Sunday, November 21, 2010


Stardust and The Bandit, the western-themed comedy pilot recently shot at the historic Old Tucson Studios, was co-written and co-directed by Dick Fisher and Sarah Sher. Its broad comedy and western background is quite a departure from the very Eastern movie Fisher made his reputation with: he produced, photographed and edited The Brothers McMullen. That film, about three Irish brothers in New York, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and was a career-maker for both Fisher and writer/director/star Edward Burns. “It was actually Fox Searchlight’s first release, when they started that specialty division at Fox. They’ve just done a magnificent job in marketing it (over the years). I’m hoping they’ll be having a Blu-Ray re-release of it.”

But Fisher started out not in independent features, but on local news in Utica, New York. “Upstate was beautiful. I went to visit my sister, who went to Hamilton College, in Clinton, and I just fell in love with the area. I was an undergraduate, working in construction, building the world’s largest brewery. One day, driving along, I just pulled off the highway at the Newhouse School and said, ‘What do I have to do here to get a Masters degree, because I’m on the wrong track, and I really want to be a filmmaker.’ I got a Masters Degree there, and through connections I had in Syracuse, I got a job at the local television station in Utica in 1978, shooting newsreels. You’d come to work, they’d give you a 400’ can of 16mm film (about ten minutes worth), you’d shoot a few stories, and they had a (film) processor in a garage by the television station. And I got to process my own film, edit my own film, and put it on the air. It was a fantastic experience with the full range of work in film.”

After several years there, he moved to New York City, started his own production company, Technical Services, and began working in the burgeoning tabloid TV field as a location cameraman. Over the next several years, his many clients included HARD COPY, CURRENT AFFAIR, LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS, P.M. MAGAZINE, and ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. “Entertainment Tonight was one of my early clients, and Ed Burns was my production assistant -- that’s how we got to know each other. And we discovered that we both had a love for film, and an ambition to make film. He engaged me to shoot an earlier film he’d written, called Brandy, and we had a great time, but we couldn’t sell it. So we decided to do it again – we had a very specific idea of why we couldn’t sell it, and how go make a film that we could sell.”

The result was The Brothers McMullen. Unless it’s a one-man movie, it’s unusual for one person to be both cinematographer and editor on a feature. And it’s just about unheard of for someone to be producer as well – generally producers are not at all technical. “Photography is my first love, cinematography, but the fact that I understand editing has certainly made me a very effective cinematographer. Because no matter how beautiful a shot is, if it doesn’t cut into your sequence, you’re just spinning your wheels.

“Working on those (tabloid) shows -- shooting every day, for years and years -- gives you a level of professionalism, gives you the chops to be able to shoot something that’s going to be acceptable to distributers. And it gave me the level of success that allowed me to work on independent films, because I was prepared to finance them. Steven Spielberg, working with his parents’ 8MM camera probably did a great job, but you couldn’t sell them. (It’s not like) now, when you have films like Paranormal Activity – with equipment like the DSLR cameras -- where you can create high definition, high quality images (for so little money). Blair Witch is another example – until Blair Witch, The Brothers McMullen was the most profitable independent – not highest gross, but most profitable. Our delivery cost was between four hundred and five hundred thousand, and they made fourteen or fifteen million in domestic gross. But the Blair Witch people don’t have the same happy story that Eddy and I do. We own The Brothers McMullen and share the profits with Fox Searchlight, and it’s still making money. Blair Witch grossed over a hundred million at the box office, but the guy who made it certainly didn’t get any fraction of that.”

What brought him from New York to Arizona in the mid-90s was an ailing relative, and the conviction that, with his track record as a writer and producer, he could live and work anywhere. And he was looking forward to working there, “…because I was aware of the incredibly rich history of filming in Tucson.” Built in 1939 for Arizona, Old Tucson Studios had been the location of over 300 movie and TV shoots, including Broken Arrow (1950), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), Peckinpah’s first -- The Deadly Companions (1961), Joe Kidd (1972), Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Tom Horn (1980), Tombstone (1993), and a slew of John WaynesRio Bravo (1959), McClintock (1963), El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970). What Fisher could not anticipate was that in 1995, an arson fire would devastate the studio, destroying sets, the soundstage, and all of the costumes and props for Little House on the Prairie. Most of the destroyed sets were re-built, but, “…they decided not to rebuild their soundstage. At the same time, the American dollar was strong and the Canadian dollar was weak, and Canada came up with the brilliant plan of tax rebates, which moved so much of the work to Canada.

“Losing the soundstage really killed the film business in Tucson, and Arizona in general. New Mexico started giving no-interest loans to stimulate the film business, but Arizona never got their act together about joining that party. Old Tucson’s (situation) is unusual. It’s inside a County Park, which is good, because it means that the vistas in all directions are protected from development: when you’re in the town square, you point the camera in any direction and you see mountains and deserts, you don’t seen houses and buildings. The downside of that for investors is you cannot buy the land – you can only lease it for however many years. So people were reluctant to make a large investment in a new soundstage. The people that own it now have not developed it as an active studio. It’s sort of a roadside attraction.

“A little over a year ago, Sarah Sher said to me, ‘I’m sick of complaining that we don’t have work. Let’s do something. Let’s make a television pilot that has several purposes, one of which is to demonstrate to the world what a great motion picture location this is. To show people that we have the talent here in Tucson to make motion pictures and television. And maybe inspire somebody to spend some money and make another soundstage here and get some work.’”

“If nothing else, I’m pragmatic, so we decided to get the most out of what already exists at Old Tucson. (We wrote) a fish out of water story: an accountant for the mob (Scott Thomas) is put into the Witness Protection Program, and the job that they give him is bookkeeper at Old Tucson, as it exists now – a roadside attraction. He’s a ‘Mr. Bean’ sort of character, in a suit with glasses and a briefcase, supposed to work in a back room, keep his head down. Then, when a performer in their stunt show gets dragged away by a horse, a beautiful chorus line dancer (Shanna Brock) pulls him up on stage; they put him into a cowboy outfit – he ends up being in the show. And of course the mobster he’s supposed to testify against shows up with his family on vacation.

“We wrote the script, and Pete Mangelsdorf, CEO at Old Tucson, liked it, and he signed on as executive producer, and Old Tucson Studios itself as a co-producer. Everyone in the film community jumped on, worked for deferred pay, and we were able to use everything they have at Old Tucson – the stunt performers, the locations. They fed us and picked up the insurance, and did all of the technical things you need even if you’re making a no-budget production. I have the credentials, if you will, for making a successful no-budget production.

“We shot for two weeks and this was just the most fun I’ve had on a set. When we got to the last shot of the last day, I called ‘cut! Any problems?’ And the crew said, ‘Let’s not stop! Let’s do more!’ They all wanted to keep working. Even working deferred it was a joy, just so much fun to be out there, working at Old Tucson – to be directing a Western at Old Tucson – the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck at times just thinking, now I’m part of the history. I’m an Eastern guy, I was born in Brooklyn. But what American boy is not in some way affected by the cowboys? Being an American, for better or worse, there’s the poetry of being a cowboy. If it’s not in our DNA, it’s in our rearing: we’re all cowboys.

“We’re just finishing the rough-cut now, and we have a few technical sound issues, and I want to get some music written. And we’re looking to get it into the marketplace and have people get interested in it.

“And of course, what we would like -- the genesis of the whole idea -- would be to have this create something like HIGH CHAPARRAL, one of the shows that was really part of the fabric of Tucson before. We want to weave ourselves back into the fabric of filmmaking in Southern Arizona, and hopefully that’s what we’ll be able to do.”

Meanwhile, Dick’s next assignment is very different. “I was just engaged to be director of photography on a project that’s being financed and filmed up on the Gila River Indian Community. It’s written and directed by a Native American up there. It’s a contemporary coming-of-age (story) called Second Circle, about a young Indian who has to deal with the gang-bangers and the taggers and drug dealers, and whether he can live more to the traditional ideals of his community, or whether he’ll get drawn to that dark side of American society. It’s a very interesting script. The Gila River tribe runs one of the casinos up there, and the producer, Tony Estrada, who is a Navajo, pitched to them the idea that they would create and own this film, but at the same time have this training (program) for the film industry, for their community members.”

To learn more about Stardust and The Bandit, visit their Facebook page HERE.


CLICK HERE to check it out! The Jon Favreau - directed Sci-Fi Western, starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde is set for a July 29th, 2011 release.


At the star-studded 25th Annual Gemini Awards, the Canadian Oscars, the documentary Reel Injun, see my review HERE, won three awards. The entertaining and informative look at the Indian’s image in Hollywood westerns won Best Direction For a Documentary, Best Visual Research, and the prestigious Canada Award, which recognizes work that explores racial and cultural diversity in Canada. To learn when and where you can see this film, visit the official website HERE.


Doing some much-needed office cleaning I came upon a set of cards which my father gave me more than thirty years ago. These are cigarette insert cards, the forerunner of bubble-gum cards, and measure 1 ½” by 2 ¾ ”. They are the ‘Celebrated American Indian Chiefs’ collection, from Allen & Ginter of Richmond, Virginia, and if my on-line research is correct, they date from 1888. The cards are so beautiful that I’ve decided to share the fifty-card set with the Round-up readers, two at a time. I hope you enjoy them.


Sources disagree by ten days, but either last Tuesday the 16th or next Friday the 26th would be the birthday of Ruth Woodman. Born in New York State in 1894, the Vassar graduate, mother of two and wife of an investment banker, was a copywriter for an advertising agency when, in 1930, she was asked to create a radio show for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The result was the fact-and-folklore-based anthology series, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, which ran on radio from 1930 until 1945. It then moved to television, and ran from 1952 to 1975, producing 558 TV episodes. Woodman wrote the entire first five TV seasons herself, adapting her radio scripts.

Woodman frequently visited Death Valley for inspiration, and on her first trip there ran into Death Valley Scotty. She contributed to other TV series as well, and wrote one feature, Last of The Pony Riders (1953) for Gene Autry. She served as story editor her retirement in 1959, but still contributed scripts until her death in 1970, at the age of 75. You can find every single episode of the TV series for sale if you search on-line. I suspect they’re bootlegs, but I’m no lawman. If you’d like to listen to a couple of the radio shows, CLICK HERE.


I was happy to receive some positive feedback about my criticism last week of the Directors Guild of America’s decision, a decade ago, to strip Griffith’s name from an award because of the racially offensive Birth of a Nation – for details, see last week’s entry. To my surprise, I learned there is an on-line petition to get his name put back on. I don’t know anything about who is running the campaign, but if you’re interested in learning more, and signing the petition, CLICK HERE. For those who would like to see some of Griffith’s work, on Monday, November 29th, the Academy will present GRIFFITH IN CALIFORNIA – HOLLYWOOD’S EARLIEST FILMS FROM A CENTURY AGO at the Linwood Dunn Theatre. The bad news is that the show is sold out, but the good news is that there are always some no-shows, and people who show up early usually get in. For more details, CLICK HERE.


Built by cowboy actor, singer, baseball and TV entrepeneur Gene Autry, and designed by the Disney Imagineering team, the Autry is a world-class museum housing a fascinating collection of items related to the fact, fiction, film, history and art of the American West. In addition to their permenant galleries (to which new items are frequently added), they have temporary shows. The Autry has many special programs every week -- sometimes several in a day. To check their daily calendar, CLICK HERE. And they always have gold panning for kids every weekend. For directions, hours, admission prices, and all other information, CLICK HERE.


On this day, and the third Sunday of every month, Los Encinos State Historic Park, located at 16756 Moorpark St. in Encino,91436, has a Living History Day. From one to three p.m. enjoy music, period crafts, a blacksmith, docents in 1870s attire, tours of the historic buildings, and traditional children’s games.


Across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, this building, once the headquarters of Lasky-Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) was the original DeMille Barn, where Cecil B. DeMille made the first Hollywood western, The Squaw Man. They have a permanent display of movie props, documents and other items related to early, especially silent, film production. They also have occasional special programs. 2100 Highland Ave., L.A. CA 323-874-2276. Thursday – Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. $5 for adults, $3 for senior, $1 for children.


This small but entertaining museum gives a detailed history of Wells Fargo when the name suggested stage-coaches rather than ATMS. There’s a historically accurate reproduction of an agent’s office, an original Concord Coach, and other historical displays. Open Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Admission is free. 213-253-7166. 333 S. Grand Street, L.A. CA.


A staggering number of western TV episodes and movies are available, entirely free, for viewing on your computer at HULU. You do have to sit through the commercials, but that seems like a small price to pay. The series available -- often several entire seasons to choose from -- include THE RIFLEMAN, THE CISCO KID, THE LONE RANGER, BAT MASTERSON, THE BIG VALLEY, ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, and one I missed from 2003 called PEACEMAKERS starring Tom Berenger. Because they are linked up with the TV LAND website, you can also see BONANZA and GUNSMOKE episodes, but only the ones that are running on the network that week.

The features include a dozen Zane Grey adaptations, and many or most of the others are public domain features. To visit HULU on their western page, CLICK HERE.


Every weekday, TV LAND airs a three-hour block of BONANZA episodes from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. They run a GUNSMOKE Monday through Thursday at 10:00 a.m., and on Friday they show two, from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m.. They're not currently running either series on weekends, but that could change at any time.


Check out your cable system for WHT, which stands for World Harvest Television. It's a religious network that runs a lot of good western programming. Your times may vary, depending on where you live, but weekdays in Los Angeles they run DANIEL BOONE at 1:00 p.m., and two episodes of THE RIFLEMAN from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.. On Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. it's THE RIFLEMAN again, followed at 2:30 by BAT MASTERSON. And unlike many stations in the re-run business, they run the shows in the original airing order. There's an afternoon movie on weekdays at noon, often a western, and they show western films on the weekend, but the schedule is sporadic.

Keep those e-mails and cimments comin', and have a great Thanksgiving!

Adios, Pilgrim


All Contents Copyright November 2010 by Henry C Parke -- All Rights Reserved

1 comment: