EXCLUSIVE: Cleopatra Films, the upstart pic division of Cleopatra Records, has set a movie on seminal Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The film will be powered by the recollections of the band’s drummer, Artimus Pyle, who survived the 1977 plane crash that killed three members of the band, including lead singer, songwriter and front man Ronnie Van Zant. In the intervening years, Pyle has played with a re-formed version of the band and still plays Skynyrd tunes in his own band. But Skynyrd never came close to reaching the heights it did before the tragic crash of a chartered Convair CV-240 aircraft, when Skynyrd was establishing itself as a preeminent American band.
Jared Cohn will direct a script he’s co-writing with Pyle, and the actual crash will be a major part of the plot. David Sterling and Cleopatra’s Brian Perera is exec producing and Tim Yasui is co-producer. They plan to shoot later this year, and are still working on tying down rights to include some of the band’s music, along with compositions by Pyle. There has been disputes over the band’s legacy, and that complicates the effort.
Pyle, who helped pull some of the other survivors to safety — Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed, along with three others, while 20 survived — said his ambition for the film is to not only share his painful recollections of that fateful day, but also to remind how much was lost when the crash cut down a band that was only just coming into its own, despite its string of now iconic songs fueled by the smart lyrics and charisma of its bare-foot front man Van Zant.
“When that plane crashed, we were at the top of the world man,” Pyle told Deadline. “I mean, we could play with any band — any band, whether it was the Rolling Stones, anyone, and we would hold our own or better. I think of that accident every day and what we might have accomplished if we’d have ten more years. But I’m very proud of the band; I love the music and I love playing it still. I love hearing the stories, every time I play a gig now and meet people. And I know the only reason people know my name is because of Ronnie Van Zant. We want this to be a good movie that tells a very passionate, intimate story about the music and the band and a rise and fall that happened so suddenly. I want the movie to portray my band members the way they were: real, funny people who loved the music, loved the success that allowed us to be able to travel the world and play for kings and queens all over this planet. Of course, there is the tragedy, us being on this airplane that ran out of fuel after a performance in Greenville South Carolina that became the last place Ronnie Van Zant ever sang Free Bird. It’s incredibly personal and passionate to me and I want the movie going public to be able to share the laughs and the tears.”
Pyle said that he and former bandmate Gary Rossington are now the last two band members who walked away from the crash. He said he loves Rossington, but they don’t play together anymore because of disputes with heirs and management. Pyle preferred to dwell on his memories of the heyday of a band that really hit its stride when Van Zant brought in guitarist Steve Gaines to add muscle to the band’s sound. Van Zant was a complex front man; proud of being a Southern man, while acknowledging the contradictions that came with that. The band’s backdrop was a confederate flag; but one of its biggest hits was Saturday Night Special, an early impassioned call for sensible gun control. Van Zant also went right back at Neil Young for his song about racism in the South — Southern Man — in the band’s biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama.
“I have to say, Ronnie was not a racist in any way; if you were a good person, Ronnie loved you,” Pyle said. “Sweet Home Alabama‘s answer to Neil Young was simply saying, ‘hey, Neil, not all men from the South are racist.’ You know, Neil and Ronnie were going to write a song together, and can you imagine, Southern Man meets Sweet Home Alabama and the two of them writing a song about where we are now? But Neil was in Australia and we were in Japan, and then vice versa, and we could just never get the two guys together. And that Confederate flag? MCA Records kind of nudged him to use it to promote a Southern band, and to us it just meant we were proud of being from the South. They loved living in the South, so did I and people all over the world love the South. That’s my take on it. You mentioned Steve Gaines, by the way, and that is one of the biggest heart breaks, the potential that Ronnie and Steve had begun showing. What if we’d had another ten years? We’re thankful for what we got, but Ronnie loved having Steve around and being able to write with him. You can see a moment in Free Bird…The Movie, where we were on a stage with the Rolling Stones, in front of 300,000 people. Steve Gaines is taking this guitar solo and you can see a smile come over Ronnie’s face that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I knew Ronnie as well as anyone, roomed with him for years, and you can just see Ronnie thinking to himself, man am I smart for getting this guy in my band.”
Pyle stopped short of calling himself a screenwriter, though he is writing a book on his life that should come out alongside the film. Pyle said he spent 20 hours pouring his heart into painstakingly recreating every second of the worst day of his life for co-writer and director Jared Cohn. “This is a much deserved movie for the fans of Skynyrd, and for people who’ll become fans after they see it and I”m grateful that Cleopatra is stepping up the way it has, when nobody else was willing to go against the powers that be, to get this story told,” Pyle said.