It’s not quite accurate to call Hal Ashby overlooked or underrated. After all, he did make some of the most revered films of the 1970s. In fact, he made seven of them in a nine-year stretch, starting with his daring directorial debut in 1970, The Landlord — in which Beau Bridges plays a naive, privileged white man who undergoes an awakening after taking over an inner-city building. The cult favorite Harold & Maude arrived the following year followed by the dark military comedy The Last Detail, the Warren Beatty-starring and Robert Towne-scripted Shampoo, the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory, the Vietnam vet drama Coming Home, and the resonant political satire Being There at decade’s end. Yet, for one reason or another, Ashby isn’t a household name like Coppola, Scorsese or other decade-defining directors.
The variety of his output might have something to do with that. So might the 1980s, which saw him repeatedly crashing and burning as he clashed with the studios while trying to make director-driven movies in a blockbuster-driven decade. So might his death in 1988 at the age of 59, a few years before the boom in indie movies might have given him a shot at a comeback.
Hal, a new documentary that debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival, helps give a shape to Ashby’s career, and to his life, following him from a troubled Utah childhood to an apprenticeship in Hollywood that found him developing a reputation as one of the best editors in the business thanks to his work with Norman Jewison to a remarkable, difficult career that produced one enduring film after another. We spoke to director Amy Scott and producer Brian Morrow about what drove them to make a film about Ashby and what they discovered along the way.
I think Lisa Cholodenko gives the best reason for making this movie when she recalls how she felt like there was something missing from the list of great filmmakers of the ’70s. Was restoring Ashby’s name to that part of what led you to make this?
Amy Scott: Yeah, definitely. He is a famous Hollywood director, but I think even ardent film fans are still not aware that he made all of those good movies. Not only did he make Harold and Maude, but he made seven brilliant films in nine years. We felt like his story, his personal story arc, coming from Utah, troubled childhood, and coming to Los Angeles and meeting Norman Jewison, having such an uncompromising vision — it just really spoke to us as filmmakers, so we were compelled.
When did you each first become aware of Hal Ashby?
Scott: In college.
Brian Morrow: I’m pretty sure my dad had a laserdisc of Harold and Maude that I watched. That’s dating me in a weird way. But I don’t think, even when I came onboard in the early stages of the project, I’ll admit that I don’t think I truly understood what a great contribution he had made. I’m pretty sure I had seen all those films, but maybe I’m not even totally sure I was connecting the dots personally that those were all Hal’s films. Then after studying the films, and learning about his process and listening to his voice recording about making the films and everything, there emerged another story there besides just, he’s a great filmmaker. There were other kinds of stories that started to float to the surface, the connective glue between all of these different elements, which was that he was uncompromising in wanting to have his freedom of expression, even to the point of it becoming tragic at the end.
Scott: Even the kinds of films that he made, we used to have a line in the film — it’s not in there anymore — but Adam McKay was like, “To make a film like Harold and Maude alone is just so ballsy.” It’s true, that and The Landlord…
Morrow: It is, so gutsy to take on, to be in your first movie that you make you decide to take on racism, head on. And with comedy, which is so risky. And then his next film is about who is allowed to be in love with who. The next one takes on the military and the hypocrisy of that, and he just goes and goes. Each one of those would be movies on their own that I guess contemporary directors now might be afraid to attach their name to, and not only was he not afraid, he was excited. He liked it I think, or it seemed like he did.
Did just saying I’m making a film about Hal Ashby open doors?
Scott: Yep, you got it, it did. But you know, Jane Fonda was our first interview, and we were shocked, we were like, “Oh my God, it’s crazy.” But then I think once you do shoot someone like Jane, you’re validated, and it just started to roll from there. By the end, it was very easy. It was a matter of, if we didn’t get somebody it was because of scheduling or some other reason.
Morrow: It definitely grew, the momentum grew as well, which is that like Amy’s saying, once you get Jane you can say, “Well, we just finished our interview with Jane.” But also, the cast, the subjects of the interviews, were so excited that Hal was getting his time, with the thought that Hal would get his time in the sun, that they also helped facilitate it. Almost every interview begat another interview, where they said, “You should really talk to so and so.” And we would say, “Well, we reached out to his representation,” and they would say, “I’ll reach out.”
Scott: Adam McKay did that with Judd [Apatow], he’s like, “Dude, Being There,” So we got there and he talked about Being There the whole time too, they get so excited about the films.
Morrow: We would try to limit them to, say… The idea with the contemporary directors was initially to have, assign them to the different films, of Hal Ashby’s films, but they all wanted to talk about all the films. Judd’s daughter’s name is Maude.
Amy, you began as an editor and continue to work as an editor. Ashby began as an editor as well, what do you see as his contributions to the craft of editing?
Scott: He was obsessed with it, he was obsessed with the craft, he says as much in our show. So I really took that to heart. He says he lives in the editing bay for months at a time, and there’s that line where he’s like, “Every time you sit down and look at a reel, you get another idea, you have to, whether it’s a good idea or not, the film’s gonna tell you what to do.” I think that’s so brilliant in his approach to just trying out every single idea, and being so dedicated to the film and to the art. You’re not just showing up, you’re not just throwing it in or showing up for work.
Editing is hard, it’s a solitary thing, and you lock yourself in a room, and it begets… You might have a rocky emotional life, because you’re just not gonna be present. And that was hard for me to edit this film and try to raise a family over the last few years. You have to either take a long time to finish something, or you have to make a choice [about what] you’re gonna dedicate yourself to. He most certainly dedicated himself to the edit bay, and I think it’s admirable, but it’s also a little terrifying.