by Cliff Froehlich on Oct 30, 2020

Originally published in The Riverfront Times, August 1991

Writer and director George Hickenlooper is a child of the ’70s, an acolyte who tends the dying flame, blowing on the decade’s embers, fanning idealism’s fire. To judge by Hickenlooper’s work, the early and mid-’70s — with their open radicalism and intoxicating potential for positive change on both societal and aesthetic levels — continue to inform and shape his worldview.

In his fascinating documentaries, Hearts of Darkness and Picture This, and his new book, Reel Conversations, Hickenlooper returns, almost obsessively, to the ’70s to examine key films and filmmakers of the period — not only to celebrate them but also to mourn their passing and inveigh against the circumstances that killed their seemingly indomitable spirit.

Hickenlooper’s interest in the decade is perhaps partially a product of early environment: Although born here in St. Louis in 1964, he grew up in the heart of the counterculture — the San Francisco Bay Area — during those heady years of seismic political and sociocultural upheaval. “I had a very galvanizing childhood,” he says. “I was taken to anti-war rallies; my mother was involved in guerrilla theater; my dad was a playwright.”

Things calmed a bit when Hickenlooper returned with his divorced father to St. Louis, the city from which his family originally hailed. (The elder Hickenlooper, also George, remains an area resident and is well known among the local theatrical community.) “The move was good,” says Hickenlooper, “because in California, I was going a little too far off the edge. My father sort of gave me into the arms of the nuns, and they got me into shape. Then I went to St. Louis University High, and the Jesuits encouraged me to make films. I was given a lot of academic license — I got away with a lot of stuff — but they knew I was good at that and encouraged me to do my films.”

On graduation in 1982, after first considering the University of Southern California (USC) film school, Hickenlooper opted for a broader liberal-arts education at Yale. While at Yale, although the university had no formal film-studies degree program, Hickenlooper continued his own self-education in moviemaking, directing two films: the 45-minute, 16mm Newark Needs Insurance (which he describes as “a didactic black comedy about nuclear terrorism”) and a feature-length film on video, The Bells of Funicello (“a comedy of manners set around the first few days of freshman year at Yale”).

Determined to enter the film business — his ambition since age 14 — Hickenlooper moved to Los Angeles after earning his degree in 1986. Success was not immediately forthcoming, and he worked for a time at such distinctly unglamorous tasks as cleaning Oriental rugs and waiting tables.

Eventually, however — through bull-headed persistence and chutzpah — Hickenlooper landed his first industry position, as a production assistant (i.e., gofer) for storied exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman. Between shooting stills and making coffee, Hickenlooper wrote a number of spec treatments and scripts — un-commissioned work with no guarantee of payment — for Corman, but he soon “got fed up with” with the company’s B-movie demands. Hickenlooper had written a script about Vietnam, for example, about which the producers enthused, “This is great, it’s got lots of action, but we need some buxom women.” Observing that the film was set in the middle of the jungle, Hickenlooper sarcastically inquired whether they wanted a chorus line of Viet Cong peasant women? “No,” Corman’s people replied, presumably with a straight face. “They gotta be white.”

After a stint at Kinko’s, “photocopying other people’s screenplays while I was trying to write my own,” Hickenlooper next worked as an in-house writer for Image Entertainment, a laser videodisc company. Hickenlooper suggested to Image the possibility of interviewing the directors of the films being released for use on the discs’ packaging. Although the company was skeptical that filmmakers would cooperate, Hickenlooper discovered that the directors “were very open to me.”

This activity indirectly led to his first major professional break, when Hickenlooper sent one of his interviews to the Yale classmate with whom he had collaborated on The Bells of Funicello. Fortuitously, his friend was then temping at an agency and happened to show the interview to the agent for whom he worked. The agent liked what he saw, called Hickenlooper, asked for more interviews, and quickly landed a book deal for what was to become Reel Conversations. Somewhat astonishingly, Hickenlooper had no thoughts of writing a book until that serendipitous moment. As he admits, “It just happened.”

