April 11, 2012 12:17

Talking shop with the stars and luminaries of the 2012 RiverRun Film Festival

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HAL NEEDHAM

(DIRECTOR, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT)

In the summer of 1977, while Star Wars was breaking boxoffice records and changing the landscape of Hollywood, a less expensive, high-concept action comedy very quietly racked up a $100 million-plus gross and became the second biggest hit of the calendar year.

Not bad for a first-time director, whose name was Hal Needham. The film was Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds as a modern-day outlaw called “the Bandit” and comedy legend Jackie Gleason as his nemesis, the incorruptible, indomitable lawman Buford T. Justice. Sally Field played a runaway bride who drops into the Bandit’s lap and country music star Jerry Reed played the Bandit’s partner-in-crime. One-time Tarzan Mike Henry played Sheriff Justice’s dim-witted son and, ironically, the groom whom Field’s character jilted at the altar.

Of course, by the time he made his directorial debut, Needham was already renowned in Hollywood circles as the highest-paid stuntman and most in-demand stunt coordinator/second unit director in the business. Yet it was no easy sell when he decided to take the reins of Smokey and the Bandit.

Even though his best friend Reynolds had committed to the project, the studios resisted Needham as the director. As he’d proven throughout his career, Needham was undaunted. Finally, Universal came aboard — and reaped a fortune.

Needham, whose autobiography Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life was published to great acclaim last year, will be a special guest at this year’s RiverRun International Film Festival. This Saturday, there will be a screening of the original Smokey and the Bandit in the Babcock Theatre in the ACE Exhibition Complex on the UNCSA campus, followed by a question-and-answer seminar hosted by film critic Mark Burger (the one and only).

On Sunday, UNCSA School of Filmmaking faculty member (and former dean) Dale Pollock will host “A Conversation with Hal Needham” at the Hanesbrands Theatre in downtown Winston- Salem, an in-depth interview with Needham about his high-flying, death-defying career featuring highlights from his illustrious career.

The impetus for writing his autobiography was simple: “I’ve told these stories so many times in bars, at dinners and at parties, I just said ‘To hell with it — I’ll write a book.’” The book is an entertaining collection of anecdotes and stories, both about his professional life and his personal life. Naturally, his extensive film and TV work is covered, but so are some stories away from the set. “People who have read the book tell me they’ve found out things about me they didn’t know,” Needham said.

In a career spanning 50 years, Needham has toiled on over 300 feature films and over 4,000 TV episodes. Even he can’t remember them all!

Whether it’s crashing cars, riding horses, throwing punches, being set on fire or taking a high fall — and any and all variations thereof — Hal Needham has done it. He never turned down a stunt, although he certainly took his fair share of lumps and bruises and breaks over the years. But he kept coming back for more.

Among his other contributions to cinema was the development and implementation of the Shotmaker, an all-purpose camera car that made filming stunts infinitely easier and earned him both Emmy and Academy Awards.

“All the equipment I came up with wasn’t anything brilliant,” he said. “Having abused my body so much, I just wanted to find something that would make my job a little easier. If no one else was, I just figured I’m going to do it.”

Indeed, many of the inventions and innovations that Needham pioneered are still used extensively in film and television.

The success of Smokey and the Bandit can hardly be underestimated. It solidified Reynolds’ superstar status, he and Field became one of Tinseltown’s golden couples, it marked a major comeback for Gleason, and Needham was now very much in demand as a filmmaker.

The film’s initial engagement was at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (hardly Needham’s choice of an ideal venue), and studio executives worried when it didn’t do well there. When the film went into general release, the executives didn’t have time to worry — they were too busy counting box-office receipts.

His next film, Hooper (1978), remains Needham’s personal favorite, because the story was about Hollywood stuntmen. It was an area he obviously knew, and he suspected that audiences would respond. “After the success of Smokey, Burt and I were at liberty to do anything we wanted to do,” he recalled.

When Warner Bros. came knocking, Needham proposed Hooper, and another box-office hit was born. The film was the first to take an in-depth look at the stunt culture, albeit in a humorous way, and was packed with “any stunt I could dream up,” Needham said, adding that the project truly was a dream come true.

“There was that other film called The Stunt Man, but it was different,” he said. “A guy stumbles onto a Hollywood movie set and suddenly becomes a stuntman? Please. That could never happen. That was pure fantasy.”

