Southern died in 1995 at age 71 in relative obscurity and in debt, despite his incredible run in the 1960s. His novel “Candy” was a naughty sensation; he was Oscar-nominated for his work on “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider”; he was credited as a founder of New Journalism for his 1962 Esquire article “Twirling at Ole Miss”; he covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for Esquire along with Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and John Sack; and he landed on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” record (wearing shades).
“I knew who he was through the seminal films that had his name on them,” Soderbergh says. “And I had read ‘Candy’ and [his later novel] ‘Blue Movie.’ I knew he was a funny, smart cat who was legendary for punching [scripts] up and having really good ideas. Clearly, he was a real force and a fascinating figure.”
It was about 10 years ago that Soderbergh learned of the struggles that Nile Southern, Terry’s son and the executor of his estate, was having paying off his father’s debts. He then had a meeting with Nile arranged through Elliott Gould, a friend of Terry Southern’s who had played a recurring role in Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies. Soderbergh helped Nile place his father’s literary estate with the New York Public Library and learned of the son’s enthusiasm for “End of the Road,” his father’s great “lost” cinematic project.
“I always thought it never got the attention it deserved,” says Nile, who now lives in Boulder, CO, and once interviewed Avakian, who died in 1987 at age 60, for a 1982 New York University class on the counterculture. “I used to see it in the '70s at Cinema Village, where it played often and had cult status. I posted black-and-white pictures of Avakian in the Village, so into the film was I. I've been a champion of its merits since I was in my early 20s.”
(In an auspicious coincidence, as “End of the Road” was nearing release, Nile received a $20,000 matching production grant from the NEA for “Dad Strangelove,” his and Diane Markrow’s in-progress documentary about his father. Soderbergh is the executive producer; D.A. Pennebaker is a consulting producer. “I’m looking for any footage of my father,” Nile says.)
Barth, however, has been on record as not liking the film adaptation of “End of the Road.” In an introduction to a 1988 edition of the novel, he wrote some negative remarks, especially about the chicken scene. (“Chicken Man,” by the way, was played by the late poet Joel Oppenheimer.) Soderbergh did not interview Barth for his “End of the Road” documentary, but he may get the chance to talk with the author soon since he owns the rights to Barth’s novel “The Sot-weed Factor,” which he plans to turn into a 10- or 12-part miniseries.
Alexandra, a photographer and Nile’s friend since childhood, also has long been an advocate for the film. “Thanks to Steven and Warner Bros., the release means my father has a voice again, though he passed away in 1987,” she says. “For me it is nothing less than a fabulous occasion.I hope all kinds of people will see this film across a wide spectrum. They should approach it with an open mind; see it several times. ‘End of the Road’ is a cry for help on behalf of America in a tragic time in many ways. My father was a social critic and any way you look at this film you will see something of value that you will never forget.”
Soderbergh also has respect for the director, who co-wrote the “End of the Road” screenplay with Southern and Dennis McGuire. Avakian had co-directed a 1959 documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” and then established himself as a top editor on “The Miracle Worker,” “Mickey One” and “You’re a Big Boy Now” before choosing “End of the Road” to direct. (He went on to make two other films, “Cops and Robbers” and “11 Harrowhouse.”)
Working with the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (“The Godfather,” “Annie Hall”), whose first film was “End of the Road,” Avakian created some provocative, beautiful, mesmerizing scenes. An early standout shows Horner standing silent on a train platform for what seems like an eternity as a montage of black-and-white photos of his childhood, as well as snapshots of 1960s political outrages, flashes by. It’s as if the whole chaotic, upsetting world is roaring toward him like a speeding train, and only his catatonia can protect him. On the soundtrack, Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me” plays. (Aram’s brother George, an award-winning record producer especially noted for his work with jazz artists, supervised the film’s music.)
“I think the train-platform sequence is absolutely stunning, one of the best five-six minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen,” Soderbergh says.
Tristan, who was divorced from Avakian in 1972, said in an interview that she hopes today’s audience will see “End of the Road” as “a piece of work of that time, very innovative. And they can glean what was going on at the time from it — very anti-war, anti-government. And it was also pro-abortion. You don’t go to back alleys or you die.”
“End of the Road”’s wild tonal shifts can be startling, and the scenes at Dr. D’s “farm” can seem very stylized at times. Soderbergh cautions that he realizes the film will go too far for some, especially in the long scene involving a botched abortion presided over by the crackpot doctor.
“It’s still a polarizing film; the final scene is hard to watch,” he says. “But I like the sense of possibilities in the film. You feel the filmmaker is going out and is not afraid. That’s what independent film should feel like, what it should try to do.”