Ten years ago, on Oct. 30, 2010, I received the news that director George Hickenlooper III had unexpectedly died in Denver, where he was premiering his Casino Jack at the city’s film festival.
George was scheduled to follow that appearance in Colorado with a return to St. Louis, the town in which he was born and made his earliest films. George’s continuing fondness for St. Louis had fostered a long relationship with the St. Louis International Film Festival, which had screened his films or hosted him a half-dozen times over the previous 15 years. Casino Jack was slated to open the festival on Nov. 11, and the event, which was originally intended as a celebration of the most recent chapter in George’s ongoing and rising career, instead became a commemoration of a life that had reached a shocking premature end.
On this sad anniversary, Cinema St. Louis thought it appropriate to offer an overview of George’s career.
Though only 47 at the time of his death, George was extraordinarily productive during his two decades (or so) in film: Casino Jack was his eighth narrative feature, and his parallel career in documentary included three features (Picture This, Hearts of Darkness, Mayor of the Sunset Strip); a pair of short profiles on filmmakers he admired; and a then-in-progress docu-series, Hick Town, on Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (later the Colorado governor, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and always George’s cousin). He also helmed the widely admired narrative short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” — which evolved into Billy Bob Thornton’s feature Sling Blade — and wrote the well-regarded interview book Reel Conversations. In addition, George served as executive producer on a number of projects, including St. Louisan Chris Grega’s World War II drama Rhineland and Art Holiday’s long-gestating documentary on local musical legend Johnnie Johnson.
Appropriately, the first piece in this package of articles is written by the director himself. In the summer of 2002, for the second St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, we asked three directors with St. Louis roots — George, Ken Kwapis, and Bob Gale — to provide a selection of their early work as students in high school and college, culminating with a short film from their professional careers. George generously gave us a sampling of shorts he made at St. Louis University High and Yale University, finishing with “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade.” He contributed notes on those films, and they are reproduced here.
Later in 2002, at SLIFF, we honored George with our second Cinema St. Louis Award, which recognizes filmmakers with local connections who have made significant contributions to film. In 2001, the inaugural honoree was Bob Gale — co-writer/producer of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars, Trespass, and the Back to the Future trilogy, and writer-director of Interstate 60 — and he contributed the tribute to George reprinted here.
The next two pieces are articles I wrote for The Riverfront Times during my 18-year tenure as a writer and editor at the paper. The first — which discusses his book, his early documentaries, and his abiding interest in the films of the 1970s — dates from 1991, when George made his first visit back to St. Louis to show his work, with Picture This and Hearts of Darkness playing at the St. Louis Art Museum. The second, much lengthier profile, from 1999, coincided with the screening of the St. Louis-shot The Big Brass Ring at SLIFF and offers a thorough survey of George’s films up to that date.
To complete the picture of George’s career, Lens critic Kayla McCulloch contributes a fresh look at his final four features, which include some of the director’s finest work.
Finally, if we haven’t exhausted your interest, I’d recommend another remembrance of George: a wonderful 2011 article in the LA Review of Books by F.X. Feeney, the co-screenwriter of The Big Brass Ring.
Most of George’s films — often hard to access when he was alive — can now be streamed from various platforms or purchased on DVD or Blu-ray (though finding copies of a few will require precision Googling, as some of the discs are now out of print). Even his first narrative feature, The Killing Box (aka The Grey Knight, Ghost Brigade, or The Lost Brigade), which was once difficult to see except on the long-defunct laserdisc and VHS formats, is available on Blu-ray. However, George’s docu-series Hick Town and his short docs on Monte Hellman and Dennis Hopper are frustratingly inaccessible (except, perhaps, to BitTorrent users). If you’re a completist, the Hellman film originally accompanied the 1999 Anchor Bay VHS/DVD of Two Lane Blacktop, which no doubt can be scrounged on eBay. As for Hick Town (alternatively known as “Hick” Town), George died while it was still in production. A quasi-feature edit of footage that focused on the 2008 Democratic Convention was screened at the 2009 Denver film fest (and other scenes were excerpted during SLIFF’s memorial tribute to George), but its reported six episodes have not otherwise surfaced, though a 2008 teaser for the series still has a ghostly presence on YouTube. Also missing is George’s preferred cut of the troubled Factory Girl, which he posted on YouTube in 2008 before it was taken down because of The Weinstein Company’s copyright of the material. The version now extant — billed as “Sexy. Uncut. Unrated.” — apparently edges closer to what George envisioned, but what Wikipedia refers to as “The Unseen Director’s Cut” would currently seem to be consigned to the digital ether. Last, although Reel Conversations long ago fell out of print, copies can easily be found on used-book sites such as Alibris.
Casino Jack (2010)
Hick Town (docu-series) (2009)
Factory Girl (2006)
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)
The Man from Elysian Fields (2001)
The Big Brass Ring (also co-writer) (1999)
Dogtown (also writer) (1997)
“Monte Hellman: American Auteur” (1997)
Persons Unknown (1996)
The Low Life (also co-writer) (1994)
“Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” (also co-producer and editor) (1994)
The Killing Box (1993)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (with Fax Bahr) (1991)
Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas (1991)
“Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper” (1988)