In the summer of 1996 a Los Angeles film crew descended on San Antonio to begin shooting a new movie Still Breathing, a romantic comedy starring Brendan Fraser (Gods and Monsters, The Quiet American, The Mummy Returns) and Joanna Going (Mad Men, The Tree of Life) with music by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. An on-screen performance by Jim Cullum and his Band, shot during a party scene in the historic Alamo Heights neighborhood of San Antonio, features the Band playing a hot jazz favorite, “Westmoreland Weave,” composed by Dallas cornetist Garner Clark.
On this radio show we go behind the scenes and visit with the movie’s co-stars Brendan Fraser and Joanna Going; and also the Academy award-winning film legend Celeste Holm and three-time Grammy-winning R & B artist Lou Rawls who both appear in supporting roles. The actors talk with radio show co-host David Holt about what it was like making the movie in San Antonio, and about the classic jazz titles and original music The Jim Cullum Jazz Band recorded for the soundtrack.
A review in the Hollywood Reporter describes Still Breathing as “a smart and whimsical romantic comedy” and the Los Angeles Times calls it “delightful” and revealing “a depth of caring you won’t find in major studio fare.” Still Breathing is the feature film debut of writer and director Jim Robinson, and the screenplay is a contemporary take on classic 1930s screwball comedies— with a twist. In the story, we see how modern life gets in the way of old-fashioned romance for one young couple. Fletcher McBracken, played by Brendan Fraser, is an eccentric street musician and puppeteer living in San Antonio. Roz Willoughby, played by Joanna Going, is a tough, upscale art swindler living in Los Angeles, disillusioned with love.
For generations, the men in Fletcher McBracken’s family have shared an unusual trait—they envision their true love (the very woman they will marry) long before meeting her. Every one of the McBracken men goes out into the world on a mission to find his true love. As Still Breathing unfolds, Fletcher has been seeking his vision so long he’s about to give up. One night, a series of impressions come to him—a flash of dark eyes, a face, the word “Formosa.” The woman who matches Fletcher’s vision turns out to be Roz Willoughby, an artist who chased her dreams to Los Angeles, and in the process lost touch with them. Roz’ cynical take on love has driven her to run a moneymaking con game in the art world. Meanwhile in San Antonio, embracing his dreamy visions, Fletcher sets out for the Far East to seek his true love.
On his way to Taiwan, the “Formosa” of his dreams, Fletcher has a stopover in Los Angeles and discovers Roz in the Formosa Café, where she mistakes him for her next wealthy target. Fletcher tells Roz about his hometown, a special place called San Antonio. He convinces her to return there with him.
Jim Robinson, the movie’s writer and director, is a San Antonio native. He talks with radio series co-host David Holt about Jim Cullum’s influence on creating the character Fletcher McBracken. He says, “I made sure that Brendan [Fraser] spent time with Jim to absorb that undiluted San Antonio artist vibe. Once we got the film rolling and Jim became involved, he presented a number of tunes that could work in the picture.“ One of these was “Blue River,” originally recorded by Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer in 1927. “There is something in this tune that’s both melancholy and sweet and hopeful at the same instant. I get chills whenever I hear it. I use it in a very important moment in the film when Fletcher introduces Roz to his house.”
Music deeply influenced the creation of Still Breathing. “To me, music is the most undiluted type of art,” says Robinson. “For me, it’s the source the entire movie flows from.” Among the recordings Robinson listened to during pre-production was the Chopin Berceuse Op. 57, composed in 1843, and also The Jim Cullum Jazz Band Stomp Off CD Super Satch featuring the music of Louis Armstrong. Jim and the Band perform “S.O.L. Blues” from the Armstrong Hot 5 recordings of the 1920s in the movie.
The tuba plays an important role in Still Breathing. Fletcher’s eccentric Grandmother Ida—portrayed by screen legend Celeste Holm—enjoys performing classical music and jazz on the tuba. Chopin’s Berceuse recurs frequently throughout the movie as a unifying theme in a variety of musical settings. For instance, the “Jazz Berceuse” on the soundtrack is an improvised adaptation of the Chopin piece with the addition of a part for tuba. In the movie, Ida also plays a jazz piece for tuba called “Fantasy,” an original number composed by Cullum Band bass player Don Mopsick. For the film, the renowned classical and jazz tuba virtuoso Sam Pilafian dubs Ms. Holm’s tuba playing off-screen.
The pop song “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” composed by David Mann with lyrics by Bob Hilliard was first introduced in 1955 by Frank Sinatra. Sung here by London-based vocalist Nina Ferro with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band, the song is used effectively in a scene where Roz decides to return to San Antonio and Fletcher. (“Wee Small Hours,” performed by Carly Simon, famously appeared as a recurring theme in the 1993 hit movie Sleepless in Seattle.)
Actor Brendan Fraser describes his preparation for his portrayal of Fletcher McBracken. “I drank a lot of really strong black coffee and I got to know Jim [Cullum] and his friends…I spent time in San Antonio, and I took it all in through the skin.” Cullum tutored Fraser on how to appear to be playing a cornet on-screen: “I sat down with Jim Cullum outside on the Riverwalk one night, and he’s a brilliant musician. Here I am sitting with Jim Cullum and he’s giving me tips and pointers. ‘Make like your singing it, not playing but singing.’ The next day he’d show up to work on his bike with his cornet lashed to the rack on the back, just to see how I was doing. A real pleasure to work with him.”
Celeste Holm tells us how she was initially attracted to the Still Breathing project. “I was fascinated by the script, I thought it was wonderfully romantic and kind of mystical in some ways, and I love that.” Toby Hanks, the principal tuba with the New York City Ballet, coached Ms. Holm in New York on how to appear to be playing a tuba. Ms. Holm says,“I still have my mouthpiece for my tuba, in case anyone ever taps me on the shoulder for that again.”
Lou Rawls, who plays the part of “Tree Man” in the film, took saxophone lessons to prepare for his role. His character is based on Bongo Joe, a legendary real-life San Antonio street musician who played for many years at Alamo Plaza. Rawls comments on the wide range of musical styles used in the film. “There’s a very broad view of the musical spectrum in the film and when you hear somebody like The Jim Cullum Jazz Band or listen to the old Armstrong or some Ellington recordings, then you really hear where all of this stuff we’re going through today came from.”
Photo credit for Home Page: Movie poster image courtesy of stillbreathing.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1998