I find that often the story behind a film is almost as interesting as the film itself. The 1982 made for TV production of The Executioners Song is a case in point. It is based on the Norman Mailer book by the same name that chronicles the final 9 months of Gary Gilmore. Mailer was also the screenplay writer. Gilmore has the very dubious honor of being the first man executed following the reinstatement of the Death Penalty in 1976. The manner of his execution is also an uncommon one, death by firing squad.

 Jack N. Young was the location manager for the film and he explains, it was a far from easy job. The director Lawrence Schiller was determined to keep as close to the real story as possible, and there in lay the problem:

 In July of 1981, my Production Manager friend, Hal Klein called to see if I was available. I was so he asked me if I had ever heard of Gary Gilmore, the guy that killed a couple Mormon men in Provo, Utah. I remembered reading about it. He suggested I buy the book and after reading, give him a call so we could talk. I said I would get back to him in a few days. He laughed and said, “I doubt that” and I bought the book. I knew what he meant cause it was 1,049 pages, penned by Norman Mailer.

 After two weeks, I called and said “if you shoot this movie like the book, you will have a 14 hour mini-series.” He sent me a script, I read it and liked what they had done. Then he told me that Larry Schiller, who owned the rights and would direct the film had been in Provo trying to get things together but to no avail. He was frustrated since the powers to be at Point of the Mountain (the state prison) had turned him down flat. Also, the people of Utah were afraid they would make a hero out of Gilmore and didn’t want the film made.

So with these seemingly impossible hurdles in his path, Jack did what any Location Manager put in that position would do… Jumped at the opportunity for some sleepless nights!

He put me on salary ($1,500 per week in those days was a good salary for a Location Manager) but told me if I got the permission, he would give me $2,000 retroactive. He told me I had carte blanche. Spend whatever I needed…and promised he would keep Larry out of my hair. So, off I went to Provo, Utah.

I holed up at the Rodeway Inn, which was tucked under where the Freeway came off onto University ave. (I doubt if it is still there) I started scouting for locations and soon found I was up against a brick wall. I pondered what to do, so I called and made an appointment with the Mayor of Provo. I told him that I wanted to give a luncheon for his staff, the City Council, Police, Firemen, etc. His staff set it up; I had a bunch of copies made of the script and went to the luncheon. I think there must have been at least 50-60 people there. As each one sat down, they found a copy of the script in front of them and after lunch I took the podium. I explained precisely what we intended to do, that in no way would we treat the character of Gilmore any other way than true. He was a murderer and we wanted to tell the story as it should be told.

 I then took a bold approach. I said, “Please go home and read this script. If it offends over 50% of you, I will pull up stakes and go to Colorado where we will have a free hand in portraying him anyway we want.” I thanked them and walked out. I admit, I was a little scared cause I had not been to Colorado…and if they wouldn’t let us film there, I might have a tough time getting a job in the future.

I think it is reasonable to assume that had Schiller been at the luncheon Jack might well of been facing his own Firing Squad shortly after, with Schiller at the helm!

But, a few days later, I was notified that everyone was on board and the floodgates opened up. I ended up getting 70% of the real locations where Gary lived this story.

 The Old Jail was under the Freeway and had been closed over four years. It was in terrible shape so I made a deal with the City and we took it over, getting everything in working order. In fact in the shooting of the film, when Tommy Lee Jones (Gary Gilmore) was arrested we put him in the very same cell that Gary had been in. His writings and drawings were still on the wall.

Tommy Lee Jones in action.

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Jack had solved one problem, but a much bigger one was still lurking. How could he possibly get the prison Point of the Mountain where the execution took place to cooperate? This is where Jack Young certainly earned his keep. In todays world of cybercrime there is a term ‘Social Engineering’, well Jack could teach these people a thing or two on the subject.

I went to the Point of the Mountain, cold…no preparation and asked to see who was in charge. It took awhile before anyone would take care of me. Finally, a young woman whisked me into the office of the Assistant Warden. We spoke small talk for a while but he finally said he knew what I was there for and he had turned down Larry Schiller and he could see no reason to consider it further. Then, I mentioned that I knew that but I wanted permission to look things over, take some measurements, etc. for we would end up shooting it in Colorado and I just wanted to get things as right as I could. At this point I had not told him of my successes in Provo. He gave me permission and I spent several days just hanging out, taking pictures, etc.

Hal Klein called me several times saying that Larry was going nuts and wanted to speak with me about what was going on. I told him to just keep him undercover and let me do my job. During one conversation with the assistant Warden I accidentally dropped the info that I had been a stuntman. He got kinda excited over that and started asking me questions about my career. After while, I asked him out for a beer and he agreed. After that, he invited me to his home for dinner. (I’m cutting corners here) Finally, I asked permission to shoot scenes from the door, looking out to the yard and I could save the company money. One thing led to another and he finally gave me permission to shoot our scenes in his prison. The only thing was…I could not execute Tommy Lee in the Cannery where Gary was actually shot. They let us walk him up to the door but then I found a cinder block warehouse and we built the interior there. I ended up promising him a part in the movie.

One has to wonder if Jack was a used car salesman in a previous life? He did however come through with his promise to the Assistant Warden. .

We used him as the real Warden and the Priest was the real one that gave Gary his last rights. It couldn’t have worked out any better. When I called Hal with the news he said that Larry jumped with joy.

I never went to Colorado to scout. That was all bull. But, I knew there was an old prison there that had been shut down so it gave me a good selling point.

We shot two versions of the movie. First a two-part movie for NBC and another version for Europe. Of course, this one had nudity and language involved.

That last comment certainly made me chuckle. It was 1980 when I left England and moved to North America. I remember being completely shocked by how prudish the media was. There were no bare breasted young ladies on page 3 of the local newspaper, and certainly no foul language on the TV. Hmm come to think about it, not much has changed in 30 years….

The making of The Executioners Song was however bitter sweet for Jack.

We were starting to shoot in late September. I was still married at the time and my wife came up to spend the weekend because I wouldn’t be home before Christmas. While there, we were having dinner at a restaurant (I believe R. Spencer Hymes) when my secretary called and told me our house was burning down. That’s when I lost all my pictures and negatives of the Duke, Cooper, Cagney, etc.

A lifetime of memories gone in minutes.

From The Executioners Song Jack does have one memento, the copy of the book autographed by the author Norman Mailer. Director Lawrence Schiller, and Freddie Francis (Cinephotographer).

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More on Tales Of Old Hollywood soon.

 Simon Barrett

 

 

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