All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

MARK ILLSLEY AND ED STONE ON “HAPPY, TEXAS”

Mark Illsley and Ed Stone, who are co-writers and (respectively) the director and producer of the 1999 Sundance favorite “Happy, Texas,” were at pains during a recent interview to explain why their picture–a comic fish-out-of-water tale about two escaped convicts who come to the eponymous town, where they’re mistaken for gay kiddie pageant coordinators–was shot not on location in the Lone Star Pandhandle but instead in Peru, California, some forty miles from Los Angeles.
“It’s all financial,” Illsley explained. “I went and scouted all over Texas. I went up to the Panhandle and drove 2700 miles in six days, and saw every little dot in the Panhandle. I saw the little town of Happy, and it truly was the best choice. The town was so perfect that I took photos, and when we wrote the script we were looking at them.”
But, Illsley went on, after two-and-a-half years of trying to find financing for the movie and eventually taking out family loans to film it, the makers reluctantly decided that they’d have to stay on the west coast to save $150,000 in costs. The California area wasn’t a perfect match–it was too verdant and had mountains–but Peru proved a reasonable facsimile. As Stone observed, when they’re asked where they found so green an area in the Panhandle, they respond, “We shot in West Texas–so west that we had to skip two states–in the Texas county of
California.”
Stone went on to express the hope that Texans wouldn’t take umbrage at the peculiarities of the townspeople in the picture. He grew up in the area and lived for a time in Happy, and said, “I know those people. People ask, ‘Aren’t those stereotypes in the movie?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know if they’re stereotypes, but I can take you and show you that person if you want to meet them, and you can ask them.'” He continued: “We have so much affection for these characters. Almost always we try to take a positive spin on what they’re doing. And people are eccentric everywhere.”
The film attracted a remarkable cast–Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn, Illeana Douglas, Ally Walker, William H. Macy, Ron Perlman, Paul Dooley–despite its modest budget, and the actual shoot, Illsley said, went very smoothly: “People ask me, ‘Wow, how did you get so many nice people to work on your movie?’ Any my answer is: ‘Because you can’t get bad people to work for nothing.’ They worked for the absolute minimum amount of money for which you can work and still be in the Screen Actors Guild.” Stone added that it was the quality of the writing that drew the performers: “There are still a lot of actors that are material-driven.”
Many of the performers worked long after the final wrap, too. After Miramax picked up the picture following its reception at Sundance, it was extensively re-shot and re-edited on the basis of audience reaction, a process urged by the filmmakers and supported by the studio. “That’s one of the great things about working with Miramax,” Illsley said. “They’re a company that actually has the depth so that if you need to spend more money in reshooting a movie, they’ll let you.”
A meeting with Harvey Weinstein gave the green light, and Illsley and Stone cut “Happy” by fifteen minutes and changed much that remained. “Within the last month we rewrote and reshot six scenes–that’s about eighteen minutes of the movie,” Illsley said. “We reshot 75% to 80% of the relationship [between the characters played by Jeremy Northam and Ally Walker]. Their characters are completely different.”
So even if you saw “Happy, Texas” at the Sundance Festival last winter, you just might want to catch it again. It’s a rather different flick now.

TOM BERENGER ON MAKING “ONE MAN’S HERO”

As Tom Berenger lounged on a twelfth-floor hotel patio, smoking a cigarette, he talked about two recent difficult experiences. A resident of South Carolina, he was among those forced to flee from Hurricance Floyd. “I was in that evacuation of three million people, the largest evacuation in the history of the United States. I drove up to the mountains of North Carolina. It would have taken five hours ordinarily, but it took fifteen. On these little back state roads, there was a traffic jam that looked like Los Angeles, all the way from Charleston to the middle of the state.”
But the natural disaster seems positively reasonable compared to the actor’s struggle over the release of his new film, “One Man’s Hero,” an historical epic in which he plays the John Riley, the leader of the St. Patrick Brigade, a group of Irish immigrant deserters from the U.S. army who fought on the Mexican side during the war of 1845-47. The picture was actually shot in the fall of 1997, and even then, as Berenger remarks, “I was kind of tired, because I had kind of worked on producing the thing for three years.” Apart from some difficult Mexican locations, the shoot was marred by the accidental death of a member of the crew, an electrician perched atop a huge crane that collapsed on the penultimate night of filming. It was obvious that Berenger was still shaken by the incident.
But the making of the picture was only the beginning. “This was an Orion film,” Berenger explained, “and actually while we were shooting Orion got bought and merged with MGM. A tragedy–another studio gone, you know. And I don’t know where MGM is–I didn’t know where they were before, when I did two movies with them and they just dumped them. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m back with them again.'”
Berenger’s fears proved well-grounded. MGM has kept “One Man’s Hero” on the shelf for nearly two years, and now is giving it only a token release in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. “Our premiere out there [in Los Angeles] is being paid for by the Catholic Church and the Mexican consulate,” Berenger noted. “The Vatican’s seen the film. I don’t know how they heard about it, but they did, and they asked if they could have a copy of it to see. But we couldn’t get the money from MGM to do the premiere–I don’t know if they’ve ever even seen it! You know, a new regime comes in, or somebody else’s logo is on it, and they go, ‘Eh.’ With ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’ when they fired David Puttnam, they killed that movie. It’s the only business I’ve ever seen do that–kill inventory. If Ford bought Chrysler, would they destroy
all those cars sitting out in the lot, the inventory? No, they’d sell them. You sell them, you don’t send them to the trash heap. That’s the situation we’re in.” Luckily demands by Berenger’s fans–as he described it, “a grass-roots campaign, like a prairie fire, on the Internet”–eventually moved the studio to reconsider and give the picture a limited release, which could be expanded if the numbers warrant.
“One Man’s Hero” certainly has an interesting pedigree. Berenger was actually looking for a script on the San Patricios for some time as a producer, when his agent learned from producer-director Lance Hool’s counterpart that the filmmaker had one on hand. Berenger said: “I got the script from Lance and said, ‘Yeah, this is the one.’ I’d read a couple of others I wasn’t crazy about. Then I found out that the script is thirty-five years old. The writer, Milton Gelman, has just died a couple of months before we got started on it. His family is just totally dumbfounded that it’s been made.
“Lance Hool had gotten the script because he’s half-Mexican and had grown up in Mexico, and as a young mn he got to know John Huston, who loved to shoot down there [in Mexico] and wanted to do this story,” Berenger continued. “I was telling Charlton Heston about it when we worked together, and he said, ‘No kidding, you’re going to do that? Huston wanted me to do that!’ Then Peckinpah was going to do it with Paul Newman, but he died of a heart attack. Lance ended up getting the script from Huston, who said, ‘Here, kid, you take it. I’m not going to be around much longer. You take it; maybe you can do something with it. I wish I could have done it.'”
And so after three and a half decades, the script was filmed, and after two years of sitting on the shelf, the film’s been released. Now audiences will decide whether it was worth the wait.