Fade to Black
It was September 1983, and independent Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell had it going on.
From the balcony of Lincoln Center, the lanky, slow-drawling, self-taught director waved to the applauding New York Film Festival audience that had just screened his latest movie, Last Night at the Alamo. In addition to the festival crowd's approval, the film also won high praise from influential critics: Vincent Canby of The New York Times, The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, to name a few.
Alamo was Pennell's third film, the final installment in his trilogy about a couple of well-intentioned, hard-living rednecks, men much like Pennell himself: modern-day adventurers doomed to a world devoid of new frontiers.
Made on a bare-bones budget of about $50,000, Alamo was Pennell's most expensive project. Eight years earlier, after he'd dropped out of UT-Austin's film school, Pennell had made his first film, Hell of a Note, for $1,200. The 30-minute short was technically and theatrically threadbare, but it was clever.
Armed with positive regional feedback, Pennell then raised $20,000 to finance The Whole Shootin' Match, his first feature-length film. The rough but sweet film is arguably Pennell's best effort, and definitely his most influential. Actor/director Robert Redford recently told the Hollywood Reporter that it was in 1978, while watching Shootin' Match at the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City, that he first envisioned the Sundance Institute.
"I thought a real service to the [motion picture] industry would be to provide a guy like [Pennell] with a place to train, a place to go where he could develop his skills," said Redford. "It would shortcut a lot of the problems he was going to be facing."
Of course, Redford probably had no idea how many problems Pennell was facing -- most of them of Pennell's own making. Even at the pinnacle of his career he was notorious as a boozer and brawler who seemed intent on sabotaging any opportunity for his own advancement. And I knew those tales weren't just rumors: I used to hang out with Eagle Pennell, and I'd seen him at his meanest. I was there at his wedding reception, when he kicked his new sister-in-law in the stomach.
But we'd lost touch, and this summer I heard rumors that Pennell, 47, had joined the ranks of Houston's homeless. Those rumors were confirmed a couple of months ago, while I was drinking in a bar Eagle used to frequent. Two women independently told me the same story. They had just seen Pennell standing under the Southwest Freeway overpass at Greenbriar, waving a handmade sign at passing motorists. The sign read: "I need a rich woman or a cold beer."
Pennell had obviously hit rock bottom. But even at his lowest, he still had panache.
By the time I arrived at the intersection, Pennell was no longer there. In a way, I was relieved.
For about a year, in 1987 and '88, he and I made the same circuit of restaurants and clubs. We were both refugees from the University of Texas-Austin, and rabid Longhorn and Dallas Cowboys fans. I even helped him with the script for his fourth movie, Heart Full of Soul.
While driving to the intersection, I remembered that I had quit seeing Pennell out of a sense of self-preservation. There's something dark and dangerous about him, something that's always one drink away from surfacing.
Still, I'm a journalist, and this seemed a compelling story. After a week, I heard through the grapevine that Pennell had checked into alcohol rehab.
The Center, a white two-story building located on Main near Alabama, offers bargain-basement rehabilitation for those who have few, if any, other places to turn. Inside the air is heavy with stale cigarette smoke.
And Pennell looks like hell. His sandy hair is greasy and matted. His skin is ruddy, both from drink and from from living outdoors the past several months. He's sitting on the side of a small bed in a room he shares; his roommate's asleep.
We're in the facility's sick ward, a place for alcoholics fresh off the street to detoxify. Since The Center is not a licensed medical facility, there are no prescription drugs to help the residents make it through their first painful days of sobriety. Instead, the men get what Pennell calls "bug juice," a mixture of crushed vitamins and cheap vodka.
In the facility's small cafeteria, Pennell stares down a plate of turkey and gravy, corn and greens. Instead of eating, he talks about the last three months, which he spent sleeping in parks and under bridges, fearing for his life and living for his next drink.
He recalls an encounter at a bus stop near the West Alabama Ice House. He had managed to scrounge enough money for a couple of beers, and had just sat down on the bus stop bench when a young man pulled his car into the parking lot, got out and walked over and asked, "Didn't you used to be Eagle Pennell?"
