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Film Connections Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

October 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Film Connections

Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

In 1968 the future Oscar-winning filmmaker and his cast and crew ended up in Nebraska for the last few weeks shooting on an intimate road picture he wrote and directed titled “The Rain People.” A very young George Lucas was along for the ride as a production associate whose main task was to film the making of the movie. 

Coppola’s indie art film starring Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall was released in 1969. The experience forged strong personal and professional bonds. It not only resulted in the Lucas documentary “The Making of The Rain People,” but it’s how Lucas came to cast Duvall to star in his debut feature “THX-1138,” which Coppola produced. Coppola also produced his protege’s second film, “American Grafitti.” The two also co-founded American Zoetrope. Meanwhile. Coppola cast Duvall and Caan in his crowing achievement, “The Godfather.” From obscurity in 1969. Coppola and Lucas became start filmmakers who helped usher in the New Hollywood. 

The experience of “The Rain People” also introduced Duvall to a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons. he came to make the subjects of his own first directorial effort, “We’re Not the Jet Set.”

I am documenting this little-known chapter Nebraska Screen Gem as part of my Nebraska Screen Heritage Project, in a college class I’m teaching this fall and in articles I’m writing and in posts I’m making. On this blog you can also find my interviews with Knight, Caan and Duvall. I have also interviewed several others who were part of this confluence of talent and vision and I will be posting those over time.

My next step is to bring back as many of the principals involved in these three films for screenings and discussions.

Here is my interview with Francis Ford Coppola:

LAB: The Rain People is very much a road picture, and you and your small cast and crew traveled in cars and, I think I read somewhere, a mini-bus from Long Island to the South and then to the Midwest to capture the journey Shirley Knight’s character makes. Did you happen to shoot the film largely in sequential order?

FFC: “Generally I tried to shoot in sequential order, though if there was an opportunity to save money to shoot slightly out of it, I would.”

LAB: Is it true you hadn’t finished the screenplay when shooting began?

FFC: “I had a complete screenplay, but was prepared to make any changes if we encountered something interesting along the way.”

LAB: And so I take it that you hadn’t scouted all the locations beforehand but instead left yourself open to discovering places and events you then integrated into the story and captured on film?

FFC: “Exactly. We had a route, and wasn’t sure of exact location, But my associate Ron Colby was scouting a little ahead of us and we were in communication.”

LAB: What about Ogallala, Neb. – was it by design or chance that you ended up there?

FFC: “By chance. but once there, I think we felt at home and there were many good place that suited our story. And the people were nice and there was a nice little picnic grounds. And I remember a big steak cost about $6, so we’d have barbecues and we were all happy there.”

LAB: It was your first time working with the three principal cast members. At that point in your careers, Shirley was probably the best known of anyone on the project. I read somewhere that you met her at the Cannes Film Festival, when she was there with Dutchman, and that you saw her crying after a confrontation with a journalist and you consoled her with, ‘Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.’ Is that right?

FFC: “Yes, that story is true. I think I was influenced by the notion of Europeans working with leading ladies, Monica Vitti or Goddard’s Anna Karinia, and so yes, I said that to her.”

LAB: You obviously admired her work.

FFC: “I liked Dutchman very much, where I also admired (her co-star) Al Freeman Jr.”

LAB: What about Jimmy and Bobby – did you know them before the project, and did any of their previous work make an impression on you?

FFC: “I had chosen Jimmy, and in fact before I even had the money or arrangement to make The Rain People, George Lucas and I went east and shot some ‘second unit’ footage at a football game and different images.”

LAB: Bobby mentioned that he might have replaced another actor who had originally been cast in his role, is that right?

FFC: “Original. For the rehearsals we had Rip Torn, but had as part of his deal that we give him the Harley motorcycle so he could learn to drive it well. We did, and he parked it in front of his house in New York City, and it was stolen. He came back to us and said it was his deal to have a Harley, so we had to buy him another. But all we could afford was a good quality secondhand one -– which then he said wasn’t his deal. It was supposed to be a good one. So later in the production, when Ron Colby called him to say we needed him to get his shoe and calf measured for the boots, he said, ‘That’s it’! and quit. I had seen Bobby in a movie (Countdown’ he made with Jimmy Caan for TV that Robert Altman had directed. I thought both of them were fantastic. So true and real in that kind of movie, so I offered the part to Duvall.”

LAB: I understand that in preproduction you like to rehearse or to at least do table reads with cast, or at least that’s how you preferred to do things then. Did you do anything like that for Rain People?

FFC: “Yes, I had been a theater major in college, and so I was very used to a few weeks of rehearsal and, yes, I did a rehearsal period for The Rain People and I’ve done it for every film after that.”

 

Montage of moments from “The Rain People”. ©motionpictureart.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: As you know, Jimmy and Bobby became fast friends with a local ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons. They were this loud, rambunctious bunch.  Did you meet any of the clan, particularly the patriarch, B.A., who is the central figure in the documentary Duvall made about the family, We’re Not the Jet Set? 

FFC: “I remember the family, and Bobby’s interest in them. He was always interested in things that were ‘real’ authentic, as opposed to the fake reality of people in movies and TV shows, and thus he made We’re Not the Jet Set. I remember the song he wrote (?).”

LAB: What about another area ranch-rodeo family Jimmy and Bobby came to know, the Haythorns, did you meet any of them, particularly patriarch Waldo Haythorn?

FFC: “No, I don’t remember them. but perhaps I met them.”

LAB: I know that Duvall has often sought your opinion on the projects he’s directed – did he do so for We’re Not the Jet Set, and assuming you’ve seen the film what do you think of it?

FFC: “Over the years, he’d come visit me and bring me his films and ask for my reaction. I was pleased to be of any help I could be, especially after he did me the great favor of appearing in a tiny role in The Conversation.”

LAB: When you worked with Duvall on Rain People and later on the first two Godfather pictures and The Conversation, did you sense he had a directorial sensibility about him?

FFC: “I didn’t think about it. Iv’e always known that actors make the best directors among all the crafts – writing, editing, assistant directors, et cetera. There’s a long list of actors who became fine directors.”

LAB: After Rain People did you know you wanted to work with Caan and Duvall again? When you got The Godfather did you immediately think of them?

FFC: “I liked working with them very much, and yes, they were on all the early lists of names for The Godfather.'”

LAB: The Rain People production team also included two key collaborators in George Lucas and Mona Skager. The film came at an interesting juncture in your young careers. You had wanted to be an independent director but soon found yourself being a studio wonk.  After Finian’s Rainbow it appears you intentionally set out to liberate yourself from the studio apparatus with Rain People, is that right?

FFC: “Yes. George Lucas was, and still is, like a younger brother to me. I knew early on that he was a great talent, and though a different personality to my own, one that was very helpful to me, and stimulating to me. hH’s a fine, very generous person, so bright and talented.Ii am very proud of him. Mona was the first ‘key associate’ I had, starting out as a secretary and blossoming into an all-around associate in the entire process.”

LAB: I believe that you, Lucas and Skager formed American Zoetrope not long after the project. Did the idea for Zoetrope come to you during the making of the film or did the experience of that film point you in the direction of launching your own studio?

FFC: “The idea for American Zoetrope really came from the theater club that I was president (or executive producer) of in college, called ‘The Spectrum Players.’ It still exists at Hofstra University in Long Island, and I was the founder and merely took many of the ideas of a creative entity that attempted to create art works with it’s own means. George was essentially a co-founder, and Mona was what they called in those days ‘the Girl Friday’ – today a production supervisor who was involved in all we were trying to do.”

LAB: Rain People certainly fits the vision you had for Zoetrope in terms of small, personal art films. which Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now and subsequent pictures took you away from for many years before you returned to this model the last few years. Do you still regard Rain People warmly after all these years?

FFC: “Yes, very much. I wish Warner Bros. would allow me to buy it back, as there’s not even a DVD available about it (there is now). It has value, I think, beyond being an early film of mine but as one of the first films to touch on the theme of ‘women’s liberation’.”

LAB: The documentary Lucas made about the making of the film captures you and the others before you became so well known, which makes it a very interesting time piece, don’t you think?

