Steven Soderbergh Revives 1970 Rarity ‘End of the Road’ Co-Written By Terry Southern: ‘That’s What Independent Film Should Feel Like’
Like the carefree spirit of the late 1960s, the independent film “End of the Road,” produced and co-written by Terry Southern, didn’t last long in a hardened new era. But thanks to one of modern cinema’s most influential filmmakers, this controversial “lost” movie from indie film’s daringly free-spirited countercultural days is getting a fresh start.
Warner Home Video will issue “End of the Road” on DVD Tuesday, Sept. 18 — the first time it will have appeared in the format. But the release isn’t happening because the public has been clamoring for it, though maybe it should have been. It’s because Steven Soderbergh wanted it to happen.
“I thought then it needed to be seen,” Soderbergh says in a telephone interview. “I have to give Warner Bros. props. The physical DVD market is not one that’s generating the revenue it used to. And for them to be putting this out is a big deal and a great thing. So I hope there are enough cinephiles out there who pick it up.”
Soderbergh is a longtime devotee of Southern, a celebrated literary figure of the era and co-screenwriter of cultural signposts “Dr. Strangelove,” “Barbarella” and “Easy Rider.” (Southern also was close friends with “End of the Road” director and co-writer Aram Avakian.) And Warner Bros. has released some of Soderbergh’s most commercial films, including “Magic Mike,” “Contagion” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. So in exchange for the studio, which held the rights to the Allied Artists release, reviving “End of the Road,” Soderbergh agreed to shoot a companion 30-minute making-of documentary, “An Amazing Time: A Conversation About ‘End of the Road,’” to give it some marketplace currency. With assistant Corey Bayes, Soderbergh worked on the doc while shooting his 2011 thriller “Contagion.”
“End of the Road” is adapted from a 1958 John Barth novel about a recent university graduate, Jacob Horner, who suffers a mental crisis and seeks treatment from a mysterious doctor that encourages him to teach English grammar at a nearby college. The cast included Stacy Keach as Horner, James Earl Jones as Doctor D, Harris Yulin as a college professor and Dorothy Tristan as his wife, with whom Horner has a tragic affair that results in an unwanted pregnancy. (At the time, Tristan was Avakian’s wife.) The film updates the narrative to the late 1960s, when society was being ripped apart by the Vietnam War, riots and assassinations.
Southern and Avakian had met while studying French literature at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill after World War II and stayed close friends. “In Paris, Dad and Terry were into jazz, writing, getting high a lot, more writing, seeing cool girls, traveling around Europe,” explains Alexandra Avakian, Aram and Tristan’s daughter, via email. “Dad and Terry were über-hip, Beat, existentialist. They had their own view of the universe.”
A true indie production, “End of the Road” was shot outside the studio system in Great Barrington, MA, with financing from Max Raab, whose Villager company designed preppy clothing for young women. By all reports Raab left the crew alone, and as a result the actual filming experience was a positive one — almost communal, if Soderbergh’s documentary is any indication.
“This was a very nostalgic piece for me, because it’s clear everybody felt like the shooting of the film was a great experience and a unique one in their careers,” Soderbergh says of making the doc. “You look at that and say, ‘It’s not like that anymore.’ It’s very rare for people to go off and have an experience like that, for a variety of reasons — not just that the business has changed a lot. My hope is that you would watch this and go, ‘Wow, I wish I’d been a part of that!’”
“End of the Road” made little money initially, though its fortunes might have been different had the nine-page inside feature on the film that Life magazine was planning for the Nov. 7, 1969, cover not been bumped for an interview with Paul McCartney refuting the “Paul Is Dead” rumors then sweeping pop culture. The film’s box-office failure was partly because of its mind-blowing, avant-garde techniques. But it was also because the film had received an X-rating based on two scenes: an infamous shot of a mental patient appearing to have sex with a chicken, and a longer, gruelingly realistic scene of a botched abortion. (The film is now rated R.)
Southern died in 1995 at age 71 in relative obscurity and in debt, despite his incredible run in the 1960s. His novel “Candy” was a naughty sensation; he was Oscar-nominated for his work on “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider”; he was credited as a founder of New Journalism for his 1962 Esquire article “Twirling at Ole Miss”; he covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for Esquire along with Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and John Sack; and he landed on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” record (wearing shades).
