Hal Ashby: Hollywood Rebel

From Coming Home

Films and books strive toward a common goal: telling a story. And very few modern filmmakers are as good at spinning a yarn as the late Hal Ashby was.

Critical studies devoted to cinema and the motion picture arts have lately become one of the most commercially reliable subgenres in the non-fiction market because everybody, in their hearts of hearts, wants to direct a movie. To service that dream, some university presses are slavishly devoted to books for students of film.

But the engines of art are lubricated by the grease of commerce and the two have been in constant conflict since the earliest days of motion pictures, exemplified by the oft-repeated tale of the time studio boss Jack L. Warner told a harried screenwriter (no doubt trying to insert a 'subversive' intellectual message into his screenplay): “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Putting aside Warner’s plea to keep the popcorn-munchers spellbound, narcotized, and unthinking, the fact of the matter is that film remains one of our most potent and immediate mediums for conveying a message, be it exposing the killing fields of Cambodia or the deplorable conditions that shell-shocked Vietnam War veterans received at V.A. hospitals stateside as revealed in Hal Ashby’s masterwork, Coming Home (1978).

Book: Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel

Author: Nick Dawson

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

Publication date: 2009-04

Length: 402 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $37.50

Image: and books strive toward a common goal: telling a story. And very few modern filmmakers are as good at spinning a yarn as the late Ashby was, the subject of a penetrating and applause-worthy biography, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, written by film journalist Nick Dawson.

The ten classic feature films directed by this iconoclastic Hollywood outsider in his heyday (1971-79) share, in the words of Ashby’s meticulous biographer, “three major preoccupations: man’s inhumanity to man, the need for understanding between people, and the human condition.”

“If you were going to tell a story, Hal was your man,” actor Beau Bridges, who starred in Ashby’s debut feature, The Landlord (1970), told Dawson. “He was a great audience, and absorber, and that made him a storyteller. He was in the great tradition of storytellers. He knew what people wanted to hear, and it was effortless. I’d go over to his house, and he’d always have a bulletin board. He’d have newspaper articles, pictures, poems – a collage of what was going on in the world. It was a vital, ongoing outspeak of what was going on in his head. It was his desire to reach out to friends, coworkers, and ultimately his audiences.”

In many regards, Ashby’s story is the stuff of L.A. regional novels, a brilliant but flawed character excised from the final draft of West’s The Day of the Locust.

Many of Ashby’s projects boasted a literary pedigree -- Hal was the original choice to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he tried for years to develop films based on Richard Brautigan’s book The Hawkline Monster and Truman Capote’s novella Handcarved Coffins -- yet he lacked an educational background in the Humanities (or even film, for that matter).

Like Fante’s Arturo Bandini, Ashby hitchhiked his way to California from his hometown of Ogden, Utah in 1949 with no other hope for success except that contained in the lure of a promised land.

“They (Ashby and his fellow Ogdenites) had come to make their fortune,” Dawson writes, “seeing Los Angeles as a place where they had as good a chance as any to turn the American dream into a reality.”

“I was a kid looking for something but I didn’t know what,” Ashby told the L.A. Times in October 1982. “The movie business seemed like a terrific thing to get into” because that’s where the money and the fun was at.

At the start of Bound for Glory, Ashby’s 1976 bio-pic starring the late David Carradine as folk legend Woody Guthrie, Nick Dawson notes that “one of Woody’s friends describes California as a place where seeds will sprout the day after they have been planted, a promised land that has everything a man needs. This is how Ashby saw California when he himself was on the road, struggling to get by, and the twenty-odd years he had spent there since had not shaken his idealistic belief that this was the only place to be.”

Book: The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film

Author: Reed Martin

Publisher: Farrar Strauss Giroux

Publication date: 2009-05

Length: 536 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $25.00

Image: original intention with this installment of the Deconstruction Zone was to explore Reed Martin’s highly-praised The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film, an indispensible guidebook that Jim Hemphill, writing in American Cinematographer, called “perhaps the most brutally realistic of the many independent filmmaking manuals on the market.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to deadline: it suddenly occurred to us that Reed Martin, clearly an expert on the contemporary indie film scene, just might be the perfect fit for an interview centered on the life and legacy of Ashby and on the delicate balance between art and commerce in the film industry.

