For fans of 70s cinema, Hal Ashby is considered on the greatest auteurs of his generation. In nine years, he directed seven films which would become classics of the decade. All this after a remarkable career as an editor that earned him an Oscar. But if his name isn’t familiar as Spielberg or Scorsese, director Amy Scott has made a film hoping to change all that.
Simply titled Hal, Scott uses clips from his films and interviews with those who knew him well (along with directors of today who consider him an influence) to explore the brief life and career. Like Ashby himself, Scott’s career as an editor turned director, making Hal an ideal fit of director and subject.
Lesley Coffin: Were you initially familiar with his work as an editor or primarily connected to his work as a director?
Amy Scott: I think I knew of him first and foremost because of the films he directed. And like most people I was introduced to him as a teenager, when a lot of people really connect with his misfit past. And then as I learned about him, I realized what a brilliant editor he was, and I took a very similar path in terms of finding editing as my entry into filmmaking. I always felt a kinship with him, just as a director, and then when I started editing I started researching other editor and just realized how many films he cut that I really loved. But because I had my own background in editing and knew what it was like to essentially living in the dark whole of the edit bay for months as you create your own reality, I felt like I understand who he was and could understand why he made the choices he made.
Lesley Coffin: Before we start talking about his directorial career, I wanted to ask you a little about his career as an editor. Among editors, is he considered one of the pioneers of the profession?
Amy Scott: He kind of cut films the way a lot of documentarians would. He’d hold on a shot a little longer than would be expected, sometimes a little too long. He’d get very experimental with his editing. But you can’t talk about his editing style without talking about Pablo Ferro. They had such a collaborative friendship and were working together a lot, talking over ideas. When you look at The Thomas Crown Affair, the way that film’s cut is insane. It was just revolutionary, but they came together and really thought out this idea, “how do you show action happening simultaneously on the same screen.” And that was a collaborative effort. His work on In the Heat of the Night is incredible and he really deserved that Oscar. In the movie The Cincinnati Kid, he opens the film like a documentary, really showing audiences the reality of a New Orleans funeral. And they feel like something you could see in one of his films, I see what crafted him into the director he would become. They’re just so perfectly Hal Ashby. So much attention to detail but focusing intently on real, human moments.
Lesley Coffin: What’s so interesting about a scene like that, compared to the opening credits in The Landlord, the use of music and editing to create the mood and tone of the environment shows how he came into directing?
Amy Scott: The Landlord is a crazy film, it’s his directorial debut but he took so many liberties and was quite daring in his approach. He made some really bold choices in choosing to make that film and how he choose to tell the story. But I know what you mean, the opening titles montage is so brilliant in that film. Neil Young was supposed to do that music for that film, which seems wild because the music fits so perfectly. But I kept trying to find the rumored Neil Young score, but I don’t think a score really exists.
Lesley Coffin: And he’s one of the first directors to really use soundtracks to drive the film, clearly inspiring a lot of directors we have now who are praised for their use of music. The choice to use Cat Steven’s music in Harold and Maude compared to the way the Mavis Sister’s open The Landlord with a song that just builds, or the Rolling Stones just start Coming Home with a bang. It’s easy to forget that that wasn’t common.
Amy Scott: His use of music was pretty revolutionary. I just think, “How did they afford all that music?” in Coming Home. The entire movie is almost wall to wall popular music. And making this film and having to license music, you realize how expensive all that music is.
Lesley Coffin: Because of how unique his own directorial style was, what choices did you make regarding your own directorial style on this film, so it felt appropriate to tell his story in a way that fit his personality?
Amy Scott: We thought a lot about that, because we didn’t want to make a documentary that felt too traditional, it wouldn’t have been right to tell his story that way. I was sort of simultaneously in all the stages of production while making the film, because I would start editing as soon as I finished an interview, and then go do another interview. We had this living edit that was constantly evolving, which is probably good and bad. But I think I really wanted to make a film that never felt heavy-handed, because he didn’t do that. We didn’t just do an overview of his career or just talk about his greatest achievements. The greatest struggle I had was selecting those perfect moments in the film that could lead us into talking about his life. We all have our favorite scenes, but those weren’t necessarily the scenes that told the story of Hal Ashby’s life and his journey. We felt we had an incredibly high standard to live up to because he never wanted to be considered a phony, that was important to him, and he was a great filmmaker.