“I knew who he was through the seminal films that had his name on them,” Soderbergh says. “And I had read ‘Candy’ and [his later novel] ‘Blue Movie.’ I knew he was a funny, smart cat who was legendary for punching [scripts] up and having really good ideas. Clearly, he was a real force and a fascinating figure.”
It was about 10 years ago that Soderbergh learned of the struggles that Nile Southern, Terry’s son and the executor of his estate, was having paying off his father’s debts. He then had a meeting with Nile arranged through Elliott Gould, a friend of Terry Southern’s who had played a recurring role in Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies. Soderbergh helped Nile place his father’s literary estate with the New York Public Library and learned of the son’s enthusiasm for “End of the Road,” his father’s great “lost” cinematic project.
“I always thought it never got the attention it deserved,” says Nile, who now lives in Boulder, CO, and once interviewed Avakian, who died in 1987 at age 60, for a 1982 New York University class on the counterculture. “I used to see it in the ’70s at Cinema Village, where it played often and had cult status. I posted black-and-white pictures of Avakian in the Village, so into the film was I. I’ve been a champion of its merits since I was in my early 20s.”
(In an auspicious coincidence, as “End of the Road” was nearing release, Nile received a $20,000 matching production grant from the NEA for “Dad Strangelove,” his and Diane Markrow’s in-progress documentary about his father. Soderbergh is the executive producer; D.A. Pennebaker is a consulting producer. “I’m looking for any footage of my father,” Nile says.)
Barth, however, has been on record as not liking the film adaptation of “End of the Road.” In an introduction to a 1988 edition of the novel, he wrote some negative remarks, especially about the chicken scene. (“Chicken Man,” by the way, was played by the late poet Joel Oppenheimer.) Soderbergh did not interview Barth for his “End of the Road” documentary, but he may get the chance to talk with the author soon since he owns the rights to Barth’s novel “The Sot-weed Factor,” which he plans to turn into a 10- or 12-part miniseries.
Alexandra, a photographer and Nile’s friend since childhood, also has long been an advocate for the film. “Thanks to Steven and Warner Bros., the release means my father has a voice again, though he passed away in 1987,” she says. “For me it is nothing less than a fabulous occasion.I hope all kinds of people will see this film across a wide spectrum. They should approach it with an open mind; see it several times. ‘End of the Road’ is a cry for help on behalf of America in a tragic time in many ways. My father was a social critic and any way you look at this film you will see something of value that you will never forget.”
Soderbergh also has respect for the director, who co-wrote the “End of the Road” screenplay with Southern and Dennis McGuire. Avakian had co-directed a 1959 documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” and then established himself as a top editor on “The Miracle Worker,” “Mickey One” and “You’re a Big Boy Now” before choosing “End of the Road” to direct. (He went on to make two other films, “Cops and Robbers” and “11 Harrowhouse.”)
Working with the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (“The Godfather,” “Annie Hall”), whose first film was “End of the Road,” Avakian created some provocative, beautiful, mesmerizing scenes. An early standout shows Horner standing silent on a train platform for what seems like an eternity as a montage of black-and-white photos of his childhood, as well as snapshots of 1960s political outrages, flashes by. It’s as if the whole chaotic, upsetting world is roaring toward him like a speeding train, and only his catatonia can protect him. On the soundtrack, Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me” plays. (Aram’s brother George, an award-winning record producer especially noted for his work with jazz artists, supervised the film’s music.)
“I think the train-platform sequence is absolutely stunning, one of the best five-six minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen,” Soderbergh says.
Tristan, who was divorced from Avakian in 1972, said in an interview that she hopes today’s audience will see “End of the Road” as “a piece of work of that time, very innovative. And they can glean what was going on at the time from it — very anti-war, anti-government. And it was also pro-abortion. You don’t go to back alleys or you die.”
“End of the Road”’s wild tonal shifts can be startling, and the scenes at Dr. D’s “farm” can seem very stylized at times. Soderbergh cautions that he realizes the film will go too far for some, especially in the long scene involving a botched abortion presided over by the crackpot doctor.
“It’s still a polarizing film; the final scene is hard to watch,” he says. “But I like the sense of possibilities in the film. You feel the filmmaker is going out and is not afraid. That’s what independent film should feel like, what it should try to do.”