Burt Reynolds: Documentary takes a look inside ‘Smokey and the Bandit’

‘The Bandit’ is an inside view of the making of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ showcasing the bond between Reynolds and Needham

When director Jesse Moss first began researching “The Bandit,” a documentary about the making of Burt Reynolds’ rowdy classic “Smokey And The Bandit,” he assumed that Reynolds, being a movie star and all, wouldn’t want to be overly involved.

Fortunately, “to my surprise, he said, enthusiastically, ‘Yes!’,” says Moss, whose movie premiered this year at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin and airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on CMT. “I think ‘Smokey’ is a buddy movie about Burt and (“Smokey” director) Hal Needham. I wasn’t sure we could make that film without Burt’s cooperation. I wanted to have his blessing.”

That’s something Moss certainly has — “Jesse Moss has a fabulous reputation in terms of doing that kind of (movie),” Reynolds says. “And I think that once we talked, he felt the same about me, I hope. He came in without any preconceptions, and built the story like an academic scholar.”

Like a lot of filmmakers, Moss admits that the story he wound up telling was not the one he originally started with. As “a child of the 1970s,” he says “Smokey,” and its star, were part of the cultural firmament. He notes that it “came out the same year as ‘Star Wars,’ and you can’t really rationalize its popularity or success, but it has a deep, lasting legacy. It touched a chord for so many people who love the character that Burt played, this swashbuckling hero. They loved the car stuff.”

He set out to make a documentary about “the legacy of Smokey and the Bandit” but found an even more compelling theme, the bond between Reynolds and former roommate and stuntman Needham, who died in 2013. So “The Bandit” became “a buddy movie about a buddy movie, a look at a relationship and the trajectory of their respective careers. It’s how much Burt risked his own life and career to make that film, out of his faith in his friend. They had a special connection and did something together they couldn’t do by themselves. And to everyone’s surprise, it was an extraordinary success.”

The 1977 action comedy about a good-time guy in a hot car illegally transporting Coors across state lines was Needham’s first directorial effort, and Reynolds, who gleefully admits that his buddy’s script wasn’t very good, decided he would do it anyway.

“It appeals to people on such a gut level. In many ways, the Bandit was Hal, and (when it comes to) telling his story, no one knows it better than I do,” he says. “And no one knew him like me, and vice versa.”

Reynolds has often fondly described the making of “Smokey and The Bandit” as gleeful chaos, with some cast members making up their own dialogue and a general spirit of fraternal good-natured mischief — “People get jealous (and wonder) ‘How come they’re having so much fun and getting paid?,’” Reynolds says. Moss says that his research reveals that the on-set craziness might have been partially responsible for the film’s success.

“The edge of chaos is a really great place to work,” he says. “You can do your best work from that place. I love that this is a moonshine picture. It wasn’t expected to do that well. But the actors delivered, and the script worked, and all these parts came together. It’s the serendipity of film-making.”

In understanding what made “Smokey” tick, Moss says he began to understand what made Burt Reynolds himself tick. He admits that he was originally “intimidated, because I thought he was gonna be impossible and difficult. I thought that surely other people had approached him with this idea and that even if he did say ‘Yes,’ I’d get five minutes of his time.’ He took a leap of faith with us.”

One of the keys to that understanding was agreeing to Reynolds’ invitation to “spend the weekend” with him here in Palm Beach County, and watch him teach acting at his Burt Reynolds Institute of Film and Theatre. That trip, Moss says, was “useful” and triggered a “very long conversation about (his) tremendous career.” It also, he says, helped provide a focus for the documentary, as some directors of such projects can “fall into the trap of trying to tell everything.”

Reynolds says he invited Moss here because “I thought it was good to have him see me in an environment where I was so happy, when I’m teaching. There’s just something that I can’t explain about it … I was so proud of Hal, in so many ways, God love him. I hate the fact that we lost him. He was such a wonderful filmmaker.”

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