Blast from the Past: Scrapple

Jul 21, 2010 by

Periodically, we will post articles from before Mousike had a fancy website. Way back to the summer of 2009…

The Dharma Pig Lives
By Michael Gerity

It’s no secret that Colorado Mountain Ski towns have lost a little something over the last thirty years. Sure they have expanded and  grown into giant winter theme parks, but just ask  a local that has been there for more than twenty years,  and you might uncover some- of the something that has been stripped away by this modern day gold mining.

More often than not money is to blame, ultimately moving into each and every one of these high country towns (now chic villages), transforming or changing something that was perfectly good and memorable, to those that lived there the previous years.

From the old school rudimentary t-bar lifts to high-speed chairs and comfy gondolas. From the mom and pop- bed and breakfast to corporate hotels, rows of condos and gaudy, sparsely used second and third homes. Gone is the old time grocery store. And gone is the dingy saloon where the dust held a unique story. Time moves on and the town ‘improves.” While many of the improvements are worthy and necessary, the others are continuously questioned as they slowly start to tear at the fabric that holds in the warmth.

Still many of us live in and around these mountain towns, trying to carve out our own classic ski bum dream. For many of these dreamers, there is still something to be said for the different breed that resides in the high country and for what little quirky ‘ski town’ mentality remains.

Edward Abbey, a known frequenter to the western mountain ski town once wrote about Telluride that the attraction wasn’t just about the skiing, but a deeper quality of the town like ‘it’s rundown, raunchy, redneck, backwoods backwardness’. He had foreseen early that, ‘The quality is one you cannot keep in a classy modern ski resort, no matter how much money is spent for preservation, no matter how many town ordinances are passed…”

Yet all too often, we still find ourselves longing for this ‘lost’ quality, reveling in a time that is considered by many- to be ‘back in the day’. Regardless the changes that sweep in around us, there still remains a lingering hope, to return to that quality, even when we know- we can’t go back.

But what if we could?

Set in the off-ski season and summer of 1978, Scrapple takes place  in the fictitious lazy ski town of Ajax, Colorado. Written and Directed by first timer Christopher Hanson, this throwback ski bum movie follows the ways of loveable goofball Al Dean (played by Chris’s brother Geoffrey, who wrote the screenplay as well), a small time pot dealer trying to make a score in hopes to buy a house for him and his disabled brother who sits in a VA hospital. The ‘score’ comes in the way of ‘Nepalese Temple Balls’ from meditating monks high in the Himalayas.

The movie also follows Tom Sullivan or ‘Easy’(Buck Simmonds), a drifter who has returned to Ajax. Tom has yet to recover from the death of his girlfriend in a skiing accident and he reacts his way throughout the script, coping with reoccurring dreams and the possibility of a new relationship with a good friend of his dead girlfriend, Beth (Ryan Massey).

And then of course there is Scrapple the pig, who was won in a pig chase and is being raised for the summer by Australian bartender (Bunzy Bunworth) for a roast in the fall. The action takes a turn when Scrapple feasts on Al Dean’s temple balls, forcing him into an alliance with a cocaine pushing real estate agent (L. Kent Brown) who is under surveillance by an under cover federal agent Cy Sloan (George Plamondon, also credited with writing of script).

Now Chris and Geoffrey Hanson to my knowledge are not time travelers. Yet their 1998 period piece Scrapple will forever rest in the age- where the classic ski town  died. Not only does their film’s story line live in a time vault, but the actual movie release date also stands in a somewhat ‘end of an era’ time.

When Scrapple was released on videocassette ten years ago in Sept of 1999, it marked the close of a decade that had seen a variety of independent films,  many like Scrapple that were shot on 16 or 35mm film. The years that followed would see a giant push into an even more digitalize age, leaving behind these ‘old school’ classics. And so the movie Scrapple, shot in 1998 to look like 1978- took on an added sense of nostalgia, and the early seeds of a cult classic were set in motion.

Yet the journey to film begins much earlier, when these two young brothers decided that someday it would be cool to live out a dream of theirs and make a movie. As kids they acted out and filmed Saturday night live type skits. In college it progressed to filming minimally plotted ‘hokey’ stories with guys hanging out in the front yard on a Saturday drinking beer and playing whiffle ball.

