William Atherton looks back with TV STORE ONLINE about his work with Steven Spielberg in the 1974 film, SUGARLAND EXPRESS.
TV STORE ONLINE: So I'm a huge admirer of your work in SUGARLAND EXPRESS , but also what you did in Richard Fleischer's THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972)....Do you think that Steven [Spielberg] saw what you did in CENTURIONS and that had anything to do with him wanting to cast you in SUGARLAND EXPRESS as 'Clovis'?
ATHERTON: You know...I'm not too sure. What had happened was that I was out in California doing THE NEW CENTURIONS, but then I ended up going back to New York. When I got back I did a couple things on the stage and then about a year after that is when I first met Steven. He was going back and forth to New York and meeting with actors for SUGARLAND. I had done CENTURIONS and I had a fun cameo in CLASS OF '44 , which was the sequel to the SUMMER OF '42  by then. I think with SUGARLAND, Steven was specifically looking for theater people for it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you have to audition for Steven?
ATHERTON: Not really. I was a New York actor, and if you were a actor in New York you'd go in and meet with the director. But it was a different time then too. When I went in to meet with Steven, we just kind of clicked. We talked for a while, and then I was sent out to California to shoot a screen test. So I went out to California and we shot that with the new Panaflex camera inside of a car. One of the reasons why SUGARLAND EXPRESS works so great was because it was the first movie where they used the Panaflex camera. Vilmos [Zsigmond] brought that to the film. It was so small that one person could hold it and you could go anywhere with it. It was mobile, and he could do 180 degrees in the backseat of that car, and that had never been done before. They didn't need any platforms for the camera, or a camera car to shoot from. The screen test was more about what they could do with that camera than I think it was about me.
TV STORE ONLINE: Getting that role and then reading Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood's screenplay for the first time....Who did you imagine that Clovis character to be exactly?
ATHERTON: Well, Steven and I worked on him for about two weeks before we started shooting and we changed quite a bit. We took the time to rehearse it. Steven, Michael [Sacks] and I would sit on the floor of a hotel room and just play out the scenes to see what worked and what didn't. The story was really an interesting one. It was based on a true story, but it was very loosely based around it. I've always thought that the most interesting aspect of the entire story was Goldie [Hawn] as 'Lou Jean'.
TV STORE ONLINE: The most fascinating aspect of Clovis for me is how he seems to be the only character in the story that realizes the repercussions of his actions. He understands the cause and effect of perpetrating the chain of events that occur....He's wonderfully awkward too...
ATHERTON: Absolutely. My feeling about Clovis was that he had a vision of life that was narrow. At the same time, he was aware enough that all of it wasn't going to work out, but all he really had in his life was Lou Jean and his kid. I made the choice, that the character should support a indulgence of his wife. Because without her he would have been an orphan in the universe. She was everything to him.
TV STORE ONLINE: It's interesting and conflicting as well...Because as the audience we're asked to cheer or even feel empathy for him and his actions...
ATHERTON: I think the audience should feel empathy for him. Clovis and Lou Jean weren't mean people. The complexity of the story was what Goldie did with the character Lou Jean. She really made a 'Lady Macbeth' out of her. The story, the situation and everything else gets beyond them and they just had to run with it because it was the only thing that they could do. The only time I felt that Clovis actually gets himself together was during the scene with the Porta Potty out in the field. It's the only time where he dominates anything and even though he feels that way, he is still very fearful.
TV STORE ONLINE: We feel so much empathy for Clovis and Lou Jean, yet at the same time, we feel a great deal of empathy for Ben Johnson's character 'Captain Tanner' as well...
ATHERTON: Yes, you do. Ben's performance was so understated. He understands that Clovis and Lou Jean are just a couple of kids.
TV STORE ONLINE: What do you remember about shooting that opening sequence in SUGARLAND EXPRESS that takes place in the prison?
ATHERTON: That was done at a actual prison. I did go and walk around the prison while we were there. I had wanted to stay the night there but they wouldn't let me. It was a pre-release thing so it wasn't like I was going into somewhere with maximum security. We shot the film more-or-less in continuity, so those scenes at the prison were done right at the start of the shoot, and then we went on to shoot in the car for two-and-a-half months, and then at the end Steven decided that we should re-shoot the prison scenes so on the last two days of the shoot we went back and re-shot those scenes there and they work so much better because of that decision.
Vilmos and Steven had a very clear feeling and idea about the look and light and how when we shot it in continuity it would have this look of a graduation. The film begins in this very dank Texas light rain and then by the time the characters get to Sugarland everything gets very bright. The seasons would be changing by then and they were very aware of all of that. We didn't loop anything on SUGARLAND either, except for a couple wild sounds. When you're shooting outside often times something won't come across and then they'll have to plug it in. Steven was very careful and attentive to make sure that we wouldn't have to loop anything.
TV STORE ONLINE: What do you remember about shooting the sequence at the car lot with the RV and all of that gunfire?
ATHERTON: God...(laughing) Everything was blowing up around you. Steven said, "Bill, there is no improvising here. You need to start here and end here or you're going to get your ass blown up." I was scared. If you watch the film you'll hear Clovis yell as he starts running through the lot, "Maxwell come back!" That was a very organic yell for me. I used that to get all of my fear out.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about that incredible finale at the house in SUGARLAND where Clovis is shot by the men with shotguns? I love the homage to VERTIGO (1958) there in that sequence...
ATHERTON: Yeah, you know I didn't see any of that while we were shooting it. I wasn't conscious of any of that on set. I see it now when I watch the film all of these years later though. That house that we shot that scene in was actually a funeral home. It was the only nice or acceptable house in the small town that we were shooting at.
TV STORE ONLINE: It's perfect because it induces such a dream like feeling for that moment...
ATHERTON: Completely. It was perfect for that exact reason. That house was in the middle of nowhere. I remember that it was very cold out the day we shot that.
TV STORE ONLINE: I re-read an interview with Steven recently that was published at the time of the release of the film where he said that he felt in shooting the film that you were best on later takes and that Goldie was best on early takes....Could you talk about the chemistry that you had with Goldie during the shooting of the film?
ATHERTON: Well, I guess that was always because I liked to rehearse. I was pretty unschooled about movies when I got hired for SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Every scene of SUGARLAND was so dense. I really took for granted that actors warm up over the course of doing a few takes. That was what I thought you did. Goldie, for all of her years of experience of working in television...Film people have a different rhythm. If Goldie or Steven were upset with me over the course of many takes, they never let me know about it. I had nothing but a wonderful experience shooting the film. It was a fabulous time. I thought Goldie was terrific and I thought Michael Sacks was terrific. We were all down in Texas and it was a party. We all got along and we laughed a lot. The chemistry was terribly important, and that was all created by Steven Spielberg. Film is a director's medium, not an actors. Steven created the platform for all of that. He created this wonderful feeling on the set so that everyone would feel at home and at ease. He's very singular that way, and very unique. In every movie that Steven has made, you'll see and feel a singular warmth that just flows from it. That was what it was like working with him too.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung