I’ve been so looking forward to seeing “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s new big-screen recounting of The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the Richard Nixon administration. Great movies about my profession don’t come along every day, and we mainstream journalists need a film like this right about now.
But I’m actually looking forward to seeing another movie that opens this weekend even more. No, it’s not “Paddington 2,” although I’m hearing good things about that one. And it’s not “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” or “Dim the Fluorescents,” a couple lower-profile films that are getting nice reviews.
For more than a year, I’ve been waiting for a chance to see “Surviving the Wild,” a movie written by Onalaska native Mark Hefti that was filmed in Kentucky in fall 2016. I remember seeing photos of Hefti on Facebook on location for the shoot and doing a double take when I saw pictures of him chumming around with Jon Voight, who has a major part in the movie.
Yes. That Jon Voight.
The Oscar-winning Jon Voight that performed in so many great movies in my formative years — including “Midnight Cowboy,” “Deliverance,” “Coming Home” and “The Champ.” Of course, I didn’t see those first two when they first came out, being too young for such gripping entertainment and all. Voight’s done a lot of fine work since then, including most recently playing the father of the title character on Showtime’s acclaimed “Ray Donovan,” a role that earned Voight a Golden Globe Award in 2014 (his fourth) and a couple of Emmy nominations.
I’ve been keeping tabs on Hefti’s adventures in Hollywood for a while, and seeing him and Voight together seemed like kind of a big deal.
I waited all through 2017, thinking Hefti’s movie could come out any day and he could fill me in on how he ended up writing a script for an Oscar-winning movie star, so I was really excited to see that “Surviving the Wild” was ready at last. It’s opening in theaters in 10 cities this weekend — not La Crosse, unfortunately — but it’s also available for viewing online on iTunes and such.
Hefti has been keeping very busy as a screenwriter on top of his continuing work on a labor of love, a documentary called “Lady Ganga,” which aims to tell the inspirational story of a woman battling cervical cancer who paddleboards India’s Ganges River. That movie came out of another documentary, “Someone You Love,” which spread awareness of HPV and its link to cervical cancer.
He also has been working for several years on a new adaptation of Jack London’s “White Fang” that looks like it could get filmed this year in Canada and China with some big-name stars, and has a couple other screenplay commissions for Italian movie projects.
Hefti was hired to write a big budget — $100 million is “big budget,” right? — action movie that hasn’t been filmed yet, and the same producer also hired Hefti to write a pair of screenplays — he wanted one movie about a boy and his dog and another movie about a girl and her horse.
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The producer, Steven Paul, is business partners with Voight, and Paul told Hefti there was a slim chance Voight might be cast. Knowing that, Hefti wrote roles in both scripts with Voight in mind — he wrote “Surviving the Wild” when he was back in Wisconsin for a visit for his father’s 70th birthday in the summer of 2016.
“It’s a nice little story,” Hefti said last week by phone from Los Angeles. “You know, sometimes when you have to write quickly, it kind of allows you to not over-question things. You just do it.”
“Surviving the Wild,” on which Hefti also gets a credit as executive producer, centers on a 13-year-old boy, Shaun, whose world has been turned upside down. His parents have broken up, and then he is rocked by the death of his beloved grandfather (the part written for Voight). Shaun takes his grandfather’s ashes and the dog his grandfather bought for Shaun the day he was born and sets out on a quest to spread his grandfather’s ashes atop Mount Delilah.
Hefti said Voight was impressed with the “Surviving the Wild” script and was eager to play the role. “He really liked it and connected with the character,” said Hefti. “It feels nice. To have an Oscar-winning actor appreciate your work and actually imagine himself in the role … I feel very honored for that.”
The thing about Voight, Hefti said, is he is meticulous in preparing for roles. “If anybody could just phone it in and get the script the day before filming, it would be him. But he’s the opposite of that. He works harder than any other actor I’ve ever seen. He just wants it to be good,” Hefti said. “He’s from a generation that believes in working really hard. He’s a perfectionist.”
Part of that preparation process involved Voight spending time with Hefti, going over the script, and they bonded during that prep time. They became close enough that they could disagree on things without it becoming personal and could rib each other like old pals. Hefti said Voight told him he reminded him of Burt Reynolds, his co-star in “Deliverance.”
Not only is Voight (who recently turned 79) starring in “Surviving the Wild,” he recently finished shooting the girl-and-horse script that Hefti wrote. Hefti expects that the horse movie, also shot in Kentucky, is going to turn out even better than “Surviving the Wild,” and he said it might even be out yet this year.
If that happens, that’s two movies written by Hefti starring an Oscar winner coming out in a year, plus another bigger-budget movie he wrote (“White Fang”) could get filmed with Oscar winners in the cast. And Hefti is about to become a father for the first time. I’d say 2018 is shaping up to be a pretty great year for Mark Hefti.
Rock on …