As a fan of the movies Perfect Alibi and A Smile Like Yours, I was honored to be able to sit down with writer and director Kevin Meyer to talk about his life, his films, and what the future has in store for this award winner. After beginning his career with one of the greatest student films in the history of USC Cinema (Divided We Fall), he has gone on to adapt many screenplays that you have come to love.
The first question that I obviously have to ask is, what made you decide to pursue a career in film?
My father was a documentary filmmaker for 35 years. I grew up carrying around his 16mm camera and traveling with him. I didn’t initially set out to make films, but when I got to college it just seemed so natural. After two years at the University of Oklahoma, I transferred to the University of Southern California School of Cinema. It was an amazing experience working in an environment that trained you exclusively to make theatrical motion pictures. I sacrificed everything to make my student films. Everything. At one time I was eating one meal every other day. I sold everything I owned including my extra clothes and my car, just to buy extra film and equipment. It was incredibly painful being so broke, but it was worth it. Divided We Fall has become somewhat legendary in the student film community. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
You have directed many notable films. Tell us about the film or opportunity that got away.
No doubt the biggest one that got away was a picture titled, All the Western Stars, based on the novel of the same name by Philip Lee Williams. The story centers around two 75 year old guys who meet in a retirement home, where they are surrounded by death and dying. Rather than accept their fate, they escape in the middle of the night without a penny to their name and hitchhike across the country to Texas. Along the way they meet odd characters, find adventure, and a reason to live. It’s also a movie about finding love at any age. It’s one of the most heart-felt stories I have ever read or adapted.
At the time, I had just completed Perfect Alibi, and A Smile Like Yours was in production. I had had my eye on the book, All the Western Stars for quite some time, but Richard Zanuck held the rights in a deal with MGM. Then one day I found out the film rights expired and I quickly brought the project to Rysher Entertainment, who had produced my last two movies. They bought the book rights for me outright and brought in David Valdes (The Green Mile, Unforgiven) to produce. Then Jack Lemmon came to us, because he also had been following the book. It was like it was all mean to be.
We had to wait a year for Jack’s schedule to clear, which was fine because I had to adapt the screenplay. As time got closer, we brought on Academy Award winners Freddie Francis as Director of Photography from England (Glory, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Cape Fear) and the great production designer, Henry Bumstead (Vertigo, The Sting, Unforgiven, etc.). All of a sudden, I was surrounded by incredibly talented Academy Award winners who shared the same vision that I did.
We opened offices in 5 states, from Virginia to South Texas. James Garner came on-board to star opposite Jack Lemmon. We started building sets and had 40 people on the payroll. Then, about 5 weeks from production, I was called in David Valdes’ office – he had some bad news. Jack Lemmon had asked that the project be postponed while he did the sequel to Grumpy Old Men. It was devastating, as we had waited a year for him and spent over a million bucks in pre-production. The studio put everything on hold. Then, Rysher began to have financial problems and the picture was shelved.
It was devastating to me. I wanted to make that movie more than all the others combined. And I intend to still make it one day. It’s an incredibly heart-felt and inspirational movie.
Working with Teri Garr was a real treat. We would talk for hours each day about her work with Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) and Coppola (One From the Heart) and Spielberg (Close Encounters). She was incredibly funny. Many times we would just lose it, laughing in the middle of a scene and have to take a break to compose.
At the time, Teri was suffering from the early stages of MS and no one knew it. She had a slight limp and a bad foot. During one scene she has to run up to a house with a gun. She dropped the gun on her foot and I could see the tears in her eyes. But she never let on. She was a pro all the way.
During A Smile Like Yours, Lauren was dating Jim Carrey. He would sneak onto the set and we would hang out in back watching the video monitor. That was pretty cool.
I’ve also done some work with Ed Harris and John Lithgow. You haven’t played golf until you’ve played with those two guys. Hilarious. I’m pretty sure I shot the worst round of my life, but it didn’t matter. Those are two of the nicest and funniest guys you will ever meet.
I recently read that your student film “Divided We Fall” could be made into a documentary. Can you tell us anything about that?
All I know is that my partner, Jeff Burr, has been approached by some film students in Georgia who are doing this. We’ve turned over hundreds of photos, some documentary footage my dad shot of the production, and we’re waiting to see what they come up with after the interview stage. Next stop will be the DVD for Divided We Fall and the documentary.
What is your most memorable experience on a set?
I have so many. This is really hard.
I remember during Invasion of Privacy it rained for 3 weeks during the production. The crew guys were constantly wet, slogging cable and setting up lights in a monsoon. They were so dedicated, it made me want to work harder. I never forgot that.
On Under Investigation we had a scene where the car Harry Hamlin is riding in is involved in a high speed chase that nearly hits a school bus. For some reason, I thought it would be beneficial to take a ride with the stunt driver on a practice run. It scared the crap out of me. When the producer found out he went ballistic. “We can’t have our director riding with stunt men and getting killed in a car crash!” Needless to say, I won’t be attempting that again.
One of the coolest experiences was behind the scenes on All the Western Stars with Academy Award nominated producer, David Valdes. Early on in pre-production, he and I decided we would take the road trip that our characters would take from Richmond, Virginia to Del Rio, Texas. So, we flew to Richmond, rented a car and drove the route stopping at the places our characters would stop – Graceland, Dollywood, Dealey Plaza (where President Kennedy was shot). David and I bonded along the way and we made a pact not to wash the car until the journey was over. It was Spring and the roads between Virginia and South Texas were swarming with all sorts of bugs. By the time we finished the trip we couldn’t even see out the windshield. It looked like our car had been ravaged by bloody zombies.
In the end my most memorable experience was always at the end of each shooting day. I felt so blessed, so full of love and emotion. There’s nothing on Earth like the experience of developing a movie family and setting out on the grand adventure of making a film.
Many of us know you professionally, but tell us something about you personally. What do you do when you are not engrained in film?
I watch film. Seriously. Film is my life. I can’t imagine going a day without it.
But I love college football. Saturdays in the Fall are magic. My best friend, Rex Linn (CSI Miami), throws a party every Saturday for our friends. The door is open all day, people come and go and watch football and eat our cooking. In fact, we shot the pilot to a college football cooking show, called Game Day with Rex and Kevo last year. We hope to travel around to various football games and tail gate and cook with the fans next season.
Do you have any advice for anyone out there wanting to pursue a career in film?
Always follow your heart. Stick to your guns if you have a vision and don’t conform. Hollywood is full of conformists. Be passionate and others will see it and gravitate to you.
Do you have anything upcoming that you can share with the world?
Last year I adapted the book, Twelve Mighty Orphans by author Jim Dent, into a screenplay. It’s the true story of a rag tag group of orphans in the Great Depression and their coach, Rusty Russell. These kids had nothing. Not even shoes. They came from horrific homes and their lives were full of fighting and hopelessness. Coach Russell made them into a football team that captured the hearts of the entire nation, including President Roosevelt. This little group of 12 players were small, had no uniforms and no equipment early on – and they beat the most powerful teams in the state of Texas. 40,000 people would attend their games. Two of those players went on to play in the NFL. It’s a great story and I hope it makes it to the screen by next year.
I am just finishing an original called The Rules of Armadillos which I hope to get out into the market soon. It’s an inspiring story about overcoming intense personal loss and addiction, using music as a backdrop. With the right cast it has a chance to be something really special.