When Horton Foote was six years old, he arrived home out of breath one afternoon, covered in dirt and sweat. Stunned, his mother listened as he described a most harrowing scene: a wild dog had chased him across a cotton field, and the town marshal—while on horseback—pulled him up and saved his life. When Foote’s father went to thank the marshal the following day, he had no idea what the man was talking about. “I wrote my first story,” the ninety-year-old Foote recalls with a smile in Anne Rapp’s new documentary, Horton Foote: The Road to Home.
Foote spent a lifetime creating stories for the stage and screen that reverberated with honesty and humanity. Best known for his screen adaptations of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, Foote wrote more than fifty stage plays and screenplays during his seventy-year career, including The Young Man From Atlanta (1995), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Foote, who died in 2009 at age 92, received numerous honors and awards including two Oscars, an Emmy, and the National Medal of Arts.
The documentary, which premieres virtually at this year’s Austin Film Festival on October 25, traces Foote’s life and career trajectory—starting from his hometown of Wharton, which came to inform every story he eventually wrote for the stage and film. The film’s director, Anne Rapp, first met Foote back in the eighties, when she was a Hollywood script supervisor for the likes of The Color Purple. The two Texans clicked and stayed good friends throughout the years.
Texas Monthly spoke with Rapp about her friendship with Foote, what made his stories resonate, and the long road to making this film.
Texas Monthly: How did you and Horton Foote become friends?
Anne Rapp: I met Horton in 1981 while shooting Tender Mercies. He and I bonded pretty quickly. He was curious about my having grown up on a tiny farm in the Texas Panhandle, on the opposite end of the state from him. We both came from cotton country. We stayed in touch after filming, and wrote letters over the years. I wasn’t a writer at the time, but whenever I launched into some family story, he would say to me “You’re writing this down, aren’t you?”
TM: What prompted you to make this documentary?
AR: I wanted to honor Horton because I don’t feel like he’s been properly honored. He was a genius. He wrote about one hometown for seventy years and made every story compelling—like Faulkner, who wrote about one county his whole life. As an artist, Horton stayed true to his heart; he did the work for the right reason. He never compromised just to be more popular. Every young writer should know about him, to give them a better sense of how important truth is when writing. Underneath the surface of every story there is a truth to the place, the characters, and to how they relate to each other. He was a master at that.
TM: Horton repeatedly uses the word “intrigue” throughout the film, starting with him recounting a story about a widow in town who hanged herself in her garage. “That’s the kind of intriguing thing that a dramatist could make a backstory, whether it was true or not,” he offers. How did intrigue play into his storytelling?
AR: It speaks to Horton’s infinite curiosity. It’s pointed out in the film that he was always just sitting in the room listening to everyone else. Horton wasn’t a talker, he didn’t hold court. I’ve worked with a lot of well-known filmmakers, with everyone hanging onto their words at dinner. Horton preferred to sit in a room and just soak it up, because he was intrigued. And he really cared about the other person’s story. That’s what makes the best writer, always. The best writer is the best listener.
TM: In the film, Foote tells a story about winning the Pulitzer and walking around Wharton, waiting to see if anyone would mention it. (They didn’t.) I was struck when he said it was easier that way, and healthier.
AR: That is such a Horton story because he wasn’t out there to be congratulated, he was just curious if anyone knew.
TM: So much of the film takes place in Wharton, in the home where Foote grew up. How much time did he spend in Texas later in life?
AR: That old house still exists today, his children have it now. He raised his family in New York, and even New Hampshire for a time, but Texas was always home. As he got older, after his wife was gone, Horton moved in with his daughter Hallie and her husband in Los Angeles. She would bring him down to Wharton several times a year and he would sometimes stay months at a time. That’s how I got all that footage. Long before I thought about making a film, I would go down and have lunch with him. His favorite thing to do was get in the car and have Hallie drive us all over town while he told stories. I began to realize I was getting the backdrop of that seventy-year body of work. Once he finally agreed to let me put a camera on him, I’d go shoot him every time he was there. I started filming him in late 2006, when he was ninety.
TM: The film is a seamless blend of family, friends, and luminaries. How were you able to make this wide circle, which included people like Robert Duvall and Richard Linklater, feel so intimate?
AR: Horton was very comfortable with me. Our interviews were us just chatting, as if the camera didn’t exist. So all the footage has a natural, truthful quality. When he died in 2009, I started getting the other interviews—including people he worked with.
My favorites are the two Wharton residents, Myrtis Outlar and Charles Davis, who just talk about Horton as somebody they grew up with and knew in town. The scholar Gerald Wood was so knowledgeable about Horton’s works, but he was also a dear friend. It’s great when you can get a celebrity, but Horton didn’t need someone famous saying To Kill a Mockingbird was their favorite movie. Edward Albee says it better than anyone in the film: Horton didn’t write characters, he wrote people. There are more real people in this film than characters or celebrities telling his story.
TM: You started this project thirteen years ago. What were the challenges in getting it made?
AR: Making a documentary was all new to me. I had always been in the production, not post-production, phase of the movie business, and I didn’t trust myself for a long time. I knew I had tons of great footage, but I didn’t know how to put it together. Three years ago I realized I had to stop waiting on other people to tell me how to do this. I found some great guys here in Austin. My editor David Fabelo, Miguel Alvarez, and Jason Wehling helped me find my story. I had larger-scale producers as well, but these three were with me on every little nuance and decision.
TM: Were there any advantages in having this film take so long to see the light of day?
AR: My very last interview for the film was with Rick Linklater. It’s so much later than the rest of the footage, which made the film better. Horton died ten years ago, but you have Linklater talking about him today. There’s something about that which played well in the structure of this film. I can no longer regret it took me so long. It required that. It required my perseverance. I never quit—even at times when I should. I got that from my parents. Growing up on a cotton farm, our job in the summer was chopping cotton. Daddy was this jolly guy who would take us out in the field every morning. We could only quit when we got our weeds out of his cotton.
TM: Your documentary shows the ties Horton had to his Texas roots as a writer. How did growing up on a farm in the Panhandle shape your own writing?
AR: I back-ended my way into the movie business, I was a math major and jock in college. There would be times just sitting around on the set, I’d be telling stories to all my buddies. It never occurred to me until I was in my forties that maybe I should start writing these stories down.
I was born into a world of storytelling. Most of the people from my hometown didn’t even go to college, they just stayed on the farm. My town [Estelline] had three hundred people. I didn’t grow up with a lot of arts around me, but I did grow up with stories every night. We didn’t have any other way to entertain each other—other than music. Daddy was a self-taught piano player and my mother played the banjo. Between every song someone would launch into some story. It could be about the most mundane thing, but they would find some tiny event from that day and just spin it into a story that everyone loved. If you pay enough attention, the world is full of stories waiting to be told.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.