The book, subtitled “Candid Interviews with Film’s Foremost Directors and Critics,” is a collection of 25 focused but surprisingly forthright conversations with such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Francis Coppola, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Roger Ebert, and Wim Wenders. Often contentious, sometimes charming, almost always fascinating, the filmmakers and critics freely discuss their movies and working methods with Hickenlooper as he gently but perceptively probes. There are, however, some curious omissions of major contemporary figures (e.g., Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Jonathan Demme) and even more puzzling inclusions of directors of questionable critical standing (Stanley Kramer and Robert Wise).

The presence of these elder statesmen is particularly odd given Hickenlooper’s organizing thesis for Reel Conversations: that the ’70s represented a “golden age” of filmmaking, the great, thundering crest of the auteurist wave generated by Andrew Sarris — whose interview opens the book — which crashed noisily over America before being controlled by the breakfront established in the ’80s by the agency-packaged blockbuster. Given that perspective, Hickenlooper ignores some key directors of the period, men such as Arthur Penn, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, Alan Pakula, Sidney Lumet, and William Friedkin, who did their best and most compelling work in the ’70s. (Some, of course, may have simply been unwilling to cooperate: Hickenlooper notes that he unsuccessfully attempted to land Stanley Kubrick and Pauline Kael.) Still, if Hickenlooper fails to marshal properly all the available expert witnesses, he builds a convincing and provocative case with his able questioning and introductory essays.

Hickenlooper further explores — and exalts — the films of the ’70s in the two documentaries he made while writing and assembling Reel Conversations. The first to be shot, Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas, was only recently completed, and there remains some negotiation and legal wrangling with Bogdanovich before the movie is actually ready for sale and subsequent distribution (whether through cable broadcast or theatrical release). Hired to direct the film by Timothy Bottoms, star of The Last Picture Show — whom he had met when assembling the videodisc package for Bottoms’ first film, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun — Hickenlooper journeyed to Archer City, Texas, to shoot footage during the making of Picture Show’s sequel, Texasville.

Hickenlooper’s long-standing fascination with The Last Picture Show — he calls it “one of my favorites, one of the top 10 films of all time” — immediately attracted him to the project, but he had little enthusiasm for doing a standard publicity film on Texasville for Nelson Entertainment, the bankroller of both the feature and, at least initially, the documentary. “Nelson Entertainment was sort of nervous about the film,” recalls Hickenlooper. “They wanted it to be the making of Texasville, which I thought was totally uninteresting.” 

Instead, Hickenlooper wanted to focus on the ways in which fiction and fact complexly intertwined in both the writing of Larry McMurtry’s source novels and the making of Bogdanovich’s films. Archer City, whose residents provided the inspiration for McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical books, served as the location for both shoots, and Hickenlooper devotes significant footage to the comments of the town’s bemused, sardonically perceptive, and occasionally angry citizens. Hickenlooper also details the strange ways in which the onscreen emotional trauma of the first film was reflected off camera in the lives of its principal creators: the tension between Bogdanovich and Bottoms, the developing romance between the director and star Cybill Shepherd, and the breakup of his marriage to art director Polly Platt.

Hickenlooper returned to LA with 80 hours of material, but when Texasville’s rough cut played poorly with Nelson Entertainment execs, financing for Picture This was pulled. And when the film later stiffed at the box office, Hickenlooper says, “I guess they all thought that would be the end of my documentary.”

Hickenlooper persisted, however, ponying up his own salary for post-production and raising money from such unusual sources as wealthy Archer City oilmen. But problems continued to mount: Bogdanovich disliked Hickenlooper’s initial cut and insisted on bringing in the director of Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, Chuck Workman, for a new edit. “He put together this cut that was something like on Entertainment Tonight,” Hickenlooper complains. “It was nauseating. I finally just said, ‘This is bullshit. Why is Chuck Workman here? When I’m paying to keep the movie going, why is Bogdanovich telling me how to cut it?’” 

