Ev­ery­thing old is new again for di­rec­tor

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - DAN LYBARGER

At a time when Hol­ly­wood movies skew to­ward chil­dren and teenagers, 33-year-old screen­writer-di­rec­tor Brett Ha­ley has proved that there is an au­di­ence for movies about people who have passed re­tire­ment age.

His 2015 break­through, I’ll See You in My Dreams, was a ro­mance star­ring the ma­ture but thor­oughly pho­to­genic Blythe Dan­ner and Sam El­liott. He and the 72-year-old El­liott have re­turned with The Hero, which fea­tures the rugged, deep voiced th­es­pian play­ing Lee Hay­den, a cow­boy ac­tor try­ing to get his life back into or­der now that the mar­ket for oaters has dried up.

The movie has landed El­liott, whose re­sume in­cludes Tomb­stone, Thank You for Smok­ing, Road House, Grandma, The Con­tender, Ro­bot Chicken, Grace and Frankie and The Big Le­bowski, some great re­views.

While Ha­ley has found a niche cap­i­tal­iz­ing on ca­pa­ble vet­eran ac­tors such as Dan­ner and El­liott, he cau­tions that his de­mo­graphic choices weren’t nec­es­sar­ily de­lib­er­ate.

“I cer­tainly don’t look at it as cor­ner­ing the mar­ket. I don’t re­ally think of my­self in that way. Ob­vi­ously, when a film is made, it’s turned into a prod­uct that needs to be sold, so it’s ob­vi­ously great to have a core au­di­ence that might show up to your film. I don’t see it that way,” he says.

“I’ll See You in My Dreams came about be­cause I wanted to make a film about loss and about grief. To me the best ves­sel for that story was a 70-year-old woman. It was by hap­pen­stance that I was very in­spired by Sam El­liott as an ac­tor and a per­son, and he hap­pens to be a man of a cer­tain age.”

None­the­less, Ha­ley says that other younger film­mak­ers might ben­e­fit from mak­ing movies about char­ac­ters who aren’t in their own age range.

“I think that older char­ac­ters are in­ter­est­ing as a writer be­cause they’ve had so much more ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ha­ley says. “They’ve had so much more life lived, so there’s re­gret. How did they make their mis­takes and how did they end up where they’ve ended up. Hav­ing that time be­hind them is a re­ally unique and valu­able as­pect for char­ac­ters.”


Lee Hay­den is known for sport­ing a cow­boy hat and for plug­ging bar­be­cue sauce the way that El­liott used to in­form Amer­ica that beef is what’s for din­ner. It’s tempt­ing to think the ac­tor and his di­rec­tor, who wrote the script for The Hero with Marc Basch, are sim­ply too lazy to give El­liot an ac­tual char­ac­ter.

In re­al­ity the role is a ma­jor stretch.

Some of El­liott’s best roles don’t in­volve sad­dles or six guns. In The Con­tender, he shined as a shrewd Machi­avel­lian po­lit­i­cal fixer, while Lee has never been able to land a role that doesn’t re­quire a ten-gal­lon hat.

A quick glance at El­liott’s In­ter­net Movie Data­base (IMDb.com) page shows a steady stream of re­cent and forth­com­ing projects. Lee is up for a life­time achieve­ment award, but he can’t get work be­yond dron­ing about bar­be­cue sauce and has burned bridges with his fam­ily.

“There are ob­vi­ous par­al­lels be­tween Lee and Sam in that they do voice-overs. They are pri­mar­ily known as West­ern icons, but be­yond that, that’s where it ends. Sam has never dealt with a can­cer di­ag­no­sis. Sam has a great re­la­tion­ship with his wife (Katharine Ross, who plays his sup­port­ive ex in the movie) and daugh­ter (mu­si­cian Cleo Rose El­liott). He’s a very suc­cess­ful ac­tor who’s done a va­ri­ety of work over the years. He’s not a washed up ac­tor the way that Lee is,” Ha­ley says.

None­the­less, Lee’s foibles give El­liott a chance to show an emo­tional range some of his pre­vi­ous roles haven’t re­quired.

“I think it’s in­ter­est­ing that people see Sam as sort of a man’s man, what­ever that means. He’d be the first per­son to tell you he doesn’t know what that means,” Ha­ley says. “I wanted to give Sam an op­por­tu­nity in the film to show that sen­si­tive, vul­ner­a­ble side of him­self that I know very well, but I don’t think his av­er­age fans or movie­go­ers know that side of him, so I wanted to shine a light on that.”


