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Tales of The Hitcher -- The Long Version

11/05/2013 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It's odd the way the mind works, making random connections. The other day, I was flipping past the Hallmark Channel. That made me think of a Hallmark Hall of Fame production from 15 years ago that I only caught the end of and had been very impressed by. It was called The Love Letter and starred Campbell Scott and Jennifer Jason Leigh. (Based on a short story that, from what little of the plot I saw, made it seem along the lines of the later feature film, The Lake House, with a mystical love affair over many years through the exchange of letters.) I went on Netflix to rent it - but it was only available to save, not watch. Either it's not available on DVD yet, or Netflix hasn't gotten around to ordering it yet. Whoever's responsible, I hope they fix this. But I digress. But then, this whole long tale is pretty much going to be a long digression. So, I guess it fits.

Anyway, all of this, from flipping past the Hallmark Channel to The Love Letter to Jennifer Jason Leigh got me to think of The Hitcher. A movie which is about as far from a Hallmark film as one could think. But it had starred C. Thomas Howell and...Jennifer Jason Leigh. (See that whole "how the mind thing" works?!) And in my earlier wayward days, I'd been a unit publicist, and worked on The Hitcher - the original, from 1986, not the remake.

I'll get around again to Jennifer, since that's what started all this remembrance, but perspective for a story is everything.

The Hitcher was a creepy, cold-hearted horror film that has garnered a reputation over the years from aficionados of the genre, and I've always felt that that was in large part due to the working tandem of director Robert Harmon and cinematographer John Seale. Together, they took what was just a small, cruel, independent horror project and laced it with layers of texture and craft.

As a screenwriter, I like to make sure a film's script isn't lost in the discussion of a movie which always tends to overpraise everyone else at its expense. But this was one of the rare cases of a movie I worked on where the praise was due. Robert Harmon added a great deal of class to what's on screen, with his attention to detail and thoughtfulness. He also will likely be the first to acknowledge how he lucked out getting John Seale by his side.

John Seale was already an admired director of photography, but mainly for his work in Australia with director Peter Weir (as a camera operator on such classic films as Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock). His U.S. career was only starting. But he had just been the DP on Witness, for which he would soon get an Oscar nomination. And he later went on to win the Academy Award for The English Patient, and get nominated again for Rain Man and Cold Mountain. Other movies he subsequently made include The American President, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Dead Poet's Society, The Mosquito Coast and...well, okay, you get the idea.

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Little, independent horror movies don't usually get a world-class talent like John Seale as their cinematographer. What happened is that he'd just finished making Witness for the same executive producers, Ed Feldman and Charles Meeker. His next movie fell through at the very last minute, so he was going to head back home to Australia. Feldman mentioned that he had a little movie about to start, so rather than head halfway around the world for just two months, only to come right back here, why not stay and work. So, John Seale did, and The Hitcher lucked out really, really big time.

Although luck was at the heart of it, Robert Harmon was smart enough to work closely together with him . Not all directors would do that, insisting instead that they were king of world. The result was a great collaboration, and the movie that looked far better, far classier than not just this, but most movies ever deserve to.

I remember one day when we were watching dailies - which is the rough, unedited footage shot the day before. There was a scene when the young kid (played by Howell) pulled his car off the side of the road to see what was going on in the car stopped up ahead. It's a tense-filled sequence, not knowing what he'd find, but the scene was especially gripping in the Harmon-Seale hands - because I noticed something: rather than Howell slowly stepping forward in the middle of the frame, he was far off to the left side. It came across like it was that empty space dragging him forward, and he had no choice. The camerawork was brilliant. When the lights came up to change reels, I noticed that John was sitting in front of me, so I leaned forward to express how much I liked that he didn't have the character in the center of the frame. In his thick Australian accent he replied, "The 'center.' The center'! I hate 'the center.' They should take scissors and cut 'the center' out of every frame." (Watch other John Seale movies. You'll see that he's always stuck to his standards...)

