15 March 2009

'Viper' is Our Narrator

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This past Halloween, Amanda Pope and I flew up to Seattle on an exciting mission: to record narration for The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.  Ever since Kathy Bates had performed the voice of Pancho for our film, we'd known that we couldn't have just anyone as our narrator.  Kathy's roaring, distinctive pipes were amazing, but they also presented a challenge.  Who could have their voice paired with hers, and not be blown off the soundtrack? 

We did a lot of thinking on that subject, and received a great deal of advice from friends and fans, some of it solicited and most of it not.  In the end though, the choice was an easy one for us.  We agreed that there was only one man for the job -- a handsome, veteran movie actor with enormous presence, who starred in one of the greatest military aviation movies of all time, "Top Gun".  A man named Tom . . . think about that for a moment ... guess who?

Tom Skerritt in The Legend of Pancho BarnesWell, if you said "Tom Cruise!" you'd be wrong.  Tom Skerritt, who played Commander Mike 'Viper' Metcalf in TG, is who we were after.  And thanks to some patience, some assistance from agent Brian Mann at ICM, and a small hole in Tom Skerritt's awfully busy schedule, it actually happened.  So we found ourselves at the famed Bad Animals recording studio in downtown Seattle (their website identifies it, by the way, as exactly latitude 47.615067 and longitude -122.343053 degrees).  It was a typical Seattle sunny day, which means that it only rained a little bit!  Fortunately, we were very dry indoors, and the humidity turned out to be good for Tom's throat.  He showed up looking every inch the man I remembered from Picket Fences, although minus the police uniform.  Under one arm was our script, neatly marked up with cadence and pronunciation reminders, and in the other hand a dog leash.   Maggie the wonder dog was there to keep us company -- and to listen to her master's voice and watch through the double paned glass as he did his magic in the isolation booth.

Throughout post-production, we'd used an amateur's voice -- well, mine! -- as the narrator.  It wasn't so bad actually, and some people had told us to keep it.  But sitting in the session, and hearing Tom read the lines, there was no doubt we were in the hands of a master.  It was every bit as much of a revelation as our time with Kathy Bates had been.  Words took on new shades of meaning and depth coming from his gravelly, amber-tinted throat, and our movie became richer, funnier, and stronger as a result.  To top it all off, Tom even made a suggestion about something he didn't like in the script, and hit a chord.  We ended up making a last-minute change, that wound up in the film.  Good going, Sherriff Brock!

When it was all over, we had a moment to sit and relax, and that's when Tom saw fit to compliment us on the film, and share a bit about his life.  I'd never realized, that his first job was in a movie shot in Topanga Canyon, called War Hunt.  It featured another actor by the name of Sydney Pollack, you may have heard of.  But what really changed his life, Tom explained, was a bit part on Combat! with Vic Morrow.  Back then the show was being directed by a real up-and-coming talent named Robert Altman.  He gave Skerritt a major role in the movie MASH and a new understanding of what it meant to be an actor.  After that experience, Skerritt explained, he was hooked.

As were we.  We could have stayed and listened to more stories all day, but Tom had many things to attend to, including a film school that he's helped set up in Seattle, and stacks of scripts awaiting his review.  So, we thanked him for his effort, and said goodbye. Later, on the plane coming back to Los Angeles, we celebrated the fact that we'd overcome a major hurdle, and one of the last.  It was now certain that by Thanksgiving, the movie would be essentially finished.