Feature on Filmmaker Hal Ashby

February 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Okay, this entry isn’t an “interview” per se, but a feature.  Unfortunately, the amazing Mr. Ashby passed away when I was just a teen. But I DID interview the following Ashby collaborators and devotees for this piece;  Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid, Noah Baumbach, Robert Towne, Norman Jewison, Bud Cort and Bruce Dern.

These incredible people loved Ashby and so were kind enough to give me their time to sing his praises. Please enjoy. He’s one of my favorites.

It was a grey Friday morning in 1978, Malibu still wrapped in fog and damp, the sun yet to burn off the gloom. A longhaired, lanky man in jeans and an unkempt beard was standing barefoot in the wet sand, staring intently into the surf with a bemused grin. He was looking for something out there, and the grin was a sign that he’d found it.

Hal Ashby had by then already established himself as a maverick director and editor, a consummate outsider who had helmed cult classics Shampoo, Being There, and Harold and Maude (which celebrates it’s 35th anniversary this year), as well as incisive social and political explorations such as The Last Detail and Bound For Glory. He’d won an Oscar and had been nominated for several others, and as a director he would eventually lead his actors to a total of ten Academy wins.

With a reputation for adventurousness and a stubborn dismissal of studio authority, Ashby had unwittingly fashioned himself a kind of Hollywood outlaw, a lone ranger whose dedication to his work had won the loyalty of some of the great performers of the time. His co-conspirators included Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers and Julie Christie, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern.

It was Dern who standing beside Ashby in that pre-dawn mist of 1978, looking hard into the same water.  The two were on the tail end of production of Coming Home, a raw and ragged exploration of the Vietnam War, starring Dern, Voight and Jane Fonda. The film would go on to garner a total of three Academy Awards, but that early morning the project was still in incubation.

Ashby and his cast were moving toward the film’s climax, a high action culmination involving a car chase and more than a few helicopters. But something wasn’t right, and as the final hour approached, Ashby, in his usual freewheeling, seat of the pants form, had decided to experiment.

“We had been out late, talking,” remembers Dern, “Hal had a feeling that the ending wasn’t going to work, that the movie he was making was supposed to finish in a different way. He didn’t know quite what he wanted, but he knew he needed to push things.”

Ashby, a plan germinating, convinced Dern to meet him a few hours later – in costume – just to see where those things might go.

“He didn’t tell the studio,” explains Dern, “or any of the other actors. I showed up at the beach and it was just the cinematographer and Hal with his hair blowing in the wind. It was freezing. And Hal told me to go into the water. My character had always been scripted as breaking down in the end, but it had been big and violent. Hal wanted to end it quietly and poignantly. So he asked me to take off my military uniform and walk naked into the water. And that’s what I did.”

Ashby spent the weekend frantically editing a rough cut of the film. On Monday afternoon he presented it to the rest of the cast and crew.

“I remember when the film ended, there was this complete silence,” says Dern, “because no one had known he was changing the ending. He’d done it all on the sly. So there was this stunned silence. Then Jane Fonda turned around and looked at Hal and I and said ‘You two bastards have just made our film into a masterpiece.”

Working parallel with Scorsese, Altman and Coppola, Hal Ashby was an integral part of the revolutionary crew who carved out the new cinema of the 1970s. He is also, in some ways, the most neglected. Despite a prolific output that includes some of the era’s finest work, there is a staggeringly small amount of recognition. People know Hal’s movies, but they rarely know his name.

“He wanted the films to come before himself,” explains Dern, “The importance was in what the films said. He always had an intense desire to expose the real truth of things.”

“A lot his characters are people who are being oppressed, by society or the government, and they’re standing up to it in their own way,” continues Randy Quaid, who would work on three of Ashby’s films, most notably The Last Detail, “They may not win, but they at least make an attempt to stand for something – to stand up for themselves.”

For two decades, Ashby elaborated, in various ways, upon these themes of truth and individualism. With Harold and Maude, he created a love story that exists far beyond the confines of societal norms. In Bound For Glory Ashby traced the true-life story of folk hero and activist Woody Guthrie. The Last Detail and Coming Home are character studies that expose the hypocrisy of militaristic control.  Shampoo is a scathing indictment of the vapidity of Hollywood high society. And in Being There, Ashby and his star, Peter Sellers, fashioned one of cinema’s great characters, Chauncey Gardener, a simple-minded man, whose utter innocence transforms him into a kind of demi-god – a man who exists so far outside as to be nearly ethereal.

