It was the determination of the late J.T. Walsh that drove J.S. Cardone’s road movie before the camera, but it’s a tale touched by sadness as the helmer explains.
For his first directing gig since wrapping the Arizona Crime Trilogy (A Row of Crows (1991), Shadowhunter (1993), and Black Day Blue Night (1995)), Joe Cardone shuffled a little further east to The Lone Star State for what’s best described as a road movie twist on Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). OUTSIDE OZONA (1998) assembled an impressive cast, but as the writer-director himself admits, it was the actor J.T. Walsh who kickstarted it into production.
“I had written Outside Ozona, and it had been sitting on my shelf for a good while. I hadn’t taken it anywhere. J.T. came up here to the ranch, and he was really cleaning up at that point in time. He had gotten off the booze but, unfortunately, he seemed to be eating himself to death. “Let’s make another movie together,” he said. “What have you got?” I had a couple of scripts bouncing around at the time. Halle Berry was looking at one I did called Congo Square, but I told him about Outside Ozona and he seemed to like it.”
It’s an ambitious narrative that relies on two connective strands to pull each thread together. The first is Dix Mayal (Taj Mahal), a renegade disc jockey who’s locked himself in the studio to belligerently blast out blues over the airwaves in protest at his employer’s insistence on spinning wall-to-wall country music. Not that his audience of bickering late-night listeners are aware; they’re too concerned with their own issues as they travel across the lonely moonlit roads. However, as a secondary slice of linkage comes in to play, a serial killer (David Paymer) is venturing south from his Chicago home, and he’s poised to pose an unlikely threat to this mobile mob of misfits…
Star-studded indies were very much the concept du jour during the tail-end of the ‘90s, be it Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) – but Cardone’s picture is yet to be mentioned in the same breath as such darlings of the festival circuit.
“I’d been approached by Kevin Pollack to consider him for anything that I was doing. Penelope Ann Miller had phoned me to say how much she loved Black Day Blue Night and to let her know if I had anything. So I started to call in favours! From my music days I knew Meat Loaf and I knew Taj [Mahal]. Meat had just done Fight Club (1999), and gradually all these pieces began to come together. I’d known The Rolling Stones too, so Johnny Lee Schell called them up for a song. We needed the music, you see. Then the word started getting around. David Paymer’s agent called us to ask if there was anything for him, and it was just pretty cool, as a lot of it happened because J.T. was so energetic about it.”
“We needed to make it fast, so I went to Avi Lerner and Nu Image because he was interested in Congo Square. I’d known him from the Cannon days, and I knew [Nu Image’s head of production] Boaz Davidson really well too. I told Avi who we had, but his reply was to say that none of these people would sell overseas – and that’s how he pre-sells everything. I said I can do it for $2.5 million though, so they go away into a huddle and then Boaz comes back and says, “It’ll take overnight to make a decision, but if you can do it for $2 million, we’ll say yes right now” [laughs].”
One fascinating aspect of Outside Ozona is how the director cast against type. The ever-jolly Kevin Pollock, for example, plays Wit Roy, a mournful, depressive, unemployed clown who yearns for people to recognise the craft of his profession (“I set a higher standard for myself, but nobody gives a shit anymore. It’s just about acting silly”). Then we have the eternally wholesome Penelope Ann Miller playing his girlfriend Earlene, who, on the face of it, is a dim-witted floozy fond of a pole dance but really hides a dynamic feminist streak (“My ass belongs to me, not you,” is her delicious response to Roy when he attempts to prevent her from earning a few dollars by dancing). You’d presume Sherilyn Fenn would fill that role, but instead she’s cast as a prim right-winger (“Oh that’s just the leftist rhetoric,” she sneers in one scene) travelling cross-country with her sister Bonnie (Beth Ann Styne). Similarly, when you expect a double-denim psycho nutjob to be prowling the highways of Texas, we get the softly spoken Paymer. It’s a bold choice, and one that could easily have backfired, but everyone fits their roles perfectly.
Another aspect of Outside Ozona that stands out is the feeling that it’s perhaps Cardone’s most personal work. Elements of it seem to echo the politics and beliefs of the man himself, none more so than in the character of Odell Parks (Robert Forster). He’s a good-natured trucker who’s partial to a sirloin tip (“Just cut off its horns and wipe its ass”), and who’s not afraid to stand up to discrimination. Cardone has history with his positive portrayal of Native Americans, and it’s the same here, with Parks coming to the aid of put-upon Navajo (Kateri Walker – who won a FAITA award for her performance). “When push comes to shove, they ain’t no different to us,” he declares to a knuckle-dragging truck stop manager.
Forster’s sympathetic performance is the highlight of the picture, yet it’s one that comes with a great deal of sadness:
“As soon as he read the script, J.T. was keen on doing the truck driver role,” says Cardone. “Ten days before we started shooting, I had dinner with him and asked how he’d been feeling, and he just didn’t look good to me. He was chain-smoking, and we got to talking about the film. “Did you see that Forster got nominated for Jackie Brown (1997)?” he said, and yeah, I replied that it was great. I’d been a fan of Forster since Medium Cool (1968).”
“Now this, this is the honest to God’s truth. J.T. then said, “You know, If I wasn’t playing this role, it would be perfect for Robert.” Three days after we started shooting I got the call that J.T. had died, then that afternoon I made the call to Robert who came on board immediately.”
“Robert was sensational, though. He brought an empathy to the part that I don’t think J.T. would have. Every now and then in the business you run across people who are total assholes. And then you run across Robert Forster – one of the sweetest guys I’ve met in my life.”
“He actually came to me while we were shooting and said, “Listen, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’ve been nominated for an Academy Award. I’ve looked at the schedule, and I’ve noticed that I’m working the night of the ceremony. Now, if you need me…” and he kind of threw up his hands to say he’d work it, but I said of course we’d work around it! Fast-forward to that night, we were shooting, and a limo pulls up, Robert gets out in his tux, and thanks the entire crew. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Cardone’s script fizzes throughout the film, skirting the topics of racism and feminism, while barely concealing an undercurrent of disdain towards the red states of the Midwest. The increasingly irate Mayal is the ideal soapbox for Cardone’s dismay, and in one spectacular sequence when Paymer’s degenerate murderer phones in to the radio station, he takes aim at that God-fearing section of society from which his caller is born. “In the Heartland of America,” bristles the DJ, “The great Christian guard who spit fire and brimstone from the pulpit on a Sunday molest our children the rest of the week.”
Reviews of Outside Ozona labelled it lame, contrived, and credibility-straining – although Roger Ebert, at least, was complimentary, stating that “Cardone evokes a real sense for the deserted night highways” . Perhaps shoehorning it into a (brief) theatrical run in December ‘98 and thus unleashing it on a cynical army of critics wasn’t the ideal way to bring this picture into the world. It seemed to hamper Outside Ozona from the get-go, and even when it hit video stores the following summer, boasting the ill-fitting strapline of “In the quirky tradition of Fargo (1996) and U-Turn (1997)”, it remained a bruised piece of art that would have benefitted from gradual exposure with favourable word of mouth.
In any case, Outside Ozona is an excellent movie, and its absence on anything other than a rare VHS tape is a great loss to modern-day film fans who I’m sure would bestow it with the praise it deserved twenty-some years ago.
 Outside Ozona Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 18th December 1998.