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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What do you make of the criticism directed at the film that the biopic genre or format is intrinsically bourgeois? That’s the most crazy criticism. That’s an excuse for not engaging with the content of the movie. Film critics sometimes, you know, can be very lazy.

Come on, formal criticism is valuable too. But I’m amazed when this is the thing they put in front of the discourse. My situation is that I’m dealing with a highly explosive subject, a taboo subject that nobody wants to deal with.

Karl Marx? Yes, this is the first film ever in the Western world about Marx. And I managed to make an almost mainstream film out of it. You want me at the same time to play the artist and do a risky film about the way my camera moves and the way I edit? No, it’s complicated enough! The artistic challenge — and it took me ten years with Pascal to write this story — was the writing. That was the most difficult part. We were making a film about the evolution of an idea, which is impossible. To be able to have political discourse in a scene, and you can follow it, and it’s not simplified, and it’s historically true. This is the accomplishment. So when someone criticizes the formal aspects without seeing that first, for me, it’s laziness or ignorance. There’s an incapacity to deal with what’s on the table. I make political films about today, I’m not making a biopic to make a biopic. I don’t believe in being an artist just to be an artist. And by the way, this film cost $9 million. I dare anyone in the United States to make this film for $9 million.
Raoul Peck on The Young Karl Marx

“The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.

“The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.”All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.

“If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be?”
~ Raymond Chandler, “Oscar Night In Hollywood,” 1948