Still the brothers continued to hold on to the dream of making a film. During the ’93 Telluride Film Fest while searching for the answers on how to make that dream a reality, the brothers got some poignant advice from a college friend of Geoff’s, a young film producer named Matt Blumberg who simply told them to “do it while you’re dumb enough to do it.”

It was at some point after that, they decided- ‘we’ve got to just do this or shut up’.

So in December of 1995, Geoff left Telluride for Lander, Wyoming where Chris was living and working at the time. The idea was to allocate two months time to the writing of a screenplay; the original idea being a story entitled Who sent you? But after two days of brainstorming, it was clear they didn’t see eye to eye on the story and it was then that Geoff told Chris about a short story he had read by a friend back in Telluride.

Sean McNamara had already written and published The Story of Spam about ski bums raising a pig in the ‘80’s. Sean’s story had been somewhat influenced by a 1935 John Steinbeck novel called Tortilla Flat, which was later turned into a 1942 movie starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. The story focuses on a few Northern California post WWII bums, who inherit a house and enjoy life and wine, denouncing society through riotous acts. Sean loosely borrowed some of the plot and easily adapted it to some quirky misfits in a Colorado ski town.

Geoff thought it might make a good movie, so he pitched it to Chris. After Chris had read it and agreed it would make a good starting point for a screenplay, Geoff contacted Sean and asked for his blessing to begin writing. And so the screenplay began.

The early and mid-nineties were a flourishing time for the independent film, and the Hanson brothers were very much caught up in  the wave of directorial debuts like El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez  and Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino in 1992, Clerks by Kevin Smith in ‘94 and The Brothers McMullen by Edward Burns in ‘95.

The Hanson’s were heavily influenced by not only the Telluride Film Festival and many of the early screenings they were privy to, but also the people in the film business that were living there at the time.

“We were just innocent and dumb and just went for it. And I think we were really lucky- because we surrounded ourselves with really good people”, Chris added.

They took a screenwriting class from local Telluride screenwriter Jeff Price, who’s writing credits include Who framed Roger Rabbit?, Shrek the Third and Doc Hollywood among others. And also went back to him after the script was finished for some help with script doctoring. They also give enormous credit to Beth and George Gage, a local filmmaking couple who were very instrumental in providing the needed encouragement for them- to go and make the film.

When asked about influences along the way they both quickly cite Easy Rider, and the lesser-known 1975 Rancho Deluxe starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston, as something that had the vibe they were trying to aspire towards. That vibe that they were trying to capture was enhanced tremendously by the cinematography work of Robert Smith.

Although Chris admits that the film being shot on 35mm was both a ‘blessing and a curse’ he relents to the fact that, “Now you don’t make movies on film any more. But we always intended to make a film to show on the big screen”, he said.

“…We wanted it to look like a time capsule—–and I think Robert did that.”

Chris also mentions how Joseph Campbell’s- Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers were very influential on their thought process at the time. “I think when we went into writing Scrapple- we wanted to bring back the dysfunctional hero…it was going to be about these misfits in the mountains of Colorado.”

Still at this point the project could have fallen apart, but the two committed themselves to the new storyline and by January of ’06 they had finished the script and immediately went to Sundance Film Fest.

The adaptation and modification of the The Story of Spam was the first real step in the making of the film. Yet it is more in the re-writing and script doctoring stage where the transition from Spam to Scrapple becomes apparent.

“So at the time it was just about these guys raising a pig in the mountains and that was enough. Yeah, we got this pig movie! But little did we know…”

The little did we know that Geoff refers to, is the fact that soon after they had finished their own script, two other pig movies happened to be released in 1996.

“So then Babe came out and it was an absolute sensation. It was a huge movie and all of a sudden our screenplay wasn’t enough. The pig was not enough. It needed to be more about the people who owned the pig. We needed a dramatic element more than the pig”

An interesting thing about the movie is that as a classic Ski bum film, it has very little skiing scenes in it. Yet it does have a well-crafted plot of characters and it follows them through the off-season from April to October.

“To us that was what had never been explored”, Geoff said.

“You know there is an old saying in ski towns- that you come for the winter, but you stay for the summer. And we knew that to be true.”

“…And we wanted to make a film that nailed the ski town experience. Everybody knows what’s going on once those lifts are running, but for us it was more interesting to take a look at a period- that nobody had ever done.”