My favorite John Seale moment, though, had nothing to do with the movie. On a day off, a bunch of us went to the glorious Joshua Tree National Monument. (It's now a National Park.) I wanted to get myself in a photo with a particular great background. I gave my simple camera to John Seale to snap it - and one of Hollywood's greatest-ever cinematographers was so befuddled by it that had to ask for my help where to focus and push the button.

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Me, in legendary photo taken by soon-to-be Oscar-winning cinematographer.
Ever-so-slightly, artistically off-center.

(My second favorite Seale moment also had nothing to do with the movie. John always wore a great floppy, leather, adventurers hat. I'd asked him about it, but the only place available to buy one was in the middle of the Australian Outback. On the last day of filming, though, he tossed me his, and said "Here, it's yours.")

It was an odd, though enjoyable vagabond production. Most of it was shot in the Southern California desert. Undulating hills of sand that looked like you were in the Sahara Desert often spread around us. And being as far away from anything as we were, there were many days when the company would still travel 50 minutes to the even farther, even more out of the way locations.

Odder still was that when the film was being made, Tommy Howell was at the height of his teen star phenomenon. (He's still acting, but also has become an active director.) Yet even in tiny towns way out in the desert, special precautions still had to be taken to protect him at the hotels we stayed at. Because they would be surrounded by packs of young girls waiting for him - in the early morning, and when we got back from the day's filming. At times, I think the hordes were larger than the towns we were in, and the girls had been shuttled over. But he was quite unaffected by it all, and was very dedicated to his particularly grueling schedule, never complaining, and even fairly bemused by most things.

Which brings be back around to Jennifer Jason Leigh, that started this whole reminiscence. (I told you I'd get there!) Two stories have always stood out.

Jennifer was extremely quiet, to the point almost of shy, but always focused with a driven, almost-surprisingly tough determination, and quite nice to work with. She's had an impressively long career, first coming to attention in a 1981 TV movie, The Best Little Girl in the World, about a young girl who was anorexic. And the next year she broke through with the feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And she's still going strong, with three movies currently in post-production. And recurring roles in two TV series, Weeds and Revenge. She even co-wrote the screenplay for The Anniversary Party and co-wrote with Noah Baumbach the movie Greenberg.

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At one point during the ever-traveling production, we put up rare roots for a while in El Centro, California. To put it politely, El Centro is in the middle of freaking nowhere, somewhere in the middle of the Southern California desert. A town where, when the wind is blowing just wrong, fertilizer permeates every speck of air. Distant, oddly pleasant, and fairly good-sized, since it was the hub of the area, around which there was nothing. Did I mention it's remote? One night, Jennifer had to get a gift for a niece, and because I had a car, she asked if I'd take her to the local warehouse store. We did our shopping in the cavernous barn and then got in line to pay. As we reached the register, the girl there took the merchandise and gave a little laugh as she rang it up.

"You know who you look like?" she offhandedly said to Jennifer. "My boyfriend and I last night were watching this movie on TV about this girl who was anorexic. You look like her." And then she turned back to finish bagging.

Now, again, remember, we were in literally the middle of the desert here. This check-out girl probably wouldn't have even expected to see anyone she knew who didn't live in El Centro, since the nearest town was miles away. The star of a TV movie she'd watched the night before was out of the question. Her comment to Jennifer wasn't one of "Ohmygod, it's you!" recognition. Just - hey, you look like that girl on TV. And then back to the register.

Jennifer had two options, "I get that all the time" and "That was me." Given how shy she generally was, I wouldn't have been surprised by the former. But way out in the middle of the El Centro desert? C'mon, who could resist? "That was me," she replied.

Have you seen cartoons where a character stops, stunned, and the bottom of their jaw drops all the way to the ground. I believe that girl at the register brought that to life. It may have been the most utterly stunned I've ever seen someone, and so full of disbelieving joy. There in the ShopMart, at 8:30 at night, with the wind blowing the wrong way, the Hollywood star of the TV movie she'd watched at home the night before, was right there, buying toys at her register.

