The Director's Director The Director's Director
Issue 011

The Director's Director

by Jennifer Wachtell

June 20, 2008

Hal Ashby's movies captured a messy, post-1960s America in alternately hilarious and poignant ways. Here, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, and Jason Schwartzman talk about their favorites.

In the 1970s, Hal Ashby made a series of films so brilliant and yet so utterly different from one another that if you didn't know who the director was, you might not think they were made by the same person. His films move effortlessly from the lavish mansion in Being There, a comic and prescient look at the effects of television on America, to the grim Veterans' Administration Hospital and boardwalks of Venice Beach, California, in Coming Home. At his best, Ashby was able to make the personal political and the political personal, with humor and without boring the audience.It is not surprising that Ashby's films feel relevant at the moment, since our fragmented political climate isn't that different from the post-Vietnam-and-Watergate years in which they were made. But unlike their latter-day counterparts, Ashby's movies take on complicated subject matter without being reductive, telling stories through human relationships with no clean resolution. There is more said about American politics in Being There or about the women's movement in Shampoo than in so many of the films that take on those subject matters directly.During the late 1960s in Hollywood, the studios realized that there was something going on in the country that their corporate cultures didn't entirely understand, and that as a result, their movies were out of sync with younger audiences. Then along came the indie hit Easy Rider, and it became clear to executives that they might need to open things up and look for ideas in new places.Hal Ashby was a beneficiary of this new freedom, but he wasn't a kid fresh out of film school. He had hitchhiked to California, away from his Mormon family in Utah and what must have been a difficult childhood-there were financial problems, his parents divorced, and his father committed suicide when Ashby was 12.He had come up through the studio system, starting as a copyboy at Universal, a job he got through the unemployment office. He later worked as an apprentice editor, an especially arduous task before computers, and gradually became the editor on movies such as The Loved One and the original Thomas Crown Affair. He was said to be obsessed with his work, to the point of sleeping in the cutting room for days on end, and it took a physical toll.Ashby did find the time to become politically active, and was an early supporter of the civil-rights and antiwar movements. He had been married and divorced three times by the 1960s, and in keeping with the era, he switched from heavy drinking to smoking a lot of pot.In 1967, at the age of 38, Ashby was threatening to leave editing behind when he won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. In a fortunate twist of fate, Norman Jewison, for whom Ashby had edited several films, dropped out of directing The Landlord, and helped Ashby step into the project. Finally, at 40, Ashby had started his new career as a director, a rare transition for an editor, especially at his age. He seemed to enter this period of his career with a renewed openness and an experimental spirit. He used his difficult background to emphatically tell the stories of people who live on the edges of society.Ashby never received the acclaim enjoyed by contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese-even though he made a bunch of the best films of that period. A few things worked against him: His material was so varied and his touch so light that his body of work isn't easy to categorize.The important critics of his day, such as Pauline Kael, didn't love his work, and he was regarded as difficult to work with because of his strong antiauthoritarian streak. Sadly, his work fell off after the 1970s-some say because of drugs-and he died relatively young, of cancer, in 1988, before he could rebound and find his place again.We asked some of the writers and directors who have been influenced by his work to tell us about their favorite Hal Ashby movies. Here's what they had to say. -JENNIFER WACHTELLLEARN MORE See Peter Biskind's excellent Book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Alexander Payne on The Landlord

Hal Ashby directed an astonishing string of films in the 1970s-Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. His achievement grows even more staggering when one adds his little-known, little-seen debut feature, The Landlord.Norman Jewison, often interested in films about race relations, had developed The Landlord for himself to direct. Deciding instead to pursue Fiddler on the Roof, he agreed to produce The Landlord as the first feature directed by his Oscar-winning editor Hal Ashby.I don't want to tell you much about it. Discover it the way I did: Just see it. It contains all the gentleness, eccentric rhythms, oddball humor, brilliant editing, and deep humanism that mark his other films, and like his other films, it's utterly unique. The performances are sensational-particularly by Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Louis Gossett, Jr., and the great Diana Sands. Add cinematography by Gordon Willis-his third film-in case you need more convincing. All right, it's a little uneven at times, but so what? It's wonderful to watch a great artist still searching for economy of style.I fell in love with The Landlord in 2003, and watched it over and over again. Its look influenced Sideways more than any other film. Sadly, it's still not out on DVD, and the out-of-print VHS pans and scans the CinemaScope frame. TCM runs it every once in a while; try to find it there, or add to the cry for a DVD release.ALEXANDER PAYNE is a filmmaker and screenwriter. He directed and wrote Sideways, Election, and a segment in Paris, Je t'Aime, among others.LEARN MORE  The Landlord

