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Interview: Filmmaker David Pagano on the Upcoming Jim Varney Doc The Importance of Being Ernest

Award-winning filmmaker, animator, and author David Pagano has been drawn to storytelling from a young age. For five years, David served as producer and co-host of Ernest Goes to Podcast, a comprehensive exploration of the Ernest P. Worrell character created by late actor Jim Varney in 1980. Ernest became a pop-culture sensation in the ’80s which led to several feature-length films produced by Disney beginning with 1986’s Ernest Goes to Camp. Varney went on to star in other Hollywood hits such as 1993’s The Beverly Hillbillies and his voice work was featured as the voice of Slinky Dog in the first two Toy Story movies. Varney, who died in February 2000, is still beloved by legions of fans including Pagano who spoke to us about producing and directing the documentary The Importance of Being Ernest which promises to be the definitive story of both Ernest and his talented creator, Jim Varney.


Jason: So why a documentary about Jim Varney at this time? Had anybody attempted one before?

David Pagano: There have been a number of attempts to do this which for whatever reasons didn’t pan out. I couldn’t tell you why. As for my interest, there’s a couple of reasons; I ran a podcast about Ernest where we talk about all the movies and everything Jim Varney appeared in. And in doing that we realized just how underrated of an actor Jim was and I don’t think that gets talked about a lot. The way we saw him discussed is more often as a footnote or a punch line along the lines of, ‘hey, it’s the Oscars this year. When’s Ernest getting his lifetime achievement award?’ That joke that everyone makes on Twitter. Well Ernest is a fictional character, so he won’t be receiving any awards, but the actor Jim Varney actually won a Daytime Emmy for playing that character. So I don’t know who the joke is on here.

Jason: You’re collaborating with a close member of Varney’s family, his nephew, Justin Lloyd. How did this collaboration come about? Did you consider other projects related to Jim and Ernest?

David Pagano: So we talked about all the Ernest films and felt that he was really underrated. Another thing I saw on Twitter and in talking to Justin Lloyd, Jim’s nephew who wrote a biography about him, I think in writing the book he also always wanted it to be a film. He’s a big film fan and obviously, coming from a family where his uncle was in motion pictures. It kind of came together. We were in the right place at the right time. And that’s sort of a good analogy for how Ernest rose to popularity. Justin and I saw this interest when I was doing the podcast and we talked about collaborating on a documentary. At the same time, Dan Butler, who is a writer for the Ernest films and toured around the country with Jim doing Ernest personal appearances, he was working with John Cherry, the creator of Ernest. Dan was trying to revive the character in popular culture and trying to make make him vibrant again. So the three of us hooked up and got to work trying to think about what are the ways in which Jim Varney and Ernest can be more present in pop culture again? There were a number of other ideas for how to bring him back but at the end of the day, it seemed like a documentary made the most sense because none of the Ernest home video releases have any behind the scenes stuff. There’s so many fans out there who have a real hunger for that information. It’s why Justin wrote his book trying to look into this character. What was it about this ad pitchmen who became a motion picture headliner? How did that happen? It’s a story worth telling and it seems like now is the time to tell it.

Jason: You began a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this project. How far along are you in the process?

David Pagano: 2020 was the 40th anniversary of the Ernest character and it was 20 years since Jim had passed. We were trying to set up 2020 as the time to start this documentary and then the pandemic happened and we had to shelve everything. In the meantime, we continued our research, reaching out to people, scanning things, digitizing tapes, making budgetary projections. Where we are right now is still in pre-production, and the crowd-funding campaign will allow us to move into production. We have gone as far as we could with $0 and now it’s time to see where we can go with a little bit of money. So that’s where we’re at now. The pandemic is not over and this project really centers around in-person interviews so we’re looking at probably January as the time to start recording interviews. By the time we get everything set up and get everybody on the same page, it’s going to be another few months. The main place that the Ernest film productions happened was Nashville and of course, Jim’s family is in Kentucky. So those are two of the main places and depending on what kind of money we raise, both with the Kickstarter and otherwise, we also plan to do some recording in LA, and elsewhere because he’s got co-stars and collaborators. We want to talk to them and talk to as many people as we can before the stories of Jim disappear into the ether and before people pass away or just don’t have that recollection anymore. I think doing this project will only get harder and harder the more time goes on.