Lesley Coffin: How did you select the people to be interviewed in the film?
Amy Scott: I knew that I needed a core group involved very early, especially because a lot of them are very old and some of the people I interviewed are no longer with us. We needed people who worked in films in the 70s that could talk about that time in Hollywood. Norman Jewison was on the top of the list because he was his mentor, Jane Fonda was someone I approached early because she’s such a force and she essentially got Coming Home made. The Bridges brothers, Beau and Jeff, were of course necessary because they were in his first and last movies. And we also wanted some people who wouldn’t have as flowery recollections to get a fuller picture of who he was. The hardest person to interview was his daughter Lee. I didn’t know how I would be received and understandably, she’s very protective of her relationship with him.
Lesley Coffin: When you spoke with her and spoke of her admiration for his work but also the pain she still experiences from feeling abandoned and maybe neglected, did that change your own feelings about him?
Amy Scott: It actually did. I was having children at the time that I was making this film. And I had a rough cut of the film and felt really great about the film. And then I became a mom and interviewed Lee. And hearing her whole story, I found it really tragic and kind of unbelievable that he did that. In the end, both she and I forgive him, although her forgiveness is the only important one to consider really. But I had to reconcile the decisions he made in that part of his life with the decisions he made as an artist. But having that part of the story included made the film better. He was a flawed person, and that’s probably what allowed him to go so deep into the lives of these other flawed people in his movies. He understood from the inside out what it meant to be a damaged, flawed person. So once I was over being mad at him, I managed to elevate the edit into something that was more interesting and honest.
Lesley Coffin: Someone said in the film that Hal Ashby’s probably one of the most admired directors among younger filmmakers. I think of someone like Wes Anderson, who is always included in that group, but I see that influence on his aesthetics more than his storytelling. Are there directors you think really capture the spirit of Hal Ashby’s best work work?
Amy Scott: I think the comparisons people have made to Wes Anderson and Hal Ashby’s work are really just people thinking of the style of Harold and Maude. He sets up these very symmetrical shots and pairs them with killer soundtracks. But you’re right, that’s probably where his influence on Wes Anderson pretty much ends. I think if there’s any director working right now that captures the spirit of Hal Ashby’s humanistic approach, its David O. Russell, especially now. He makes these little, interpersonal dramas, about flawed human beings that reflects on a larger social issues. He told these small, empathetic stories, but made that cool. Something like Silver Linings Playbook could have easily been a Hal Ashby film.
Lesley Coffin: What led to the decision to cast Ben Foster to give voice to Hal Ashby?
Amy Scott: I kept thinking, “Are people going to be confused?” Because we have the real voice of Hal, but we had to subtitle that because he’s such a stoner mumbler that you can’t clearly hear what he’s saying. But we also had his letters, so whoever we cast couldn’t just be doing an impression of him, but they also couldn’t go over the top with their performance. The person we cast would have to understand his personality and have the same passion Hal had about his work. And if you’ve seen some of Ben’s films, you’ve seen how fully he puts himself into his characters. So I just wanted to ask him if he would consider the project, I thought he’d really understand. If he read those letters and heard Hal’s audio, Ben could definitely get inside his head. And I obsessed about asking him for months before I finally brought it up to our producers, and I finally said, “Do you know about this actor, Ben Foster?” And my producer’s was like, “I went to grade school with him, yeah we can ask him.” And it ended up being so easy to ask him and he said yes and was just the coolest guy. And I love it because I think his voice really works in the film.
© Lesley Coffin (9/12/18) FF2 Media
Photos: Hal Ashby & Amy Scott