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Do You Know the Way to Balmorhea?

Jesse Dayton and Lew Temple do. And now so does Hollywood.

Jesse Dayton has always been a man of motion. His band names (the Road Kings, the Alamo Jets) reflect a sense of movement, as does his restless curiosity about music -- recently he was into 1950s Cuban swing -- and Texas lore. It even extends to his choice of offbeat covers. If you've seen him recently, you know he's been doing "Just What I Needed," which was originated by, you guessed it, the Cars.

And then there's the fact that although he's a proud native of Beaumont, it's hard to pin down where he's been living ever since. Like Larry McMurtry in the early '60s -- and McMurtry's no stranger to a love of travel himself -- Dayton's been on a Houston-Austin-L.A. shuttle pretty much nonstop for the past decade or so.

And now McMurtry and Dayton are united by something other than incurable wanderlust and soft spots for some of the same cities. Dayton has become a writer -- a playwright first, and almost immediately thereafter a screenwriter, as Balmorhea,the first play he had a hand in writing, was quickly optioned for film by a Hollywood production company.

This newest feather in Dayton's cap fell off the wing of a pretty fierce bird: his friend and Balmorhea co-writer Lew Temple's recent brush with death. Temple, whose credits include a recurring part on Walker: Texas Rangerand a role in the upcoming 21 Gramswith Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro, survived a harrowing bout with leukemia about two years ago, and Balmorhea is loosely based on that battle.

Reached on the speakerphone at the Hollywood offices of rednaveL flmworx, the production company that has taken on Balmorhea, Temple says he was lucky to have been living in Houston at the time. Not only was M.D. Anderson here, but so was his support system.

Still, friends and family or no, a year at a cancer hospital will take your mind to some pretty strange places. "My random and elusive thoughts continued to take me to this magical place that Jesse and I had been: Balmorhea, Texas, an oasis in the desert," Temple says. "You know, I never had thought about movies, or big cities -- I just thought about the influence of Balmorhea, and when I got out of the hospital for rehab, Jesse said, 'Hey, let's write a story. We're storytellers. What do you want to write about?' And right away Balmorhea came together."

Temple had already been telling everybody who came near about Balmorhea for a long time. He was hipped to the place by an old fellow he met in Fort Worth's Stockyards one wild night in his younger days.

"I don't mind to tell you that I was loud and drunk that night, and an old cowboy was sitting next to me, and he said, 'Hey, Slick, where you goin'?' And I told him California. And he said, 'Well, I can tell you're drivin', 'cause I can see that you can't afford to fly.' And I said yessir. And he said, 'Well, do yourself a favor. Just this side of El Paso you pull off at Balmorhea, Texas. You pull off there, take your boots off, roll your pants legs up and dip your feet in the cold, cool water and that'll perk you up and get you on out west where you'll be able to catch the sun.' And I did that, and it was just like he said, and I've told everyone the same story. I should be on the Balmorhea Chamber of Commerce, 'cause I've told so many people to stop there and do that."

Back in the 1910s and '20s, sick people used to ride trains to Balmorhea to take the curative waters in the desert town. Stumbling through the Sahara that was his fight against leukemia, is it any wonder that Temple would remember that place where he got the energy to catch the sun?

"Lew almost died," Dayton says from his South Austin home. "He had lost his kidneys, he lost his liver, and he came back miraculously, and when he got out of the hospital we went on a road trip and we wrote this play called Balmorhea about this dysfunctional West Texas ranch family."

That's right, they wrote the thing on the road. "We started writing it in L.A., and we went through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and into Louisiana, and by the time we got to New Orleans we'd finished it," Dayton says. "We wrote it all freehand in the car."

"We wrote it on Burger King paper bags and notepads, and later putting it all together was like doing a jigsaw puzzle," remembers Temple. "Somehow we pieced it all together to what's now a blueprint to a really heartfelt screenplay."

When you hear Temple and Dayton describe the scenario, you think of so many different movies that you can't help but conclude -- paradoxically -- that they may have something truly original on their hands. You hear "dysfunctional West Texas ranch family," and you can't help but think Giant. But then there's a road trip to Mexico involved and you think Fandango. But then there are numerous prominent roles for Hispanics, and you dare to dream it could be another Lone Star. Or something just as good.

Temple, sitting next to producer Mitchell Welch out in that Santa Monica Boulevard office, summarizes the plot thusly: "Three boys grow up on a West Texas ranch and are primarily raised by the patriarch of the ranch. And each of them has their own personality but they're all interlocked as friends. It's a love story between three boys, and uh…Mitchell's laughing at me…But in a Texas way…"

Welch clarifies the love-story angle. "There are sheep involved," he yells.

"Yeah, it's not in a Utah or a Montrose way," Temple continues. "One of the boys who is the son of the patriarch wants to go off to college, and his father would like him to be the caretaker of this land, which is kind of like the King Ranch. In the process of them making that decision, the boy takes ill, and they go to Houston to M.D. Anderson, where they are unable to find a treatment. And so in desperation the other two boys decide to take a trip to Mexico to see a faith healer as their last stand. And they all sort of have their 'coming to Jesus,' including the father, who follows them desperately trying to save his son."

Dayton and Temple hustled up enough money to have Balmorhea performed as a play, first here at Ovations, and then in L.A. "The response we got in Los Angeles was killer," Dayton says. And one of the people most impressed was Midland transplant Welch, a thirtysomething Hollywood producer whose credits include the short film The Swinger, a Chris Elliott vehicle that also starred Bob Costas and Maury Povich and appeared on Showtime. Welch also produced Frank's Book, another short. Jack Black was in the cast of that one.

Incidentally, it's not just Welch's résumé that's packed with big names -- so is his pedigree. He's the grandson of Louie Welch, the last of Houston's redneck mayors. Welch's attempted political comeback in 1985 foundered when he committed one of the most notorious gaffes in Houston history. Asked in a public forum what methods he would use to combat the AIDS crisis, Welch responded, "One of them is to shoot the queers."

"Good thing he didn't," the younger Welch notes. "I sure wouldn't have liked to have seen that."

The eye-patch-wearing Welch was drawn to the play for several reasons. One was that he was an old friend of the two writers. Another was the chance to bring a film project to his hometown -- some shoots are slated in Midland (and some in Houston) next year. Another was the name Balmorhea, which is, as he puts it, in the same "field of sticks" as Midland.

"When I was a kid we used to load up in the car and that's where we'd go for the weekend if we wanted a dip in the cool water," he remembers. "We didn't have a beach nearby, and it was about a two-hour drive down to Balmorhea, where those springs are. It sure was fun to go down there and play grab-ass with your friends on a Saturday afternoon."

But he's not in it just out of loyalty or for sentimental reasons. He believes the story's worthy of Hollywood on its own merits. "But all in all, I know this thing is loosely based on Lew's story," he says. "I was friends with Lew [during] what he went through, and I saw what it did for his outlook on life."

The play was forged into a screenplay a couple of months ago at a writers retreat in Angelfire, New Mexico. Dayton, Temple and Welch holed up for two weeks and banged out a first draft of the script. "We put ourselves through the paces -- I think it's an interesting documentary just to watch us write," Temple says.

"We sent in the final draft in late September, and they flew us out there for the day, and basically gave us everything we wanted," Dayton says. "They're gonna let Lew direct."

This will be Temple's directorial debut. Dayton believes he's ready, but more important, so do the people with the big bucks. "Lew's been in enough stuff -- he's worked with a lot of directors," Dayton says. "He did The Newton Boys, he was in all the Richard Linklater stuff. He's at that point now where people are starting to say, 'Wow, maybe we should give these guys some money and let Lew direct a film.' "

Meanwhile, Dayton's already working on the soundtrack. "I'm basically gonna go to all my friends in the music business and put them on there, and I'm sure it'll be pretty cool stuff," he says.

"Jesse's written some amazing music," says Temple. "Some great songs, which have kind of taken the production to a whole other level. He lives this project, so when he writes this music, it's so heartfelt."

Dayton has been performing the songs during the writing of the script. Welch believes that adds another element to the project. "We write a scene and we can have it underscored by Jesse live and in person," he says. "That really brings it to life."

And life is what this movie is all about. Temple sounds like he's already trying out tag lines for the Balmorhea movie poster as he sums up the film.

"We wanted to tell an Americana story, but one that's universal," he says. "A lot of times the thing that you look for is not only within you but within the people around you. Sometimes you take a long journey and then find that what you were looking for was always right in your backyard."

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Houston's metal community is getting heavy in the fight against cancer. On October 11, Irene, Yuna, Nothing, Full Circle and Six Past Hell will perform at Forgetta 'Bout It Sports Bar (13245 Jones Road). Five bucks or five cans of food get you in the door…Calling all baby bands: A $10,000 prize package is out there for the taking from the people who bring you the Grammys. The Recording Academy Texas Chapter, in partnership with ASCAP, is fielding demo submissions from unsigned Texas artists of all genres to be judged by a panel of music industry professionals. The panel will choose ten finalists out of hundreds of entries, and they will each receive a live critique at the Engine Room November 17. The grand prize winner will receive 24 hours of studio time at Sugar Hill, publishing and distribution deals, a gig at the Engine Room, 1,000 pressed and designed CDs and lots of other stuff -- in other words they will be well and truly launched, if not necessarily broken. All entries must be postmarked by October 17, so be quick. To see the complete prize package, contest rules and entry forms, click on grammy.com/texas.html.

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