Deep in the Art

How In the West Became Deep in the Heart (of Texas)

In the summer of 1985, troupe members of Austin's avant-garde Big State Productions drove to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which had recently commissioned In the American West, a photo exhibition of Westerners by Richard Avedon. Big State director Jim Fritzler was of the mind that the photos would serve as inspiration for what he had planned as a "monologue workshop" for Big State actors, who reacted to the photos with a mixture of anger and disappointment at what they perceived to be a soulless, stark, one-dimensional portrayal of the West and its residents. That reaction in turn became the popular stage play In the West, authored by 21 actors performing five-minute monologues that played on and off, locally and around the state, from the fall of 1985 until 1991, when it was performed at the Kennedy Center for a two-week run. In 1991, Deep in the Heart (of Texas) film director Stephen Purvis, a Marble Falls native, saw the play and was inspired enough by the material to option the script with the plan to make his first feature film based on In the West's monologues. In 1992, initial shooting began for the film's trailer, which Purvis used to raise funds to complete Deep in the Heart (of Texas). In the summer of 1995, filming commenced again over an 18-day period with 22 locations.

C.K. McFarland

Jim Fritzer
photograph by John Anderson

So on Sunday, May 3, 1998, when approximately 10 people gathered for a panel forum at Borders Books & Music to discuss their involvement with the film (which opens in Austin this Friday, May 8 at the Dobie Theatre), there was a sense that things had come full circle for the actors, directors, and writers present. The panelists weren't looking as much to the self-distributed film's future as to its past, to its early incarnation as the popular stage play In the West, and the journey required for In the West to become Deep in the Heart.

With the strong storytelling tradition of the play and film versions of the material, it seemed appropriate to feature Deep in the Heart (of Texas) as oral history. The comments excerpted below have been gleaned from various individual interviews as well as Sunday's panel. Panelists included Southwestern University professor Jim Fritzler, who directed In the West and was production designer for Deep in the Heart; Jesse Sublett, the film's co-screenwriter; Deep in the Heart director Purvis; English actor Kenneth Cranham, who plays the film's newly created protagonist - "BBS" documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty; and several Big State troupers including Sidney Brammer, Aralyn Hughes, Janelle Buchanan, Marco Perella, C.K. McFarland, and Jo Carol Pierce (most of whom are also featured in Deep in the Heart).

Sidney Brammer
photograph by John Anderson

Jesse Sublett
photograph by John Anderson

Stephan Purvis
photograph by John Anderson

Jim Fritzler: I had just moved back from New York again and no one in town was working and everybody was whining, so I put 21 actors together to just do a monologue workshop. It was going to run two nights, one night at a bus stop at St. Ed's and one night at the Elisabet Ney Museum. And it ended up running three and a half years, and touring Texas for two, and eventually went to the Kennedy Center.

But it came as a reaction mainly to seeing Avedon's photos (and if you haven't seen those things, there's always one on display at the Amon Carter) - they're shocking. Every time they put them out there's a fight. They're huge, they're dark, he wouldn't let anyone smile; they were posed for hours in the sun. He wanted to make a very stark look at the West. And what we felt was, "Well, fine, they're gorgeous and they're art and all that, but if you want to say this is a comment on the West, we don't agree. This is our West, this is who we know." So we just basically sat around and told stories about our families' lives, our friends, drew a name out of a hat literally and said, "You're writing the monologue for this person," drew another name and said, "You're directing this person's monologue," and it kept going like that until we had I think 65 monologues that we developed out of the process.

Jo Carol Pierce: We didn't know what the show would be like. Jim was just looking for a project for us to do in the summer; it wasn't really that much about performing. It was a process he came up with whereby we could all stretch.

Fritzler: My whole premise was that this would eventually shut up people. I thought that if they were all put in the position of having the responsibility for directing, acting, designing, they'd eventually figure out they're not good at some of those things. People don't do that. They become producers.