Jason: How important is online fundraising for a project like this? What will the money raised be used for?

David Pagano: It’s very important, honestly. You can’t do this kind of thing for free. I feel money is probably part of why some of the past attempts may not have panned out. The Ernest character and the films have all these different owners and people who owns the rights to all that stuff. Just beyond the costs of production, flying out to interview people and having a crew there’s also the cost of having to track down and license stuff to tell the story properly. Ernest did films for Disney, he did films in Vancouver, there’s ads for hundreds of clients, there’s books and all kinds of content over the place. Jim Varney was on stand-up specials, and Operation Petticoat and all these shows that we’ll have to license clips from if we want to use them. He was in unreleased films and shows that were a pilot and nothing else, or canceled after six episodes. To use those is going to take money. We want to do this properly and be able to reach the most eyeballs and reach the most people who grew up with this character and performer and whose lives and childhood development were impacted by having Jeff Varney and Ernest a part of it.

Jason: Do you have any sort of distribution deal in place?

David Pagano: We don’t have a distribution plan yet. In addition to fundraising the other thing that the Kickstarter is serving is providing proof of our concept because when approaching investors everybody wants to know is what does the artist fan base look like? Who’s out there, do these people even exist? So it’s also a way to demonstrate that there is a an audience for this and that there is a hunger from the fan base and from people online and elsewhere. We know the answer but we have to have statistical evidence to demonstrate that. All the usual offenders are in our sights. We’ve thought about streaming services, we thought about PBS, we thought about direct-to-video. We don’t even really have a clear idea of how long this will be. We want it to be feature length. It could be 90 minutes or it could be three hours. In my research setting up this project I’ve looked at two or three dozen documentaries and some of the ones that stick out and have been recommended to us by fans and supporters as a reference point, is the four hour George Harrison documentary Martin Scorsese made. I don’t even know how long the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary was and that’s a very similar film series where there’s all these films and all these different arrows and an oddly similar character that starts out very low-budget and gets more cartoony as you go through the years. We’re trying to leave our options open and see what what makes the most sense as we move from goalpost to goalpost and what will allow us to tell the story in the way we think it should be told.

Jason: There was a Friday the 13th documentary as well which ran well over 200 minutes. Sure. The fans just just couldn’t get enough of it.

David Pagano: We’ve been treating a lot of our research this way. It’s where this is the only time this gets to be done, then we got to go all out. We have to do do the best that we can and do right by Jim and his legacy.

Jason: You were gearing up to go a year ago and then the pandemic hit. How did that affect you guys?

David Pagano: We were actually in Lexington together—myself, Justin Lloyd and Dan Butler recording the teaser for the project. And that was at the end of February 2020. And three weeks later all of us were stuck indoors for 15 months. It brought us to mostly a halt. Then it became a test of cleverness. ‘We can’t start the film so what can we do? Who can we reach out to?’ Talking to members of Justin’s family, trying to track down the official photographer for for the Ernest print ads, the guy who did the face mask that everybody has in the car dealership commercials and things like that, just trying to track down trying to talk to whoever we could. Talking to the folks who run Ernest Day which is the the closest thing to an Ernest convention there is. It’s a celebration that happens every year in Tennessee at the location where Ernest Goes to Camp was shot. And they got shut down and we told them if this event happens again what can we do? How can we work together? So just trying to make the best of it, honestly. We had the photos and the the tapes from the Cherry family from the official Ernest archives so we just just scanned all that stuff.

Actor Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell on the set of Ernest Goes to Camp
Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell on the set of 1986’s Ernest Goes to Camp. Image submitted by David Pagano

Jason: Was there anything you found during your research pre-COVID or even during COVID which surprised you?

