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.
There’s a later-in-life interview in the film where he sounds excited about new editing technology. I started thinking about what he would do with digital technology, whether it would make his job easier or harder. I can see him getting lost in every possible option with that.
Scott: No, I think he would, if he had been able to survive cancer first and foremost, but [also] the studios, I think he would be thriving right now. I do. His last girlfriend, Grif [Griffis], she was telling us all these stories about how his house was just… It looked like one whole wall was, he was building computers in there, he was obsessed with Macintosh. He had just started, the earliest Mac, he was starting to piece them together and had started with some digital editing. It’s tragic, he was really incredible. You don’t need studios anymore either, so it’s just such a different ballgame now, all those things he railed against, he introduces the model of, “I want to self-distribute,” that killed me. Oh my God, if he could have done that.
It was telling that Alexander Payne just admitted not really knowing his ’80s films, and I feel like that’s true for a lot of people. Is there one you would single out as the one worth keeping from the ’80s films, or how do you feel about those movies?
Scott: I think Lookin’ To Get Out is a great movie. It’s a really good film that’s very Has Ashby still. Whatever, it’s still got the ’80s all over it, but it’s a really, it’s a powerful story. Al Schwartz, we interviewed him and he wrote it, and that was who… he actually lived that story. They went back, Nick Dawson and Jon Voight found [Ashby’s] own cut and that’s not what was released. So they went back and found the director’s cut and that’s what’s been re-released. That’s the one to watch, and it’s really good. Solo Trans was really weird, I kind of like that.
Seeing Voight was really interesting because his politics have changed so much, did you feel any tension about that when you talked to him?
Scott: Not at all, he was so overflowing with love and emotion for Hal, that he didn’t … You hear him, he’s talking about the veterans and what happened to them, and how unjust that was, I think we could all agree on that at least. We certainly didn’t talk Israel and Palestine with Jon Voight. But he was fantastic, he was one of my favorite interviews, unexpectedly.
This is a pretty simple question, but what is your favorite Ashby film and why?
Scott: I don’t know, it just keeps changing. I think right now Being There, for all the obvious reasons, we’re living it and it freaks me out, so I’m looking at it with this totally new lens than I’ve ever seen the film before. Then after that probably The Landlord, I was a big fan of Robert Downey Sr. and Putney Swope, and when I saw that movie I was like, “Oh, this is the companion piece to Putney Swope.” And I guess they were friends, Ashby and Robert Downey Sr., they were buddies, it makes sense.
Morrow: From studying the films from making our film, it’s moving around. I actually knew that I liked and thought The Last Detail was funny, but now after really digging in and watching it a few times and looking for, trying to… For us now, watching Hal Ashby films, there’s a different dimension, I’m watching it trying to understand why he was making those types of choices, and I’m trying to imagine the camera positioning and where the crew was and everything like that. I don’t even know if it would matter what my favorite is anymore, because it’s such a weird point of view on the movie now.
Scott: You laughed all through The Last Detail. You’re the loudest laugher. You quote every line.
Morrow: Our interview with Robert Towne was so cool, and it’s hard to even to single out any of the interviews, even saying what was your favorite interview on our film, because each one of them was so cool, and include literally hours of material that was not able to go into our film, because our film can only be 90 minutes and needed to tell its own narrative. But just so many funny stories, like Towne talking about, he’s telling this story that doesn’t have anything good for the movie or anything, but he’s just like, “Hal was a great guy to just sit around and do nothing with. I was just walking down the beach one time and I saw Hal, he was in the hot tub smoking a joint, so I just stopped and got in the hot tub with him, and we hung out. Then some friends came over.”
I’m like, “Man, what a cool time for Hollywood, it was so cool in LA,” now I would never be walking down the beach in Malibu, and if you were you wouldn’t see a cool director hanging out in his hot tub, and if you did they’d probably call the cops. The best screenwriter and the best director just happened to see each other on the beach, and then ended up over at Hal’s house, partying.
What was the toughest the omission from this movie?
Morrow: Jane Fonda and Jon Voight telling back and forth, telling the story about the sex scene in Coming Home, was a pretty heartbreaking sequence to remove. But eventually it did just become clear that it’s not about… it’s a funny tidbit if you’re a cinephile like we are, and it was really interesting how much Fonda really stood up to Ashby, and fought for her own choices even if it made Ashby mad, we found that really interesting. But just not as interesting as the fact that they were improvising their lines, writing the script as they shot, and they still won the Academy Award for best screenplay, that’s just a more important part of the story. What about you, Amy?
Scott: I still miss… There’s funny stuff, but I miss Dianne, we interviewed one of [Ashby’s] girlfriends, Dianne Schroeder, and she just worked on every one of his films, and she had a real interesting story about how she worked with Peter Sellers to craft what Chance the gardener would be watching on TV. She went and got the TV Guide from DC at the time and hunted down all these commercials, what she thought would be playing on TV, sat with him and developed that, and I thought that was a pretty cool story. Judd Apatow was talking about how hard that is to try to do it in one of his films, Cable Guy. That’s right off the Hal Ashby train, but it was really interesting. Hopefully, these stories will see the light of day in some other form. We did not anticipate Hal’s producer Chuck [Charles Mulvehill] could be so colorful. He gave us everything, warts and all, which was really great.
Morrow: Which we really needed from the outset, we had the clear vision to make sure not to just make it a cheerleader, “Ra-Ra, Hal Ashby was great,” all the way through. But some people didn’t really want to speak honestly, or be that vulnerable about it, and of course, he is your old friend who’s passed away and everything, but it’s more of his story for real when Norman [Jewison] and Chuck gave us the insights about how his personality made him a great artist, and maybe not the easiest person to actually be in a relationship with, romantically or not.
I came away thinking that it was, for all the trouble he had in his career later on, it was miraculous that he got as much done as he did. It seems like in many ways he was a wonderful person, but also a very difficult personality.
Scott: I don’t know how he made that many movies in a short amount of time, I don’t know how it’s physically possible. But he did sacrifice everything.