To wrap-up a wild week at SXSW, we caught up briefly with director Jesse Moss to talk about his new film, The Bandit, and the process of bringing Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham‘s real-life friendship to the screen.
What brought you to The Bandit?
Jesse Moss: Well, this started with a conversation about Smokey and the Bandit – which was a film that I knew a little bit about, but not a lot, and, really, I quickly discovered that, to me, the story of that movie was the story of Burt Reynolds and his relationship to Hal Needham – his stunt double, his best friend, and roommate – and it instantly struck me that this was a buddy movie about a buddy movie; a documentary about these incredible guys, star and stunt man, and how it produced this film.
I can’t explain why Smokey and the Bandit exerts such a, kind of, magnetism – why people are so fond of the film, that’s a question we knew we could never really answer. Like, why [do] you love a film, right?
It’s not really a rational response, but we could, kind of, look at Burt Reynolds’s incredible trajectory, his life, who he was in the 1970’s, and this relationship that people didn’t know much about, and, in doing that, tell the story of Smokey and the Bandit, which really represented, for them, a big risk, to both of them; for Burt, who was risking his, kind of, whole screen presence and for Hal, who had never directed a film before.
What was your favorite thing you learned about Mr. Reynolds, in getting to work with him?
I think, I learned that Burt is a lot more sensitive and searching that people realize. We think of him as this, kind of, action hero but Burt, really, he has a much more complicated life and interests, and there’s a lot more to Burt Reynolds than just the Bandit, right? There really is.
So that was the discovery of the film. We think he became a star with Deliverance but he was working in film and television and spaghetti Westerns for fifteen years before he hit the big time. We tell some of that story in this documentary and that’s a lot of fun.
Congratulations on the film. Tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved in the project.
Well, I was talking to Country Music Television, which has a new documentary series, and we were talking about Smokey and the Bandit, a film that I knew came out in 1977 when I was seven and it was a big hit.
Did you see it at that age?
I did! But it wasn’t a film that, like, stuck with me and yet I was interested in going back and thinking about the film again. There was more of a story behind the making of the film, which was about Burt Reynolds, who I was very curious about growing up in the 70’s. You know, this kind of sex symbol, superstar but like, who is Burt Reynolds, right? And how did he get to that position? And then he had this relationship with his stunt double, who he lived with, they shared a house together in Hollywood for a lot of the 1970’s, they were best friends, they had met in the 1950’s.
I didn’t know anything about that relationship when I thought ‘this documentary is a buddy movie about a buddy movie’ – it’s a film about this relationship between Burt and Hal, and how it produced this film, and how much they risked to make it. So, it’s really a film about friendship and creative risk, and loyalty to your friends.
Especially after his [Needham‘s] passing, was this a story that Burt was exited to tell?
I think, surprisingly, Burt was really open and, I think that, he was touched that somebody was interested in taking a serious look at his career, his film work in the 70’s, which is, really, from Deliverance to The Longest Yard to White Lighting to Smokey and the Bandit, he really did some wonderful movies.
So, you would have thought that somebody else would have approached him but, you know, we just went there and said, ‘look, this is the movie we wanna make’ and he said, ‘great, you can have access to my personal archive’ and we’re like holy shit. It was, like, piled to the rafters with, like, video tapes and it was amazing to have access to that, and Burt’s time.
We spent a weekend together doing a two-day interview and he really opened up bout his career and his relationship with Hal and then, for me, richer was also the archive footage from that period where Burt is just incredibly sexy and charismatic and, you know, kind of on top of the world.
The Bandit screened at SXSW. To find our more about the film head here.