It was audacious at best to suggest that an author on tour to promote his own book take the time to discuss the subject of another author’s book, yet Reed Martin not only embraced the opportunity (“I’m flattered to even have my name mentioned in the same sentence as Hal Ashby,” he wrote) but he reverently provided an abundance of insight over the course of numerous phone calls and e-mails. Martin even gladly enrolled himself in an Ashby boot camp of the imagination, reacquainting himself with many of the director’s finer films with the assistance of Netflix and various New York City video retailers.

PopMatters: You’ve taught a course on film marketing, distribution, and exhibition at NYU’s Stern School of Business since 2003, and you taught at Columbia Business School for a few years (2001-03). Your book, The Reel Truth, seven years in the making, is abundant with common sense tips that could save indie producers and directors thousands of dollars in production costs and you profile scores of notable directors like Darren Aronofksy (The Wrestler), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry). What imprint has Ashby’s legacy made on the contemporary indie film scene?

Reed Martin: Mediocrity and commercial filmmaking is so prevalent and so much the order of the day that aspiring filmmakers who really want to tell stories have seized upon Ashby as a patron saint who was interested in his characters’ humanity, their personal struggles and heartbreak rather than those who just have one goal or a simple dream that is enunciated in an on-the-nose scene designed to be trumpeted in the trailer so audiences will understand in an instant that the leading man is a rascally men’s columnist, the leading lady is an uptight TV producer and together they are able to find love.

Aspiring filmmakers today use Ashby as shorthand or even a secret code to signal each other that they are in the know about something really great that only those who are really passionate about a certain type of pure, unsullied, humanistic cinema would appreciate.

Most people know of Harold and Maude, sure, but they might not be able to name its director or another film he directed. But aspiring directors who have a certain deeply personal approach and who hope to capture an honesty in their own work will often drop Ashby’s name to see what kind of response they arouse or to gauge whether the colleague, film executive, or producer they are talking to “really gets it.” Ashby has become a scratch test or a barometer for filmmakers who “just want to tell stories”, without selling out, and who hope to do it without the interference from “the money” or the big studio honchos whom they believe – whether they have actually ever made a studio picture or not – can be expected to step in at the 11th hour and “ruin everything”.

PM: Nick Dawson’s biography took shape during three months of research in Los Angeles, vastly supported by the Ashby papers at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). On page 299, Dawson quotes from a letter Ashby wrote to longtime co-producer and production manager Chuck Mulvehill in 1985 during the trouble-plagued production of the L.A. thriller 8 Million Ways to Die for PSO (Producers Sales Organization), a wildly improvised film without a full shooting script, which made the suits understandably nervous. Ashby writes:

“From the looks of it, if you continue to maintain the control you (PSO) have so far, this movie stands about as good a chance of going in the toilet as anything I’ve ever seen. Now that I’m on the subject, what’s with all the inference that I’m out of control, and I must be controlled in order to stop these horrendous coasts, and bring them into line. That’s just plain bullshit and you know it! If I’m out of control, it’s because the production entity has continually refused to let me have control.

You can’t direct a film when every decision you make is either counter-manded or questioned as if you were out to do harm to the financiers instead of trying to make a good film. Doesn’t that approach sound dumb to you? Paying me all that money just so I can put you, them, me, and the film in jeopardy.”

RM: Well, Ashby is revered among aspiring filmmakers for his maverick status and for always being someone who pushed back against The Man. What they don’t realize is that he was really someone who, toward the end, when the suits had pretty much taken over the business, he had pushed back too hard, to the extent that he wasn’t able to get hired to direct films any more and, as a result, ended up on the edges and the periphery of the film business.

He’s best seen perhaps as a wildly talented but somewhat flawed iconoclast whose story is a cautionary tale, that even the most talented directors who ever lived still have to play by the rules and play ball to some degree, unless they have enough money to walk away from the business forever and live out their days in peace and quiet and a degree of comfort on a farm somewhere or in a quiet cottage. L.A. is not the place for aging, brilliant, visionary movie directors of the decade that came before the one they are currently in.

The sad thing is, by the '80s he had already proven himself several times over and didn’t need – other than a source of income – to direct films any more. He had made films in which actors won Academy Awards, which is not an easy thing to do even once and which doesn’t just happen accidentally. A lot of Oscar-winning performances have to be crafted by a true artist in the editing room, somebody who has great affection for his characters and identifies with them and who can bring out their humanity.

From Harold & Maude

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