Hal Ashby: Hollywood Rebel

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:http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/j/jacobs-beingha-cover.jpgFilms 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:http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/j/jacobs-reeltruth-cover.jpgOur 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

It’s OK to Talk Money — But Not Politics

From Bound for Glory

It’s OK to Talk Money — But Not Politics

PM: Dawson points out in his book that a lot of Ashby’s films, such as Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979), carry “a potent political subtext”. With the exception of producer, director, and star George Clooney and perhaps some of Oliver Stone’s product, why has Hollywood moved away from cinematic fare as a form for political activism and awareness?

RM: Hollywood has moved away from potent political subtext as Hollywood became more of a business and as MBAs and executives with an MBA-perspective made it into the executive suite. And as the average cost to market and release a film exploded from 1998 to 2008, it became far more difficult for studio chiefs to justify green-lighting or acquiring any film that would reach a broad audience of at least three or more quadrants. Films now need to not only make back their production budgets but millions of dollars in marketing costs as well, which is increasingly difficult as grown-ups who would appreciate political fare and movies about ideas are more comfortable staying at home with a DVD from Netflix or by watching Mad Men or Nurse Jackie on their DVR’s.

Poring over internally-generated analyses drawn from Rentrak or simply by going to www.The-Numbers.com, film executives can now see that political films aren’t “clicking” with audiences. State of Play is a recent box-office disappointment that many point to as a harbinger of the death of a certain type of glossy, high-class thought-provoking film.

A more simple explanation, however, may be that political films by their very nature are not typically great first-date movies so that leaves out one major audience on opening weekend, and if they are too political, fiery, or divisive, then at least half of the general audience will be on the other side of the issue and not want to go. And because of the steep marketing costs these days and so many other distractions vying for the public’s attention, time, and their ever-shrinking entertainment dollar, most films cannot afford to leave half or more than half of the general population on the table. Movies today generally have to appear inclusive rather than leaning Democrat or Republican, and at least in the trailer, try to appeal to the widest possible audience.

PM: So it would be best for modern filmmakers to adopt an apolitical stance such as that taken in The Hurt Locker?

RM: Yes. The Hurt Locker is a terrific and exciting and smart film that succeeds in part because it has no political agenda. And that’s a good thing in the case of that film because the challenges the soldiers are facing and the futility of defusing roadside bombs day after day is a message that gets through to everyone regardless of their party affiliation or income level, a message that might have been blunted or lost, had the film taken a stance on the conflict, the decision to go to war, the participation of armed military contractors, or on the actions of US troops in the region.

The previous Iraq war films that had a point of view on the war, failed financially because audiences didn’t want a lecture, didn’t want to have to see a movie that might be “good for them” like broccoli, or because they just didn’t want to see a movie that reminded them of the challenges facing the country right now on two fronts. So again, if you go to www.The-Numbers.com anyone can see that In The Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, Redacted, Lions For Lambs, Jarhead and In The Loop (both of which might as well be commentaries on the current conflict), as well as Rendition, which deals with an ugly and very charged subject, all underperformed theatrically.

PM: Movies that don’t do well at the box office don’t end up well-stocked at Hollywood Video or Blockbuster

RM: Yes, and it creates a vicious cycle: fewer copies, fewer opportunities to be rented and “earn out” or earn back their production and marketing budgets. It’s like the frog jumping half-way to the wall each time: he never gets there because he’s jumping half of a half of a half of a half each time, with the analogy being the film in ancillary markets making less and less and less money than it might otherwise. And just think, you can’t show some kind of heavy political film indicting the previous administration or arguing that the Iraq war might have been poorly-planned, on an airplane where you have a captive audience who might not agree with the film’s politics.

So once again, the business-oriented executive, sitting in a studio office planning his or her slate may be hard pressed — from a dollars and cents perspective — to approve a film like the upcoming Brothers, dealing with an injured soldier coming home to possible infidelity, even though Jim Sheridan is an incredibly gifted filmmaker and even though the movie has an all-star cast with Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and Tobey Maguire as the soldier – not mention the fact that the movie looks great from what the trailers have shown.

From the “comparables” generated by those previous Iraq war films, the executive would see that the movie isn’t likely to do more than X-number of million dollars at the box office. Films focusing on the conflict in Iraq don’t tend to “travel” or play well overseas, so the only other country the movies may be distributed in may be the UK which leaves millions of dollars that more escapist fare could tap into, from being collected.

PM: So in the current environment, the less political a film is, the better its chances in the marketplace.

From Being There

RM: Exactly. The problem however, is that for several generations now, movies are by and large thought of as cotton-candy, as entertainments and not the place to go for thought-provoking messages or cinema that makes you think like The Cove. There is an entire generation being raised not to appreciate movies that might raise issues or make them reconsider their positions on the events of the day.

PM: A film like Ashby’s Coming Home, which dealt with the plight of servicemen returning from the conflict in Vietnam – and which won Best Actor Oscars for stars Jane Fonda and Jon Voight as well as an Oscar for the trio of screenwriters – would have a troubled time in today’s climate.

RM: Coming Home is more relevant today with two wars going on, than it was perhaps at the time of its release. In March 2007 The Washington Post reported that “top officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including the Army’s Surgeon General, had been hearing complaints about outpatient neglect from the family members (of service personnel), veteran’s groups, and members of Congress for more than three years”, an issue that was raised in Coming Home back in 1978.

You’d think that enough people would’ve seen the movie since then but in fact today the DVD of Coming Home is hard to find. I personally went to three different Blockbuster Video stores and one mom and pop video store and while they had several copies of the video game Call of Duty 5 none of them had a single copy of Coming Home for rent. They simply didn’t stock the movie, which is a shame.

Coming Home is such an important film for our times and Jane Fonda and Jon Voight’s performances are so stellar that the film should be running non-stop in a loop 24-hours a day on a high-number cable channel. It’s a surprisingly relevant film given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PM: And it’s somewhat apolitical, as demonstrated in Jon Voight’s incredibly emotional speech to the high school students at the end of the film where his character of Luke Martin does not decry the Vietnam conflict specifically –which might have isolated some audience members — but all war because “it ain’t like it is in the movies”.

RM: But more crucially, many war injuries that would have been fatal 20 or even ten years ago are now survivable — thousands of soldiers are returning from the field of battle with challenging and in some cases debilitating injuries, a subject which has not in the last 12 months really gotten that much coverage, attention, or empathy from the nightly news or from the general public. Because Coming Home graphically depicts what life can be like in a V.A. hospital for soldiers returning from battle and encourages people to volunteer in V.A. hospitals and to help soldiers get their stories out to the public, it’s an important film that should be experiencing a revival.

PM: Jane Fonda – whose company produced Coming Home — is noted for playing strong, assertive characters but the Sally Hyde character is very vulnerable, almost a complete innocent at the beginning of the picture.

RM: Despite what anyone may think of more recent projects such as Monster In Law and Georgia Rule, Jane Fonda’s power as an actress and performer is totally unassailable and forever established in her performance as the wife of a Marine Captain who finds herself volunteering in the veteran’s hospital in Coming Home under Ashby’s direction. Some purists out there may prefer Klute or Julia but what is interesting about Coming Home was Fonda’s casual naturalism and her willingness to be shot in shadow or move through shadow and darkness which has the counter-intuitive effect of making her character and her character’s emotional arc incredibly vivid and believable.

PM: Very few leading actors or actresses today would allow themselves to be shot in shadow or even near-darkness.

RM: Right, they prefer instead to always be well-lit and perfectly highlighted so that their best sides are always facing camera. Today actors – and by extension directors – are obsessed with that artificially-tinged fake-bake orange light “magic hour” look, lampooned in Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture. It can’t always be “magic hour” but a lot of Hollywood films today look like their stories only ever unfolded between 5:45PM and 6:15PM and then took a break until the same time the following day.

Ashby wasn’t afraid to shoot his characters at night or even in near-darkness: an early scene in Coming Home where Bruce Dern shares a last minute farewell with his wife before reporting for duty takes place at night with the actor’s faces obscured by darkness, something that would never fly today but which in Ashby’s films makes them feel all the more real and un-self-conscious.

PM: Which brings us to a point I wanted to discuss. I read a statement in a film journal recently positing that Ashby’s films of the ’70s may not be well-remembered because taken as a body of work there is no representative style onboard, no so-called “Hal Ashby Look” yet there was a sort of muted visual style to his movies and from the great cinematographers he worked with like Michael Chapman – who shot The Last Detail for Ashby in 1979 and went on to shoot Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese – and Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory) and Caleb Deschanel, who shot Being There.

RM: Some people argue that there was no definitive style to Ashby’s work or if there was then it was the contribution of Chapman or Wexler or Deschanel, as you mention. But in fact there is a definitive “Hal Ashby Look”, if you will, and it’s sort of a muted Caravaggio; muted because some of Ashby’s set-ups lacked the single shaft of illuminating light that were a hallmark of many of Caravaggio’s paintings.

If you look at a Caravaggio work like The Denial of Saint Peter with its half-illuminated faces and with one entirely obscured by shadow and barely discernible, or the off-kilter and imperfect lighting of Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist and compare that to many of the shots in Coming Home, the “I am the shore patrol!” bar scene in The Last Detail or any number of medium shots in moving cars or wide shots in the home of the billionaire played by Melvyn Douglas in Being There, you can see that it is Ashby who is comfortable shooting with what was designed to look like available light and, more importantly, Ashby who was able to convince the actors that they would not look haggard or drawn by being filmed without deliberately-flattering lighting set-ups and fill lights designed to make wrinkles, chins, noses, and other blemishes disappear.

Ashby’s films often appear gauzy or faded like a fond memory or an old photograph and as a result they have a warmth and resonance that devotees of vinyl records will attest to. Comparing the softer look of any Ashby film during his peak to the often stark and colder hyper-visualized, digitally-rendered, and digitally color-corrected films of today might explain why some pictures these days are less transporting than those shot on celluloid with minimal lighting designed to look natural. That was Hal.

Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude