Bud Shrake's Adventures in the Film Trade
Midnight rambling, creative gambling, literary outlawing, aesthetic hell raising and cinematic free falling
By Louis Black, Fri., May 8, 2009
Writer Edwin "Bud" Shrake, who passed away last week after a battle with cancer, was celebrated locally and nationally for his fiction and nonfiction. He also wrote screenplays. Chronicle Editor Louis Black spoke with Shrake in 1985 about the critically acclaimed Songwriter, starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, as well as about Shrake's storied career in scriptwriting. – Kimberley Jones
First printed in The Austin Chronicle on Oct. 18, 1985 (Vol. 5, No. 4).
Late last spring, director Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense) was in town, and during dinner, between Italian serenades and subsequent vengeance-swearing, we talked about films. After I spent some time raving about Songwriter, a neon jukebox American fable written by his friend Bud Shrake, Demme asked if I had ever seen the quasi-legendary Kid Blue, a cult film still in search of its cult, starring Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, and Peter Boyle, also authored by Shrake. I hadn't, the film rarely being shown anywhere. Demme, as much a closet film programmer/promoter as a filmmaker, quickly suggested the logical thing under the circumstances would be to set up a screening of the film, with Shrake there to introduce it.
Thursday evening, Oct. 24, at 9pm in the Academic Center Auditorium on the UT campus, CinemaTexas and The Austin Chronicle will proudly present a screening of Kid Blue, introduced by Bud Shrake.
Long before I either read or saw any of his work, I had heard of Bud Shrake. The spreading Texas mythos of the early Seventies, sweeping east and west at a leisurely, almost languid pace, was amply seeded with his names and deeds, as part of a group of tough new Texas writers including Peter Gent, Gary Cartwright, Dan Jenkins, and the guiding shadow of Billy Lee Brammer. Former classical scholar, onetime sportswriter, notorious Texas talent, careful word vendor, this longtime legend-maker was becoming something of a legend himself. The storyteller –author of six novels, five movies, one play and who knows how many fiction and nonfiction pieces –now the subject of stories.
Setting up the screening, I spend an afternoon talking to Shrake at his home in West Lake Hills, overlooking the city. The view is fantastic and comforting –at that distance, the city's growth is still obvious but less pronounced, less obscene. We talked for several hours – not nearly enough –about his careers as a sportswriter and novelist but mostly about his movies and his life.
Edwin "Bud" Shrake began his writing career as a reporter and feature writer first for the Fort Worth Press, then the Dallas Times Herald and finally The Dallas Morning News. In 1964 he became an associate editor for Sports Illustrated.
He got into movies "about five years later, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out. I enjoyed the movie, but I thought if this is supposed to be a great picture, I've got to try this. So I did. I went home and immediately started writing the screenplay to Kid Blue.
"By this time I had already written three or four novels, but I never had tried a screenplay before. So when I finally found a copy of the screenplay to Butch Cassidy, in paperback at a drugstore, I started out copying it. [William] Goldman's got a distinctive style of screenwriting, just the mechanics of where he puts things. For example, he puts 'cut to' on the left and everybody else puts it on the right, so for a while, I was putting it on the left. I had producers and studio heads tell me, 'Look, you've got to put "cut to" on the right, or else people will think you don't know what you're doing.' Goldman's point is that if you put 'cut to' on the left, it leads the eye naturally over to the left where people will continue reading. You can go either way; it doesn't really many any difference."
"So I read that screenplay, and then I started writing Kid Blue. I started off with this image of some guys trying to hold up a train. It's going through a a tunnel, and a guy jumps off the top of the tunnel and misses the train. It started from there, and I just wrote the screenplay. I had the blessed advantage of not knowing what I was doing. I wrote the screenplay in about three weeks and then guess I was about nearly through with it when this Cliff Robertson stuff came up, so I didn't quite finish it then."
The "Cliff Robertson stuff" was a rodeo picture about a character tentatively named J.W. Garrick. Robertson separately contacted both Shrake and Gary Cartwright to work on it for him, not knowing they were best friends (it is a common practice in Hollywood to hire two writers to work on the same project). They ended up working together, and Robertson came to Austin to work with them. Some time after they finished, Robertson called to let them know that they were unable to get their financing together for the movie but thanked him anyway, adding, "at least we've come out of this friends."