FFC: “George’s film is excellent, if I may say, and he caught the spirit of this exciting trip, which for us was an adventure into filmmaking.”

LAB: In addition to working again with Caan, Duvall, Lucas and Skager, you also ended up working again with Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, and so that film really forged some key relationships didn’t it?

FFC: “Bill Butler did a terrific job, and it was a pleasure to work with him.”

LAB: And, of course. Lucas ended up casting Duvall in his first feature, THX-1138, which you produced.

FFC: “Yes, George got to meet Bobby and knew he should be in THX-1138.”

LAB: The confluence of talent and connections that arose out of Rain People has always fascinated me, as has the fact that within a few years of its making you and Lucas helped usher in the New Hollywood and became kingpins in the industry. But you tried to escape the constraints and weight of studio filmmaking over the next few decades, and you finally have regained the independence you found on Rain People, all thanks to your wine company. You’ve kind of come full circle, haven’t you?

FFC: “I hope so. With the conclusion of the ‘student’ films I just made, Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt, I feel ready to tackle a new and much bigger project. I feel blessed in my life, and of course hI ope I’m able to enjoy the freedom and autonomy enjoyed in those last three, on the new one, which will need a much bigger budget. I hope fate allows me to do  it, as I don’t yet feel i’ve achieved what I long to do in film.”

LAB: As you know, Lucas has long talked about freeing himself from his corporate machine, CGI endeavors and Star Wars franchises to make small experimental films.  Have  you nudged him at all to say, ‘Hey, look, I did it, you can too’?

FFC: “George is so talented, anything he attempts will be a pleasure to see. Yes, I always ask him to quit fooling with the Star Wars ‘franchise’ and go back to what he and I always wanted: to make personal — experimental films. I have no doubt that he will succeed.”

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Nebraska Screen Gems – “The Rain People” & “We’re Not the Jet Set”

October 13, 2018 Leave a comment

Rare screening-discussion of two Screen Gems Made in Nebraska:

“The Rain People” (1969) & “We’re Not the Jet Set” (1977)

Francis Ford Coppola’s dramatic road film “The Rain People” & Robert Duvall’s cinema verite documentary “We’re Not the Jet Set”

Both films shot in and around Ogallala, Nebraska

Wednesday, October 17, 5:45 p.m.
Metro North Express at the Highlander
Non-credit Continuing Ed class
Part of fall Nebraska Screen Gems film class series

Register for the class at:
coned.mccneb.edu/wconnect/CourseStatus.awp?&course=18SECOMM178A 

 

Montage of moments from “The Rain People”. ©motionpictureart.com

 

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B.A. Peterson, the late patriarch of the Peterson family that Robert Duvall profiled in We’re Not the Jet Set, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

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©poster art courtesy Stephen Mack
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At New Yorker premiere of We’re Not the Jet Set: DP Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, editor Stephen Mack, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack


This class in my fall Nebraska Screen Gems series will screen and discuss a pair of films made in Nebraka by Hollywood legends before they were household names.

An unlikely confluence of remarkable cinema talents descended on the dusty backroads of Ogallala, Neb. in the far southwest reaches of the state in the summer of 1968.

None other than future film legend Francis Ford Coppola led this Hollywood caravan. He came as the producer-writer-director of The Rain People, a small, low-budget drama about a disenchanted East Coast housewife who, upon discovering she’s pregnant, flees the conventional trappings of suburban homemaking by taking a solo car trip south, then north and finally west. With no particular destination in mind except escape she gets entangled with two men before returning home.

Coppola’s creative team for this road movie included another future film scion in George Lucas, his then-protege who served as production associate and also shot the documentary The Making of The Rain People. The two young men were obscure but promising figures in a changing industry. With their long hair and film school pedigree they were viewed as interlopers and rebels. Within a few years the filmmakers helped usher in the The New Hollywood through their own American Zoetrope studio and their work for established studios. Coppola ascended to the top with the success of The Godfather I and II. Lucas first made it big with the surprise hit American Graffiti, which touched off the ’50s nostalgia craze, before assuring his enduring place in the industry with the Star Wars franchise that made sci-fi big business.

Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, who went on to lens The Conversation for Coppola and such projects as One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws and The Thorn Birds, was the director of photography.

Heading the cast were Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Though they enjoyed solid reputations, none were household names yet. Caan’s breakthrough role came two years later in the made-for-television sensation Brian’s Song (1970). The pair’s work in Coppola’s The Godfather elevated them to A-list status. Rain People was not the last time the two actors collaborated with the filmmakers. Duvall starred in the first feature Lucas made, the science fiction thriller THX-1138. The actor went on to appear in Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. After his star-making performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather Caan later teamed up with Coppola for the director’s Gardens of Stone.

Among Rain People’s principals, the most established by far then was Knight, already a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth).

The experience of working together on the early Coppola film forged relationships that extended well beyond that project and its small circle of cast and crew. Indeed, this is a story about those connections and their reverberations decades later.

For example, Duvall and Caan were already horse and Old West aficionados when they were befriended by a couple of Nebraska ranch-rodeo families, the Petersons and Haythorns. The interaction that followed only deepened the artists’ interest in riding and in Western lore. This convergence of New York actors and authentic Great Plains characters produced some unexpected spin-offs and helped cement enduring friendships. Duvall and Caan remain best buddies to this day.

Duvall became so enamored with the colorful, cantankerous Peterson clan, a large, boisterous family of trick riders led by their late patriarch, B.A. Peterson, that he made a documentary about them and their lifestyle called We’re Not the Jet Set. The actor returned to Nebraska several times to visit the family and to shoot the film with a skeleton crew. It was his first film as a director and it’s easy to find resonance in it with his future directorial work (Angelo My Love, The Apostle, Assassination Tango).

With this class I am trying to bring this story to light and to help revive interest in these films, particularly We’re Not the Jet Set. Recently, Turner Classic Movies added The Rain People to its rotating gallery of films shown on the cable network. But Jet Set remains inaccessible. I would also like to see the Lucas documentary, The Making of the Rain People, revived since it is a portrait of the early Coppola and his methods a full decade before his wife Eleanor shot the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the anguished making of Apocalypse Now. The story I’m telling is also an interesting time capsule at a moment in film history when brash young figures like Coppola, Lucas, Duvall, and Caan were part of the vanguard for the New Hollywood and the creative freedom that artists sought and won.

With their reputation as expert horsemen and women preceding them, several of the Petersons ended up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers and stunt people, boasting credits on many major Hollywood projects. One member of the family, K.C. Peterson, even ended up working on a film Duvall appeared in, Geronimo, An American Legend.

We’re Not the Jet Set has rarely been seen since its late 1970s release owing to rights issues, which is a real shame because it’s a superb film that takes an authentic look at some real American types. Duvall is justly proud of what he captured in his directorial debut. Don’t miss this chace to see what is a true gem.

Here is a link to register for the class:
coned.mccneb.edu/wconnect/CourseStatus.awp?&course=18SECOMM178A

John Beasley: Living his dream

April 22, 2016 5 comments

In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.

 

 

Beasley as Barton (LEO)

John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man

 

 

John Beasley: Living his dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

Following a dream

Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.

Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.

The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.

“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”

Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .

“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”

John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.

“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.

 

Beasley closeup #1 (LEO)

 

 

A path of his own

John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”

His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company  members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”

Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.

“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”

Michael admires his persistence.

“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”

Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”

She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”

2012 BET Awards - Arrivals

John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards

 

 

Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”

He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).

While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.

“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”

 

Beasely #1 by Eric Antoniou (LEO)

John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)

production of August Wilson’s Fences

 

 

Taking from life, making his mark

When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.

He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.

“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.

Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.

“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”

Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.

“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’

“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On     this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”

Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood –  file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.

“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”

Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.

“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact. one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”

 

Beasley closeup #2 (LEO)

 

 

In the moment

In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.

“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”

Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.

“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”

 

Movies The Apostle poster

Robert Duvall as The Apostle

 

 

Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.

“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”

Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.

Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”

Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,

Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.

 

Marlin Briscoe was the first African American quarterback

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

 

The Magician

Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.

“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”

Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.

