From Left: Scott Teems, Director; Hal Holbrook; Laura Smith, Producer
When filmmaker Scott Teems was first introduced to the concept of a documentary centered on Hal Holbrook’s long-running one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, the pitch came from none other than Holbrook’s wife, actress Dixie Carter. At the time, Teems was prepping for his narrative feature starring Holbrook, That Evening Sun, and he readily admits that he would have agreed to anything in order to get Holbrook and Carter to sign on to the project. Over time, however, Teems and Carter continued to discuss the idea and its potential, and Teems became passionate about it. After the actress’ untimely death in 2010, Teems and Holbrook became even more determined to bring her dream project to life. Nearly half a decade later, the resulting film, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey premiered on Sunday afternoon as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival at the Regal L.A Live Stadium to a packed house and rapturous reception.
The film offers an all-access-pass look not only into the history of the show but also into Holbrook’s process, which includes applying his own makeup every night and sorting through stacks of notes for fresh material to use. Augmenting the narrative are interviews with an assortment of Twain academics and several of Holbrook’s notable acting peers, including Cherry Jones, Sean Penn, Robert Patrick, Martin Sheen and Emile Hirsch. Whether the audience is intimately familiar with Holbrook’s show or finds themselves learning about it for the first time, the film offers an engaging portrayal of an artist’s devotion to his craft or, as Teems described it in his pre-screening comments, the story of “a man who had a calling.”
Following the screening, Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell led a Q&A with Holbrook and Teems. Despite Teems needing to repeat several statements due to Holbrook’s diminished hearing, the actor showed himself to be a far sharper and energetic presence than his 89 years would suggest. Besides extoling the likes of Edwin Forrest and bemoaning a new generation of actors only concerned with becoming famous, Holbrook told several amusing anecdotes, including one about the time he gave up alcohol and smoking within the same short span of time, only to then be saddled with the daunting task of working alongside Carol Burnett.
“It was not good timing,” he joked.
Of his decision to shoot Holbrook/Twain in stark black-and-white, Teems cited a desire to endow the project with the kind of timeless quality inherent in Twain’s words, while also attempting to give the proceedings a contemporary edge via the use of handheld camerawork during the behind-the-scenes sequences. Beyond those reasons, there was a practical advantage in that such a color scheme would effectively “neutralize” Holbrook’s heavy Twain makeup, thus allowing Teems to film his subject in intimate close-ups without worrying about the makeup being distracting.
Joining the post-screening Q&A were actors Emile Hirsch and Robert Patrick, who co-starred alongside Holbrook in 2007’s Into the Wild and 2011’s Good Day for It, respectively. Both actors praised the actor’s tireless devotion and magnetic personality, with Hirsch emphasizing Holbrook’s incredible ability to captivate an audience with his stories.
“You would have the PAs [on Into the Wild], who would normally be in a hurry, slowing down and listening to him,” Hirsch recalled.
When Mitchell eventually opened up the room for questions, many choose to eschew traditional inquiries in favor of simply praising Holbrook and the film, with one attendee even wishing the actor a “Happy Father’s Day.” It was an outpouring of admiration and positivity that appropriately reflected what stands as a definite love letter of a film.