STEVEN SODERBERGH SNUBS GAIL GERBER AT THE END OF THE ROAD

Recently released on DVD was the dark comedy End of the Road from 1970 featuring Terry Southern’s last produced screenplay until The Telephone almost 20 years later. The DVD also contains Steven Soderbergh’s entertaining featurette called An Amazing Time: A Conversation About End of the Road. The movie was directed by Aram Avakianwho co-wrote the screenplay with Southern who also produced the movie. Soderbergh rounded up all the lead actors as well as some of the crew to be interviewed on camera and their fondness for the movie is evident with the stories they tell.

My problem with it the feaurette is that most of the focus is on director Aram Avakian with Terry’s name popping up here and there. Terry’s son Nile is interviewed to give some background on how Terry and Avakian met in Paris in the early Fifties, but he was not present on the set.

Noticeably absent is Terry’s longtime companion Gail Gerber. She not only was there for the entire shoot, but played a small role in the movie too. She would have contributed some wonderful stories about Terry during the filming. For some odd reason, Soderbergh did not seek her out for an interview, so her anecdotes about Terry were not told. This is quite odd since the director is a huge Terry Southern fan and even purchased his papers from the Terry Southern estate and then donated them to the New York Public Library for safe keeping. Gail wrote her memoir recently and is not hard to find. Nile Southern could have easily led the director to her in New York City. To make up for Soderbergh’s slight, here is my interview with Gail Gerber about End of the Road.

Plot synopsis:

End of the Road was a black comedy that opens with a flashing montage of images including those of student protests at Swarthmore University, Vietnam War atrocities, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy accompanied by Billie Holliday’s bluesy torch song “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.” Graduating college student Stacey Keach leaves the halls of academia only to wind up in a catatonic state on a railroad platform. Found by James Earl Jones’ experimental doctor, he is taken to his “Farm” where the mad shrink instills a purpose into the disheartened student telling him to reach for his dream of teaching. Landing a job at the local university, Keach has an affair with Dorothy Tristan the wife of his colleague Harris Yulin, which leads to an abortion and a tragic death.

What drew Terry to John Barth’s novel End of the Road?

Terry thought End of the Road would be a great project to work on with his long-time friend Aram Avakian. Terry metAram (who everybody called Al) when he was living in Paris.  The novel was a vicious assault on the establishment and perfect for the times and Terry’s sense of satire.

What did you think of Aram Avakian?

I first met Al at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles in 1964. Al and Terry were the same physical type—large, stocky and bear-like—and both were funny, hip guys. Being around them I felt like I was in the presence of brilliance and that if they set their minds to it they could conquer the world. Terry and Al always wanted to collaborate together so when End of the Road came Terry’s way he knew that it would be a perfect movie for them. Al read the novel and agreed with Terry. The only problem was that when they went to option the book, they discovered the rights were purchased by a guy named Dennis McGuire. Offers were made to him to sell the option but he refused. The producers then had to give McGuire a writing credit though he contributed absolutely nothing to the screenplay that Terry and Al began working on.

How was the decision made to allow Avakian to direct?

Al was an accomplished film editor having worked on such movies as The Miracle Worker, Lilith, Mickey One, and You’re a Big Boy Now. He worked as a director on the forgotten children’s movie Lad: A Dog in 1962, but got fired due to “creative differences.” In this poor man’s Lassie-rip-off, our hero was supposed to tie the knot with a sophisticated bitch at a doggie wedding in the film’s finale. Al thought Lad, in keeping with his character, was more apt to run off with a poor mutt instead bucking tradition.  The studio however did not appreciate Al’s ending and he was out of a job. His sense of satire certainly was a perfect match with Terry’s. He hadn’t directed since but Terry and Max Raab [End of the Road’s Executive Producer] had confidence in his talents to make the movie.

Was there ever any talk about making the movie in Hollywood?

Oh, no! They wanted to shoot the movie as far from the luxurious back lots of Hollywood as they could. Terry and Al scouted locations in the Northeast and found a wonderful vacant button factory in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to use as a sound stage. Conveniently, it was only eleven miles away from Terry’s farm in East Canaan. The town itself was virtually abandoned when the factory, which was the population’s livelihood, closed down. Interiors were to be shot on built sets in the factory and exteriors in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

How did they get Gordon Willis to be the Cinematographer?

Since this was an independent movie, the budget was low and they knew they could not afford to hire a Hollywood pro. Someone came up with the idea to employ an up-and-coming cinematographer from the advertising world. Terry and Al watched reels and reels of TV commercials and one guy’s work in particular stood out—Gordon Willis who had aspirations to move to film work, s accepted their offer to shoot End of the Road.

