User:Wildroot/The Sugarland Express

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"The Sugar Land Express" also was the nickname of the American football player Kenneth Hall.
The Sugarland Express
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by David Brown
Richard D. Zanuck
Starring Goldie Hawn
Ben Johnson
William Atherton
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Edward M. Abroms
Verna Fields
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date
April 5, 1974
Running time
110 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $7.5 million

The Sugarland Express is a 1974 crime drama film and theatrical directorial debut of Steven Spielberg.




In 1969, Steven Spielberg was trying to leave Universal Television and begin his directorial debut for a theatrically-released feature film. On May 2 of that year, a media circus ensued when Ila Faye Dent and husband Bobby Dent of Port Arthur, Texas took J. Kenneth Crone, a highway patrolman, hostage in his own patrol car. The resulting car chase in Southeast Texas drew more than 150 police cars, news vans, helicopters and an ambulance before it came to a deadly end. What struck the deepest emotional chord in Spielberg was Bobby Dent's fatal desire to see his children. When the events occurred, Spielberg's teenage memories with the divorce of his parents were still on his mind. Even though he later learned that the chain of events was not entirely set in motion from the outset by Dent's desire to see his children, Spielberg kept to the spirit of the original news story by making the attempt to reconstitute a broken family as the primary dramatic focus for The Sugarland Express. When he proposed the story to Universal in 1969, the studio was not interested, finding it too somber and too downbeat. In the meantime, Spielberg entered pre-production on Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies before being fired. He then went back to Universal Television, directing episodes of The Name of the Game, Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, and Columbo. TV movie work in Duel (first feature) and Something Evil.[1]

Still stymied in his efforts to persuade Universal to let him make The Sugarland Express,Spielberg continued to look elsewhere for his opportunity to break out of television. Following his abortive attempt to direct Ace Eli for Fox, the next film announced as Spielberg's feature "debut" was McKlusky. He began pre-production of McKlusky in February 1972 for United Artists. He dropped out, and Joseph Sargent directed it as White Lightning. Shortly after bowing out of that film, Spielberg pitched Carte Blanche to Barwood and Robbins. They finished an outline a few days later, and UA agreed to let them develop it into a screenplay. But AU had second thoughts, and Spielberg took Carte Blanche back to Universal, which had rejected the story three years later. Spielberg made a friendship with Jennings Lang. On April 11, 1972, the director showed the outline to Lang, who put the project into development that very afternoon. The following day, Spielberg and his writers flew to Texas for a week of research. Barwood and Robbins wrote the first draft in thirteen days, but Universal once again decided not to make the movie. They put it in turnaround. In May 1972, the project was revived by Zanuck and Brown when they signed a multi-production deal with Universal.[2]

Not long after turning down the opportunity to hire Spielberg as a director at 20th Century Fox, Richard Zanuck was fired as head of the financially troubled studio by his legendary father, Darryl F. Zanuck. Following a brief interlude as executives at Warner Bros., Zanuck and David Brown, his former right-hand man at Fox, formed their own production company in 1972, signing with Universal shortly thereafter. Zanuck's producing duties gave Spielberg total creative control, a rare task for a debut studio film. Spielberg's debut on Carte Blanche was announced in October 1972. The next day, Barwood and Robbins turned in their second draft, which underwent further revisions during throughout filming. The title became The Sugarland Express that November, although for a while the filmmakers considered simply calling the movie Sugarland, the name of the small town where the "tragic fairytale" comes to an end. The town where the climactic events actually took place was Wheelock, but the filmmakers borrowed the name of the town Sugar Land and then filmed those scenes in Floresville. In adapting the saga of Bobby Dent for the screen, Spielberg turned Dent's wife, Ila Faye, into the movie's central character, Lou Jean Poplin. The couple's two-year-old son has been removed to a foster home, and it is Lou Jean who persuades her convict husband, Clovis, to break out of a prerelease center - with only four months left on his sentence - to retrieve the child. Universal insisted that Spielberg and the producers sign a major female star to play Lou Jean. After meeting with several female stars, who all passed on the script, Spielberg became convinced that Goldie Hawn had the blend of "scatterbrained charm and underlying mulish obstinacy the part required." She was paid $300,000 on a film that cost about $3 million. Filming started on January 15, 1973. Spielberg admired Zsigmond's work with director Robert Altman on such films as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye. The impressionistic visual style of those films, which freely used natural source lighting, diffusion, extreme variations in light intensity, and long lenses to compress spatial planes, was a major influence on The Sugarland Express. Freeing himself from the visual constraints of television, Spielberg shot for the first time in the Panavision wide-screen format.[3]

