Besides the initial shock that comes with the news that writer/director George Hickenlooper died in the midst of a whirlwind festival run for his latest film “Casino Jack” at the far too young age of 47 is the great irony that he reportedly passed away quietly of natural causes. For anyone who has followed Hickenlooper’s career, the latter fact may come as an even greater surprise since even more so than his films themselves, he may be best known for the struggles he endured in getting them made, the product of a indefatigable love of film, and as his cousin, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper said in a statement to The Denver Post, “his unquenchable curiosity.”
As the late Hickenlooper recounted in the foreword to his invaluable 1991 collection of interviews with directors and film critics, “Reel Conversations,” such passion for the medium was evident from an early age when he arrived in Hollywood at 17 from St. Louis over the summer and snuck onto the set of “Poltergeist” only to be escorted out by security guards in tears. Showing the same toughness he was defined by as a filmmaker, he hopped on the next bus to American Zoetrope studios across the city where he made it into the office of Francis Ford Coppola unscathed, charmed him with a sketch he drew on the bus and got invited to lunch by the director.
Incidentally, Coppola would be the subject of arguably Hickenlooper’s most famous film, “Hearts of Darkness,” that shaped the hundreds of hours of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola on the set of “Apocalypse Now” into one of the most engrossing behind-the-scenes documentaries ever made. (The film that got him the gig, “Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City,” which detailed the tumultuous making of “The Last Picture Show,” is equally compelling.)
A student of medium who had the arts running in his blood (“Fantasia” composer Leopold Stokowski was his great uncle), Hickenlooper was unusually connected to greatness, moving on from documentaries about celebrated filmmakers to making dramas that would become important stepping stones for one reason or another. In 1994, he directed the short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” which would later lead to star Billy Bob Thornton’s award-winning feature (though a falling out between the director and star would prevent Hickenlooper from returning to “Sling Blade.”)
Likewise, his gritty dramas during the ’90s about life in Los Angeles would introduce or reintroduce some of the city’s finest talent to audiences in films such as “The Low Life,” featuring Kyra Sedgwick, Ron Livingston and Renee Zellweger, and “Dogtown,” starring Jon Favreau and Rory Cochrane, not to mention his 1996 thriller “Persons Unknown” with a then-unknown Naomi Watts starring alongside Kelly Lynch and Joe Mantegna. Hickenlooper even dared to take on Orson Welles by directing the unproduced screenplay for the political thriller “The Big Brass Ring” and cast Mick Jagger in one of his most successful onscreen performances in the writer’s block drama “The Man From Elysian Fields.”
Hickenlooper acknowledged to Bright Lights Film Journal in an extensive interview in February that his passion for film history actually may have handicapped him in his early days of making narratives, telling Steve Johnson, “I was making serious and intelligent documentaries, but my interest in making them inherently came from this love. And so as a consequence of that, I made a lot of films where I was evoking the sensibilities of a lot of other directors.”
However, one could argue that it was a documentary that allowed Hickenlooper to really find his groove as a storyteller in 2003 when he helmed “The Mayor of Sunset Strip,” an alternately joyous and heartbreaking portrait of Los Angeles radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer. Since the film’s subject was a Zelig-like presence in the ’70s music scene, Hickenlooper’s ability to appreciate pop culture and celebrity without being in awe of it made for a particularly poignant and understanding look at a man who craved fame.
Hickenlooper’s next two narrative features, the Edie Sedgwick biopic “Factory Girl” and “Casino Jack,” the blow-by-blow account of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, would explore similar themes and though each ran into complications outside their actual production – “Factory Girl” was rushed into release by The Weinstein Company and “Casino Jack” survived a change in distributors — they are distinctly the brand of fiercely independently films that Hickenlooper at first admired and then became a purveyor of.
While there will be great sadness at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Thursday night when Hickenlooper was scheduled to present “Casino Jack” in his cousin’s city (two days after John could potentially become the state’s next governor), it will likely be the premiere of “Casino Jack” in his hometown of St. Louis on November 11th that will prove to be the most emotional. (Tributes on his Facebook wall are already flooding in.) “Casino Jack” is currently scheduled to open nationally on Christmas, a day when Hickenlooper’s gifts to the artform he loved can be properly celebrated, though that’s no reason not to start now. (As Moisés Chiullan notes in his warm personal remembrance of Hickenlooper, many of his earlier films are on Netflix Instant.)