Have you heard about the renewed interest in putting together jigsaw puzzles during the pandemic?
Actor/director/country singer John Schneider has taken the popular pastime to another level with his 4,600-shot tribute movie called "Stand On It." It's a nod to Southern car comedies, specifically 1977's hit film, "Smokey and the Bandit."
"It was a delightful challenge," Schneider said of editing the thousands of shots filmed this summer in and near Livingston Parish into a seamless, entertaining account of a fictional 24-hour car chase (Burt Reynolds style) from Baton Rouge to Austin, Texas, and back. Because what's a Southern car flick without a good chase scene?
Schneider worked alongside producer/wife Alicia Allain on the Maven Entertainment movie, their 11th indie project together. The original "Smokey and the Bandit," its star Reynolds, and its director/writer/stuntman extraordinaire Hal Needham are all special to Louisiana transplant Schneider. The film was the then-16-year-old's big-screen debut, albeit as an uncredited, if-you-blink-you'll-miss-it extra in the movie's final scene. Nonetheless, it was a memorable time on set at the Lakewood Fairgrounds just outside Atlanta that day in 1976.
"I spent the day with Jackie Gleason," Schneider recalled. The incomparable veteran comic actor Gleason portrayed the brash Sheriff Buford T. Justice, nemesis to Reynold's Bandit.
"He was drinking cold beer out of a keg that he had in a red Radio Flyer wagon on ice. There was a young man there who was assigned to do nothing but pour Jackie's next draft beer," Schneider said with a laugh. "I sat with 'The Great One' (Gleason) for several hours that day. It was really quite wonderful."
Schneider would later become friends with Reynolds and Needham, now both deceased. After his pivotal stint (1979-1985) on TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard," Schneider and Needham went into business, making a couple of TV series that failed to lure buyers, he said. They all remained in touch, Schneider seeing Reynolds for the last time at the premiere of the latter's final film, "The Last Movie Star," in 2018.
"It was really Alicia who said, 'You need to make a tribute to these two gentlemen because they meant so much to you,'" Schneider said.
The film's title was somewhat of a given, he added.
"Shortly after 'Bandit,' Burt was back in Atlanta shooting what eventually became 'Stroker Ace.' The working title was 'Stand On It.' I always thought 'Stand On It' was a great name for a car movie and since nobody used it in 40 years, I figured it was about time," Schneider said.
As far as shooting locations, the team knew that Schneider's annual birthday bash, Bo's Extravaganza, was a logical site for the opening and closing crowd fair scenes "Smokey" fans will remember.
"We had the bookends. We had to jump the Tickfaw River (it flows at the edge of the John Schneider Studios property in Holden)," he said. "It kind of fell together.
"… It was one of those things that seemed like once we decided we were going to do it, rather than getting harder and harder, it got easier and easier to do."
Postponing Bo's Extravaganza from April to July due to COVID-19 restrictions proved serendipitous as that shifted the car jump scene to the last day of filming. The benefit there was using one suped-up Hellcat (a modified Dodge Challenger) for the whole movie, saving the potentially damaging leap until the end.
"'The Dukes of Hazzard' movie used 15 (cars), and on the TV show, we used 329 General Lees," Schneider noted.
Similar to the plot of "Smokey and the Bandit," Schneider's story has a washed-up, whiskey swigging, bubble gum popping Duke Marietta (played by Schneider) taking a $500,000 challenge to go from Baton Rouge to Austin, pick up 400 cases of Yellow Local beer and return, all in 24 hours. If he fails, he'll lose his big rig (which he uses to haul the beer). With Duke in the lead, Roy (Cody McCarver) is behind the wheel of the truck, Texas-bound. Like "Smokey's" Bandit, Duke also picks up a runaway bride passenger (played by Mindy Robinson) along the way. Sprinkle in some car tricks, Southern humor and a little slapstick and you've got the picture.
Schneider and company have been premiering "Stand On It" at drive-in theater events in Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. They hope to locate Louisiana venues for premieres as well.
"When I watch people watch it, and I watch them laughing," Schneider began, "I watch them slapping each other on the back and then finally, the coup de grâce for me is when people leave the drive-in theater invariably I'll hear them squealing their tires to get to the road. And that's the sign that your Southern car comedy has hit a home run."