The man proceeded to tell him that he was familiar with his work and used to look up to him. He also said that he had seen Pennell wandering the streets and that he had even thought about seeing if he could help him in some way. Instead, the man told Pennell, "I just decided to let you suffer."
If that was the case, Pennell wondered, why bother him while he was trying to enjoy a beer? But not much later Pennell finally had a moment of clarity and decided that somehow he had to get off the streets and off the booze.
He's at The Center because he had nowhere else to go. For about $120, his family has secured him a couple of weeks' room and board.
It's not the first time he has been in rehab. But this time, he says, this time it's going to be different; he really is going to quit drinking. This isn't the first time Pennell has made that pledge.
A little reluctantly, he agrees to talk with me so I can write a story. "The way I see it," he says, "there's good publicity and there's bad publicity. But the worst kind of publicity is no publicity at all."
Pennell grew up mostly in College Station, where his dad, Charles, was an engineering professor at Texas A&M University. According to his mother, June, there was never alcohol in their home.
As a teen, Pennell enjoyed fooling with his father's Super 8 camera. Often, June says, he'd film his two younger sisters performing improvised skits. In one, he had his sisters lie along the family's driveway to make it appear they had just been run over by a car.
At UT-Austin, he couldn't choose a major, then discovered radio-television-film. "A friend of mine in the same dorm showed up one night and said that we'd been taxing our brains with all these pre-law and philosophy courses for nothing," says Pennell with a laugh. "That there was a thing called RTF, where you could get a grade for just watching movies. Plus, girls love filmmakers. So I signed up the next semester. And that got me hooked."
Hooked on films, and directors such as John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and John Cassavetes, that is, not school. Before the end of his junior year, Pennell dropped out of UT and went to work for a company that produced highlight films of Southwest Conference football games. In his spare time, using the company's equipment, he tinkered with his own projects. He made a documentary short about a rodeo school near Lake Travis outside of Austin. And he always assumed he'd be successful.
After finishing the documentary, Pennell wanted to shoot Hell of a Note, loosely based on a Larry L. King piece that ran in Texas Monthly. It's about a couple of good old boys, Floyd and Jimmie Lee, who can't win for losing.
For the lead roles, Pennell picked Sonny Davis and Lou Perryman, a pair of Austinites with no previous acting experience. "A sort of Mutt and Jeff of Texas," he calls them.
Tall, gregarious Perryman had worked on the technical side of the limited Austin film scene in projects like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A ham by nature, he wanted to be on the other side of the camera. He'd met Pennell around 1974. Perryman recalls that Pennell basically moved into his house uninvited, sleeping on the couch.
Davis, a short bald guy with a shit-eating grin, was already an entertainer as a member of the Sons of the Uranium Savages, a satirical bar band that sang "Idi Amin Is My Yard Man."
With funding mainly out of Pennell's own pocket, suddenly he and his two "stars" were in the movie business.
In Hell of a Note, Floyd and Jimmie Lee get fired from their job spreading hot tar on the roof of a building after they urinate on it; they then spend the rest of the movie drinking, fighting, cussing and chasing women. The film is chock-full of Texas colloquialisms: "My ass is grass and here comes the lawn mower"; and "Might as well, can't dance." Much of the acting is laughable, but there is something about those early performances by Perryman and Davis that hints that there is more to come from them.
Pennell worked a handheld 16-millimeter camera himself, sometimes sitting in the engine well of his old pickup with the hood removed. He shot Hell of a Note over several weekends at locations such as the old Soap Creek Saloon. Butch Hancock, now a semi-famous singer/songwriter, performs on the Soap Creek stage.
"It was redneck filmmaking," says Perryman, who still lives in Austin. "We just sort of made it as we went along."
The movie premiered at Austin's Dobie Theater and received a positive review from an Austin American-Statesman film critic. And it gave Pennell the confidence to try something bigger and better: The Whole Shootin' Match.
It's the best film in Pennell's oeuvre. The screenplay, which he wrote with Liz Carpenter's niece Lin Sutherland, is better developed. Shot in and around Austin with a budget of about $20,000, the production values on Shootin' Match are vastly improved -- as is the acting.
This time around, Perryman plays a schemer who dreams of hitting it rich. Davis is his sidekick, a know-it-all know-nothing with even less ambition, no ideas and an erratic moral compass.
Shootin' Match garnered favorable reviews; Pennell became a filmmaker to watch. And that was the problem. "Suddenly, we're going off to the USA Film Festival in Salt Lake City," says Perryman. "And I think it went bad right there."
Following Shootin' Match, Pennell landed a small development deal with Universal and headed off to Hollywood without Perryman and Davis."Up till then, we had been a family," says Perryman bitterly. "Then, all of a sudden, we weren't in his league anymore." (These days Perryman drives a cab in Austin and lands an occasional part in a Texas film production. Davis makes a living as an actor in Los Angeles, appearing frequently in bit roles in productions such as Lonesome Dove and Thelma & Louise.)
But after a couple of years, either Pennell had had enough of Hollywood, or Hollywood had had enough of him. "I didn't like California that much anyway," he says. And in 1980, he headed back to Texas.
But rather than return to Austin, he decided to relocate to Houston. In the summer of '81, Marian Luntz met Pennell. Luntz, now the curator of film and video for the Museum of Fine Arts, had moved here from New York to coordinate a touring festival of independent films for the American Film Institute, and it had been suggested to her that Pennell was someone she should meet.
Pennell, displeased that Shootin' Match hadn't been included in Luntz's festival, suggested that they meet not at a bar or a restaurant, but in front of Hermann Park's statue of Sam Houston. From there, they went to the Astrodome to watch a baseball game, the game in which former Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter.
"And there was Eagle," says Luntz, "spilling beer, ranting against the AFI, and trying to scam us better seats." She didn't see that much of the game, but she came away convinced that Shootin' Match should have been in the festival. "There's a naturalness and authenticity to his work," she says. "I think he is, through the writing, and through the actors, able to get a real feel for place and people's issues and lives."
After the festival Luntz worked for the Houston-based SWAMP, or Southwest Alternate Media Project. A $1,500 grant from SWAMP got Pennell started on his next project, Last Night at the Alamo .
Once again he began gathering a cast and crew -- what cinematographer Brian Huberman calls "rounding up a posse for the next adventure." Huberman, a shaggy, bearded Englishman, is an associate professor of art and art history at Rice University. He also teaches film and video production at the Rice Media Center. Huberman is more inclined toward documentary work than feature movies but was taken with Pennell's films; he says they frequently have a documentary quality about them. The two men also shared a love for Westerns and Texas history.
Huberman says that though Pennell could be stupid, drunk, inconsiderate and unreliable, people were drawn to him because he possessed a single-minded self-confidence, and that self-confidence allowed him to gather the resources necessary to make a film.
Always, he says, there was a sense of adventure, as well as danger, in working with Pennell. "When it was time to saddle up and go off with Eagle again," says Huberman, "there was an exhilaration about what you were about to do. There was also a sinking feeling that you might not come back without suffering some sort of damage -- losing a limb, or at least some brain cells. There's a price to pay for adventure."
Maybe that's how Pennell was able to persuade his alter egos, actors Davis and Perryman, once again to play the two lead roles in his film. He also enlisted the assistance of screenwriter Kim Henkel, who'd written The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In Alamo, Pennell and Henkel create a bar full of characters who gather one last time at their favorite watering hole, the Alamo, before it meets the wrecking ball of progress. Perryman plays henpecked Claude, whose wife is never seen but always present in the viewer's mind. Davis is Cowboy, a fast talker with an exaggerated opinion of his own ability to save the Alamo from demolition.
Henkel, who now lives in Port Aransas, says Pennell empathizes with characters fighting insurmountable forces, people doomed to fail. That theme, Henkel notes, resonates with Pennell's own life.
The shooting of Alamo began with military precision and the utmost professionalism. While scouting for a location for the movie, Pennell found a bar on Harrisburg in east Houston. Called The Old Barn, its facade resembled the real-life Alamo in San Antonio. It was perfect.
