Dan Cornell and Hal Waldrup, up on the head-frame (illegally) for Bell Diamond
I met Dan Cornell in 1986, not long after arriving in Butte, Montana, to make a film. I had no script, title, or money. Just a vague idea, my camera and things, Alenka Pavlin with whom I was living, and the decision to shoot in Butte, because of the looks, the history, and the unemployment.
Arriving in early summer we went at the suggestion of someone we asked about a good place to meet people to the Silver Dollar saloon. In ten minutes we’d met Terri Williams (now Ruggles), who offered us a place to stay the night. Things promptly rippled out from there, and as autumn approached we’d shot a film, with locals, in a “story” improvised as we went along. And made friends, and a curious attachment to this battered little city. It became, for me, another “home.”
Among those met and participating in the film was Dan, originally from Brooklyn, NY., but transplanted by choice at first to Bozeman to study, and then moved to Butte to settle in for the long haul. Dan had been in Vietnam, a helicopter pilot, and had stories to tell and liked to tell them. Not just about his time there, but about life. A smart guy too.
Dan in Bell Diamond
At the time Dan was a contractor, painting houses, building, doing whatever circumstances in Butte offered. Later on he became a teacher at the local high school, teaching painting things other than houses. He made himself at home in his adopted city, and as time went on made a little figure there.
I recall in 1987 developing the story for Bell Diamond, with all the actors participating, and incorporating aspects of his real life into the context. One evening, Dan, Hal Waldrup, Marshall Gaddis, Jim Duran (there to record sound) and I clambered up the rickety Bell Diamond head-frame ladder, quite illegally, to shoot a scene there at sunset. In it he recounted that the height – a bit over 100 feet up – was just about where the VC would open up fire on his helicopter back in Nam. During the shoot, a very quick hit and run matter, we had to duck twice to hide from a security guard patrolling the area in a pick-up.
Once the film was finished shooting, in September of that year, Alenka and I left for San Francisco where the Leo Diner lab promptly trashed my original material in the developing soup (the processing machine went down with my film in it), and added insult to injury on making the first print when someone threaded up one 30 minute reel improperly and punched sprocket dents into it. Even so, damaged, it was invited to the Berlin Festival Forum, and got a mess of very nice reviews, 10-best-of-the-year mentions, and such. When Dan later saw it he was disappointed and asked why I hadn’t made a film like the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. I don’t know how few millions that film cost, but Bell Diamond was $25,000 from an NEA Grant, nobody was paid, local non-actors were the cast and Alenka and I were the crew. Sorry, Dan, no can do.
After making the film I returned periodically over the decades to Butte to visit friends, staying once or twice at Dan’s house. And in 2012, I returned to shoot Coming to Terms, and attempted a quickie second film (never finished) in which Dan played a part.
In those last visits, Dan had stories to tell of a recent trip to Viet Nam, where he motorbiked into the mountains with a local guide and had a great time. He’d also bought a nice BMW bike to tool around Montana, and one summer spent some weeks on the road with his son, touring the Rocky Mountains. Back in Butte he’d built a nice green-house addition to his house, and some raised beds for gardening. Settling in for the relaxed pleasures of retirement.
Over the decades all my friends in Butte, who all knew Dan, fell out with him. And on my last visit, in summer 2015, after he’d helped make a board for me to do pastels on in his shop, and otherwise been ever helpful, Marcella and I were going to house-sit for him while he took a trip. We arrived from Missoula, having let him know we’d be a bit late to get to a what-needs-to-be-done look around his house. On arriving – at most 30 minutes later than originally planned, he promptly informed us we wouldn’t be house-sitting, were not to be trusted, and otherwise did what my Butte friends said he’d done to them: seemingly arbitrarily turned on them over some minor matter and, at least for them, succeeded in dissuading them from any further contact. He accomplished the same for me and Marcella in that last meeting. Since leaving Butte back then, violating my usual habit, I omitted Dan from correspondence or personal letters.
Though I wondered, regarding what had happened to my friends, and finally to myself, whether these episodes were a kind of submerged Viet Nam induced PTSD behavior. Seemed likely to me. Or maybe it was just that hot-headed Irish blood bubbling up. I recall him mentioning to me more than a few times, how he had a list of 10 people he wanted to kill before he died. It wasn’t said like a joke, and he did clearly harbor some kind of deep injury which seems to have prompted these thoughts. I tried to get him to lighten up, but about this he was somehow seemingly very serious.
I had hoped to see Dan in the coming late Autumn, when I hope to pass again through Butte, to see friends perhaps a last time, to try to patch things up. Seems he beat me to it.
At this age in life, at least for some of us, it is a time to try to wrap up loose ends, make amends where possible, and otherwise make a deal with one’s self about one’s own life. Regret I wasn’t able to do so with Dan.
Dan’s obituary in the Montana Standard