SXSW ’16: Jesse Moss drives back to Texas with “Bandit”

The Overnighters director Jesse Moss (left) is back with a "buddy documentary" on the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit, and tells realscreen about exploring the relationship between actor Burt Reynolds (right) and his stuntman-turned-director friend Hal Needham.
March 17, 2016

Director Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) is back at SXSW for the third time with his latest entry, The Bandit, which details the making of the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit and the relationship between actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. Moss and Reynolds caught up with realscreen to talk about the CMT-backed “buddy documentary.” 

For many Americans who came of age in the late-1970s, one of the best examples of the budding “buddy movie” genre was Hal Needham’s Oscar-winning romp, Smokey and the Bandit.

The 1977 film stars actor Burt Reynolds as Bandit, a good old boy trying to smuggle beer across state lines (Coors was banned in parts of the U.S. around this time) with his best friend while dodging local and state police. The classic “car movie” is known for its infamous chases, and features Reynolds – well known by then for the films White Lightning and Deliverance, as well as a scandalous Cosmopolitan centerfold – at the prime of his career.

Reynolds, however, took a considerable risk in boarding the film, which was directed by his best friend and roommate Hal Needham, a stuntman and aspiring filmmaker who – to many Universal Studios execs – wasn’t up to the task. It was the relationship between the two men that appealed most to director Jesse Moss, who was approached by U.S. cable net CMT two years back to make a documentary on Smokey‘s legacy.

“Instantly I thought, ‘It’s a buddy movie. It’s a buddy movie about a buddy movie.’”
- Jesse Moss on The Bandit

“Instantly I thought, ‘It’s a buddy movie. It’s a buddy movie about a buddy movie,’” Moss tells realscreen. “[I thought] it should be a biography of their relationship, of their individual journeys to make Smokey and the Bandit, which – the more I read about the film – I realized that they had risked a lot to do: Burt had risked his reputation, his career, his relationship. Hal had never directed a film before. It was really a leap of faith.”

The director, whose most recent feature doc is the award-winning The Overnighters, has some experience in the stunt world. His SXSW-bowing 2003 film Speedo was a cinéma vérité effort around demolition derby driver Ed ‘Speedo’ Jager and his turbulent family life. Moss – who observes a similar “bad boy” in Reynolds – says he thinks of the doc as a kind of sequel to Speedo, only starring one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s.

Fully backed by CMT – which is this year doubling its original programming hours – the archive-heavy film details the close bond between the late Needham, a prolific stuntman game for anything, and Reynolds, who came to rely on him for numerous films after meeting on the set of the 1959 series Riverboat. When Needham, eager to make a name for himself outside of stunts, got the go-ahead from Universal Studios to make Smokey, Reynolds’ attachment injected the necessary star power, though the film would not be made without its share of roadblocks (and a few stunt-friendly gaps in the road).

In exploring the production of SmokeyThe Bandit is also a rare glimpse into some of Reynolds’ most prominent years as an actor in the 1970s, bolstered by material from personal archives fished out of his poolhouse. The 80-year-old is also interviewed in the film, which tackles his regret over the Cosmopolitan photoshoot, and a tense meeting with actor Marlon Brando, to whom Reynolds was frequently compared.

The Bandit

The Bandit

“Surprisingly enough for me, I enjoyed it,” Reynolds tells realscreen of his experience with the doc, admitting that he initially declined to participate but soon came around. “I didn’t think I would, but I did enjoy it. [There were] so many things written that weren’t true and I thought if I had some control over it, it would be better for me, and it was.”

Moss, a self-proclaimed car movie fan with an admittedly limited knowledge of Smokey prior to the doc, says his biggest revelation in making the film was the strong friendship between the men.

“[Reynolds] is known for his relationships with women, but the discovery of this film for me was perhaps [that] one of the most meaningful relationships of his life was with this man, Hal, whom he did so much with, and who did so much for him,” he says.

And of foremost importance was making sure he had enough footage of Needham, who passed away in 2013.

“Finding footage of Hal was a bit harder because he didn’t live as publicly. He didn’t really step out of the shadows until 1976, 1977, with Smokey and the Bandit,” says Moss. “We had to work harder to find [that material] and to give him enough weight in the film – to become a character that we got to know, that had a personality, that had vulnerability.”

When asked about the most challenging archival material to come by, Moss explains that one interview yielded that Needham had been the first human being to test the airbag. “Which seemed to me apocryphal, like it couldn’t possibly be true,” he laughs. But with the help of image researcher Rich Remsberg, footage was eventually unearthed of Needham actually testing the airbags, and even doing a promo for the Pontiac Trans Am, in which he talks about Reynolds.

“These were things that were, for us, just lifesavers – essential to the film,” says Moss. “We got stuff that came out of people’s basements that hasn’t been seen in 40 years.”

The director hopes younger audiences might rediscover both Reynolds’ and Needham’s bodies of work after tuning in to The Bandit on CMT this August. And if the film’s legendary bridge jump impresses another generation, even better.

“What I love is the analog era of stunts,” gushes Moss. “We do a lot of CGI now and they still do real things as stunts, but these guys did some wild stuff, and Hal Needham was one of the best there ever was.”

  • The Bandit screens today (March 17) at Topfer Theatre at 11:15 a.m. CT. Visit the SXSW website for further information on the screening. 
  • Check out a clip from the doc below:

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.