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.

"It was just a great, fun film," Hickenlooper says, but when the shooting ended, the usual troubles began. "Again, it was one of those very painful scenarios," Hickenlooper says. "We premiered it, and it got incredible critical response. All the executives at all the distribution companies loved it, but they said it just wasn't commercial because it had a real downer ending. It played in 12 cities, got great reviews and deserved a much bigger release, but that's the way it went."

During this period in the mid-'90s, Hickenlooper was also slumming in television, pseudonymously directing five episodes of America's Most Wanted, the flatlined ABC medical drama Vital Signs and an Aaron Spelling pilot called Crosstown Traffic. Hickenlooper then picked up another work-for-hire directing gig in 1996 with Persons Unknown, a competent but formulaic HBO thriller whose clichéd script is slightly elevated by an excellent cast including Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh and Jon Favreau. Hickenlooper generously assesses the film as "a semisuccessful attempt at making a stylish thriller," but his preferred "funny, ironic" ending was cut by the producer, and he believes that "the movie works more or less until the very end and then kind of falls apart." Like The Grey Knight, Persons Unknown premiered on cable in the U.S. but received a theatrical release in Europe. "It got amazing reviews in England," Hickenlooper says, and was even cited as one of the year's best films by Empire magazine. "Can you believe it?" he asks with a mix of amusement and pride. "The guy must have been on drugs."

Hickenlooper returned to a more personal brand of filmmaking in 1997 with Dogtown, which he both wrote and directed. A look at the constrictive nature of small-town life set in Cuba, Mo. (though shot in Torrance, Calif.), "Dogtown was very much my homage to Peter Bogdanovich and The Last Picture Show," says Hickenlooper, and it allowed the filmmaker to explore in fictional terms territory he had previously covered in Picture This, his documentary on Bogdanovich. Dogtown, like The Low Life, resembles a '70s drama with its quirky, stopped-down rhythms -- it's unafraid to dawdle over small, revealing moments -- and a narrative based more in realistic situations than in genre conventions. Although the film ultimately suffers from its derivative, poor-second-cousin kinship to The Last Picture Show and some reductive yahoo stereotyping, it's dotted with painful moments of verisimilitude and features two beautifully nuanced performances by Mary Stuart Masterson and Favreau.

George Hickenlooper
Steve Diet Goedde
George Hickenlooper

The film also interestingly amplifies on the autobiographical elements of The Low Life, centering as it does on the homecoming of Phillip (Trevor St. John), a Cuba native who's accorded a star's welcome despite his lack of success as an actor in LA. "I had come back to St. Louis, and I always felt that I was treated a little differently than I had been as a kid," explains Hickenlooper. "I felt like I had become this minor celebrity in St. Louis, and it felt silly to me because I'm virtually a nonentity in Hollywood. I felt, in a way, like a fraud. I wanted to capture that feeling in Dogtown." (Hickenlooper will examine the subject of stardom again in a more expansive form in The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, a documentary he's been shooting for the past two years on celebrity-obsessed LA disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer.)

With dismaying predictability, however, the ill luck that Hickenlooper first experienced with The Grey Knight returned with Dogtown. "Again, it got amazing reviews at festivals," asserts Hickenlooper, "but the pacing was considered slow and deliberate. Fox Searchlight liked the picture but thought it was too downbeat and didn't have enough octane in it for a theatrical release. One distributor said it was "too Chekhovian.'" Hickenlooper sighs with exasperation: "Dogtown to this day has yet to see any kind of distribution. Since The Big Brass Ring, there has been some interest for taking it out theatrically, so it may yet still have some life. But otherwise it's available in my closet drawer."

GIVEN HICKENLOOPER'S DIFFICULTIES WITH distribution over the past decade, it's ironically appropriate that his most recent feature, The Big Brass Ring, should be adapted from a screenplay by Orson Welles, who was famously shunned and ill-used by Hollywood after making what many consider America's (and the world's) finest film, Citizen Kane. The Big Brass Ring actually serves as something of a coda to Citizen Kane, revisiting the political milieu of that film and reiterating, albeit in diminished and less compelling form, some of its themes: the impact of abandonment, the conflict between public and private lives.

Hickenlooper's movie, which he co-wrote with LA Weekly film critic F.X. Feeney, departs substantially from the Welles script, altering both setting (moving it from Spain and Africa to St. Louis) and story (a presidential defeat becomes a gubernatorial election; a scandal involving an Asian mistress becomes a potentially devastating revelation about a long-lost brother). "The original Welles script is kind of amusing and funny and very gothic," says Hickenlooper. "I thought, "This is an incredible story, but it's a story that only Welles could make because it's so baroque.'" Hickenlooper, however, retains Welles' quartet of main characters and their essential relationships: Blake Pellarin (William Hurt), here an independent candidate for Missouri governor; his mentor (Nigel Hawthorne), a former senator disgraced by revelations of his homosexuality; his wife (Miranda Richardson), a manipulative alcoholic who provides Blake's money and drive; and his journalistic pursuer (Iréne Jacob), who suspects that Blake hides a dark secret beneath his sunny facade.

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