“You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand.”
The other day I saw Mr. Bill in a commercial and I realized I hadn’t seen him in many years. That took me back and I somehow I ended up looking at screenwriters from Louisiana because that’s where Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams is from and now lives.
The New Orleans native discovered Super-8 film when he was 17 years old. According to the Mr. Bill website he began making comedy films that were shown in local clubs and bars and he ended up with his own UHF TV show.
In the pre-You Tube days of 1975 Saturday Night Live put out a call for home movies and Mr. Bill debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and ran until 1980. (Williams was eventually hired by Lorne Michaels as a staff writer.) The years ’76-80 were the early golden years of the program with a cast that included Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and John Belushi.
Mr. Bill and his supporting cast Mr. Hands and Sluggo were quite an inspiration to me in those years because they were my high school years. One of my first films in Annye Refoe’s creative writing class featured my version of Mr. Bill. I don’t remember the story line but I do recall the obligatory destruction scene where Mr. Bill is standing in front of the door as the entire class leaves for the day flattening Mr. Bill. “Ohh, nooo!!! (My art teacher mom had to make a few Mr. Bill’s for the stunts.)
It was that class that set me on course for film school and an over 20 year career in production. Looking back on the years ’76-80 there was an eclectic mix of inspiration for a young creative mind: Star Wars (77), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (77), David Lynch’s Elephant Man (80), Rocky (76), Raging Bull (80), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (77), Saturday Night Fever (77), Grease (78), Animal House (78), Apocalypse Now (78) Kramer Vs. Kramer (79), Norma Rae (79), …And Justice for All (79), Breaking Away (79), Halloween (78), Being There (79), The Great Santini (79), Silent Movie (76), Silver Streak (76), Heaven Can Wait (78), Mad Max (79) along with those movies I probably saw at the now defunct Prairie Lake Drive-In Theater–Smokey and the Bandit (77), Up in Smoke (78) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (77).
Mr. Bill is an American icon from the 70s and it’s nice to see him (and Williams) kicking around 28 years later. Williams has not only directed Mr. Bill in spots for Lexus, Burger King and Ramada Inn but in non-profit efforts to help restore the wetlands in New Orleans.
In 1978 there was a 15 year-old over in Baton Rogue, Louisiana who began to make animation and short narrative films (perhaps inspired by Mr. Bill’s success) who would go to make his mark in 1989 writing and directing and shooting sex, lies, and videotape. (Winner of the Palm d’Or at the ’89 Cannes Film Festival some credit the film with starting the modern day independent film movement.)
Steven Soderbergh went on to win an Oscar for best director for Traffic (2000). (That same year his Erin Brockovich was also nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. That’s called having a great year.)
Soderbergh has done an amazing job of making big budget features with actors as such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and then turning around and making a DV feature like Bubble with amateur actors in Ohio and West Virginia. (Though from what I’ve read, it’s not a favorable outlook on small town America.) His next two films, Guerrilla & The Argentine (on Che Guevara) were shot with the new revolutionary RED camera which shoots digitally –no film or tape. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic to make a film on a Marxist leader with a camera called Red?)
Now that I think about it, do we really need two more films on Che Guevara? From a guy who was executive producer on Syriana? (Justifiably cynical at best, anti-American at worse.) It’s good to be reminded in film critic Andrew Sarris’ review of Syriana that despite this countries problems, “ The world is too full of people who’d kill us (Americans) for the shoes on our feet.”
We need counter-cultural writers and filmmakers who challenge us (even our capitalistic & materialistic faults that helped bring on the mortgage crisis), but do we need to make socialist, marxist, communist, dictators, and/or terrorist our heroes? (And I’d bet that there are more than one pro-Taliban scripts floating around Hollywood.) But I do look forward to seeing what the RED camera footage looks like on the big screen and I’m sure Benicio Del Toro performance as Guevara will be worthy and increase sales of Che Guevara t-shirts.
Politics aside, Soderbergh is also unusual in that he is the director of photography on most of his films, and sometimes the editor as well. I think he and multiple creative hat wearer Robert Rodriguez will be the inspiration and model for filmmakers of the future.
Anne Rice, novelist and screenwriter of Interview with the Vampire, was born in New Orleans which is where many of her stories take place. Novelist and essay writer Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Second Coming) spent his last forty plus years in Covington and most of his stories take place in Louisiana.
Ernest J. Gaines whose A Lesson Before Dying was nominated a Pulitzer Prize and made into a TV movie is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafaytte.
Other well-known writers with a Louisiana connection are Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Stephen Ambrose (writer of Band of Brothers and consultant on Saving Private Ryan), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).
John Kennedy Toole after years of publishers rejection won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize A Confederacy of Dunces over a decade after committing suicide. Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) was born in New Orleans but belongs more to Alabama where he grew-up.
On the production side, Louisiana has been aggressive over the years in making movies in the state:
The Big Easy
Dead Man Walking
The Cincinnati Kid
Live and Let Die
All the Kings Men
Even Shreveport is getting into the action according to an USA Today article last month titled “Hooray for movie locations outside Hollywood.” According to writer Alexandyr Kent, Shreveport has attracted “at least 18 projects in 2008, totaling more than $200 million in production budgets, and more than 80% of that will likely be spent in Louisiana.”
Shreveport is where Katie Holmes filmed Mad Money and where Josh Brolin was arrested in an incident outside a bar in July while there for filming Oliver Stone’s W. (No, Stone didn’t use a RED camera.)
To learn more about the film industry in Louisiana contact the Louisiana Film & Television Office of Entertainment Industry Development and Louisiana Movies Blog.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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