To hide his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, Lee vis­its his buddy Jeremy Frost (Nick Of­fer­man) to score a calm­ing herb.

I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero fea­ture amus­ing scenes in­volv­ing cannabis, but Ha­ley says he wants to do more than con­demn his char­ac­ters (as the folks who made Reefer Mad­ness did) or cel­e­brate pot (a la Cheech and Chong).

Watch­ing Lee get his first sam­ple of Molly (aka MDMA or Ec­tasy) leads to gig­gles even sober view­ers can en­joy, but Lee’s fond­ness for chem­i­cal recre­ation could be caus­ing him as much trou­ble as his dire news from an on­col­o­gist.

“I also don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with mar­i­juana use. I don’t want to say that’s the prob­lem with him. It’s just one of the many things that adds up to a larger pic­ture,” Ha­ley ex­plains. “I think with any drug or al­co­hol, all things in mod­er­a­tion (laughs). I think that Lee is hid­ing be­hind his drug use. He lives in a cloud. He pro­tects him­self from his emo­tions by stay­ing high, sort of by ‘wak­ing and bak­ing,’ if you will. It’s not a pos­i­tive thing.”

An­other way that The Hero tweaks stan­dard tropes is by ac­knowl­edg­ing that the new woman who en­ters Lee’s life (Laura Pre­pon) is closer in age to his daugh­ter (Krys­ten Rit­ter). Rather than gloss over the age dis­tance, Ha­ley and his char­ac­ters ac­knowl­edge it and the chal­lenges of meet­ing a mate who shares a weed dealer with you.

“I wanted to take two things that did not be­long to­gether. I didn’t want to be fool­ish and not call it out with the chal­lenges with it,” Ha­ley says.

“The point is she’s way too young for him. Pe­riod, at least ac­cord­ing to so­ci­etal stan­dards. There are ob­vi­ous chal­lenges to that kind of age dif­fer­ence. Hol­ly­wood films over the years have abused this trope by just putting an older ac­tor and a younger ac­tor to­gether with­out in­ves­ti­gat­ing the why be­hind it. What was im­por­tant to me was to in­ves­ti­gate why two people of such dif­fer­ent ages would get to­gether as one.”


The Illi­nois-born Ha­ley is based in Brook­lyn and is work­ing to shoot his next movie there. The script he cowrote for Vin­cent Grashaw’s adap­ta­tion of Jim Shep­ard’s teen novel And Then I Go seems like a move away from his last two films. He’s also pre­par­ing to shoot a movie in the Big Ap­ple.

He’s hes­i­tant to dis­cuss the next film, but ad­mits there is one un­avoid­able trait that La La Land and the City That Never Sleeps have in com­mon.

Ha­ley ad­mits, “I can tell you that New York and Los Angeles are in­cred­i­bly loud cities, which is al­ways an an­noy­ing thing when you’re an in­de­pen­dent film­maker on lo­ca­tion rather than in a stu­dio. You are deal­ing with the real el­e­ments and noises and people and com­ings and go­ings of a large city.

“There were many times on The Hero where I wanted to scream be­cause of yard work, or air­planes or he­li­copters, or what have you. And I’m sure I will feel the same way in Brook­lyn with sub­ways and people and sirens and cars. You just have to roll with the punches and take what you can get.”

So did El­liot have to re­cite his lines in a stu­dio the way he’d de­liver a pitch for meat to com­pen­sate for loud waves or lawn­mow­ers? Ha­ley says he ac­tu­ally avoids re-record­ing lines in the stu­dio. That makes sense be­cause high-dol­lar ac­tors like El­liott aren’t read­ily avail­able for ex­tra record­ing in a stu­dio. The di­rec­tor says that only one of the ac­tor’s lines, a small quip dur­ing an ac­cep­tance speech, was recorded in a stu­dio.

So how did Ha­ley get the per­form­ers’ di­a­logue de­spite thun­der­ous waves hit­ting the beach in­ces­santly? He uses a tech­nique called “loud lines.”

“I run the scene with the ac­tors right after we shot the scene, and that way they’re fresh, and they’re do­ing it very sim­i­larly, and we’re still on lo­ca­tion, but the mics can get closer be­cause the cam­era’s not in­volved. Some­times I will take those lines and put them over other lines. It’s re­plac­ing the di­a­logue in a more nat­u­ral and real way,” he says.

Di­rec­tor Brett Ha­ley tai­lored his lat­est film The Hero for his lead­ing man Sam El­liott but he says the work­ing ac­tor doesn’t re­ally have that much in com­mon with the washed-up char­ac­ter.

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