We open the 2011 Little Rock Film Festival with Harry Thomason’s The Last Ride about the final few days in the life of country music legend Hank Williams Sr. LRFF Programmer Levi Agee talked to Harry about making the film.
How did the idea of the film come about?
Benjy Gaither emailed me the script written by Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett and asked if I would be interested in helping him put it together. I thought it was a fascinating character study. I called Benjy in Indiana and he flew out a couple of days later and we started trying to assemble it under the guidance of Doug Jackson, a fabulous producer with Arkansas roots (he was on the staff of Senator David Pryor until we lured him away!) One of project’s problems was the fact that one of the characters, the young man who drove Hank on that fateful 1952 year end, was still and never liked to discuss the event. The insurance company said we could not do the film unless he signed off on it so Dub Cornett trekked across the country, found him and after spending a few days with him, convinced him to sign a release enabling us to do the picture. After we started, we learned Hank William’s family had serious concerns over us doing the picture because another movie covering his whole life is being done by a major movie studio. We never slept easy the entire time we did the picture!
What was your favorite part of making the film?
My favorite part of the picture was being back in Little Rock shooting. It is always a pleasure filming in Arkansas because of the attitude, ability and cooperation of the people. I don’t know of any better and more professional film people than Chris Craine of the Arkansas Film Commission and Gary Newton of the LR Regional Chamber of Commerce and that also goes for the leaders in NLR, Benton and Scott. They all made our lives much easier.
The other great thing was that over sixty people of our excellent (and I mean excellent!) crew carried Arkansas Driver’s Liscense’s and of eighteen actors in the cast, we brought from Los Angeles only five. Everyone else called Little Rock home – the picture is worth seeing for that reason alone!
Because of a set of circumstances concerning bogus funding that arose on this picture after we had started shooting, it’s a miracle we even finished! There were several miracles in this case including the guys I mentioned above plus the addition of Tim Jackson, one of the executive producers on the show, and his crew who found help for us every time we needed it – and we needed quiet a often!
What do you look forward to when going to festivals?
We use festivals to judge what we should do to make the picture better. We do it by observing audiences who have never seen the film and don’t know much about it. We try to all blend in, listen to what is being said then go back and decide on the validity of various comments and make changes based on the chatter.
The picture the audience in Little Rock will see has never been seen before because we are in the midst of making changes we believe will make the experience better.
Why should people come see your film?
People should come see this film for several reasons – it is a small but good story and because as a critic said, ”If you want to know what 1952 was like, then see this film. It takes you back and never once lets you leave the era until you exit the theater.”
Another reason to see the film is to hear the music Benjy Gaither composed and the period songs and artists he selected for the film. I have had friends that have never lived outside New York say, ”Okay, I’ll look at the film but you know I don’t like country music”…invaribley they come out of the screening and ask if they can get a CD of the music in the film.
Harvey Weinstein, one of the greatest movie makers in my book, was at a friend of mine’s that I had sent an early copy of the film. Even though the arrangement we have with Fox precludes him from having anything to do with the film he called me and said, “In Henry Thomas and Jesse James, you have to of the finest performances I have ever seen in a film.”
Lastly, I related at the beginning that the Williams family was not in favor of us doing this film. We showed it to Jett Williams and her husband, Nashville Attorney Keith Adkinson with some trepidation. At the end they jumped up and told us how much they loved the film and asked what they could do to help! They have been such stalwarts of support for this film and we appreciate them so much. I hope their schedule will permit them to come to Little Rock. They realize, and we agree, that we are covering only a few days of a life that should be on a much larger canvas, because it was a life that made a gigantic contribution to the music we have all listened and still listen to – whether it is country, rock and roll or pop!