A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.

Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.

Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.

He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.

He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.

Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”

Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.

 

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East Texas Hot Links

The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.

Beasley produced the play at his own theater.

“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”

Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”

Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.

Building a Nebraska film culture

The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.

“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”

He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.

“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”

There’s some self-interest at work, too.

“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”

 

Beasley in kitchen (LEO)

John, middle seated, from The Soul Man

 

 

Bread and butter

Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.

“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”

Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”

Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”

There were some bumps in the road.

“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.

“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”

Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”

Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”

Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.

 

Beasley # 2 by Antoniou B & W (LEO)

John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences

 

 

Theater

Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.

“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”

The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.

Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”

One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.

“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”

Midwest values

He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”

He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.

He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.

“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole   different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”

He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”

Michael Beasley

Jan 4, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles guard Malik Beasley (5) in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Donald L. Tucker Center. The North Carolina Tar Heels won 106-90. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Beasley

 

 

All in the family

He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.

“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”

Hoops runs in the bloodlines.

“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”

Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”

Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”

All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Shirley Knight Interview

December 6, 2012 2 comments

Here’s the latest interview I did for my Film Connections story-event project.  It’s with actress Shirley Knight.  She starred in the 1969 Francis Ford Coppola film The Rain People.  She plays a discontented, pregnant, suburban housewife back East who feels trapped and suddenly flees her life to take a road trip across the country. She meets a couple men along the way and after a series of experiences she returns home to resume her life. The film’s final few weeks of shooting in 1968 happened in and around Ogallala, Neb.  In addition to writer-director Coppola and lead actress Knight the production brought to this dusty hamlet a young assistant and then-protege of Coppola’s by the name of George Lucas, who directed the documentary The Making of The Rain People, cinematographer Bill Butler, and co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  The experience of The Rain People forged some important relationships that led to many collaborations by these artists. Coppola and Lucas formed American Zoetrope studio, Lucas cast Duvall as the lead in his feature directorial debut, THX-1138, which Coppola produced along with American Graffiti and Coppola cast both Duvall and Caan in The Godfather and went onto work with the actors on later films as well.  While making Rain People Caan and Duvall fell in with a ranch-rodeo family who became the subject of a documentary Duvall made about them, We’re Not the Jet Set.  My project examines these and more connections.  You can find on this blog my interviews with Duvall and Caan.  Soon I will be posting interviews I did with Coppola and Butler.   That just leaves Lucas for me to get to. If anyone can help with that, I’d appreciate it.

LAB: Francis Coppola told me that he met you at Cannes, where your starring vehicle Dutchman (1967) was playing, which he greatly admired, and he came upon one one day to find you crying, after a confrontation with a journalist, and he consoled you with, “Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.” And that film of course became The Rain People and the protagonist Natalie Ravenna was written for you.

SK: “Well, crying…I  remember meeting him and talking with him. I don’t remember…I mean, it could be I had some sort of altercation with a journalist but I don’t remember. It’s so funny because a magazine told that story and the way they told it made it seem as if he was writing a film for me because I cried and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a very strange thing to say because I don’t think a Francis Ford Coppola would write a film for someone because they cried. I think they’d write a film for  someone because they admired their work.

“I of course was very proud of Dutchman because it’s a film I also produced and we won the Critics Prize at Cannes for this little, bitty film which has become kind of iconic. I was very, very proud of my work in that film and also just the fact that I managed to get an independent film made.”

LAB: As you know better than me, a woman producing a feature then was a rarity. That was quite an accomplishment.

SK: “People always say, ‘Why isn’t your name on Dutchman?’ I just had the producing credit at the end, calling it Kaitlin Productions, which was me. Later on I regretted not taking my full credit. I allowed my husband at the time (to take credit). I guess I felt, ‘Well, I’m starring in the film..’ But honestly I think I should have been more true to myself and not given that up and of course it was my idea to make the film.

“I had done the play and I said, ‘I’m going to make a film of this,’ and he (her then husband) thought I was insane, as did everyone. They said it’s too short, it’s too political, it’s too this, it’s too that, and I said. ‘I don’t care, I’m going to make this film.’ And then I got him on board and he really helped. He had produced the production of the play.”

LAB: You’re justifiably proud of that project.

SK: “Yes, well, it’s become a film that’s taught in all black studies courses across the country. In 2000 the film was recognized as the most important about civil rights by a museum in New York. I tell my students that I think it’s so important that if there’s   something you have to do because it’s close to your heart and you want to see it through to do it.”

LAB: You could count the number of women producers and directors then on one hand.

SK: “I remember years ago I did a television show that Ida Lupino directed and she was so cross with the editors that they wouldn’t edit the film exactly the way she wanted it. And what she would do is if she set up a close up that she knew she was not going to use in the editing room she would put her hand in front of my face, so that they had to cut to the other person. I was fascinated by her and her courage that she was going to have her film the way she wanted her film.

Geraldine Fitzgerald played my mom in it and it was about Aimee Semple McPherson. It probably does not exist. It was like a two hour television film. She’s the only woman director I worked with. I’ll never forget her courage and how admirable I thought that was.”

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: Dutchman was a controversial film in its time for its racial content.

SK: “We did it on the fly, shot it in one week. We stole shots in the subway with an Arriflex and a paper bag. At the time nobody, apart from Europe, was going to recognize independent film (the film was completely ignored by the Academy Awards). We were recognized at Cannes and also I won the Best Actress at Venice for Dutchman. We tried to promote it in the United States. I showed it to my agents at William Morris and some of them even walked out if you can imagine. I was disappointed that I wasn’t recognized for my work in Dutchman in the United States but we were very backward at that point in terms of independent films.

“I think that atmosphere kind of affected The Rain People as well.”

LAB: Let’s talk about your working on The Rain People.

SK: “We of course did a lot of work improvising and all of that when we were working on the film. We were trying to write about a woman being an independent creature and trying to find herself.

“Did Francis tell you we made it under one regime at Warners and then it was released by the next regime?”

LAB: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, though it’s not hard to believe and a lot of films have been the victim of similar regime changes and going from favored project with the former regime to out of favor with the succeeding one.

SK: “Well, I believe that’s what happened, I don’t know exactly. I think what happened was they didn’t care, you know they didn’t make the film, so they didn’t do a very good release, which was strange. But at any rate, to start at the beginning…we did meet at Cannes and he had You’re a Big Boy Now there.”

LAB: Were you impressed by it?

SK: “Yes, I thought it was a very sweet film”

LAB: Did you have any trepidations about working with someone as young as Coppola or was the chance to work with someone with a new voice and a new set of eyes actually appealing?

SK: “Absolutely. I’ve always been a person who’s sort of went against the flow. I’ve done that a lot, particularly in the theater, causing riots with plays I did like Dutchman and Losing Time, where we literally almost were run out of town. I like cutting edge. In my opinion art is about…we only have two things in life that help us to become better people and help us understand the world, and that’s art and philosophy, and so I think as artists we need to be responsible in terms of the work we do. That’s why I’m terrified by all the degradation of society by the reality television shows. I find it very frightening in terms of whats happening to the world.”

LAB: So Coppola told you he’d write you a film and he did

SK: “And then I think it was a few months later – I was in London working and Francis phoned and came with the script. I was staying at a little cottage in Hampstead, north of London. It was so sweet because he asked me would I mind reading the script right then. I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I remember I fixed him something to eat and then I went in the other room and he played with my daughter Kaitlin, who was around 5 years old. I read it and came back out and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.”

LAB: What did you respond to most strongly in the script?

SK: “I responded to the character and also to the idea that we were going to make a film where we weren’t restricted. I was under contract to Warners and I had done a lot of films that were basically either on the Warner Bros. ranch or backlot or lot, so I loved the idea we were going to make a film where we were at liberty to do what we wanted, that we were going to drive here and drive there. I loved that aspect of his creativity.

“We had a few indoor sets (but otherwise the film was all actual locations).

NOTE: She said other than Dutchman and The Rain People very few of the films she made early in her career utilized actual locations. Another exception was Sidney Lumet’s The Group.