In having the plot unfold over the summer the Hanson brothers were able to introduce another passion of theirs into the story line- Baseball. In adding to the retrospect of the summer of ’78, the brothers chose the epic battle that ensued that summer between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Due to licensing agreements they were forced to change the names of the players and the teams to the Wool Sox and the Grizzly Bears. Yet still, a devout baseball fan that remembers that season can easily pick up some of the similarities. And if you listen closely to the play-by-play announcer, you might even notice Jim Nance as the voice of Chris Whitaker.

“There was another thing we were trying to get across with Baseball. There is this thing going on between Tom and Al that the audience is privy to, but Al clearly has no idea why Tom is sort of holding a grudge against him,” elaborated Geoff.

“It’s kind of an interesting way in which men communicate, when there is all this really heavy stuff that really kind of needs to be discussed, but they can’t talk about it. So they just talk ball.”

Another major contributing factor to the film is the wonderful soundtrack scored by Taj Mahal. If ever a soundtrack flowed with the cinematography and feel of a movie- Scrapple does. There are numerous tracks that Taj recorded with his Phantom Blues Band, along with a variety of picks and timeless pieces from the likes of Sam Bush, JJ Cale, Jorma Kaukonen, Toots Hibbert, The Radiators, John Prine, Professor Longhair, Bob Weir, Widespread Panic, John Martyn and Jonathan Edwards. Even local Colorado singer/songwriter Liza Oxnard is credited with two composisitions that Ryan Massey (Beth) sings while the multitalented Buck Simmonds (Tom) provides the guitar.

In 1991Geoff Hanson was working for the now defunct, Telluride Times Journal and did some DJ work at a local radio station. He had already interviewed Taj Mahal before meeting him at the 1991 Mid-Summer Music Festival.

“I can’t say how much I knew about Taj before I called him to interview him, but once I discovered Taj Mahal, I couldn’t believe how deep the well was. The guy just blew me away.”

From that conversation with Taj at the Festival to becoming friendly with Carey Williams, Taj’s road manager at the time- Geoff was hooked. Over the next couple years he began booking some shows and the relationship naturally flourished. Both Geoff and Chris mention an early key image before writing the script of a pig and a motorcycle with a sidecar driving to Taj Mahal’s ‘Further on down the road’.

“You know we were two kids with video cameras pretty early on…kids making films with our friends and there is an early film of me driving through Colorado in 1988 and Taj Mahal is on the cassette tape. And I’m like driving along with my video camera to ‘Further on down the road’…That’s a thing were you go…Oh my god this should be a scene from a movie”, Chris relives the tale.

“Then it’s like collaboration. That’s what is so great about film. All these things come at you from different angles. And so the story of Spam comes up and you say… Wait here is the vehicle…I think in the original story it was a pickup truck, but then suddenly you find a motorcycle with a sidecar and you’re like wow! How visual is that.

We were like we got a motorcycle with a sidecar- let’s put the pig in the sidecar. Yeah, that’s poster!!! But again we were just young and stupid.”

So when they finished the script at the end of January ’96, they brought it to Salt Lake City where Taj had a gig. They met with Taj and Carey and pitched this early premise. Taj liked the idea and gave a verbal commitment that he would score the movie.

“Now we have a script in our hand and Taj Mahal is doing the music, so that was enough to say…..this is the real deal”, Geoff eluded to their excitement at the time.

Scrapple was released more than ten years ago, and yet it still is relatively untapped. You might ask twenty-five people if they have seen it, and only two will respond with a yes. But for the two people you do meet, that have seen this flick, there is a special glow from them and an unexplainable bond.  As the piece becomes more cemented in time, a growing group of people is bringing out the cult classic aspect, especially the freaks with that special Colorado vibe.

Geoff gets excited to tell me that there are a couple of really cool stories during the making of the film that led them to believe they were really tapping into something.

“So when we went to shoot the pig roast, it was October and for the script it’s October of 1978. We were looking for extras for the movie, but we didn’t really get as many extras as we wanted, because there was an actual pig roast in Illium that day. So we literally sent the second unit film crew to capture some of the real pig roast. And the scene with pig on the fire, that’s a real pig roast”, he said.

