By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: John Carroll Lynch Talks LUCKY And Harry

Some of the best performers in movie history have been character actors, and the late Harry Dean Stanton, who appeared in over 200 pictures before his death in September, was near the top of the list. For much of his career he was a stalwart supporting player, doing everything from westerns to gangster sagas, horror to science fiction, and Biblical epics to teen comedies. He was 58 when he starred in his first leading role, in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, a film that perfectly exploited Stanton’s laconic demeanor and soulful intensity. He lived to the ripe age of 91, and his farewell to us is one last leading role, a fictional version of himself, in the warm and intimate comic drama, Lucky.

For his directorial debut, character actor turned filmmaker John Carroll Lynch, working from a screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, drew on his own relationship with his star to craft a tender, funny portrait of a cantankerous desert loner nearing the end of his life. Lynch is one of Hollywood’s go-to guys, having worked with some of the industry’s best directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), John Woo (Face/Off), David Fincher (Zodiac), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island). The 6’3” native of Boulder, Colorado was on hand to talk about his film when Lucky had its Midwest premiere at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in the spring.

Why is Harry Dean Stanton iconic? I’m assuming his iconic status is partly why you chose to make Lucky.

Harry Dean’s truth, the sense of truth that he brings to every role, is incredible, and it really is about his willingness just to be in imaginary circumstances. That’s a very rare gift, the ability to be present in the way in which most people aren’t available. That kind of perfect moment in his work is the end of The Straight Story, where he silently brings the audience to the realization of the weight of this life-long grudge between two brothers. His understanding of the gesture that his brother has made [toward reconciliation] plays out in real time in front of you, but it’s not through camera movement, it’s not through words; it’s his willingness to absolutely live that moment.

He strikes me as brave. To live on film, you have to be open to express as much pain as joy.

I agree. And he was very brave in Lucky, because this material comes from his life. My job with him was to create Lucky’s fictional journey, one that wasn’t Harry’s [real-life] journey, but to do so through Harry’s words. So, it was a very weird relationship to the material. It doesn’t come from somebody else’s life; he is revealing himself in this movie, in a way that’s very personal.

You establish through repetitions—his morning exercises, his daily walks through town—how the character is set in his ways. And yet events occur that show he can still be open to new experiences, even if change makes him feel vulnerable.

You mean that he’s fragile. Yes, at the very beginning of the film, he thinks he’s finished. But life has a way of reminding us that we’re never finished. And I think that’s what this story is, about this man who consciously lived the life he did; he fought as a young man in World War II, so this is not the first time he’s thought about death. That’s what the movie is about, that we all have to come to terms with death, right now. And what’s great about it is that the screenplay works in some ways like Harry’s mind works, and I responded to that, because a meditation on one’s own death doesn’t have to be maudlin or self-pitying or cold. It just has to be true: that some time in our future, whether it’s today or 40 years from now, the lights are going to go out for us. That’s all we have to know to understand that this world, this moment, is precious.

My view is that whether you believe in God or have a strictly scientific view of the universe, life is both a gift and a responsibility. You owe it to make the most of what you’ve been given.

I think there is another thing in the story that is important, and that is: “I don’t live alone; I’m in a community.” Lucky can’t survive without the other people in this town, even though he ignores them. Part of what happens in the story is that he recognizes that he no longer can ignore these people; he can no longer simply love just one person, he has to love all of them.

Lucky is tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, and slow but steady, like the tortoise in the film. Is the tortoise a metaphor for Lucky’s life? 

It was important to me that in the screenplay eternity is represented by physical objects, and by animals in the world. That tortoise is going to outlive us. The saguaro is growing a quarter-inch each year, and it towers over Lucky. Eternity is here, right now; we don’t have to search for it, we don’t have to look for some outside world. Even though that’s perfectly fine as you say, whether you believe in God, or don’t believe in God, we still all have to look at eternity and make our peace with it. And that’s one of the tricky things about this material: this is not a scary movie; it’s clear-eyed, it’s straightforward, and it’s funny.

I love the regulars in the bar. They’re like a bunch of desert rats, showing the effects of maybe having spent too much time in the blazing sun.

I love that the writers created characters who have a little hitch in their get-along. They’re kind of held together by baling wire and chewing gum—like all of us, right? What’s great about that bar is that everyone’s accepted, no matter how crazy they are; whatever their mania or obsession is, there’s a place for it. No one is excluded; the only thing you can’t do is smoke.

You obviously greatly admire The Straight Story. Were there other movies that you watched, or asked your cast or crew to watch, that informed your choices as a director?

The Last Picture Show, a movie that I think inspired the writers. I really wanted to have vista in the movie. It was in the screenplay, but it was really important that the desert was a character, and you felt its vastness, its life, its vitality, its aridness. So, at some point during production, I asked everybody, “What if John Ford were to make a character piece?” We wanted the movie to feel like Ford’s Monument Valley sequences, in that Lucky is tiny, compared to the vastness of the world. We don’t live big lives, and what happens is that he comes to terms with that.

As an actor you have worked with a number of prominent directors. Can you name any who particularly influenced you?

As an actor, it took me a long time to figure out what I was interested in. I needed to learn how to act before I could figure out what I wanted to act in, and what I wanted to emphasize in my work. I’m a young director, in that I’ve directed one feature. But I will say this: every master director or co-directors that I’ve worked with are at a place in their careers where they know what they’re interested in, know what they’re passionate about, and they don’t care what you think—they are chasing their dream. Either you’re on for the ride, or you’re not. And I love that!

Because you know where you stand.

Because you know where you stand. As an actor I know what I’m chasing; I’m interested in flesh and blood, in wisdom and rawness. I hope if I have the good fortune of directing again, I’ll know a little bit more about what I’m chasing as a director.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin