As I stood on a fork in the road that would soon separate me from the actor standing next to me in the scene we were shooting, I suddenly became aware I was not really acting with this man beside me, but simply just reacting to this quiet moment between us. That state of being we as actors strive to attain via years of mechanical exercises and mental mind games. But at that moment, I relied on absolutely nothing to feel the sense of loss and hurt I was to express in the scene; it was just there.
Rance Howard always had a habit of making me work that way over the 15 years I had known him.
I first met Rance in the old west. Or at least an independent-film facsimile of one in 2002. I had long followed the career and lives of Clint and Ron Howard, but only by the time I had my first screenplay produced in Tucson Arizona, The Reckoning (retitled Ghost Rock), I had learned of the vast career of the family patriarch, Rance Howard. I was aware of him by name, as my indie filmmaker obsessed youth was spent studying all Roger Corman films and had always noted the senior Howard’s name after “written by” on the poster for Ron Howard’s feature film directing debut, Grand Theft Auto. But until I began this new production with director (and friend) Dustin Rikert, I hadn’t realized how much the apples had not fallen very far from the tree.
Walking across the dusty western set we had temporarily revived to film our overly ambitious $300,000 martial arts-western, I met Rance with his then recent wife Judy. Their hands wrapped in one another (an image that would rarely change any time they were together) he approached me with a copy of my script in his free hand and said “Mr. Worth, I want to thank you for including me in this fun picture”. I know I must have smiled because to have someone with close to a hundred films under their belt call my first produced script “fun” made the kid in me very proud.
Rance was quickly gaining the reputation as the most prompt actor ever in history, at times waiting through ungodly heat waves for his next scene rather than across the set in his trailer. His character was a small one, the lovable Cash, a fatherly figure to the brothel owner played by Adrienne Barbeau who gives up his life to a very mean Gary Busey to protect his friend. But it was not a role he simply walked through. Script always in hand, he remained at the ready, his part as important to him, if not more so, than the many around him working in the above the line credits.
By the time I was directing an extremely experimental action film (the budget now 20% of what the previous film Ghost Rock cost), shot on super 16mm short ends titled Killing Cupid, I actually wrote Rance into the script as an ostensibly retired assassin named Zeke who was now obsessed with Bruce Lee exploitation films and running an old hotel. A few years later he attended a screening of my film God’s Ears and we just both happened to be going to the same Beverly Hills’ restaurant afterwards. His son Ron and his wife were with he and Judy and I walked over to introduce myself, and tell his son how stalworth his father always was on a set. Ron Howard smiled and said, “I like to hire him on my films to show the other actors how it’s done”.
When opportunity presents a struggling filmmaker with writing a Sasquatch movie for the Syfy channel, he accepts. And so with Devil on the Mountain (later rechristened Sasquatch Mountain) I immediately thought of a role to turn the journeyman character actor Howard into leading man hero as Sheriff Harris Zeff (my stepfather’s name). Granted there was only so much muscle to stretch on a film like this, but don’t tell that to Rance. He quickly became the man to watch in the film and was no surprise I had him survive the Bigfoot Massacre as the possible sequel would not have been as good without him.
It was on that Flagstaff, Arizona set that a story began to take shape in my mind. Inspired by classic road trip movies such as Bound For Glory and The Last Detail, I once again undertook the cathartic exercise of transcribing inner musings on life in the form of a road journey and decided my cinematic co-pilot was going to be Rance. The story was titled Apple Seed, not only named for the small town destination of the two characters, but for the pearls of wisdom the two discover along the road. Like the ubiquitous Los Angeles filmmaker, I shopped it around town for a decade, even once agreeing to shoot it for $85,000 if they would just let Rance and I shoot it immediately (yes, I was preparing to dust off my DSLRs). But dead ends on this road trip movie were becoming common place.
While trying to raise money in Oklahoma (Rance’s hometown state), I ran across a local woman who had a first-time script she wanted to get made called Broken Memories. It was a touching drama about a man trying to deal with his father’s Alzheimers and I knew it would suit Rance to a “T”. I returned home with a dual Howard script package I was now trying to pitch for us. As it turned out, a couple years later it would be Memories I managed to sell first after I was given the guarantee my key element, a certain R.E. Howard, was a part of the package.
As a professional actor first, when it came to directing I like to always find what the instincts of the actor for a character are first before I try and steer it in any sort of direction. With Rance and his role of Jasper, a struggling 80-something year old trying each day to re-establish himself in life, his instincts for the role were clearly all that was needed. Watching his salient passion for working was my daily reminder to cherish each job and each opportunity with all you can muster, as each and every one is unique and never to be repeated. One day, when an actor was running behind about thirty minutes, my efficiency instincts kicked in and using the same camera set up (a phone call that was about to take place) I asked Rance if he was willing to improvise a phone call. I gave him a scenario: talking to an ex neighbor from his youth who is clearly many years removed from those days, but whom he talks to as if it was just yesterday. He jumped at the challenge and came up with a string of pearls that I was able to jump-cut through in the editing room and created one of my favorite moments in the piece.
When screening the film at festivals in early 2017, Rance’s love of 17 years Judy had just recently passed away from the disease that he had portrayed so passionately in Memories. I decided while at The Sedona International Film Festival to shoot a short documentary of him processing this moment in his life (titled Love In One Act). He expressed so clearly that moment of letting go of something you have held on to so dearly before, that moment so many of us have to face usually more than once in our lives. And it was that “moment” that also happened to be the very heart of the story Apple Seed. So, while spending that weekend exploring with him his emotional journey in life, I was reminded me how important it was becoming to get Apple Seed made sooner than later.
