Sure Fire was the first film I ever made where there was actually
a little money to work with - $105,000 or so - and led to one of the
more bitter filmmaking experiences with which I ever had to cope.
I’d met Henry Rosenthal, the erstwhile
“producer” in process of renting a place to live in San
Francisco - he was my landlord. Of which there is a long, unhappy story,
consigned to another section on this site. In process of learning about
me, he saw my earlier Last Chants for a Slow Dance, a film
which seemed to bowl him over, especially the performance by Tom Blair.
I concur it is a hell of a performance, and I had tried twice again
to make a film with Tom, but one time the film had quickly spun out
of control, and the second time Tom did - and I’d fired him. I
was not inclined to go near him again. However, at the urgings of Rosenthal,
I let him be contacted, and inquired if he’d be willing to try
again. Much to my surprise he said, “yes.” I can’t
say in hindsight I regret it as I got two powerful performances out
of him in consequence, though…
Though along the way there was hell to pay.
I decided to shoot in Utah, in part for the spectacular scenery for
sure, but also, having shot a number of things in Montana and Oregon,
where people seemed to fall over themselves trying to be helpful, I
chose Utah because having transited it numerous times, and finding the
atmosphere less than welcoming, I wanted to challenge myself. Mormon
Utah is not exactly open to the passing stranger. And, as well, something
which I knew about this particular place and the religion which governs
it fit well into the oblique portrait of my own father which I wished
to draw, and was the basis for the “story” I had in mind.
I went with a writer friend, Jim Nisbet, to scout, driving around a
large swathe of Utah before finally settling in on the Circleville,
a small town nestled on the northern edge of what is known as “the
Mormon Dixie”, which covers a sizable chunk of south-eastern Utah
and is famed for being a holdout area of polygamy and the “old”
Mormon tenets. In Circleville the only real business in town was run
by one of these.
Settling in for a month and some before shooting, I commenced trying
to find my story, and the help I’d need to carry it out. As expected
the first responses were a bit off-putting, though not really hostile.
The owners of the motel I was using as it happened were not Morman,
perhaps a good thing. Asked what I was making a film about, the locals
proffered a list of the things they imagined possible: a nature hunting/fishing
film; an advertisment; an expose on polygamy, or… porn. I had
to honestly tell them none of these were on my agenda, which left them
initially a bit puzzled and perhaps suspicious. However, after a few
weeks, I had secured their confidence and trust, and later on their
complete cooperation: in the film are the local banker and bank, several
houses used without pay, the sheriff, a local café, all of which
once over the initial getting-to-know-you phase proved as helpful as
my familiar Montanans.
Having set up the things necessary - a place
to stay, co-operation of locals, etc., on the appointed time my cast
and mini-crew, including “producer/production manager” Rosenthal,
arrived. The cast were either friends, or acquaintances. After Blair,
there was Kristie Hager, not an actress but a painter, who’d come
down from Butte and had been in Bell Diamond. Then Kate Dezina,
formerly a soap opera star, and then-wife of my writer friend Nisbet.
She’d been in Rembrandt Laughing, playing, well, a “soap”
role. I found later that was her limit. And then Robert Ernst, a performance
artist/improv actor, a friend of my intended composer, Jon English.
Rosenthal came in his “antique” 1950’s something red
buick, making a spectacle of himself, and his completely out-of-tune
presence in Utah.
Immediately things began to spin out of control. The actors holed up
in the motel, for 3 or so days, regaling each other with endless “theater”
stories. Rosenthal, completely enamored of Blair, stood by entranced
by this, periodically exclaiming, “Oh, look at Tom, look what
Tom just did! Did you see that, what Tom just did.” Tom, doubtless
also effected by our past films, when coupled with this, became very
full of himself, and the actors, by and large, followed suit, their
own selves diminishing proportionately: Tom was the “star,”
they were the flunkies. Not a good psychological formula for good work.
After these days, I finally blew a gasket, and told the actors that
I thought they were, at least some of them, professionals, and that
it should not be necessary to tell them that they were playing, as they
knew, local people, and that their job was to get out and see what that
meant - to research the local world, Mormons, the local farm/hunting
culture, and so on. And I threw them out to do so, already rather angry
My original intentions had been to make a film
in which my style would, as much as possible, recede into the background,
and be almost, if not really, “conventional.” The Robert
Duvall film, Tender Mercies, recently out at that time was
more or less my model - a simple, quiet film, largely carried by the
actors and a discreet style. And I wanted to fully improvise, as I had
in Bell Diamond. However, very quickly Tom refused to improvise,
and having been established as the leader of the gang, with Rosenthal’s
pathetic toadying, I lost it right there. Nobody would improvise.
