Once upon a time in the West, before Slacker, there was Eagle Pennell, a gifted young filmmaker who came to define "regional" cinema with his shaggy-dog tales shot entirely around Austin, Texas. They were so pioneering that Robert Redford even cited Pennell's 1979 debut feature, The Whole Shootin' Match, as the inspiration for the Sundance Film Festival; Pennell's 1984 film Last Night At The Alamo, meanwhile, went on to lasting cult status. Sadly, Pennell drowned his career in alcohol, which cost him his friends and career. When he died in 2002, the only known prints of The Whole Shootin' Match had been sold off to a German buyer for pocket money—a move that the perpetually short-sighted, down-on-their-luck anti-heroes of Pennell's films probably would have recognized. Last year, producer Mark Rance devoted himself to tracking down Shootin' Match, rescuing and restoring it with the help of SXSW's Louis Black for a screening at the 2007 festival. (A DVD release is tentatively scheduled for July.) The A.V. Club recently sat down with Match's leads, Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis, for a frank discussion about working (and fighting) with Pennell, why Chuck Norris is a pussy, and the lingering impact of—in Perryman's words—"the little film that could."
The A.V. Club: Were you already familiar with each other before Shootin' Match?
Sonny Carl Davis ["Frank"]: Eagle introduced us on [his short film] "Hell Of A Note," and we just met the morning we shot there at Liberty Lunch. Of course, y'all and Eagle went back years before.
Lou Perryman ["Loyd"]: Not that long before. I'd been in one film—The Tomato That Ate Cleveland—and I'd been on the crew of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Anyway, somebody told me that I gotta meet this guy Eagle. So before I know it, he's living with me.
SCD: Typical Eagle.
AVC: Do you know what the actual budget on Shootin' Match was? There have been so many differing reports.
LP: I've heard it was as much as $100,000. But depending on who's saying it, about $40-$50,000.
SCD: I'm just hearing these numbers of late, and I'm like, "They spent how much money on that thing? I never saw any of it!"
LP: We didn't have no trailer! No van to take us anywhere.
SCD: These fucking youngsters today, it's like, "How much money do you need? Why not just go shoot the son of a bitch?" "We need a location." Fuck the location! If they run you off, just pack up and move! On "Hell Of A Note," we took the hood off the truck so Eagle could shoot through the windshield.
LP: Eagle's got his feet down in the motor—
SCD: And we're driving along doing dialogue, clapping our hands for camera slates.
LP: And Wayne [Bell, sound mixer] is down at our feet!
SCD: "Don't step on the soundman!" [Laughs.] "And act natural!"
AVC: Do you two still pal around together?
SCD: I've been in L.A. since '78 and just moved back to Austin, but we love each other's company when we do see each other. Lou was out there for about four or five years. Shootin' Match had done well out at the U.S. Film Festival, you know, and it was a good time to hit town, because all these people had recently seen it. We got the Jury Award, so it made a splash. And Lou and I got to do some films because Universal embraced us. Lou did Poltergeist—
LP: Also, through Tobe [Hooper], I did Blues Brothers.
SCD: I did Melvin And Howard.
LP: And I did a Richard Pryor picture, Bustin' Loose—though I got cut out of the motherfucker. I had this scene at the craps table where they were shooting dice. They ended up throwing it away because it wasn't going very well. The director wasn't armed for a hyped-up, possibly coked-up young Richard, bless his heart.
SCD: Did you get your SAG card on that?
LP: No, I got it on Blues Brothers. Now that was daunting. In that scene, you got 300 extras sitting around, and the director's like, "Camera, you can feature this guy here, because he's gonna have some lines later." And all of a sudden, 300 pairs of eyes are on me, like, "What makes him so fucking special?"
SCD: Coming from what we came from, getting big films was like, "Dang! Look at the shit they got!"
LP: I remember walking on the set of Blues Brothers—Bob's Country Bunker—and I was like, "My God. They've built a cinderblock building!" And I walked up and touched it and realized it was fiberglass insulation. Ah, the land of magic.
AVC: That was your first brush with real Hollywood?
LP: First brush. I got half of one of those old teardrop trailers with my name on a cardboard slug.
SCD: One of my golfing buddies—he's an actor too, Kevin Cooney—says, "You know it's a bad job when they're paying more to fly you there than your salary." Mine is, "You know it's a bad job when your dressing-room sign is your name under the word 'Men.'" [Laughs.]
