Don Russell, a Heritage at Brentwood resident, was a 27-year-old junior engineer when B.F. Goodrich sent him to “a little dinky” west Texas town to help with its annual high-speed tire-testing assignment.
Each year, the company rented a few rooms in the only hotel in Marfa, Texas, for its engineers to call home during the two-month testing period.
In 1955, the hotel — with the exception of the engineers’ rooms — was exclusively booked by Warner Bros. to house the crew making “Giant,” a now-classic film about a Texas cattle rancher and his family.
An amateur photographer, Russell took his still camera as well as an 8mm home movie camera with him to Texas from his home in Akron, Ohio.
This past November — 64 years later — a YouTube clip of Russell’s on-set home movie caught the eye of a California-based film producer.
In early December, a videographer hired by Premiere Productions Inc. set up shop in Russell’s Heritage apartment. He interviewed Russell, now 91, for the documentary series’ pilot.
How this all came to be is a story of luck, Hollywood intrigue and fast cars.
At the Marfa hotel, the young engineers developed a relationship with one a Hollywood makeup artist, who invited them to visit the movie set.
On set, Russell shot his own film between scenes. Russell said that those early home movie cameras sounded terrible when compared with the big Hollywood ones, which didn’t make a sound when rolling. By the time he returned home, Russell had captured priceless behind-the-scenes footage of what would be the longest-running movie ever made at the time, running more than three hours.
In 2015, “my daughter Marsha Russell Nager posted a very poor VHS copy of my home movie that I took in Marfa to YouTube,” Russell said. Whether by fate or with the help of a search engine, producers developing a 13-episode documentary television project found the post.
The series is tentatively titled “Home Movies: An Intimate Look at Ourselves, A History of Home Movies and Why We Make Them.”
“The producers regard ‘Giant’ as one of the best movies of all time,” Russell said.
The film stars Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, who tragically died in a car accident at age 24 before the film was released.
The film won an Academy Award for best director and was nominated in nine other categories, including best picture and best actor, with nods to Hudson and, posthumously, to Dean.
After seeing the clip, the producers were determined to find Russell, as home movies about Hollywood, TV, music, sports and political legends are key to the project. It wasn’t easy.
“They sent out an email to everyone they could find named Don Russell,” he said. Ultimately, they found the right one — at home in Brentwood.
Ron Merk, president of Premiere Pictures International Inc., called Russell and asked if he still had his original footage and, if so, would he consider participating in the “Home Movie” project.
After a flurry of back-and-forth calls and contract exchanges, Russell said yes. Then he started looking for the original movie reel.
His son John, a co-owner with Kix Brooks of Arrington Vineyards, ultimately found it in one of the unpacked boxes his dad had put in his storage unit at The Heritage when he downsized five years.
The producers were also interested in Russell’s footage of his company’s 100-mph, tire-testing project, which is on the same film reel. Russell noted that two months of high-speed testing on state roads would likely never be allowed today.
To date, the San Francisco-based company has acquired more than a million feet of home movies, including 38 minutes of never-before-seen footage of President John F. Kennedy and recently discovered footage of Ethel Merman in composer Irving Berlin’s original Broadway run of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
According to Merk, once the pilot is completed early this year, Premiere Productions Inc. will begin seeking broadcast partners.
Profits will support film preservation projects by The Metro Theatre Center Foundation, The Academy Film Archives, The UCLA Film and Television Archives, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and The Library of Congress.