Willis was the only one in the featurette to tell a story about you and Terry. Was it true?

Yes, up to a point. Terry and I did come home late one night back to the inn where we were all staying and did leave me in the car with the engine running. Gordon heard Terry clomp down the hall to his room and did come outside to find me sleeping in the car. But it sort of implied I was passed out from drinking. I didn’t drink in those days (but have made up for lost time LOL), so I was asleep from exhaustion.

How was the cast assembled?

Due to the limited budget and in keeping with the book’s anti-establishment tone, it was decided that the actors cast should be New York stage actors rather than the typical Hollywood studio talent. I don’t recall how they got Stacy Keach. Dorothy Tristan was Avakian’s then wife. Terry remembered James Earl Jones from working with him on Dr. Strangelove and impressed with his acting talent offered him the role of “Doctor D.”

Terry also pushed for Grayson Hall to be cast as the older English teacher whom Jacob picks up on the beach. Terry didn’t know her from her Academy Award nominated performance in The Night of the Iguana, but for her role as Dr. Julia Hoffman on his favorite soap opera Dark Shadows, which was a huge hit at this time. Father and son bonded over their mutual love for this macabre serial and Terry even arranged a visit to the set one day.

Do you recall anything about the inn the crew stayed at?

Absolutely! It was a pre-revolutionary inn on the road to Boston called the Egremont Inn. It was run by a middle-aged, tall blond woman named Mrs. Durphy an eccentric who had closed the inn and lived there alone. Somehow someone convinced her to let us stay there. She was certainly a character who spoke loudly and had an infectious raucous laugh. The inn was quite big with twenty guest rooms and was able to house the entire crew. Unfortunately for them, the leading actors were put up elsewhere as were Al and Dorothy who missed out on a lot of fun.

Back at the Inn after a hard day’s shoot, the booze would be flowing from the hotel’s mini-bar and old lady Durphy would be holding court enjoying the company immensely. Terry of course hit it off with Mrs. Durphy because she had that larger-than-life personality that he so loved. One night I was trying to get some much needed sleep when I was suddenly awakened by the sounds of wild laughter and blasting rock music, which I realized was the Beatles after I shook the cobwebs out of my head. Deeply perturbed and cranky, I left my room to complain to the management when half-way down the staircase I saw that the racket was being made by the management herself, Mrs. Durphy, and Terry who were sitting on a plaid couch with drinks in hand having a grand old time. Smiling bemusedly, I turned around and crept back up the stairs not wanting to break up their private party.Back in my bed I laid awake waiting for the noise to die down, which eventually it did.

How did you end up in the movie?

Since Keach was playing a college professor, the plan was to cast teenagers from the local high school as his students. Word had gotten around the conservative town that End of the Road was going to be a “dirty movie.” Where they got this notion is beyond me.  Didn’t they ever see a guy having simulated sex with a chicken on camera? Worried parents refused to let their children participate so they ha to scramble to fill the classroom seats with anybody who could pass for an eighteen year-old. I was one of the recruits, even though I was almost thirty, along with the script girl and some of the crew.

My whole part as “Miss Gibson” consisted of me with my hair in pigtails sitting in the back of the classroom rolling a joint at my desk. Just to set the record straight, it was oregano and unfortunately not marijuana. I get caught by the teacher who reprimands me. I just look at him in that typical teenage “whatever-look” and when class is dismissed I sit there until all my classmates leave and then get up while Keach just looks at me quizzically.  At this point in my “career” I was using the stage name of Gail Gibson so for years and years nobody ever knew that I appeared in it.

What is one thing you can add about the movie that was not mentioned in the End of the Road featurette?

Everybody talked about what great friends Terry and Al were, which was true. But they had a falling out over something related to the movie. Terry had nothing to do with the movie during post-production that I can recall. I was surprised by this since throughout the shoot I never noticed any animosity between these two easy going guys. Terry of course didn’t volunteer any information and as usual I didn’t ask because I knew he didn’t like talking about negative things. I think, and am only speculating, that sometimes when friends want to work together for a long time and they finally get the opportunity it ruins the relationship. I think that was the case here. We only saw Al one more time years later when he got sick. We stopped by his place for a quick visit and that was it.

What did you and Terry think of the movie?

I liked the film but knew it would not be a commercial hit. Like most of Terry’s movies, it had something to offend everyone. Terry thought that End of the Road was great. He couldn’t figure out why it was slapped with an “X” rating. This hurt the movie and severely restricted its distribution despite some rave reviews from the critics.

End of the Road disappeared from theaters almost in an instant. I felt badly considering that I saw all the hard work and dedication from the cast and crew go into it but that happens a lot in the film industry.

 

 

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