AVC: Sonny, you've still been pursuing acting?
SCD: I've been writing more. In L.A., the business for supporting players has… You know, Canada ruined it. I used to do two or three movies-of-the-week a year, and those went out of business. Actors and crew, they don't have to go to New York or L.A. anymore. My business kind of left town. My wife and I were like, "What the hell are we doing in L.A.?"
LP: I left after four or five years. Came back, got divorced.
SCD: I got divorced before I went to L.A. That's the way to do that. [Laughs.] It was fun, though. That first year, I got my SAG card on Melvin And Howard with Jonathan Demme, and then did Where The Buffalo Roam. I did a Dukes Of Hazzard episode, then Why Would I Lie? I was like, "This gig ain't so tough!" It's been a slow slide ever since. [Laughs.]
AVC: Lou, what made you decide you were done with acting?
LP: My political beliefs. My spiritual beliefs. It's all trash. And Chuck Norris, I'd flush that cocksucker down the toilet. What a pussy motherfucker. What a fucking cunt.
SCD: You rolling tape on this?
LP: He's a pussy! Fuck Chuck Norris. I regret being in any of that goddamn Walker, Texas Ranger shit. Motherfucker couldn't act his way out of a rubber. Jesus, he's fucking terrible. People buy that as a Texas Ranger? A guy that's 5'5"? For God's fucking sake. And so much of it is just tawdry. Part of it, too, is my depressive mentality, and being frustrated. I thought I had plenty to offer. I went through the grandiosity of believing I was really good—and I was good at times.
SCD: Were and still are, Lou.
LP: Thank you. But you just look back at some of the shit you did and you go, "Man, I wanted a role in that?" Currently, I'm hurting over that sheriff role I didn't get in No Country For Old Men.
SCD: I auditioned for the storekeeper, where he flips the coin? You know, we met the Coen brothers at the Dallas Film Festival for Last Night At The Alamo.
LP: I didn't know that.
SCD: We went to that reception, and those two guys came up to me like, "You were in Fast Times At Ridgemont High!" And I was like, "Who the fuck are these two geeks? Get the fuck away from me."
LP: Where was this?
SCD: It was the reception. I don't know where you were.
LP: I was probably shacked up with somebody. See, I'm suffering now over why I didn't get that. I thought I was really, really right for that goddamn role. There are just so many frustrations with wanting a thing and not getting it, and then seeing it go to a friend of the director. I went on Red Headed Stranger and auditioned for Bill Wittliff, and Bill said, "Man, that was a real good read, but I gotta tell ya, you're up against Willie [Nelson]'s drummer." Well he can kiss my ass.
SCD: Well, what are you gonna do about that? All musicians want to be actors, and all actors want to be musicians.
LP: I don't want to sing.
SCD: A lot of 'em do. And I'd much rather listen to an actor singing than watch a singer act. [Laughs.]
LP: Samuel L. Jackson made a good blast at putting musician motherfuckers in movies. He said, "Every time you hire one of those guys, there's a guy that's trained for 15 years that didn't get the job."
SCD: He was talking about how he didn't want to work with 50 Cent, right? He's right. Actors train. I wouldn't want to work with nobody like that.
AVC: But you two don't come across like trained actors—and that's the best thing about your work.
LP: Well now, did we get lost because of that? Is this the Robert De Niro effect? You know, how he learned Italian to play this bicycle rider in some movie and didn't get any reviews? They didn't even notice him, because he blended in. We got the tour at Universal eventually, but I don't doubt that that cocksucker Eagle said he had a couple of non-pros working with him.
SCD: When Siskel and Ebert saw Shootin' Match, one of them said, "You can just go turn the camera on any bar in Texas and get that." I wasn't trained heavily, which I think is a good thing. Acting workshops are full of people who are overtrained. The good acting coaches try to get all that bullshit out of your head. It's like too many golf lessons. Your mind's all fucked up with too many things instead of just hitting the ball.
AVC: Are you interested in film work at all any more?
LP: I always really wanted us to do The Hawkline Monster, that Richard Brautigan story. And I'm working on a thing for me and Sonny. I show up to find you after some years, and we gotta do something bad—
SCD: I'm in.