The version of the film that will play at the St. Louis Art Museum is Hickenlooper’s preferred cut, although changes may yet be made to defuse objections by Bogdanovich and Shepherd. Scarcely the hatchet job one might expect given Bogdanovich’s interference, Hickenlooper’s Picture This is an honest but not unsympathetic portrait of the director and a deeply felt appreciation of The Last Picture Show. Although it will appeal principally to film buffs and scholars, the movie also gives real and valuable insight into Archer City’s quirky community while describing the fascinating — and often emotionally taxing — filmmaking process.

The downright harrowing aspects of directing movies is in fact a major theme of Hickenlooper’s next work, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. A documentary on the famously troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness tells an absorbing, highly dramatic story that will involve even those with only a marginal interest in the technical details of moviemaking.

George Zaloom, whose ZM Productions specializes in electronic press kits (EPKs) and film-industry tribute shows, brought Hickenlooper onto the film mid-project because of his impressive work on Picture This. (Fax Bahr, who is credited as co-director, did initial interviews and assemblage of footage before leaving for a writing position on TV’s In Living Color. He consulted with his co-director on a weekly basis.)

Again given the opportunity to re-examine a major film of the ’70s, Hickenlooper significantly altered the direction ZM Productions was taking with Hearts of Darkness. “They were sort of taking a behind-the-scenes approach to it, like their EPKs,” says Hickenlooper. “I said, ‘No, man, this is really bogus, this is really uninteresting. Nobody’s gonna want to see how Apocalypse Now was made 10 years later. All that minutiae, the nuts and bolts of making it, just aren’t interesting 10 years later. So I said, ‘We need an emotional arc here, we need to draw the audience in,’ and I thought the best way to do that was to go to Notes.”

Using Notes, the published diary of Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, about the protracted, emotionally tumultuous, and monetarily draining filming of Apocalypse, Hickenlooper found what he describes as his “narrative thread” — a moving human drama about overcoming aesthetic and financial obstacles to create a personal vision, a legitimate and enduring work of art. Hearts of Darkness combines audio tapes Eleanor secretly made of Francis’ conversations, documentary film she shot, fresh interviews with most of the creative principals (Marlon Brando typically refused), and cut footage from the movie itself to re-create, with extraordinary vividness, the Herculean effort needed to keep Apocalypse Now — and the Coppolas’ lives — together.

There are frustrating moments in the film, information we’re still denied. Apocalypse Now’s original star, Harvey Kietel, was fired shortly after production began and replaced by Martin Sheen. The reasons behind Kietel’s axing are frankly discussed, but because of a threatened lawsuit, we never see the actor’s performance in the role. Generally, however, the movie presents a warts-and-all portrait. “Francis was very candid,” Hickenlooper insists. “Francis never asked us to take anything out. I have a great deal of respect for Coppola. He’s really a man of the people.”

Watching Hearts of Darkness, we also are won over by Coppola, and his film’s already-considerable stature grows with our knowledge. As Hickenlooper himself notes, “I look at Apocalypse Now with a higher regard than I did before, now that I’ve really experienced the kind of financial and emotional hell Francis went through to make it. He is truly one of the last few directors who is an artist, who really cares about the work and totally disregards the money and other circumstances that may have a negative effect on him. I find that really admirable.”

Hickenlooper, regrettably, finds all too little to admire in most of the films made since Apocalypse Now’s release in 1979. As flawed as Texasville is, for example, Hickenlooper says, “I think it was very good relative to the other crap that’s been coming out. I think it could have gotten a better critical reception, better distribution, but that sort of reflects the climate of Hollywood now. Nobody really gives a fuck about character. That may be changing a little bit, but the serious-minded films that are coming out are incredibly clichéd and contrived: Regarding Henry and Dying Young. It’s sophomoric drivel. It’s certainly not like the ’70s.

“It’s getting a lot harder,” he concludes. “I think it’s really grim right now. I think audiences are less tolerant of films that make them think. It’s going to be hard to have another period like the ’70s.”

But that won’t keep Hickenlooper from reminding us of that decade’s rebellious spirit and failed promise — or from trying to recapture it in the films he hopes to make in the ’90s.