TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Up until a few weeks ago, Jimmy Buffett had plans to spend Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, wandering this mountain town with his old friend and brother-in-law, acclaimed writer Tom McGuane, rollin' with the punches, playin' with all his hunches and regaling audiences at Q&As for director Scott Ballew's 34-minute documentary about their chaotic, glorious, drug-fueled hippie-artist group of comrades in Key West in the 1970s.
Even the lead-up to the weekend had tinges of that irrepressible Buffett glee. He'd been beyond excited to learn that the festival would be screening the short film "All That Is Sacred," which features Buffett, McGuane, Carl Hiaasen and their late friends, novelist Richard Brautigan, artist Russell Chatham, outdoorsman/writer Guy de la Valdène and "Legends of the Fall" author Jim Harrison.
Festival programmers had paired it as a double feature with an obscure, stoned-out, cinéma vérité fishing film, "Tarpon," which provides much of the archival footage woven throughout "All That Is Sacred." Back in 1972, De la Valdène and another French filmmaker, Christian Odasso, had followed the friends as they chased gigantic, elusive tarpon fish around the shallow Florida flats. When they weren't fishing, they were creating a gonzo artists destination on the lawless southern tip of the United States -- doing plenty of cocaine and acid, but also wildly ambitious about being great writers and putting their mark on the world.
McGuane was about to break big with his third novel, 1973's "92 in the Shade," which was nominated for a National Book Award and was made into a movie starring Peter Fonda and Harry Dean Stanton. Buffett, the kid brother of the group, was a broke musician playing in bars for beers, and did the "Tarpon" soundtrack without pay because the filmmakers said he could tag along with them to France.
The film, which was never released, has a cult following through bootlegs. Buffett sometimes used clips of it as a backdrop to his mega-concerts. "I saw ["Tarpon"] as a fishing movie mostly and perhaps less about our lives, because, when it was made, we had our lives ahead of us," McGuane said at one of the Telluride Q&As.
When Ballew first conceived of his film, he imagined taking viewers on a ride through this makeshift community of outlaws, whom he saw as the last people who had been able to truly pursue being writers, in the literary rock-star tradition of another Key West resident, Ernest Hemingway. But as interviews came together, the movie started morphing into something more moving, about old friends staring down the barrel of mortality and looking back at a time they all agree was the best of their lives, even if they didn't quite appreciate that while it was happening. "I think all of them regret thinking that that feeling would last forever," Ballew said.
De la Valdène, who gave interviews for the film, died earlier this year, three weeks after Ballew finished editing it. On Sept. 1, not long after the film's second Telluride screening, Buffett died at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., at 76.
It wasn't until a week before the festival that Buffett finally accepted that he wasn't well enough to travel. He'd been diagnosed four years ago with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. It was in remission, until it wasn't. "He'd been going downhill for the last four months," said McGuane, in an interview with The Washington Post after returning to Montana on Sunday. His wife, Laurie, is Buffett's sister and had rushed to his bedside when he took a turn for the worse. "It didn't seem to bother him as it would most people," McGuane, 83, continued. "He had such a high-energy and upbeat personality, and whenever the drugs would give him a little bit of a break, he'd get out his guitar and his iPad and work on a song. So a lot really didn't change -- till he was gone."
McGuane found out about his friend's death the next morning when he woke up, then had to head straight to a Q&A, where he seemed to be processing the news in real time. Buffett was supposed to be there with him, but he wasn't and could never be again. "There's a Mexican expression that everybody knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it," McGuane told the audience. "And I think when you get to be my age, each week brings a phone call with a friend with cancer or a friend who's passed away. And Jimmy died last night. And he seemed to be so forceful and energetic all his life, every minute of it. It's hard to believe that he wouldn't have ordered death out of the room."
From the reports McGuane had gotten from his wife and friends, Buffett never got depressed about his fate. "He stayed active until it was impossible to be active," McGuane told The Post. "He was still humorous and warm almost to the hour that he died."
IT TOOK A YEAR
McGuane hadn't even wanted to do the movie. It had taken Ballew a year to persuade him to go on camera, and he wouldn't put the filmmaker in touch with Buffett, even though the singer was his brother-in-law and they spoke almost every day. But now, especially now, he's so glad the film exists and lets him spend time with his old friends: Harrison, who was blind in one eye and always ready for mischief; De la Valdène, the other serious fisher in the bunch, with whom McGuane once went tarpon hunting for 100 days in a row without a break; and Buffett, both as a 20-something hippie with long blond hair and a mustache, and also the white-haired rich guy in his 70s in a Hawaiian shirt on the beach.
"It's like anybody else's life," McGuane said. "You have previous eras that kind of get archived. You store manuscripts in the basement and you don't go there very much. But this movie brought so much of it back that had personal value to me, because so many other characters in the film are dead."
"You know, when we did the screening on Friday night, there were two of us [from that core group] who were still alive. And when we did the Saturday screening, it was down to me."
