A CONVERSATION WITH SCREENWRITER REX McGEE
Screenwriter of PURE COUNTRY (1992) and Assistant to Billy Wilder
TV STORE ONLINE: Starting off Rex, I wanted to see how you got started on the script for what would eventually become the film, Pure Country (1992)?
Oh my god! [laughing] Well....The whole project started out as an idea of Elvis Presley's former manager Colonel Tom Parker. His protege was film producer Jerry Weintraub. Parker had told Weintraub, "You should put George Strait in a movie and get a movie career going like Elvis
." Then at the same time, there was a new breed of country artists coming into popularity like Clint Black and Garth Brooks, and George Strait was being a little overshadowed by these guys.
It took Jerry Weintraub about a year and a half to convince George to do a movie. Once he convinced him, I got a call from Jerry Weintraub's executive of story development, and I had worked with her a couple times in the past and she said, "You wanna write a movie for George Strait?" I said, "Who is George Strait?" [laughing]
I'm originally from Texas, but I was living in Los Angeles at the time. So they told me to go down to this studio and meet George and I could see what he was all about. So, I got to meet George. He was a very unassuming guy, and he didn't look like a movie star to me. I mean, he was just hanging around wearing a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap.
It became my job to sort of hang out with George. I started going to his concerts, and hanging out with him backstage. I didn't really know what I was going to write for George, but I wanted to get to know him and his process. I got two instructions from Jerry Weintraub on the script. He said that we had to have ten songs in the script, and there had to be a scene of George roping something in the movie, because George had actually been a rodeo star. [laughing]
By this time, I had actually decided to move back to Texas. I had inherited a 120-year-old house from my family. I had been away from Texas for twenty years. When I got to Texas and got ready to start to write the movie, all I really had to work off of was a couple videos, and some time back stage with him. Now George isn't the most talkative guy. He's not someone who is comfortable being out there. So I didn't have much to work with, and that made me start to think, "What are you going to write for this guy? He's never acted before, and he doesn't really want to act."
So I started immersing myself into all of this cowboy western culture. I started going to rodeos. I started going to Texas poetry readings. I dated this barrel racer in the rodeo, and she gave me some really great tips. I did all of this research, and then finally I just hit a stone wall. Then one day, it occurred to me that what I had myself just gone through in leaving Los Angeles and moving back to Texas...I was burned out.
As a screenwriter, I couldn't find my spark. I mean, for twenty years I was working in Los Angeles. I was writing screenplays, working on assignments, doing re-writes, I was very busy but nothing was getting made. So it occurred to me that the reason why I had moved back to Texas was because I had to find my creative spark again. It was very much on my mind that I was back in Texas exploring my own roots, and that sort of became the idea for PURE COUNTRY.
In the film, "Wyatt" [George Strait] has hit a wall. He's not turned on by his own music any more. He's not turned on by the crowds or the fans any more. So he decides to walk away from it all, and go back to his roots to find exactly what had inspired him or moved him in the first place to play music
Then I started researching mythology. I read this Jungian psychologists book on Goethe's Faust. Faust was a man that had hit the dark night of the soul. Faust was going through the ultimate mid-life crisis. He'd got this success, and he was at the top, but it wasn't fulfilling any longer, and that struck me as being part of the theme as well.
Plus, I was also a huge Elvis Presley fan. So I started asking myself, "What if Elvis had walked away from it all?" What if he had walked away from the concerts and movies, changed his look, lost the Memphis Mafia and Colonel Tom Parker, and just walked away from it all and went back to Memphis and into hiding?" So that became an idea too, and all of these things blended into what would become the screenplay for the film.
Also, being a protege of Billy Wilder, I always loved his themes of masquerade. Where people are pretending to be something that they're not. That was always on my mind when I was writing the script to PURE COUNTRY as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: With ideas for the film being sort of autobiographical, where do the female characters of "Harley" and "Lula" come from for you?
REX McGEE: Well, when I had moved back to Texas I had met this girl, and I was falling in love very quickly, and I was thinking about her when I was writing "Harley." She was good with her hands, she had a funny way about her, she was smart, she was witty. It was really mirroring the girl that I had met. Then, "Lula" was play on a former girlfriend that I had, so both of those girls in my life had worked their way into that script. I think, I also had Jerry Weintraub in mind for "Lula." And Colonel Parker too. But, I don't think Jerry Weintraub ever caught onto that.
Then "Grandma Ivy", that was my real grandmother's name. That character was really based on my step-mother, who was known for always coming up with all of these non-sequiturs. She'd always say the strangest things. I used to always take notes on her. She'd say things like, "I feel like a frog on a wire fence!
" [laughing] I still don't know what that means!
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did it take you to write the script for the film?
REX McGEE: Well, those contracts are pretty standard. So, I think, about three months to complete the first draft.
TV STORE ONLINE: How many revisions or rewrites did the script have to go through before it got the green light?
REX McGEE: You know I always thought that they shot it too quickly. I've always thought that we should've spent some more time on the script, because they really green lit my first draft. It was really amazing. I finished the first draft in February, they started production in May, and it came out October. It was done all in the same year! I wished we could've worked on the script a bit more.
There were certain things in it, and particular scenes that we had to cut out, just because George's acting just wasn't up to par. I'm not sure if you've noticed?
TV STORE ONLINE: Well, yeah I have. One scene in particular that sort of sticks out like a sore thumb to me is that scene where George is standing on that porch with Rory Calhoun and he tells that guy who walks up and starts talking to them to, "Get your ass outta here." That entire scene is pretty wooden.
REX McGEE: Oh..yeah. That was the director's re-write of that scene. I have several sort of "cringe" moments in the film. One is the LSD trip he seems to be taking at the beginning of the film. George comes out of it and he's just fine. But I remember seeing it for the first time, and thinking to myself, "What just happened?"
TV STORE ONLINE: Right.
REX McGEE: I mean, they were trying to get across that he was disoriented, but it just looks weird. One of my favorite moments in the film is where George's character goes to the cemetery. It's where his parents are buried, and there's a shot of a tombstone. And on that tombstone are the first names of my parents, who are deceased. The first time I saw the film at the preview, I just lost it. I just wept like a baby. I mean, I don't know how it got through, and the director didn't put his parents names up there or something. So that was one of my favorite moments.
TV STORE ONLINE: How objective are you as the writer when you see your work on screen for the first time?
The first time I saw it, I was just off base the entire movie. I was just asking myself, "Where's this scene, where's that one great scene?" The whole idea for the new musical version of the film I think developed from that first screening. I mean, there were so many great scenes that were cut that I knew one day I would have to get it right. That occurred to me then.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to the script again for the film, how difficult is it for you as the writer to just hand over this "autobiographical baby" of yours to some director who isn't you? Someone who doesn't have your vision of the story in mind maybe.
Well, that's part of the deal. It's the deal you make in Hollywood. If you're a playwright, it's a different story. Screenwriters get paid up front, and they get residuals. They sell their work. It's just part of the deal.
TV STORE ONLINE: It was a contract script right? So were you even allowed on the set during the shooting?
Oh yeah. I mean, it was shot like literally thirty miles from where I was living at that time. I was there on the first day of shooting. I was there for all of the concert stuff. I was out at "Grandma Ivy's" house. The director [Christopher Cain] was great and he was very happy to have me out there. I sort of had the run of the set. I brought my girlfriend out there who I had based "Harley" on. That got me a long way with her. She was really impressed. It really put me over-the-top with her. It was great [laughing].
I wrote another film, WHERE THERE'S A WILL (2006) for television, and that film is even more autobiographical than PURE COUNTRY. On that set, the director [John Putch] wouldn't change anything without my approval. So I've been pretty lucky in that respect.
TV STORE ONLINE: The cast is really great in PURE COUNTRY too. I really love the chemistry between George Strait and John Doe.
Yes, they worked together really really well.
TV STORE ONLINE: What do you think it is about the film that has stood the test of time? It's very much a film that many people think very highly of. It has this almost organic feel to it. There's a very beautiful and authentic feeling to it, that you don't get from many contemporary films.
Well, I think it hits everyone on the same level. I think the idea of hitting mid-life and saying "Is that all there is
?" hits everybody. Whether you're a country music singer or a auto mechanic, you get somewhere in your own life where you ask yourself that. I think that's the secret to why everyone likes the movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: So tell me how you came to work with Billy Wilder?
I was a student at USC in the film school, and I went to a preview screening of his film, AVANTI! (1972) with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills. When the film came out, it didn't do well at all. So I decided to write Wilder a letter. I just wanted to write to him to tell him how much I loved the film, and that I was sorry it wasn't doing very well.
