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And ... action!

03 May 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
"And then we put a camera over here to catch my good side ...."

So, the news is now out, unveiled last Friday at the Anaheim Comic-Con during a panel discussion and officially announced yesterday on NHRA.com: They're making a movie about drag racing's Hot Wheels heroes, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen.

I've been in on the secret for a little while and biting my lip every time I wanted tell the world, but now we can talk about it. Not counting the made-for-Disney story on current Pro Stock star Erica Enders that chronicled her NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League exploits, it'll be the first major biopic on an NHRA star since 1982's Heart Like A Wheel gave us the backstory to the life of Shirley Muldowney.

There have been other proposed movies about NHRA stars — Don Garlits talks openly in his new book about the film that almost happened to chronicle his career, and a John Force movie is high on the agenda for Ashley Force Hood in her new role at John Force Entertainment — but all of the ducks seem to have fallen in line that will make the "Snake"/"Mongoose" movie a reality. There have been other smaller films made, but to the best of my knowledge, the only one to hit the big screen was the ever-amazing Funny Car Summer, but that was a documentary that didn’t employ any actors and used real race footage.

The first two things I thought about — and I'm certain that the same ideas crossed through your mind — when the announcement was made were "Who will play the lead roles?" and "Where and how will they shoot the racing scenes?"

(Above) Shirley Muldowney, left, points out cockpit controls to Bonnie Bedelia on the Heart set. (Below) Bedelia and Anthony Edwards as Shirley and John Muldowney.

Personally, I thought that Bonnie Bedelia was an excellent choice to play Muldowney in HLAW. She looked very Shirley-like, but Shirley told me last year, in the interview we did with her for National DRAGSTER's "Most Intriguing People" issue, that she wasn't thrilled about the way Bedelia had portrayed her.

"She's certainly a capable actress, but she played Shirley the way she wanted to play Shirley," she said. "She was very clingy. She threw her arms around every guy in the movie who came up to her. I did not throw my arms around Connie and say 'Oh, Connie, I was so scared' after my Funny Car fire. That was all dramatization, and I was just furious with myself that I didn't pick up on that when I read the script. I fast-read it, and I have no one to blame but myself. I was more concerned with what was going on with my racing then than I was the movie."

The choice of Beau Bridges to play Connie Kalitta also was curious because I didn’t think he looked a lot like "the Bounty Hunter," and as I remember it, everyone had a problem with Bill McKinney as the choice to play Don Garlits. All I remember about him was that he was eating bananas in the movie, which seemed rather odd. I liked a pre-E.R. Anthony Edwards as John Muldowney, though.

According to my sources in Hollywood (ha!), casting for the new movie has begun but the producers cannot reveal their choices just yet for who will play our heroes. What I do know is that the filmmakers have decided not to go with a big-name stars, which I think is a pretty good decision (and will preclude any guessing or suggestions by the Insider Nation). Sometimes it’s hard to separate established stars from their former roles, and I think that the world deserves to see Prudhomme and McEwen in a light not cast by previous movies starring the actors.

(Besides, we've already played this game before here, back when it was announced that a movie was in the works on "Jungle Pam" Hardy. Readers suggested who would play the role of drag racing's most famous and photographed crewperson and who would play "Jungle" himself. [Read here]. By the way, whatever happened to that movie project?)

For most of us, the on-track footage will matter more than the acting. Will the cars look and sound right? Will the director be able to convey the savagery and beauty of a 1970s Funny Car? Which track(s) will they use?

Heart Like A Wheel did get great creative and technical input from the Muldowneys and people like Brad Anderson, who built the alcohol-burning engines used in the film; stunt drivers Tommy Ivo and Kelly Brown; and "technical advisors" Pat Galvin, Bernie Lewis, and Rahn Tobler. The cars looked good, and the race photography (Orange County Int’l Raceway filling in for Indy and other tracks notwithstanding) was pretty darned good. The Kalitta wedge crash scene (right) was a little over the top but still looked good. Last March, Ivo described in detail how the crash was rigged using a cable that pulled the dummy-piloted car into the guardrail, and former Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, now a Foley artist, shared with us the details of how the "sounds" of the crash were recreated. "The sound of Connie's car crashing into the guardrail was quite a complex sound," he said. "First the Foley artists ran a body grinder on a car hood, then scraped the hood along the floor, adding some dirt and debris. On another track, they banged and dragged a bunch of different-size metal pieces to simulate the sound of the car breaking apart. It was also sweetened with sound effects from the sound library."

I know that most of Prudhomme's impressive collection of his old cars do at least cackle, but I doubt he'd let his precious babies back on the track at speed (although there'd certainly be no disputing that the Hot Wheels 'Cudas were the real deal), and Don Trasin has a great circa-1978 McEwen Corvette. You can bet that the wonderfully restored ramp trucks will be used. One huge advantage the filmmakers will have is the huge amount of nostalgia Funny Cars that exist that would take little more than a vinyl wrap to transform them into pretty good-looking "Snake" and "Mongoose" replicas.

I've been trading emails with Robin Broidy, who will be the film's producer, asking for details, but she's not able to share a lot yet while details are worked out, but I will tell you this: Broidy is doing a lot of work to make things genuine. I was able to connect her with Jeff Mittendorf, whose extensive collection of "Snake" and "Mongoose" memorabilia I featured in this column. Mittendorf graciously allowed them to use his cherished "Snake" and "Mongoose" coloring book and comics in the movie, and I was impressed with the efforts and promises Broidy has made to make sure that the items are not damaged in their use. Mittendorf's name also will appear in the film's credits. Too cool!

Broidy has also promised to allow National DRAGSTER access to the set for some of the filming in the future, so you can be sure to get some sneak peeks in the months ahead. We're all really excited about the chance to see the life of the legendary duo recreated on the silver screen.