Needham and Reynolds worked together again on The Cannonball Run (1981) — Needham and screenwriter Brock Yates had participated in the actual coast-to-coast Cannonball Run — and the 1984 sequel, as well as the 1983 NASCAR comedy Stroker Ace.

Some critics took Needham to task for incessant product placement in his films and for playing outtakes and bloopers over the end credits of his films. Now, both practices are commonplace.

Needham never was a critic’s darling, but since he made his films for audiences and not critics, he laughed all the way to the bank — literally. After the opening of Smokey and the Bandit II in 1980, Needham took out trade-paper ads quoting the film’s negative reviews as well as its record-breaking opening-weekend gross, with a photo of Needham lounging on a wheelbarrow filled with cash.

Needham’s zest for adventure extended beyond his film work.

He broke the sound barrier both in the air and on the ground, the latter achieved by the Budweiser Rocket Car, which he financed the development of. A lifelong fan of NASCAR, in the 1980s he started his own successful race team (the Skoal Bandit team), which was the very first team to utilize in-car telemetry technology.

“When I sold my team, I got out of NASCAR entirely,” he said, “but I’m still a great fan. When the weekend comes around, the wife prints out the race schedule for me because she knows I’ll be watching TV all day long — and she’s right!” Occasionally there are inquiries and requests for him to direct again, but too often the project has no stars attached or a budget Needham doesn’t think is workable. “I’m too old and too rich,” he quipped. “If something came up that I’d really like to do, I might do it — but nothing’s really come up.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Needham does not think that stunt artists are entitled to their own Academy Award category, an idea that has long been debated.

“Nope,” he said. “I think that a stuntman is paid to do the stunt and that’s it. People didn’t pay to see me doubling Burt Reynolds, they paid to see Burt Reynolds in action. I was quite happy to just do the stunt, get paid, and go home. I know it’s been an issue for years, and it’s not like I don’t respect those people [who support an Oscar] — some of whom I know well — but I’m not a big believer.” There were three Smokey and the Bandit films, although Needham only directed the first two. In 1994, he wrote and directed a series of made-for-TV spin-offs that recounted the adventures of the younger Bandit, played by Brian Bloom. He enjoyed making them, but admits it’s tough to recapture the magic of the original. From time to time, people have asked if he’ll make another one.

“When you try to do a sequel to a film that I think is pretty darned good, but it doesn’t have the same cast and doesn’t have the same people involved, it doesn’t work. You fall flat on your face.”

And as a stuntman, Needham joked that he’s fallen enough times on his face in his career.

Paul Schneider

(2012 Emerging Artist Award Recipient)

Paul Schneider, the recipient of the Emerging Artist Award at this year’s RiverRun International Film Festival, earned his degree in editing from the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in 1998, but given his rise to prominence as an actor, he’s not had much use for it.

Schneider will be presented with the award on April 21 in the Babcock Theatre in the ACE Exhibition Complex on the UNCSA campus, following a screening of the 2009 biographical drama Bright Star, adapted from Andrew Motion’s book Keats by screenwriter/director Jane Campion.

It was after seeing Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano in 1994 that Schneider decided on a career in film, and Bright Star remains for him a personal and professional highlight.

“Some days I was terrified and other days I was exhilarated,” he recalled. “The workload was so challenging, but people I worked with were so great. We were a small group, and we all stayed at this beautiful place in London.”

A native of Asheville, Schneider made his feature acting debut in fellow UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), filmed in Winston-Salem, then reunited with Green for the bittersweet romantic comedy All the Real Girls (2003), co-starring Zooey Deschanel.

Subsequent roles included Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2005), playing opposite Brad Pitt and Oscar nominee Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Lars and the Real Girl (also ’07), Sam Mendes’ Away We Go (2009), the 2011 adaptation of the best-seller Water for Elephants and opposite Christian Bale in Zhang Yimou’s controversial The Flowers of War (also ’11).

In only a few short years, Schneider has worked with several notable directors, which he confirmed can be an incentive. Even more so, he said, “The most important thing is reading the script and if I can envision myself being part of it. When I read something, I wonder: ‘Can I make a contribution or not?’” Schneider is an actor who thrives on the challenge. “I think I really excel when the challenge is great,” he observed. “My brain is so rapacious and persistent — and not always in a good way. When all my pistons aren’t firing, that one errant piston can cause trouble.”