In turn, of necessity, I shifted my entire approach, within a week
or so of the start of the shoot, already resigned to having lost any
chance to make the film I intended. The actors then were made to write
what they would not improvise - assigned the scenes, and sent off, with
advice and suggestions, what to do. I wrote some, but for the most part
guided them to write what they refused to improvise, which would have
been so much easier for them. Rosenthal continued in his manner, slobbering
endlessly over Blair, negatively impacting on the others, while bloating
Tom into some super-hero in his own head and in turn the psychological
tuning of the entire film and cast was totally thrown off balance. The
fault, though, in the end, was, mine: I should have shut Rosenthal up
the first day, and sent him to another motel. However, he was - so I
imagined - my friend, and I am by inclination an anarchist at heart,
and think people should take responsibility for themselves, rather than
be ordered to do this or that. Likewise my view with actors. However,
here, with a lot of interference from a completely naïve and incomprehending
party - Rosenthal - the whole film tilted instantly out of control.
My wished-for low-key improvised work became its inverse, a sequence
of theatricalized scenes, in which the style was pushed to extremes.
Throughout the entire shoot the process was similarly stained, and
as well by my less than careful choice of actors: Kate Dezina, whom
I liked as a person, proved terribly limited as an actress, a one-note,
and rather naïve, soaper. Taken to the farmhouse which was to be
her fictional home she left its porch and going out to the fields was
to be found shouting out to the cattle “Bossie,” as if a
real ranch wife would ever do so. One scene after another was contrived
to work around this kind of thing - scenes which to my chagrin people
often come up to me to remark upon how much they like them though some
of them I dislike immensely - the camera craning down to a set-piece
with the two women; the farmhouse husband-wife argument with blackouts
- blackouts which were the final resort at the editing stage to hide
the abysmal acting. That they work in the context of the film, at least
for many viewers, doesn’t in my view alter them as court-of-last-resort
Despite the foregoing, there’s still plenty
in Sure Fire that is powerful. Inside the non-improvised framework,
Blair gives a strong performance, as in some instances does Ernst -
particularly the completely artificial scene in which they talk while
driving to the hunt. The young boy playing the son gives a fine performance,
and in general the local people who participated did as well - the banker,
At the end of the shoot I was not on speaking terms with anyone except
Kristie, who did well despite Tom complaining to me about her lack of
After a single look at the rushes in San Francisco
I refused to edit it, and returned to New York, and spent the year preparing
and shooting All the Vermeers in New York, after which I returned
to completing Sure Fire. Jon English, who originally I’d
intended to have do the music simply couldn’t abide the country-western
tone, and I met Erling Wold, who did the music, in close collaboration
with me - I wanted the pedal-steel for the C&W tone. In editing
a range of salvaging tricks were pulled out of my box of tools: the
Book of Mormon texts to lend gravity and a sense of tragic weight; the
black-outs in the husband-wife sequence; the various bits of cinematic
sleight of hand. The end result in my view was to pull a messy catastrophic
shoot out of the fire, and strangely make it into a powerful, if in
my view, not a “good” film. I find many people mistake the
Dedicated to my father, about whom it is a vague kind of portrait,
I was surprised when word came back to me that he allegedly liked it.
Sure Fire showed in competition at
the 1991 Sundance Festival, and generated almost no response.
"Jon Jost did it. He captivated me last night. I went downstairs
and put the movie in without reading the jacket, so I didn't have
any idea, whatsoever, what it was about. I didn't want to have any
preconceived notions about what was going on. In fact, because of
that, I actually liked the bad guy, Wes, at first, because he was
so organized and cautious and "caring" about business and
his life and his son, and the wives seemed depressed for no good reason...
but whoa...Then the hunt. I was on pins and needles as the four were
creeping through the woods with their separate rifles. And then the
shooting. I was actually thinking that it had to be an accident...It
just had to be...that movie more than worked it's magic on me."
- Susan Eckard, A Mother ( Jon...I felt that you might like to read
the note my good ole ma sent me after watching your film Sure Fire.
My mom is the farthest thing from a "movie watcher" as there
is. - Blake Eckard )