Beer For My Horses: Inspired by Popular Song

In 2003, the song “Beer For My Horses,” a duet by beloved country music stars Toby Keith and Willie Nelson hit the charts at #1 and stayed there for 6 weeks, becoming one of Keith’s biggest and most indelible hits.

The song unfolded a riveting tale–that of a group of fine citizens saving a damsel in distress from evil criminals and returning to celebrate justice in freewheeling, down-home style–with “whiskey for the men and beer for the horses” at the local saloon.

So riveting was the song’s tale that, even after doing a stylish, action-comedy music video with Willie Nelson, Keith began to envision it as a movie, one in the vein of his favorite good-time road comedies from the 70s and 80s – with their unhinged characters, high-spirited slapstick, hair-raising car chases and larger-than-life style of entertainment. “I’ve always loved those fun-loving buddy comedies like CannonBall Run, Smokey and the Bandit and 48 Hours,” says Keith. “And I always wanted to make a movie like that.”

Having recently made his acting debut in Paramount and CMT’s first feature film, Broken Bridges, Keith was ready to try his hand at screenwriting. To help bring his breakneck, mischievous sense of humor to the screen, he partnered up with a good friend and a man who also happens to be one of today’s most popular and distinctive entertainers: comedy star and country singer Rodney Carrington.

With his trademark twang and his audacious sense of humor, Carrington has risen to become one of the most sought-after stand-up acts in the country as well as a chart-topping recording artist and star of his own ABC sitcom, “Rodney.” In combination with Keith’s skill for spinning a great story, Carrington brought his home-style, yet definitely no-holds-barred, comic flavor to the screenplay for Beer For My Horses. Together, Keith and Carrington filled the screenplay with plenty of driving, brawling, bantering and jaw-dropping stunts – as well as their own playful brand of countrified comedy.

As executive producer Donald Zuckerman enthuses: “Rodney is a fantastic part of the equation. He’s our secret weapon. I always thought he was the funniest guy. He’s a natural talent, and he and Toby have a great relationship in that they are good friends and can bounce off each really well whether as writers or on screen.”

The director, Michael Salomon (Garth Brooks: Live From Dublin and three-time winner of CMT’s “Director of the Year” for his music videos), notes that, on screen, Keith and Carrington had an unexpectedly side-splitting chemical reaction as antagonistic buddies: “Toby and Rodney are just a perfect pair onscreen. Their chemistry is at the center of Beer For My Horses, even more so than we had anticipated. And, in true cop movie tradition, they’re not buddies all the way through; Rodney’s character might like Toby from the beginning, but the feeling isn’t initially reciprocated!”

For Keith, who is already one of the most successful musical entertainers of his time, with more than 31 million albums sold and scores of smash hits, the chance to write and star in a film based on his own song was also a thrilling opportunity to step out into brand new creative territory. Summarizes Jeff Yapp, executive producer on the film, “Toby has proven that not only is he a gifted songwriter and performer, but he’s a natural on the screen.”

The Cast

Beer For My Horses is driven not only by its high-energy screenplay but by the close bond that developed on the set between its three major stars: Toby Keith and Rodney Carrington, who always knew they would take on the roles of deputies Rack and Lonnie, as well as the legendary rock guitarist and unwavering free spirit Ted Nugent, who joins the fun in the riotously offbeat role of rebel law man Skunk Tarver.

Keith had met Nugent while both men were performing for US troops overseas and hit it off right away. “I guess when Toby wrote this script, he kept his ole buddy in mind and he actually wrote Skunk for me,” says Nugent. “That’s cool.”

Nugent loved his role because, despite being an outspokenly opinionated talker in real life, his character has no lines at all until the very climax of Beer For My Horses. For Nugent, playing Skunk was all about creating comedy through body language and facial expressions. “Now that was hard. I can’t shut my mouth, ever…so to play a character that doesn’t speak or laugh in this film, was nearly impossible for me,” admits Nugent.

It was all free flowing, however, when the three men arrived on the set and found they had a non-stop comic repartee going that had them playing off one another throughout the film.

