Lucky features Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke; Alien; Paris, Texas; Repo Man) in one of his last starring roles. At once a love letter to the life and career of Harry Dean Stanton as well as a meditation on mortality, loneliness, spirituality, and human connection, the film will be released by Eureka Entertainment in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) and On Demand from 14 September 2018. Director John Carroll Lynch talks about the joys and challenges of being in the Director’s chair.
What drew you to Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja’s script?
First and foremost, I thought the script was funny. I liked the dialogue, the characters and the sense of community. This small town embraces everyone – even if they, like Lucky, think they are not a part of it. Also, it felt like I got to know someone in the script that I had never seen before. Someone who is a holdout in so many ways. Lucky’s lives at the edge of town, and at the edge of mortality – with no fanfare, no huge dramatic events, he confronts his isolation and his connection with eternity.
Was the story written with Harry Dean Stanton in mind?
The story was absolutely written with Harry Dean in mind. It was written as a love letter to the actor and the man. It is in essence, biographical. Lucky’s stories, his behaviour are drawn from Harry’s life. Logan Sparks is an old friend of Harry’s as well, and that’s where the insight came from. An example of this is Lucky’s first line in the film. He walks into Joe’s Diner and says to Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) “You’re nothing.” Joe replies “You’re nothing.” And Lucky says, “Thank you.” This exchange is one captured from Harry going to Ago’s in L.A. He and the valet have this exchange every time he goes in. It is how Harry feels about what we all are. Nothing. So, we all felt an immense responsibility to create from Harry’s life, and from Harry’s interactions, a story about a man who suddenly brings into his heart that he might have weeks and months to live, not years and decades.
It also had to reflect Lucky’s journey from something to nothing, but not through “bucket list” experiences. No bank robberies, or jumping from planes. While those things are dramatic, they don’t represent most of our experiences. We change from the inside. Not the outside. But it definitely was created to celebrate Harry. That’s why the film in the titles says Harry Dean Stanton is “Lucky.”
How was the transition from acting to directing for you?
I had wanted to direct for a long time. I was so grateful that Drago and Logan offered it to me. That was quite a bit of trust. I have always been drawn to understanding the whole story and have studied film as a storyteller, I found the learning curve was Himalayan. It is one thing to understand a story. But then you have to figure out a way to reverse engineer it. Think of a bridge. To build the bridge, you have to create the apparatus to build it. That’s what directors and producers do in film terms. You have to create the process and assemble the machinery and fellow storytellers who will use the camera, production design, costumes, their bodies and souls, etc. to tell the story. Many of these choices were new to me. But my instincts as a storyteller come from character and story. I found that is true of all of the collaborators who came on board too. Then I needed to learn how to orchestrate everyone’s efforts and personalities in real time to create the raw materials that you will use in post to actually make the movie. All of this was exciting, difficult, painful and overwhelming. And so much fun.
Many actors also cast themselves in roles in their directorial debuts. Did you consider taking on one of the characters or did you always intend solely to direct the project?
I was originally going to play Joe. But after seeing what I needed to focus on, I decided it was silly. We didn’t need me in the film for financing, so it seemed wiser not to be in it. Also, I wanted this town to reflect the world I live in. Where we all live together side by side. It was important to me that we had actors of all colours prominent in the movie. Regardless of that desire, when it came to Joe, Barry was a no brainer. Anyone would be lucky to have him in their picture.
Not only do you move from acting to directing with Lucky, but you also have a notorious director acting in your project. What was it like directing David Lynch?
David was gracious, responsive, supportive, prepared and committed. It was clear he’d come to play and to simply be an actor. I imagine he was the kind of actor he always hopes to work with. And I learned a lot about being an actor on set in the days he worked. There was a moment that Harry was struggling with a moment in the text and I had given him an explanation as to why the words were there. Harry was not convinced. As often happens on set, an actor turned to his fellow actor for clarification. In this case it was David Lynch. Harry turned to David and said: “Do you understand this?” And David said “Yes, Harry.” Harry said: “What the fuck does it mean?” David looked at me and I said; “Jump on in.” He turned to Harry and said with calm compassion: “It’s not my place to say, Harry.” Wow. I loved his respect and his willingness to let me handle it. Harry played the moment and we moved on. It was very cool. By the way, in the cutting room, Harry was right, we didn’t need those lines. They are no longer in the movie. So, Harry knows his business.
Lucky is a bit of a loner, but also garners a certain affection from the locals in town. How do you think Lucky feels about where he is in life?
In some ways, it feels as if the town understands Lucky better than Lucky understands himself. He thinks he is an island and until the events in the story transpire, he doesn’t see himself as part of the community. But he has been a part of it forever. It is the illusion of self-sufficiency we all suffer from in a way. He walks around town every day and everyone has feelings about him. Even though he has little or no feelings about them. Like Boo Radley in a way.
Where was the film primarily shot?
We wanted Harry to sleep in his own bed every night. We shot in the desert north of L.A. Then we shot in Cave Creek, AZ for a day at the end to get those desert shots and the Saguaro. And the tortoise. And the saguaro. And the tortoise.
Did you find it hard to shoot everything you wanted with a limited budget? Did it create a sense of urgency on set to get as much as you could in each location with every scene?
I imagine if you get $200 million or $20 there is a sense of urgency. That said, 18 days was a challenge. But the primary clock was Harry’s energy. Before shooting this film, I had played the lead in a film with an 18-day shoot. I was in every scene, and I was exhausted – and I am just a little more than half of Harry’s age. We made a schedule that had as few five-day weeks as possible. We tried to husband his energy in every way we could. but sometimes, we couldn’t. In the walking scenes, with the repeating of the sequences, Harry walked about three miles in 100 degree heat. And that was just onscreen. He gave us everything he had.
Lucky received rave reviews following its US release, just days after Harry Dean Stanton’s death, including Variety’s Joe Leydon who described the film as “an unassumingly wonderful little film about nothing in particular and everything that’s important.”