Retaking Tiger Mountain: An interview with Tom Huckabee

TTM 3Following its premiere at the Oxford Film Festival, we talk to the co-director of Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited about revisiting old projects, counter culture influences and working with the late, great Bill Paxton.

Firstly, congratulations on the new edit of Taking Tiger Mountain. Was it strange to revisit the film?

Perhaps, a bit. But mostly it was invigorating, challenging, rewarding, and bittersweet to be working with Bill Paxton once again. Maybe that part was strange, or eerie, if you think about it, working with a dead man. But then, Bill loved the macabre,  Edgar Alan Poe, Gahan Wilson,  Charles Adams, Tobe Hooper;  violence and death were in most of the films we made together. It was in his wheelhouse from a very early age, and it was through him that I learned to appreciate such things. I remember him seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a grindhouse theater on Sunset Blvd in 1974 and then dragging me to see it. It addled my fragile eggshell hippie mind.

I like revisiting old projects, and upgrading them; movies, songs, paintings, sometimes using them as the basis for an entirely different piece.  Like Bob Dylan does, when he performs his songs live; they never sound like they do on his records. Just about everything changes except the words, and something the words change, too. Nothing I’ve done is sacred to me, only the process is sacred. To worship the thing itself is idolatry.

The new end title song in Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited,  “Kill All Men,” is a remake by Andrew Todd Rosenthal (Paxton’s partner in Martini Ranch) of a song by my band from the late ‘70s, The Huns.

When the film was converted to 4K and revisited, what ideas did you want to bring to the new release? 

First, I wanted it to be easier to follow, to give the viewer a firmer purchase while climbing the mountain. The next thing was to spruce it up visually, to remove scratches and dirt, for sure, but also to add new visual elements, like weather, lighting, set decoration, the occasional butterfly.

I shortened it by ten minutes and added four minutes. The new bits gave it a spiritual dimension and a happy ending, things it never had before.

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You’ve said that the film deserves consideration as a new entity. How different do you feel it is compared to the version you originally made?

I think it’s significantly improved, like an upgrade of a digital application or video game. It’s more user friendly. And the message is more positive, less nihilistic, Christian even, in an agnostic/esoteric way.

Your 1983 edit was different from what Kent Smith and Bill Paxton originally conceived. How difficult was it to introduce your ideas to the footage you had? 

To clarify for your readers, we’re talking about three separate versions or stages of the film.

1) The script, called Taking Tiger Mountain, written by Kent Smith, began production in Wales in 1974 but only half of it was shot before they ran out of money.

2) The 1983 version—also called Taking Tiger Mountain,  was edited and “directed” by myself,  with new scenes and lots of voiceover material co-written by Paul Cullum, myself and William S. Burroughs, incorporating retaining about half of Kent’s story. It was released theatrically but never on video.

3) The current version, called Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited—a greatly modified, enhanced version, using modern editing technology and the perspective of 40 years of objective distance—which I’m showing at film festivals and will be released as an extra on a DVD in July 2019 by Etiquette Pictures.

The 1983 version took me about three years to produce.  Revisited took about a year. So it was time consuming.

Regarding the difficulty of using existing footage to tell a different story than was originally intended, I had made found-footage films before. Lots of them.  So, that part was like riding a unicycle.

It’s very clever how you use voice over and surreal imagery to cover what could be gaps in the footage. What influenced these sequences?

If you’re talking about the dream sequences, they were there all along in the footage I acquired. Some of them were in Kent’s script; some of them were made up on the spot in Wales by Bill and Kent.  For TTMR, I tried to make it more clear with digital effects what was a dream and what was real life and to distinguish those dimensions from Billy’s waking visions and daydreams or flashbacks.  There is also a layer of aural recollections and/or voices in Billy’s mind. All of these layers were in the 1983 version but in a great big pile that the average person could not make hide nor hair out of.

The radio broadcasts, which were entirely part of the 1983 version were included to create a backdrop and context for the footage Kent and Bill shot, while at the same time changing that context radically by setting it in the future and turning Bill’s character into a time-bomb assassin rather than an aimless, baffled tourist. We also turned him into a fugitive, a draft dodger who has fled his home in Houston to escape serving in the war between the USA and Russia.  There is also a civil war in America and sundry domestic catastrophes, like in Europe during World War II.