This natural comic energy only added to the original comic action of the screenplay — although sometimes it was all too much even for the actors. Notes the film’s director of photography Paul Elliott: “Rodney is like Horatio Sanz on ‘Saturday Night Live’ in that he can barely make it through a take without cracking up. I remember out on the ranch when Rodney and Toby’s characters were on the stakeout, hiding in a ditch, and Rodney could not get his line out without laughing, which was contagious, and then Toby would crack up. We had to do so many takes, and then Rodney fell down the ditch and we all broke up. You couldn’t be mad, it was just too funny!”

Those high spirits were felt equally among the supporting cast, which includes two-time Golden Globe nominee Tom Skerritt in typical rugged form as Sheriff Landry; British actress Claire Forlani sporting a Southern drawl as Rack’s kidnapped girlfriend Annie; and Greg Serano, recently seen in In The Valley of Elah, in the role of the devilish drug lord Tito.

Serano’s take on Tito actually inspired the filmmakers to expand the role. Starting with the idea of spoofing the infamous Tony Montana from Scarface, Serano added some bling, his own over-the-top craziness and, finally, a gold tooth that sealed the deal. He recalls: “On my way to my final audition, I told my wife to pull over and get some gum. She looked at me as if I were nuts, but I ran in, got a pack, threw out the gum and wrapped the silver lining over my tooth… and that was the beginning of Tito.” That also proved to the filmmakers that Serano, like the rest of the cast, was completely in tune with the irreverently madcap heart of the film.

The New Mexico Production

Even as Toby Keith and Rodney Carrington were writing Beer For My Horses, they always envisioned the film’s rousing antics and wild stunts taking place against a classic Western landscape. “Subconsciously, as Rodney and I wrote, the geography of New Mexico began to make sense,” says Keith. “It’s got that western feel, yet at the same time, it’s not as crazy as Austin or Tucson. It seemed ideal for us.”

Production began on February 9, 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Most of the shooting took place on the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a working cattle ranch nestled in the rolling hills just a few miles south of Santa Fe, which features a Western-style backlot reminiscent of old Hollywood studios. Once, the property hosted such productions as Legend of the Lone Ranger and Silverado, but it had recently been dormant, until Beer For My Horses came to town.

“Bonanza Creek has a very authentic deserted feeling of a real western town because no one has been here or used it in almost half a decade,” says Imogene Hughs, who owns the property. “It’s wonderful that such a fun project like Beer for My Horses is bringing this place back to life.”

The production then headed to the delightfully eccentric little town of Madrid, New Mexico – a whimsical artists’ colony where such films as Wild Hogs have recently been shot — which served as the backdrop for the carnival scenes featuring Willie Nelson as Charlie.

Production designer Thomas Walsh, who most recently designed several season of the hit television phenomenon, “Desperate Housewives,” and his team had a blast working in Madrid. “We tried to make Madrid look even quirkier, hipper and more fanciful than it already is. Everything we did was done in outlandish colors – with lots of costumes, props and carnival people. We managed to make a little tiny area look really big and fun.”

Costume designer Kate Healey, whose previous films include Wonderland with Val Kilmer and Carrie Fisher, adds: “It was a lot of fun coming up with the wardrobe and costumes for all the film’s crazy characters. It was also a ton of work, but the finished product was perfect!”

As perfect as the mythical landscape of New Mexico was for the larger-than-life story, the weather was not quite as cooperative. No one could have predicted the nasty storm that dropped eight inches of snow the night before the crew changed locations to Bonanza Creek Ranch. Most affected was Greg Serano, who as Tito had to play a scene in his underwear the next day – the one in which he is trying to escape out of Blue Thunder, the monster truck. “That was one time when I wished I had a small part,” he laughs. “Being out there in my underwear in 15 degree weather was not fun….but everyone else sure got a good laugh!”

Pants on or pants off, the basic mission of the entire production was always to keep that spirit of good-natured mischief, and a playful take on serving up justice, alive. Sums up Toby Keith of the whole Beer For My Horses experience: “With the help of a lot of great people and good friends of mine, it was gratifying and creative, and I’m excited for people to see the end result.”