Cartwright and Shrake didn't think anything more about this until some months later when Shrake noticed a trade ad by Robertson thanking Columbia for allowing him to make J.W. Coop. "We tried to find out what the hell was going on. Turned out it was our movie, but it said, 'by Cliff Robertson.' We went to the Writers Guild and got screen credit, but he wouldn't pay us.
"So we sued him. He through we were going to have to sue him out there. We got jurisdiction in Travis County, since we had done all the work here. So Cliff had to come down here, and he brought these Beverly Hills lawyers with him, and he hired a big Austin law firm. He showed up looking like somebody who had gotten dressed at the Salvation Army discard barrel. He came into the court, and I learned a big lesson there: Never underestimate a movie star. He sat on the witness stand and started lying. Gary Cartwright and I were sitting out there, and I started writing down his lies on yellow legal pads. After I used up six or eight pages, I thought, 'To hell with this: We've only been here 30 minutes, and I've already halfway finished a pad.' Then I got to looking around, and I realized everybody on the jury was believing everything he said.
"During the first day of trial, after lunch, Robertson continued on the stand. It was such a good performance that Cartwright and I got to looking at each other, thinking that maybe the other was lying. The judge stopped the trial several times to tell Cliff Robertson how much he admired him. After court, we went and had a meeting with our attorneys over at the Scholz Garten and decided we'd better settle.
"The way he got his revenge was on the titles on the screen. It says 'Starring Cliff Robertson, Directed by Cliff Robertson, Produced by Cliff Robertson,' and when it comes down to Cartwright's name and mine as the writers, they printed our names in yellow against a field of sunflowers."
After Cartwright and Shrake finished J.W. Coop and before things got messy, Shrake completed Kid Blue. His agent ("now ex-agent") didn't like the script but sent it to someone who did. Soon 20th Century Fox had decided to make the picture, working with producer Marvin Schwartz and director James Frawley. "About this time I was heading off for a year's leave of absence from Sports Illustrated. My wife and I moved to London where I was going to write another novel. As we left for London, the board was meeting, and by the time we got there, the screenplay had been bought. So it was like a total time had elapsed of working on the screenplay of maybe five weeks. I went to England in the spring. By the time I got through with the novel and came back here, I think I stayed in Austin maybe two or three days, and it was time to go to Mexico to shoot Kid Blue."
So far things had proceeded with remarkable ease for Shrake on this project – essentially his first film, given the fiasco of J.W. Coop. He had no way of knowing how lucky he was. Producer Schwartz tried to warn him, saying, "You've really got the wrong idea about this whole thing."
Shrake asked, "What do you mean?"
"You think this is easy, because this has all happened for you so easily. You're wrong. It's not."
Shrake confidently thought, "Well, what the fuck does he know? It is easy. I'd just seen how easy it is."
He learned. "I guess that it was in 1972 that he told me that, and it was years before I ever did it again. It turned out he was right; it's not easy at all. I just happened to be really lucky."
Lucky both creatively and personally. Kid Blue turned out to be a writer's dream shoot, "one of those rare occasions where the film was shot almost exactly like it was in the shooting script. One of the things that [Dennis] Hopper did was that, once he got into it, he really fought like a wild animal for the script and to shoot everything in it and say every word in it and not change any of the dialogue. Almost none of it was changed."
The shoot sounds like a wild party –a very wild party. "Hopper immediately fell in with our little bunch, which was me and Jap [Gary Cartwright] and Pete Gent and our wives. They were there just to hang out with me. We had formed a company called Mad Dog. Hopper started hanging out with us; we became close friends and still are.
"About our first week down there, at a Saturday night party at Marvin's house, Dennis came in with this really horrified look on his face. He was really shaken to his boots. He came in and called Frawley, Marvin, and me and said he had to talk to us immediately in the bedroom. It was really important.
We went in the bedroom, we sat down, and Dennis said: 'Look, you guys, I know the movie's already rolling, all this money has been invested, and all you guys are counting heavily on me, but I just can't help it. I've got to get out of here. Got to leave. If you guys have any sense, you'll pack up and leave too. You'll be out of Mexico by tomorrow morning.'
"We said: 'What?! What on earth is going on?' Dennis said: 'The revolution has broken out. There's gunfire in the streets. The streets out there are mayhem. I almost didn't get here alive. It's total panic and chaos and hysteria out there right now. People are getting killed right and left. The fucking noise, it's like World War II out there.'
"We weren't sure what to make of all this. But finally, we got to the bottom of it; what had happened is that Dennis had taken acid and on his way over to Marvin's house had stopped at a carnival. He came away from that carnival, with all the shooting galleries and things –Mexican carnivals are weird anyway –convinced that he had wandered into the Mexican revolution. The next morning after we got all that straightened out, we went ahead with the shooting."
The shooting went well, but Shrake notes that "during the course of the movie, two or three things happened that if I had known any better would have been harbingers of doom. One was that the studio changed regimes. Another was that Hopper's The Last Movie came out or didn't come out, either way you want to look at it. There was such a vast animosity built up against Dennis Hopper in Hollywood that people were just waiting to tear his ass off because he had made saps out of all the old guard with Easy Rider. Not only had he made saps out of them; he had gloated over it. If The Last Movie had come and been good, then they would have all had to keep their mouths shut. But when it wasn't good, then they all started running around saying who was the asshole and the fool who paid Dennis Hopper $300,000 or whatever it was to star in this movie. They all started blaming each other. The new regime at Fox decided to pull the plug on the picture when we were about halfway through it, but Marvin fought his way through that, and we managed to finish it."
The studio was still nervous about the project, and endless controversy ensued. One of the worst battles was over the title. Originally "the title was Dime Box. They changed it to Kid Blue Wasn't Born to Be Hanged. We were all fighting against that. They came up with the title Dime Box, Texas, which I was willing to accept.
"One day I got a phone call from Marvin, and I could hear all this banging and slamming and whanging going on in the background, and I asked what's going on, and Marvin said: 'Listen, I'm going to tell you I've lost the last fight that I'm going to lose over this movie. I can't possibly lose any more fights, because as I look out the window right now, I can see they are painting my name out of my parking space. They're going to haul my car off the lot, and that banging noise you hear is the people moving my furniture and stuff out of my office. We've just been bodily thrown off the lot. This movie is going to be called Kid Blue, and I'm sorry; there is nothing I can do about it.' He went down and got in his pickup truck and drove off the lot and went to India and became a Buddhist monk.
"Right now he's in a Buddhist monastery in Northern California, but I just got a letter from him last week that he's on his way back to Nepal. Actually, he became an advance man for the Dalai Lama. Earlier in his life Marvin had been an advance man for Norman Granz and his Jazz at the Philharmonic, and he knows how to get around. So he traveled around the world setting up gigs for the Dalai Lama. Kid Blue really changed his life."
The studio's lack of faith in the movie was evidenced by its lack of any real support, and the film basically died. Since then it has earned a substantial word-of-mouth reputation in film circles and a small but enthusiastic following.
Despite the ease with which he first entered the film business, Shrake had also discovered its hidden, vicious reefs. After Coop's release in 1972 and Kid Blue's in 1973, Shrake's name wouldn't be on a movie again until Nightwing in 1979. He was hired by Columbia to adapt Martin Cruz Smith's novel, and Shrake brought an intelligence and a passion to this script about an area encompassing two Indian reservations, one representing the past, one the future, invaded by a virtual army of vampire bats.
He hoped "to write a really high-class thriller that dealt with important issues like the class between the Hopis and the Navajos, which is right now ready to erupt into civil war, and the ecology of the area and the strip mining. ... I didn't want them to bring the bats in until the end, like the shark in Jaws."
Which wasn't at all what the studio heads wanted. They wanted bats and plenty of them. They had many meetings during which they discussed the film and argued over the bats. "One night they brought in this guy Carlo Rimbaldi, who made the bats. He brought in a sample bat one day at this meeting. I remember Marty Ransohoff, our producer, started screaming: 'Goddamn you, Rimbaldi! You made our bats too big!' I thought at the time that if I ever wrote a Hollywood memoir, I'd call it You Made Our Bats Too Big."
