Everything old is new again for director
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.”
A TEXAS-SIZE STRETCH
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.”
A NEW LEAF
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.”
KEEP IT LOUD
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.