“In a way, Hal was Chauncey Gardner,” says scribe Robert Towne, who would work on several films with Ashby, including The Last Detail and Shampoo, “ he had an innocence to him, a child-like quality. There was something about him that was pure.”

Ashby first arrived in Hollywood in the early 1950s, via a long, rough road. The son of a Utah dairy farmer, his childhood had been colored in the dulled shades of the Great Depression, a poverty that had eventually worn his father to the point of suicide. Hal had been twelve when he’d discovered him in the barn, dead of a bullet wound to the head.

By age 17, Ashby was on his own, fleeing the constraints of a conservative Mormon household and too many bad memories. He worked odd jobs in Utah and Nevada and by the time he reached L.A., at age 19, he had been married and divorced and had established what was to become his lifelong world view – the perspective of the quietly defiant outsider.

“His childhood was no sweet treat,” says Sean Penn, who met Ashby in 1981, “But he had a lot of joy in him, despite what had happened. I think he’d experienced so much as a kid, anything he was experiencing in Hollywood was just small potatoes. So he’d always be laughing, and he had perspective about what was important.”

The years in Utah, the religious restraint, the grueling day-to-day of the farm, the tragedy of his childhood, had transformed Hal into a young man with a strong social consciousness and a total disdain for authority. In Los Angeles he found a stark and seductive contrast to what he had known before, a lushness and experimentation that suited him well. He had stumbled upon a place where he could defy the conservatism of his upbringing and begin to establish his own identity – both philosophically and aesthetically.

“He was a rare bird,” remembers Dustin Hoffman, who would work with Ashby in the early stages of Tootsie, “way before there were hippies, he dressed the way he wanted to dress. I remember thinking that when I first met him – oh my god, look how long his hair is!’ If you didn’t know what he did, you would guess that he was a poet or that he is a painter. He had that feel to him.”

Just after arriving in Los Angeles, Ashby found a job working the printing press at Universal Studios. It wasn’t long before his distinctive look and easy charm nestled him snugly within inner loop of assistants and mailroom clerks looking to work their way up. Making up for time lost to his rural past, Ashby fell quickly in love with film, both the end product and the complexities of the process. He began lingering in the editing rooms, keeping the nightshift company and ingratiating himself until he was finally asked to step in and try his hand.

Working as an assistant editor for numerous studios, Ashby found a mentor in Bob Swank, who edited films for Hollywood stalwart William Wyler.  It was during his tenure with Swank, that Ashby would first meet Norman Jewison, an up and coming young director who would play an integral role in Ashby’s future.

“I was a huge admirer of William Wyler, so I’d gone in to talk with Swank and there was this long-haired, crazy looking guy there, who was helping to edit these incredible movies,” recalls Jewison, “We bonded immediately. Hal was always a little outrageous and we considered ourselves brothers in some way, renegades. We were both very political and liberal and we knew exactly what kind of projects we wanted to make.”

When Jewison was offered his fifth film, 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid, he persuaded MGM to hire Ashby on as editor.

“I said, ‘how about you be my editor?’ and he just smiled and said, “Man, I’d love that,’” laughs Jewison, “so I told the studio, ‘if you hire me, you hire Hal’. I was willing to put myself on the line for him, because he was brilliant and I knew it.”

The partnership was tremendously rewarding for both men. With Ashby on board as his editor, Jewison fought for scripts that echoed some aspect of the social issues the two were so desperate to explore. One of their most poignant collaborations was In the Heat of The Night, a taut drama exploring racial tensions that would win Ashby the Oscar for Editing in 1967.

By the late Sixties, Jewison had realized that Ashby’s skills could go far beyond the editing room. When another project called him away from a film he had been asked to direct, Jewison suggested that Ashby step in, providing his friend with yet another a catalyst.

“I always knew that when he got the chance to direct”, admits Jewison “he would prove he was a much finer director than I was.”