Pierce: There were some really hilarious, hard times, like when we were stuffed in this little apartment complex in Ft. Worth with not a lot to eat, we didn't have much money - all of the (pretty hilarious now) struggles that we all went through dealing with ourselves and with each other about it. It was 21 really quite willful people all trying to drive this big ol' overloaded hay truck down a very narrow road. There were fist fights, I have to tell ya, and people who didn't speak for a year, but I don't think any of that lasted, any of the bad part.

C.K. McFarland: I'd been in New York for a while. It was the first piece I ever wrote in my life. I'd gone in one afternoon to see a Horton Foote film starring Robert Duvall called Tomorrow and I was so blown away by the character he played and the cadence in which he spoke and the character who was coming out of such a seemingly isolated place, and I was so blown away by that that I walked into a coffeehouse and wrote this character [Sayra]. And, you know, it was the first thing I ever wrote.

Sidney Brammer: We took the Texas tall tale and made it into something that was very real and spellbinding. And anybody can do that.

Stephen Purvis: I was working on The Red-Headed Stranger in Austin [in 1991]. I was editing that for Bill Wittliff. I had wanted to do an independent film but at that time I was working as an editor. The guy I was living with came home one night raving about the play, saying it was the best evening he'd ever spent in the theatre and he just went on and on for a couple of hours. And I had kept hearing about it through the years from friends but in the meantime I was on my own path looking for something to do as an independent feature. And I saw Jim Shamus talk (he's a writer-producer who wrote The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm) and he got started by doing no-budget films and one of the things he recommended for a no-budget film was to find a play and adapt it to the screen using the original actors from the play. So after hearing him speak and getting the bug in a big way to do an independent film using the no-budget technique, I then coincidentally saw an article saying that In the West was going to be performed in Austin for the last time at Trinity House before it went to the Kennedy Center.

So I called up Jim Fritzler and he said that the rights were available and he described how they'd had other producers interested in it but because of the 21-author dilemma, it was very tough for anyone to come to terms with all these actors/writers/directors. And that at that point in time they had actually formed a triumvirate of three principals representing the interests of all the authors so that I would only have to deal with three people instead of 21. So I came in and saw the play and decided after the first night that I wanted to do it and saw it again a second night and was even more convinced because I thought it was such a compelling piece of theatre.

Kenneth Cranham: I'd done 11 months on Broadway with a production of a play called An Inspector Calls. And Stephen saw it on Broadway and he got involved with my agent as to casting the two English people - we were both from the same agency.

I'm fascinated with America (a lot of English people are), just as a lot of Americans are fascinated by England. And so it was a chance to come to Texas. And it was done very quickly; it was shot in three weeks.

When you travel, part of what you're doing is hoping to find somewhere that you like and it's very hard for me coming back to Austin, I mean actually returning to it and how fond I am of it, particularly after the experiences of Dallas and Houston. They weren't negative, but there's something of a friendlier scale about this place. You know, it's got the motorway running above it and all the things American cities have, but it's somehow cozier.

Brammer: The development process - it's the same process we went through trying to market our script, our play, 10 years prior to when they went into all these things. The problem is that you say, "Oh, we have a movie based on monologues" or "We have an evening of monologues," which always sounds incredibly dry. We had no stars, none of us were anybody (except we thought we were). We had many high-powered people fly from New York and California to see this play because it got reviewed in Variety in the second year. We were this amorphous group of approximately 20-25 actors coming and going in this group. One of them happened to be Joe Sears - at one point during his Greater Tuna years he took off for a while and did some work with us. He knew someone at Variety. This writer came to Texas, saw the play, was blown away and reviewed it with four stars or whatever you do in Variety and suddenly our phone's ringing off the wall.

The point is that all of those people, really big-time people, who could have said, "Yes, I want to option this, I want to take it to Broadway, I want to take it on a regional tour" or whatever, all at some point stepped back. They saw the material, they loved it, and then went, "You know what? It's not commercial. I can't do it." And we were always bamboozled by this because obviously for us, it had been a tremendous commercial success. It was like our Chorus Line.