The only problem was that its small interior was made smaller by the presence of a long shuffleboard table. Because of his documentary background, Huberman wanted to keep the table in the picture, but he was out-voted. Every morning when the cast and crew arrived for work, the first order of business was to carry the table outside.
It was summer in Houston and, of course, unbearably hot. But because the bar's a/c unit made too much noise, the film was shot without air-conditioning.
Each day's shoot had to be completed by 4 p.m., the time when real-life workers from nearby factories ended their shifts and showed up to drink. At the conclusion of each day, the filmmakers would also have a few beers at the bar. Many would then head off to 120 Portland, a restaurant/bar located between Montrose and the museum district. There, says one of the participants, the movie guys paired up with the bar gals.
Fittingly -- like something out of a movie -- Pennell found himself with 120's operator, Nanette Taylor. It was, in Pennell's own words, a "whirlwind romance." He moved into her garage apartment behind the restaurant.
On a trip to Galveston one evening, they decided to get married. It was late, so Pennell, fueled on vodka, tried to find a ship captain to perform the service, but was unsuccessful. Finally he contacted the film's soundman, Phil Davis, who in an effort to avoid the draft had obtained a mail-order minister's license.
Davis led Pennell and Taylor through their wedding vows, but the ceremony didn't take. "I woke up one morning about six weeks later and realized I was married," says Pennell.
That realization was followed by outbursts of disgusting behavior. It was at the subsequent wedding reception, in a drunken rage, that Pennell kicked his new sister-in-law. And in another drunken rage, he threw several pieces of expensive art out the restaurant's second-floor window.
"What happened with me and Nanette," says Pennell, "was common to most of my relationships. At some point, my drinking always wears down my spouse or girlfriend."
Taylor declined to be interview for this article, but another woman, who worked for Taylor at 120 and wound up living with Pennell following the breakup of that marriage, has no doubt that Pennell put Taylor through hell.
"Nanette called me and warned me when I started going out with him," says the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "But I had been attracted to him when the guys from the film first started coming around the bar, and had been disappointed when I didn't end up with him."
She foolishly believed that she could change him. "I adored him," she says. "When he was sober, he was a very sweet man. But then I also remember him throwing me out of the house naked once, and I had to hide in the bushes until he decided to let me back in."
As Last Night at the Alamo neared its completion, Pennell's drinking escalated.
According to a couple members of the crew, by the last days of the shoot, Pennell was so drunk he didn't bother to show up on the set, leaving it up to screenwriter Henkel to finish the movie. Pennell denies that his drinking prevented him from finishing the movie. But he admits that Henkel oversaw the shooting of the final scene when Pennell came down with a bout of "the cocktail flu."
Alamo won accolades at film festivals in New York City and Telluride, Colorado, and Pennell once again appeared to be a promising filmmaker, the kind who could land big-money development deals.
But even the movies hinted of Pennell's own problems. According to Pennell, during the Telluride festival, he went for a walk with movie critic Roger Ebert, who had enjoyed the film. As they talked, Pennell says, Ebert asked him if he had set out to make a movie about alcoholism. Up until that moment, says Pennell, he had never realized that was what he'd done. "And I think I had a beer in my hand at the time," he says.
Ebert did not return calls from the Press. But if the story is true, it was prophetic.
After Alamo, Henkel and Pennell teamed up on a new screenplay, The King of Texas, one in which career-maker Michael Shamberg (then of Warner Bros., and now with Danny DeVito at Jersey Films) showed strong interest. When the first draft was finished, Henkel and Pennell were scheduled to meet Shamberg and a female producer at a New York City restaurant. Pennell suggested that the female producer have sex with him.
"At that point," says Henkel, "you could hear the briefcases clicking shut."
From there, Pennell's career went downhill. Upfront Films hired him to direct a poorly received project called Ice House, a vehicle for Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert. In 1989 The New York Times's Canby trashed the movie but said Pennell had done the best with what he had: "The film, like the dialogue, is unspeakable, but Eagle Pennell's direction attempts to treat the material as if it were worth watching. He does not chop up the two-character scenes with endless back-and-forth close-ups. When someone has a monologue, he sticks with the actor. Mr. Pennell makes a serious attempt to transform a play into a film without damaging the essence of the play. In the case of Ice House, it's a fool's errand."
