Freddie Francis, the two time Academy Award winning director of cinematography — for Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory (1989) — was a dear friend of mine, and I’ve watched him at work on the set many times, from his film The Doctor and The Devils (1985) through Her Alibi (1989) and finally The Straight Story (1999), which was shot in 23 days in Iowa. A director as well as a director of cinematography, Freddie had two distinct careers, although in his directorial efforts, he was early on “typed” as a Gothic director, much to his dismay, and never really got the chance to do a non-genre film.
The Straight Story tells of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who decides to make the long journey to visit his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), but, being unable to drive a car because of his health, is forced to make the trip on a John Deere lawnmower, which takes him six weeks, until he finally arrives on Lyle’s doorstep in the film’s final sequence.
When the filming started, Freddie called me up and asked me if I wanted to come out and visit him; it was to be our last meeting. Since most of the film was shot in Iowa, it was an easy trip, and I set out to meet the crew on location. It was a smooth drive, and it was great to see Freddie and his wife, Pamela, one more time.
I was present during the last day of filming, and watched in awe as Freddie knocked out one set-up after another, usually getting it done in one take or two, racing against the end of the day, when Harry Dean Stanton as Lyle, in for one day of shooting only, would have his penultimate meeting with Alvin. The scene was ultimately shot in near darkness, but Freddie flooded the porch set with so much light that it matched the daytime sequences perfectly, and the film came in on time and under budget.
Freddie was in ill health for much of the shoot for The Straight Story due to a gallstone attack, but he nevertheless kept up his usual whirlwind pace on the set, organizing not only the main unit, but several second unit crews to do pickup and background shots to get the filming completed all that much faster. He was, as always, absolutely in control.
The Straight Story is a gorgeous, deeply life affirming film, and contains the great Richard Farnsworth’s last performance, as well as Freddie’s final work as a cinematographer. Shot entirely on location, and based on a true story, the film is easily David Lynch’s most humane and accessible film, a tribute to the spirit of human determination in the face of seemingly nearly insurmountable odds. Freddie and David had worked before on The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), but in this, their final collaboration, I think they created their finest work as a team.