Excerpted from “Part 3: Summer Into Fall, Chapter 12” from Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne. Available from Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
After several postponements, Two-Lane Blacktop, James Taylor’s feature film debut, finally began shooting in and around Los Angeles the first week of August. Director Monte Hellman had been intrigued by the idea of recruiting non-actors; during the time he auditioned Taylor in the spring, he also took a meeting with another, even manlier singer-songwriter, a Rhodes scholar named Kris Kristofferson. In the end, he wanted Sam Shepard, a young East Village playwright with a dash of acting experience on his résumé. But when it looked as if his first son would be born during shooting, Shepard backed out. Hellman settled for his second choice, Taylor, whose face he’d seen on a Sunset Strip billboard a few months earlier.
When the production for Two-Lane Blacktop settled down for a few days in Santa Fe, Hellman decided on a last-minute touch of realism. He cajoled screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer into taking a small role as a hothead conned into a race by Taylor’s character, the Driver. Wurlitzer and Taylor filmed one scene together, then another in which Wurlitzer’s character and his wife (played by Hellman’s wife, Jaclyn Hellman) argued in a restaurant. Sitting silently at the bar, glancing over as they argued, was Taylor’s character. Afterward, Taylor admitted to Wurlitzer he was wasted—the bartender was serving him actual drinks during the scene.
When Hellman had first broached the idea of hiring Taylor for the role, Wurlitzer was concerned. He’d heard stories about Taylor’s personal demons and mental state. Taylor’s lack of acting chops also set off a few alarm bells. But in the context of the movie and a new wave of filmmaking, no one else was particularly concerned. Two-Lane Blacktop would attempt to defy convention at every step. Taylor was hardly the only new or non-actor on the set. Laurie Bird, a teenage model with no acting experience, was cast as a runaway called the Girl, and the Beach Boys’ rakishly handsome Dennis Wilson was the Driver’s sidekick, the Mechanic. Balancing them out were professionals like Warren Oates, as a GTO driver who competes with Taylor and Wilson, and Harry Dean Stanton, a craggy-faced character actor twice Taylor’s age.
The plot barely amounted to one: Two unnamed drifters played by Wilson and Taylor make a living conning drivers into car races they inevitably lose, allowing the drifters to make quick cash before moving on to the next town (and victim). They’re committed to no one but themselves.
To ensure his project would truly feel like a road movie, Hellman took the filming to the highway. After shooting in Los Angeles in early August, cast and crew would travel across country, touching down in Santa Fe, Little Rock, Memphis, and other towns before ending in Maryville, North Carolina. In a departure from convention that was all his own, Hellman and his movie would focus on stasis: elliptical conversations, antiheroes, and cinematography that dwelled on the desert and open road as much as on dialogue. The race itself wouldn’t even be completed. The characters would give up midway across the country, as if there was no point to the contest anyway. Instead of a traditional plot resolution, the film would simply stop—the last image would look like a reel of film catching fire. Two-Lane Blacktop would be the ultimate road movie and, with its enigmatic plot and irregular casting and character names, a new kind of film. Despite his initial doubts, Wurlitzer came to realize Taylor was ideal for the role.
“James seemed to represent a lost and bewildered innocence,” he recalled, “with no apparent attachments to the past or to a defined cultural imprint.” Whether he wanted to or not, Taylor would embody a newly aimless time.
Despite an alternately deadpan and irritable screen test a few months before, Taylor was thrilled when he’d been offered the role of the Driver, and most of his friends were encouraging. “He’s the next Gary Cooper,” his manager Peter Asher’s girlfriend (and soon-to-be-wife) Betsy gushed to Toni Stern, Taylor’s partner that spring. To Hellman, Taylor was a natural, and the director was bemused by the way Taylor always seemed prepared in the early days of filming.
Between takes, Taylor also began writing new songs, and the most gorgeous to emerge was “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a lullaby for a visitor to the set. Taylor had met Joni Mitchell the year before, when he’d opened for her at the Unicorn coffeehouse in Boston in March 1969. “I’m sure Joan was most interested,” recalled then-boyfriend Graham Nash, who accompanied Mitchell to the show and even snapped a photo of her and Taylor meeting for the first time. Taylor and Mitchell then both performed at the Newport Folk Festival the following summer.
