THE ROAD TO WELLES-VILLE

St. Louis native George Hickenlooper takes another step on his Hollywood career path with the Orson Welles adaptation The Big Brass Ring -- but a happy ending's still not in sight.

IF SEEING IS BELIEVING, FILMMAKER GEORGE Hickenlooper would have a difficult time winning converts.It's not that he's lazy: Since 1991, Hickenlooper, who's only in his mid-30s, has made nine films, directed a clutch of TV shows and even written a book. In recounting the credits, he says with clear surprise, "God, I've done a lot of work, if you think about it."And it's not that he lacks talent: Although the films vary in quality and content -- from the heartfelt semiautobiographical comic drama The Low Life to the beautifully constructed short "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade" to the impersonal but efficient thriller Persons Unknown to the loopy vampire quasi-Western Ghost Brigade -- Hickenlooper's work pushes at and intelligently deforms genre boundaries and always features a strong cast, distinctive authorial voice and elegant visual style. Even at their most cringingly imperfect, his movies are marked by an impressive ambition and reach.

So Hickenlooper merits attention. It's just that no one's watching.

Despite working nonstop in the movie business for a decade, Hickenlooper remains what he self-deprecatingly terms "virtually a nonentity in Hollywood." Although known and respected on the film-festival circuit -- his most recent film, The Big Brass Ring, played the prestigious Toronto fest in September and receives a special presentation by the St. Louis International Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 28 -- Hickenlooper has yet to secure a major theatrical release for any of his movies.

Local cineasts are among the few people who have had an opportunity to see Hickenlooper's films on the big screen: A St. Louis native -- - the city figures peripherally or prominently in most of his movies -- Hickenlooper has screened virtually all of his work in town. But filmgoers elsewhere are familiar with Hickenlooper -- if at all -- through cable-TV showings and tape releases. Most of his films can be found on a well-stocked video store's shelves, but only the most obsessive of movie nerds is likely to be familiar with the entire Hickenlooper oeuvre.

As Hickenlooper succinctly puts the situation: "It's horribly frustrating."

IN AN INTERVIEW WITH THE RFT IN 1991 -- before the Showtime premiere of the work for which he remains best known, the making-of-Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness -- Hickenlooper was perhaps all too prophetic when discussing his own future as a maker of serious films: "It's getting a lot harder," he said. "I think it's really grim now. I think audiences are less tolerant of films that make them think." His experience in the following years has done nothing but provide bleak confirmation.

Fresh from the glowing reviews for Hearts of Darkness, Hickenlooper first attempted to set up the film that he only recently completed -- The Big Brass Ring, an unmade Orson Welles script -- but he tripped over the first of the many career hurdles that he's had to clear: "At the time, I was very much pigeonholed as a documentary filmmaker."

The one film Hickenlooper was offered -- "this Civil War vampire script, this B-movie script" -- appeared unpromising, but he was confident he could find an interesting approach to the story. "Since I still very much had Joseph Conrad on the brain from having done Hearts of Darkness," says Hickenlooper, "I thought it would be interesting to create this hybrid of Bram Stoker and Joseph Conrad. The original screenplay had literal vampires with fangs, and they flew around in the sky. I was more interested in a sort of metaphorical vampire, so it became this kind of metaphysical take on vampiricism, very kind of ethereal and atmospheric."

The resulting film -- known originally as The Grey Knight but released to cable as The Killing Box and to video as Ghost Brigade -- never quite rises above its bizarre conceit, and some of the actors seem profoundly uncomfortable in their period getups and unsatisfying vampire makeup. But Hickenlooper demonstrates a fine compositional eye, assembles a typically intriguing cast and coaxes a surprising depthful performance from Corbin Bernsen.

Establishing a pattern that would soon repeat itself, The Grey Knight never played in theaters domestically, although it was released in Europe to what Hickenlooper calls "decent reviews." Adding further insult, the picture was re-edited against Hickenlooper's wishes to remove a strong current of homoeroticism. "Even though I'm a heterosexual," Hickenlooper explains, "I find homoeroticism in art really fascinating, maybe stemming from my Catholic upbringing." According to Hickenlooper, "The producer was kind of freaked out by the homoerotic take on it and he wanted more fangs, so he basically completely recut the picture after I finished it." (Hickenlooper's version of Ghost Brigade is available on the Turner Home Entertainment laserdisc.)

Although he says that "I was at the time very despondent over the recutting," Hickenlooper quickly regrouped and began a new project: a short called "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade," written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, with whom he had become friends on The Grey Knight set. "We were sitting in his apartment drinking beers," Hickenlooper says, "and he said, "I want to do this character for you. You'll totally freak out.' I actually left the room, and when I came back in, he was in his character, Karl Childers, and he did this monologue for me about how he killed his mother, and I was riveted. The hair was standing on the back of my neck. I said, "That's amazing. We've got to get this character on film.'"

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