Olympian turned writer-director Gigi Gaston’s latest film, the drama thriller 9 Bullets starring Lena Headey, Sam Worthington, Dean Valesquez, La La Anthony and Barbara Hershey, is in theaters from April 22. Over the course of her accomplished creative career, she has directed music videos, features and an award-winning Sundance documentary. Gaston began pursuing Olympic equestrian show jumping at 11, and became the youngest rider ever to win an Olympic Competition when she took top honors at the Washington International Horse Show at 17. Continuing to ride competitively, she also began to pursue writing, selling her first script, Like a Lady, to Miramax and Drew Barrymore. Additional script sales followed, including Mockingbird, an action-sci-fi-love story based on the award-winning Walter Tevis novel of the same name, and a historical drama Madame Lupescu, which Universal purchased for director Ron Howard, and Unreliably Yours to director Garry Marshall. Gaston made her directorial debut shortly thereafter with Sundance Channel documentary The Cream Will Rise, showcasing Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Sophie B. Hawkins. Since then she has directed countless music videos (including Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You”), as well the action heist Rip It Off, starring Nastassia Kinski, Alyson Hannigan and Jennifer Esposito. In 2014, she wrote and directed the stage play Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janis Joplin, which starred Sophie B. Hawkins in the title role and was held over for an extended six-month run in Los Angeles to sold out audiences.
I think I must have loved movies even before I could talk. I have several photos of me at the age of two, holding an old Kodak Super 8, smiling like a goofball into the eyes of my mother, who was behind her Kodak taking snapshots. My mother’s friends were all in showbiz, even though my mom had quit years ago to take care of my brother. So, basically, the norm to me was life’s amazing stories and all the players who would tell them to me.
When I was three, I was diverted off this path when I saw a horse in the distance, backlit by the sun. When I got close enough to pat him, he snorted wet stuff all over me, and I was sure that was a sign from God that I belonged with him. That camera was set down, only to be picked up much later in life, but first I had to learn a life lesson that horses were to teach me, which was to never give up. Get back on. Stand up every time your ass hits the ground. You can do this, Gigi. Find the way. There must be a way. Don’t listen to people. Trust your gut and, more importantly … trust the horse, trust that a higher power is guiding you. But every time you fall, get up. Nothing is going to happen unless you get back in that ring, get behind that computer, go to that office to pitch, work out what to do when you have to cut a scene due to time and budget constraints. How are you going to piece this movie together? Ugh, beg God or whoever you beg and just do it.
I have walked over a bridge of a million no’s to finally get to a yes. And that is because I had horses in my early life, as well as a mother who said the four most important words to me when she died in my arms. They meant more than “I love you,” because she knew instinctively that I was having a hard time walking over that bridge of no’s, and knew that I was almost about to fall on that bridge and not get up.
We were in her bedroom and my mom turned her head to me, focused her eyes on mine for the last time, grasped my hand with her gnarled one and said with all the gusto of a young woman: “Be strong, don’t quit, Gigi!” After delivering that message, she relaxed back, exhaled, took her last breath, closed her eyes, and left me holding her in my arms. I looked at that clock which read 11:11 p.m. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t feel them. I held my breath as her soul left and kept hearing “Be strong, don’t quit!” That was five years ago, almost to the day.
The movie industry is all about persistence, not giving up and staying strong. You have to believe in yourself, even when no one around you does – even you.
I remember one competition at the Devon Horse Show, when I must have been 17. I had three horses to ride in a jumper event. Well, it had been raining and my first horse fell in the mud and rolled on top of me. My second horse, who I was even more cautious on, and a bit fearful from the first horse, also fell. He didn’t roll on me, but he fell to his knees and flung me off. And yes … I got up. With the third horse, I tried something different, like I now try a new approach to a scene if it’s not working. I just got on him and – because I knew this course – and rode without thinking, and won!
There are so many similarities between a script and riding. The script is like the course of jumps you have to ride. You never know how you are going to get those jumps done, but you know you must finish the course and find your freedom within it and “within the time allowed.” When you ride a horse, you never know what is going to happen … just like a film. The actor always brings so much to your words and your ideas – I think my gift is that after all the work and prep, I can let go of the reins and enjoy the ride. If you trust your actor and their talent, you can let go of the reins and let them take your ideas to new heights. I feel this happened a lot with everyone in the cast of my new film, 9 Bullets. My actors were stupendous. Sam Worthington, Barbara Hershey, the electric La La Anthony, Martin, Cam, Chris, Lisa and Cornelia… And little Dean Vasquez, who stops my heart every time he smiles – he is so wonderfully instinctual and brings it. Yes, he was green, but that didn’t get in his way at all.
But my hat is off to the dynamic Lena Headey, who jumped into this indie and not only carried the movie brilliantly, but held out her hand to me at times when things got tough … She is a woman who has it all inside, an endless vault of talent – everything a director looks for in an actor – and is always game.
In fact, she gave me one of the greatest wrap gifts I’ll probably ever receive. She and her boyfriend, Marc, called me up and said to meet them at a tattoo shop. I said, “Wait, me? No way!” She said with a giggle, “Yes way! It’s your wrap gift!” She said she was going to have a little sausage dog tattooed on me. I said, “No way!” (I have doxies.)
Lena is quite a great prankster, at least with me, and has a fabulous sense of humor. So I showed up at the tattoo parlor and asked her what she really was going to have tattooed on my wrist. “Look in my eyes,” she replied. “I trusted you on this movie, now you have to trust me.” Well, how could I say no? I mean, I thought that if I didn’t like the tattoo, I could just have it removed?
So, Lena put a blindfold on me, giggling with with Marc as she did it, then whispered to the artist what he was to do. After 15 minutes, it was done and they were ready to show me my tattoo. I was dreading looking down at a sausage dog and but as I have four of them I hoped there would only be one on my wrist! Lena and Marc took off the blindfold and everyone stared at me with watery eyes, including the tattoo artist. I looked down, and lo and behold, there on my wrist were my mother’s last words: “Be strong. Don’t quit.” I burst into tears, looked at Lena and said, “I will treasure this forever.” I will never forget that day and have looked at those words so many times, I can’t even tell you.
Horses gave me the ability to be free in structure, as there was always a clock timing you in equestrian show jumping, just as there is with filming. It’s about making your days, which we did in 9 Bullets – except for one day we went over a few hours and of course that was the day we had to shoot the ending of the film. But guess what? We did it! Against all odds.