In the brief documentary, Buffett sits in shorts and a polo with blue ocean behind him. "They were fishing and f***ing around, everyone in town was," he says with that Southern drawl. "It was a bohemian thing," he goes on. "It was a Navy town, a gay town, a hippie town, a drug town. But Key West historically had always been that. We weren't the first ones who took advantage of the laissez-faire attitude. You went there because you could do it."
Later on, during a montage of people talking about all the drugs they did -- pot, quaaludes, acid, so much cocaine there was just a pile on a table every night -- Buffett declares, "A woman almost shot my head off," and leaves it at that.
Some of the footage of him looking spry and immortal was shot just eight months ago.
SO MANY HOUSES
Nailing Buffett down for interviews wasn't easy. (McGuane says Buffett had so many houses, "I couldn't tell you if he really lived anywhere.") Once Ballew and his crew caught him in Palm Beach. Another time, he flew himself to Tallahassee for dinner and an interview, then flew home to L.A. "We were supposed to do one in the Bahamas, but on our way there, Jimmy decided it was a little too windy and he went to St. Barts without telling us," said Ballew, smiling. "Which is so Jimmy. Like, why wouldn't you, if you had that option?"
They tried lining up crews and dates with Buffett, but "he would kind of hopscotch based on 'the fish might be biting somewhere,'" Ballew said. "There was one time we missed him because a swell was coming in and I think he was going to go surf with Kelly Slater." Ballew and the crew learned not to book flights more than 24 hours in advance.
In that group of '70s friends, Buffett was the youngest and the most upbeat. "The first thing he said to me was, 'It's not in my nature or personality to be a dark poet,'" McGuane said. "He saw his role as being lighthearted, leading fun singalongs, giving people a bit of island life." And he did it with zero expectations of monetary reward.
"He was definitely a Jimmy Buffett character, just breezed through the day. He was the guy with the flip-flop, stepping on a pop top, especially in that ['Tarpon'] era," recalled McGuane, quoting lyrics from Buffett's megahit, "Margaritaville." That song, he said, "was a pretty good self-portrait of when I first knew Jimmy. After that, he transformed into an extremely competent businessman."
McGuane was flirting with alcoholism when he met Laurie, Buffett's sister, at a bar. He was on the floor and couldn't get up. She gave him a chance anyway. Once he married her, he and Buffett became true family.
BACK TO THE GRIND
"What you probably couldn't see just in a momentary meeting of him is how driven he was," McGuane said. "I knew him, you know, 50 years ago or more. And he was always really fun-loving and also exceptionally hard-working." He'd pull all-nighters "doing all kinds of crazy stuff," then be back to grinding the next morning.
He thinks Buffett's success has to do with that work ethic, of keeping on making music and touring when there were certainly times things weren't going well and other people would have given up. He also didn't worry about things that McGuane certainly thought he should worry about, such as bankruptcy, being overextended, being surrounded by only other world-famous people. Fame affected him. How could it not? "He was always, you know, going 100 miles an hour, and fame and wealth allowed him to go 200 miles an hour," McGuane said.
But it didn't fundamentally change him, according to McGuane: "I think Carl Hiaasen said this, too: The happiest he ever was, was doing exactly what he was doing originally, which was playing his guitar and singing."
They were in touch all the time, but one of the last times McGuane spoke with Buffett, he joked that so many of their friends were disappearing that he ought to write a song called, "Last Man Standing-ville."
"And then he said: 'I've already written a song for old people. It's called 'My Gummy Just Kicked In.'" (Paul McCartney played on it.)
'SOMETHING WAS WRONG'
Ballew spoke with him three weeks before Telluride. He had showed Buffett the poster for the movie, which he loved, and immediately asked whether Ballew could mail him two. Looking back, he should have realized something was wrong when he didn't hear from Buffett that he'd gotten the posters. "He was the type who would send me pictures of how he framed them, where he put them, probably given me some ideas of how I could've made them better," he said, laughing.
Just before he flew to Colorado, McGuane wrote Buffett a letter that Laurie read to him the day before he died. "The letter was all about, you know, 'Your death is imminent, how do you feel about that?'" McGuane recalled. He wrote to him as an artist, and about how commercial music can prolong your life, beyond your life. "I was able to assure Jimmy that he had a long life into the future," McGuane said, "and I said, 'You won't be there for the applause, but how big a deal is that?' He was still speaking at that time, and he said: 'I hadn't thought of that. That's great.'"
As he was dying, said McGuane, Buffett started talking about going back to Pascagoula, Miss., where he and his sisters, Lucy and Laurie, were born. "I don't think it's unusual for people who are close to death to think of it in terms of your own homegoing," McGuane said.
What would he tell people about everything he learned from those days in Key West, from 50 years of knowing Buffett?
"If I had to sum it up in one phrase," McGuane said, "I would say, 'Live it up.'"