At the time, each was romantically entangled to one degree or another, Mitchell with Nash, Taylor with his previous girlfriend, Margaret Corey. But by the summer of 1970, each was available. Mitchell had broken up with Nash, and Taylor’s romance with Stern, who wasn’t taken with life on the road or being considered Taylor’s appendage, had run aground. On July 26, only a few weeks before Two-Lane Blacktop began shooting, Taylor and Mitchell met again, at the Mariposa Folk Festival outside Toronto, and this time, they hooked up.
Although Mitchell had far more experience in the music business and was four and a half years older, she and Taylor looked and felt like peers, and they weren’t afraid to let their mutual attraction be known to everyone. In one of the first signs their affair was serious, Mitchell flew to the Arizona set for the filming. She knit Taylor a green-and-blue sweater, played guitar, and sang in the fields; they shared a motel room, inviting cast and crew for sing-alongs and bottles of wine. Taylor appeared visibly relieved by her presence. As he told Rolling Stone writer Michael Goodwin, “Now I have something to do with my nights.”
“I don’t wanna hear about it,” Taylor, as the Driver, snapped at Oates’ GTO during one scene.
“What do you mean—you don’t wanna hear about it?” Oates’ GTO retorted.
“It’s not my problem,” the Driver said, dismissively.
The irritation in Taylor’s voice wasn’t always scripted. Mitchell eventually had to leave, chronicling her mixed feelings in “This Flight Tonight,” and the movie resumed its own brand of cross-country tour. As the filming dragged on for forty-two days into the beginning of fall, Taylor found the process increasingly torturous. The lengthy lags between takes were foreign to him, and he’d grow annoyed when Wilson and Bird hadn’t memorized their lines. (He would also look irked when Bird would periodically start singing.) In order to maintain a sense of spontaneity, Hellman only showed his cast one page of script at a time; as a result, Taylor often felt at sea.
Drugs and moments of craziness helped alleviate the boredom and occasional stress for everyone. Taylor and Oates did mescaline, and Taylor had to endure on-set acting lessons. (“They had workshop classes at the beginning of the day, ‘be a tree’ and that kind of bullshit,” Asher recalled.) Sometimes Taylor would ignore Hellman’s request to return for another take while he continued working on a chord change or a lyric.
On camera, Taylor delivered his lines with a sullen numbness, conveying emotions by way of a haunted stare or the slightest flicker of body language. To express his dissatisfaction, he would do much the same when the cameras were off. After a reporter showed up one day, Wurlitzer convinced Taylor to join him for an interview at a local diner. Wurlitzer did most of the chatting; Taylor mostly stared down at his shoes. At one point, Wurlitzer and the writer became aware of the smell of burning flesh—and both beheld Taylor putting out a cigarette on the back of his hand. The interview was never completed. “People were telling him what to do, and he wasn’t used to that,” Stern recalled. “The side of his experience is that he was the creator. Maybe the way he came across on screen was the way he felt about it.”
Taylor would periodically call Asher from wherever they were filming to complain about the workshops or having to move to a new town almost every day. “James had a hard time,” recalled Wurlitzer. “He was never fully at ease. He was very disoriented and bored and frustrated. But he got through it.” Sometimes, though, just barely: For the film’s climactic race, Taylor sat behind the wheel, not realizing the car was already in reverse. When he pulled the clutch and stepped on the gas, the car jolted backward, almost flattening some of the cast. Everyone, including Taylor, was shaken.
“We were lucky,” Hellman said, “that no one was run over.”
“That was a nightmare,” Taylor told Asher when filming wrapped up. “I don’t want to do that again.” Asher agreed that movie stardom was probably not in his client’s future. (“Management error,” Asher conceded.) But no one was too troubled. Nearly six months after the release of Sweet Baby James, the music side of Taylor’s career appeared to be finally catching fire.