Jesse Sublett: Immediately, the question was [in developing the screenplay], okay, these people wrote these things as a response to the In the American West photo exhibit by Richard Avedon and they were reacting to the fact that he had seemingly dehumanized his subjects and just made them into freaks, two-dimensional Western caricatures. And what they were saying was that behind these images are lives and stories, real drama, history, all that stuff. And so that would come out within the monologues. Okay, two things: First thing was, I had to figure out some conceit for these people to be talking to someone because you don't just start telling your life story to just anybody, and especially to a large group of people. And we also had to look at the pieces and decide which ones suggested some sort of scene in which their environment would help explain their story. So with the Coach for example, that's a great setup. You obviously want to shoot that in a locker room with a losing football team.

Marco Perella

Aralyn Hughes
photograph by John Anderson

Marco Perella: I'd done this Coach hundreds of times [in In the West]. I used the audience as the football players and would stare them straight in the eye. But when we decided to shoot it for the film, I talked Stephen into letting me do it cold, as a master shot, you know. I did it without anyone knowing what I would do. I had asked Stephen if I could just do the whole monologue without stopping. You know how film stops, starts, stops, starts. We had kind of a closed room, so I could just bomb in there and Tommy Alcalá, our director of photography, would do the best he could following me and we thought that we'd probably get a lot of it that was useful. And if nothing else, we'd have that original energy of surprising those kids. That's what I wanted to do, was make it fresh for them and for me, you know? Make it as real as possible, like it was really happening. And you don't get a chance to do that very much in film.

But these kids were completely cold, they had no idea what was going on. They had just come off the field where they were practicing; it was the end of their practice at the end of the day. And, you know, they wanted to be in a movie, sure, but they didn't know what the heck was going on. We just said, "Hey, it's half-time, you're losing, the coach is gonna come in here and give you a half-time talk." So I'm sure they expected it to be a little bit similar to what they'd experienced.

Sublett: Each [monologue] had a beginning, middle, and an end. The best of them would really send you through the wringer - first you would laugh at the character and then you'd become sad and realize you finally understood the character. So when we did block out a big collection of these things, it was just exhausting to read because you would be going through all these emotions in each piece. No matter how good they all individually were, they were just too much. We knew we would have to cut some down, and we knew we would have to find some way to make them fit into a movie. Pretty early on we came up with the idea of making it a mockumentary.

At some point, Steve got some feedback that said, "You know, this is great but it's too much of [the monologues]. The director [the newly created character for the film version] really needs a bigger part." And let me say that we really loved the material and we were always trying to interfere with it as little as possible because we knew these people had worked really hard on these pieces, but we realized we'd have to do some of that or there'd be no movie.

The director started having a personality. He was like a fish out of water, a cynical documentary maker. Maybe he was the kind of person who didn't really understand his subjects, he just came and interrupted their lives and made films of them and he would come here and people would see through that and would cut him off.

McFarland: After six years sinking heart and soul into a project you get attached to your own intentions, your own way of seeing things. In order for it to change to film we understood that it had to become cinematic and we understood that it needed to have a through line. And so we were in agreement.... We have a play called In the West and a completely different film called Deep in the Heart (of Texas) that has some of the original spirit of In the West in it.

Fritzler: You hear about the Hollywood producer coming in and taking the material and then you go commit suicide after what he did to it. This wasn't the case; really at every step of the development of the scripts we'd have phone calls - "We're going to do this. What do you think?" "Well I hate it and I'll kill ya." "Okay. We won't do that." There was a lot of back and forth; it isn't what you'd expect. It was really great. So he [Purvis] didn't just take it onto his ego and say, "Hey, we got it, so shut up."

Deep in the Heart (of Texas) opens Friday, May 8 at the Dobie Theatre.

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