The Sound of Thunder An Interview with Heywood Gould By Andrew Rausch. Rolling Thunder is one of the most explosively violent films of the 1970s. Depending on whom you ask, it just may be the definitive revenge film...
Rolling Thunder is one of the most explosively violent films of the 1970s. Depending on whom you ask, it just may be the definitive revenge film. Bring up this magnificent little 1977 picture to a knowledgeable cineaste and watch their eyes light up. But mention the title Rolling Thunder to any casual film buff, and he or she probably won’t know what you’re talking about. Sadly, this gem of a film has fallen into relative obscurity over the years – largely due to its long-delayed legitimate DVD release. It wasn’t until 2011 that MGM made Rolling Thunder available through their Manufacture on Demand service.
Rolling Thunder tells the story of Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a seven-year prisoner of war returning home to a small town in Texas. Rane comes back to find his life in shambles; his wife has moved on and his son no longer remembers him. As Rane attempts to come to grips with these changes in his life, he loses his family and his hand to a band of baddies (led by none other than The Dukes of Hazzard’s James Best). Through this tragedy, Rane once again finds meaning in life, dedicating his existence to exacting bloody revenge against the men who took away his family. Armed with a prosthetic hook and a sawed-off shotgun, Rane reunites with P.O.W. Buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and asks him to accompany him on his murder spree. With nothing else going on in his life, Vohden nonchalantly agrees. The two men track down the murderers one by one, shooting them and giving them the occasional prosthetic hook to the testicles.
The film, written first by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader and then rewritten by Heywood Gould (Fort Apache, The Bronx, The Boys from Brazil), was produced by Twentieth Century-Fox. But then, as legend has it, acts of violence erupted at pre-release screenings, causing the studio to reconsider its affiliation with Rolling Thunder. Twentieth Century-Fox sold the film to American International Pictures, who released the film on October 17, 1977.
American International Pictures wasn’t able to give the film the advertising push that a bigger studio like Twentieth Century-Fox could have provided, so the film essentially came and went beneath the mainstream radar. Despite this, those who saw the film would remember it. Several critics gave the film commendable reviews, and Gene Siskel named Rolling Thunder one of the ten best films of 1977. It would also become one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, and he would later name both a character (Aldo "Rane" in Inglourious Basterds) and his short-lived video release company (Rolling Thunder Films) accordingly. It might also be noted that the film’s villain, James Best, was Tarantino’s acting teacher.
Paul Schrader has generally received most of the credit for Rolling Thunder over the past thirty-plus years, but today we know that Heywood Gould is responsible for the majority of what works in the film. According to the book Schrader on Schrader, in which Paul Schrader disavows the finished film, he describes his original screenplay as being something completely different from the resulting work. In Schrader’s version, Rane wasn’t a sympathetic protagonist, but rather another reincarnation of the relentless and racist Ethan Edwards character from The Searchers (similar to Schrader’s take in Taxi Driver). In another startling alteration from the story we now know, Schrader’s Rane wasn’t even a war hero, but a coward pretending to be a hero. Despite the extensive rewrites, Rolling Thunder does share one important aesthetic with other Schrader-scripted films – the film is a slow burn. It starts off rather quietly but eventually erupts into a violent free-for-all in which anything goes.
In an effort to learn more about this film that I so loved, I sat down with screenwriter, director, and novelist Heywood Gould for a brief conversation about Rolling Thunder.
Andrew Rausch:How did you become involved with Rolling Thunder?
Heywood Gould: It’s 1977, and I’m living in a furnished room in a fleabag hotel, working as a bartender for 30 bucks a shift, writing articles for the underground press, hack books about camping, headaches, Swedish massage, group sex; porno novels at 10 bucks a page. I’ve already had my first novel, One Dead Debutante, published. I’ve written a few horror scripts for local producers. One was for a Texas guy with a long white beard and a ten-gallon hat who made movies for drive-ins. Another script was about a couple of cops in the South Bronx called Fort Apache, The Bronx. My rate is a thousand dollars per script, but I managed to wangle $1,250 for Fort Apache because I have to travel back and forth to the Bronx. I’m not married or in school or in the Army anymore, so I’m a happy guy.
