Veronica Cartwright Talks About ‘The Right Stuff’ at New Beverly Cinema

The Right Stuff movie poster

Filmmaker Brian McQuery asked New Beverly Cinema to program it, and his wish came true on July 4, 2013 when the revival theater screened “The Right Stuff” in honor of its thirtieth anniversary. Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book on the Mercury Seven astronaut program and Chuck Yeager was not a box office success when it first came out, but it did find its audience on video, cable and Digital. Seeing it again on the big screen was a real treat, and the audience got an even bigger one when McQuery welcomed actress Veronica Cartwright to the stage.

Cartwright played Betty Grissom, wife to Gus Grissom who was the second American to fly into outer space. Gus’ flight, however, ended on a controversial note after he landed in the ocean and the hatch on his spacecraft suddenly exploded and came off. This caused the spacecraft to sink, and the whole incident left NASA feeling embarrassed. Gus was later found to be not at fault for what happened.

Cartwright had previously worked with Kaufman on his remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and he told her he had written the part of Betty Grissom with her in mind. Still, Cartwright had to convince to the movie’s producers she was the right person for the role, but there was one thing which threatened to derail her interview with them.

Veronica Cartwright: I had been in a car accident in 1981 where I broke my leg in 35 places. Then this interview came up and I was six months in a cast, and I had nine screws and an 8-inch plate in my ankle. I had just gotten out of my cast and my mother had to drive me to the interview, and I dressed in red, white and blue. I thought this was the appropriate thing to do. As I got up the stairs and I walked, Phil came out. Well I had a bit of a limp at this point so I thought, oh my god if he sees me limping… So, I went, “Hey Phil! What’s happening?” And I danced the whole length of the hallway.

Despite the shape her leg was in, Cartwright still got the part. In fact, she didn’t even tell Kaufman or any of the producers her leg was broken until after shooting wrapped. However, she did have to wear high heels for a scene three months after her leg came out of the cast which was anything but comfortable.

Cartwright’s character is of course based on a real person, but she admitted she never got to meet Betty Grissom before, during or after making the movie. This was due to a big lawsuit going on after Gus died aboard Apollo 1 which caught fire before it took off, and Betty was not in a good state of mind to assist with the production of “The Right Stuff.” As a result, Cartwright had to rely on other ways to get into character, and she talked about how she prepared to play Betty.

VC: We looked at the archival footage and we were all given backgrounds of where the characters were born and how they met their husbands and how they got involved in the whole space program. When you’re doing a real character, I think it’s a little scarier because you want to do that person justice. It’s not coming off of your own imagination. It’s coming off of reality so you have to be careful. I hope I justified her. I always write myself a biography so I know where I came from and stuff like that. Of course, a lot of that was supplied because of her being an actual person. If I know who the person is, just from however I created them, then the lines come like that because I have become that person. I believe you need to have enough background and stuff so that, say something improvisational comes up, you would act according to what your character would do. It’s become ingrained as part of your character. I do a lot of homework before I do something, and I always found that it works for me.

During filming, Cartwright said the actors hung out with the actors while the actresses hung out with the actresses. She remarked how they were “separate entities” as a result which in a weird way was what the movie was about. Everyone in the cast, however, became a close-knit group by the end of filming, and Cartwright pointed out how this showed in the big barbecue scene where their characters are given a huge banquet in Texas courtesy of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. The scene was actually shot at the Cow Palace in San Francisco with hundreds of extras, and she remembered the shooting of it quite vividly as the meat being barbecued was not as tasty as it looked.

VC: We were in the Cow Palace for five days and those sides of beef weren’t very pretty after five days. We kept hearing, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT! DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” Oh my gosh! They would bring in thousands of McDonald’s burgers. Bags of McDonald’s were handed out because they kept saying, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” They would be over there with that blowtorch and putting that glaze all over the beef and it was disgusting. But it was a wonderful experience (filming that scene), it was really great.

In talking about Kaufman, Cartwright described him as a great, lovely person. Since “The Right Stuff” is such a big ensemble piece, everyone had major rehearsals to get the blocking right, but Kaufman did allow for improvisation. Cartwright also admitted the scene in the hotel where Betty gets upset with Gus because they were not invited to the White House after his space mission took a whole day to shoot.

The screenplay for “The Right Stuff” was to be written by William Goldman, but Goldman wanted to leave out the Chuck Yeager story and focus solely on the astronauts. Kaufman disagreed with this decision as he felt Yeager’s story was a very important part of the film because, even though he didn’t go into space, the future of space travel really began with him. Goldman ended up withdrawing from the film and Kaufman wrote the screenplay himself. Cartwright lauded his work.

VC: I thought the script was brilliant because the book is sort of like a train of thought and things that are said but not spoken out loud. What Phil did was he took that book and made all those thoughts reality. I think very rarely can books translate into the movies and the movies be as good as the books were, and in this case, he was right on.

The cinematographer for “The Right Stuff” was Caleb Deschanel who received an Oscar nomination for his work. He was also nominated for his work on the films “The Natural,” “Fly Away Home,” “The Patriot” and “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, these days he is known as the father of Emily and Zooey Deschanel who have become successful actresses in their own right.

VC: He’s very meticulous. The lighting was amazing. He didn’t have standard lights. Everything had these big shrouds of silks over the top of them. The whole Cow Palace was lit and it would be on gimbles where they could just move the lighting, but it took hours to set up. It was pretty intense. And it’s so funny to see Zooey now because she was three-years old during the making of the movie, and Emily had just been born. Thirty years is a long time!

Actually, the most fascinating story Cartwright told that evening involved how Kaufman and his crew filmed the flying sequences. Until “Top Gun” came along, “The Right Stuff” had some of the best and most convincing aerial footage of any movie I had ever seen. So it was a big surprise when Cartwright revealed to us what kinds of planes and special effects were used to create those moments.

VC: When you see the planes going up and down, those were all Japanese models and they (the filmmakers) stood on the top of a very tall building and chucked them off (laughs). That was the CGI! They just sort of painted them and Phil said “oh my God it was incredible! We just go up on the top of the building and throw the plane off and see what happens!” So when you’re watching the movie tonight, you can figure out that it’s a little Japanese air model. It was hysterical!

Veronica Cartwright ended her Q&A with Brian McQuery by saying “The Right Stuff” was a wonderful movie and that she loved the sense of drama and comedy and how it was a wonderful blend of the two. Thirty years after its release, we couldn’t have agreed more. “The Right Stuff” remains one of the greatest movies to come out of the 1980s, and it has lost none of its power to excite and entertain those who watch it. Some movies don’t age well, but this one has.

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‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

gonzo-the-life-and-work-of-dr-hunter-s-thompson poster

I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *