Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.
I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.
But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.
I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.
In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.
Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.
The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.
Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.
“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.
The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.
The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.
Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.
“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.
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 discontened, 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.”
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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-1138, and 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 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 quearterback 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, whatver 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 Dennys’ 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.”
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 Coppoola’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 himeself, 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 asy 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.”
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.”
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 thruugh 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 Cassavettes.’ 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 devleop fom the ground up. It had to be from my point of view. I’ve had a few offers (to direct Hollywood films). I couldnt 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 youe 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 loosley 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.”
- James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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-1138, and 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 James Caan. Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.
James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)
©by Leo Adam Biga
JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”
LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 release, was in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.
JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.
LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.
JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.
“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (Countdown–Rain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!
LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?
JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.
“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”
LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.
JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”
LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Ford Coppola?
JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”
LAB: How did the two of you meet?
JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”
LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Killgannon?
JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.
“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”
LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.
JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”
LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?
JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.
“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”
LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?
JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.
“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”
LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?
JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.
“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”
LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?
JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.
LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.
JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”
LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.
JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or wharever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Bruell (Neb.). They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.
“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ’em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.
“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ’em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ’em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ’em and I started driving ’em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ’em looked up and said, ‘Hey, Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.
“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons. And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.
“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ’em up to be some of the ropers.
“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ’em by the pit. I was flanking ’em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”
LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.
JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”
LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.
JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.
“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.
“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.
“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”
LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.
JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”
NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.
“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”
LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.
JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”
LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?
JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.
“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’
“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”
LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?
JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”
LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.
JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”
NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.
“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”
NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.
JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”
- ‘The Godfather’: An offer many helmers could refuse (variety.com)
- Francis Ford Coppola’s search for the best ending (management.fortune.cnn.com)
- ‘Twixt’ review: xxxx (sfgate.com)
- How we made … Francis Ford Coppola and Stewart Copeland on Rumble Fish (guardian.co.uk)
Film Connections: How a 1968 convergence of future cinema greats in Ogallala, Neb. resulted in multiple films and enduring relationships
Film Connections: How a 1968 convergence of future cinema greats in Ogallala, Neb. 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 company of cast and crew on The Rain People
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.
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.
- Filmmaking tips from a legend – Interview with Francis Ford Coppola (eoshd.com)
- Lucasfilm Names Kathleen Kennedy Co-Chair As Successor To George Lucas (deadline.com)
- Duvall stars as cantakerous hermit in ‘Get Low’ (ctv.ca)
- George Lucas retiring to make ‘hobby movies’ (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘The Godfather’ Turns 40 (sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com)
- Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shirley Knight Interview (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Comes Home to Roost: The State’s Cinema Prodigal Son is Back Filming Again in his Home State after Long Absence (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)