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Bill Paxton sitting against a wall, mouth agape in the black-and-white film Taking Tiger Mountain
Bill Paxton in Taking Tiger Mountain.
Vinegar Syndrome

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The late Bill Paxton’s first movie finally sees the light of day — but not as intended

Inside the strange journey of Taking Tiger Mountain

There’s no roadmap in filmmaking. The popular conception — that films are shot and edited basically according to the script — is something of a fallacy. Directors and editors might find that the story works better with assembling footage differently from how the writer assembled its words. Sometimes, the story changes entirely. Sometimes, you end up with Taking Tiger Mountain, the late Bill Paxton’s first-ever film, released this year for the first time on home video.

Taking Tiger Mountain emerged from the friendship between fledgling director Kent Smith and teenaged then-newcomer actor Bill Paxton, both employees at the educational film studio Encyclopædia Britannica Films. In 1973, Smith had written a poem about the John Paul Getty III kidnapping, and using that as a loose script, he set off to Morocco the following year to shoot their first movie — armed only with leftover reels of celluloid from Bob Fosse’s Lenny and enough young-artist spirit to disregard their lack of money. It was barely a plan to start with, but it immediately crashed and burned: Having failed to adequately bribe the Moroccan authorities, Smith and Paxton were promptly arrested and their equipment impounded.

The pair eventually relocated to a small town in Wales, where their money gave them the leeway to work improvisationally and discover characters through interactions with the townsfolk; Paxton’s co-stars were simply the people of Wales. Influenced by Italian filmmakers like Federico Fellini, they shot without sound, with dialogue to be dubbed in later. The Getty story faded from the forefront as the footage became more reflective, with Paxton chatting to locals in a shirt and waistcoat, then having sex with hippies out of them.

In the end, the envisioned film was never completed. Smith turned a set of interviews into a short called Interviews With Welshmen, but the bulk of the moody material shot with Paxton remained unused.

Bill Paxton and a Welshman have a conversation in a home in the black-and-white film Taking Tiger Mountain Vinegar Syndrome

Nearly a decade later, in 1983, in stepped Tom Huckabee, a creative collaborator of Paxton’s from when they were both studying in England. Huckabee returned to the U.S. after Taking Tiger Mountain was shot, and Paxton suggested he take a look at the footage. Right away, Huckabee says in a featurette on the Blu-ray, the footage “didn’t seem like it made a lot of sense,” but he thought there might be something in there. Recutting the material and inserting an enormous amount of his own inspiration, Huckabee turned that footage into an entirely new film with an entirely different story and tone.

In its finished form, Taking Tiger Mountain is an experimental art film and dystopian psychological drama. Bucolic Wales is transformed into a tiny oasis in a world consumed by war, ravaged by plague, ruled by a police state, and soundtracked with omnipresent propaganda radio broadcasts. Paxton’s Getty stand-in has been recast as Billy Hampton, who signs up for psychological experiments to dodge the draft, only to become reprogrammed by a group of radical feminists and sent under the auspices of a sex holiday to kill the Welsh minister for prostitution. Whatever story was captured during the actual shoot is replaced with a psychedelic, almost non-narrative meditation on life, identity, purpose, God, and death.

Conceptually, Huckabee drew from his 1970s counterculture interests: punk rock, drugs, Beat writers, the MKUltra program, experimental cinema, and the dueling ideologies expressed in Valerie Solanas’ radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and William S. Burroughs’ novella Blade Runner (a movie). So taken with the latter was Huckabee that, with the author’s consent, he lifted its text for the film’s many radio broadcasts. While they’re clearly the results of a young man self-consciously trying to push boundaries (which is what Huckabee was at the time), they’re certainly interesting from a literary point of view.

