Bob Rafelson’s place in movie history is assured.
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker struck the match for the explosive New Hollywood revolution in the late 1960s, his production company foisted “Easy Rider” and “The Last Picture Show” on the viewing public, he directed the classics “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” and he gave platforms to a litany of actors who launched careers in his movies, from Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jessica Lange and Jennifer Lopez, all of which came after he conceived the pop hit-makers The Monkees and directed their television show.
But Rafelson, who has lived in Aspen since 1963 and will be honored with a lifetime achievement award this week at Aspen Filmfest, isn’t interested in burnishing that legend. He’s more concerned with the one that got away: his little-seen 1990 epic “Mountains of the Moon.”
“It’s my best work and it’s my most personal work,” Rafelson said Friday afternoon in the office of his Castle Creek Valley home.
‘THE PICTURE GOT DITCHED’
“Mountains of the Moon” follows Rafelson’s lifelong hero, the explorer Richard Francis Burton (Patrick Bergin), on his trek to find the source of the Nile River in the 1850s and centers on his fraught relationship with his lieutenant John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen). An epic in the Sam Spiegel/David Lean tradition, it includes lavish set pieces of tribal raids, unvarnished depictions of horrid disease, creepy insect attacks and some shockingly brutal violence while exploring themes of loyalty, betrayal and masculine hubris set in the operatic high drama of British colonialism.
Financed by Carolco Pictures, which had been minting money with the “Rambo” series in the 1980s, “Mountains of the Moon” got caught up in the production company’s financial collapse and eventual bankruptcy. The film’s theatrical run was botched and it never got a proper home video release.
“The picture got ditched — that’s the movie business,” Rafelson said of his masterwork. “Nobody has ever seen it. It played one week and, boom, it’s gone.”
He’s tried to find an audience for the film in the two decades since it flopped.
These days, you can’t really see it even if you want to (the only option today is streaming it on iTunes or Amazon, but it’s a travesty of a pan-and-scan transcription of the film that lops off the cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sumptuous photography).
Rafelson spent a lifetime studying Burton and his work, spent 12 years developing the film and trekked himself an estimated 800 miles around the African continent following Burton’s footsteps (his home is still peppered with sculpture and art from his travels there). So the film’s disappearance stings for Rafelson.
When Aspen Film proposed to honor Rafelson with a lifetime achievement award this year, he pushed for the festival to screen “Mountains of the Moon” rather than his better-known “Five Easy Pieces.” It will play Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House.
“It means a great deal to me, to get it seen anywhere these days,” he said. “And it’s an Aspen movie. It’s a campfire movie. It’s a picture that I think Aspen might like.”
He got Carolco to finance the film as a writer’s strike loomed and they were desperate for filmable scripts — they actually thought the film would be about Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, the actor Richard Burton — and Rafelson shot it with a small crew in 10 countries over three months for less than $15 million.
“Everybody said, ‘Oh, you don’t know what’s going to happen,’ ‘You’ll go way over budget,’” Rafelson recalled. “But the Africans were totally great.”
It has gained a cult following among filmmakers (Francis Ford Coppola among them) and critics (Roger Ebert championed it) as well as here in Aspen. When the Wheeler Opera House was converting to digital projection in 2013, the last actual film projected there was a 70 mm print of “Mountains of the Moon,” which filled the theater with locals and brought out Rafelson for a Q&A.
As a general rule, he only attends one public screening of each of his films. His initial screening for “Mountains of the Moon” was inauspicious. During the 1990 showing he attended at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, a woman vomited on him during a scene where a beetle crawls into Speke’s ear.
“I thought, ‘Well, my one and only screening and I’m loaded with stink,’” he recalled. “But I thought that was a great success that somebody had this kind of uncontrollable response.”
Rafelson is now working on a deal to give the film an art house re-release and possibly, finally, a watchable home video and streaming version.
Rafelson’s admiration for Burton makes sense when you see the film. The explorer was an anti-establishment figure of his time and a deeply intellectual scholar who could speak two dozens languages but who was also at ease sleeping in the dirt and dodging spears. He’s an apt subject for Rafelson, the Dartmouth graduate with a reputation for fighting and courting danger, who shook up the Hollywood studio establishment.
But this decidedly British period piece is also off-brand for Rafelson as a filmmaker and doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative arc of his career. His name, for cinephiles, conjures up the New Hollywood rebellion, the oft-quoted toast-ordering diner scene in “Five Easy Pieces” and the steamy clothes-on sex in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” or the counterculture bent of “Head” and “Easy Rider,” the character studies and American regionalism in “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens.”
“Mountains of the Moon” may have gotten buried due to industry factors, but it may have struggled to re-emerge because it is not what you think of when you think of a Bob Rafelson picture.
An Esquire magazine profile of Rafelson, published in March, gleefully recounted many of his off-screen renegade adventures — running away from home to ride rodeo out West at age 14, bristling under the strictures of the U.S. Army while stationed in Japan, trekking Africa and the Amazon alone, finding trouble in far-flung global danger zones.
Rafelson hasn’t directed a film since 2002, but those adventuring pursuits and his knack for finding intercontinental action continue at age 86.
