By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
Good scripts were coming his way. A proper home office, plastered with posters from the twenty films he'd directed, was finally installed. The latest opus, a biopic with A-list actors, was generating Oscar buzz among early viewers. And his cousin, Denver's Democratic mayor and the subject of his next documentary, was predicted to win Colorado's gubernatorial race.
George Hickenlooper III, the native St. Louis filmmaker whom many considered prolific yet underrated, was positively "ebullient about what was happening in and around his life" just hours before he died in his sleep at the age of 47 on October 30, according to his producing partner, Donald Zuckerman.
"From an artistic point of view, he goes out at a moment of triumph," says the film critic F.X. Feeney. "Tragically, he would be the first to acknowledge, he leaves behind a nine-year-old boy and a widow right at the moment when he was probably going to be making A-list deals."
Hickenlooper was scheduled to be in town November 11 for the St. Louis International Film Festival premiere of Casino Jack, his forthcoming feature about ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Instead the pre-show party has been scrapped for a tribute at which loved ones will mourn the untimely passing of a "big-hearted," "insatiably curious," "politics-obsessed," passionately independent filmmaker who hoped to shoot his next feature — starring Pierce Brosnan — in his hometown.
Born here on May 25, 1963, Hickenlooper was fixated on becoming a filmmaker from age thirteen, when his father bought him a Super 8 camera. His early shorts, made during his years at Saint Louis University High School, often addressed weighty themes like race and war, and attracted audiences not just in friends' rec rooms but on the local public television station, KETC-TV (Channel 9).
"I was in some of his early movies shown on [KETC], and in one movie I played an escaped lunatic," recalls his father, George Hickenlooper Jr., a professor of English and creative writing at Lindenwood University. "I remember rolling around pretending to have a spastic attack on a school playground in Maplewood in December. I learned about the rigors of filmmaking early on, you see."
Hickenlooper III earned his undergraduate degree at Yale University, which he chose after writing letters to dozens of celebrities soliciting opinions on the Ivy League school (which had no formal film program) versus the University of Southern California (which had an established film school). "He was shrewd," recalls a St. Louis friend, Bill Boll. "He figured that anybody who bothered to respond was an 'in' in Hollywood."
Hickenlooper settled with his wife, Suzanne, in Los Angeles, where the proverbial string of menial jobs — carpet steamer, waiter — preceded his first two Hollywood productions, in 1991: Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Both documentaries dealt with moviemaking, and both earned positive attention in LA, including an Emmy Award for the latter film.
Throughout the '90s Hickenlooper toiled on mostly self-financed features, exploring a range of genres in Grey Knight (a Civil War vampire flick), Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (a short story of matricide), The Low Life (a comedic drama about a writer trying to make it in LA) and The Big Brass Ring (a political drama adapted from an Orson Welles screenplay, which was set and filmed in Missouri).
While St. Louis theaters always gave Hickenlooper movies top billing, much of his work never got distributed beyond the festival circuit — a constant source of frustration that was exacerbated after Billy Bob Thornton, who created the character and starred in the Sling Blade short, went on to direct an Oscar-winning feature-length version without Hickenlooper. ("Sure, I would have loved to have done the feature, and had I done the feature, I think it would have been better — it would have been darker," Hickenlooper told Riverfront Times in 1999. "As a result, it probably wouldn't have won an Oscar, either.")
The dustup with Thornton did nothing to decelerate Hickenlooper. In fact, his next movie, The Man from Elysian Fields, about a failed writer (Andy Garcia) who whores himself out through an escort service (operated by Mick Jagger), won widespread distribution in 2001, as did Factory Girl, about the tangled relationship between Andy Warhol and his muse, Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), in 2006.
"When you look at his films, it's a pretty positive learning curve," observes Feeney, the critic, who collaborated with Hickenlooper on Brass Ring. "They just get better and better."
Citing his knack for assembling great casts even when money was tight, Hickenlooper's friend and producing partner Michael Beugg says, "He had a special ability to meet with an actor and convince them his movie was something they should do — even if their agent wouldn't be pushing for the project."
Hickenlooper had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. He emulated the likes of Howard Hawks, John Ford and Francis Ford Coppola and strove to break out of genre conventions in pursuit of characters who weren't always easy to love. He often said he liked a good antihero. As Cliff Froehlich, SLIFF organizer and executive director of Cinema St. Louis (and former RFT arts editor), puts it: "He wanted to not make 'Hollywood' films. He wanted to make human films."