An Interview with Filmmaker Kirby Warnock in Honor of the 25th Anniversary of “Return to Giant”

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James Dean and George Stevens on the set.

In the summer of 1955 the town of Marfa welcomed Hollywood to Texas. The film “Giantstarring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of generations of filmgoers around the world. In celebration of the 25th Anniversary of “Return to Giant” there will be a screening of the documentary at the location that welcomed the cast and crew of “Giant” during filming. The iconic Hotel Paisano will be hosting the event June 3, 2021 at 7 pm. I recently sat down with filmmaker Kirby Warnock to learn more about how the film came to be. 

Can you tell us a little about your earliest days in Texas? What are some of your most fond memories of that time? Why do you think it seems to make such a lasting impression on most people? 

I spent nearly three months out of every year out on our grandparents’ ranch near Fort Stockton. It’s only 84 miles from Marfa, so we were down there a lot. The best memories are the open spaces and getting to “play cowboy” in the 50’s and 60’s. We rode horses all day and had a great childhood.

What was it like to visit Marfa with your mother and brother back in 1957? What do you remember most about that particular trip?

My dad drove us out on the Evans ranch to see the remains of the Reata. Made a big impression on me because it was the only other 3-story building in the county, and it didn’t have a back. I thought part of it had burned down in a fire, but my mom said they used it to make the movie, “GIANT.” I thought it was about “the attack of the 50-foot man,” and didn’t see the film until 1972 or 73 when it was on NBC television.  Then that visit came rushing back to me. When Liz and Rock pull up in that car in front of the Reata I shouted, “I’ve been there!” (YouTube link to my dad’s home movies here: Giant Set, 1957  )

Why do you think the film Giant” seems to have had such an impact on the popular culture of our time? 

It represents Texas as we want it to be. Big, larger-than-life people in a big country, still holding onto that cowboy past in modern times.

What was it about it that led you to make a film about its filming?

I had heard stories out here from folks who remembered the 1955 location shoot. That was a big deal, because back then they didn’t make films about Texas IN Texas. “The Searchers” was shot in Monument Valley and all of the Roy Rogers westerns were shot in California, so “GIANT” looked like the west Texas I knew.

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Bob Hinkle and James Dean.

Are there any moments from the making of the documentary that stand out most in your mind?

Yes, Bob Hinkle recalling when he got the news that James Dean had died. Very emotional. You could tell he and Jimmy had grown very close during that shoot. They were already planning Dean’s next film, a biography of Billy the Kid, then it all ended suddenly. I also enjoyed Darlyne Freeman telling of when she and her girlfriends threw a Coke party for James Dean in Marfa. Fun stuff!

What were some of the challenges you faced in capturing everyones memories in film?

I couldn’t get Liz Taylor to talk to me. That was disappointing, but my understanding is that “GIANT” was not a particularly pleasant experience for her. She had just delivered a baby when MGM loaned her out to Warner Bros, so right after childbirth she had to go out to west Texas where it’s 100 degrees and in the middle of a 7-year drought. She also divorced her then-husband, Michael Wilding, during the shoot and started dating her new husband Mike Todd. It was a pretty rough emotional time for her, so I can see why she didn’t enjoy it. Who would want to talk about an unpleasant time in their life?

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James Dean with Edna Ferber.

Was there anything you were surprised to learn?

How amiable and approachable James Dean was. The Marfa town folk simply loved the guy. That surprised me because we all picture Dean as being brooding and moody, but everyone found him to be like one of them. It’s a stark contrast to his on-screen persona and the biographies about him that focus on his teen angst.

Do you have a particular interview in the piece that you hold most dear or do you value them equally?

I like Darlyne Freeman’s memories of the shoot. She was a majorette in the Marfa band at the time and got to perform for the cameras when Earl Holliman comes home from the war. Then she got to meet James Dean and hang out with Chill Wills and Monte Hale. It’s small-town Texas meets Hollywood, the stuff that dreams are made of.

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George Stevens Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and George Stevens.

Are your viewers surprised to see what Marfa was like before the artists took up residence there? How has it changed most since the summer of 1955? Do you think the town would have become as iconic as it is had it not been for the film Giant”? How do you think it changed the town most?

Marfa was a dying cattle town when we filmed the documentary back in 1996. The downtown was sitting empty, and there were no art galleries or trendy restaurants. It was more vibrant in 1955, but when we shot the doc, both movie theaters were out of business and the Hotel Paisano was sitting empty and abandoned. I think it would still be a draw because of “GIANT”, but now it is bustling with hipsters and artists. It’s odd, to me, but I’m not an art patron so I really don’t need to understand it. All I know is that Marfa is jumping now because of these changes.

What can attendees expect from the 25th Anniversary screening being held this coming June?

A chance to sit in the very same room where James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor used to eat dinner every night and watch people’s recollections of that time. To be in the spot where it all happened is pretty cool, in my opinion. We’ll probably have a few remaining folks from the 1955 shoot on hand, but most of them have passed on by now, which makes me sad. Mainly you’ll get to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that’s the key word, an experience. It’s something you can’t get on Instagram or Facebook.

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James Dean and Rock Hudson.

When did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Who were some of your earliest influences?

When I made this film back in 1996. I just wanted to tell a story. It worked out okay. I don’t know if I had any “influences” but I loved the movies that John Ford made. He knew how to tell a story.

What advice would you offer to other wishing to pursue a career in film?

Get a thick skin, because you will be told “no” a lot. Don’t let it bring you down. Persevere!

Is there anything youd like to say in closing?

I think it’s amazing that a film made more than 60 years ago (GIANT) still has reach and influence today. Not many movies can say that. It’s also inspired other works, like “Fandango”, and “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” I hope our documentary, “Return to Giant”, gives folks a snapshot of why “GIANT” still has a hold on us, and why it meant so much to the town folks of Marfa, all these years later. It truly was a unique location shoot. I can’t think of any other movie that enmeshed the locals in it as much as this one, and that’s really special.

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For more information about the upcoming event and to purchase tickets please see:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/return-to-giant-25th-anniversary-screenng-tickets-150032909471           

For more information on Hotel Paisano please see: https://hotelpaisano.com/

All images used under permission from CMG Worldwide. 

One thought on “An Interview with Filmmaker Kirby Warnock in Honor of the 25th Anniversary of “Return to Giant”

  1. Nice!
    Thanks so much

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