Director Harry Thomason is no stranger to a hit show. He helmed the acclaimed series, ‘Designing Women’ as well as ‘Evening Shade,’ ‘Hearts Afire’ and ‘Emeril.’ His latest film, ‘The Last Ride’ starring Henry Thomas and Jesse James explores the last days of country legend, Hank Williams through a car ride with young mechanic Silas, portrayed by Jesse James and Hank Williams, played by Henry Thomas.
It was filmed almost 60 years since his death in 1953. The movie is now on DVD. Visit www.thelastridefilm.com for more information and click here for the movie trailer.
I had the honor of speaking to director Harry Thomason about ‘The Last Ride,’ his renewed fascination with country music, and how he put together such a talented cast.
Hank Williams had a fascinating life, from his battle with drugs and alcohol to his incredibly popular music. Alabama has marked September 21 as Hank Williams Day.
Yes, and Alabama has at least two museums for Hank Williams in Alabama. Hank was also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and deserves to be. All rock music as we know it actually descends from Hank Williams. He started it all.
I can tell why you’d want to make a movie about Hank Williams. Are you a fan of country music? Tell me about your journey making this film.
I’ve become a big fan of country music. I grew up in South Arkansas. As a kid, my mother didn’t want me listening to country radio stations. So, she was always buying me ‘War of 1812 Overture’ album and stuff like that.
I grew up listening to more popular and classical music than I did country, but I slowly discovered my roots and discovered country over a period of years. Then I began to realize it’s the root of all music. So I have certainly grown to appreciate it and the music pioneers. Country sort of came from gospel, so it’s been a fascinating journey for the music and also for me figuring out how it all happened.
I find it interesting that Hank Williams is pretty much the source for all country music. The content of the film is about his last days. There are biographical movies like ‘Walk the Line’ about Johnny Cash and in the movie, the film takes the audience through his life. Why did you choose to focus on the last days of his life?
Actually Benji Gaither, who is from a famous gospel family, the Gaithers and well known as the czars of gospel, brought me the script and wanted me to read it. I read it and I really liked it, so we got involved. We had a home movie budget to do this film, so there was no way we were going to do an overall biography of Hank Williams. I thought what made this film unique that the script concentrated only on the last less than week of his life.
We knew the actors could make it work by having good things to say. You read everywhere that nobody can know the conversations that took place in that car and so forth. Actually, we did know some of the conversations that took place in that car with those two guys driving across the country because the driver is still alive.
Did you interview him to do research a little bit too?
Well the writers never did, but they read about him. We had a screening of the film in Montgomery, Alabama and the person in the film that was the driver came. He didn’t want his name used because it had such an impact on his life. After the fact, we found out that he wanted us to use his name and he gets a credit in the film.
Did he feel it was accurate?
He said it was closer than anybody else has ever gotten. We took that as our merit badge. It was just a trip about two guys trying to make their way across the country. The first thing we decided is that we are going to make this strictly 1951 to 1952 period piece.
If you’re young and you watch the film, you think he goes to all these places and nobody recognized him, but you have to understand that in 1952 where there were very few TV sets. The main network was the DuMont television network and there was no news footage that existed.
The only way that you could possibly know who Hank Williams was is you saw his picture in the newspaper. You probably don’t recognize him in person or saw him in a concert. It was easy for him to travel without ever being spotted or anyone ever bringing up the fact that it’s Hank Williams.
That certainly does not reflect how celebrity is today. It almost seemed like Hank Williams may have had some semblance of a normal life even as a celebrity.
Now even though you had a small budget as you say, you certainly had some great stars in this film. You had Henry Thomas who did some work in the movie, ‘Legends of the Fall,’ and ‘E.T.’ as a child actor. He does have a resemblance to Hank Williams. How did you decide to cast him?
I was talking to actor Billy Bob Thornton who is a friend of mine. He said you know there’s only one person that could do this role and it’s Henry Thomas. I’ve known Henry slightly before and I remember the things he was in. I said he was right. Henry Thomas actually wanted to do it. As it turns out, Henry Thomas mother’s name is Williams and she’s from Alabama, so he was distantly related. And there’s no better actor than Henry Thomas. There is no one.
Jesse James, who plays the young driver in the film, is a great actor too. He will have a great career because he’s such a fantastic actor. The combination of the two of them together was really, really great. Most of this movie is two guys in a car that do not know each other getting acquainted and talking about life.
There has to be a certain degree of chemistry that will carry the film. I know that you have Kaley Cuoco who was also in the film who everybody seems to know these days.
Everybody knows Kaley Cuoco. We like to think we had only great actors and actresses in this film, and we did. Kaley is very good. I had known Kaley before through my relationship with John Ritter and ‘Hearts Afire’ then Kaley did his next show.
Kaley called and said she would like to be in this film. She asked what she would have to do to get in this film. I said that you have to get on a plane at midnight tonight, fly to Arkansas, get up early in the morning, be fitted for wardrobe, and be on set tomorrow night. And she said that she was on plane. How can you not love someone like that?
On ‘The Last Ride’ soundtrack, there are many classic hits including ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ and Tennessee Waltz.’ You also feature ‘The Night Hank Williams Came to Town by Johnny Cash. Why was choosing covers of the actual music a better choice than just having the original artists?
Well, we had a very small budget, so making deals with the music companies to use the original artists was just too much. Of course we wanted to introduce some new singers like the kid in the movie that sings ‘Tennessee Waltz’ in a bar. He has such a great voice and somebody signed him to a label since then. They should because he is flawless.
I know that you have directed ‘Designing Women’ along with other hit shows. Is this your first movie?
I started when I was a kid in my 20s with ‘Encounter with the Unknown’ back in the middle of America. That still plays on late night television and embarrasses me. We were shooting with budgets of 78,000, 120,000, things like that.
What do you think is the best reason people should get the DVD and experience ‘The Last Ride’ at home?
The best reason is because, as one reviewer said, it totally emerges you in the 1950s. If you want to know what America between the coasts was like in 1950, get this movie. We wanted to be true to the period.
You get the right combination of actors and conversation and it sails.
This is a buddy picture. It’s about Hank Williams, but it’s not just about Hank Williams. As Bob Dylan says, Hank was the most important guy in his life. The Beatles were heavily influenced by Hank Williams. The Rolling Stones have said many times how they listened to Hank Williams for inspiration. Hank has never gotten his due. Somebody needs to do that big sprawling ‘I’ll Walk the Line’ biography because he certainly was not a perfect man, but he was an important person and we should know his story.
We need to thank Hank Williams.
Music wise, you need to thank Hank Williams for almost everything.
Visit www.thelastridefilm.com for more information and getting the DVD for the captivating picture, ‘The Last Ride.’ Harry Thomason’ s next film project is a teenage thriller called ‘Catnip’ this fall.