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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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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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