Sam Elliott

Play it again, Sam (Elliot)

“Off the Map” directed by Campbell Scott (Big Night), is a tender portrait of a quirky mid-70s New Mexico family living off-the-fat-of-the-land as well as off-the-grid in the dusty Taos desert. Joan Allen plays the sun-kissed matriarch whose notion of personal freedom includes gardening in the nude. Meanwhile, scrappy pre-teen daughter Bo (fresh-faced newcomer Valentina de Angelis) entertains herself by perpetrating low-end mail fraud schemes, while her father (played by Sam Elliott in one of his most touching roles to date) weeps his way through a clinical depression in the hopes of finding catharsis before drowning in tears.

A languid and lyrical film, I lucked into a screening of “Off the Map” at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and later had a chat with Elliott, who was on hand to meet the press. After the usual bull (“Love the ‘stash, bro,” etc.) we settled into a discussion about the differences between promoting an independent film versus a studio picture.

“It’s all about marketing with the big studios, ‘How can you make them believe there’s something there that isn’t?’” Elliott said frankly.

I replied with something to the effect of “Come now, Mr. Elliott, you don’t mean to say the studio marketing machine would misrepresent their product with flashy ad campaigns, do you?”

Elliott gave me his trademark thousand-mile stare, then (as the Cohen Brothers put it in their script for “The Big Lebowski” — prior to even casting Elliott, mind you) came “a deep, affable, Western-accented voice — Sam Elliot’s, perhaps.”

This is what he said:

“I’ll give you an example of that. Years ago — it wasn’t a big studio movie, but it got a big studio release — a movie called Lifeguard in 1974. It was one of my very first films. It was a coming-of-age kind of a thing, a guy who’s 30 years old who had been a lifeguard for 15 years, everybody in his circle, his friends and family are telling him it’s time to fucking grow up and get off the beach and he just wanted to be true to himself. He thought there was value in being a lifeguard, being like a civil servant, it was what he loved. We did that movie and it was taken real serious, made it for under a million, Dan Petrie directed it. Incredible little film. It ended up making $30 million at the box office. That was a lot of money in the 70s. Paramount sold it as like ‘Beach Blanket Bingo,’” he laughed.

Elliott said he didn’t realize the spin machine was on full-cycle until he was on the road promoting the film and speaking with reporters befuddled by the disparity between the film’s content and packaging.

“You go into all these interviews and ideally everybody has seen the movie. The opening line in every review was ‘This isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ because it was this story that was real to us, but the one-sheet for it was me in a fucking Speedo, with a big-titted girl in each arm and over the top it said ‘Every Girl’s Summer Dream.’ Like a Baywatch poster,” recalled Elliott. “‘These guys would make that comment, ‘This movie isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, how ’bout that?’” And the whole interview ended up being like that. I haven’t worked at Paramount since.”

As “Off the Map” rolls out nationally, Elliott has been on the road making media pit stops like Friday night’s appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson to promote the film. Elliott sees his role as an actor as only part of his commitment to a film. For Elliott, his job isn’t done until the film is — I’m going to say it — on the map.

“I’ve always felt that when you make a movie, part of the deal when you sign on, you got to sign on for the duration and that means until the movie comes out,” explained Elliott. “I’ve always been available for the jobs that I’ve done because I believed that. It’s not always easy to go out and do it, but when you believe so strongly in a piece, I’m not talking about it in terms of the performance one gave, but in terms of the story and characters and what it’s about and the net worth of it to the audience’s experience.”

“Off the Map” is available on DVD.