Like the carefree spirit of the late 1960s, the independent film “End of the Road,” produced and co-written by Terry Southern, didn't last long in a hardened new era. But thanks to one of modern cinema’s most influential filmmakers, this controversial “lost” movie from indie film’s daringly free-spirited countercultural days is getting a fresh start.
Warner Home Video will issue “End of the Road” on DVD Tuesday, Sept. 18 — the first time it will have appeared in the format. But the release isn’t happening because the public has been clamoring for it, though maybe it should have been. It’s because Steven Soderbergh wanted it to happen.
“I thought then it needed to be seen,” Soderbergh says in a telephone interview. “I have to give Warner Bros. props. The physical DVD market is not one that’s generating the revenue it used to. And for them to be putting this out is a big deal and a great thing. So I hope there are enough cinephiles out there who pick it up.”
Soderbergh is a longtime devotee of Southern, a celebrated literary figure of the era and co-screenwriter of cultural signposts “Dr. Strangelove,” “Barbarella” and “Easy Rider.” (Southern also was close friends with “End of the Road” director and co-writer Aram Avakian.) And Warner Bros. has released some of Soderbergh’s most commercial films, including “Magic Mike,” “Contagion” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. So in exchange for the studio, which held the rights to the Allied Artists release, reviving “End of the Road,” Soderbergh agreed to shoot a companion 30-minute making-of documentary, “An Amazing Time: A Conversation About ‘End of the Road,’” to give it some marketplace currency. With assistant Corey Bayes, Soderbergh worked on the doc while shooting his 2011 thriller “Contagion.”
“End of the Road” is adapted from a 1958 John Barth novel about a recent university graduate, Jacob Horner, who suffers a mental crisis and seeks treatment from a mysterious doctor that encourages him to teach English grammar at a nearby college. The cast included Stacy Keach as Horner, James Earl Jones as Doctor D, Harris Yulin as a college professor and Dorothy Tristan as his wife, with whom Horner has a tragic affair that results in an unwanted pregnancy. (At the time, Tristan was Avakian’s wife.) The film updates the narrative to the late 1960s, when society was being ripped apart by the Vietnam War, riots and assassinations.
Southern and Avakian had met while studying French literature at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill after World War II and stayed close friends. “In Paris, Dad and Terry were into jazz, writing, getting high a lot, more writing, seeing cool girls, traveling around Europe,” explains Alexandra Avakian, Aram and Tristan’s daughter, via email. “Dad and Terry were über-hip, Beat, existentialist. They had their own view of the universe.”
A true indie production, “End of the Road” was shot outside the studio system in Great Barrington, MA, with financing from Max Raab, whose Villager company designed preppy clothing for young women. By all reports Raab left the crew alone, and as a result the actual filming experience was a positive one — almost communal, if Soderbergh’s documentary is any indication.
“This was a very nostalgic piece for me, because it’s clear everybody felt like the shooting of the film was a great experience and a unique one in their careers,” Soderbergh says of making the doc. “You look at that and say, ‘It’s not like that anymore.’ It’s very rare for people to go off and have an experience like that, for a variety of reasons — not just that the business has changed a lot. My hope is that you would watch this and go, ‘Wow, I wish I’d been a part of that!’”
“End of the Road” made little money initially, though its fortunes might have been different had the nine-page inside feature on the film that Life magazine was planning for the Nov. 7, 1969, cover not been bumped for an interview with Paul McCartney refuting the “Paul Is Dead” rumors then sweeping pop culture. The film’s box-office failure was partly because of its mind-blowing, avant-garde techniques. But it was also because the film had received an X-rating based on two scenes: an infamous shot of a mental patient appearing to have sex with a chicken, and a longer, gruelingly realistic scene of a botched abortion. (The film is now rated R.)