George Hickenlooper (1963-2010)

I was friends with George Hickenlooper, the director of the stunning HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE.  We bar-hopped around Austin most of last Thursday night after the Austin Film Festival presentation of his new film, CASINO JACK.  We were making plans to do some cool things.  One of them was to independently record him doing a HEARTS OF DARKNESS commentary, which he wasn’t asked to do by the studio for its recent Blu-ray release.  This morning, he was found dead in Denver at age 47.

I met him George by email back in early 2007, when I was still writing for Hollywood Elsewhere.  Harvey Weinstein had forced a rush re-editing of Factory Girl on him that he didn’t agree with.  Somehow (wink wink), a copy of George’s original edit found its way into my hands.  I sent a draft of a review I’d written to George, who shortly thereafter informed me that things were progressing well enough that he’d get most of his preferred edit in the DVD edition.  I still prefer George’s cut, but that’s just me.

George and I had maintained an email and phone correspondence since then, and we finally met in person and hung out two days ago at the closing night of the Austin Film Festival.  The audience was tuned right in and the room was electric.  Casino Jack went over like gangbusters.  Jon Lovitz, who steals the movie in various places, just kept letting zingers rip during the Q&A.  It was a great closer.

I’ve admired George as a filmmaker since high school, when I first watched Hearts of Darkness on VHS.  The unvarnished look at the chaos behind the making of Apocalypse Now just plain knocked me on my ass.  I tracked down his early work as best I could, like the 22-minute interview he did with Dennis Hopper called Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair, or the brilliant Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas, which the Criterion Collection is including on an upcoming box set.  It details the behind-the-scenes events of making The Last Picture Show, and Bogdanovich’s affair with Cybil Shepard.

He directed the short film that would become Sling Blade.  He also made a 14-minute piece called Monte Hellman: American Auteur, which I’ve never managed to track down, but which apparently puts the under-appreciated career of the director of Two-Lane Blacktop in proper perspective.

He adapted an Orson Welles script for his William Hurt-starring 1999 feature The Big Brass Ring.  Mick Jagger performed alongside Andy Garcia for him in 2001’s Man from Elysian Fields.  My friends in the music world know him best as “the guy who directed Mayor of the Sunset Strip”, a brilliant documentary on Rodney Bingenheimer (“Rodney on the ROQ”).  It’s a shame that Factory Girl got caught up in tabloid gossip.

He directed a series of brilliant “Speechless” shorts during the WGA strike.  There’s an archive of all 37 videos here.

Before Casino Jack, George made a six-episode documentary series called “Hick” Town about his cousin John helping coordinate the logistics behind hosting the 2008 Democratic convention as Mayor of Denver (he’s finishing a run for Governor as we speak).  George told me Thursday night that he was working on a followup film of undetermined length and scope about that same campaign.

For a couple of months now, he and I had been talking about recording a commentary track for Hearts of Darkness, one where he’d get to say whatever he wanted about it.  I was in the early stages of organizing a screening of not only Hearts, but also Picture This here in Austin.  That’s what he was referring to in this Facebook update when he says “hope to come back soon”:

“Thanks to all my new friends in Austin for making last night’s screening such a great success! I love Austin! One of the if not the best audience in the world. Literally. Hope to come back soon… On to Denver!”

The last conversation I had with him went something like this:

Me:  “When are you leaving?  You want to get this commentary recorded?”

George:  “I’d love to, but I’ve gotta head out to Denver in the morning.  We’ve got an election to win and a screening to do.  I don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s looking pretty good.”

Me: “The first or the second?”

George:  “The first, and hopefully the second, you know?”

Me:  “We’ll get it done when we see you back soon, then, right?

George:  “For sure.”

Me:  “I gotta run, man, I’m beat.”

George:  “I love this town, can’t wait to come back.  We’ll have more time to hang out then.”

He gave me a slap on the shoulder, and I turned to leave.  I’m still processing the whole thing.

I spent three years forgetting to “friend” him on Facebook, and I could care less.  What I would have really missed was not trading all the phone calls and emails with him over the last three years.  He was a real badass.  He stood up for the integrity of his artform and the badasses who influenced him, from Monte Hellman to Peter Bogdanovich to Roger Corman.  He was the real deal as a filmmaker, and a genuinely good friend.  He was a true independent.

Netflix some of his stuff if you’ve never seen any of it (Picture This and others are on Watch Instantly).  It’s all worth a look.