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Memorial Day’s Biggest Film – and its SMU Origins

Memorial Day Weekend is one of the biggest movie weekends of the year. But this weekend’s biggest film – Epic – is based on a tale that’s actually smaller than life. Here’s the story of how a phone call between a couple of SMU alums launched a movie project a decade in the making.

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Epic director Chris Wedge (left) and screenwriter Jim Hart. Photo: Stephen Becker

Epic director Chris Wedge (left) and screenwriter Jim Hart. Photo: Stephen Becker

The movie is based loosely on William Joyce’s 1996 children’s book, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs. In fewer than 40 pages, Joyce imagines a world in which the 2-inch-tall Leaf Men maintain order among the plants, bugs and birds in the forest.

It’s a natural story to translate into an animated film.

But it’s a long road from good movie idea to actual movie. Joyce had already found his director, Chris Wedge. But they knew they needed an experience screenwriter to flesh out the story. At the top of their list was Jim Hart, the Fort Worth native who wrote Hook, Dracula and other fantastical stories.

“And so one day the phone rings. ‘Is this Jim Hart?’ And I said, ‘yeah,’” Hart remembered during a recent stop through town promoting the film. “He said, ‘This is Bill Joyce.’ And I go, ‘Wow – finally!’”

The reason Hart says “finally” is because that phone call was years in the making. Both of them are from Shreveport, where Joyce still operates a small animation studio. Their aunts are friends who had been trying to get them together for years.

But as with many showbiz stories, the agent they shared actually kept them apart. When Joyce had previously asked about Hart’s availability, he was told that Hart was too busy writing other scripts.

So Joyce took things into his own hands with the phone call

William Joyce Photo: Moonbot Studios

William Joyce Photo: Moonbot Studios

“I was like, ‘Do you want to work on this?’” Joyce says by phone from Shreveport. “And he’s like, ‘Awesome, I’ve been wanting to work with you forever. I love your books!’ So I was like, ‘Well, too bad our agent doesn’t know that, because we could’ve started a long time ago.”

The truth is, they did start a long time ago. That initial phone call was placed in the late ‘90s. Hart soon visited Joyce at his Shreveport home to brainstorm how to bring the book to the screen. After a fruitless long weekend, Joyce packed up his car to drive back to Dallas to catch a flight.

“And Bill said as I was rolling up the window, ‘What if we do it this way?’ Hart says. “And I went, ‘Oh my God – that’s it!’ So I spent the next three hours on the cellphone with him talking on the way to the airport taking notes.”

The funny thing is, Joyce remembers Hart coming up with the breakthrough idea. Which would seem to be an important detail in the history of a multimillion dollar movie.

“You know, these things get lost in the sands of time. OK, fine – I wrote it! I’ll take credit,” Joyce says.

They actually share writing credits on the film, which follows the Leaf Men’s battle against those who want to bring decay to the woods. The pair reunited in Dallas last week to show the movie to a theater full of SMU film students. Each holds a film degree from the school, and the screening was the first time Joyce had seen the finished product with a crowd in eye-popping 3D.

Joyce’s reaction?

“That … was … really … a big smile.”

Part of the thrill came from being proud alumni. Joyce, a 1981 graduate, credits a program that taught him all the pieces of moviemaking. He won an Oscar last year for the short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Hart, a 1969 grad, says it was just exciting to learn about the movies at the beginning of one of film’s golden ages.

“My affection and love for the history of film started at SMU,” Hart says. “George Roy Hill brought a wet-gate answer print of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to show our film class. We were the first college students to see that movie. He spent four hours talking with us afterwards. Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson showed up with Easy Rider. And I watched Jack Nicholson take every co-ed’s number on his arm – he ran out of paper.”

Now, Hart and Joyce are heavy hitters in their own rights. And if Epic goes on to epic success, some current SMU students will have their own stories about meeting a couple of their Hollywood heroes.

Visit artandseek.org on Friday to listen to the Big Screen Podcast, featuring an interview with Jim Hart and Epic director Chris Wedge.