The film, a small, tightly scripted exploration of racial inequality, called, The Landlord, was the perfect fit for Ashby. With this directorial debut, released in 1970, Ashby would lay a foundation for what would become his few definably trademarks.

The gritty documentary feel and framing of The Landlord would mark all his future films, lending his work a distinct visual intimacy. He would eventually find a like-minded cinematographer and frequent collaborator in Haskell Wexler, who helped to define a verity style that matched the mood of Ashby’s films. The two developed a loose, informal way of shooting that lifted the veil from the characters and brought the audience directly into the fold.

“He was always pushing for technical innovation,” remembers Quaid, “On Bound For Glory, he used a Steadicam- for one of the first times ever. In fact, the inventor of the Steadicam was the camera operator on that film. He was never afraid to break out and try new things.”

Ashby was also natural storyteller, in the manner of the folk musicians of his childhood. He spoke of real things – those small moments that culminate in catharsis. There was an underpinning of unaffected earnestness, an honesty – that would thread through each and every one of his projects.

“You take something like Harold and Maude, which in the hands of a lesser director might be a difficult film to make,” says Quaid, “You have a love story between suicidal young man and an older woman who loves life. You have the humor in that and the pathos, and the real human emotions between these two people. That movie particularly epitomizes the essence of Hal – and his philosophy.”

Ashby’s outlook was in direct contrast to many of his contemporaries. Instead of brash ego, there was an easy-going humility. On set, he was soft-spoken, mellowed. He embraced Seventies counter-culture whole-heartedly, in the tone of his work and particularly with his soundtracks, which often featured music from rock innovators such as Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

Ashby also relied on marijuana for both inspiration and as a method of subduing the frustrations that came with studio-filmmaking. This openness to experimentation with drugs would eventually lead Ashby down a darker path, but for many years marijuana was a helpful, rather than harmful, vice.

“The first day I was on Last Detail,” remembers Quaid, “I got the hotel and went to Hal’s room and I remember someone came in with a huge garbage bag filled with grass, saying, ‘ I got the supply for the movie!’.  That was the way Hal was, but somehow it never affected his work.”

“It didn’t alter him,” says Hoffman of Ashby’s marijuana use, “ He never appeared stoned. It was a counter-culture badge  to him and a kind of self-medication. He knew all the different varieties, and could talk about it like some people talk about wine.”

Hoffman laughs.

“I remember doing work on Tootsie and I was up at his place at the beach and Hal was smoking. And I said,  ‘Hal, I just gotta ask you this. Have you been smoking a long time?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah. Years and years and years.’ I said, ‘Did you ever stop? I’m just curious.’ And he said, ‘A few years I ago, I did this experiment and stopped smoking for about a month.’ And I said, ‘How did you feel?’ And he just looked at me, thought about it, and said – very matter of fact.  ‘About the same!’ Then he took another hit.”

Ashby deliberately stood outside convention, both in his style and his attitude. And in many ways, Ashby’s characters would consistently mirrored Ashby himself.  His suicidal Harold and life-affirming Maude were two distinct aspects of his own personality. He embraced Woody Guthrie’s defiance, understood the pathos and desire that propelled Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to lonely isolation. And perhaps most resonantly, Ashby was a willing innocent, searching always for ways to maintain Chauncey Gardner’s stubborn naiveté.

“In Zen there’s the Beginner’s Mind, the childlike, innocent, open mind,” remembers Jeff Bridges, who worked on Ashby’s, 8 Million Ways to Die, “and that was Hal.”

“He had such a special sense of humor, an irony and a buoyancy to him,” says Jon Voight, who starred in two Ashby films, Coming Home and Looking to Get Out, “and he was totally unique. Not of this earth, in some ways. He was the definition of a true individual.”

This combination of individualism and naiveté seemed to have endeared Ashby to his collaborators, in particularly, his actors, who saw him as both nurturing and protective.

“He was always inclusive,” recalls Quaid, “After a few takes, he’d say, ‘well, I’ve got what I want, do want to try anything else?’ He was always encouraging you and not walking away from a scene unless you were both satisfied. And you just want to give your all to someone like that.”

