Why former ‘Studio C’ cast says new movie is the ‘Monty Python of the Oregon Trail’

Editor’s note: This article originally published July 14. It has been updated.

With a budget of $100 million, the new “Barbie” movie just about depleted the world’s supply of pink paint.

Director Greta Gerwig’s fluorescent pink Barbie Land attracted worldwide attention and hit theaters July 21 — the same day as another big-budget movie, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.”

During that same weekend, sandwiched between those two summer blockbusters, was “Go West,” a new movie that is markedly less glamorous (one of the characters has dysentery) and had a substantially lower budget (more on par with a microbudget indie film).

But viewers shouldn’t be so quick to write it off, the film’s creators say.

For starters, there’s the narrator lending his voice to the movie: Sean Astin, beloved for his role as Sam in “The Lord of the Rings.” And then there’s the primary cast of 10 that brings what they describe as the “Monty Python of the Oregon Trail” film to life: The original members of BYUtv’s sketch comedy show “Studio C.”


A week before the release of the film — which landed in Utah theaters on July 19 and hit theaters nationally on Aug. 11 — four of the original “Studio C” cast members hopped on a Zoom call with the Deseret News. There was a palpable sense of eager anticipation — releasing a movie is a goal that predates “Studio C.”  But there was also some trepidation. They’ve never done this before.

While “Go West” capitalizes on their comedic strengths — and stays true to the family-friendly brand of comedy from “Studio C” and their own company, JK! Studios — it’s also an experiment of sorts to turn what they’ve done together for more than a decade into a full-fledged film.

“To throw our hat in the ring in a month like this is both exciting and a little scary, because you don’t know if it will help or hurt or somewhere in the middle,” Natalie Madsen said. “But we really hope that as people are kind of in movie mode, want to get some air conditioning and a break from the heat, they’ll see our preview before ‘Mission: Impossible’ or whatever they’re gonna go see and say, ‘We should bring the family.’”

“Go West” hits Utah theaters July 19 and is narrated by Sean Astin. | JK! Studios

“Go West” hits Utah theaters July 19 and is narrated by Sean Astin. | JK! Studios

About ‘Go West’: ‘Studio C,’ but pioneer style

The film’s premise is simple enough: Two sisters travel west from Independence, Missouri, to be with family. Aveline Jenkins (Madsen) is a widow who seems to bring doom to every man she loves. Her sister Cora Jenkins (Mallory Everton) has, as Astin narrates, “an on-and-off-again relationship with dysentery.”

They encounter a slew of quirky characters along the way, like Capt. Evander Lillianquist (Matt Meese), who at the start of the film cheerfully proclaims to the company: “I have no doubt we shall reach Oregon Territory before the first frost slaughters us all!”

“Go West” features the 10 original “Studio C” cast members taking on multiple characters over the course of roughly 80 minutes, but the actors want to be clear: Fans won’t find specific nods to their BYUtv days — no Shoulder Angel or references to lobster bisque.

“No one gets hit in the face with a soccer ball,” Meese said, referencing “Top Soccer Shootout Ever with Scott Sterling” the show’s most successful comedy sketch that helped put BYUtv on the map and to date has 90 million views on YouTube. “There’s nothing on the nose like that. I do think … that people who have enjoyed what we have done and are looking for more of that will find it in this movie.”

And they’ve created new characters they hope will become as beloved as ones from their “Studio C” days — all of them cited Whitney Call’s take on Robert Failure Gladstone, a store owner who is somewhat of a 19th-century “Boy Named Sue,” as a highlight.

Whitney Call stars as Robert Failure Gladstone in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

Whitney Call stars as Robert Failure Gladstone in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

“Go West” has a clever way of subtly incorporating modern-day references into its pioneer-era story: The theme song, performed in the movie by Jeremy Warner (who also composed the score for the film), is the Village People’s “Go West.” And there’s one character, Kit Carson (Jason Gray), who appears to be the Oregon Trail’s version of Chuck Norris.

All of the cast members individually created characters and sketches based on the Oregon Trail, and then met weekly over the course of a couple of months to tighten those stories, trimming a line here or adding a joke there — “We get it to 100% together, that’s always been our process,” Madsen said.


Once the group had a list of 30 sketches, Madsen, Everton and Call rented out an Airbnb for a weekend and worked on creating a storyline that could connect all of those moments together — something they’ve never really had to do before. But Madsen said starting with their biggest strength — creating comedy sketches — lent itself well to establishing a feature-length film.

“I feel like it’s actually a pretty satisfying ending, especially for something that’s so new for us,” she said. “The script went smoother than I anticipated at least, just because so much of it is what we do so well. I would say within maybe two, two and a half months, we went from, ‘Hey, we should write a script,’ to ‘Oh, I think we have it.’”

