The Drive-In Theater: An Interview With Graham Leader and Phillip Schopper

The Drive-In Theater returns with an interview featuring Phillip Schopper and Graham Leader, editor and producer from Heartworn Highways.
By    June 13, 2016


“Here’s to you, old Skinny Dennis,” sings Guy Clark on “L.A. Freeway,” the second song from his debut (and best) album, Old No. 1. This line not only helps introduce Heartworn Highways, the tremendous 1976 country music documentary, but also the beginning of outlaw country music in Nashville. The line took on a dual meaning after the untimely passing of Dennis Sanchez at age 28. Heart failure as a result of Marfan syndrome took his life. At the time of “L.A. Freeway,” however, Clark wasn’t mourning the loss of Sanchez. He was instead lamenting one of the few things he’d miss about L.A. in preparation for a return to Nashville. Highways is dedicated to Dennis, and it’s hard not to feel a lingering sense of dread and the end of an era amidst the film’s ecstatic capturing of Nashville’s peak country moment.

Guy Clark died a few weeks ago, Steve Young a couple of months prior. David Allen Coe hasn’t been active for about a decade and Townes Van Zandt has been dead for almost 20 years. You live forever until you die. Just watch Heartworn Highways, an excellent music documentary made in 1976, released in 1981, and gaining a Light in the Attic push in 2016.

Heartworn is a boozy romp with low aspirations but inspiring results. Directed by Jim Szalapski, the film captures a highly specific moment in time that’s growing more popular by the Townes Van Zandt re-issue. But the film doesn’t necessarily reckon with the weight of its own characters. It’s observational, not judgmental. I spoke with the film’s producer, Graham Leader, and its editor, Phillip Schopper. We talked about working with Townes, creating under appreciated art, and how a crew can shape the content of a film. —Will Schube

A note: I spoke with Leader and Schopper before the heartbreaking passings of Steve Young and Guy Clark. The interview has been unedited despite the knowledge of this information.

When Director Jim Szalapski first pitched Heartworn Highways, was it more Jim and his personality that you were attracted to, or were you prior fans of the outlaw country scene Jim was spotlighting?

Graham Leader: Well we got to know Jim through the film. I met Jim in Europe. We became very close friends and the film was something that he had been thinking about for a long time. And so to be Jim’s friend was to hear him talk about the film and hear him play this music. I suppose over the course of about a year both in Europe and in New York I grew to really appreciate the music.

At one point we went down to Nashville to see what it was like. I was in the art world which had gotten really static. And so we went to Nashville together. That’s where I met Guy Clark and really got a taste for that world and that scene. I was really thrilled. It was such a surprising and different culture. The world itself was a different place. I just thought it would make a really interesting film.

Jim had this idea that it would all be very manageable to make. The idea had really been nurtured. He thought about the musicians he wanted to use and the people he wanted to work with. The sound guy, the grip, he had a very clear sense of how he could achieve the film. All he really needed was the money, so I just said to him, “Let’s just make the film.” So it wasn’t Jim coming to me and pitching the story, it was us becoming friends and becoming acquainted with the music and the world. The decision was made on the spot and we were shooting the film a few weeks later. Once the decision was made, it was almost in pre-production.

Phillip Schopper: Jim and I had been friends for several years at this point. Jim interviewed me for my first paying job in film. He hired me to be his assistant, and that’s the only assisting job I’ve ever done [laughs]. I went right on to being an editor after that. And by the end of that little project, we were working very closely together and we were very likeminded. We kind of had a pact because we both wanted to make a film and we decided whoever first gets a film off the ground the other person would work on it and support it in whatever way possible. And Jim, thanks to Graham, got it going.

I grew up in Phoenix, AZ and spent all of my life up until that point out there. My association with country music was the kind of stuff you heard in the ’50s and ’60s. A real red neck music. Formulaic. It wasn’t appealing at all. But Jim introduced me to these country artists who were writing their own music and it reminded me of the music movements of the late ’60s. I’m not a musician, but I certainly like the music of the late ’60s. I was out in San Francisco during all of the ’60s. And the music Jim was showing me kind of followed through, but in a different genre.

What was it about that stale country scene that these musicians were revolting against?

Phillip Schopper: It was what was referred to at the time as second generation country. And the new stuff, the outlaw country was referred to as either outlaw country or 3rd generation country. It had more in common with the genuineness of the country music that arose in the ’20s and ’30s. It had more in common with the music these people’s grandparents listened to than their parents. The music that was happening in Nashville–and essentially no music had been happening in Austin before this–was essentially run by studios whose heads were in LA. They were just doing what they thought their audience wanted and what would make money for them.

Graham Leader: Willie Nelson was just such a big star, he wouldn’t sit comfortably in the film. But he wasn’t a part of the world they were revolting against.

Phillip Schopper: He was a renegade. We liked Willie. He was the only person in his genre of his age, who was wearing his hair long. He was able to keep his old fans, but attract a whole new crowd, too.

The timing of the film is pretty remarkable. Guy had just released Old No. 1. A lot of the musicians were at their creative peaks. Did you realize while you were filming them that you were catching them at this perfect time?

Graham Leader: You never know what’s going on until later. It just happened. It was just pure chance, fortuitous, lightning in a bottle. But we didn’t realize it. We didn’t even benefit off of it until after Jim had died, really. The film was always revered and loved by those who knew it, but the film was never released. It was only in retrospect that we were able to appreciate the fact that this group of people were all gathered around Guy’s world and life.

