I get a call from a new agency in Minneapolis to do a short film for a convention. I had a hard time remembering or pronouncing the name, Fallon, McGilligott, Rice. The client was U.S. West, a telephone company, and the idea was a ‘teaser’ film of cowboys saddling their horses at predawn. I was filming in Europe and stopped in Minneapolis on my way back to L.A. to meet and discuss the project. The art director was Pat Burnham and the writer was Bill Miller, a strange pair, but after working in this business I was used to strange pairs. Pat could be accused of being inarticulate but he actually communicated precisely and with a minimum of dialogue. Actually, he had two grunts, one for ‘yes’ and a longer one for ‘no.’ Bill was completely straight, Midwestern.
The first thing I said was that the idea wasn’t big enough.
‘That’s all the money we have.’
‘Do you have the account?’
‘No, just this assignment.’
‘Don’t you want the account?’
‘Of course. This would be a big thing for us.’
‘Then let’s do something big.’
‘That’s all the money we have.’
‘You already said that.’
I had been filming Busch Beer commercials for a number of years and I was familiar with locations and cowboys. I also knew that the number of convincing cowboy (actors) in Hollywood was limited. I rationalized that I could, for the same budget, shoot something bigger and better if we got away from Los Angeles and not have any pre-pros and clients and other bullshit that drives up costs.
They remained skeptical.
I also suggested shooting in Cinemascope since the piece would be shown in a conventional theater.
They remained skeptical.
I also said I knew a great cowboy that had a great hat.
They looked at me like I was nuts.
‘A great hat?’
‘Cowboys are defined by their hats and boots.’
‘The thing should be realistic. Real cowboys. Real horses.’
“There are horses and there are horses. For example, a cowboy wouldn’t be caught dead on a paint horse.”
‘How do you know that?’
‘Jay Hudson laughed at me when I brought an award-winning paint horse to his ranch.’
‘Who’s Jay Hudson?’
‘He ran the most beautiful ranch in Arizona. When he saw the horse, he burst out laughing, saying the horse didn’t even know how to stand. You don’t forget things like that.’
The thing that was irritating me was that I was trying to do something extremely special and they were busting my chops. We finally decided to meet in Wyoming and film a test. I told them that I’d bring up the cowboy with the great hat. Brian Bjornson meets us at the Teton Visitor Center with his pickup and horses. He gets out of the truck and Pat blurts out, “He’s wearing sneakers!” I just shake my head. It also turns out that Brian’s ‘great hat’ has died. Panic starts to set in with Pat and Bill. Relax, we’ll go into town and have another made, which we do. It has the certain blocking that represents the region where Brian ‘cowboys.’
We film the test against the magnificent Tetons then agree to discuss this after we get the prints and they screen them for their bosses, Fallon(?), McGillicott(?), Rice(?). They have a bit of trouble screening the test in Minneapolis, but eventually get a theater and agree to finish the piece in Cinemascope. No one mentions the (meager) budget, a one-night shoot in L.A.
They have to trust me on just about everything, locations, cast, horses, everything. The wonders of filming with no money. I know all the locations from my experiences, down to the last tree.
Pat and Bill are delightful, as is Judy Brink, the producer. We are to shoot most of the piece in Monument Valley, then drive back to southern Arizona with a select few cowboys as that is their home. Sunrise in Monument Valley is beyond magnificent. I can see why John Ford shot most of his Westerns there. The place is full of history as is the hotel we are staying, Goulding’s. Part of the hotel had been used in some of Ford’s films, especially SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. It was like a great picnic and because we were away from Hollywood we were able to get enormous amounts of work done. The cowboys rode their own horses and worked out the details quickly and authentically. Memories of every John Ford Western flow through me, The CAVALRY TRILOGY, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, and a few Howard Hawks moments from RED RIVER. The thing that amazes me is how the cowboys and their horses are completely as one. We got almost everything done in a single day. We just had to work our way down to southern Arizona to pick up a detail or two.
Pat and Bill also catch fire. Bill keeps writing the voiceover. Pat’s suggestions and observations are brilliant. He is a special person. He understands everything completely. I don’t have to explain the shots, even though I am the only one to see them.
I get back to L.A. and start editing. I want more. I go out again with a few guys but go to Utah, near Moab, to pick up some more stuff that will add scope. My producer reminds me of the budget that has long time been exceeded and by a large margin. I say don’t remind me anymore.
I go out yet again, by myself, to shoot stop-motion landscapes and sunrises. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had (not really but…). I feel like Ansel Adams sitting on a hillside hearing the Arri going, click, click, click.
Bill and Pat come to LA to see a cut. Pat sits in the back of the room. ‘Unnnhhh. Unnnhhh. Unhhhh.’ Positive grunts. I’ve cut the thing to Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. Good luck, music guy. The only thing their composer begs me to do is lock the picture, since he is composing the music on a synthesizer. PLEASE DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING ONCE I START!
Okay. Well, maybe.
By some stroke of good fortune, the agency has gotten the great cowboy actor Ben Johnson to record the narration. There is an issue with his fee and I say, I’ll pay for the difference if they won’t. Actually the story is a bit more complicated but… In the session, Johnson remarks that we got some real cowboys there, a huge compliment since he was a real wrangler before he discovered that he could make more money in Hollywood than in Oklahoma, but that’s another story.
Herb Pilhofer, the agency’s discovery, does a terrific job with the music, ripping off Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen with his synthesizer. Seeing the cinemascope image against the Dolby track legitimizes the technique we settled upon. I have some misgivings, though. I send Marcus Stevens to Vail, Colorado, where the screening will take place, to check everything. He calls me in a panic. The projection system isn’t true Cinemascope but a cheap substitute system that cuts the heads off people and chops the edges from the film. I purposely framed subjects at the extremes of the frame and in many cases the people just disappeared from the screen. Also, they didn’t have a Dolby system, just a cheap difference-signal sound system. There was nothing we could do with the sound, but I had Marcus find a proper lens in Hollywood and substitute it for the inferior one that was at the site. Whew!
I wasn’t invited to the screening but was told it was a success. I didn’t care since I loved the process and knew it was as close as I would ever come to doing a Western. The clients liked the film so much that they gave the television account to the agency. There was never a mention of subsidizing my losses but that’s the way it goes. An irony is they made a whole campaign out of the longer film, cutting several commercials from it, including the scene I had excised from the original film. They actually busted my chops about the editing fees that I charged them to cut the spots. Oh well.
Anyway, the agency became big-time after that. The film won numerous awards, including a special WRANGLER AWARD from the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. It made Ben Johnson proud, as that was his home town.
What’s the moral of the story? Agencies are cheap, selfish, disloyal bastards? No. I did a piece of memorable work that I had control over. The agency made great contributions, Ben Johnson, a great narration. I made a lifelong friend in Pat Burnham. I still think about driving through the West, observing its dwindling natural beauty. A couple of the cowboys remain friends to this day. Anyway, it’s only money.