Honky Tonk Freeway
Honky Tonk Freeway is a 1981 British comedy film directed by John Schlesinger. The film, conceived and co-produced by Don Boyd, was one of the most expensive box office bombs in history, losing its British backers Thorn-EMI anywhere from $11–22 million and profoundly affecting its fortunes and aspirations.
|Honky Tonk Freeway|
UK DVD Cover
|Directed by||John Schlesinger|
|Produced by||Don Boyd|
|Written by||Edward Clinton|
|Music by||Elmer Bernstein|
|Edited by||Jim Clark|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|21 August 1981|
|Box office||$2 million|
In a small Florida tourist town named Ticlaw, the Mayor/Preacher Kirby T. Calo (William Devane) also operates a hotel and tiny wildlife safari park. The town's major draw is a water-skiing elephant named Bubbles.
When the state highway commission builds a freeway adjacent to the town, Calo slips an official $10,000 to assure an off ramp. The ramp doesn't come, so the townsfolk literally paint the town pink to attract visitors.
Meanwhile, tourists from various parts of the United States, shown in a series of concurrent, ongoing vignettes, are heading to Florida and will all end up in Ticlaw, one way or another. They include a pair of bank robbers from New York (George Dzundza, Joe Grifasi) who pick up a cocaine-dealing hitchhiker (Daniel Stern); a Chicago copy machine repairman and aspiring children's book author (Beau Bridges), who picks up a waitress (Beverly D'Angelo), who is carrying her deceased mother's ashes to Florida; a dentist and his dysfunctional family (Howard Hesseman, Teri Garr, Peter Billingsley, and Jenn Thompson), vacationing cross-country in their RV; an elderly woman (Jessica Tandy) with a drinking problem and her loving husband (Hume Cronyn), who are heading to Florida to retire; two nuns (mother superior Geraldine Page, novice nun Deborah Rush); and a wannabe country songwriter (Paul Jabara) hauling a playful rhino and other wild animals to Ticlaw.
- Howard Hesseman as Snapper
- Teri Garr as Ericka
- Peter Billingsley as Little Billy
- Beau Bridges as Duane Hansen
- Beverly D'Angelo as Carmen Odessa Shelby
- Daniel Stern as Hitchhiker
- Celia Weston as Grace
- Deborah Rush as Sister Mary Magdalene
- Geraldine Page as Sister Mary Clarise
- George Dzundza as Eugene
- Joe Grifasi as Osvaldo
- Hume Cronyn as Sherm
- Jessica Tandy as Carol
- Frances Lee McCain as Claire Calo
- William Devane as Mayor Kirby T. Calo
- Jerry Hardin as Governor
- John Ashton as Otto Kemper
- Frances Bay as Mrs. Lewenowski
The film was the idea of British producer Don Boyd, based on his imagination of American life rather than knowledge. "I hadn't been to the United States since I was a child," he said. "My father worked for the British-American Tobacco Company and was assigned to New York for six months, but I didn't remember a thing about it." Boyd's New York agents put him together with Ed Clinton, an actor who wanted to write. The two of them toured the US for nine months, researching and writing the script. Boyd returned to London, showed the script to Barry Spikings of EMI films who agreed to finance.
John Schlesinger, who was keen to try a comedy, agreed to direct in January 1979. Schlesinger later said "some of the charm comes from Clinton’s naivete, which was one of my original attractions to the script. Clinton’s writing is fresh and completely original. He is highly imaginative. It is not a smug or knowing film at all. In fact, it’s very charming. It’s also quite intelligent."
The director added, "If we had really wanted to make it totally surefire commercial, we would have hired six gag writers and I wouldn't have directed it. It would have been a series of gags, which is what the public seems to be oriented to...) I wanted to do an affectionate comedy that had a dark side, and yet had moments when you could be absolutely serious... The only way to make it work, as far as I was concerned, was to go for whatever truth you could find in it...to give whatever human thrust dramatically to each of those characters that I could."
Schlesinger called it "the most complicated project I've ever attempted" adding that the film was "a comedy about characters, so it needs extremely fine care and acting. This is what appealed to me, because I’m mainly intrigued with the people in my films rather than with the plot. This is a comedy about people living on the brink, and that’s the way most people actually live, I think. Many scenes often have something else happening in the same frame, so the timing becomes extremely important. If some incident is a bit off, the sequence just won’t work. You use less close-ups in a movie of this kind, so you need to stand back a little and see it all happening – how two people are relating to one another while some other action is going on. So often, with these things in consideration, more takes are required."
Schlesinger later said when he came on board they did "four or five" extra drafts. "I changed a lot about the town and the thrust of the town: I also tried to give a film with this many characters as much development as I could. I think it is important to let a film live, so we are constantly changing the script."
Shelley Duvall was originally announced for the film. The star part went to William Devane, who had been in Schlesinger's last two films. Other lead roles were played by Beverly D'Angelo, Beau Bridges and Teri Garr.
Kay Medford was going to appear in the film but died of cancer before shooting began.
Spiking later admitted the budget was not set until a week before production. "You can't put a false cap on some pictures," he said. "You've got to allow (the filmmakers) to grow, to break new ground."
This movie was filmed in the small central Florida town of Mount Dora. The off-ramp filming took place at the I-75 and Palmer Road overpass in Sarasota, Florida. Most of the highway scenes take place on I-75 between Sarasota and Ft. Myers while the highway was still under construction. Dynamite crews blew up a wooden bridge built to look like the southbound lane overpass at I-75 and Palmer Road before the Tampa-to-Miami leg of the highway was completed in 1981. Many portions of Fruitville, Florida were painted pink to match the sets in Mount Dora and remained pink for decades afterward. Palmer Road never was designated for an I-75 exit because it is not a main thoroughfare. The exit for Fruitville is about two miles north of the filming location. Part of the film was also shot in Salt Lake City, Utah and New York City.
While the film was in post production, Boyd said "on the strength of a film that hasn't been released yet and which nobody knows will be a success or a flop, Ed Clinton and I are being buried in movie offers."
The film received negative reviews upon release, and was pulled from theatres after just one week. Variety wrote: "The overriding question about EMI's Honky Tonk Freeway is why anyone should want to spend over $25m. on a film as devoid of any basic humorous appeal...[Its] long-term commercial appeal appears to be almost nil."
"I thought it was the funniest movie I'd ever made," said Schlesinger shortly after the reviews came out. "I'm surprised at the hostility...I think it's been misperceived. The (critical) tone is 'how dare he? These characters are all monsters.' I'm amazed they find it misanthropic. I think whats happened is American comedy lately is either immensely middle class or very 'gaggy' with a lot of mugging...I couldn't make a 'gag' comedy."
The film was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song for the song "You're Crazy, but I Like You."
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