In July, he found himself in the riots in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a crowd of 400,000 took to the streets seeking to depose Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló. Rafelson had traveled to Puerto Rico with his wife, Gaby, and their two teenage sons. They rented an apartment next to the governor’s mansion, where the massive demonstrations began the day they arrived.
“So we got tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, we’ve got rubber bullets flying on the first f-ing day,” Rafelson recalled.
A cellphone video shows the chaotic scene, and a crowd parting for Rafelson, using hiking poles on the cobblestone street amid the throng. As he passes through, the youthful crowds break out in applause for him.
“The only reason whey were applauding was because I was quadruple the age of anyone else in the streets and they saw me every night,” he said. “They were as young as I was in the ’60s when I marched.”
He relished showing his young sons the historic events up close and clashing with police alongside them. His son Harper, 16, remarked: “Dad, you’re famous again.”
Over his decades living full-time here, Rafelson rarely has mixed his Hollywood work with his very private Aspen life, though there have been a few colorful exceptions.
He edited “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “Stay Hungry” here, setting up a dock in a rented condo with editor John F. Link.
When they finished a rough cut of “Marvin Gardens” in 1970, they invited Aspen to come watch it at the Playhouse Theater.
“Naïve as hell, to invite the locals for a preview and see how they like it,” he recalled with a laugh.
His friend Hunter S. Thompson, Rafelson remembered, howled throughout the movie and offered a memorably rotten review of its meditative pace: “He said, ‘This movie is the best excuse I’ve seen for a cocaine habit.’”
Rafelson did a locals’ screening for “Stay Hungry” in 1976 when he finished cutting it, too, but someone handed out LSD to the audience and the feedback was less than useful.
Rafelson also screened, at the Isis, a pornographic film he directed. The project came during a period when he was blackballed from Hollywood, following an alleged altercation with an executive on the set of the Robert Redford prison drama “Brubaker.” The exec, Richard Berger, claimed Rafelson assaulted him. Rafelson was fired as the film’s director and effectively exiled from the business.
“It was four or five years before I could make a movie,” he recalled. “ I was broke. I was black-balled, even from the independents, because they said I hit an executive.”
He bounced back in 1981 with his steamy remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” based on a script by David Mamet with Jessica Lange in the role originated by Marilyn Monroe opposite Nicholson (with whom Rafelson made eight movies; a pivotal car crash scene in their 1996 collaboration “Blood and Wine” is said to have been inspired by the pair flipping a Jeep in the Aspen backcountry).
Rafelson first arrived in Aspen in the summer of 1963, tagging along with falsified credentials for an Aspen Institute conference honoring filmmaker Lewis Milestone, of “All Quiet on the Western Front” fame. (Rafelson got puked on during that trip, too, on a prop plane from Grand Junction, by the director’s wife: “I must look like a repository of some sort.”)
His first day in Aspen, he noted, also happened to be the one when his close friend Thompson first arrived here. The pair met when they found themselves in a volleyball match at Aspen Meadows, on a team captained by the novelist James Salter. The trio of world-renowned artists lived here for decades to follow.
Enchanted by the remote town’s lawlessness and its uncorrupted beauty, Rafelson stuck around. Between world travels and work in Los Angeles in the mid-’60s, he rented a series of places including a Herbert Bayer-built concrete house in the West End, since torn down.
“You could live anywhere then, and cheap,” he recalled of this era before the streets were paved and before Snowmass Village existed.
Soon he settled in the Castle Creek Valley, in a home hand-built from mining timbers by in the 1950s by the legendary local mountaineer Lou Dawson, at age 11, with his father. Sitting on more than an acre of land on the creek and wetlands, the home still bears the idiosyncratic signature of its nonprofessional builders — the odd steel spike in the ceiling here, a beaver-eaten log in a stair railing there.
This remote retreat may seem an odd base for a movie writer, director and producer — far from his industry’s hub in Los Angeles. But for Rafelson, it was ideal. He recalled making the decision with his first wife, Toby, some five decades ago: “Maybe it would be a good idea to get to know one place really well, instead of many places, to get really intimate with the landscape.”
Rafelson built a hiking trail along Castle Creek and in the winters would snowshoe on top of the frozen creek up the 10 miles to the Ashcroft ghost town (“I’m not much for skiing,” he said of his relationship with Aspen’s favored winter pastime.)
His friends in Aspen — including longtime Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who will serve as Rafelson’s interlocutor at Wednesday’s Filmfest tribute — didn’t know him as a creature of Hollywood.
“I didn’t want to talk about movies here,” he said.
He did develop a close friendship with Aspen Film founder Ellen Hunt and accepted the inaugural Independent By Nature award in 1999, but didn’t make a habit of doing public events here or mixing much with the movie star crowd that rolled through town. He hasn’t shown his films to his two teenage sons and generally doesn’t talk movies in the house.
When he’s spoken out publicly in Aspen, it’s most often been about conservation issues, local government hypocrisy, development and the like (Rafelson last week sent a letter to a county commissioner about the folly of the ongoing trail project on Castle Creek Road).
Standing on his porch, Rafelson pointed up at the pristine forest rising from the valley floor, noting the constant pressure to build more homes on this mountainside and his long fight to protect it from the forces of greed he’s seen transform much of Aspen in the past 56 years.
“Preserving this,” he said, “is a war every day of my life.”