Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley. These are just a few of the legendary artists that have recorded at RCA Studio B in Nashville. I grew up listening to Chet Atkins, and became an Elvis fan in my teens. So, when “American Reel” co-writer and music producer Thom Bishop told me he had booked studio time for David and his band to record the soundtrack for the movie at the legendary RCA Studio B, I was floored. Not only was I working with a Hollywood legend, David Carradine, but the tie to the music industry’s legends of the legends put me into a cloud spin. I would sit in my office late at night and listen over and over again to the demos that Thom had sent me on cassette, demos of “American Reel” and other songs written and performed by Thom that would soon be our soundtrack for our film. It was going to be glorious. Or so I thought.
“What is this?” I asked David as he popped a cassette labeled “American Reel” into the tape player of the rental car as we picked him up from the airport. He had just flown in from Nashville, where they had spent the week recording the film’s soundtrack.
“This is it! This is American Reel!” he replied as he turned up the volume.
Bear in mind, I had spent months in preparation for this film, listening to what I thought was the soundtrack, expecting only that Thom’s vocals on his demo versions would be replaced with David’s. What came out of the speakers was as different from that expectation as night is from day. Instead of the big, peppy, modern country stadium-rock sound that Thom had sent me, I found myself listening to David’s voice yelling out, “Choose yer partner! All join hands for the American Reel!”, followed by a plunky, backwoods sounding guitar, fiddle, drums, bass and piano. Instead of the fast-paced, modern country sound to which I had sculpted my entire, scene-by-scene shot list, I now had a slow moving, old-fashioned country square dance album. I felt like I had been drop-kicked in the groin, and we had to begin photography the next morning – using this song as playback. Literally, the first scene slated for the entire production was David singing the title track – now this title track.
I hated it.
Okay. I didn’t totally hate it, and not because I don’t like old country music, but because it was not what I was promised at all. I was expecting Garth Brooks and instead I got Merle Haggard.
And it’s not even that I don’t like Merle Haggard. It’s that I honestly had been making all of my preparations in expectation of a big, modern country style soundtrack. This wasn’t it.
In the weeks leading up to this, Thom Bishop had told me that his conversations with David had revolved around David’s wanting to write more of the music for the film and not just re-voice tracks that Thom had already written and recorded. I suppose in my youthful ignorance I must have indicated to Thom that I was okay with David putting his personal mark on the music, since I wanted him to embody the character in every way. What I didn’t realize was just how polar opposite Thom’s original score was from what David was planning on recording. And that theme would re-surface many times over the next 3 weeks of working with David – there was always the plan, and then there was what David was planning, and they were usually not the same. It was also the first time that the ugly side of working with David had started to surface. There was always an underlying message (or an unspoken threat, if you will) from him of quitting the film if he didn’t get his way, and he was masterfully adept at pushing all the right buttons to get his way. And this was only the beginning – we hadn’t rolled a single frame of film yet.
“Do you have any idea the music artists I turned down for that lead role in favor of David Carradine?” I asked my 1st AD (Assistant Director) and good friend Guy Camara later that night as we sat in the hotel restaurant, trying to go over our first week’s shooting schedule. As I listed the names off of those I’d been offered for Carradine’s role, a virtual who’s who of popular country music artists of the day, Guy just listened and nodded. I continued my rant. “I stuck up for Carradine! The final decision was mine, and I stuck up for him, and this is what he does to me! What do I do now? We roll film in less than 12 hours!”
Guy and I had been through some production challenges together before, working in the trenches of “In the Company of Men” just 18 months earlier, but this project was at a whole new level for us. He wisely gave me the best advice he could, “We’re all here because we believe in you and in your movie. We’ll help you.” That meant a lot coming from Guy, because he had more directing experience than I did, and I trusted his counsel. He reminded me that he and the rest of the crew were there and ready to make this movie the best it could be, and that the one thing I didn’t have to worry about was any of them letting me down. He was right. I had to move forward. It was time to face the music – literally.
The next morning, we set up and started our production off with a bang. Spirits were high, the shots were beautiful, and somehow I had managed to mask my immense disappointment with the music and improvise my way through the first day’s shot list. At the end of the day, Guy and I re-grouped. “If you hadn’t told me last night, I never would have known this wasn’t the plan all along. I think this film is going to be beautiful,” he said. As we moved through the first week of filming, it was more of the same. Everyone on the crew came together to make it all work, and the excitement grew for the big concert scene to be shot on Saturday – Day 6 of our 18 day shoot schedule. The whole opening sequence of the film had to build upon those scenes we had shot on Day 1, and it had to work big.
The real test was going to come on Saturday, with over 500 extras in the seats of a beautiful 1920’s auditorium, and our star, David Carradine, up on stage performing as James Lee Springer.
But, come Saturday, the real question became: Since David just locked himself in his dressing room and refuses to come out, who’s going to convince him to come out before the producers fire him and shut the film down?
To Be Continued…