Regarding his selection as this year’s Emerging Artist recipient, he chuckled. “I think my usual response to stuff like that is, obviously, I’m flattered. Part of me doesn’t understand it, but I’ll go with it!” A recent challenge that Schneider tackled was in writer/director Christopher Honore’s Beloved (original title: Les bien-aimes), co-starring Ludvine Sagnier, filmmaker Milos Forman, Catherine Deneuve and her real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. For one thing, Schneider was the only American in the cast. For another, the film is a musical — Schneider’s first.

“That was definitely interesting,” he said. “I had to speak in French and I don’t speak French, and I guess I can sort of sing… it was fascinating.”

Some observers were surprised when Schneider joined the regular cast of the prime-time NBC situation comedy “Parks and Recreation,” an experience that unfortunately didn’t work as well as either Schneider or the producers had hoped.

“I signed on for a certain character,” he said, but the reaction of test audiences compelled the producers to alter the character. In doing so, Schneider found himself relegated mostly to the back ground, bereft of the challenges he relishes. After two seasons, he and the producers came to a decision.

“We kind of mutually said ‘This isn’t working,’” he said. Chalk it up to experience, and certainly Schneider’s memories of “Parks and Recreation” aren’t all bad. “Nick Offerman’s become a good friend, and I couldn’t be happier for his success,” he said. “He’s a great guy — just a super, super guy.”

Schneider hasn’t turned his back on the small screen, either. He recently completed a recurring role on HBO’s upcoming drama series “The Newsroom,” created by Aaron Sorkin and produced by Scott Rudin, which also stars Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer. Schneider describes the series as “‘The West Wing’ on CNN,” and admitted the project’s pedigree was too good to pass up.

Although he’s made a number of studio films, Schneider tends to gravitate toward the independent film world, even if those films aren’t as widely seen and, as he noted, “tend to get squashed out.

“The landscape is changing so much,” he observed. “Supply and demand doesn’t work anymore. Once suppliers manipulate the demand, then what? What could right the ship, in my opinion, is to [more aggressively] market these films. Nobody’s telling the kids to try ‘em out.”

In 2008, Schneider made his feature directorial debut with the comedy Pretty Bird, starring Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti, which he co-wrote with fellow UNCSA graduate Zene Baker. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was yet another challenge that Schneider eagerly took on.

“Directing and storytelling came easier to me than I thought, and dealing with actors is really easy,” he said. “The actual physical production was pretty difficult, but I want to do it again.”

NATE MEYER

(SEE GIRL RUN)

There’s an abundance of films at the 2012 RiverRun International Film Festival that balance comedy with drama, including Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm and Martha Stephens’ Pilgrim Song.

You can add writer/director/UNCSA alumnus Nate Meyer’s See Girl Run to the list. What initially appears to be a prototypical romantic comedy, in which unhappily

married Robin Tunney reconnects with her high-school flame Adam Scott, undoubtedly has its humorous moments but also some surprisingly dramatic ones, as Tunney’s character Emmie comes to grips with her life — and not always painlessly.

The film also stars Josh Hamilton as Emmie’s husband Graham, left behind in New York; Adam Strong as Emmie’s alcoholic brother Brandon; and William Sadler and Maureen Butler as Emmie and Brandon’s parents, whose relationship isn’t what it appears on the surface. Meyer couldn’t be more pleased with his cast.

“There are better-known actors, but for almost every role I can’t imagine anyone better,” he said. “They felt something about the story, they responded to it. I was very fortunate.”

One of the most difficult roles to cast was that of the father, Marty. Meyer met with several actors — “some of very well known,” he noted — but couldn’t quite land his Marty. It got to the point, he admitted, that the clock was ticking and he considered rewriting the role. Then one of his producers suggested Sadler.

“I said, Tthe bad guy from Die Hard 2’?” Meyer recalled with a laugh. “I’d seen him in other films like The Shawshank Redemption, so I knew he was versatile. He’s just authentic, and that comes across. When he read the dialogue aloud, I was so relieved because I knew he was it. He was a joy. He just made that character. I would work with him again any time.”

Balancing the story’s dramatic and comedic elements was important to Meyer. “There’s a temptation to promote and distribute it as a romantic comedy, but it works against a lot of the conventions. It’s a romantic comedy/romantic drama. I wanted to tweak what audiences might expect it to be.”

Given the dual tone of the story, Meyer tended not to encourage improvisation among his cast. “Something like this has very strong themes I had in mind, within the context and understanding of the story. Now I absolutely want lots of ideas from the actors. We talked about a lot of things, and they brought a lot of ideas to it.

“I love this film,” he laughed. “I certainly don’t expect everybody to love it as much as I do, but the essence of why I wanted to make this movie is all there. It’s the story I wanted to tell, told the way I wanted to.”

Meyer graduated from the School of Filmmaking in 1998, one of the first graduating classes. At that time, he said, the school was still finding its identity. Admitting that his senior film was far from his best work — “I wish no one could see it,” he quipped — it did have the desired effect an important learning experience. “I learned how not to make a movie and how I don’t want to make a movie,” he said, noting that he wasn’t prepared to deal with the compromises inherent in filmmaking, even student films. “Don’t go on the set and expect that things will simply work out by themselves, because they won’t.”

His years at UNCSA taught him “to be always working,” he said. “Don’t wait for anyone to ask you. Always be doing. It’s not going to magically happen. That was one of the real benefits of the school: It has great resources. We were a band of like-minded students. We lived and breathed production non-stop.”

MARTHA STEPHENS

(PILGRIM SONG)

Pilgrim Song, the second feature film from UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Martha Stephens, is about a man on a long walk. Having been laid off from a teaching job, uncertain of his relationship, and with time on his hands, James (Timothy Morris) decides to hike Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail by himself. The people he meets and the experiences he has just might be the catalyst for James to find new meaning in his life. Or they might not.

“It’s not easy to sell,” Stephens said.

“People keep calling it a drama, but you can’t really wrap it up in a neat little package. It doesn’t really fit one convention” — and that was her intent all along.

The film’s low-key, naturalistic tone has fooled some viewers. “A lot of people ask me if there was a script,” Stephens said wryly. “Yes, there was a script. The dialogue was written. It wasn’t improvised.”

Actually, “I don’t necessarily like [improvisation],” she said, and it seemed antithetical for a film that balances comedy with drama. “I’m a little old-school in that I love writing dialogue.”

Pilgrim Song is inspired in part by Stephens’ own experiences. Having grown up in Kentucky, she was familiar with both the landscape and the behavior. She too had been laid off from a teaching position and found herself at loose ends — so she decided to make a movie about it.

Is Stephens pleased with the result?

“Yeah, I think so,” she said. “You’re never going to get exactly what you envisioned. Whatever you’ve painted in your mind is never quite exactly what you end up with.”

In addition, “I was trained to write short films, so it was daunting to write a script about one person.”

She turned to her friend, long-time collaborator and fellow UNCSA graduate Karrie Crouse, who co-wrote the script and co-stars as James’ neglected girlfriend, Joan. Crouse has appeared in every one of Stephens’ movies, dating back to their student days. “She’s been my muse for nine years now,” laughed Stephens. “We’re really, really good friends… she’s a fantastic writer. She understands structure better than I do. She really brought [the story] out.”

Landing her leading man proved easy. “I had seen Timothy Morris play sidekicks and comic-relief characters in some indie movies and I wondered what he could do with a lead — so I wrote this with him in mind.”

James isn’t a bad guy but sometomes a misguided and misanthropic one. “He’s a jerk — but a lovable jerk — and lovable jerks have their place in film,” said Stephens, noting that Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray have played their share to great success.

Since graduating UNCSA in 2006, Stephens has periodically returned to Winston- Salem. Her first feature, Passenger Pigeons (2010), was screened at a previous RiverRun festival, and she’s been a guest artist at the School of Filmmaking.

The school, she said, “gave me a great group of friends to work with. It trains you to make movies like a little, miniature studio.”

Actually, she said, that’s all well and good if your intention is to make studio films, but Stephens tends to favor a more guerrilla style of filmmaking, which was taught during her second year and truly inspired her. “I prefer working with small crews, on a very intimate basis,” she said. “On our films, I’m the key grip. The sound/boom guy? That’s me.”

These are busy days for Stephens. During the week, she teaches. On weekends, she’s been taking the film to festivals across the country. Columbia, SC and Baltimore are on the agenda, with more likely to follow. Then it’s back to work on Monday, “so it’s been a little hectic,” she said, but she’s not complaining.

Currently, Stephens is working (again with Crouse) on a project called Papaw Easy — her third film beginning with the letter P. Intentional or not?

“I don’t know,” she laughed. “I don’t think so. It’s accidental.”

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