Bill Paxton hangs off a naked statue in the black-and-white film Taking Tiger Mountain Vinegar Syndrome

Through Huckabee’s creative problem-solving, Taking Tiger Mountain both scales its greatest heights and sinks to its lowest lows. To create the new story, Huckabee turned the existing footage — about an hour of it, mostly consisting of Paxton wandering around sleepy rural streets — into a feature. He wrote a new script, which was then dubbed on top of the silent footage. He reused shots multiple times to create dream sequences and a sense of surreality. To flesh out the “conditioned killer” angle, Huckabee shot new material featuring Hampton’s rad-fem handlers discussing the plot through ’70s gender theory. And he filled the movie with constant voice-over — mostly radio broadcasts, but also new narration from Paxton himself.

Paxton’s involvement in Taking Tiger Mountain represents a fascinating portrait of a young artist before he became a beloved and familiar face in cinema. The scrawny young Paxton leapt into his friends’ film headfirst, offering improvisational character and scene ideas, including more explicit nudity and unsimulated sex acts than most movie stars would condone. During the post-shoot remixing process, Paxton allowed Huckabee to record his voice-overs while he was under hypnosis, spilling out personal opinions on sex, God, and more. When he and Smith found a Welshman with a trained vulture, he volunteered to have it peck at his “corpse.” Nobody knew who Paxton was at the time, but after his tragic and untimely death in 2017, Taking Tiger Mountain feels like a vital historical record.

To call the film difficult is putting it lightly. Huckabee’s recut is about as coherent as you’d expect a movie built out of 60 minutes of silent footage to be, but it’s designed to be watched emotionally or sensorially rather than narratively. Even then, it doesn’t quite sustain its runtime, the constant voice-over lulling the audience into a stupor. By the time it reaches its bleak ending, it leaves the viewer baffled, bored, or — if one shares the headspace of a countercultural art-film enthusiast from the ’70s — lifted to a higher plane of thought. That may well be the intention, betraying the heavy influence of psychedelic drugs.

Bill Paxton sits on the ground next to a stone wall in the black-and-white film Taking Tiger Mountain Vinegar Syndrome

Incredibly, Taking Tiger Mountain’s journey continued beyond even its 1983 completion. In addition to the original theatrical film, the film’s new Blu-ray release, courtesy of boutique distributor Vinegar Syndrome, includes a “Revisited” cut of the movie. Huckabee considers this the definitive version of the film. If that sounds alarmingly like the Star Wars special editions or the 20th-anniversary edition of E.T., it’s because the directorial hubris is exactly the same. The whole film has been re-edited, but not fundamentally changed, and filled with pointless and embarrassing additions.

For this cut, Huckabee replaced all the on-screen graphics with digital text; turned a number of shots, unmotivated, into security-camera footage or binocular points of view; added thuddingly obvious graffiti and artwork to walls throughout the film; and put digital rain and lens flares into a number of shots, seemingly because he could. Transitions have been changed, explanatory title cards added, sound design punched up. Worst of all, Huckabee added a techno song over the end credits, and shot a new optimistic ending with color iPhone footage, a jarring change from the black-and-white 35mm Techniscope film stock that makes up the rest of the movie. Huckabee justifies his decisions by lamenting the film’s initial critical reception, but his attempts to “fix” the movie make it substantially worse.

In 2019, Taking Tiger Mountain holds more intrigue as a demonstration of the fluidity of the filmmaking process, and as a document of Bill Paxton’s early career, than as a movie in its own right. It’s a testament to the power of post-production to change the entire meaning of footage, adding context that simply wasn’t there to begin with. Sometimes, that results in a profoundly new work, built collage-style out of other elements. Sometimes, it’s a clever way to cover up problems, as in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s incorporation of existing Carrie Fisher footage. And sometimes, there just wasn’t anything to work with in the first place. But the process is important too: Often, the trickiest scenarios result in the most creative choices, and Taking Tiger Mountain is certainly full of those.

Andrew Todd is a Montreal-based writer, seen at outlets like Polygon, IGN, SlashFilm, Gameplanet, The Spinoff, and Birth.Movies.Death., where he is Gaming Editor. He also makes movies under the Mad Fox Films banner and is an enthusiastic patter of cats.

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