miniseries Lonesome Dove

Part 3: Character, Story and Jack Russell Terriers

Blake J. Harris: Not long after that, you directed the epic miniseries Lonesome Dove. How did you get involved with that?

Simon Wincer: Well, the producers were after someone to direct Lonesome Dove. They needed somebody who was both familiar with feature films—to kind of handle those high-powered actors—and someone who could also shoot on a television budget. And I think that’s ultimately how I was chosen.

Blake J. Harris: That’s a nice combo.

Simon Wincer: So they flew me to America to meet Suzanne De Passe, the executive producer, and Dyson Lovell, the producer. And they seemed to like me. So they said, “Now you need to fly to Austin, Texas and meet Bill Wittliff,” who was the other executive producer. And he had done the adaptation. So I flew down with Dyson to Austin, Texas and met Bill. And Bill says, “I just want to have dinner with Simon on his own; just to get to know him better and see what his take is on this whole thing.” So we went out to dinner to Bill’s very nice country club in Austin Texas. I ordered a Prawn Cocktail and Bill ordered Oysters on the Shell. Eventually, our dinner was delivered. Bill cracks open the first oyster and there’s a bloody, giant pearl in the middle of his oyster. And he said to me, “I think this is a sign.”

Blake J. Harris: Wow? Really?

Simon Wincer: Yeah. That’s amazing. He still has that pearl. We had a Lonesome Dove reunion at the end of March this year, which was a wonderful event. Because Lonesome Dove in Texas; it’s like the bible, you know? Everybody was there, the whole cast and crew. It was an a amazing four days. It was fantastic to see everybody. Bill reminded me about the pearl then.

Blake J. Harris: Did you ever have, like, the opposite of that experience? Some kind of ominous sign foreboding a bad film experience?

Simon Wincer: No, not really. I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve never really had too many creative dramas. I mean, I guess every film is fraught with—as I like to regard them— “healthy creative arguments.” But I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve never had things taken away from me. That sort of stuff, you know? But I suppose it just goes that way if you have the attitude that it’s not life and death and respect other people’s opinions; particularly in creative meetings, sometimes you bite your tongue…

Blake J. Harris: Not everyone is so good at that. Especially with creative projects.

George Lucas

Simon Wincer: [laughing] Look, George Lucas said to me a long time ago when I was working on that television series Young Indiana Jones—just a wonderful producer and mentor—he said, “the whole thing about filmmaking, it’s about compromise. It’s knowing when to compromise and when to put your foot down and say I can’t compromise.” And that’s really what it’s about, you know? Yes, you can sacrifice a scene because you may be behind schedule or something. But when it comes to the key moments, he said, “just never, never ever compromise. Be like a Jack Russell, you know?”

Blake J. Harris: [laughing] Well, anecdotally-speaking, compromising seems to become a more difficult proposition when the director is also the writer. You’ve written some things over the years, but that’s never been your primary focus. So I’m curious to hear about how you approach that relationship between director and writer.

Simon Wincer: In the company that I grew up with—where I did all those police dramas—the writer was God. We were taught that those lines were on a page for a reason. Somebody fought hard to get those lines on a page and it’s our job to get them to work the way they are. So it was just sort of infused in me, to have enormous respect for the writer. And to try and make work what’s written on the page before changing it, you know? And I think that’s important. Because if you’re a closed shop…

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, exactly.

Simon Wincer: I suppose because I’ve, I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in the whole script editing process, and getting it right before it goes in front of the camera. And I’ve always welcomed writers on the set too, which not all directors like to do. I love it.

Blake J. Harris: Well, I think that explains a lot about why you haven’t had those blow-up conflicts. That’s a pretty rare perspective.

Steven Spielberg

Simon Wincer: Look, I worked with Steven Spielberg on Young Indiana Jones. And then again [in 2005], I did an episode of Into the West. I shot the very first one of that TV series. It was interesting because, at the time, he was doing War of the Worlds. But I’d get notes about dailies and stuff like that. And when Spielberg saw the cut, there was literally only two notes. Both had to do with script and character. And he was so spot on. It was just something that didn’t quite work, and we re-shot about three scenes and it just changed the whole thing. It was fantastic. People, I think, tend to think of Stephen and George Lucas as less script-oriented, but I found them quite the opposite. It’s all about character and story to them. It’s all about that with all the top guys. Doesn’t matter what the camera’s doing, doesn’t matter what the score’s doing. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. It’s that simple.

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