How The West Was Filmed: An Interview With Terry Meehan
Terry Meehan has been a fixture at Lakewood Public Library for many years, encouraging movie-lovers to thoughtfully engage with what they see on the big screen. But it wasn't until 2009 that we handed him a microphone and gave him his own Saturday night film series. Since then, audiences have responded enthusiastically, not only to his inspired selections, but to the film-loving atmosphere he creates with discussions before and after the film, the special features he makes himself and his free giveaways of movies and books. (He is not above bribery.)
After spending three seasons peering into the darkest corners of film noir, Terry has moved on to the Great American Western. His new series begins on Saturday, September 15 at 6:00 p.m. with Wagon Master (1950) directed by the legendary John Ford. (You can learn about the rest of his line-up and about the Library's other film series at www.lakewoodpubliclibrary.org/film.) Since this happens to be one of our favorite films of all time, we thought it was as good a time as any to talk to Terry about our culture's complicated cowpoke connection.
Before we get started, could you give us a little background on your film credentials? How did you go from film lover to film teacher?
After all these years, you’re just asking me this now? I have a Masters degree from Kent State majoring in Literature, Film and Art History. While at East Ohio Gas [until 1996], I wrote, directed, produced and even starred in video presentations directed toward employee and customer audiences. This includes the production of a few radio and TV commercials, as well as an historical documentary on the 1944 East Ohio Gas Fire.
I began my career as a teacher in 1997 in Lakewood, where I did my first adult education class based on that year’s Oscar nominees. I still teach many adult ed classes around northeast Ohio. I taught my first college class [Alfred Hitchcock] in 2001 at Lakeland Community College as a result of having coffee with Professor Phil Skerry, who at that time owned the Lakewood Phoenix. In 2003, I began a fairly regular gig at Lorain County Community College, teaching Film Appreciation and Intro to American Cinema.
Why are the Westerns so important to film history?
Because the western historical period itself was vital to our nation’s growth and identity. The stories of the west are uniquely American. Dime novelists had been writing about these myths and legends for decades. When Edison invented a new way to tell stories, the first important film he made was a western [The Great Train Robbery, 1903].
Many of the conventions we know and love are pure Hollywood. Does historical accuracy matter?
Many of the conventions that we think of as “pure Hollywood” likely had a basis in history. Historical accuracy does matter, up to a point. When a western is true to history, it can be more compelling; it can even make you want to go to that location just to see where these things actually happened. On the other hand, movies are at their best when they tell good stories and sometimes complex historical details can slow things down. It is a tough call for a filmmaker, but makes for interesting discussions for both film and history buffs.
What’s your favorite kind of Western?
The conventions of the western genre are well known and easy to identify. The kind of westerns I like best are the ones that do something original with these conventions, or even turn them on their ear. For example, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven goes against expectations. It is completely fictional, unconventional, and yet it may actually portray the “real west” quite accurately.
What’s your least favorite kind of Western?
The Singing Cowboy is my least favorite. I don’t want to mention any names, but you know who you are, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Dale Evans? Seriously? They never get their outfits dirty; their horses have their own agents. Put them all in the O.K Corral and lock the gate. Don’t get me wrong; I am not against music in westerns. John Ford’s movies have lots of great songs and excellent scores.
Why is it so difficult to make a good western today? If it isn’t difficult, why don’t they make them anymore?
It is not difficult to make a western today, but it is difficult to get one made. The studio bosses have never liked Westerns for some reason [Box Office drawing power?] and it has been difficult to get them made in every decade with the exception of the fifties. Both Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood fought the studios to get westerns made in the early nineties, and won. Both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven picked up best picture Oscars.
What kind of preparation do you do to get ready for your presentations at the Library?
I usually read reviews and opinions of the films, especially ones written at the time the movie came out. I also try to learn as much as I can about any historical characters or events that are included. Then I check the backgrounds of the actors and filmmakers to see what may be amazing or amusing.
From all of that information, I put together a video presentation that gives background on the story, characters, historical aspects and anything that I figure might add to the audience’s experience of the film. Sometimes I point out filming techniques that seem important. Occasionally I may shoot a sequence or two to complete my minor masterpiece. I sometimes use these videos later in my college classes to introduce film assignments.
Any tips on leading a good discussion?
When I first started doing these programs, audiences seemed hesitant to talk much. Now, I can’t shut them up [laughs]. I emphasize to the audience that there will be a discussion and I give them a few things to watch for that might be interesting to talk about after the credits roll.
Watching the film with your audience often brings up ideas for discussion that may not be obvious when you are watching it by yourself. When they laugh or gasp, make a note and ask them about it. The first question is to ask their opinion of the film. Did you like it? Why or why not? Once a few people begin to talk, most everyone else seems to either join in or listen. I try to joke around a little, just to keep the mood friendly.
What’s your favorite recent film?
I guess it would be between Hugo and The Tree of Life from last year’s Oscar race. I haven’t seen anything that good so far this year. One other film, not nominated, that was quite good was Take Shelter, a brilliant production that was filmed mostly in Lorain County.
Any upcoming movies that you’re really looking forward to?
Supposedly in February of 2013 a movie called Hitchcock is coming out, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. It is about the making of Psycho with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. I’ll be first in line for that one.