‘Lucky’ di­rec­tor John Car­roll Lynch, on life, death — and Harry Dean Stan­ton

The Progress-Index Weekend - - AMUSEMENTS - By Michael O’Sul­li­van

What’s a good Catholic boy do­ing mak­ing a movie about the spir­i­tual jour­ney of a 90-year-old athe­ist?

That how ac­tor­turned-di­rec­tor John Car­roll Lynch - a grad­u­ate of a Je­suit high school and an alum of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Catholic Uni­ver­sity, with a 1986 BFA in theater - de­scribes his di­rec­to­rial de­but, “Lucky,” star­ring Harry Dean Stan­ton. Like Stan­ton, who died in Septem­ber, Lynch is known less as a lead­ing man than as a pro­lific char­ac­ter ac­tor, as rec­og­niz­able for salt-of-the-earth roles (“Fargo,” “The Founder”) as he is for creepy ones (“Zo­diac,” “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story”).

While in town to give a mas­ter class in act­ing to stu­dents at his alma mater, the 54-yearold Lynch sat down to talk. The sub­jects were var­ied - life, death, his ca­reer and his film­mak­ing de­but, with a movie about a man fac­ing his own mor­tal­ity that he calls a lightly fic­tion­al­ized “love let­ter” to its late star.

Q: Stan­ton turned 90 a week af­ter you fin­ished shoot­ing “Lucky.” Four­teen months later, he was dead. Let me first of­fer my con­do­lences. His death adds a layer of poignancy to the film.

A: Thank you. When we made this movie, we didn’t know how long Lucky was go­ing to be out there. And now he’s not. That changes a lot.

Q: Was Stan­ton phys­i­cally and men­tally all there dur­ing the film­ing?

A: Phys­i­cally, he was com­pletely vi­tal and com­pletely frag­ile at the same time. The desert town of Piru, Cal­i­for­nia, where “Lucky” is set, is a metaphor for fragility and vi­tal­ity - and for where Lucky is in life. Men­tally, Harry Dean was ab­so­lutely all there. A lot of the ma­te­rial is based on sto­ries from his life, but that didn’t stop him from want­ing to re­write the screen­play. He was very aware of the di­chotomy of the cir­cum­stance, where he’s play­ing a per­son in­spired by him. It was in­tended to be an el­egy, an ova­tion. It cer­tainly wasn’t in­tended to be his last per­for­mance.

Q: How much of the char­ac­ter of Lucky - a smoker, a prac­ti­tioner of yoga, an in­vet­er­ate crossword puz­zler, an afi­cionado of game shows - is Stan­ton?

A: The smok­ing, the yoga, the game shows, the puzzles - call­ing peo­ple on the phone to try to try to fig­ure out what a seven-let­ter word is he can’t fig­ure out that’s all taken straight from his life. Harry Dean used to say, “I only eat so I can smoke.”

Q: Those phone calls he makes are like lit­tle mono­logues. Whom is he talk­ing to?

A: It’s the only mys­tery in the movie that isn’t an­swered in the screen­play. I can tell you, but I think it’s di­min­ish­ing to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Q: You’ve said that your di­rec­to­rial role mod­els were Jim Jar­musch, John Ford and David Lynch, who has a small role in “Lucky” as a man whose best friend is a tor­toise named Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt. Is the sur­re­al­ism in “Lucky” the Lynchian part?

A: There are door­ways in “Lucky” that you slide into - re­veal­ing an ac­cep­tance of idio­syn­crasy - that are not re­al­ism. But the one David Lynch movie that this most evokes is prob­a­bly the least Lynchian of his films: “The Straight Story.” It’s that sense of emo­tional ex­tremis.

Q: Lucky, like Stan­ton, is an athe­ist. How do you ex­plain the film as a spir­i­tual jour­ney?

A: I think athe­ism is a faith. Be­liev­ing any­thing with cer­tainty is a faith. I think of it in dra­matic terms. Drama is based on ratch­et­ing up the stakes. My high school drama di­rec­tor, a pri­est, had di­a­betes. He had lost his legs, yet he even­tu­ally chose not to con­tinue dial­y­sis. You have about five days to live af­ter you stop dial­y­sis. And he went out with ut­ter joy, eat­ing fried chicken and drink­ing Frangelico, be­cause he be­lieved that he was go­ing into the arms of Je­sus Christ.

Q: If none of this mat­ters, aren’t the stakes lower, not higher, for Lucky?

A: It re­minds me of the old joke about tenured pro­fes­sors. The fights in academia are so much more vi­cious - be­cause the stakes are so low.

[MAG­NO­LIA PIC­TURES]

David Lynch, left, has a small part in “Lucky,” with Harry Dean Stan­ton.

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