By Ethan Gilsdorf
Chain smoking cigarettes in his tiny trailer, David Carradine stripped off his pants and shirt, revealing a silver necklace, a pierced belly button, and a faded tattoo of a dragon wrapping around his back.
“It won’t get indecent,” he promised, changing into his turn-of-the-century sea captain’s costume for his role in “Chatham,” a film shot on Cape Cod earlier this year.
Rattling off anecdotes about his recent trip to Marrakech and Pauline Kael’s praise for his acting, the 70-year-old actor paused to reflect on his 44-year film and TV career that has ranged from “Kung Fu” to “Kill Bill.”
He wondered why, out of some 120 feature films he’s acted in — many of which he called “exploitation movies” — only 20 had been financed by major studios.
“I don’t know why,” he mused.
“I do know why,” Carradine continued. “They just don’t like me.”
The actor expressed no qualms about calling the studios “megalopolises.” Which explained why Carradine was all the happier to be working on a small-budget film like “Chatham.”
“There’s something very joyous about people making movies because they love to,” he said.
“Ten minutes, Mr. Carradine,” said an assistant after knocking on the door.
Carradine lit another cigarette and resumed dressing. A smoke alarm went off. With a move worthy of Grasshopper, his old “Kung Fu” character, he disabled it efficiently. Then he left the trailer for his scene.
“It’s a good day for a funeral,” Daniel Adams, the film’s writer and director, said later, standing among rows of mossy tombstones. Adams adapted the screenplay from Massachusetts writer Joseph Lincoln’s novel “Cap’n Eri.”
Perhaps a cold April day was a good day to stage a funeral. One of the characters was to be buried in the cemetery near the Chatham Village Market. (Visitors to the set were asked not to divulge which one.) But neither Carradine nor the film’s other three leading men — Bruce Dern, Rip Torn and Charles Durning — were ready to give up the ghost.
Especially not this outsider quartet best known for iconoclastic and prickly roles in films such as “Boxcar Bertha” and “Bound for Glory” (Carradine), “Silent Running” and “Black Sunday” (Dern), “Cross Creek” and “Men in Black” (Torn), and “The Sting” and “Dog Day Afternoon” (Durning). They may all be in their 70s and 80s now, but they would just as soon go down shooting, or rip their agents’ hearts out with their bare hands, as stop acting.
Which makes them unlikely choices to head a romantic comedy set in a 1905 fishing community.
“Chatham” tells the story of three retired sea captains — Zebulon “Zeb” Hedge (Carradine), Perez Ryder (Dern), and Jeremiah “Jerry” Burgess (Torn) — living together in genteel squalor. They scheme to improve their fortunes by having one of them solicit a bride through an ad in a Boston newspaper. The loser of a coin toss must get married and take in the other two as boarders. But upon the arrival of the Nantucket woman (Mariel Hemingway) selected from the applicants, the captains get cold feet.
Rounding out the cast are Durning, a tee-totaling sea captain at odds with a businessman (John Savage) who wants to sell liquor in his billiard hall; Christy Scott Cashman; Jason Alan Smith ; and long-time Cape resident and Oscar-winner Julie Harris.
The original lineup was to be Martin Landau, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Anne Archer and Peter Boyle. Boyle died unexpectedly, however, and other changes followed. Despite the 11th-hour casting changes, shooting, said Adams, had gone smoothly. Adams, who also wrote and directed the indie films “The Mouse” (1996), “Primary Motive” (1992) and “Religion, Inc.” (1989) said he was “blown away” by their performances in the dailies.
“I thought [the cast] was way better than [the one] I originally had,” the director said, going out on a limb. “They are my four favorite actors in the world.”
Back in the cemetery, the entrance was a traffic jam: A moving van had no room to turn around and blocked the way. An animal wrangler, passing by in period costume, led a huge white horse down Crowell Road and up the hill, where the camera was set on dolly tracks. Crew buzzed around, trying to stay warm.
“Everyone talks, no one listens,” grumbled Karen Stark, location manager.
Lieutenant Murphy, the policeman on detail duty, tried to keep the peace.
“Make sure you say,” Murphy deadpanned, “how helpful the police are.”
Adams was thrilled with the foul weather. “We’re hoping for a foggy, overcast day,” he said. “[The scene] takes place in December, January.”
The cast of principles and extras, all in black coats, caps and veils, huddled around a pile of dirt meant to suggest a freshly dug grave. In the background, stood an exquisite, glass-walled horse-drawn hearse, driven by men in topcoats and hats.
“Let’s shoot the rehearsal and then the second take will be perfect,” said director of photography Phillip Schwartz.
Singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards had a bit part as the minister. “His being gone is a great loss to us,” Edwards’s character intoned. “A great loss for this town but a great blessing to heaven.”
But as the camera was about to roll the far-away rumbling of truck traffic spilled into the air.
“Who’s dealing with construction sounds?” a production person yelled over a radio.
“I’m trying to make things happen,” barked Roy Holt, the first assistant director.
Then Holt turned to the extras. “When the reverend says, ‘Let us pray,’ take your hats off.”
The trucks died down. Another command into a radio: “Officer Murphy, lock it up, please.”
“OK, quiet on the set! Roll sound!”
“Roll camera! . . . Action!”
During a break, shivering under a blanket in a director’s chair, Bruce Dern summed up the movie as three guys who “still have some game.”
He thought back to the maverick acting days of the 1970s in films like “Coming Home” and “Family Plot.” “I’m fascinated with people who live just beyond where the buses run,” he said.
Like Carradine, Dern was disgruntled by the changes wrought by the Hollywood system. “The passion of people who come to work isn’t like it used to be,” he began in his gravelly voice. “Now kids come to Hollywood to get a star on the boulevard and go to the party.”
That complaint exorcised, Dern went on to expound on his favorite topic: sports. “Now, about Schilling. If you’re going to throw balls over the plate . . .”
As for Torn, he was more taciturn. “The director is happy and that’s all I care about,” he said. Then, like a proud grandfather, he pulled from his wallet a photo of a fish he’d recently caught. “The first thing I do on set is get my fishing and hunting license.”
It got colder and dimmer as the afternoon progressed.
“It’s not for sissies, this business,” Edwards said.
Octogenarian Julie Harris didn’t seem fazed. For her, one word — “wonderful” — described the film, the cast, and her friend Charles Durning.
As for the younger cast members, like Jason Alan Smith (“CSI: NY”) and local Christy Scott Cashman (“Fever Pitch”), they tried to keep up with their elders.
“These men are legends of cinema and television and you can’t help but learn,” said Smith. “Talk about energy — these guys are in their 70s and we shot till 11 p.m. last night. They were kicking butt.”
David Carradine isn’t slowing down anytime soon. He made six movies last year, he said. “And the work is getting better and better.” It seems to be inspiring his libido, too.
“I’m really in love with Mariel Hemingway,” said Carradine, lighting another cigarette back in his tiny dressing room.
“If she wasn’t married and I wasn’t really married, we’d consider it.”