Unbeknownst to me, Bill Devane is reading my collected works. I get a call from an agent in Los Angeles. There’s a script that needs a rewrite. They’re sending me a ticket. I fly first class, and they put me up at the Beverly Hilton. The hotel is booked, so they give me a junior suite with unlimited room service. The cocktail waitress looks like Yvette Mimeux. I tell her I’m in town to do a movie. I get a nod and an uh-huh, because she’s heard this all before. I drink Martell VSOP and charge it to my room. She reconsiders. Hooray for Hollywood!
The next day I have a meeting at Fox. The producer, Larry Gordon, is fast-talking, thickly-bearded, born in Yazoo, Mississippi, late of American International Pictures. The director, John Flynn, has the booze flush and weary sneer of a kindred spirit. Devane is hot. He’s just played J.F.K. on a big TV movie. "He’s not happy with the script," Larry tells me, "and he thinks you can help it." The script is by Paul Schrader, already famous for Taxi Driver. They tell me to read it and react. "The lead needs to be more sympathetic," Gordon says. "We need better women." "Who doesn’t?" I say. No laugh. This is a tough town.
Later Flynn takes me down a long, quiet hallway with offices on both sides, lots of secretaries staring into space, invisible producers hollering orders. We go into the "script room," where Fox has kept original copies of every script ever written for them. "Sometimes I come in here and just browse," Flynn says. Poking around I find a shooting script of His Girl Friday, 206 pages. Another of Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. "Take ’em," Flynn says. "They don’t care."
He then informs me that Schrader was supposed to direct but has quit the picture.
AR:What was your initial reaction upon reading Schrader’s script?
HG: I read the script that afternoon. I can’t remember how I reacted. Only that I had different ideas about the characters. There were a few added scenes that came to mind, and I felt it needed changes to some scenes. I remember I thought the portrayal of Johnny’s – the Tommy Lee Jones character – family was patronizing; they were shown as dumb rednecks. In general, I thought the characters seemed like symbols and not human beings. And there was no interesting woman.
AR:By Schrader’s own admission, the William Devane character was a pretty unlikable person in that first draft. What can you tell me about that?
HG: I remember thinking that the Rane character had no human dimension; he was something like a Brechtian construct to advance an ideological message, and I could understand why an actor wouldn’t want to play the part. He had no connection with his son. There was no sympathy for a guy who’d been tortured in a POW camp for seven years. No appreciation of the emotional alterations you would have to go through to survive. No insight into the kind of person he was before his ordeal. I remember the biggest arguments I had in the 1960s were about demonizing the warrior along with the war. From the orthodox left-wing point of view the soldiers were "proletarian" victims – not perpetrators and certainly not mercenaries. I always felt the Jane Fonda faction were intellectual snobs looking down on the soldiers. I think that’s how I responded to the script.
AR:In what ways did racism manifest itself in the script?
HG: I really don’t remember any overt racism. I know that Larry Gordon would have insisted on removing it. After all, you can’t root for a racist. Maybe I saw a later draft.
AR:Quentin Tarantino has famously said that his favorite parts of Rolling Thunder were your contributions. What scenes featured your greatest contributions, and what were they?
HG: I didn’t know Tarantino said that. I’m flattered.
I pretty much put the whole script through the typewriter, changing stuff, adding lines, rewriting scenes, etc. I wrote the Charley/Cliff relationship pretty much from scratch – the rope scene, playing catch with the son... I wrote the Linda relationship all the way through. I wrote a scene in which she ties a knot in a cocktail cherry with her teeth. It made the released version but then inexplicably disappeared. I wrote the last part of the picture starting with Cliff going off in search of Charley to place them in the locations John Flynn had found – cattle pens, cafes, the brother, etc. The best scenes, as always, were written on the back of a menu while they are lighting the next set-up. I wrote the shooting scene with Linda and Charley like that, and a couple of speeches here and there when John said, "I need a line for this."
AR:Did you do any research on or interview any real-life P.O.W.s for Rolling Thunder? I ask because the "learn to love the rope" scene contains so much insight. When you see it, you think, "That’s got to be right. That must be the way it really is."
HG: I didn’t do any special research. The scene just bubbled up out of the murky depths of my psyche. The line "learn to love the rope" ultimately became the motto of the crew when the temperature went over 120° Fahrenheit during the shoot.
AR:Did you writeJohnny’s line, "I’m gonna kill a bunch of people"? There’s not much to that line, but it’s directness makes it brilliant. It’s easily one of my favorite movie lines.