SK: “Sidney Lumet was very good at using locations. When we made the film The Group we shot that in New York on location, in the streets and on the subway and in churches and so an and so forth. In the films Sidney did with Al Pacino he shot outside a lot.”

LAB: Let’s get back to the story of your accepting the part of Natalie in The Rain People and working with Coppola.

SK: “I was excited about that and about this new young filmmaker and we sat down and talked about who he wanted to put in the film with me. He mentioned Rip Torn whom he had worked with in You’re a Big Boy Now, and he wanted him to play the motorcycle policeman and I said, ‘Great,’ because I knew Rip – we did Sweet Bird of Youth and I was very close friends with his wife (Geraldine Page). And Francis mentioned James Caan (as Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon), and I thought that was a very interesting choice for that role.”

LAB: Torn ended up being replaced by Robert Duvall.

SK: “What happened was, we were in New York and we did a lot of rehearsing with Rip and we added a bunch of improvs that Rip and I came up with and then we started making the film. That character (the cop) doesn’t come in until about half way into the film. We were out in Ogallala, Neb, and I don’t know the exact thing that happened, all I know is Francis came to me and said there was a difficulty with Rip, that we’ve lost Rip. The bought a motorcycle and it wasn’t a large budget and Rip lost it or he left it outside and somebody stole it.”

LAB: Yes, it was stolen, Coppola told me the whole story.

SK: “Knowing Rip, I wasn’t surprised. He had lost the role he was going to do in Easy Rider. He was supposed to play the role Jack (Nicholson) eventually played and it made Jack’s career. Well, he quarreled with Peter (Fonda) and Dennis (Hopper) and lost that and so I was upset for him that he was yet again spoiling a chance. If one thinks about what happened after it’s really sad because he might have been the person who did The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

“So we then had Robert Duvall play that role and that changed a lot of film history actually if you think about it because he started doing all that work (with Coppola). I remember mentioning to Francis Bobby Duvall. I had done a television show with him where we played husband and wife and I liked him, and he was thrown in the mix and eventually did the role, which was nice. He was lovely and that all worked out fine.”

LAB:: How did that small intimate ensemble of you, Duvall and Caan work out?

SK: “I think it was very good. I mean, you know, we had our ups and downs as one always does, especially in a long shoot, and there were times when we didn’t always agree, and that always happens. But the whole experience and the film that resulted from it was I thought very positive. And the only disappointment was it didn’t get the recognition and accolades I feel it should have.”

LAB: “What did you most identify with in the character of Natalie?

SK: “At the time I was leaving my first husband and I had met and was going to marry John Hopkins and I was actually pregnant with my daughter Sophie, so I was in an awkward point in my life because I was changing a lot of things. I was going to be moving to England, I was marrying an Englishman, and was about to have a child and we were doing this film about a woman who was in flux. Now when I first read the film that wasn’t the case but when I was doing the film it sort of was, not that I was her. I just think that sometimes life aligns with roles you play.”

LAB: What’s your take on why Natalie goes off on this adventure, having this series of experiences on the road with men, and then returns home to resume her life as a housewife and expectant mother?

SK: “It’s a road to discovery. I think what was happening with women at that time was that they were coming out of the ’50s as lovely housewives in their aprons into an era when women were becoming doctors and lawyers and entering politics and becoming independent. Natalie was caught up in that, she had married young and suddenly was feeling like she didn’t have control over her life and here she was pregnant and the responsibility of that and how that affected what her life was going to be.

“And I think the trip, the discovery for her was that in the course of the drive and meeting the two men she was able to determine that the life that she has was a good life. What she learned was that she could be her own person with another person. It didn’t require to reject this lovely man she loved in order for her to become independent.”

LAB: What was your experience in Ogallala like?

SN: “Well, it was kind of a relief to be in one place because wed’ been driving so much so that when we finally got to Ogallala it was rather nice. My daughter came out and played with Francis’ boys. One anecdote thats’ amusing, at the time it wasn’t amusing – his oldest boy and Kaitlin were playing and they thought it would be a good idea to strike some matches in one of the rooms at the motel and they started a little fire, as children will, but fortunately I had a nanny with my daughter and she saved the day.”

LAB: Having grown up in Kansas as you did being in the middle of Nebraska was not too unfamiliar to you then.

SK: “Not at all, the Midwest, and I always say Midwesterners make the best people. You know, Midwesterners are very open and nice. I’m still very close friends with my classmates from high school. I go to Kansas quite frequently because I started the William Inge Festival in Independence years ago.

“And I must tell you I made a horrible mistake when I was in Ogallala, Neb. I was offered the lead in a film called They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and I was so tired and pregnant and i said no to that amazing role, so I made a dreadful mistake, but one does that, so that happens.”

LAB: By the way, what did you make of the young George Lucas, who was an assistant on the project and also directed The Making of the Rain People?

SK: “I thought he was adorable. Francis said to me, ‘Do you mind if this kid comes along? I saw his student film and he wants to come along with us.’ And I said of course not, the more the merrier. And I tell that story when I teach because I could have been Miss Grand Dame and said, No, no. I always say to all my students, ‘Be nice to everybody. You don’t know, because that assistant could turn out to be George Lucas.'”

LAB: When The Rain People was made you were by far the biggest name among the films’ principal talents.

SK: “Well, I have a whole theory about fame. I always say, ‘It isn’t really something to aspire to in the sense that many many people who are very famous are ridiculous. I mean, look at the Kardashians. There are people walking around who don’t know who The Beatles were. So again something I tell my students, ‘If you think your food is you want to be famous you’re going to starve to death. Your food has to be you want to do good work and you want to become better at what you do. I quit movies and went to New York so I could become the best I could at my craft.

“The fame thing is absurd…ridiculous. It has nothing to do with what an artist does. And there’s a lot of young people now who don’t know who Francis is. They haven’t seen The Godfather. They know who Christopher Nolan is. So it’s all fleeting that whole thing. The people who really know who I am are people who are my age because they’ve grown up with me or they’re people who see me in those silly Adam Sandler films I do. I have a whole flock of young boys who stop me on the street and show me on their machines, which makes me laugh a lot.”

LAB: How do you regard The Rain People today

SK: “When people ask me my favorite films I always say Dutchman obviously because I think that’s my finest performance and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I did it in the theater. You don’t get better if all you do is film, you sort of stay the same. I think Rain People is certainly up there and then the other film I think is remarkable and I don’t have the lead in is Petulia. I think Richard Lester was one of the genius directors and I got to work with him twice and I think Petulia is an amazing film. If you said this is a film about the ’60s that would be the film because it is so much the ’60s. And I think As Good as it Gets is a wonderful film as well. Sweet Bird of Youth is a wonderful film. But I would say my top two would be Rain People and Dutchman.

“When they honored Jane Fonda and I at the Rome Film Festival they showed three of her films and three of mine, and the three of mine were Dutchman, The Rain People and Sweet Bird of Youth. It was very nice.”

LAB: Have you remained close to anyone from The Rain People over the years?

SK: “You know, not really. I’ve of course spoken to Francis and when he was honored at Lincoln Center I was one of the people who spoke. I’d love to work with him again. Francis and I were both at the Rome Film Festival when they honored Jane Fonda and I.

“But you know what it’s like, you just keep going on, its’ endless.  I just finished an independent film in Oregon that I have great hopes for. It’s lovely. And I’m just about to start a Stephen King film, something I’ve never done, so that’ll be interesting. Anyway. I keep going. I’m one of the few actors evidently that has never been out of work, so I’m quite fortunate.”

LAB: Coppola always intended to make small personal art films like The Rain People and then The Godfather happened and the trajectory of his career changed. It’s only in the last decade he’s gotten back to doing what he really wanted to do all along.

NOTE: Shirley’s a big fan of one of Coppola’s later works, Youth Without Youth.

SK:  “I thought that was amazing, fascinating. It was a very mystical film.”

 

 

 

Robert Duvall Interview

August 31, 2012 5 comments

I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film.  The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall.  That’s not all.  The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to.  As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films.  What follows is an interview I did with Robert Duvall. I recently posted an interview from this project I did with James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

 

 

Robert Duvall, ©grouchoreviews.com

 

Robert Duvall Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me about The Rain People and We’re Not the Jet Set.

RD: “I’m glad you called, man. I’m driving along in my car. I’ve got this little mobile phone but hopefully it’ll hold out OK. How ya’ doin’, good?”

LAB: Just fine.  And how about yourself?

RD: “I’m all right. We’ve been traveling, but we like Virginia here, my wife and I. So we’re trying to settle in for a little while, and see what’s next. Life is full of what’s next, you know.”

LAB: And I’m speaking to you from Nebraska.

RD: “A nice state up there. A lot going on up in Nebraska. When are you going to do coach what’s his name from way back? Your teams aren’t like they used to be there at the university. The parity in college football. I bumped into Joe Theisman, that quarterback for the Redskins. And probably everybody would disagree with him and me, but I told him, ‘I think some of these college teams could beat some of the pros from about 30 years ago.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you, some of the college teams could beat some of the pro teams of today’ It’s possible. I think USC would play the Detroit Lions at 0-15 very well.

“Alright man, whatveer you want to ask me I’ll see what I can answer.”

LAB: Well, before we begin I wanted to let you know that I’ve spoken with members of the Peterson family you got to know so well when you came to Nebraska to act in Coppola’s The Rain People and then when you profile them in your documentary We’re Not the Jet Set.

RD: “Where was Casey (Peterson) at? Is he back in Nebraska?”

LAB: Yes, I believe he is.

RD: “But he lives in Calif., too, right?”

LAB: That I’m not sure about.

RD: “Oh, he’s a character that kid. He’s grown up now. What a character, my God.”

LAB: I’d like to begin with your experience on The Rain People.

RD: “Oh, yeah, with Jimmy Caan.”

LAB: Do I understand that you were not originally attached to that production in the role of the motorcycle cop?

RD: “I think another actor was scheduled to play the part and…he left or something and I came in, and I knew Jimmy, and I hadn’t known Francis (Coppola) yet when I came in to do that. He (Caan) kind of coordinated it. Jimmy Caan came out first and then I went out there.”

NOTE (Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler told me in a separate interview that Rip Torn was originally cast in the cop part but quit the project when he learned he wouldn’t be given the motorcycle he would be riding in the picture.)

LAB: The Nebraska part of the shoot mostly centered around the Ogallala area in the far southwest region of the state.

RD: “It was pleasant working there, I enjoyed working there and that’s how we met the Petersons because Jimmy wanted to go down…we liked horses. He said, ‘I’m going to a branding, you wanna go?’ I used to do that on my uncle’s ranch. It’s a lot of work. So I said, ‘No, Jimmy you can go do that.’ But we met them, the Petersons, because of the movie,.”

LAB: Denny Peterson remembers the initial meeting between you , Jimmy and his family as going something like this: you and Jimmy spotted Denny working with some horses in the family’s outdoor arena and you sidled up and asked if you could ride and he told you, ‘Hell, no, I make a living with these horses…’

RD: “No, I don’t think so, I think that’s a romantic aspect on Denny’s part. Maybe Denny said that to somebody. I don’t remember that at all. I’ll tell you the exact thing that happened. We went to their front yard, which was on the highway, the alternate road to Calif., and Shelley (Peterson) was riding a horse called Rock Red, which was a world champion cutting horse, and we started talking with the dad, B.A., and he said, ‘Are you boys from the movie?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You can come on down any time you want and ride some horses-You been getting any pussy?’ All in one breath. It was so funny. And we kept going down there and we formed a nice friendship.”

LAB: Horses and riding have been a big part of your life.

RD: “Not on his (Denny Peterson) level, but I’ve ridden a lot horses. But Denny was like a champion trick rider and everything like that.”

LAB: Did you know right away you’d come upon some authentic Western characters you could mine for inspiration?

RD: “Oh, boy, very unique, a very unique family, a rodeo circus mentality, you know. They were kind of an identity unto themselves even in that small community I think.”

LAB: In a sense the Petersons were following a bit in the tradition of William F. Cody and the Wild West Show troupe.

RD: “There were some pretty rough and tumble people back then. Like the Petersons. Lots of fist fights.”

LAB: For a lot of people HBO’s Deadwood became the definitive vision of the West come to life.

RD: “But I didn’t hear that kind of language from them. I think it was a different take on what the West was like, but I think there’s a definite connection maybe to the Petersons. I was talking to Denny and he said, ‘When my dad died I didn’t get the full impact of it till Walt ‘Waldo’ Haythorn died.’ He was the other rancher out there we met. That guy and B.A. were really good friends. He (Waldo) was probably like a surrogate uncle or something to Denny. Denny felt close to him. So he felt the full impact of his dad’s death when Waldo died a few years later. Because Waldo was a character, Jesus he was a character, too.

“So we’ve been involved with some good cowboys here and there.”

LAB: Didn’t the Haythorns’ real life early adventures on the Great Plains inform your mini-series Broken Trail?

RD: “Absolutely, the story of one of their grandfathers driving horses east from Oregon.”

LAB: You also grew close to the Haythorns, visiting their ranch a number of times.

RD: “They wanted me to be in the rodeo in North Platte. I hadn’t been on a horse in a couple years when I went up to do rope and trail up there. I bought a horse a year in advance to get ready because I busted some ribs on another project. The best horse I’ve ever been on in my life. He was three times a national bronc riding champion. They’re (the Haythorns) a wonderful family too. Not quite as wild (as the Petersons), but they have their wild side, too. Waldo, he let me use his personal horse and what a horse, my God, that horse was just…the best I’ve ever been on.

“And the Haythorns are out there still…They’ve gone down in Texas and won that (national ranch horse championship). You know the son, Craig, he’s getting old, too.

“When I was down in Argentina and I talked with the greatest polo player that ever lived, Adolfo Cambiaso..They own that, nobody can touch them in polo. He said he does like the American quarter horses as a breed a lot, although the thoroughbred’s better for polo because a little more endurance.”

LAB: Is it fair to say you’ve always had a fascination with the West?

RD: “Well, to a point, yeah. Ever since I was 12-13 I went and spent two summers on my uncle’s ranch in northern Montana and that gave me whatever wisdom, whatever knowledge, whatever enthusiasm I had for that, and respect for that to play those characters. I don’t know if I could have ever done Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove if i hadn’t maybe been introduced to that way of life as a young guy. I would say that’s true. Of course, they say the hardest part of that life way back then was to get a good night’s sleep on the ground, so it wasn’t as romantic as sometimes the movies portray.”

LAB: It seems like you’re drawn to down-to-earth, grassroots stories and settings and characters.

RD: “I like certain aspects of America, not just the two coasts.”

LAB: In B.A. Peterson you met a rough-hewn, bigger-than-life figure.

RD: “In that same place he was building a shed one time, and I wasn’t there, but the building inspector came down and said, ‘You don’t have a permit to build that,’ and B.A. said, ‘You keep staring at it and watch it go up.’ That was B.A., he didn’t back up from anybody.”

 

The entire cast & crew of "The Rain People"

 Cast and crew of The Rain People 

 

 

 

B.A. Peterson in We’re Not the Jet Set 

 

Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, Stephen Mack at New York premiere of Jet Set 

 

LAB: How did someone like Francis Coppola respond to the Petersons?

RD: “Coppola said about the Petersons, ‘Oh, they kind of scare me.’ Well, then he goes and makes a movie on the mafia (laughing).”

LAB: What was your experience like working on Rain People?

RD: “You know, it was a nice movie to work on. That’s when Coppola was doing those smaller films, before he did The Godfather and everything. It was a stepping stone to other things.”

LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Coppola?

RD: “He was a very serious guy, very preoccupied.”

LAB: Did you have a sense for how this road picture of a project was coming together?

RD: “It was hard to tell because it was a small film and they’d been working on it for a while. I came into it at the last minute.”

LAB: And what was Coppola like so far removed from his comfort zone?

RD: “I don’t think he felt he fit in there. He said the Petersons are dangerous. He wanted to go back to New York. I was more into Coppola on The Godfather I when the studio was against him. I gained a lot of respect for Coppola on Godfather  I.  It was Copolla’s picture. He was the one who made that film work. He had a lot on his plate.”