In the cinema department at USC they had a book of all of these home addresses for many filmmakers. So one night I snuck into the school and got his address. I wrote him a simple little letter telling him how much I loved the film, and about how I was sorry that it wasn't doing well, and that I was a student at USC, and that I was hoping to make films that could maybe be on the same bill as his one day. A week or so later, I got a call in my dorm room and it was Billy Wilder. I couldn't believe it. He invited me over to the studio to see him. I went over to the old Samuel Goldwyn lot and into the writers building where he and I.A.L. Diamond had written SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) and just about everything else.
So, he sat me down and started talking to me. I was sitting on his sofa and he started pacing the room. He was a pacer. He asked me, "I don't know what I should do Rex. Why isn't this movie doing well? Should I retire? Should I write plays? Should I play the horses at Hollywood Park? What should I do
?" I mean, he was asking me, this 21-year-old USC student what he should be doing. It was unbelievable. It was an amazing moment. I'll never forget it, I don't think I was there for only but thirty minutes.
About a year later, he was getting ready to do THE FRONT PAGE (1974) at Universal and I was trying to get into the Directors Intern Program at The American Film Institute. And he said to me, "You wanna do that? If you want into that program I'll sponsor you
." So I got to be on that FRONT PAGE set with Billy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett, and Susan Sarandon. It was amazing. It was basically one set with a couple shooting locations. I kept a diary during the production. I kept a log for the A.F.I. and Billy and I got to be friends
. The first thing he did for me was to give me copies of all of his screenplays. Then he set up screenings of all of his movies for me at Universal. So not only could I see the movie, I could then read the screenplay, but then I could talk to the guy that made it. A guy with six Academy Awards. It was a incredible graduate school of sorts.
After the movie was finished, I just started to hang out in Billy's office at Universal. Next door, Alfred Hitchcock was shooting his final film, FAMILY PLOT (1976). Hitchcock had a little bungalow next door, so I got to hang out and watch that as well. I got to hang out with Henry Bumstead the great art director. He became a good friend. A couple years later after that, Billy started working on FEDORA (1978). Which was a sort of echo back to SUNSET BLVD. (1950). Billy asked me if I wanted to go to Europe to work on that. I said, "Yep
!" We shot that in Paris and in Munich at various studios there. It's a great film. It's about this aging star that makes a comeback.
It's a little seen Wilder film, but one that people should see. A bunch of the later Wilder films are supposed to be getting remastered and once they do, I'm supposed to be doing some commentaries for them.
I knew Billy for twenty-nine years. In fact I was talking to his wife on the phone, the night that he died. He was just an amazing man. I learned so much from him. I learned about movies, music, food, women...everything. I used to sit in his office and he'd get phone calls from all over the world, and he'd immediately go into that language. He could speak German, French, Italian, Spanish. He could go from one call in one language to another in seconds. It was just incredible. I count myself very luckily to have been tapped on the shoulder by that man. I was just this young kid from Texas with a terrible accent [laughing].
TV STORE ONLINE: One of my favorite Wilder films is THE APARTMENT (1960). What are some of your thoughts on that film?
That was one of his favorites. Billy's favorite films were THE APARTMENT, SUNSET BLVD. (1950), SOME LIKE IT HOT and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). The spark of the story for THE APARTMENT was David Lean's BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945), the Noel Coward story. Did you know that?
TV STORE ONLINE: No, I wasn't aware of that.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the story of two married people that meet in this guy's apartment and they have a love affair. That idea always intrigued Billy. This idea of the guy who owns the apartment. Billy was intrigued by that guy. Who was that guy? What's it like for that guy who comes home and the sheets on his bed are still warm. How does that guy work? If you watch that one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER you can see where THE APARTMENT was born. I love THE APARTMENT. I think that the film probably speaks to everyone now just as it did when it first came out. I teach screenwriting now, and I love to introduce students to Billy and his films in particular SOME LIKE IT HOT, which they've never heard of.
TV STORE ONLINE: What?
Well, they're twenty years old, and they only know about the things that have came out in the last couple years. They've never heard of Wilder or Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis. In fact, last semester I only had one person who knew who Marilyn Monroe was.
TV STORE ONLINE: Are you serious? How on earth do you take a film class or pursue film as a career and not know who all of those people are?
I don't know. It's their first class in screen-writing or filmmaking, and nobody is showing these movies. First, they are in black and white and they don't want to watch black and white movies
. But I run something like SOME LIKE IT HOT and it goes over like gang-busters! They're laughing hysterically at this sixty year old movie in black and white. I just love showing them this stuff. I'll run SUNSET BLVD. too and they like that because of the darkness of it, the black comedy of it.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
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