The brim of a cowboy hat conceals a face with a fledgling beard until the light catches the eyes just right. An unmistakable challenge looms in the stare. 

Why, this here cowboy would make Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” tremble — tremble with laughter because this Eastwoodesque cowboy, a 10-year-old girl, is only four feet tall. Nonetheless, she has the fastest Silly String draw in all of Blacksburg, Virginia.

Hadley Teaster, who plays the cowboy, is part of the ensemble behind a prize-winning film, “Spaghetti Western.” This nine-minute movie, a labor of love that includes members of the Virginia Tech community, is up to its saddle in film festival awards. 

In 2021, it won seven awards at the Cowpokes Int’l Film Festival in Electra, Texas, including Best Mini Short Western, Best Originality Film, Best Family Film, Best Children’s Film, Best Western Mini Short Actress, and Best Young Actress. Yes, the last two went to Hadley Teaster. 

Most recently, the film won Best Western at the 2021 Southern Shorts Awards in Atlanta.

So, who are the other players behind — and sometimes in front of — the cinematography magic? Enter Hadley’s parents — Pamela and Gerald Teaster — and their movie company, PEGH Productions. Pamela Teaster, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology, produced the film, which began with her husband’s screenplay.

“Gerald is a scriptwriter,” Pamela Teaster said. “We wanted to do a short film that was an homage to Clint Eastwood westerns. So, we did a comedy, a spoof on spaghetti westerns that involved a lot of little kids. We wanted to include the community and make it fun.”

Once the Teasters had a script, the next challenge began. 

“The real gig is not just finding good work to do,” Pamela Teaster said. “It’s also in finding good people to do it. That’s the hard part, I think. It’s finding good, committed people to do it.”

Everything fell into place, Teaster recalls, once they enlisted Charles Dye, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, as the film’s director.

“When I read Gerald’s script,” Dye said. “I immediately understood it was unique — and perfectly in line with my decolonizing creative work. Not only was it completely contrary to the old filmmaker’s adage that one should ‘never work with kids or animals,’ but it also re-envisioned the Western in several important ways. 

“It’s a children’s tale, with a female protagonist of Asian ancestry, who rides a bicycle and takes on a saloon-full of cruel, clique-ish townies to liberate dogs. Far too few women, especially young girls of color, have agency in Westerns, and heroes rarely act on behalf of members of other species. It’s a brilliant script on many levels, and working with the Teasters and my School of Performing Arts colleagues to turn it into an actual film has been a never-ending blast.” 

Dye recruited Justin Perkinson, an assistant professor of cinema in the School of Performing Arts, as director of photography. Perkinson’s role is legendary among the film’s cast and crew. He corralled the cast of 17 children and took on the technical challenge of lighting and filming the movie’s iconic showdown. Adding to the complexity is that the shootouts included no blanks — only Silly String, lots and lots of Silly String.

“I really enjoyed working with the children,” Perkinson said. “They brought great energy and a positive attitude, and it was a lot of fun collaborating with our entire team to create a make-believe world together. The Silly String battle was by far the highlight of the production for me. As the director of photography and camera operator, I had to get right in the middle of the crossfire. I remember struggling to contain my own giggles while filming the scene and being covered with Silly String afterward. I felt like a kid again.”

Dye also brought in Gwen Ogle, an alumna who holds three Virginia Tech degrees: a bachelor’s in communication studies and a master’s degree and doctorate from the School of Education. She is a collaborator on the Discovering the Destroyed Village of Vauquois project and film. 

In addition, two alumni participated joined the ranks. Andrew Huang took on the role of animator and editor. He majored in psychology with a minor in cinema. Allison Craft, who majored in theatre and cinema, served as an associate producer and scripty for “Spaghetti Western” and is now PEHG Productions’ screenwriting assistant. 

Then there was the matter of finding cast members. Megan Dolbin-MacNab, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, which houses the Center for Gerontology, suggested the Teasters contact Joelle Shenk. Shenk teaches theatre to children in Blacksburg and recruited her students to serve as the cast. Several are the children of Virginia Tech faculty and staff, including Dolbin-MacNab.

At its heart, Pamela Teaster said, “Spaghetti Western” isn’t just about good versus evil, it’s about physics. Whether Hadley is figuring out gravity and timing while rescuing a dog from certain doom or surveying strategies for surviving a storm of Silly String, the film is science savvy in its approach to cowboy heroism — after all, its tagline is “a short film about a girl who knows her physics.”

But revealing much more about the plot would trigger a spoiler alert. Instead, here are a few questions. Does pasta play a role? Does Hadley’s character save the day or at least the dog, played by Ben, the Teaster’s trusty Australian Red Heeler? And whose voices are singing “Play Misty for Me” at the end? (That one we will answer because it involves another Virginia Tech connection. The singers are String Project musicians from the School of Performing Arts. They put down their instruments for this opportunity.)

And one last question: Hankering to see the movie? “Spaghetti Western” will be available to viewing audiences once it has run the film festival circuit. It was an official selection in the Imagination Lunchbox Festival, the Knoxville Film Festival, the Pioneertown International Film Festival, the Richmond International Film Festival, and the Wild Bunch Film Festival.

“As a producer, one of my jobs is to make connections,” Pamela Teaster said. “Taking this film from a family production to one that includes the Virginia Tech community and seeing it gain momentum in the world of film festivals is all about the connections and how one leads to another. It’s chemistry. It’s a science of coming together. It’s like our protagonist says, ‘a girl’s got to know her physics.’”

Written by Leslie King