Home-grown Elephant Sighs makes its home bow next week

by Mark Burger

Elephant Sighs, the feature film based on Ed Simpson’s critically acclaimed play, is coming to a DVD player near you, as Green Apple Entertainment is releasing the film next week. It will be available at most retailers (including Wal-Mart) and is scheduled for Redbox rotation in July.

Filmed in High Point in the winter of 2010 (and the subject of a YES! Weekly cover story, “From page to stage to screen: Ed & Ed’s Elephant Sighs”; Feb. 17, 2010; by Mark Burger), Elephant Sighs is an ensemble piece about a group of guys who gather regularly at a small-town community center to shoot the breeze, play cards and offer friendship and support. They’re not without their problems and foibles, but together they try to work through them.

Multi-Emmy Award-winner Ed Asner stars as Leo, the unofficial ringleader of the group, with David Wells, Jack Kehler and John Cariani as the other “regulars.” Mark Fite plays a newcomer to town and to the group, who’s not quite sure why he was invited — and isn’t quite sure why he sticks around, either.

Simpson, also the chair of High Point University’s Performance Arts Department, first began work on Elephant Sighs in the late 1970s, when he was himself experiencing some of the insecurities and dilemmas of the characters within the play. The character of Leo is directly based on Simpson’s own father Harold, a man of earthy wisdom and gruff disposition that masked, none too successfully, a heart of gold.

When Simpson first wrote Elephant Sighs, he never envisioned it as a feature film — least of all one he eventually would adapt, produce and direct 30 years later. Although he’s directed often for the stage, this would be his big-screen bow.

“Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I prepared,” he related. “I read Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies and very early on he wrote, ‘If you get a chance to make a movie, do it.’” So Simpson did it, relying as much on his cast and crew as they did on him.

“We were smart enough to know what we didn’t know,” he said, “and were very fortunate to have a strong group of people we could start off with. This was a good group of people.”

Among that group was Wells, who not only reprised his role as Perry, but was also one of the film’s producers. He recalled his first exposure to Elephant Sighs at a staged reading.

“It blew me away,” he said. “I thought it was a tremendous piece. It’s a beautiful piece, a loving piece.

It affects people on a lot of different levels. I love Ed Simpson’s world because it’s real. The humor is real, not manufactured out of jokes.”

Wells concurred with Simpson’s opinion of the crew, whom he knew only by reputation — a reputation that soon proved well founded. “We were very lucky to attract these people in key positions,” he said, “and we were smart enough to listen to them. I’m proud of the work they’ve done and I’m proud of the film.”

In the transition from stage to screen, “I do think the heart of the play is in the film,” said Wells, who has also directed Elephant Sighs on stage.

Elephant Sighs is not the easiest movie to market, in that it’s both a comedy and a drama, with even some subtle faith-based elements incorporated into the storyline. It’s a little bit of everything, which didn’t make marketing it any easier.

“Everyone who saw it loved it,” Wells said, “but it wasn’t until Green Apple — which has turned out to be a godsend — that someone said ‘We love it, we want it and we know exactly how to market it.’” “I’m delighted,” said Simpson. “We were really tenacious, very aggressive, in finding the right distributor.”

The company even went so far as to produce the official trailer for the film, something Simpson didn’t have the time for — or even an idea for. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” he admitted. “But they came up with a terrific trailer. We’re really happy.”

At age 82, Asner’s as busy as ever, having completed two-dozen film and television projects since Elephant Sighs — including the acclaimed HBO docudrama Too Big to Fail, in which he played real-life billionaire Warren Buffett, guest stint on “Hawaii Five-O” (reprising a character he first played over 30 years ago), and even the upcoming Home Alone 5 — yet he’s gone out of his way and made the time to promote the film, joining Simpson, Wells and other cast members in recording promotional interviews.

He’s also scheduled to sign copies of the DVD at Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles next Tuesday, the official release day.

The last time the cast was together, “we all had lunch at Jerry’s Famous Deli in California, and it was great having ‘the boys’ back together,” Simpson recalled. “They’re the best.”

During the filming, cast and crew began referring to Asner and Simpson as “Ed the Greater” and “Ed the Lesser” — and Simpson has no qualms about that designation. “He is the Greater,” Simpson laughed.

Although Simpson and Wells have a number of potential film projects percolating, one idea that keeps coming up is perhaps doing a follow-up.

Simpson smiles at the notion. “The guys keep asking when we’re going to make the sequel. Now I’ve only made one so far, but I don’t think that happens on every movie.”