LAB: It was only in doing research for my project that I discovered George Lucas was part of The Rain People company and his main job was to shoot and edit the documentary, The Making of The Rain People.

RD: “I met George Lucas on that. He’s a nice guy, quiet kind of private guy. I did his (USC) thesis film (THX-1138). When we did The Rain People he was like 115 pounds and he had a camera and sound equipment strapped on himself, this little thin guy, and the documentary is as interesting as the movie.”

LAB: You and Jimmy Caan became fast friends on projects like that one and Robert Altman’s Countdown before working together more famously on The Godfather.

RD: “We had a lot fun between me and Jimmy Caan and his brother (who doubled for Duvall on the motorcycle in Rain People), who’s nuts, riding along on that motorcycle. and they didn’t have motorcycle police in Nebraska then. We got stopped and got a ticket. I had to learn how to drive that thing. One night I came in and parked the thing. It took ten takes, and then it fell over. Oh, man, we laughed so hard. But we had a good time out there. It was a memorable time working there for those weeks there in Nebraska. It was great.

“Jimmy’s great to work with. He gets restless though.”

LAB: I must tell you that I consider We’re Not the Jet Set a superb piece of filmmaking. It’s one of the better documentaries of that era.

RD: “Well, you know who else liked it a lot, unsolicited…I knew Peter Falk and he took it and showed it to John Cassavetes and Cassavetes loved that film.. Also, I wouldn’t call it a pure documentary because there were certain scenes we set up and then they could do them in a pure way like a documentary, you know what I’m saying? The bathing scene where B.A. hoses his little boy and then puts him in the bath tub, that was kind of set up, but it’s what they do and so it comes out a pretty pure behavior.”

LAB: There’s no way you could have portrayed the family as intimately as you did had you not become like an adopted family member immersed into the family scene.

RD: “Exactly, that’s what happened. When I worked with the gypsies (for his Angelo, My Love), the same way. I mean, you really gotta become part of something without trying to patronize, but tell it like it is. Do you know what I’m saying? Because so many films in Hollywood they do patronize the interior aspects of the United States between the two coast lines. But you gotta turn it around and let it come from them.”

LAB: It’s somewhat surprising to me that B.A. would have approved exposing himself and his family so starkly.

RD: “The first time we got out there he said, ‘What if I wouldn’t let you do this?’ I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do, we figured you would.’ Before they signed any releases or anything, there was no money exchanged because you know I didn’t have any money to do this. I think we went out six times in like two years or something like that.”

LAB: So you financed the project yourself?

RD: “Oh yeah, it was myself. I told Brando about it when I was doing Godfather I. He went for the truth. You know he used to watch Candid Camera to study to be an actor. He was that interested in real behavior, which I am and was.”

LAB: I like how Jet Set and your other films as a director are infused with little moments, gestures, asides, glimpses of authentic, truthful behavior, all of it unadorned, and much of it provided by nonprofessionals.

RD: “Yeah, I think so because once again we turned the camera around and let it come from them. It’s their life. I can’t tell them, ‘Do this, do that.’ And I think more feature film directors should do that –  they should see what the nonactor comes up with. When you mix the nonactors with the actors sometimes they’ll put the professional actor on notice because they don’t have any bad habits. So I do try to go after reality, like lifelike behavior within the discipline of movie time.”

LAB: In addition to the colorful characters in Jet Set you captured the expressive Sandhills.

RD: “Oh yeah, the Sandhills country.”

LAB: It’s like another character unto itself in.

RD: “Oh totally, absolutely. There was one scene, we lost the footage. I wanted to start the film with it, where Casey was bathing his pony in like a big rain puddle. But we could never find it, it was unaccountable, so we started instead with some truck with Jake and B.J. I believe it was.”

LAB: The way B.A. comes off in the film and the way you describe him he was just savvy and ambitious and vain enough that the idea of a documentary obviously appealed to him. Besides, he was a showman and he probably saw promotional possibilities in agreeing to be featured in a way that anticipated Reality TV.

RD: “Our troubles were more internal. Our troubles were with a certain cameramen and certain guys that wanted to do it this way. That’s where the problems were, the problems weren’t with the Petersons. The problems were on our side of the camera, the egos there.

“It was tough to do. Usually the actors are prima donnas but the freaking cameraman was the prima donnas on that one.”

 

 

 

 

©motionpictureart.com

 

LAB: I’m curious to know if Jimmy ever accompanied you on your visits back to Neb. to shoot Jet Set?

RD: “No, he never did. Wilford Brimley did once. No, but they (the Petersons) liked Jimmy a lot and Jimmy’s the kind of guy I always say – ‘You change your telephone number every three months when you don’t have to.”

LAB: A bit mercurial is he?

RD: “Yeah, and also paranoid, I don’t know. He got out there and they were out there branding, and one of them said, ‘Hey there Hollywood, Caan – sounds Jewish.’ He said, ‘My grandparents were Dutch. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell them you’re Jewish?’ He said, ‘Well , I don’t know, the way they were, I didn’t know what was going to happen.’ But they loved Jimmy, Jewish or whatever he was, they loved him. He and Waldo gave each other their hats.

“No, we had good times together. (Laughs). You’d tell him a joke and B.A. would laugh for five minutes. He had a great sense of humor that guy.”

LAB: Caan got so into the whole branding and herding scene that he ended up becoming a professional rodeo competitor.

RD: “He claims he was a professional rodeo guy. He was a header and heeler in team roping. He did quite a bit of that for a while.”

LAB: You two are still very tight.

RD: “I talk to Jimmy all the time. He’s a good guy – one of the few actors I keep in contact with. We stayed friends. We’re trying to get a project off the ground. We may be going to Cuba. A guy’s going to write a script for me, Jimmy and Pacino. It’s a story about life there before the revolution.”

LAB: Is it fair to say then that Jet Set was a labor of love for you?

RD: “Yes, sir, absolutely and that helped me to play Westerns from then on out, being around those people, the real thing, that helped me when I went on to do things like…especially Lonesome Dove. That was my favorite part. Also that Broken Trail, that’s right up there with that. I loved doing that.”

LAB: It sounds like you’ve maintained ties with the Petersons all through the years.

RD: “Yeah, but we’re not as close. I hadn’t seen Casey in a few years and then when I saw him (on the movie Geronimo, An American Legend) he was almost 40 years old. He was working on that. It was like 20 years or so (since they’d last seen each other). They (the Petersons) got into movies, not because of me, I wasn’t instrumental. I’d like that to be known up front. They totally got that on their own. Shelley, the older daughter, her first husband was a rodeo clown and then she married another guy that was in the movies, and she still does that. And then Rex went off and he’s really done well. He worked under Corky Randall (famed animal wrangler). He’s done a lot of movies. He worked on The Horse Whisperer and a lot of other stuff. So they’ve done well.

“Back then (on Jet Set), everybody was young. Denny was the guy on horseback, and then Casey, athletically, he refined many things. Rex became kind of the star of the family without anybody having predicted that within the family, I think.”

LAB: The Petersons said they got close to your family and even visited you on the set of The Godfather.

RD: “My sterpdaughters at the time got on well with them. They came to the set of The Godfather.”

LAB: What about your Jet Set crew? For instance, your editor on that, Stephen Mack, has gone on to edit all of your films as a director.

RD: Steve Mack? Did a good job editing. He was a good editor for that.”

LAB: Were you nervous showing the finished film to the Petersons because of how close you’d become to them and of how unvarnished a portrait of them you made?

RD: “Yeah, because sometimes you get with the real deal and they want to see the artificial. I’m not saying that’s true in this case. Sometimes a cowboy or somebody else will want to see a Hollywood presentation more than they do the every day stuff they live and see, which is boring to them. You know what I mean? So, yeah, I wondered. I wasn’t sure because it’s a revealing thing. I think Denny was a little shy about it more than the others because he’s the oldest. I think it took him a while to accept it –that I’m not trying to make fun of them but that I do want to participate and enjoy the idiosyncrasies and the humor without condescending to it. Just show it, flat out, and I think that’s why a guy like John Cassavetes responded so strongly to the film. I mean, he really liked that film. I didn’t know him that well.”