David Pagano: There’s two things. One is Jim’s music career and aspirations. We found some footage of him recording a blues album in the late ’80s, early ’90s. There’s some audio of him actually performing. I don’t think the album was ever released. But we found some audio of him performing the songs. Once we released the teaser that came out in June of 2020 people started sending us stuff. We got things like a tape on eBay of Jim being interviewed by Joe Walsh in the late ’80s. People sent us that and some of the master tapes of his music recording as well. He wanted to record music but to see footage of him in a booth and hear him talk about recording the album or hearing different songs we didn’t know existed was exciting. The other thing that comes up, and I was so delighted that we found more footage of this, is Jim doing Shakespeare because the guy loves Shakespeare in a way that I can’t describe. It comes up in that Joe Walsh interview where the interviewers are asking him ‘hey, I heard that you were a Shakespearean trained actor. Can you  give us anything?’ And Jim just rattles off from memory some, some monologue or soliloquy. At the drop of a hat he would do Shakespeare to the extent that on the podcast that I did about Ernest anytime Shakespeare came up in the Ernest films we had a running joke which was a Shakespeare alert just as a way to acknowledge this guy was a serious trained actor. I think those two things probably form a good basis of showing people a side of Jim Varney they might not necessarily have known existed. Even the general populace doesn’t even know necessarily that Ernest isn’t a real person and that’s a testament to Jim’s performance. He played him so well that people didn’t realize this was a fictional character. And that’s worth exploring.

Jason: My impressions of Jim early on was that I thought he was a really intelligent guy because I’ve always believed one has to be very intelligent to pull off comedy.

David Pagano: Allegedly, he had a photographic memory and would memorize the scripts which he had to do because if your face is in the camera as his was, you can’t be reading off a cue cards. He would be able to memorize 10 spots in a day for different radio stations. He would be able to do the exact same script and remember the city and then the next one. He had this ability and I’ve seen a lot of interviews where people refer to him as a walking encyclopedia. I think actress Erika Eleniak, his co-star from The Beverly Hillbillies, she would talk about Jim as a constant font of knowledge. People are constantly talking about how Jim would be holding court somewhere and just rattling off trivia or historical things. I think that’s where the gag in Ernest Scared Stupid comes from, in the writers room they had a conversation about the Ottoman Empire and it was ‘alright, well, let’s write this down.’

Jason: What was fan reaction like when they when they heard that this was happening? I imagine as you get closer to production, closer to editing and then release, fan awareness will really blow up. But from those who are aware of the project, what was their response?

David Pagano: People are just glad this is being made. Jim was like my surrogate father growing up. The person that I looked up to as a kid and who made me feel comfortable being from the southern United States. People talk about him as sort of a Fred Rogers because they both talk to the camera. One of the things about Ernest’s Southern-ness is that it’s not really the focus of his character. He’s just Southern. Some of the people we’ve talked to in the development of this film, and some fans have said ‘he made me feel okay with the way I sounded in terms of my accent.’ I think that’s important. The fans keep showing up because there’s no one person or one group that owns the rights to all the Ernest things, there’s no one area to get all of Jim Varney’s back catalogue. They exist in little pockets. Some people know him from the ads, some people know him from the Disney movies, some people know his entire back catalogue even better than probably we do. The fan reaction has been great. It’s also people who haven’t thought about Ernest or Jim in years remembering, ‘Oh, yeah, this guy was important to me.’ I’m hoping that continues, and I feel it will. I get the sense that fans are going to continue to come out of the woodwork and want to know more and want to be involved. So we’re trying to figure out ways to enable that in the best way we can.

Jason: What can fans of Ernest, fans of Jim, because they’re both intertwined—what do they have to look forward to seeing in your documentary?

David Pagano: The the three main things we want to talk about are creating a record of Jim’s career and Ernest’s filmography, so all of the possible behind-the-scenes and interviews and making-of stuff we can compile into that they can look forward to. Hopefully fans learn something about someone that they may already think they know everything about. Even Dan Butler, having worked with Jim directly for 15 years of his career has learned things he never knew about Jim. I can only imagine how the fans are going to react because it’s mind blowing. We want to capture all the stories from people who knew him and we want to celebrate the fans because without this groundswell of preserving Ernest and Jim’s legacy, if we didn’t have that foundation to build on, I don’t know that this documentary would be happening. That audience, that hunger to know more about this character and this performer. Those those are like the three main things I would say.

Jason: Thanks for speaking to us and hopefully when you’re on the other side of this journey we can chat again about the finished document on the life of Jim and his creation Ernest.

David Pagano: Thanks so much for the support.

Documentary filmmaker David Pagano
The Importance of Being Ernest producer and director David Pagano. Image submitted by David Pagano

For more information and if you wish to help out David Pagano and his team in completing The Importance of Being Ernest visit www.beingernestfilm.com

 

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out some of our others!

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Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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