The Texas Department of Public Safety, understandably concerned about how its image would withstand a movie about the Bobby Dent affair, initially refused to cooperate with the filmmakers. Location sites in Louisiana and other states were considered, before they changed their minds. Carey Loftin was the stunt coordinator. Much of the action was improvised. For filming in and around Officer Slide's patrol car, the wheels were removed from a vehicle and it was mounted close to the ground on a flatbed trailer. Not content to shoot only with locked-down or handheld cameras, Spielberg and Zsigmond set up tracks on a platform attached to the vehicle, using a small dolly to film tracking shots alongside the car in motion. They went even further with the help of the newly manufactured, highly compact Panaflex camera, with the camera mounted on a sliding board that served as a makeshift tracking device. The Panaflex arrived during the last two weeks of filming. Although he shot the film largely in continuity, Spielberg saved some of the most complex highway shots until the end of filming in order to use the Panaflex. It was the first film to shoot a 360-degree pan inside a car with dialogue and the first film that had a dolly shot inside a car, moving from the front to the back seat."I don't know where Steven got the ideas he tried to do , because I had never seen shots like that," Zsigmond says. Spielberg and Zsigmond shared a dislike for the obvious use of the zoom lens that was then in fashion, so they frequently employed the Altmanesque device of zooming and panning simultaneously, a fluid technique that disguises the fact that the camera is zooming, yet allows the camera to change perspectives rapidly and with a more subtly disorienting effect on the audience.[4]

Spielberg finishes shooting in late-March 1973, five days over his fifty-five-day schedule. The delays were all attributable to the weather and the shortness of the winter days, which caused them to lose the light early. After editing the film with Edward Abroms and Verna Fields, Spielberg completed post-production on September 10. Sugarland's musical score was the first composed for Spielberg by John Williams. Spielberg had greatly admired Williams's "wonderful Americana scores" for two Mark Rydell films, The Reivers and The Cowboys: "When I heard both scores I had to meet this modern relic from a lost era of film symphonies....I wanted a real Aaron Copland sound for my first movie. I wanted eighty instruments, a colossal string section. But John politely said no, this was for the harmonica-and a very small string ensemble."[5]

221-227: Sugarland


  • 219-221


Viewers accustomed to films that ask them to identify with a single character-in Hollywood parlance, to "root" for a hero or heroine-inevitably were confused and upset by the complexity of tone in The Sugarland Express. Spielberg himself seemed to have second thoughts about his approach after the film's commercial failure, sketching out in 197 how "if I had it to do it all over again I'd make Sugarland Express in a completely different fashion." He said he wished he had one the first of the film entirely from the viewpoint of Captain Tanner, "from behind the police barricades, from inside his patrol cruiser. I would never see the fugitive kids, only hear their voices over the police radio, maybe see three heads in the distance through binoculars. Because I don't think the authorities got a fair shake in Sugarland'....Then [in] the second half of the movie I would have the entire story inside the car and how really naive and backwoodsy these people are and how frivolous and really stupid their goals were."[5]


  1. ^ McBride, pp. 177-207
  2. ^ McBride, pp. 208-211
  3. ^ McBride, pp. 212-216
  4. ^ McBride, pp. 217-218
  5. ^ a b McBride, pp. 221-222

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