Phillip Schopper: And Jim had always wanted it to center on these people. But he was trying to put it together a good two years earlier before we actually shot it. If we had shot it then, it would have been the same people by and large, but it only happened when it did because Graham showed up and we decided to get going. It just happened to be at kind of a good time. And Jim had a very smart idea to shoot it at the holidays because people would be home. They wouldn’t be out on the road touring. It would be a good time to catch them.

As great as the songs are, a huge part of the film is the characters and the culture they’re a part of. What do you think it was about Guy and Townes that made them so attractive as leading figures?

Phillip Schopper: In both cases their originality and their enormous talent. They also both respected each other enormously. They were original people. And Jim spotted that immediately. As soon as he was introduced to them.

Graham Leader: David Allen Coe was the third person. Both for his audacity while performing, but also because of his songwriting genius. It was tough to see that because he was such a character. And Jim saw each of them as very, very different characters. Townes was the jester genius and Guy was the very deliberate writer, and David the sort of outrageous one. I think Jim just saw them as very interesting and very different characters that could hold the film together.

The film really evolved from there, the characters proved to be its core. But from there he wanted to showcase other performances too. At the time we were wondering if it was a mistake and should have just focused on those three people because the film is remarkably complex and is kind of demanding in a way. I don’t think people could quite figure out what they were looking at or who they were supposed to follow. It’s such a mosaic.

Phillip Schopper: But we’re happy and glad once we got in the editing room that we went the way we went. As Graham was saying, when we finished it and had our showing, it was kind of unconventional for a documentary. Jim and I used to joke that we had made a content free documentary. This was an experience and a feeling.

Pauline Kael wrote a great review in the New Yorker. She could have easily ignored it. It wasn’t making a splash, no one was talking about it. But even she was saying that she thought it would have been nice if they had told us as we were going along what we were looking at. We were defying conventional expectations. We’ve gotten used to the ways documentaries can be structured, but back then it was different.

What’s it like working so hard on something and not being able to find a wide audience?

Graham Leader: It’s such a brutally difficult business. By the time you wake up to it and there’s no way around it, it’s too late. You’re kind of trapped in it.

Phillip Schopper: Any artist has experienced it. You really learn that you must deal with rejection. And any artist learns that. It’s part of life. You’re creating things the best you can but it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to see them the same. You have to let it not be something that informs your way of working.

A big part of the film is the drinking culture around Nashville at that time. What’s it like reflecting on that and seeing those habits become apparent? Do you struggle with that at all? The way you witnessed Townes Van Zandt in his alcoholic state, a disease he would eventually succumb to.

Graham Leader: Well when you’re 25 and 26 years old, you feel immortal and invincible. You don’t really understand it until you’re too far gone or it’s too late or you learn to control it. We weren’t filming it for the kicks, it was sort of just the world we were in. There wasn’t any moral judgement or any sort of thrill. It just happened to be the way everybody lived.

Phillip Schopper: We had enjoyed living that way ourselves to a fair degree. That can go either way, too. For all the great artists who have suffered for their indulgences, there are many who are great and pulled through. It just has a lot to do with genetics and environment. There’s nothing as a filmmaker that you’ll be able to do. You can just document it and look at it and think about it in retrospect.

Graham Leader: There’s no question that if we hadn’t been the same age and generation as everyone else in the film it would have been very different. We wouldn’t have had that same sense of kinship. We were part of that world.

Phillip Schopper: We certainly wouldn’t have had that access.

What impact do you feel you had on the actual film?

Phillip Schopper: I think Jim, Graham, and I, we were the ones handling the footage in the end. But we had a diverse and eclectic and extraordinarily talented group of people working on it. Jim very carefully chose who he was going to work with.

How much does the renewed interest in the film mean to you?

Graham Leader: It’s been a tremendous source of validation and a reward in itself. I think to be associated with Light in the Attic is already a great bonus, but to have Matt [Sullivan, LITA founder] dedicate his own time and resources to doing something very special and definitive is very gratifying.

Graham, Why did you decide to revisit the Nashville scene with Heartworn Highways Revisited?

Graham Leader: The people that wound up in Revisited , those were not really musicians that I had anything to do with. I had been approached already for a few years with the idea of doing a sequel to the original. Just sort of branding the original film as a Heartworn brand. I had given it a fair bit of thought and I figured it was something that might be worth doing. I met this guy Wayne Price, and he directed it. He spent a lot of time living in this world, following music festivals and shooting music videos. He knew some of these musicians personally already.

He actually hadn’t seen Heartworn Highways. We were introduced by a mutual friend while I was auditioning directors. We got to make the film totally independent, free and clear of any guiding influences other than the style of the original film. That was a point of reference all the way through. Wayne had studied Jim’s work and the idea was to bring those qualities forward into a new film. I think we’ve managed to achieve that.

I suppose that’s where my influence lay. In ensuring that the qualities that we all loved in the original film were recognized and honored. So the new film is a tribute as much as anything else. I suppose the original film was sort of in a vault. It was about 25 years before the DVD was released. And even though it got stunning reviews it was never marketed.

What was it like seeing Guy Clark come back for Revisited?

Graham Leader: We filmed at his house and it was a shock to see him. I hadn’t seen him since the mid ’90s. Time has been kind of brutal. You can see the black eye. He had taken a spill in the parking lot and smacked his head on the curb. He certainly didn’t mind being on film. I saw him play maybe 10 or 12 years ago, actually. When we went down to talk with him in Nashville he wasn’t well, but he was very welcoming. The guys that came over were thrilled to be there. We just had a full day. What you see in the film is pretty much what it was like. It was very, very relaxed. He’s not always a social guy, you know. But it was a really lovely day.

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