“He worked in an observatory way”, explains Hoffman, “He loved actors and, I think, his actors probably loved him as much as any director they ever worked with.”

“I always wished I could have worked with him,” says Sean Penn, “I remember hearing a story once about the first day of filming on The Last Detail, and Randy Quaid was really giving it all, he was nervous, he was pushing it. And Hal apparently said, ‘Take it easy Randy, you don’t have to do the whole movie today’. I always loved that. That ease he must have had.’”

By all accounts, Ashby was not a dictator on set, but rather a kind a maternal figure – able to step aside to allow his films to grow of their own accord. On Shampoo, he engaged both writer Robert Towne and star Warren Beatty in open, give and take collaboration.

“Hal was the easiest guy to talk to,” remembers Towne, “It wasn’t always so much what he said, but it was him being there – it tended to make you think better. I remember not wanting to work anymore on the script for Shampoo. Then Hal and I took a drive and by the time we got from Ventura to Mulholland I had more to say about the script then I’d ever dreamed possible. I don’t know what he said, but I was suddenly inspired. He could do that to you.”

“Hal would create a route to follow,” says Voight, “ but he’d let the story tell itself. He’d never push for an effect or an emotion that wasn’t naturally coming out. Which made for a lot of very naturalistic behavior.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, there has never been an easy label for Ashby, no pigeonhole to place him in. Coppola has his grandiosity, Scorsese his streetwise precision. Altman is the rambler, the improviser, Allen the clown, De Palma the sensationalist.

The thread sewn through Ashby’s oeuvre is much less tangible. There is that distinctly documentary visual take and the inherent vulnerability of his characters, but his films can take the form of slapstick comedy, high drama, even action flick, with equal ease.

“He didn’t need to stamp his name on things,” explains Hoffman, “He was totally uninterested in a movie saying ‘an Ashby film’.  He wanted the work to be at the forefront.”

“There is no trademark to his work, except for Hal’s heart,” says Penn, “He didn’t want anything to take away from the story, not even himself. I think he needed his scripts to speak some truth to him first. And when they did, it was that truth that was most important to convey.”

By the mid-Seventies, Ashby’s reputation was firmly established as both a brilliant director and a virile opponent to studio interference. He was a glorified outlaw, willing to fight for his vision, or a stubborn thorn in the side of the industry, depending on whom you asked. Ashby guarded his films like a lioness over her cubs. He was notorious for erupting into obscenities at executive meetings and for lashing out at anyone that attempted to sully the purity of his creations.

“The studios were basically frightened of him, because he was their total antithesis,” says Hoffman, “As sweet as he was, he was a tough guy. You could not move him if he felt the enemy was in the room. And the enemy was anyone who was going to make him compromise what he felt was the truth of what he was doing.”

“At times I was just running interference for Hal with various people,” recalls Jewison, “ ‘will you talk to him? He’s locked us out of the cutting room!’ To both of us, the freedom of the individual artist was most important- it was more important than money or anything else.”

“He wanted to protect what he felt was important,” continues Hoffman, “what he felt was pure, untainted. One of the reasons he was feared so much by the studios, was because he wasn’t concerned with success or failure, but was only driven by what he felt was his sense of truth.”

By the end of the Seventies, Ashby’s battles with the studio higher-ups had essentially paralyzed him. He had come of age as a director in an era that condoned, even nurtured this kind of rebellion, but the times were quickly changing. As the decade came to a close, studios began functioning in an entirely different manner, the age of the blockbuster, just beginning to transform Hollywood entirely.

More and more often, Ashby began to see himself blockaded. Doors closed all across town. Projects withered on the vine. One of the biggest blows came in 1981, when after working with Dustin Hoffman over the course of two years developing Tootsie, Ashby was suddenly taken off the project. Columbia, citing legal issues, fired him just weeks before they were scheduled to begin shooting.

The incident coincided with a particularly trying period of Ashby’s life. His relationships were feeling the strain of his total commitment to his work and a cocaine addiction had also surfaced, only momentarily, but long enough to sour Ashby’s reputation further.

“ He had an obsession with film to a point that went beyond anything I had seen in anyone,” says Norman Jewison, “it destroyed five marriages and it destroyed a lot of relationships. Let’s face it, Hal could be very abrasive when he was opposed or when people tried to change the colors in his painting.”