You don't forget moments like that.

The other story I remember because it does a particularly nice job of defining Jennifer. It came on a day when I had to interview her for the film's presskit I was writing. It was a day off, and I was going to drive to a little rock shop I had passed the day before. (Actual rocks, I mean, not music...) It was probably 10 miles away through the desert. That sounded interesting to Jennifer - it seemed like a nice place to get some gifts for friends-- and she asked if she could come along. (I get the sense that her mission in life was to buy gifts for people.) Further, just the fact that she wanted to drive 20 miles round-trip to buy rocks spoke well of her. Me, I'm loopy enough to want to do such a thing. But most Hollywood actresses I've come across? They aren't. Trust me.

(I should note that this story was made particularly memorable to me for another reason. I figured that I could kill two birds with one stone - no pun intended - since I could tape record my presskit interview on the drive. It was always difficult to get actors to sit down for the long interview I needed, and such a distant trip with no escape was perfect. The problem was that a couple miles in, I noticed the tape recorder wasn't working. I couldn't say anything though, because I was sure Jennifer would respond, "Oh, then let's do the interview another time." And finding "another time" was usually a major challenge on a movie set. So, I stayed silent, gritted my teeth, pleasantly asked my questions - and did everything I possibly could to silently repeat in my head every word she said that I could hopefully, dear God, remember. The moment we reached the rock shop, I cleverly made sure we immediately split up, so that I could rush off into a corner and write everything down the best I could recall...)

Anyway, as we paired up again and were wandering around the store together, its matriarch came up to us. Picture an old woman who owned a rock shop in the middle of the desert. That clichéd image you have in mind was in front of us. White-haired, pink cheeks, in her mid-70s, down-to-earth, in jeans with a bandana, and Mother Earth warm. We got to talking about her and her husband and them running the place and more - and then she grabbed my hand and placed a nice, little stone in it. A smooth, purple-ish amethyst (which I still have, by the way.) "Here," she said quietly, almost conspiratorially, with I swear a twinkle in her eye. "I like to give a little gift to some of our gentlemen customers."

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Very nice, very sweet. But suddenly, I saw Jennifer's face scrunch up. And petulantly she said, "Why just the gentlemen? That's not fair. Why not the women, too??" There was nothing rude about how she asked. She just felt slighted. Her and all womenkind. And it was bluntly clear from her body and expression. As good an actress as Jennifer is, she probably shouldn't play poker.

The old woman stopped a moment. Her generous action had probably never been questioned, let alone challenged ever, in decades. But now, here was this spirited, young, petite, blonde girl in front of her. The proprietor thought a moment and then said, "You know - you're right. Women should get one." And she put a little stone in Jennifer's hand. And they both smiled.

By the way, yes, Jennifer bought a ton of great rocks. And is still probably buying random gifts for people to this day.

Which brings us, finally, to the end. But like all ends, there usually is a lesson. And I did indeed learn one important lesson on this production. As the PR spokesman, I would get interviewed on occasion, and one occasion, I picked up the paper to read the story afterwards. It quoted me as describing the movie as "a character study." Now, you must understand, this was a film about a manically grizzly, serial killer who brutally murders countless people in the most gruesome manner possible, while chasing after a young guy for some unknown, mythical reason. Not only did the words, "a character study," not escape my lips, the phrase never entered my thought process. (As you might imagine, I was chided a tad by the crew after they read the story. "Oh, so, it's a 'character study' we're making, is it?" The lesson I learned was -- always be wary when reading a quote from someone. It might be spot-on accurate. Or it just might be more fantasy than the universe of J.R.R. Tolkien.

And yes, all that came to mind from flipping past the Hallmark Channel. The mind works in mysterious ways. The Hitcher was the first movie production I had worked on from start to finish. Therefore, as you can imagine, it was quite memorable. But mostly, I am happy to say that I believe I have finally gotten all of the sand out of my shoes.

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Robert J. Elisberg's comic novel, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list for Humor/Parody. It is available in paperback or Kindle ebook edition.