Friday, December 18, 2009

Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah

Many thanks to Mike Siegel for sharing with me a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the making of 'Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah', and for the stills that accompany this article.

The title 'Passion & Poetry' is an excellent encapsulation of Peckinpah's approach to filmmaking and his visual/emotional achievements in the field. It applies equally well to writer/director Mike Siegel and his passionate commitment to bringing his documentary on Peckinpah's life and work to the screen. The phrase "labour of love" is often bandied about - it's almost a cliche - but in Mike's case it's a statement of fact.

The project had its roots in a retrospective of Peckinpah's work in Padua, Italy, which Mike organised in 2000. The festival ran for 10 days and was attended by actors and crew members from Peckinpah's films - including James Coburn, R.G. Armstrong (who was 82 years old at the time!), Ali MacGraw, Susan George and 'Wild Bunch' co-writer Walon Green - as well as members of Peckinpah's family. Their reminiscences provided a wealth of first-hand testimony on Peckinpah's life and work: his turbulent life, the struggles to make films his way. Mike determined that his next project would be an in-depth documentary about Sam Peckinpah, drawing from the memories and experiences of those who knew him closely.

There was one immediate problem: financing. Mike had only made one film, had no real cachet in the industry, and was wary of wasting precious time trying to find backers or distributors. In true guerilla filmmaking style, he decided just to make the thing and finance it himself. For most people, this would entail back loans, scrounging from family members and a lifetime of bad debt and ruined credit rating. Mike took a different approach: he started selling off his expansive collection of movie posters and lobby cards. " 'Passion and Poetry' might be the first bigger film that was totally funded through sales at eBay," says Mike.

It took two years to raise enough funds for a working budget, including equipment and travel costs. Fellow filmmaker Patrick Gleason and former close friend and associate of Peckinpah Katy Haber came on board. With their help, Mike undertook a five week shoot in Mexico and Los Angeles. Shooting in Mexico was particularly interesting: Mike intended on the documentary to begin and end at the now abandoned hacienda which serves as General Mapache's headquarters in 'The Wild Bunch'. There was just one problem: actually locating it! Via an internet forum, Mike made contact with a septuagenarian originally from Texas who lived close to the location; he volunteered his services as Mike's guide.

With the location shooting completed, Mike continued filming interviews with Peckinpah collaborators during 2003 - 2004. It was during this period that Mike was approach to compile a photo-book based on the materials he'd accumulated on Peckinpah. Boasting over 1,000 pictures and running to nearly 600 pages, 'Passion and Poetry - Sam Peckinpah in Pictures' was published in late 2003. Editing work on the documentary took place during in 2004 and the film has screened at festivals around the world and secured a DVD release in the five years since then.

Contributors to the documentary include actors James Coburn, Ernest Borgnine, Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, Senta Berger, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Isela Vega, David Warner and Bo Hopkins; critics and film historians Garner Simmons and David Weddle; friends and associates Chalo Gonzalez, Gordon Dawson, Katy Haber, Dan Melnick and Martin Lewis; Peckinpah's sister Fern Lea Peter, and his daughter Lupita Peckinpah.

Mike's persistence in securing the participation of Borgnine and Jones is almost legendary. Borgnine had responded to Mike's many calls by protesting that he probably wouldn't remember much; when Mike called him from the Mexico location of 'The Wild Bunch', it prompted such wonderful stories from Borgnine that the long-anticipated interview was finally arranged. Arriving at Borgnine's home, the legendary actor opened the door and announced, "Hi, I'm Ernie Borgnine," and Mike responded, "Hi, I'm the pain in the ass," prompting good-natured laughter from the actor and a friendship that continues to this day.Mike had communicated with L.Q. Jones by letter and phone, but the actor repeatedly refused to appear on camera without being paid. It wasn't going to happen; Mike's budget had already been eaten up by equipment costs and travel. Mike made one more call to Jones and, getting his answerphone, left a message calling him a horse thief! Jones threw in the towel and agreed to an interview.

Ultimately, Mike's two-hour film 'Passion & Poetry - The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah' was the product of over 30 hours of footage; enough that Mike was able to craft two entirely new documentaries, one for the Sony DVD release of 'Major Dundee' and one for the EuroVideo German release of 'Straw Dogs'.

The DVD of 'Passion & Poetry - The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah' is available here. It is the work of a man as passionate about Sam Peckinpah as Sam Peckinpah was about cinema.

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