Clear as mud, right? Well, that was the challenge of Revisited, taking a very complex story and back story, which was actually pretty well thought out for the 1983 version but not presented the way the most people could follow, except for foreign film fans raised on Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Jordorwosky, et al.

ttm 5There’s a lot to unpack in the film, with the counteracting influences of Burroughs and Valerie Solanas, was it difficult to find the balance?

Some of the key speculative fiction, socio-political ideas we imposed on Bill and Kent’s footage came from a mysterious dramaturg named Ray Layton, who looked like a taller Roger Daltrey and acted like a cult leader, albeit with only one disciple. I showed him my initial 60 minute rough cut, “without sound,” and asked him to riff on what the story might be or should be about.  He had the ideas that the town was a government prostitution center, that Billy was an assassin sent to kill the commandant of the camp,  that he was working on behalf of a cabal feminist revolutionaries opposed to a patriarchal government of the future.   I caught on fast where he was going,  and we riffed off each other like jazz musicians, developing the plot.  I had read the Scum Manifesto by Solanas, devoured it actually, a few years earlier and was taking a class on feminist art and literature, studying Lynda Benglis, Margaret Atwood, Nikki Giovanni, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, etc.

Counter culture is clearly important to the film. What other things influenced you? 

Besides the films and people already cited, there was La Jetee, Alphaville, The Prisoner TV show,  Nicholas Roeg, Bruce Connor, Dali and Bunuel. George Battaille,  Truffaut, Pasolini, Herzog,  Rauschenberg, The Doors, Patti Smith, Throbbing Gristle, Kenneth Patchen, Herman Hesse, Antonioni, Peter Brook, Steve Reich, Bob Dylan (big time), Picasso,  Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Dennis Hopper, Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan Demme, and declassified papers of the CIA’s MKUltra program about using psychedelics for brainwashing, interrogation, espionage and warfare.

The patriarchy has become a significant talking point in recent years and the political situation in many countries is in flux. Do you think the film has a more topical edge now?

In 1983, it was meant to be a prophetic film. We were saying, “These are a few things that might happen in the future, if we keep behaving like cavemen  I think the story is less outre than it was.  There was little general awareness of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of Science Fiction.

Post-apocalyptic or Dystopia was not a bankable genre yet. The approach to the year 2000 changed all that. I’ve studied enough about prophecy and radical social movements to know shit hits the fan for western civilization every time a bunch of zeros line up in a row on the calendar. Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy in action.

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When you first took on the picture in 1980s,  Bill Paxton was starring in major Hollywood films. Were there scheduling issues? Was his input restricted?

Not really, definitely not in 1979 when he did his dubbing,  he was still hustling supporting roles and throwing a paper route. I remember telling the executive producer he was going to be a star. But he wasn’t one then, nor in 1983 when the film was released.

You worked closely with Bill throughout your career. Was he aware you were working on TTM again before he passed away?

Yes, and he was cool with it,  excited to see what I could do with it using digital technology. He was also amenable to doing a voiceover track for the extras on the DVD; his biggest concern was the marketing, which he wanted to be handled like an art film and not an exploitation film.

The story behind the film warrants a picture itself. Have you been tempted to tell that narrative? 
It does! There is not much behind the scene footage, and many of the main people are dead or MIA; so it couldn’t be a documentary. I guess it could be a drama— or comedy, rather, since no one died during production. I’ve always wanted to do a historical drama set in the world of experimental filmmaking, like a biopic on Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, or Stan Brakhage but I suppose I could accomplish the same thing with the story behind the making of Tiger Mountain. I’d change the names, however. By the way, the original name of Billy Hampton was Billy Huckabee. At that time Kent had never met me, but Bill had talked a lot about me, and Kent liked the southern twang of my name.

Do you have archive footage for a home media release?

I have Super 8 sound footage of the 1983 premiere outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Following the movie, as the sold-out house is leaving—without most of them knowing who I was—I interviewed people about what they thought of it with Bill standing nearby. Many people didn’t recognize him, either, as he looked like a punk rocker with spiked hair, nothing like how he looked in the movie. So, this one guy who hated the movie, goes on at length, calling it a “pretentious pile of experimental, self-indulgent crap.” Suddenly, Bill mock-attacks the guy, putting him in a headlock. It’s pretty funny.