“Anything he made, he had to fight for tooth and nail to create,” remembers Harold and Maude star Bud Cort, “I was with him to the end and saw him become progressively more and more hurt by the business. It wasn’t possible to corrupt Hal, but it was possible to break his heart.”

Exhausted by near constant confrontations with the studios – arguments over final cuts, legal hassles and irreparable differences of opinion, Ashby helplessly watched as the bridges burned. Inevitably, these clashes took their toll. In 1982, while shooting The Rolling Stones concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Ashby collapsed on set. Sick, fatigued and becoming more and more embittered by his inability to communicate with the studio moneymen, Hal retreated to his Malibu home.

“He’d been beaten,” remembers Bruce Dern, “they just wore him down.  All he wanted to do was make films, but suddenly there was no one who would let him do it.”

Essentially blacklisted by the same studios he where he had created such endearing classics, Ashby struggled to find work. He succeeded occasionally, shooting a music video for Neil Young, a few TV productions and finally, a film -1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die.

“Working on that film was in some ways a bittersweet experience,” remembers Jeff Bridges, “The studios didn’t trust him. That was frustrating for us, because we loved him and we knew that he could produce a true masterwork, because he’d done it many times before. But he didn’t get final cut.”

“He may have lost of the trust of the studio, but never of his actors,” Bridges continues, “He was fearless in his vision and he made you fearless too. He had the biggest creative balls of anyone I’ve ever known.”

8 Million Ways to Die would be Ashby’s last film. Soon after it’s release, he was diagnosed with cancer.

“He was still Hal, even when he was sick,” remembers Hoffman, “I remember staying with him at John Hopkins in Baltimore where he was operated on. After the surgery he tried to get out of the bed. He said, ‘Come on! Let’s get out of here. Let’s go get some crab cakes!”

“He was laughing to the end,” said Dern, “I’d go to see him while he was sick and the first thing he’d say is, ‘Dernsie, tell me something funny.’ He was trying to hold onto that joy he always had, despite the fact that he wasn’t done yet. He didn’t want to die.”

Ashby would succumb to the disease, after a long and arduous fight, on December 27th, 1988.

“The remarkable thing about Hal and his work, is that it’s still so relevant,” says Towne, “the films don’t age. The behavior is natural and nuanced and it doesn’t strive to hype any particular effect. I think that’s why Hal continues to impress people, to move them.”

In the 18 years since Ashby’s death, his films have managed to both retain their charm and seduce a new generation of admirers. Johnny Depp sites Ashby as one of his favorite directors. Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach has vocally praised films like The Last Detail and Harold and Maude.

“You look at those films, you read those scripts,” says Baumbach, “ and you can’t believe they actually were made. They were so honest and simple and human. There’s no tricks or explosions, just people relating to each other in a very true way. A script like that would just never be made today. It would be just too good.”

Director Richard Linklater, who is in the early stages of development on Last Flag Flying, a sequel to The Last Detail, calls Ashby – “the ultimate Hollywood Outlaw”.

“He had what I always felt was the ideal career,” says Linklater, “he told the stories he wanted to tell. And he was pure. You look at his work and that purity comes across.”

“I was just starting out when I met him,” remembers Sean Penn, “I was mentored by him. I spent time at his house, watching movies, talking movies, He took me under his wing and ultimately, that experience of knowing and loving Hal, was huge. He had more impact on me than any other filmmaker.”

If you look close, you’ll see his influence – everywhere. Young filmmakers are continuously striving to capture that freewheeling aesthetic, his quiet insistence on truthfulness.

“There are films out every year that pull from his inspiration,” says Bud Cort, “And I can understand why. He was not an egotistical director, which is rare and he was so good to his actors that it inspired endless creativity. He was giving birth to his actors every single second.”

That nurturing, the playing of midwife to the creative process, survives, still vibrantly apparent in nearly all of Ashby’s work.

“What was stronger than his films, was his soul, his strength,” remembers Hoffman, “When he was protecting the truth, he was a warrior. He was beautiful, sweet, loving, but also ferocious – a ferocious angel.”

Originally published in Premiere Magazine

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