Stephen Meek and Mallory Everton star in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

Stephen Meek and Mallory Everton star in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

The cast spent 15 ½ days filming throughout Utah, including Provo’s Pioneer Village, This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, and up Spanish Fork Canyon — which unexpectedly brought them snow on the third day of filming in October. In the post-production process, they had to add a lot of snow to a scene so it could match the reverse shot.

It’s their first film, and overall — even with the surprise snow — it came together better than they ever could have expected. And that’s largely a testament to their stalwart friendship that has weathered a lot over the past decade, as they’ve gone from college students in a sketch comedy troupe to landing a theatrical release.

‘Go West’ … an autobiography of sorts?

The word “together” comes up a lot in “Go West.”

While the theme song is a 1979 Village People hit — and in the movie applies to a group of pioneers’ travels along the Oregon Trail — it could very well be a rallying cry for the cast, who after nine seasons with “Studio C” opted to leave and form their own company, JK! Studios, which allowed them greater creative control and ownership.

With JK! Studios, they no longer had an established network to lean on. Beyond writing and acting, they were producers, editors and even equipment movers. They entered uncharted territory, branching out into sitcoms and exploring other longer forms of storytelling. And all of the issues they encountered along the way were theirs to resolve.

“This theme in the movie feels very autobiographical in some ways,” Stacey Harkey said. “This intense journey and going through it together and the lessons you’ve learned of support, and the heartbreak and the growth.”

Together, the group has been navigating ups and downs since their frantic college days in Divine Comedy, Brigham Young University’s sketch comedy troupe. Finding success there, the comedians formed “Studio C” in 2012, garnering close to 2 billion views on YouTube over nine seasons and catching the attention of late night host Conan O’Brien and “SNL” star Kenan Thompson.

But all the while, they had a creative itch — sights on other comedy ventures. And if there’s anything they learned over the years, it was that they’d be hard-pressed to find a better collective to take the plunge into the unknown.

“There’s a lot of trust that exists,” Meese said. “It’s very safe to take risks, and just try things. It’s a very healthy creative environment.”

And now, after more than a decade, the group of comedians are still battling deadlines and racing to the finish together — last month, when the cast returned to “Studio C” to participate in the taping of the show’s 200th episode, Warner was simultaneously handling the film’s post-production.

“People have been asking if we ever get sick of each other since like 2012, and I think everyone’s just waiting for it to happen,” Meese said. “And at this point … I think it’s just, these are the people. You’re stuck. Make it work.”

‘Go West’: A universal humor

While “Go West” marks a new direction for JK! Studios, it doesn’t abandon their roots. The film, in many ways, is a tribute to Utah, showcasing the state’s great outdoors and celebrating its pioneer heritage. But attached to that specificity is a form of comedy that has proven to generate widespread appeal.

“I think something that surprised BYUtv about ‘Studio C’ was that everyone enjoys it, whether you’re a teenager, or you’re parents with teens or you’re grandparents, and I think that’s something we really nailed with the movie,” Harkey said. “You’re gonna find across the board people are going to be able to relate to the humor.”

And just as they’ve had to do with all their JK! Studio projects, the cast members wore multiple hats for this project, including writing, directing and acting. On a quest for a well-known narrator to tell their story, they reached out to a number of prominent actors (they figure their email to Morgan Freeman went directly to his spam folder). They were thrilled to get Astin — and they didn’t even have to blackmail him, Meese joked.

Natalie Madsen, left, Whitney Call and Stephen Meek star in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

Natalie Madsen, left, Whitney Call and Stephen Meek star in “Go West.” | JK! Studios

While they do have a team of producers who have been shopping the movie in theaters, marketing and getting the word out has largely been an in-house operation. A lot of work and time and money has gone into “Go West” — “No buffalo were harmed in the making of this film,” reads a tagline at the end of the movie. “Just us.”

But no challenge has been enough to completely discourage them — in fact, they’d like to make another film. Amid the ongoing Hollywood writers and actors strikes, which they support, the cast is especially grateful for the level of trust that allows them to have open discussions about their goals and the best way to achieve them.

They have no idea how people will respond to their film — and they’re quite nervous about the reaction.

But, as Harkey said, their careers have long been defined by defying the odds, whether it was selling out tickets during their Divine Comedy days or becoming a crown jewel of BYUtv. Maybe “Go West” won’t be any different. But if it is, they’ll have each other to fall back on. And then they’ll move forward.

“It is something very special to make friends in our early 20s and to still be friends at this point and to have dreams and to accomplish them together,” Warner said. “You think of a sports team growing up — like what are the odds that when you become professional that you’re going to be on the same team and you’re going to win a championship together? … Obviously we didn’t win a championship, but we accomplished the thing that we have always wanted to do — and we did it together. And that’s really incredible.”

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