Meet the director of Harry Dean Stanton’s final film

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Broadway Theatre
Oct. 26

Harry Dean Stanton — the star of Paris, Texas and Repo Man and supporting performer in classics like Alien and Pretty in Pink — died in September. He was having a banner year: a role in the Twin Peaks revival and a rare leading man role in the incredibly timely Lucky, a movie that’s a perfect bookend to Stanton’s career.

Lucky is a fixture in his small New Mexico community, an atheist who sticks to his routine as if his life depended on it. When a health scare sends him into a tailspin, the possibility of death forces him to reevaluate his place in society and his stance on religion.

The great thing about Lucky is that there’s no big drama, no reconciliations and no long-buried secrets revealed — just a nonagenarian coming to terms with his life decisions. Stanton is not quite the character, but they’re similar enough that you can recognize the pathos. Despite a supporting cast that includes David Lynch, Ron Livingston and Ed Begley Jr. as town denizens, this is Harry Dean’s movie and his command of the screen is incredible.

Another character actor in this compelling but obviously complicated endeavor makes his debut behind the camera. John Carroll Lynch is Hollywood’s classic “that guy”, someone who found his way into movies by Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) and the Coen Brothers (Fargo). You may recognize him as the most likely suspect in David Fincher’s Zodiac or as the deranged clown who frequents American Horror Story.

I sat down with Lynch in Toronto. A film scholar and self-aware like few of his peers, there’s more to him than his hundred supporting roles.

How do you direct Harry Dean Stanton?

He was never going to act, he was always going to be Harry Dean Stanton. That has been his foundational keystone for 50 years. He wouldn’t respond to character or structural notes. It was a way for him to gauge if the story was truthful, and whether or not he could live in it. In my experience of watching film actors, nobody had a stronger sense of ‘being in film’ than Harry Dean Stanton. The Straight Story wouldn’t work without his performance, no matter how good Richard Farnsworth is in it. The emotional impact of the film is in the last five minutes and, without Harry Dean’s ability to go from vendetta to regret to forgiveness to love in five minutes without saying anything, it wouldn’t work.

What were the logistical challenges of having a 90-year-old lead?

Technically, he was 89. We finished a week before he turned 90. We staggered the schedule because we wanted to make sure he was as fresh as possible. Keep in mind Harry Dean was 89 and there was nothing wrong with him. We had three-day weekends and took time between locations. That being said, the shooting was physically and emotionally taxing for him.

What was about this story that made you want to direct it?

I’ve been trying to leverage myself into the director’s chair for a while and this one came together. What attracted me was the idea of a man realizing he may not have many years left. To get to a place of resolution, he didn’t have to reconnect with a child, jump from a plane or tame a bronco. He just changed his perception of his own life and discovered he was not alone: the town he kept himself separate from had actually been holding him up this whole time. Lucky felt more real to me because it’s an interior journey people actually experience.

Given your experience working with Scorsese, Fincher and the Coens, what practices did you learn that you applied in Lucky?

The thing I appreciate about all the masters I worked with is that they no longer worry about how to do this. They just want to tell a story, and the ‘how’ is based on the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. That is an actionable approach. I’m not quite there, but it’s something to aspire to.

Both you and Harry Dean have been described as “character actors”. How do you feel about the term?

I embrace it. It hasn’t hurt me at all. For many people, being a “character actor” means you’re not going to get laid in the movie, there won’t be a romantic interest of any kind, and if there is one, it’s abhorrent in some way. You wear overalls and play a lot of cops. I don’t think the term means much of anything nowadays, except in the relationship with the audience. If they recognize you — your face and not your name — they know they are in good hands.

Do you think Harry Dean knew this was his final performance?

Absolutely not. He saw Lucky for what it was, not an elegy but a celebration. I don’t think he knew if he was going to work again, but by choice not because of death. He was a guy who wanted to do nothing, and rest after.