HG: I honestly don’t remember. I wrote the scene with the hooker, so I guess I wrote the line.
AR:What are some your memories of the shoot?
HG: The crew worked hard – partied harder – and were ready to go the next morning. We were staying at the Holiday Inn and making good use of the bar. There was a quartet that could play any kind of music – from country and western to bebop; a female vocalist who could sing any style, from Peggy Lee to Brenda Lee. A place called Bill’s served huge plates of barbecued brisket. I could never eat pastrami after that. After the first week, I noticed we had a discreet contingent of Texas Rangers hanging around to protect us from obstreperous locals, and they studiously ignored the strong herbal odors coming from the prop truck.
We hired a high school marching band for the opening scene. They stood in full uniform in the heat for hours, doing take after take, for $10 a head – all cheerful and excited about being in a movie.
There was an all-night Mexican restaurant with cabrito and Dos Equis with waitresses who looked like Linda Darnell and a mariachi band in full regalia that serenaded us at two in the morning. An amiable old man in faded jeans and scuffed boots started hanging around, cadging drinks. One night he approached shyly and asked if we would come to his house for a barbecue. We didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He told us to start looking for his name when we got 20 miles out of town. We ultimately found his name, but it took us 10 more miles to get to his house. It turned out that he was one of the biggest ranchers in the area. He barbecued a whole steer and the fixin’s for us that day, and his daughter thanked us for being so "hospitable" to him. I caught a look of shrewd amusement in his eyes as we wandered around in awe.
We went to a town called Bandera to hear a band called Arky Blue’s. Everybody was standing around the bar with side arms. A guy with two pearl-handled Colts pounded me on the back, "Whaddaya think of our local boys?"
"Best music I ever heard," I said.
James Best flew in to play the boss villain. He sized me up. "I studied with Stella Adler," he told me. "I was one of Stella’s boys." Later I overheard him asking John Flynn, "Can I change some of his shit?" But he never did change a word.
In the bar of the Holiday Inn one night, one of the local stunt men said he had seen Roy Rogers’s riding double. The Hollywood stunt guys took this as unpardonable blasphemy and demanded a retraction. They knocked on my door. "We’re choosin’ up sides in the parking lot," they said. Unfamiliar with the lingo, I thought they were organizing a ballgame so I said, "I’m in." I went downstairs and found myself in the middle of a serious brawl. The next day, the stunt guys came over to me and said, "Hey, you New York writers can really handle yourselves." To this day that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in this business.
AR:What wasJohn Flynn like, and what are your thoughts on him as a director?
HG: If John Flynn had been born 30 years earlier, he would have directed 30 more films and there would be John Flynn festivals all over the noir circuit. He was always prepared, and he always knew what he wanted. And he could back it up with quotes from his encyclopedic knowledge of films. He’d say, "This is a Kurosawa 150," or "Joe Macdonald used the key light like this in such and such film." The last part of the picture, from Cliff’s search for Charley to the final shootout in the brothel, is pure cinema at its best.
John and I later became neighbors when I moved out west, which in Los Angeles meant we were only a half hour’s drive from one another. We cooked up a lot of movie ideas, but we never got past the pitch stage. He spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get something going and he never gave up hope.
AR:I’ve heard rumors that William Devane and Linda Haynes didn’t get along and even argued on set. Do you have any memories of that?
HG: Bill Devane was the motor. The picture wouldn’t have been made without him. He had script approval, which was why I was hired. He had cast approval and read with all the auditioning actors, so I’m sure he approved Linda Haynes. Linda is perfect in the role. We could see how great she was in the dailies, and her performance didn’t have to be punched up in the editing room. Bill was tough and protected his character, but he never pulled the star act. He knew how he wanted to play the role, and he turned out to be right. Tension on a set is good; it shows that the actors care. In the end, everything Bill and Linda did was for the good of the picture.
AR:The film disappeared for a while. Over the past few years, however, it’s been making a comeback as legions of new fans have discovered the film. Has the rediscovery and newfound popularity of Rolling Thunder surprised you?
HG: I saw the movie the week it was released on a cold, rainy night in a theater on 42nd Street. Homeless guys were washing their socks in the bathroom; hookers were doing business in the balcony; a bag lady was having an animated conversation – with herself. But everybody stopped what they were doing to watch the movie. And a guy screamed, "Kill all them motherfuckers," when the shootout began. So I knew we had a hit.
Back to Issue 16