Kent went back to Wales a year after the initial production with a 16mm sync camera, operated by Eli Hollander, a film professor still working at UC Santa Cruz. They rounded up the cast members that were still around and shot interviews with them, instructed by Kent to speak as if they were their characters, not as themselves. The only part of this that I used was the Major telling the story of Tiger Mountain. I think all of these faux interviews will be on the DVD  as an extra.

The DVD will be released this coming July and feature the 1983 version, Taking Tiger Mountain, with the 2019 version attached as an extra.

As far as I know there was no still photographer on the production. Maybe somebody in Wales shot pictures I’ve never seen. When I go there this spring to show the film in the little towns where it was shot, maybe somebody will come forward.

Something I do have is five or six hours of audio tape from 1980 when Bill came to Austin to record his dialogue. A lot of it is Bill improvising for the voiceovers, and much of it is hilarious, very blue. When Bill felt relaxed and got going among likeminded people, he could raise the roof.  Extreme hair letting down, they called it in the Before Time.

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Hunter Tapscott has a credit as a hypnotist. To what effect was hypnosis used during the making of the film?
Hunter was a friend of mine from high school and my college roommate. He was studying psychology and had access to all of the personality tools used by therapists as diagnostic tools and a rudimentary knowledge of hypnotism. For one entire night in 1980, we asked anybody who didn’t have to be there, to leave, so it was just me, Bill, Hunter, an assistant, and the sound recordist. Hunter, who Bill knew well, hypnotized him, which just means he led him into a state of deep relaxation, and then administered the tests: Rorshachs at first,  then a series of drawings (I don’t know what the tool is called) of people in dramatic situations, where the patient is supposed to interpret the scene.  Those tests were just warm-ups for an in depth personality questionnaire— with questions like: Do you believe in God? What does God look like? Where do you go when you die?  Do you think your father loved you? Did you love him? etc.

I found out years later when I was working with Timothy Leary adapting his autobiography for the screen, that he had written the test in the 1950s, which was still used in 1980, and was used by the Cedar Sinai clinic in 1997 when I was a patient there. I expect that it is still used.

As the sole director of the film during this stage, I felt like one of the main things missing from the script and the footage, was a back story for the main character and insight into his inner life.   As written, he was a blank slate, a generic everyman.  I think this appealed to Kent’s love of mystery, and existential obliqueness, but I felt there was too much mystery. Mystery stacked atop mystery with little for the average viewer to grab onto or identify with. I got the idea of having Billy Hampton narrate his own story, like in a novel, say Catcher in the Rye, but I didn’t want it to be typical first-person narration, like in To Kill a Mockingbird, where the narrator is almost omniscient. I wanted it to be highly subjective, and dovetail with the opening scenes of Billy, excerpts from tests administered by his feminist captors.

What do you think the response will be to the film, some forty years after it was initially conceived?

Early reviews from bloggers have been mostly favourable, with the exception of one, from a program called One of Us, where these two mouthy, cheeky film geeks, lovers of mainstream movies, perhaps, tear it to pieces. I wrote them an email saying I enjoyed listening to them. One of them wrote back apologizing for exaggerating about how much he hated the film while affirming that he still didn’t like it.  At the same time, he would love to have me on the program. I said, sure. So, you can look forward to that. It will be like a roast, I guess.

What’s your next project?

I’ve produced a documentary about the value of art, Picasso’s Christ, directed by Gabriel Horn, a frequent collaborator, which is out to festivals now.

I’m co-directing a documentary, Legalize Crime, about the punk rock scene in Austin during the time I was editing Tiger Mountain and playing in bands: 1978 – 1980.

I’ve co-written a Bollywood-style musical, set 100 years in the future in the socialist city state of Houston, a romantic comedy and loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be filmed against the backdrop of Houston’s annual Art Car Parade.

It’s a Utopian rather than Dystopian story, the flip side of Tiger Mountain.

Thank you for talking with us.
It was an honor. G*d bless you.

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