After that, Pennell went back to independent filmmaking with Heart Full of Soul, the movie I worked on. I'd been at Pennell's wedding reception; I knew how bad he could be. Still, when our paths crossed again, I found him amusing and intelligent. It may be significant that our paths usually crossed close to closing time at a bar. I was working as a night police-beat reporter, and I helped Pennell write a screenplay based on my not-so-glamorous experiences. The collaboration was unfortunate for us both: for Pennell, because I didn't know what the hell I was doing; for me, because my name ended up in the credits.
Heart Full of Soul was only a shadow of Pennell's previous work. The script (especially my part) was amateurish, and Pennell should have known better than to use it. While Davis and Perryman might have been able to take the words and make them their own, or improve them, Pennell's inexperienced new cast -- unfamiliar with his improvisational shoot-from-the-hip style -- could not.
The film fell flat on the 1990 festival circuit, but Pennell's chief assistant on the project still defends it. At the time, Katie Cokinos was in her twenties and working for SWAMP, which sponsored the grant proposal that landed Pennell $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cokinos says that Pennell did for rednecks what Martin Scorsese did for Italian-Americans. And she also believes the problem with Heart Full of Soul was poor production caused not by Pennell's drinking, but by a lack of money. In fact, she says, never during the filming was Pennell drunk or drinking -- at least not on the set.
Afterward, Cokinos tried to get Pennell to move forward, to take the next step. Pennell and Huberman wanted to make a Western, and with them she scouted locations near Del Rio. She also prepared a budget for the project but says the usually fearless Pennell seemed stunned when she told him that to do it right he needed at least $500,000.
"Eagle had carved out this little $20,000 to $30,000 niche for himself," explains Cokinos, who now lives in Brooklyn and is working on her own film project. "And with that, he's able to kind of make films happen -- albeit not-so-great ones. But at least he doesn't have anybody breathing down his neck."
But Cokinos's former boss has a more bitter view of Pennell and a much harsher assessment of Pennell's talents. For much of the past two decades, Tom Sims served first as special projects director for SWAMP and later as its managing director. Dealing with Pennell was always an unpleasant experience for Sims. Pennell, Sims says, even once threatened to shoot him during an argument; Pennell felt he wasn't getting enough respect as an artist. Sims believes Pennell's directorial abilities are overrated; his successes were due to the talents of people such as Henkel, Sutherland, Perryman and Davis.
"Eagle is the kind of person who always feels like he's the most important person in the room," says Sims. "But I think his last two movies show exactly what he's capable of, or not capable of. In his own mind, though, he was this filmmaking legend."
Even Pennell's old buddy and collaborator Huberman concedes that by the time he made his last film, Pennell was resting on his laurels. Fours years after Heart Full of Soul, Pennell followed up with Doc's Full Service, a movie that Huberman calls "a complete and total lie."
Beautifully photographed by Jim Barum, Doc's was Pennell's first color film. With help from Henkel, the script was written by the late Henry Wideman Jr. and tells the story of a small-town gas station owner. Essentially, Doc gets girl, Doc loses girl, Doc doesn't get girl back. Like Wideman, the film died shortly after its release.
Doc's supposedly took place in a tiny rural community but was actually shot at an old Texaco station in Houston's Woodland Heights. "With the exception of the photography, everything about it was half-ass," says Huberman. "And I think that's because he'd turned into a lazy motherfucker. Liz [Knox of Lizzard's Pub] was paying his bills and giving him an allowance. And he was drinking and fucking other women on the side. By that point, I think that saying the words 'action' and 'cut' were more important to him than content."
Not long after Doc's Full Service was history, so was Pennell's most recent meal ticket. Like all of Eagle Pennell's women before her, Liz Knox had had enough.
According to Knox, she and Pennell had developed a friendship after he began coming to her bar on Sackett a few blocks west of Kirby Drive. She says Pennell had given her advice when she was considering a commercial to promote her business.