Jason Schwartzman on Harold and Maude

Every Sunday since I can remember my family would go to the movie theater. I looked forward to these outings all week. Honestly? There is no question that I liked movies, but I think what I truly loved was the whole experience of going to them: finding a show time in the paper, looking for parking, buying tickets, and, hopefully, getting a popcorn.But, quite simply, movies were more about the time together with my family than about the actual film. Bill Murray, Dudley Moore, and Steve Martin couldn't compete with seeing my dad laugh till he cried.Then comes 1997. I was a senior in high school and was hoping to go to college and study music. I definitely hadn't planned on meeting Wes Anderson and being cast in his movie. When I found myself fortunate enough to be a part of Rushmore, my mother, hoping it could help me for the work ahead, suggested I watch three films: Dog Day Afternoon, The Graduate, and Harold and Maude.I put in Harold and Maude first.Holyshitfuckcrazyshit.From the second it started, my life as I knew it was over. For the first time, a film made me feel the way music always had. When two strings on a guitar are out of tune, they vibrate very quickly. And as the strings become more in tune, the vibration changes, it slows, and you can actually feel them become in tune. (Note: It gets cheesier.)Watching the movie, I felt myself become in tune with the TV screen. I felt warm. I felt stronger. I felt safe. I had never seen anything like it! Or rather, I had never seen anyone like Bud Cort before! This wasn't like Lethal Weapon, where Mel Gibson is blowing stuff up, or Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly dancing like some god or the Wizard of Oz, or Ghostbusters, for that matter. No! This had Bud Cort-someone I could all of sudden relate to. I could relate to his feelings. The frustration. The alienation. The anger. The desire to be acknowledged by the right person.
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This wasn't like Lethal Weapon, where Mel Gibson is blowing stuff up, or Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly dancing like some god ... No! This had Bud Cort-someone I could all of a sudden relate to.
He was the first actor that I ever felt close to. And I also think that I had never seen a film that was happy and sad and funny all at once. I was used to clear-cut genres. This is a Comedy. This is Drama. Harold and Maude, to my 17-year-old mind, was a whole new place. Anything could happen. I guess my life just kind of made sense to me in a single moment. I felt not so bad. And I watched it over and over while making Rushmore (thank you, Mom).To this day I still return to it. I don't know why it has always remained relevant. It is dated-but good dated. It aged well. Maybe it still works for me because the two main characters are like archetypes. He wants to grow up. Stop being young and move into manhood-which in a way is a death. She, too, is ready to move on and grow up, only her next step is death itself. So he wants to be a man and she wants to be dead. I think. I don't like to think about it too much.Ever since I watched Harold and Maude, my love for movies has shared a throne with music, as the major rulers of my life. I live my life for music and movies. I learned how to dress from watching Al Pacino. I learned how to shave from watching Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. And I learned how to press on from Bud Cort.JASON SCHWARTZMAN is an actor and writer who has starred in Rushmore, I Heart Huckabees, and most recently The Darjeeling Limited, which he co-wrote.LEARN MORE Harold and Maude

