A Conversation with George Hickenlooper, Director of "Dogtown"
by Kevin S. Hoskins
The Labor Day premiere of “Dogtown” at this past Montreal World Film Festival
was decidedly fitting. The film traces the return of Philip Van Horn
(Trevor St. John) to blue-collar town Cuba, Missouri after a turn in
Hollywood. Playing the antithesis of her “Some Kind Of Wonderful” character,
Mary Stuart Masterson co-stars as fallen cheerleader/beauty queen Dorothy
Sternen and Jon Favreau (“Swingers“) plays her boyfriend, a high school
athlete now working as a tow-truck driver. The film continues its festival
run at the 1997 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival,
Director George Hickenlooper is best-known for “Hearths “Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse“, the 1991 documentary on the making of “Apocalypse Now“. He also directed “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade“, the
attention-grabbing short that was the basis for “Sling Blade“, as well as
“Grey Night” (1994), “The Low Life” (1995), and “Persons Unknown” (1996).
indieWIRE: Let me say that I loved the opening. Is this the first time a
film has ever opened with a dead dog?
George Hickenlooper: That was intentional. Bright people will laugh and
not-so-bright people will be grossed out. But the bright people won’t want
iW: “Dogtown” makes for a great film mostly because it keeps you interested
in all three main characters, even the Jon Favreau character. Was this
intentional or is it the tremendous acting?
Hickenlooper: That’s very insightful of you. I’m glad you brought that up
because it was my goal to try to make a repelling character, a character
who is a brutal and ugly racist, sympathetic. I like bringing about that
conflict in the audience. (laughs) I don’t condone racism at all. I’ve
spent a number of years in that milieu of lower class white people or
‘white trash’ as we call them. I’m part white trash as well. I’m proud of
that fact. I grew up in a small part of St. Louis called Dogtown, which is
right near Forest Park, the Central Park of St. Louis. There are a lot of
blue collar families who live there. The film touches upon my experience
iW: Tell me about the references to, and your affection for, the teen
movies of the 1980’s. Most noticeably, there is the shot of the dilapidated
movie theater, the letters falling from the Marquis where “Sixteen Candles”
was the last film to play.
Hickenlooper: There’s a definite reference to “Sixteen Candles“. When you
were in high school in the eighties, everything was always so saccharine.
And you look now at the careers of the people involved with that movie, we
sort of have a sobering perspective now. I’m a big fan of those films.
They’re great, fun movies. It’s not great American cinema, it’s just part
of your childhood. “Dogtown” is like “Sixteen Candles” gone bad.
iW: You’ve succeeded in giving the audience a large number of interesting
characters, taking those films a step further. I was tremendously impressed
by the performance of Karen Black, as the mother of Philip Van Horn.
Hickenlooper: Although the character is a hybrid modeled after my aunt and
my mother, I wrote the part with Karen in mind. She was nominated for an
Oscar for “Five Easy Pieces“. She was great in “Easy Rider” and brilliant in
“Nashville“. The one thing that works for me about this film are the
interpersonal relationships. There are only three or four directors that
worked in American cinema that I look up to: Orson Welles and his wonderful
overlapping of characters that you see in “The Magnificent Ambersons” and
“Touch Of Evil“. Also Robert Altman and Polanski. I like these kind of movies
and it would be great if there were more movies like tat being made. A lot
of movies today work only on a very superficial level.
iW: How long did “Dogtown” take to put together?
Hickenlooper: I wrote it over about three years, but not all together. We
shot in twenty-four days and spent about a year raising the money. “Dogtown”
is the second film in my trilogy; I’m writing the third one right now. It
deals as the others, without sounding too pretentious, with an artist
trying to find out who they are. It’ll be called “Master of Jane“. It’s about
two brothers, one a mental patient who hallucinates, the other a cop who
wanted to be a dancer. They have a mother that they both pretend is dead. A
former political radical, she returns one day and tries to take care of
iW: How did you become involved in the project that would come to be “Hearts Of Darkness”?
Hickenlooper: I had done a documentary called “Picture This: The Life And Times Of Peter Bogdanovich” for Showtime the year before. Elly (Coppolla)
had seen it and liked it and asked me to get involved with “Hearts Of Darkness”. At that point, we were dealing with viewing and editing the sixty
plus hours of footage that had been compiled.
iW: What was your original intention for “Hearts Of Darkness”?
Hickenlooper: It was originally for cable. It was to be a one-hour
television special, financed by Showtime for half a million dollars called
“Apocalypse Now: Revisited“. That was before we had gone through all the
material. Once we had started delving into all the material, I convinced
Showtime that we should make it 90 minutes and try to do a theatrical
release. They looked at it and agreed.
iW: You seem to be equally adept at making features as making shorts and
documentaries. Do you have a preference or is variety your preference?
Hickenlooper: It’s an uphill battle and I’m not in the driver’s seat yet.
For now, I’m focusing on features. We’ll see with “Dogtown”, it’s been
submitted to Sundance and will show at Chicago. We’ll see… It seems like
in the last year, I’ve been involved in launching other people’s careers
and not my own. First, Billy Bob Thornton. Then I was involved with “Dream With The Fishes”. I was involved with “Swingers” originally. My time will
come…unless I get hit by a bus or something.
[Kevin S. Hoskins is a free-lance writer working out of Burlington, Vermont.]