She was somewhat older than Pennell, and perhaps a bit too appreciative of him. She invited him to use the spare bedroom in her Montrose condominium for as long as he needed. He even had a friend of his move in, too. And once again, he had a bar at his disposal.
Knox and Pennell's friendship became a relationship and, briefly, an engagement. But in the summer of 1996, after three years together, Knox packed her bags. Knox believes Pennell's problems stem less from alcohol than from the fact that he never had to grow up. She calls him a "high school Charlie."
Pennell has a drunken recollection of Knox's departure: "I remember the movers being there, and me looking at what was left and realizing how little stuff I had."
His depression and drinking accelerated when he was unable to sell Doc's to a distributor for an extended commercial run. He then placed his belongings into storage and put himself into state-supported rehab in Austin.
It was not the the first time he'd attempted to stop drinking. Several years earlier Henkel had helped him get into a similar facility near Corpus Christi, and also recalls picking up Pennell at another rehab in Eagle Lake, Texas. "When he got into the car," says Huberman, "I remember him saying that rehabs were for pussies."
After that, Huberman says, it was apparent that Pennell had lost something inside him. Before, whenever they'd gotten together, the conversation had been about film and Pennell's next project. After that, Pennell spoke only of his next drink.
After his short stay at the Austin clinic, Pennell stayed a hairbreadth from the streets. For one of the first times in his life, he took a nine-to-five job, delivering parts for a small electrical firm. He was soon fired after repeatedly calling in sick with hangovers.
From then on, life was a blur. Through occasional infusions of cash from his family, he was able to keep a roof over his head -- usually some flophouse where he could follow the trail of empty malt liquor cans to the nearest convenience store.
In the fall of 1996 Pennell's mother told him that a registered letter had come to her home. It was from the Austin Film Society, and enclosed was a check for $1,500 -- seed money for developing a screenplay. Pennell had forgotten that several months earlier he'd submitted a screenplay treatment based on the life of the homeless.
After getting the check, he decided to study the subject closely. He began panhandling on street corners and sleeping with vagrants in Levie Park, not far from the Greenway 3 cinema, where some of his films had played.
"My research," says Pennell, "turned into a lifestyle."
The Center's dormitory, where Pennell endured his latest round of rehab, is located on Fannin Street, named after Colonel James Fannin of the Texas Revolution. Fannin is one of Pennell's heroes, a flawed character, especially when compared to other men of Texas myth. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis fought heroically to their deaths at the Alamo; Fannin was indecisive at crucial times, and his waffling claimed the lives of his entire command. According to The New Encyclopedia of the American West , "Fannin displayed some promise as a military leader in the early stages of the fighting, but his ambition and exaggerated sense of honor made him uncooperative."
Nevertheless, Huberman says, Pennell has always wanted to make a movie about Fannin and the Battle of Goliad -- and Pennell himself wanted to play Fannin.
"It's not so much that I identify with Fannin," says Pennell, "except that I do believe he is a misunderstood character in Texas history." And to some extent, Huberman agrees that Pennell, too, is misunderstood.
"Underneath, Eagle is someone who cares for people very much," says Huberman, "but he hides it very well."
"People could say he's a loser, but I'd say they're wrong, because everybody loses. Eagle's just a little more public about his losses."
It's doubtful, however, that Pennell will play that part, or direct any other movie anytime soon, although Huberman, for one, wishes someone would give Pennell another shot. The film business is unforgiving, even at the lowest levels. Though Pennell's out of rehab, with a part-time job and a little apartment of his own, Hollywood won't be beating a path to his door.
It's a fact that Pennell regrets, along with a lot of other things in his life. But rather than dwell on them, Pennell says, all he can do is look forward. Sure, he'd like to direct again, or at least write a screenplay. But not yet.
"Right now," he says, "I'm just working on staying sober."
On Saturday, November 13, at 7 p.m., the Rice Media Center will host a retrospective of Eagle Pennell's first three movies. Brian Huberman hopes that Pennell will show up to talk about the films.
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