LAB: In case you didn’t already know it, the Petersons all regard the film as a great gift you gave the family.

RD: “Well, I’m glad, it’s very moving to hear that because you never know if they’re going to accept something real. Like I took one guy out to help me film. It was the night of the graduation, and he said, ‘You’re invading these people’s privacy, how can you film?’ That was the point. I wasn’t invading to make fun, I was invading to show it as it is. And if you can’t get in there then you’re going to miss things, so we had to get in there and really rub elbows with them as we filmed.”

LAB: What would say to anyone who has a problem with the film and its subjects’ lack of political correctness?

RD: “If anybody would say anything I would say, ‘There’s the exit.’ My wife’s from Argentina, she’s very perceptive, she loved the film when she saw it.”

LAB: Before starting Jet Set did you consult with Coppola or any other established filmmaker?

RD: “No. just kind of plunged in.”

LAB: But you had a style in mind and it was patterned to a point on the work of some filmmakers you admired.

RD: “Kenneth Loach. Everybody says, ‘Your directorial comes from Cassavetes.’ I say, ‘Not really.’ The real influences were people like Kenneth Loach.”

LAB: Your projects as a director are so personal and idiosyncratic that it’s as if only you could have made them.

RD: “Maybe. The films I’ve directed have come from only stuff I could find from the ground up and develop from the ground up. It had to be from my point of view. I’ve had a few offers (to direct Hollywood films). I couldn’t have done it before. I could probably do it now. But it’d have to be stuff from the ground up.”

LAB: What kind of release, exposure did Jet Set get upon its completion?

RD: “I was going through a breakup with my wife then. It showed at Deauville, France and it did well. People enjoyed it, accepted it.”

LAB: Did it ever got a theatrical release?

RD: “Uh, just to a point. I didn’t get any money out of it. Some of my projects I’ve never made money off of them. The Apostle, I sold it. But the gypsy film, I never made money, I lost money.”

LAB: You didn’t get wide distribution of that.

RD: “No…it happened with my gypsy film. Some of it’s my fault – not working with the right people.But what are you going to do? You do it for the love of it. You gotta do certain things for the love of it and you make money on other projects you aren’t totally committed to but then it helps you pay for those that you want to do.

“It’s a strange and fickle business.”

NOTE (Jet Set enjoyed runs at New York and other big city art houses and it also played on national public television.)

RD: “I do care about it. I haven’t seen it in a long time. I do care about that one. Years ago it had been accepted at a film festival in Argentina. My wife saw it and she loved it. She’s very perceptive.”

LAB: After its initial release though Jet Set has pretty much been unseen. But the manager of your defunct production company Butcher’s Run was nice enough to send me a DVD of it.

RD: “We had to get a print to refurbish it so to speak. I’m terrible at keeping track of things. I want to sit down and watch it again one of these days. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, they gave us that song (the title track the film gets its name from). They waived the $10,000 fee. They gave us the title and song. She was a wonderful lady, Tammy Wynette. I showed it to Merle Haggard way back then. He liked it. I always thought Merle would make a good actor. I always meant to put him in a film. It just never happened.”

LAB: Speaking of actors, you’ve worked with some greats. You mentioned Marlon Brando before and your good buddy Jimmy Caan. What about John Wayne?

RD: “John Wayne was a far better actor than a lot of people gave him credit for. The Shootist is a brilliant performance.”

LAB: The movies have been very good to you and to some of your acting contemporaries like Caan, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight….

RD: “Cinema’s become like the in medium going into the 21st century. Young people instead of becoming writers they want to become directors or this and that.”

LAB: An actor with strong Omaha ties is our own John Beasley, who played opposite you in The Apostle.

RD: “Oh, yeah, a good guy, a good actor that guy. He’s a fine actor. They said, ‘Where’d you find that nonreactor?’ I said, ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello and King Lear up in Omaha.’ Oh, give him my regards, he’s a wonderful guy. When we were doing The ApostleI said to him, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ one of the greatest college football players, and he said, ‘No, I want to talk theater.’ I loved Johnny Rodgers, God almighty. I was talking football and he said, ‘I don’t want to talk football.'”

LAB: Well, since you brought him up, I think Rodgers one of the most underappreciated greats of all time.

RD: “Well, that’s because he went up to Canada I think rather than the NFL. He came from the same area as Gale Sayers.”

LAB: You’re still very busy as an actor.

RD:  “I just did a film down in Georgia, Get Low, based loosely on fact. Bill Murray. Sissy Spacek. I did that other thing, The Road. I’ve got two things coming out this year that are as good as anything I’ve done in my life.”

LAB: “Actors of a certain age often find good parts are scarce, but you seem to be the exception to that rule.

RD: “It’s true, but you’ve got to find yours.”

LAB: Do you still ride much?

RD: “I started back three weeks ago after not riding for two-three years. My wife rides well. Once a year we have the oldest horse show in america (in Virginia). It’s a good hobby.”

LAB: And then there’s you love for the tango.

RD: “It’s all connected. It’s a hobby. I go down to Argentina. Buenos Aires. I love that city.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film Connections: How a 1968 convergence of future cinema greats in Ogallala, Nebraska resulted in multiple films and enduring relationships

June 3, 2012 4 comments

 Film Connections: How a 1968 convergence of future cinema greats in Ogallala, Nebraska resulted in multiple films and enduring relationships

From the melting pot of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, Robert Duvall, James Caan and two ranch-rodeo families came “The Rain People,” “We’re Not the Jet Set” and more

An In-Progress Story and Film Event Project

©Leo Adam Biga

 

An unlikely confluence of remarkable cinema talents descended on the dusty backroads of Ogallala, Neb. in the far southwest reaches of the state in the summer of 1968.

None other than future film legend Francis Ford Coppola led this Hollywood caravan. He came as the producer-writer-director of The Rain People, a small, low-budget drama about a disenchanted East Coast housewife who, upon discovering she’s pregnant, flees the conventional trappings of suburban homemaking by taking a solo car trip south, then north and finally west. With no particular destination in mind except escape she gets entangled with two men before returning home.

Coppola’s creative team for this road movie included another future film scion in George Lucas, his then-protege who served as production associate and also shot the documentary The Making of The Rain People. The two young men were obscure but promising figures in a changing industry. With their long hair and film school pedigree they were viewed as interlopers and rebels. Within a few years the filmmakers helped usher in the The New Hollywood through their own American Zoetrope studio and their work for established studios. Coppola ascended to the top with the success of The Godfather I and II. Lucas first made it big with the surprise hit American Graffiti, which touched off the ’50s nostalgia craze, before assuring his enduring place in the industry with the Star Wars franchise that made sci-fi big business.

Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, who went on to lens The Conversation for Coppola and such projects as One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws and The Thorn Birds, was the director of photography.

Heading the cast were Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Though they enjoyed solid reputations, none were household names yet. Caan’s breakthrough role came two years later in the made-for-television sensation Brian’s Song (1970). The pair’s work in Coppola’s The Godfather elevated them to A-list status. Rain People was not the last time the two actors collaborated with the filmmakers. Duvall starred in the first feature Lucas made, the science fiction thriller THX-1138. The actor went on to appear in Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. After his star-making performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather Caan later teamed up with Coppola for the director’s Gardens of Stone.

Among Rain People’s principals, the most established by far then was Knight, already a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth).

The experience of working together on the early Coppola film forged relationships that extended well beyond that project and its small circle of cast and crew. Indeed, this is a story about those connections and their reverberations decades later.

For example, Duvall and Caan were already horse and Old West aficionados when they were befriended by a couple of Nebraska ranch-rodeo families, the Petersons and Haythorns. The interaction that followed only deepened the artists’ interest in riding and in Western lore. This convergence of New York actors and authentic Great Plains characters produced some unexpected spin-offs and helped cement enduring friendships. Duvall and Caan remain best buddies to this day.

