Working with James Coburn; Anne Archer; Slim Pickens; and Lois Nettleton in New Mexico on a movie I co-wrote
As a costumer, I had worked with actor, Steve Ihnat quite a few times when he again came into my life on a TV series on which I was working. We traded stories about what we’d been up to -- he had just finished directing and starring in a movie he had financed himself. I had recently completed a first script with my new writing partner, Dave Cass.
Ihnat asked to read Dave’s and my script. When he had finished, he wanted to know if I’d be interested in co-writing a rodeo story with him. Of course, I said yes. And that’s how The Honkers was born.
Since we were both working, Ihnat and I spent weekends writing our rough draft out by his pool. I would then take what we had come up with to my place, where I sat at my typewriter every night, putting it to paper, adding more descriptive stuff.
At four weeks, we had our first draft. It was only then that we attended a real, live, rodeo to help us with the authentic details and background color. After that stuff was added, we had our final screenplay. Originally titled, "Home Town Boy," Ihnat decided he didn’t like that title, and we eventually changed to just plain "Honker" – a word that describes a certain type of woman found in rodeo circles, or, a real, rough bull.
Ihnat’s agent had our script sold to United Artists within a month. Levy-Gardner-Laven became attached and we went into pre-production almost immediately.
Since about three people usually handle all the important responsibilities on a small production, I ended up in my usual occupation as Wardrobe Man. I wasn’t too disappointed; at least it kept me close to the project by allowing me to be on the set throughout the entire shoot.
We prepared the show out of the Goldwyn Studios, the same lot where "The Fugitive" had been filmed. That made me to feel at home as I created the costumes for the stars, James Coburn, Slim Pickens, Anne Archer, and Lois Nettleton.
Levy-Gardner-Laven, producers of "The Honkers," was one of the many Hollywood movie companies in the early 70s that used the Cinemobile -- an all-in-one production vehicle that was used instead of numerous trucks. It contained everything needed to shoot a movie: all the camera, sound, grip and electrical equipment. Our particular unit was the double-decked model, which meant it also had a multi-seat bus with dressing rooms and restrooms on a second floor.
One really good memory I have of pre-production is that of my riding over the Hollywood Hills as a passenger while Slim Pickens drove. We were on our way to a Western Store in Burbank; we were in his Mustang Shelby Cobra doing about seventy-five miles per hour over the zig-zaggy curves of Laurel Canyon.
Loosening my death grip on the seat as he slid into one of the easier curves, I happened to glance over at Slim. He was hunched over the Mustang’s steering wheel with the same devilish look in his eyes he had when he rode the Atomic Bomb like a bucking bronco in the movie, "Dr. Strangelove."
The real town of Carlsbad, New Mexico stood in for our script city of Trancton, Texas. The first scene we shot was with Lew and his Uncle Harley at the old homestead. I was quite moved to hear words I had a part in writing come alive when delivered by James Coburn and Luther Elmore.
Lois Nettleton arrived several days later. Her scenes, the ones that took place in her character’s home, were filmed in about eight days or so, in and around a house we had rented and refurbished for the movie in the Carlsbad suburbs.
The producers, Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy hired Harry Vold’s rodeo company from Colorado, making it possible for us to actually produce our own rodeo for the picture. Besides bringing all the livestock, Harry’s outfit dragged along a whole bunch of RCA Rodeo Cowboys, who worked as – played the parts of – the rodeo performers in the movie.
The parade was a different story. Through the hard work of production assistant, James Rokos, and hard hitting TV advertising on stations that spanned an area as far as Lubbock, Texas, in one direction, and Tucson, Arizona, in the other, we were able to attract a crowd of several thousand people to line the main street of Carlsbad.
The parade itself was made up of over a hundred entries – from marching bands, to equestrian teams. We shot the parade with seven cameras, and were able to rerun the parade several times by circling the entire procession around three city blocks until it could begin again for the cameras.
To save time and money, the big scenes in "The Honkers" -- when Lew, Coburn’s character, rides the yellow bull over and over until both animal and man are subdued by each other -- had to be cut out completely when the shoot was about halfway through.
That left just one very dangerous scene for Coburn’s stunt double, Chris Howell, to do. Chris had to hang up – get tangled in the bull rider’s-rope – and let the bucking bull, a real one, flop him around like a rag doll until the rodeo cowboy doubling for Slim Pickens, Chuck Henson, could untie him, and literally save his life. No computer generated stuff in 1971.
Then there was the fake bull designed by our special effects man, Cliff Wenger, and driven by stunt coordinator, Jerry Gatlin. This six-wheeled marvel, actually an all terrain vehicle with a phony bull’s body on a fulcrum set above the vehicle’s chassis, is what Jim Coburn rode for his close-ups.
This was filmed with a long-focal lens, exactly as the other riders had been in previous shots. When viewed on the big screen, Coburn looked like he was riding the bucking horses and bulls just like the real cowboys.
When filming had concluded, instead of flying home with the rest of the cast and crew, I chose to ride with Tom Pickens, Slim’s son. We towed the two horses his dad had purchased in New Mexico. I wanted to see what it was like for the cowboys we had just worked with felt like when they traveled from rodeo to rodeo doing the same thing.
We stopped along the way to feed and water the animals, the first night in Tucson, and the second at the Grand Canyon. Tom was either a slow driver, or we were just tired from the filming and needed time to relax. Most drivers make the same distance in one day.