Wes Anderson on The Last Detail

WES ANDERSON: I have not had any luck trying to come up with anything. Maybe someone could ask me some questions, and I could try to answer them?GOOD: When was the first time you saw the movie?WA: I saw this movie in the library of the University of Texas at Austin in 1988, long before the advent of the DVD. They had little booths, and you could check out the movie with your student ID, but it could not leave the building. You would walk by the other booths and look in a window at each person watching their VHS tape. They were looking at Fellini movies and Fassbinder movies and Antonioni movies and that kind of thing because that was all you could get in the library. When I saw The Last Detail, I was struck by its stark sadness, and by the desperation of its characters to snap out of the monotony and repression of their gloomy, Eastern, military winter. That sentence is a bit much, but I'm trying to jam everything into it. The story is about two sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) delivering a third (Randy Quaid) cross-country up the coast to prison for eight years, and the trouble they try to get into to distract themselves along the way.G: Explain why you looked at this movie again in preparation for the last one you did -and what that means?WA: I watched this movie with my collaborators Roman [Coppola] and Jason [Schwartzman] because we were getting ready to make a movie about three sort of confused boys on a train, and The Last Detail follows more or less the same lines. Not to say that we stole our whole idea from it, but it crossed our minds. Also, this movie is always captivating, but it does not have a terrific plot, and maybe it might not have one at all-and that was encouraging to us because we didn't have one either.G: What did you and your DP get from this?WA: Well, my director of photography, Bob [Yeoman], and I have always liked this one because it has no colors in it. This is because they are in Navy uniforms in the snow.G: Were you looking at it for performance or just camera?WA: Whenever I am getting ready to make a movie I look at other movies I love in order to answer the same recurring question: How is this done, again? I can never seem to remember, and I don't mean that to be glib. I also hope people don't throw it back in my face. Making a movie is very complicated, and it seems like kind of a miracle when it actually works out. Hal Ashby made five or six great movies in a row, and that seems to be practically unheard of.
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Making a movie is complicated, and it's like a miracle when it actually works out. Hal Ashby made six great movies in a row-practically unheard of.
G: Is the political message analogous to anything that is going on at the moment?WA: This movie was made at the end of the war in Vietnam, but the sailors are "lifers," and they are stationed in the United States. They are waiting for their orders to come through. I guess it's kind of about military life more than it is about the war? They are a part of a system that rarely encourages kindness and individuality, but it gives them a direction. They can see in the field that their orders are not exactly rational-and this I think applies to our current war and that one? Robert Towne wrote this perfect script.G: Generally, what do you like about Hal Ashby, and why do you think the movies are worth seeing? Is this like his other movies, or are they all very different?WA: His movies are far beyond worth seeing. To me, they are some of the best movies ever made. Sometimes, like the opening scene and much of Coming Home, they almost resemble documentaries. Sometimes, for instance in the cases of Harold and Maude and Being There, they are quite surreal. There is a great range, and they contain great performances by some of the best actors of their time. They are authentic and original and very moving-but as I have started sounding like a book report again, I will make this my ending.WES ANDERSON is a writer and filmmaker. He directed, among others, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited.LEARN MORE The Last Detail