Duvall became so enamored with the colorful, cantankerous Peterson clan, a large, boisterous family of trick riders led by their late patriarch, B.A. Peterson, that he made a documentary about them and their lifestyle called We’re Not the Jet Set. The actor returned to Nebraska several times to visit the family and to shoot the film with a skeleton crew. It was his first film as a director and it’s easy to find resonance in it with his future directorial work (Angelo My Love, The Apostle, Assassination Tango).

He and the Petersons became close enough that at his invitation some of them visited the The Godfather set. The family and the actor have kept in touch all these years and some have visited Duvall’s Virginia farm.

On one of Duvall’s visits to Nebraska the Petersons introduced him to the Haythorns and the true-life stories of that family’s early, epic cattle drives became the inspiration for Duvall’s mini-series Broken Trail.

Meanwhile, Caan sufficiently learned the ropes from working alongside the Haythorns and their hired hands to become a professional rodeo competitor, an activity the suits in Hollywood increasingly frowned on as his career exploded.

With their reputation as expert horsemen and women preceding them, several of the Petersons ended up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers and stunt people, boasting credits on many major Hollywood projects. One member of the family, K.C. Peterson, even ended up working on a film Duvall appeared in, Geronimo, An American Legend.

None of it may have happened if that band of filmmaking gypsies hadn’t come west. Their presence certainly got the attention of the locals while it lasted but no one could have predicted the Coppola production would lead, at least indirectly, to other films and deeper connections that played out over several years.

It’s hard to imagine how else Duvall would have happened upon the Petersons as the subjects for a film.

The man responsible for bringing Duvall to Nebraska, Coppola, was a fish-out-of-water here. His parents were musicians and he grew up in urban Detroit and Queens, New York, immersed in a life of art, literature, theater and the movies. The Hofstra theater arts grad entered UCLA’s fledgling film studies program, where his work soon attracted the attention of Hollywood.

At the time he made Rain People he was finding his way at Warner Brothers. Like all the major Hollywood studios then, Warners struggled adapting to changing audience tastes and escalating production costs and began entrusting young upstarts like Coppola with productions traditionally assigned old veterans.

While directing Finian’s Rainbow for Warners-Seven Arts Coppola met Lucas, a Modesto, Calif. native and USC film school product. Eager to break from studio constraints and make their own personal art films, the two were kindred spirits, When Coppola enlisted a small band of like-minded artists for Rain People, Lucas was a natural choice. The experience of making that film convinced them to launch American Zoetrope, a counter-culture answer to the old studio system that like United Artists decades before put the creatives in charge of production. The studio’s first two projects were the Lucas written and directed films THX-1138 and American Graffiti.

The producing partners parted ways in the mid-’70s.

But for a magical time the career arcs of these and other cinema stalwarts intersected to produce some of the most satisfying collaborations of the 1970s. As fate would have it a crucial part of that intersection unfolded in rural Nebraska among area denizens whose rough-and-tumble work-a-day lives were far removed from the distorted, make-believe reality of Hollywood. Lucas’ making-of doc about the experience records it for posterity.

Situated just below the southeast corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, Ogallala was about the last place you’d expect to find a gathering of the soon-to-be New Kings of Hollywood. But that’s exactly what transpired. This is the story of how those connections led Duvall to make We’re Not the Jet Set, an underseen film that may be getting new life courtesy of art cinemas.

The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”

The entire company of cast and crew on The Rain People

 

 

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B.A. Peterson, the late patriarch of the Peterson family that Robert Duvall profiled in We’re Not the Jet Set, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

 

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©poster art courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

SOME PERSONAL NOTES THAT MAKE THIS A PASSION PROJECT FOR ME
I was a burgeoning film buff in 1974 when the Omaha World-Herald‘s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands ran a piece on a documentary film that Robert Duvall, who had recently gained acclaim for his work in the first two Godfather films, was directing in Ogallala, Neb. about a ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons. The film, entitled We’re Not the Jet Set (1977), sounded promising enough but what really got my attention was the fact that Duvall only came to meet the Petersons and to make his film about them as a result of coming to Nebraska a half-dozen years earlier for a few weeks work on the art road movie, The Rain People (1969), a film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and assisted by George Lucas. Rain People starred Shirley Knight and co-starred James Caan and Duvall. The Petersons had a horse pen just across from the motel the cast and crew stayed at and Duvall and Caan got to know the family by riding some of their horses. Duvall became so intrigued with this colorful clan that he returned again and again to immerse himself in their life and to shoot the documentary. It was the actor’s first directorial effort of what’s turned out to be a distinguished body of work as a director (Angelo My Love, The Apostle, Assassination Tango).What most struck me then and now is how these figures, who at the time were obscure, except for Knight, would in a few years come to be major players in Hollywood. I loved the fact that they converged in the middle of nowhere for a small film that led to another film. And as I’ve come to find out, the experience of making these films in rural Nebraska led to enduring relationships and collaborations and the inspiration for yet another film. For example, Duvall and Caan have stayed in contact with the Petersons, several of whom have wound up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers, and stunt riders. And it was through the Petersons that Caan and Duvall met a more prominent ranch family, the Haythorns, and the actors’ interactions with them led to Caan becoming a professional rodeo competitor and to informing Duvall’s later Western mini-series Broken Trail.Jet Set was released in 1977 to mostly strong reviews from its featured screenings at film festivals, in select art house cinemas, and on public television. Since then the film has pretty much been unseen. There are reasons for that. As I have come to find out, its virtual disappearance from the market is a real travesty because the work stands with the best docs from that era. As it happened, I saw Rain People well before seeing Jet Set, a film that until a few years ago only existed for me in terms of the few write-ups I’d found about it. When I finally decided in 2010 to develop a story about all of this, including the connections and relationships around the films, I contacted Duvall’s then-production company, Butcher’s Run, and they were nice enough to both send me a DVD of the pic and to arrange an interview with Duvall himself. Jet Set was a real revelation for me. It’s a superb example of cinema verite filmmaking and it comes as close to pure cinema as any film, dramatic or documentary, that I’ve seen from that era, and I’ve seen a lot.

Duvall led me to his good friend Caan, whom I also interviewed. I also got in touch with several of the Petersons and interviewed them as well. Since then I’ve interviewed some more of the principals behind Jet Set, notably cinematographer Joseph Friedman and editor Stephen Mack. I subsequently secured interviews with Knight, Coppola and Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For years, decades really, that Herald story about the film I referred to earlier stuck in my mind. It gnawed at me all the while I worked as a film programmer and publicist in Omaha and then when I transitioned into freelance journalism. In the era before the Internet it was hard to find much reference to the film. It certainly wasn’t available for rental through any distributor I ever came upon. The last 15 years or so I’ve consistently looked for opportunities to write about film and this blog is a good showcase for the many film stories I’ve filed. The story of Rain People and Jet Set is one I longed to tell. Since leaving the film programming world in the early 1990s I also longed to organize some film event. Now I am combining the two longings in one project. My in-progress story is slated to be published in some Nebraska publications and I’m working with the publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and the director of the Omaha art cinema Film Streams on possible screenings and other events related to my story.

I have all the interviews I need for the piece. The only player in this story I have not able to connect with is George Lucas. i will try again but the story does not depend on his participation.

My main purpose with all this is to bring this story to light and to help revive interest in these films, particularly We’re Not the Jet Set. Recently, Turner Classic Movies added The Rain People to its rotating gallery of films shown on the cable network. But Jet Set remains inaccessible. I would also like to see the Lucas documentary, The Making of the Rain People, revived since it is a portrait of the early Coppola and his methods a full decade before his wife Eleanor shot the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the anguished making of Apocalypse Now. The story I’m telling is also an interesting time capsule at a moment in film history when brash young figures like Coppola, Lucas, Duvall, and Caan were part of the vanguard for the New Hollywood and the creative freedom that artists sought and won.

Old friends Robert Duvall and James Caan
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At New Yorker premiere of We’re Not the Jet Set: DP Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, editor Stephen Mack, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Editor’s Note: As I further develop the story, I’ll be making more posts. And when screenings and other events are scheduled in conjunction with the story, I’ll be sure to post that info as well. I’m posting my interviews with all the key figures in this story-event project.

 

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