Two Guys Walk Into a Bar
Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis drink, dish
On the eve of the pending DVD release (from Watchmaker Films) and Friday night's Alamo Ritz premiere of the restored and remastered The Whole Shootin' Match, the Chronicle hit the murk of Casino el Camino and nailed a beer or three with the two people who remain Pennell's greatest assets: Shootin' Match stars Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis. It's their easy, exquisitely natural performances – also featured in Pennell's '77 short "Hell of a Note" and '83 feature Last Night at the Alamo – that are the binding force in the Eagle Pennell canon. Perryman and Davis, whose 30-year friendship still bleeds the same raw, comic humanity so apparent in their work with Pennell, remain the salt and bedrock of Pennell's finest films. There are, to be sure, a lot of legends and plenty of stories about Pennell and his incrementally roughened life and unfastened times. But the blue-collar Texan truisms of his movies are nowhere more apparent than in Perryman and Davis; ultimately, it's these two who are the stuff Eagle's legend is made of.
Austin Chronicle: Your characters in Pennell's films have such an easy, utterly convincing rapport. Was that there to begin with, or did it emerge as the two of you became friends in real life?
Lou Perryman: He had an ugly-ass mustache when I first met him [on "Hell of a Note"]; I remember that much.
Sonny Carl Davis: The rapport grew, I think, because as remains true with acting to this day, there's a feeling-out period, a "can you trust this guy?" period at the beginning of every film. There's power struggles. It can be a battleground or a lovefest.
AC: Which was it on Eagle's sets?
SCD: Oh, it was a lovefest. And then we got to know Eagle.
LP: Eagle was the difficult one.
SCD: He sure had all the attitude on the set.
AC: What made you think he could pull this whole moviemaking thing off to begin with? After all, there wasn't much of an "Austin film community" to speak of back then.
LP: Well, he was already getting shit done. He had written down his locations, got us a house, got us in over at the Scoot Inn. He just got one thing after another.
SCD: He had help, and Eagle didn't pass along praise that much, bless his heart, but I clearly remember sitting there while doing "Hell of a Note" and thinking, "Well, I guess we're making a film here, and that's pretty cool." In retrospect, the fact that it got done was a miracle, but back in the day, it was just pretty great to be making a movie in Austin in the first place.
LP: And, also, I don't think at the time it seemed real to us, because we had day jobs. I was doing a little company that rented out film equipment. I'd be out shooting football games on Saturday and then do Eagle's films on Sunday.
SCD: I was printing T-shirts for Slow Printing Company on Barton Springs Road. They did all the Amardillo World Headquarters shirts. And then a year later or so, when we were doing The Whole Shootin' Match, I was bartending at Gordo's on Sixth Street, where we shot some of it.
AC: Speaking of which, where was that hellacious bar fight scene in The Whole Shootin' Match actually shot?
SCD: That was at the Scoot Inn. And that place is still a firetrap, isn't it?
LP: They're doing very well these days, actually. But they still got that goddamn one-curtain crapper in the bathroom.
SCD: We were the one-location guys back then. It was the same with the place in Houston when we did Last Night at the Alamo.
AC: What was a typical Eagle Pennell shooting day on The Whole Shootin' Match?
LP: We'd meet over at my house and start running the scene while taping it, then listen to it through to the end, and then we'd try it again with something maybe a little different. Eagle would say this, that, and the other, and then we'd say this, that, and the other, and that's how the dialogue evolved. Early on we had some pages of script and were trying to work from it. On set, we'd block the scene and then go and sit and listen to the tape, so we knew what we were after. It was like we were sharpening a knife.
SCD: He directed from the camera.
LP: Because he was the camera operator.
SCD: Right. I've always talked about how there are directors who work from the stage to the camera and those who work from the camera to the stage, but the best ones can do both while employing the same depth of vocabulary to talk to the actors as the actors do. But that wasn't Eagle's forte, and we certainly weren't getting into acting technique. I've often said that once he cast us and saw what Lou and I were doing and [actress] Doris [Hargrave] came in, his work was done so long as we were hitting our marks. That was his directing style: Get out of the way, and just let the interplay of the actors happen.
LP: We both grin when we read the old ink about, "Oh, the performances he has elicited from Mr. Perryman and Mr. Davis!"
AC: Enough has already been written about Eagle's squandering his talents and his alcoholic tailspin, so let me ask you this: What's the best memory you both have of working with the late, great Eagle Pennell?
SCD: I remember when we got accepted to the U.S./USA Film Festival, which was the predecessor of Sundance. He'd gone next door to get a phone call – I don't think he even had a phone back then – and I can still see him coming across the yard with this big old grin on his face, and he picked me up and hugged me and spun me around like he was coming home from the war, you know? "Oh, my baby's back!" And it was just this one great moment of validation for everything we had done. That's how I like to think of Eagle.
LP: My favorite memory has to do with his can-do, we-must-get-it-done spirit. At the end of Shootin' Match, the very last scene, we were up on the Devil's Backbone, and we ran out of film. We couldn't just come back some other time because the shots wouldn't match, and so he talked us into staying up there overnight – and it was chilly out there – while he drove back into Austin on a Sunday night to track down Gordon Wilkerson, who ran a place called Photo Processors. Turned out Wilk was over at some kind of 'do over at the LBJ Library, so Eagle went over there and waited outside the damn door until Wilk came out, talked him into taking him down to the shop and giving him some film, and then he drove back out to where we were the next morning, so we could finish the film. It took all night, though, so he probably took the opportunity to get himself laid and fucked while he was at it.
SCD: But we got her done, and we did some of our best work up there that morning, under the gun, and it matched perfectly. Eagle. Shit. "I'm going for film!" Yeah, he sure did.
A remastered print of The Whole Shootin' Match will run at the Alamo Ritz this weekend. Select cast will be in attendance at the 4pm show on Sunday, Dec. 2. For more information, visit www.originalalamo.com.