David O. Russell on Shampoo

The film opens in the dark, as soft strains of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," which will also end the film, trickle in with the sounds of Lee Grant and Warren Beatty getting it on. But we can't see them; we can only hear them. The first sound in the film is Beatty's sex grunt. The first time we see his face is when he answers the ringing phone in the dark and the keypad throws a soft orb of light from chin to brow. What a great opening, what a great shot, what great sounds, and music. What a great feeling. Even the title is fun and sexy-Shampoo!I was 17 when I saw it (six times, no exaggeration, in the theater with my friends), and I can still feel the beginning of that world in the film-a warm, mischievous, life-is-young-and-the-world-is-fun feeling, like when I was having sex with my high school girlfriend in her bedroom every weekend. Heaven. The film is the quintessence of what the world felt like to me in 1975 (though the film is set in 1968): loose, a little lost, a bit sweet, naïve, sincere. It's America, brimming with candy and possibilities, though we might still fuck it up and not figure out how to be happy (Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq?).In a way, the country is like the hair salon Beatty's character presides over in the film: Do we have enough bounty to hang ourselves? He is surrounded by a surfeit of beautiful, prosperous women every day as the only straight guy in this candy shop, and it's fantastic, but, wow, also a real pain in the ass, with the juggling of the women and all their needs and problems, plus his own, and no time to think. Is it fantastic or more a pain in the ass? Answer: Both. Hanging over all this is the classic 1970s welschmerz of "We are all so full of shit" with a post-1960s hangover of "Oh, grow up."There's the ominous feeling that Beatty's lothario is dropping the ball on getting married and settling down (an ironically old-fashioned measuring stick), the way Nicholson couldn't settle down in Five Easy Pieces, leading a way of life Nicholson's character describes as "auspicious beginnings" that never come to maturation. Yet in Shampoo, Beatty's character and Ashby's direction also show how the establishment is just as full of shit as the kids in the candy store. The banker is too dim to understand the investment value of Beatty's gifted hairdresser, and the rich older crowd at the election dinner doesn't understand Nixon, or the portent of what is happening politically.The film has all the natural comedic ease and dramatic understatement (which can be powerful) of Hal Ashby's direction, but you can't talk about Shampoo without talking about Beatty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne, and produced it. No other writer-actor (and director, though not on this picture) embodied all this American bounty, indulgence, sexiness, careless fun, and self-critical intelligence more than Beatty, especially in this picture. He is harried (as only Beatty can be harried) and yet focused, disheveled yet elegant, courteous yet rakish, befuddled yet sharp. America, right? This comparison is working.
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Set in 1968, Shampoo is the quintessence of what the world felt like to me in 1975: loose, a little lost, a bit sweet, naïve, sincere. It's America, brimmingwith candy and possibilities, thoughwe might still fuck it up.
Ashby creates a natural realism in all of his films that takes its time yet never feels slow. The economy of feeling he gives us about each character, in a lingering look at the end of a scene, is wonderful-it's one of his trademarks. Goldie Hawn picking up a peach at a fruit stand after being blown off by the distracted Beatty at the salon, along with her hopes for building a future together. She picks up the peach, raises it to her face, smells it. Her eyes are sad as she walks out of frame. Beginning, middle, and end of scene: a mini essay on the character and the story. When Julie Christie's character is introduced, the view is entirely on her back for what seems like a full minute as Goldie Hawn speaks to her. When we finally cut to Julie's face it has a dramatic impact: Whoa, who is this woman in the story? The flawless costume and production design help answer, as we immediately sense from Christie's hair and shirt, in addition to her world-weary tone, that she is many steps ahead on the journey that Goldie is beginning with Beatty, and has already outgrown the hip Sunset Strip coffeehouse where they are sitting. Ashby's shots and edits are simple and long. He lets us watch and enjoy the actors be who their characters are.At the time, the notion of a straight hairdresser was already considered surprising. Then we understood that it was the fox guarding the henhouse-we were in on the fun. The only time Ashby and Beatty nod to the gay stereotype is when Beatty's about to have sex with Christie in her bathroom as he's doing her hair. Christie's middle-aged boyfriend, played by Jack Warden (Jack Warden! Is there even remotely an equivalent to this rumpled, tough sweet soulful grizzly bear actor today?), arrives and opens the bathroom door, befuddled, wondering what's really going on in there. Beatty, comb-hand on hip, says, gayishly impatient, "Either come in or stay out," brilliantly dispelling all suspicion that he and Christie are fooling around. Following this are three more loaded, lingering Ashby gazes: Warden's as he closes the door and ponders the idea that maybe Beatty is gay and no threat; Beatty's and Christie's as they look at each other in the mirror, former lovers still into each other but sensing that they have no chance.I could go on and on, obviously, about my love for this film, and we haven't even gotten to the pre-Star Wars, 18-year-old Carrie Fisher, or Tony Bill as Beatty's lesser doppelgänger, or the Christie-Beatty blowjob under the table at the staid political dinner, or the raging party scene afterward, but I'll end by saying: How fantastic is Jack Warden in an ivory turtleneck and light brown jacket singing "Born Free" to himself as he walks into Julie's house? How wonderful is Goldie Hawn's brown velour minidress with yellow-gold sleeves? Yay Shampoo.DAVID O. RUSSELL is the director of I Heart Huckabees, Flirting With Disaster, and Three Kings, all of which he co-wrote.LEARN MORE Shampoo