The conflict between the executives and Shrake continued. "I had already finished the first draft of the screenplay and was into the rewrites, and we were still arguing about the bats. After I'd finished the first draft, I left L.A. and came back here. It was Christmas Eve, and the phone rang. It was Cathy Summers, who at that time was Ransohoff's chief assistant. So she called me up, because it was her duty to fire me. It was Marty's peculiar sense of humor that he decided to fire me on Christmas Eve. Actually he had decided to fire me probably a month earlier than that, and he was just waiting for the proper time."
After Nightwing, Shrake singed a contract with a New York publisher "to write a book that turns out now James Michener's written. I was going to write a Texas book about Texas history that was so long and so thick that nobody could ever finish reading it but everybody would have to buy it. That was plan."
He rented an apartment in San Antonio with a view of the Alamo. As he was moving in with help from Gent, he received a phone call summoning him to Hollywood to meet with Steve McQueen. At first he didn't want to go. Talking it over with Gent, however, "we finally decided that I would really be a fool if I didn't go out there. I thought I'd go out there, it'll take a couple of days, and then I'll be back in this apartment, and I'll go ahead and go back to work on this novel. So that night Gent drove me to the airport, and I went to L.A., met with McQueen the next morning, started working on the screenplay that afternoon, and didn't come to San Antonio for about four months. Needless to say, I never did finish writing that book."
The film was Tom Horn, which turned out to be McQueen's next-to-last picture. McQueeen had been working on the movie for six years and in many ways crafted it as though he knew it would be one of his final works.
While they were working on the movie, it was announced that David Carradine was going to star in a made-for-TV movie that was also based on Tom Horn's life. Shrake asked McQueen if that bothered him. When the star answered no, Shrake wondered why. He pointed out that the TV version was going to do the whole story; we've already cut it down to where we're only going to do the end of his life. They're going to do it all: Geronimo, the Apache wars, the whole damn thing."
McQueen said: "Yeah, but man, they're doing it with David fucking Carradine. This is me; that's Carradine. What am I worried about?"
After finishing Tom Horn, Shrake returned to Austin and began casting around for another project. He had known Willie Nelson for a long time and in 1980 he called him up and suggested they do a movie. Nelson thought this was a great idea and asked what kind he had in mind. Shrake suggested they get together and talk about it, which they did. "Willie had a hideout suite over in the old Gondolier, the Ramada. Just like in Songwriter where Doc Jenkins hides out at the Ramada to write songs; that's exactly what Willie used to do. We sat around there for maybe three or four days. Willie called all kinds of people to come in. Waylon Jennings came down, and he sat and talked to us for a long time."
Out of these meetings came Songwriter, which they immediately sold. It proved to be, however, one of those on-and-off deals – and on and off and on and off. "I remember one Friday morning the then-producer called and said: 'The deal's set now. Monday we're going to make the big announcement.'
"When I'm in New York I hang out at Elaine's all the time. I've been going there since the early Sixties, since before the place got famous, and she's been a good friend to me. Well, she knew I was trying to do this film, and she put Willie Nelson records on her jukebox. It was playing a lot of them, and it happened to be that these guys from Warner Brothers were in New York. They heard Willie's records on Elaine's jukebox, and they thought, 'Jesus, Willie must be a big crossover; this has already happened. He's bigger than we thought.' About that same time was when he came out on the cover of Rolling Stone and stuff like that. I thought, boy, all these thing are good for us.
"What they were good for was the Warner Brothers guys. As soon as they heard this, they got on a plane, they flew out, and they gave Willie a check, immediately, whereas the other people had been stalling him on his money. So Willie took the check and made Honeysuckle Rose instead.
"Honeysuckle Rose then killed Songwriter for the next three or four years. It took that long before anybody would touch a movie with the same subject as Honeysuckle Rose.
"The way Honeysuckle Rose finally came about was that I was sitting in my agent [Jim] Wiatt's office one day; he's also Willie's agent. His secretary was going through the files, and she had two or three different versions of the script for Songwriter and she handed them all to me and she asked, 'Which one of these do you want us to keep? There isn't room for all of them in the library.' So I started flipping through them, and I started re-reading the first one. And I said: 'Gee, this is pretty good. I'd forgotten.' So I gave one to Wiatt, told her to throw away the other too. Wiatt read a few pages of it and said, 'Hmmm, I think I'll take this over to Kris Kristofferson.'
"Kris was supposed to have read it, since originally, three years earlier, it was going to be Kris and Willie. Now, back then, Kris was still into heavy drinking and whatnot. He didn't remember that he'd even read it. So he read this one that afternoon, and he said, 'Hell, Wiatt, I want to make this movie.' And he called Wiatt, who called Sydney Pollack. All of a sudden, within the space of like the next day, after this movie was sitting there for years, I'd almost totally forgotten its existence, inside of two days it was a real movie.
"Yeah, I'm happy with the way Songwriter came out. When I first saw the beginning of it, I thought it was too choppy, but the second time I liked the beginning. I've seen it now probably 10 times, and I like it better every time. Nightwing I've never seen all the way through.
"By this time I'd been around long enough to sense real trouble. When I heard they were going to have the world premiere in Nashville, I thought, 'Well, of all the places to have the premiere, that's the worst,' because Nashville is the villain in the movie. The director, Alan Rudolph, and Kris and Willie and I used to joke around on the set about who understood what this movie's about and who didn't. When they had the premiere in Nashville is when I knew nobody at Tri-Star understood the movie. They had the premiere in Nashville in front of a whole audience full of Rodeo Rockys.
"So when Willie sings, 'You've got your head so far up your ass,' they were muttering, 'What is this shit?' and people were getting up and walking out and everything. I was sitting in the balcony, so I could pick up the vibes that everything wasn't going well downstairs. But I was loving the movie; it was the first time I'd seen it all put together.
"I went out and got back on our bus, and Willie and I said, 'Goddamn, we've pulled it off.' Originally, Willie and I had talked about trying to write one where all the songs carry forth the plot and enhance the plot, like an operetta, instead of just thrown in there. I said, 'All this shit worked!' and we congratulated each other. And while we were congratulating each other and hugging each other and everything, they were inside just totally killing the movie. After that first reception, the Tri-Star people thought: 'Jesus, what can we do now? We've really got a dog on our hands.' So they withdrew the entire advertising budget. They just kind of let it die."
Songwriter did die at the box office. But then something began to happen. Maybe because bandits are just naturally lucky and maybe because it's one damn fine film, Songwriter began to develop a strong following, an enthusiastic following. It may never get the commercial release it deserves, but the film is earning an impressive reputation, as critics as different as Texas Monthly's James Wolcott and The New Yorker's Pauline Kale rave about it.
Shrake's work is about the always-gambling of staying alive. It's about dignity and honor, about living by your own rules and doing the best you can despite what gets thrown at you. The stories about Shrake are like the stories by Shrake. Deep in the heart of writing this piece, hell hit and hit hard. One night when I should have been working, I sat home waiting for news that I knew was coming, news as bad as any I've ever got. I sat home and watched Songwriter, watched it because it's a good movie –damn, a great movie. A movie about bandits and pirates doing what they've got to do, the only way they know how, the laziest way, the hardest way. I thought of that afternoon on the porch of Shrake's house, the warm sun and the calming breeze. I thought of the man and the writer. Talking about Songwriter, Shrake had said, "I notice it's been described as a surreal version of the Willie's life story, which it sorta is, but it's sorta like my life story too, and everybody else's who's tried to make a living in show business."
Thought of that while listening to the narration at the film's beginning: "Doc's ace in the hole in this world full of wheelers and wackos and dealers and old obligations and too little time is a burning commitment to living by his wits without stooping to work. ... [S]o far he's semisucceeded thanks to innocence, audacity, and a flat refusal to let himself be out-gangstered by some fat guy in a suit. You see, in the music business, just like in real life, it's a day-to-day war between the sorry and the soulful, and no rule says the righteous got to win. But I'm putting my money on a con man gypsy badass true-blue legendary bandit hero, and when it's all over, they can say he did for the love, but he was not about the money."