In July, in a moment of what felt like pleading desperation (secretly all the moments in this business feel like that), I handed the screenplay over to some executive producers I was working with on another project. I gave them a budget I had devised that was far less than many low budget films I had done over ten years ago but I felt it was time to “get this show on the road” now. And three days later, what is always the most beautiful music to any filmmakers ears, I heard the words: “green light”.
Two months later, we would be shooting day 1 on Apple Seed in the small town of Kingman Arizona. Just prior to traveling, Rance and I had spent a day shopping vintage stores for an outfit he would wear throughout the film (a vagabond, road trip movie usually marries you to one outfit so you better enjoy it). I was looking for something that would differentiate him from the other cast; something classic, timeless and red. “Red” as I told him because his character, Carl Robbins (my great grandfather’s name), would also function as a kind of pulse and heart to the story. Sometimes passionate, sometimes warm and sometimes filled with unstable energy, but always the engine that fuels the body of characters around him. He smiled through my explanation as we walked through a Melrose store, nodded his thoughtful head and said “I can do that”.
And he would be so right.
In those first few dusty days in the Arizona heat, a strange reunion took place between five of us: Adrienne Barbeau, Jenya Lano, Dustin, myself and Rance. The five of us, all working together again for the first time since the film Ghost Rock where we all met exactly fifteen years ago to the day in this same state. The first of many interesting cosmic circumstances that followed our production across the U.S.
Watching this 10 year old story begin to take shape from my mind as a writer and into my hands as a director has been one of the most illuminating and satisfactory moments in this business. Not because every scene reflects the long imagined vision, not because every frame lived up to my hopeful standard of aesthetics, but because the cast and crew embraced the story and the task with a kind of care and passion most directors can only hope for. And at the center of it, that “heart”, was Rance. A few of us already knew him, but it would not be long before everyone grew to love and cherish him. His presence on set was never one of entitlement or expectation, but of artistic servitude and gratitude.
Our roles as a kind of transient, surrogate parent and child quickly took on a life of its own for both of us. As we mimicked in a manner the physical journey of the story via our mobile production, Rance and I spent many hours driving the picture car, a 1967 Mustang, from the Nevada border ultimately to a mere few miles from the Mexico border, all the while discussing the growth and wisdom we have each embrased through this artistic endeavor we had chosen. Though the 5th time we had shared the screen together, this time we both explained we were finding the working relationship that felt the most ideal.
At one point, I brought my 95 year old accidental-thespian of a grandmother to play a role in the film. For many years I had felt she and Rance would make a great on screen pair and luckily I made the call to bring her into our small fold. It would be the one time I managed to convince the rather by-the-book Rance to attempt a more improvisational approach to a scripted scene. My grandmother, her memory also one in jeopardy, was not able to retain a sequence of dialogue and so I relied on careful off camera prodding and the actor’s instinctual connecting to get the job done. And it was a joy to watch. The two actually meet for the first time on camera, their exchange an almost unrepeatable moment caught on camera, a moment I was very proud and happy to facilitate and now be able to always recall.
Our caravan made it’s way to Vermont where the last leg of production would conclude. Our first day was spent filming on a running train. Rance and I spent several hours, moving past the gorgeous fall painted landscape as we began to once again talk about life and even the lake creatures he recalled near his home as a child. I gave my cinematographer Chia-Yu a tacit “roll” signal and began to capture the moment of these stories from Rance as even in my best writing moments I could never mimic the truth of. The two characters, wayward travelers on a cross country journey, once again took on real life as we both laughed at this unusual field of work we had chosen.
Towards the final days, several other actors joined our troupe, including Esther Anderson, Sarah De La Isla, Jennifer Kamstock and Rance’s long time friend and one time neighbor, Robby Benson (I count myself as a life long fan of Ode To Billy Joe). I continued to feel that this film was cast by the gods as I could not have handpicked better collaborators. One in particular was the actor playing Rance’s son; Clint Howard. With the advantage of a lifetime of rehearsal, Clint came on for a long one day shoot as prepared and as passionate as his father. Much of their scenes I had played in a small lakeshore home where the two moved as characters around sensitive topics and each other in a carefully choreographed sequence between actor and camera. As an actor myself, working between them was a powerful sensorial experience, but as a director, stepping back and watching them pace each other in one of the pivotal moments in the story ranks as one of my favorite days on set ever.
Some film shoots feel they drag on forever, but a rare few feel like they end way too soon. Even though you know the footage has been shot, the money has run out and the crew needs to go home, you want it to continue on. This was one of those.
So on one of those final days, I found myself standing on that fork in the road with him. Our dialogue was now feeling less a prepared script and more just an organic part of the moment. With the sun falling over the hill, the two of us staring quietly at the other while the camera rolled, I could tell we both felt something similar. That thing. That moment where you can’t actually tell if it is good or bad, but you just know it is you and your partner and the absolute truth.
After the scene wrapped, Rance walked over to me, put his arm on my shoulder and said “you know Michael, that was a good one. I just felt it”
I did too Rance. And I will always thank you for that.
- Michael Worth – November 28, 2017