Judd Apatow on Being There

When I was asked to write about the film Being There, I thought it would be fun. I am a big fan of Hal Ashby's work, and Being There has always been one of my favorite films. I thought it would be a blast. I quickly realized that I had not seen the film in a long time and that I probably should watch it again so I could refresh my memory. That was my mistake. After watching it again I got very depressed. It was even better than I remembered it to be. Fuck this article. Sometimes seeing a great film takes the wind out of you. Watching this film reminded me how far I have to go.I prefer to watch shitty movies so I can feel good about myself. There is nothing better than sitting in bed and enjoying a shitty comedy. I laugh at the bad jokes and I smile as I convince myself, as I often need to, that my work doesn't suck as bad as what I am watching. It gives me the confidence to make movies. I call them movies to have the flu by-movies that are great if you need to kill time while sitting in bed with the flu.Being There is not one of those movies. It is completely original. The screenplay, by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel, is stunning. It is by turns hilarious, insightful, mysterious. I wish it inspired me to want to write that well, but it just inspires me to consider another career. It's as if you were a member of Soft Cell and someone played you U2 for the first time. You would have to give up.Peter Sellers gives a performance that is unparalleled in modern comedy. He plays what appears to be a retarded man who through a bizarre set of circumstances is thought to be brilliant by almost all of the people in Washington society who come in contact with him. His simple-minded comments ("Spring is a time for planting") are interpreted as genius. He is a guest on a talk show, is seduced by a beautiful woman (and a man), he advises a billionaire, then a president. And it's all believable, due to the brilliant writing and pitch-perfect direction of Hal Ashby.Like a great Bob Dylan song, the meaning of this film is hard to discern. It definitely sends up the rich and powerful who rule this country. But the film can be read in any number of ways, all of which might be correct.I can't say the same for The 40 Year Old Virgin. Seeing Being There again reminded me how high the really high bar is. When I made Knocked Up I thought the bar was "Be better than The 40 Year Old Virgin." If I thought the bar was "Be better than Being There," I would have killed myself.I remember that when I first saw this film I was fascinated by the credit sequence, which shows Peter Sellers break from character and crack up over and over again while performing a dirty piece of dialogue. It made the audience laugh so hard because he had so totally made us believe that Chauncey Gardiner existed that to see this man in hysterics while performing this character was like finding out Santa wasn't real. Yet it was oddly comforting to see this man who had made us all so happy for decades, Peter Sellers, enjoy himself while making one of the great movies of all time. It was also one of the rare glimpses of his actual personality. For some reason it felt more significant than Burt Reynolds smacking Dom DeLuise in his credit bloopers.Hal Ashby directed remarkable performances from Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, and Shirley MacLaine. The scene where MacLaine masturbates is one of my favorite comic set pieces of all time. Because Chauncey only knows what he has seen on TV, the film is filled with televisions, all playing clips, which are significant or ironic. Never before or since has a film used television so powerfully and effectively. Chauncey sitting in the back of Shirley MacLaine's limo watching Basketball Jones is oddly poetic and I don't know why. Maybe Wes Anderson knows.Often when I am producing a film, I will blather on and on about finding truth in the work, making the story believable and credible. The directors usually tolerate me with quiet disgust. Here you have a film with the most outlandish premise that is presented with such wit and confidence that you never for a moment doubt it. As it pushes the envelope, step by step, it keeps its reality level and you never for a moment call bullshit on it. All comedy directors should be forced to watch this film so they will learn that comedies can be subtle, riotously funny, meaningful, well acted, and visually gorgeous all at the same time. I wish I could just get two of those characteristic in the same film.Being There ends on a very strange note. At the funeral of Melvyn Douglas's character, a group of rich, powerful pallbearers discuss the possibility of Chauncey Gardiner becoming the next president because he has no past to speak of, and would be the perfect puppet (my words). It seemed crazy at the time, but in a way we have been experiencing that president for seven years.The final image of the film is Chauncey walking on water. It feels so wrong and so right at the same time. It is so effective a choice that one does not even want to debate whether it works. I prefer to sit in the strange feeling it gives me. It makes me happy, thankful that this strange movie exists at all, and terribly depressed that one day, when I get off my ass to direct again, I will make another movie not as good as Being There. I guess one needs goals.JUDD APATOW is a producer, writer and director. He produced Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, among others.LEARN MORE Being There
HAL ASHBY'S FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES  The Landlord(1970)Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a wealthy 29-year-old who buys an inner-city tenement to renovate into a fancy house for himself. However, he grows fond of the tenants he was planning to evict, and becomes involved in two taboo interracial relationships.Harold and Maude(1971)Harold (Bud Cort)-an idiosyncratic youth who stages mock suicides and attends funerals-more-than- befriends the 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). Cat Stevens recorded the entire soundtrack.The Last Detail(1973)Two Navy sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) must deliver a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to an eight-year prison term for a petty crime. Before they do, they take him out for one last wild night.Shampoo(1975)On Election Day, 1968, George, a playboy hairdresser played by Warren Beatty, attends an election party attended by many former flames (including Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie). Complications ensue.Bound for Glory(1976)A bio-pic of Woody Guthrie, based on his semifictional autobiography of the same name.Coming Home(1978)While her husband is fighting in Vietnam, Sally, played by Jane Fonda, falls in love with Luke (John Voight) a disillusioned, wheelchair-bound vet.Being There(1979)Peter Sellers stars as Chance, a simple, sheltered gardener who-when his folksy musings are mistaken for exceptionally brilliant business and political advice-rises through the ranks of American society.

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