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 with them.

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 salvage jobs.

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, the sheriff.

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 acting push-back.

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 two qualities.

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 )