story led me to something else: Indian stories, the John St. Helen story, the fact that Doc Holliday, before showing up in Tombstone, apparently led a normal life in Dallas as a dentist. With every new thing, I was like, 'Well, I have to work this into the script somehow.'
"I had a field day with all this stuff."
Years in the making
Beard was born and raised in the West Texas town of Snyder. After he moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to pursue a career in show business, his parents moved to Granbury. He visits often.
Beard's movie has been years in the making. It started as a short film called Mouth of Caddo in 2008. Beard, 23 at the time, directed the 35-minute Western, and he starred in it alongside Powers Booth and Brendan Wayne (grandson of John Wayne). After scoring a few film-festival wins, the young director managed to rustle up the $2 million financial backing to make a bigger version of the story.
Principal photography wrapped in early 2010, and the rest of 2010 was devoted to post-production. Then Beard began the search for a distributor, ultimately finding a home with Lionsgate, one of the biggest DVD distributors in the business.
"It's kind of surreal what's happening with our little indie Western," Beard says. "It's in 110 million homes right now On Demand. On the 19th, it'll be in every Wal-Mart in the nation. It'll be on iTunes, Netflix, you name it. I just bought a DVD from Australia, just to see what the packaging is like."
Heading up the cast of Hell's Gate is Eric Balfour, whose credits include Syfy's Haven and a season of 24. He plays Will Edwards, a bounty hunter on the lam after a shootout involving Doc Holliday.
Also on the run from a posse, Comanches and angry fur trappers: the Kid called Kelly (played by Lou Taylor Pucci), who overheard St. Helen's deathbed revelation and ran off with the gun that killed Lincoln, and James McKinnon (Beard), an Irish thief who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Before the chase ends, Edwards declares, "I'll go through the gates of Hell before I let them take me down!"
Appeal of the West
The name talent in supporting roles include Henry Thomas (of ET fame), Summer Glau (Firefly), Jamie Thomas King (The Tudors), Kevin Alejandro (True Blood), Jim Beaver (Deadwood), Glenn Morshower (24) and Buck Taylor (Gunsmoke).
Many of these actors have Texas roots, which made it easy for Beard to cast them.
"When I met Summer Glau for the first time, she asked, 'Where are you thinking about filming?' I said our first couple of days would be in this little town near San Antonio she'd probably never heard of, a place called Boerne," Beard says. "She looked at me and said, 'You're never going to believe this, but I'm from Boerne.' And she ultimately showed me her old driver's license to prove it. I guess it was fate."
Truth be told, the real appeal for almost everyone involved, cast and crew alike, was the opportunity to make a Western.
"Summer told me, 'I've always wanted to be in a Western.' Eric Balfour and Jenna Dewan (who's from Grapevine) said basically the same thing," Beard says. "It's such a time-honored Hollywood genre.
"Everybody classic has been in a Western. If you're in a Western, you're on the right path."