Ebertfest opener 'The Fugitive' brings director back to his C-U roots

Ebertfest opener 'The Fugitive' brings director back to his C-U roots

CHAMPAIGN — Andrew Davis, who opens the Roger Ebert Film Festival with his biggest hit, "The Fugitive," had a humble start at the University of Illinois.

Davis likes to set his films in Illinois, like "The Fugitive" and "The Package" — two of three films he did with his favorite actor, Tommy Lee Jones. His most personal film, "Stony Island," was filmed in Chicago.

Davis never shot a film here, but he was on camera a lot.

He worked at WILL-TV when there was no such thing as computer graphics. Oddly, he worked with Tom Holman, about as tech savvy as they get, the inventor of the Lucasfilm THX sound system.

"Tom and I put up magnetic clouds and stock numbers for the weather and business news," he recalled in an interview through his Chicago company.

But what he really wanted was visual work that would make a difference.

"I was really interested in television news. It was wild in the '60s," Davis said.

His TV work was short-lived.

"I left journalism because we were often using AP and UPI reporting mimicking what the State Department said," Davis said. "After graduation in 1968, I became a camera operator right away."

And, it turns out, a very politicized one, working as camera assistant on the Chicago streets during what was termed "a police riot" at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, shooting footage that would be used in Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool."

Wexler, who became a mentor, died in 2015. He came to Ebertfest in 2003 and 2013 to talk about "Medium Cool" and "Days of Heaven."

This is also Davis' second Ebertfest. He brought "Holes" here in 2007 — Ebert said it "jumps the rails, leaves all expectations behind, and tells a story that's not funny ha-ha but funny peculiar. I found it original and intriguing."

Davis, who always goes by Andy, was director of photography on about 15 films before his debut as a director.

"I've shot everywhere, but I'm loyal to Illinois," he said last week.

And especially to Chicago.

"It's a great American city with a unique Midwestern quality," Davis said. "Chicago is very international, but with a Midwestern honesty to it. I was able to understand neighborhoods and history to make films more authentic in character. Locales are key."

He said that made making "The Fugitive" all the more satisfying.

He also became pals with Urbana native-turned-Chicagoan Roger Ebert.

Ebert loved "The Fugitive," saying "like the cult television series that inspired it, the film has a Kafkaesque view of the world. But it is larger and more encompassing than the series."

But before that, Davis said, Ebert was one of the few to appreciate "Stony Island" in 1978.

Ebert appreciated the deeply felt film.

"The energy, I gather, came in large part from the performers themselves," Ebert wrote.

"The movie is more or less based on fact; the director and co-writer, Andy Davis, has a brother who was the last white kid on the block down on Stony Island, and actually was involved in a band something like the one in the movie."

Davis recalled a long friendship and occasional alcohol-laden parties with Ebert before the critic decided he'd had his last drink.

Davis always has had friends who were in a position to help him: Chicago chronicler Studs Terkel; Wexler, who introduced him to Hollywood; and cheapie film mogul Roger Corman, who put him to work.

Davis said many actors, writers and directors owe Corman.

"Jack Nicholson said Corman helped save his life," Davis said.

Ever a fighter, Davis had to struggle for that work because it was "hard to get into the union. It was corrupt, wouldn't let the young guys in."

Davis was part of a class-action suit that forced Hollywood's power structure to let young artists and technicians get work.

From directing Steven Seagal when "he was young and skinny" to a film he's trying to make about Cairo, Ill., and its history, "The Fugitive" stands out.

"They're all like children. You can't pick a favorite. But 'The Fugitive' is the one I'll be remembered by."

Six other Andrew Davis films

1. "Stony Island" (1978), Davis' most personal work, set on the South Side of Chicago. His brother Richie is one of the stars and also an inspiration for the story.

2. "Above The Law" (1988). We might not have had Steven Seagal without Davis' successful direction this film. In Seagal's big-screen debut, he plays a Vietnam CIA veteran who becomes a Chicago cop and kicks a lot of heads.

3. "Holes" (2003). Roger Ebert wrote at the time: "Holes," "is a movie so strange that it escapes entirely from the family genre and moves into fantasy. Like 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' it has fearsome depths and secrets."

4. "Universal Soldier" (1992). Davis was on the team of writers on the Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren film — trying to give them the same boost as Seagal.

5. "The Package" (1989). Filmed in Chicago — even scenes set in other cities, Davis says — Gene Hackman squares off against Tommy Lee Jones, one of Davis' favorite actors.

6. "A Perfect Murder" (1998). Loosely based on the play that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," it pits Michael Douglas against Gwyneth Paltrow.

Top five films of 1993

The year "The Fugitive" came out was a blockbuster year (and Blockbuster Video still rented VHS tapes).

1. "Jurassic Park," $357,067,947

2. "Mrs. Doubtfire," $219,195,243

3. "The Fugitive," $183,875,760

4. "The Firm," $158,348,367

5. "Sleepless in Seattle," $126,680,884

Top five songs of 1993

This is what you might have heard after you left the theater showing "The Fugitive." Billboard magazine's Top Hot 100 songs of 1993:

1. "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston

2. "Whoomp! (There It Is)," Tag Team

3. "Can't Help Falling in Love," UB40

4. "That's the Way Love Goes," Janet Jackson

5. "Freak Me," Silk

Top five news stories of 1993

1. Gun control was a big topic. The Brady Bill passed, requiring a waiting period and background checks when buying firearms.

2. Islamic radicals bombed the World Trade Center, killing six.

3. And there were homegrown radicals. The Waco siege was a standoff between the Branch Davidians and law enforcement. Seventy-six people died, including leader David Koresh.

4. You've always got bad weather. A super-blizzard hit the eastern U.S., with record snowfall. It was called "The Storm Of The Century."

5. $7.4 million was stolen from the Brink's Armored Car Depot in Rochester, N.Y. It was then among the top five robberies in U.S. history.

Ebertfest schedule

Wednesday, April 18

— 7 p.m.: "The Fugitive"

Thursday, April 19

— Noon: "Interstellar"

— 4 p.m.: "Selena"

— 8:30 p.m.: "Belle"

Friday, April 20

— Noon: "Columbus"

— 3:30 p.m.: "A Page of Madness"

— 8:30 p.m.: "American Splendor"

Saturday, April 20

— 10:30 a.m.: "13th"

— 2:30 p.m.: "Daughters of the Dust"

— 5:30 p.m.: "Rambling Rose"

— 9:30 p.m.: "The Big Lebowski"

Sunday, April 21

— Noon: "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World"