It’s been twenty five years since you directed End of the Line in Arkansas. Looking back, what was that like to have come out of Arkansas and land a Sundance premiere and a distribution deal with Orion Classics as a young filmmaker? You were in your late twenties at the time, correct?
I was 25 years old when I made “End of the Line.” I think the best thing I had going for me was naiveté. I didn’t realize it was supposed to be nearly impossible to get a feature film made, especially at that time when the “independent film scene” was just finding its legs. There was almost no such thing as “regional filmmaking” then so it was quite unique that I was making a film in Arkansas about characters from Arkansas. Thankfully, I had a great Producer in Mary Steenburgen, a fellow Arkansawyer who believed in me, and who was way ahead of her time as an independent Producer. Same with Tom Bernard and Michael Barker who are now Sony Classics. They have always supported independent films and filmmakers and I am lucky to have met them when I did and have them believe in the film. Every filmmaker needs that bit of luck finding an advocate. I felt then, and still feel today, that I am very fortunate.
You and Jeff Nichols will be receiving the Diamond Award at the festival. You mentioned you are a fan of his work, does his recent success remind you of yourself at that age and are you excited to see another rising star coming out of your home state.
First of all, Jeff is making a bigger international splash at this point in his career than I did when I first started. His filmmaking is very mature for his young age. I am excited for him, regardless of his youth or experience because he is making great films and that is a very difficult task in the current environment where there is even more pressure than ever before for a film to be purely commercial. And it’s an added bonus to watch his star rise because we are from the same State. It’s kind of like following an athlete you played against in high school who made it to the pros. The biggest piece of advice I would have for him is to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to try and maintain his singular voice, which makes him unique. That’s the difficult part. There are a lot of ups and downs over the course of a long career and it’s important to approach every film as though it were your first.
Can you talk about working with Levon Helm, and your thoughts on the passing of a legend from Arkansas.
There was a period of about 6 or 7 years when Levon and I would talk at least once a week on the phone or in person. When I lived in New York, I would frequently go visit him up in Woodstock. While I had not seen him in the past few years, I was quite close to him at one time, so I am still dealing with the fact that he is no longer with us. Years ago, when I sent him the script for “End of the Line,” he called me up the very next day and said he wanted to play the part of Leo. I had basically written the part for him, so I would have been crushed had he said “no”. The first call between us lasted about 3 hours. We laughed and talked as though we had been friends for years. I think it was the common dirt under our feet that caused us to hit it off immediately. We shared common references and phrases and experiences of growing up in Arkansas, but we also shared the experience of moving away as young men and seeing the world from that perspective.
We made “End of the Line” as our first project, but we always had a lot of things cooking and were always wanting to work together. I wrote a script which we unfortunately never got to make called “Buck Dollar” based on a character Levon came up with. And the whole idea of the “Midnight Rambles” at his house in Woodstock dated back to the mid-80′s when I first met him. And then, there was a little travelogue documentary we did together for PBS about Highway 61. As luck would have it, doing that show with Levon was the entire reason I met Willie Morris, which led to the making of “My Dog Skip.” So in that way, I even owe Levon for Skip!
Everyone knows that he was one of the greatest recording artists in rock history, but he was also a great actor. I realize now, having had the good fortune of working with many very talented actors, that Levon could hold his own with any of them. His approach to finding a reality in his performance was the same as those who are much better known for their acting work.
The overwhelming worldwide response to his passing says it all. He touched many, many lives in every country on Earth. He was a true American icon and legend and I am happy I got to spend some time with him.
Are you looking forward to your homecoming and attending the Little Rock Film Festival.. Any films you are excited to see.
I am very excited to be coming home for the festival. In fact, I need to stop answering these questions and pack! I’ve heard so many great things about the progress of the Festival over the past few years and I am truly humbled and honored to be a part of it. I’ve been perusing the screening schedule and I know I will not have time to see nearly as many films as I’d like. I am particularly excited to see ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” which has made headlines at both Sundance and at Cannes this past week. But I’m going to try to see as many as I’m able, time wise.
On Wednesday night of the festival, you will be doing a talk with Philip Martin and discussing your impressive body of work over the years. You have worked with some legendary actors. Are there any of your films that you are the most proud of, or favorite experiences you can share from working with actors like Mary Steenburgen, Holly Hunter, John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix, and Sir Ben Kingsly.
Each and every project is dear to me for the life experiences they offered. The process of making the films are the memories I treasure most because I rarely see the finished product again after their Premieres. At that point, all I see are the mistakes I want to fix and it’s a frustrating experience. The memories of working with the actors and the crews and the life surrounding the films, however, are what I cherish. As a Director, it’s a dream come true to work with a single talented actor, so given that list of names you mention, and many more I’ve had the great fortune to work with – I’ve had many dreams come true. I feel I am the luckiest guy in the world to have been an audience of One to such amazing performers doing their work.
I could fill a book with my experiences (and maybe I will one day), but far too many to list here. Perhaps Philip Martin will jog my memory and we will tell some good stories when we get together Wednesday night.