RIP Bill Paxton

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Michael Cain and Bill Paxton at the Dallas International Film Festival, 2010.

The night I met Bill Paxton was the Dallas premier of The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005), which he had directed. I was working for Michael Cain (not the actor) at the time, as an assistant editor on Michael’s documentary, TV Junkie (2006), and he wanted to reward me for the extra hours I was putting in by taking me to this special event.

If you haven’t seen it, The Greatest Game Ever Played is the story of a legendary matchup at the 1913 US Open. A 20 year old nobody, Francis Quimet (Shia LaBeouf), took on his idol, a former US Open Champion from England, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), and won. What I remember most about the film is the way they shot the golf swings, like we were following the club around through the air before it made contact with the ball. It brought a high speed element to a normally sedate game and worked well, though it was arguably a bit overused.

After the screening there was a small party at the bar next door. I remember talking to a producer who introduced me to Shia. He was friendly enough, shaking my hand and pretend it was, “nice to meet you,” or something like that, but he quickly turned back to the producer and asked when he could, “get out of here?” You see, there were these girls – he motioned to a couple of young women nearby – and they, “had some weed,” and wanted to, “get back to his hotel room.” I couldn’t quite hear what the producer said but it wasn’t long before Shia and the girls were gone.

Paxton was having dinner with his father and some other people. He grew up in Fort Worth, which is why he wanted to have a Texas premiere. Michael told me we should get going, he didn’t want to both Paxton with his family, but he was just going to say, “goodbye.” I hung back and thought this was as close as I’d come to meeting the man, then I heard Paxton get all excited about how nice it was to see Michael again and he insisted we come back to the hotel.

It was a big suite, with a couple of bedrooms and a large balcony. Paxton saw his father to bed and told us to grab whatever we wanted from the minibar; “Disney’s paying for it.” We went outside to not disturb his dad and hung out for quite some time. The thing I remember most was Paxton turning suddenly to me, locking in on my eyes and asking, “So, what’s your story?” It’s a line I’ve used a lot on other people since then.

The other thing I can recall about our conversation was Paxton quizzing us about how much we liked the film. This was only the second feature he had directed and his first, Frailty (2001), was much darker and very different. He made it clear that he had high hopes this time around, doing a feel-good production that had the potential to be an award winner. Seabiscuit (2003), the story of a race horse during the Great Depression, who shattered expectations and inspired many people, was the analog he came up with to express his optimism. “We are Seabiscuit,” he said with a beaming smile. “Nobody expects us to win but we can break out of the pack and do this.” I liked the film but did not share his optimism. Obviously I wasn’t going to let on to him about this and I listened enthusiastically. It struck me as charming and very human that despite all his success over many years in Hollywood, he could still sound like a kid, brand new to the business and super hopeful that great things lay ahead. In the end, I don’t think it matters that the film wasn’t the Oscar Winner he was hoping for; what matters is that he continued to be hopeful.

It was sad to wake up to the news today that he had passed away, on the morning of this year’s Oscars. I trust they will be saying nice things about him tonight. When I put on my headphones and opened up Spotify I nearly unconsciously went to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album and started playing it. I had listened to about a hundred times last year after Bowie’s passing and I guess it’s now become my soundtrack for a celebrity death; or at least for a celebrity that actually matters to me. It’s funny the way the minds works, don’t you think?

RIP Bill Paxton. My thoughts go out to his family and to our mutual friends, Michael Cain, Jeff Scheftel, and Tom Huckabee. I know they loved him like a brother.

First Avenue: Hayday (2006) at First Ave

Last night I attended a special screening of the concert documentary I edited, nine years ago, First Avenue: Hayday 1985-92 (2006). The film was directed by Rick Fuller, who made a lot of music videos back in the day as one half of Harder/Fuller Films, with Phil Harder. I first met Rick when I returned to Minnesota from four years in Texas, attending graduate school and working on TV Junkie (2006). Rick liked the effects I had done for TVJ and wanted that same aesthetic for the First Avenue film he was planning.

Hayday was compiled from footage that was originally shot for public access television in Minneapolis and club promotions. There were no releases or anything signed by the bands – nobody thought of such things at the time – and the old three-quarter inch tapes lay in the First Ave basement and a few other locations for more than a decade; many of them unlabeled. Rick literally saved this history from the dumpster and convinced a few other people to volunteer their time and talents to help create this labor of love. For me it was like a surreal dream. I was a teenager in the late 80s and I would hear people older than me talking about this great club in Minneapolis where all the cool acts played. To play a central role in preserving this time capsule of a great era in Minnesota Music History was an honor. I only wish the copyright issues surrounding Hayday didn’t prevent more people from enjoying it.

Watching a special screening of First Avenue Hayday at First Ave! Can't believe we made this film 9 years ago.

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Rick spoke briefly before and after the screening, with some generous praise for me. I think that’s the first time I’ve been singled out in a crowd and have everyone clap for me. But the most moving part of the night was Rick’s hesitation. He was genuinely choked up over the people in the film who are no longer with us and the audience understood this, they felt it too, even if many of us didn’t know those people personally, as Rick had. We all spontaneously began applauding in solidarity.

When we were working on First Avenue: Hayday, we hoped it would be somewhat on par with Urgh! A Music War (1981). Not a big, successful, well known movie, but a real document of a time and place, of a feeling and a community, that people can look back upon and learn from. Rewatching the film last night I felt proud that we were so successful.