“…And it was things like that, that said to us that we are tapping into something, to a vibration that is really happening here.”

Another story took place when the picture was already filmed and in the editing room. One day the sound editor brought in an April ’78 High Times Magazine and there was an article about…you guessed it- Nepalese Temple balls.

“At some point you just say we’ve got to ride that. We have mined a vein of something that is real.”

To witness that a following is alive and well and growing ten years later, is to hear what musician Keller Williams has recently done. While working at a radio station in Wilmington, NC Geoff gave a copy of the movie to Keller. Keller frequently played the soundtrack and talked about the movie on his radio show Keller’s Cellar. So it was pleasing to hear that Keller was a fan.

But then Geoff got a copy of a completed song Nepalese Temple Balls from Keller’s management along with writing credit- since the Keller lyrics are taken directly from the movie.

“I was pretty blown away by that. I had never heard of that, I mean I’ve heard of sampling where people use parts of songs, but I’ve never heard anybody take the exact words from a movie and turn it into a song. If I was sitting in a chair, I would have fallen out of it- I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Although Scrapple is light hearted and comical, there is a heavy underlying theme. The struggle Tom has with the loss of a loved one is a very real emotion for those in Ski towns.

“Another powerful thing about Scrapple is that we wanted to tap into…that the ski town life is all fun and games until someone just ups and dies. I knew that extinctively but had never really experienced it until after the film,” Geoff adds.

When the Hanson’s were at the Sundance Film Festival to premier the movie they had a friend die in an avalanche.

“The longer you live in those towns, the longer- people who live close to the edge, well sometimes they fall over.”

So maybe that real underlying seriousness along with the struggle and the hope that unfolds throughout the movie is just the right combination to capture the audience. Either way ten years later Scrapple is still going strong and only gaining popularity.

“We feel so lucky that 10-15 years later, we made a film that really hit home with people. To have someone come to you and say your film is my favorite film. As first time film makers…”, Chris acknowledges. “While there are so many people that have never heard of it, it’s also people’s favorite movie. And that means a great deal to Chris and myself”, Geoff added.

The moderate success of the film was parlayed into another Hanson brother’s film about the band Widespread Panic, entitled The Earth Will Swallow You and released in 2002. Although Scrapple has never been mainstream you get the feeling that the brothers are quite content with their accomplishment.

“What we did get out of the experience is the satisfaction of having made something that is meaningful to people. I got an e-mail from someone once; he said they were really having a tough time in life. And the movie, the whole dream your life- live your dreams aspect of it, really was important to them in a dark time. And that’s just really meaningful to us that we were able to make a piece that has some sort of endearing value to some people”, Geoff elaborated.

“We get that it’s not this huge thing, but it’s meaningful to a lot of people. And it was extremely meaningful, obviously to us; I mean it was the culmination of a life long dream of my brothers and mine- to make a movie together. And when we say dream your life-live your dream, that is what Scrapple represents for my brother and I.”

I took on writing this piece because I am one of those people who say, this is one of my favorite movies. I’m drawn to it for many different reasons. The soundtrack ranks as one of my all time favorites and makes me smile each and every time I listen to it. I’m drawn to the Colorado Ski town aspect because I live not far outside a Colorado ski town. In 1978 I was nine years old and a devout Yankees fan (Geoff was also nine in ’78 and a Red Sox fan), so the baseball also draws me in.

But probably most of all I’m drawn by the spirit of the piece, the dream your life live your dream is such an inspirational, uplifting sentiment that is hard to ignore. I’d like to believe that each and every day I am living my own contemporary Colorado mountain dream. And it might just be that like many people, I just like to revisit the times of old, those easier times where the Abbey described ‘quality’ seemed more present.

It’s a little strange how we all continue to move forward into the future, but we still cling to so many things from the past. I do hope in doing this article that maybe a few more people will experience this film for the first time and it will bring them to a time that is past. I realize that we cannot go back in time, but it will never stop us from thinking we can. Edward Abbey may be long gone from Telluride, but his words still ring true. Life is in many ways a circle of experience with our history sometimes in the forefront of the present. With that in mind I think it’s fitting for the director to have the last word.

“It’s wild now because I live in Telluride again and people talk about the early/mid-nineties like it’s ‘back in the day’, sort of like we talked about the seventies in the early nineties.”

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