The Talladega Curse roars to life

10/29/2010 - NASCAR

The always-bizarre cross-pollination of NASCAR and Hollywood has brought us everything from Cole Trickle to Cal Naughton Jr. to the dad from "A Christmas Story" playing Lee Petty. But this weekend the strangest -- and shortest -- stock car film of them all hits the Web in honor of another crazy combination -- Halloween and Talladega.

"The Legend of Hallowdega" is an 18-minute mockumentary that delves into a favorite subject of NASCAR fans, the so-called Talladega Curse. Don't know what I'm talking about? Then read this and watch this.

The film was commissioned by the sponsor of this Sunday's event at NASCAR's biggest, scariest track, Amp Energy, aka Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sponsor. And the always-smart people of PepsiCo signed on one of moviemaking's most revered visionaries to direct, Oscar nominee and Monty Python member Terry Gilliam.

The man behind "Brazil," "Time Bandits," "12 Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is clearly a man who is into the abnormal. So when he learned a little about Talladega Superspeedway's infamous haunting, he jumped on board.

When they heard that Gilliam was in, the two lead actors jumped in, too, no questions asked. First came David Arquette ("Scream," "Never Been Kissed," "Hamlet 2"), and Justin Kirk, better known as the freeloading brother from "Weeds," quickly followed.

Kirk plays the self-absorbed host of a cable television series exploring the causes of the Talladega weirdness. Arquette is the ghost-talker weirdo who lives in the racetrack infield and takes pictures of the supernatural forces that seem to cause all of the wackiness.

I had a chance to talk to both in advance of the film's online premiere this Sunday, which you can see for yourself at www.legendofhallowdega.com.

Ryan McGee: So Terry Gilliam calls. Did you even ask what the project was?

David Arquette: No! That was one of the coolest calls of my career. All they said was, "Would you like to do a short film with Terry Gilliam?" and I started booking my flight. I watched "Time Bandits" like 25 times when I was a kid. I didn't even read the script first.

Justin Kirk: They said to me, "It's a short film about NASCAR with Terry Gilliam," and to me that made it even crazier.

RM: Everybody's first impression of Talladega seems to be, "Man, this is in the middle of nowhere" and "Man, this place is gigantic" ...

DA: Totally. There's no way to prepare for it. We shot scenes out in the turns and they are so steep you can't even imagine.

JK: There's a scene in the film where my character is doing this dramatic newsy stand-up and they had me walking up on the banking and I spent the whole time waiting to roll down.

RM: And it is indeed in the middle of nowhere ...

JK: No doubt. But I loved it there. Beautiful country. We didn't stay in Birmingham. We stayed in the town of Anniston for the whole week and the people could not have been nicer. You always have a lot of downtime during a film shoot, and getting to sit down and talk with the extras was great. And some of the local actors that are in the film are so talented. They all loved to tell us about the history of the track and of course all of the weird goings-on. I'm a Pacific Northwest and Midwestern boy. I had never been to Alabama and I loved it.

DA: Courtney [wife Courtney Cox] is originally from Alabama. I have a lot of friends and family from there and it was great to get back.

RM: Are you a NASCAR fan? Or maybe just a car guy?

DA: No doubt. I love racing. I had been to one NASCAR event before years ago and I really want to get back again. Because of Courtney's ties to Alabama we've always watched the Talladega races on television. Plus you have to watch those races because you never know what's going to happen.

RM: Well, I know you are a car guy because of your 1998 film "RPM," where you played Luke Delson, a guy addicted to stealing cars.

DA: Yes! "RPM"! A cinematic classic! The only good things about that movie were that we shot it in the south of France and the cars I got to drive in that movie were just ridiculous. I think we had every Ferrari ever made in that movie.

RM: Justin, you a car guy?

JK: I drive a car, does that count? [Laughs.] No, I am afraid that I am just like every other jerk in L.A., driving around in my Prius. Gotta do my part for the ozone layer, you know?

RM: I know this deal came together pretty quick for both of you, but did you get a chance to do some research on the Talladega Curse?

DA: I did. I went straight to Google and typed it in. Found some good stuff. And as soon as I read about it I just knew it would be perfect for a guy like Terry Gilliam to direct. And I immediately started taking little pieces of all these things I read about and mashed it all together to channel this kind of wide-open, bizarre, just-go-crazy kind of character. We would be shooting and Terry would saying, "OK, he's thinking this and this and this and this and he's thinking about it all at once!"

RM: If you read the story on ESPN.com, then that's the one I wrote.

DA: Yeah, that was the one article that I just thought was terrible, no help at all [laughs].

JK: I didn't do a lot of research. In fact I did none at all. I knew my character was going to be this guy who thinks he's a big shot but really he's clueless. A guy who thinks he knows everything about everything but knows nothing about nothing. If I knew too much I'd be giving him more knowledge than he'd actually have. He's a typical one-dimensional TV host guy. Zero depth. That's why I wanted to leave all the tags on his safari explorer costumes. You know he's just gone to a store and bought them for the show. They've never actually been exploring anywhere.

RM: For a guy who had never been to the racetrack before it must've helped playing a guy who had never been to a racetrack before.

JK: Exactly. When you see me with this look on my face like, "What's up with all this smoke and noise?" that's what I'm actually thinking. The first scene in the film is the first scene we shot. My reaction is of a genuinely lost man. But as far you know it's just tremendous acting [laughs].

RM: Speaking of reactions, your one big scene together, when the host finally meets the crazy ghost hunter, is interrupted by the biggest Talladega star of them all ...

DA: Dale Jr.! I am such a big fan. We actually shot our scenes on separate days, so I didn't get to meet him. I can't go to the race this weekend, but I want to see if they'll let me come down next spring. When I see him I'm going to flip out like I did in the film.

JK: I think that's so funny. When Dale Jr. shows up my character and his film crew just drop everything they're doing, totally ignore David's character, and go running after Dale Jr. David screams "Dale Jr!"

RM: In my world, that's pretty much how it works all the time.

JK: Yeah, you spend a little time at Talladega and you figure that out pretty quickly.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.