ART SCENE: The Last Ride
Arkansas native filmmaker Harry Thomason brings his latest project, a film about the last days of country music legend Hank Williams, to showcase at the Opening Night of the 2011 Little Rock Film Festival.
Henry Thomas (Hank) speaking to a street musican played by Arkansas' own, Lawrence Hamilton
photography provided by Thomason
The Little Rock Film Festival’s opening night film is garnering a lot of attention in Arkansas and beyond. “The Last Ride,” directed by Arkansas native Harry Thomason, most known for his work on the television shows “Designing Women” and “Hearts Afire,” and the mini-series “The Blue and the Gray,” will premiere at the Argenta Community Theater on June 1. The opening night reception will follow.
“The Last Ride” is a perfect example of the beautiful work that is a product of filming in Arkansas. Thomason, who is no stranger to filming in the Natural State, brought only a handful of actors and crewmembers with him from Los Angeles, which he now calls home, to create this $1.8 million feature-length film that tells the story of the legendary Hank Williams’ last days.
In Williams’ short life, he wrote more than 100 songs. He recorded 35 singles that ranked in the Top 10 charts, 11 of which reached the No. 1 mark. His songs have been recorded by music greats, including: Willie Nelson; Townes Van Zandt; Bob Dylan; Johnny Cash; Tony Bennett; Patsy Cline; Ray Charles; Louis Armstrong; and Tom Waits.
“Hank Williams died 57 years ago, but last year he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for songwriting. More than 300,000 people visit his gravesite in Alabama each year. He is the founder of rock and roll music, and he only lived to be 29. He was such an interesting man,” Thomason said. “I am very interested in his conflict, and I think that is what drew me to making this film.”
In addition to his contributions to county music, Williams enjoyed success writing and recording religious music under the alter ego “Luke the Drifter.”
“Williams recorded a ton of religious music. He was always inside himself, battling guilt about going to play his music in bars. So he wrote the religious songs to make up for it. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis did the same thing,” Thomason said.
You get a glimpse of some of this inner conflict in the film, which largely takes place within the Cadillac driven by a hired driver. The driver, a college-aged kid, is played by Jesse James. James’ character is instructed to drive Williams, portrayed by Henry Thomas, to play New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day concerts in Virginia and Ohio. Of course, they never arrive as Williams unexpectedly and mysteriously passes en route.
“The film is really about the relationship between these two characters,” Thomason said. “It’s a small film that doesn’t move far physically, but takes you through large emotional changes through these two characters.”
The film explores what might have taken place between these two based on what is known about their brief, but legendary journey together. Music, of course, plays a large role in the film. Benjamin Gaither assembled the score.
“There are 36 songs in the film, and Benjy [Gaither] wrote and arranged 23 of those songs. He arranged a version of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ for the film. I really think his version could make it on the country music charts,” Thomason said.
Music plays as the two main characters travel down two-lane country back roads and stop at seedy bars and gas stations. They also spend an evening in a prominent hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., all of which is created with central Arkansas as the backdrop. The cinematography of the film is not only beautiful, but it also shows Arkansas’ amazing diversity and capability to transform into nearly any setting imaginable.
“We shot the entire film, only having to leave Pulaski County once, to shoot in Benton,” Thomason said. “North Little Rock is really a filmmaker’s dream. It was perfect for shooting that time period. The street lamps and the storefronts were all just perfect.”
Thomason also sang the praises of the largely Arkansas-based cast and crewmembers. Of the 26 actors featured, he only brought five actors and 17 crew members from L.A. Actress Kaley Cuoco of the TV series “The Big Bang Theory,” spices up the story as a small town gas station owner and love interest to James’ painfully shy character.
“I love working in Arkansas and with Arkansans. We have a really good crew here that works long days, and they do it without complaining,” Thomason said. “At one point on set, we counted 63 people with Arkansas drivers licenses.”
Thomason assembled an impressive team of local filmmakers and actors. You’ll see familiar faces including: Ray McKinnon, Natalie Canerday, Lawrence Hamilton, Graham Gordy, Jennifer Pierce and Rick Dial playing various roles in Williams’ tumultuous last days.
Catch the premiere of “The Last Ride” on opening night of the Little Rock Film Festival. Thomason will be on-hand to share this latest project. It’s currently making the film festival rounds and has a tentative scheduled public theatrical release in September and will be distributed later on DVD through Fox. For more information on “The Last Ride,” visit their Internet Movie Database listing at imdb.com.
Director Harry Thomason