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.

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, 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 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

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