LP: And you say, "Don't we need guns for this?" And I say, "We're gunned up." That's as far as it's gotten. Guns are really fucking cool. I don't have any guns, but guns are cool.
SCD: I've worked with these prop guys in films, and they're always like, "I love working with a Texan, 'cause you guys know your guns!"
LP: I can open a beer bottle about four different ways with a .45. But anyway, I'd love to do something else with Sonny. Something that counted, that I could put myself into. That would mean a lot.
AVC: What kind of director was Eagle?
SCD: He would stop us when we went astray. There were times where we'd lose the thread and we'd have to stop—we only had so much film! But there was not a lot of, "Think back to when your puppy died."
LP: What he brought was some sort of instinctual understanding. It was, "I want to direct films, because I have this feeling." Same thing with me. That's what made us a trio.
SCD: Another thing about good directors: Once they've cast it, a lot of their job is done. They just get out of the way. [Billy] Wilder talks about that. Just get the right actors in there, and if you have a good story, you're gonna have a good film.
LP: I went to Cannes with Tobe right after Chain Saw came out, and somehow we ended up sitting at a table with Martin Scorsese—mixed in with this drunken German Nazi who'd attached himself to me. He had decided that Tobe and I were Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, you know, 'cause Tobe's name was "Hooper." Scorsese is saying, "I like a director to come in in motion." I'm going, "I am at the table of the gods. I'm hearing the real shit." But then the German wants me to go ride his fucking motorcycle, so that interrupted. I would have rather heard the rest of Scorsese, but he was saying, "In motion." He can direct the motion, but he doesn't want to jumpstart it. Rather it's, "I've cast you on your vision of this character." Which is the hard part for me to understand about auditions. I'm still angry—and I'll be angry until I die—in that if you get the wrong take on the motherfucker, you don't get the goddamn part. But still, I try to come in in motion.
SCD: Know where you've been and know where you're going. The world doesn't start with "action"—you've got to have a history and know where you just walked in from.
AVC: Can we talk a little about Eagle's alcoholism and how it affected the production?
SCD: It didn't, at least on Shootin' Match. It was the success of Shootin' Match and Alamo where the alienation began. He couldn't handle the success or failure. He started fucking up and crashing on people's couches, getting drunk and crashing people's cars. But not in the early days. He'd have a bottle, just like you'd go hunting with—internal warmth—but there wasn't anything like that. It was a sad thing to see. When I heard that Eagle had died, I said, and I still believe it, that it was a shame, but it wasn't a crying shame. It was predetermined. He had a lot of demons, and that fucking evil wine will do it to you. He was angry, and he'd get drunk and get angrier. But during Shootin' Match, it was just so much fun, we didn't think about dulling the senses.
AVC: Lou, you probably saw more of Eagle's slide into alcoholism.
SCD: Hell, they'd get into fistfights.
LP: I whooped his ass once. He had been the DP on a movie we made called Fast Money. That was where alcohol had gotten in the way, and he was resenting the fact that he wasn't directing, since that was his group. Eagle had been troublesome to everybody, and my wife was on the job, and he was treating her bad. Then he got fired and was replaced with Levie Isaacks, the gaffer. At the wrap party, I was like, "Man, somebody's gonna have fucking violence tonight." And there was Eagle, talking about how we were a team and we had to stick together—and he obviously hadn't been doing that. I'd heard some shit he'd said about me, about how we weren't in his league any more. I called his ass on it, and he started shoving me, saying, "Fight me." I really didn't want to get hit in the fucking teeth.
SCD: It hurts! Everybody's always lying to me, saying they're gonna kick my ass, and they hit me right in the nose.
LP: And it occurred to me real quick that my beers gotta go over my shoulder, and that's where they went. I popped him, and down he went. It made the papers, and I got really angry about it—but what the fuck, it's ink. Better than no goddamn ink. It was some years before we saw each other again on Last Night At The Alamo.
SCD: There was a feeling in the group when we moved to L.A. that we could keep this thing together. We were comparing ourselves to Scorsese, De Niro, and Harvey Keitel, who'd started out together and worked together as much as they could. But Eagle outgrew us.
LP: If it went to anybody's head, it was Eagle, who was the Fisher King story—the guy that picks up the fish, it burns his fingers, and he drops it. This boy picked up something that was too hot for him.
AVC: When did you first feel like Eagle had changed?
SCD: After Last Night At The Alamo, he got these groupies. People used to say, "Who are your influences?" and he used to say, "Howard Hawks and John Ford." Cut to six months later, after he'd been screwing these NYU film students, and he's going, "You know, some of the early European directors." What the fuck? Where did this come from? All this "Godard, postmodern" bullshit. Fuck you! Alamo was a good little film, and it got great reviews, and all he heard was "Eagle Pennell film." I went to audition for The Newton Boys with Linklater, and [casting director] Don Phillips said, "Rick really likes Alamo and those Eagle Pennell films." Well, what are you gonna say? I'm not Eagle Pennell. Director gets all the credit—and they also get all the blame when something goes wrong.
LP: But he wanted it all. He didn't share freely
SCD: Very few times was it, "Thanks to these guys…"
LP: That was a rarity. And it tells on you when you're not getting that kind of thing. I got a read for a TV pilot, and they asked me, "Did you have anything to do with the writing on Shootin' Match?" And I said no when I should have said, "How about the last half? We made that shit up." I don't know if that's my own inadequacy or what.
SCD: But I understand it completely. We all should have gotten writing credits.
AVC: What was your last contact with Eagle?
LP: He showed up a couple of times where I was asleep in my chair, and he's pushing on me saying, "Pay the cab." He'd show up saying, "I gotta get into treatment. Can you get me to the state hospital?" And he'd be guzzling beer out of a six-pack. It was just fucking sad.
SCD: After the film festival in San Diego for Alamo, we parted ways and I didn't hear of him until my brother in Houston called, saying, "Would I have seen Eagle Pennell on a freeway exit with a 'homeless' sign?"
LP: He had gotten to the point where when he was sober, there was nobody home for him. When he had even a beer, he was a raving, arrogant asshole, immediately. He racked up this huge karma of mistreated individuals. After I punched him and it made the papers, one woman after another would come up to me and say, "Thank you. That was for me." Because he'd show up to their house at 3 a.m. and force himself on them.
SCD: He'd call people he hadn't seen in years from one of those little dives and say, "Can you give me $20?"
LP: It was always sneaky. He'd have a friend take him to the airport, and say, "Oh, by the way, can you spring for the tickets?" Like he's above all of these earthly things. That's puer eternus, the flying boy that never wants to touch earth because he's afraid it will kill him. So he flies around endlessly and he gets tired. Then he either burns up or he falls.
SCD: That's the angle that comes up whenever we sit around and talk about this shit. Eagle crashes and burns. There was just so much promise there, and if he'd just had a little humility…
AVC: Shootin' Match seems to have bits of Eagle in it, being about guys scraping to get by until—as soon as they make something of themselves—they blow it all.
LP: I'm very influenced by this Film Comment article that called him a "defiant defeatist." That's true of me, too. I felt like Loyd was all over me for a long time, and it's been hard to divorce Loyd even now. The dreamer that's always disappointed and crushed, then sooner or later he has a new idea.
AVC: Sonny, do you identify like that with Frank?
SCD: It fades into the back. It was very handy for me, growing up around people like Frank. They're all around you in the South: dreamer fathers and guys looking to get rich quick. I've never had much success, for various reasons. I make a living at it. Work begets work, and that's fine by me. I've just never been goal-oriented—much to my wife's chagrin! You just gotta suffer the valleys and enjoy the peaks.
AVC: In your head, how does the story end for Frank and Loyd?
SCD: They get into another kettle of fish, but it's never gonna get any better than that day in the convertible with the leisure suit. [Laughs.]
LP: Like life, some of that stuff starts to pay better and better. Still scratching it out.
SCD: It didn't take much to please these guys. Like when they hit the money and they're counting it out, Frank says, "Let's get a bottle and go drive around!" It's going to be all right if you don't give up that dream. Like the parallels with Eagle about getting back to the top of that mountain: You can do it and it blows up in your face. Or you pull it off.
LP: I think it can be said without objection that Sonny and I would like to do the next thing, whatever that is. I think we still have something to offer. I know we do. Sonny's like wearing an old favorite shirt. We were lucky enough to find that we had a charisma between us that would carry us through these films. They're still alive and still around. They're not forgotten. Some people are just boring, and goddamn it, we're not. We were doing something that mattered to us. And I'd like to do it again. I surely would.