Did the Algonquin round table somehow spiritually relocate itself in the early 1970s to Key West, Florida? The idea that the small, remote island city was a hotbed for one of the last great counterculture arts scenes — particularly for prose writers, but also with some music mixed in — is the focus of a new short film about the Key West scene of 50 years ago, “All That Is Sacred.” The 34-minute movie, which stars the famous novelist Tom McGuane and writer-musician Jimmy Buffett, has its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend.
Variety has an exclusive premiere for a trailer for the film, which does not yet have distribution; check it out below. We also talked with McGuane and director Scott Ballew about how the subject of the film came into focus, harking back to a loose collective of wild but serious writers in Key West that also included men of letters like Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan and Russell Chatham.
Doing it as a half-hour-plus short rather than a feature “seemed like the right length based on the path we took in making it about the friendship. I mean, each one of these guys could, should and probably will have at least a 90-minute film on their own individual journeys.”
“I hadn’t understood how powerful it was going be,” says McGuane. “We’ve shown it to a lot of people — we’ve just shown it to Tom and Meredith Brokaw — and I mean, everybody that sees it seems to burst into tears. It’s just a strong little movie and I think Scott did a great job of it.”
Is it a scene to get sentimental about, even though everyone involved was doing some wild living at the time? “I’m not sure sentimental is the right word,” McGuane says, “because most of these people have died or are dying I mean, it’s kind of a last look at the living, really, in some ways, or it was that for some of us who were involved with this thing, that gave it some power. Some people in it have died and others are in poor health. I told my brother-in-law Jimmy (Buffett), ‘You should do a song called “Last Man Standing-ville.”’ He said, ‘That’s too close for comfort.’” (Buffett has been under the weather and will not be able to make it to Telluride for the premiere, as originally planned.)
The project loosely has its origins in a film that was made about some of these same characters in 1973-74 but never released, “Tarpon.” It mainly focused on the writers’ penchant for casting their flies for the title fish, not their writing or music, although the then-only-semi-famous Buffett went to France to compose an original score (and is duly touted in that film’s opening credits as an “ABC-Dunhill artist”). Only seen until now in bootleg versions, “Tarpon” has recently been restored and will play as a shorts double-feature with “All That Is Sacred” at Telluride, as Ballew thinks it might once a distribution deal is made. (He says the Telluride bow will mark the beginning of their working toward that.)
Says Ballew, “I cold-called Tom, asking if I could make a film on him, and Tom was not interested at all in making a film about himself. But I flew out to Livingston (in Montana) and sat with him for about eight hours and got to know him and talked a little bit more about what the film could be about.”
McGuane explains it this way: “Scott wanted to do kind of a fishing movie with me, but I just had shoulder surgeries and I couldn’t fish. So we were scrambling about what to do next, and he brought a lot of creative energy to it. … My experience with writing is that it almost never goes where you think it was gonna go. As Cheever said a long time ago, ‘All narrative art is improvisatory.’ And I think this film was a little bit that way, but that doesn’t mean it was an accident.”
The filmmaker says, “My amateur thesis going into it was that these guys were the last of a class of people who set out and had a crew — like the lost generation — of like-minded aspiring writers. I wasn’t aware of anything past that era of a similar group of true poets and literary types that descended in one location with a common goal of, of becoming successful writers. It seemed to all shift after that — shifting to music and eventually technology and all the other ways you become rich and famous. But I was curious about what the common thread was with this group of friends, seemingly being the last of a breed of artists all attracted to the same place with the same goal.”
An analogy is made in the film to the aforementioned Algonquin table, albeit maybe an Algonquin table with lots of cocaine.
“Even Jimmy was very literate. He read all the time; he fit right in with that,” McGuane says of the music star, whose sister, Laurie, he married. (An amusing aside in the film comes when, later in life, Buffett finally publishes literary fiction and has a huge bestseller with it, setting off some jealousy among those who’ve been doing it their whole careers.) “Harrison and I were obsessive book guys from way back. And yeah, there was a little Algonquin element there. In fact, looking back now from the kind of vacuum we kind of all have come to live in, I know I would find it hard to get started in this atmosphere where you really don’t see people, you don’t talk to people, and you don’t discuss your projects chronically as we did.
“Those of us who were writers were very fixated on the place literature had in the world at that time,” he continues. “I remember how irate I was when Rolling Stone stopped running book reviews. Things were changing then, and they’ve changed completely since then. But they haven’t changed much for us. We’re sort of archaic freeze-frames of some kind.
“I think the Golden Age analogy is pretty right. I mean, those of us who were there then have always kind of considered it the best time in our lives. It was so intense, and it had a pretty short lifespan, and it was built in kind of a vacuum. We were free in ways that we never were before and never were again. And Key West was uniquely suited to that because it was a sort of a battered town. Duval Street was mostly boarded up, and it felt like a foreign city. In fact, a lot of it was not English-speaking. So it was exciting to be young there. I’m not sure if we’d been in our forties, we would’ve found it so alluring.”
One possible laugh line in the film comes when a woman is on screen talking about how awful Key West has become. It’s clearly from the newly restored “Tarpon” footage from the early ’70s.
“I remember when I moved to Key West, I think in ‘68 or so, there were a lot of people moving out saying that Key West was all done, and they couldn’t wait to leave. And then in 1978 I couldn’t wait to leave,” says McGuane, who has long since become one of the world’s most famous Montana residents, speaking of Last Best Places.
“But there’s a whole wave of people coming in thinking ‘This is the greatest place I’ve ever been.’ The only thing that has really changed from the standpoint of young artists is that it’s not a cheap place anymore.I was talking to somebody that said there’s a problem down there with young people stealing the sails off sailboats so they’d have something to sleep under. But for the department of tourism in Florida, Key West still gets more inquiries than any other place in Florida except Disneyland.”
When “All That Is Sacred” gets distribution, the scrappy yet expensive city may get even a few more inquiries than usual.
“It was a real shock and honor to get to premiere it at Telluride, and that’ll be the first time we start talking about it and having some of those conversations” about getting it picked up, Ballew says. After a Thursday night premiere at Telluride’s Backlot venue (as a double feature alongside the official bow of 1974’s restored “Tarpon”), it screens again Friday, Sept. 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Le Pierre, and Saturday, Sept. 2, at 9 a.m., at the Backlot. The latter two screenings will be followed by Q&As.