I’ve seen you allude in past interviews to how hard of a time Gene Hackman gave you on the film. How quickly did you realize he’d be a problem?
The first scene on the first day.
We did a simple scene where Gene’s character is driving to Hickory and he stops to get gas — it’s a scene that never ended up in the movie. Gene’s character and the gas -station attendant are talking about the town, and I shot the master. I was nervous, it was my first day, but the weird thing was that I’d been getting along really well with Gene for a couple weeks prior to shooting. He even helped me do a little acting workshop for the kids in the film because none of them had acted before. So before shooting started, I was thinking to myself, Working with Gene is going to be a wonderful experience.
And it wasn’t.
It wasn’t. So what happened was, I shot the master five or six times and it was real simple stuff; there wasn’t a lot of acting to be done in the scene. I figured I’d got what I needed, so I told the cameraman, “Let’s bring the camera over here for another setup,” and Gene called me out in front of the whole cast and crew.
What’d he say?
Well, I’m sort of paraphrasing but basically he said, “You’ve got no taste, your head’s completely up your ass, and you’re a phony.” I thought he was joking at first. Then I realized he wasn’t. The crew went dead quiet. So I went up to Gene and I said, “Okay, I’m a little nervous on my first day; I should have asked you if you wanted to film another round.” It was such a simple little scene, but I said we could go back and do it again. I shot about five or six more takes and there was not one slight divergence in what Gene did from take to take. I walked up to him and said, “Gene, is there anything you’d like to try? Any other way?” and he goes, “Why? What the hell was wrong with it?” Oh my God. That was the beginning.
Did he get better over the course of the shoot?
The shoot was 39 days. Probably 35 of them were like that first one. He was a little better after Dennis Hopper arrived — Dennis stole everyone’s heart. But Gene was always challenging me.
Was he just hazing a rookie director? What do you think was going on?
I didn’t understand this at the time, but Gene likes to work on a set that has high anxiety because that’s how he gets his juice. Some actors take a nip of Jack, some do yoga to get going. Some do — you know, Gene toward the end of the movie, after yelling at me for an hour, he said, “I know I behave like a child sometimes. I want to make a good movie, but I just don’t feel comfortable making movies where I feel comfortable.”
You also had some problems with Barbara Hershey, who played a Hickory teacher?
Barbara was in a situation where she felt like she had to take a side. She was either with me and [screenwriter] Angelo [Pizzo] or with Gene. She went with Gene. I still marvel sometimes when I think of all the Sturm und Drang that went on making the movie, and then you look at the end product, and you would never guess it was that way. I mean, Gene had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He gave me my first anxiety attack: One morning I woke up and I couldn’t walk, the room was spinning. I thought every day on the film was going to be my last because Gene’s agent was trying to get me fired.
What saved you?
The producers said, “Look, David’s not getting fired.” And we showed a half-hour of dailies to Gene’s agent and he saw that what we were making was actually pretty good. But, you know, hey, directing isn’t for sissies. I showed my mettle.
After you finished working on the film, how long did it take to know that everything had turned out okay?
It has to do with Gene. People sometimes ask me if Hackman ever apologized, and he never did, not really. But when the movie was all cut, everybody had done their ADR work except for Gene. Finally we said to him, “We don’t want to go to a lawsuit about this. You gotta come in and do it.” And he said, “I want to see the movie first.” So we set up a screening for him the night before he was scheduled to come in and do his ADR. Angelo and I knew that if he didn’t like the movie, he wouldn’t show up at the studio to rerecord his dialogue. But he showed up. He walked in to the room, took his glasses off, looked me in the eyes, and said, “How the fuck did you do that?”