The BFI London Film Festival 2017 presented Lucky by director John Carroll Lynch. Lucky was the last film of Harry Dean Stanton, who died shortly before the screening. The film is, consciously or not, a tribute to Harry Dean, in one of the most candid, brave, quiet, simple, and iconic roles of a career that spanned seven decades.
It is less of a narrative than tag-team philosophising on mortality and existence, as Lucky visits his doctor, played by Ed Begley, Jr., meets a war veteran played by Tom Skerritt in a diner (they last met on film in the lunch room of the Nostromo in Alien), and drinks with various patrons at the Stagecoach Saloon and Grill, including David Lynch, who holds forth on the existential conundrum of his AWOL tortoise. Despite the sense of finality that coats every scene like desert dust, there is a joyousness to the film, a sense of valediction; and if that were in any doubt, there’s the wry, knowing smile that Harry Dean Stanton gives to the camera, to us, as a farewell.
John Carroll Lynch: The film was conceived of as an elegy, let’s just put it that way. And I had imagined that it was likely that Harry wouldn’t work again, but I thought of it in terms of his choice, not in terms of death.
Garth Twa: It felt like a career summation, really.
JCL: He has such a strong relationship with the audience based on a kind of being and presence that is so purely him. When I look back at the performances that are indelibly stamped in my mind, the two that I saw when I was first starting to work professionally as an actor were in 1984, Paris, Texas [directed by Wim Wenders] and Repo Man [directed by Alex Cox], and those two couldn’t be further apart on the scale of human endeavor. One is of the sweetest and most broken men on film and the other one is a son of a bitch. And a son of a bitch that you end up rooting for even though you know he’s doing the wrong thing. I found that fascinating then and even now. Harry Dean has had such an enduring relationship with the audience, after sixty years of film making, that had to do with something very special. I would say soul but he would not agree with that, because we have no soul.
GT: The location of the film seemed absolutely key to the character and it seemed a character unto itself. Was that pronounced in the script?
JCL: It was always in the script. The desert really reflects that same kind of fragility of life and the vitality of life that is embodied in Lucky. I think of the desert as a hardy place where life struggles to survive and yet that saguaro that Harry Dean stands in front of in the movie is 1200 years old. And the Sonoran Desert tortoises live to 200 so there are plenty of creatures in that environment that thrive and survive to extended longevity, so it was a metaphor for Lucky himself.
GT: And it seemed absolutely a locale that was endemic, I think, to Harry Dean Stanton. Maybe because of Paris, Texas.
JCL: Yeah, it’s funny that a guy from Kentucky is so synonymous with walking through the desert.
GT: Thank you Wim Wenders.
JCL: Yeah, thank you Wim Wenders. Exactly.
GT: There are so many other iconic elements of Harry Dean Stanton films besides the desert—the people ill-used by life, the run-down forgotten American towns, a world-weariness—it’s almost like a Harry Dean Greatest Hits. How much of him was in Lucky?
JCL: It was inspired by him entirely. It’s an intimate and very revealing piece of fiction; it is fiction, but it has so many of his life details in it. It’s almost like it’s based on the life of Harry Dean Stanton but is not the life of Harry Dean Stanton. For example, he served in World War II, he did shoot that mockingbird, he had that moment at his aunt’s house when he suddenly realised nobody was out there, that it was just a void. Those were his stories but they’re in a completely fictional context. The thing that I think was so interesting about the challenge for him and for me with that performance was to reconstruct his stories into a completely different context and a fully realised human being that had nothing to do with him and that certainly was what he did in the film. Lucky exists outside of Harry Dean and as we worked on the movie and as I cut the movie, it became clearer and clearer to me that the character Lucky was completely different than Harry Dean himself. Then I read something recently after his death, he said, “Yeah, it’s just some guy that Logan [Sparks] made up,” so he didn’t even see himself in it.
GT: That’s funny, because the character mentions being born in Kentucky which, of course, Harry Dean was.
JCL: Yeah, the character was born in Kentucky. The pejorative way of saying it was that it was thinly veiled but it’s not—he didn’t live in an Arizona town, he didn’t live alone on the edge of the desert, he didn’t do any of that. And also he wasn’t isolated in any fashion—he had long and enduring friendships and relationships with many, many people, who obviously were devastated by the loss and celebrating him by their presence in this movie, by creating it in the first place.
GT: This was your directorial debut. Why did you wait this long?
JCL: Some of it was circumstance in terms of finding a way to get to the director’s chair when I work so much as an actor. It’s a totally different rhythm. The other part was I started writing with my writing partner with the hope of moving into directing and we have lovely scripts that we have built and created but the problem is that they’re not first time filmmakers’ scripts. There’s something about the way she and I write together, we create kind of ambitious stories, visually, which isn’t a great way to get them made. So we’ll see what happens now that I’m not a first-time feature director.
GT: And Lucky was the right script…
JCL: It was a movie I could see. And when Drago [Sumonja] and Logan asked me to consider directing it, because Drago knew that I had been interested in directing, it was clear I had an understanding of what the script needed, what the movie looked like, how it needed to feel and what all the other elements would be and over the course of time. I just kept my eye on that star.
GT: How far back does your relationship with Harry Dean go back?
JCL: I met him the first time, I would say, about eight years ago. I met him through Drago around the premier of Char-ac-ter, around 2009, at the Santa Fe Film Festival. So I was with Dabney Coleman and Drogo when Logan and Harry Dean came in to Dan Tana’s which was their haunt in Los Angeles where Dabney and Harry Dean saw each other a lot. He left quite an impression.
GT: That’s a wonderful image—Dabney Coleman and Harry Dean Stanton in Dan Tana’s. Somehow perfect.
JCL: That place kind of turns into a version of the Star Wars’ bar after midnight. They were perfectly at home inside a world of interesting creatures that come in at about that hour. And Harry was so good at needling Dabney, it was a delight every single time to watch him get Dabney angry.
GT: You had an incredible cast—Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley, Ron Livingston, David Lynch, of course. How easy was it to get all of your cast together?
JCL: Well, in each case, the draw was, you know, different, slightly different. We went on a “one phone call” rule because we didn’t have a lot of time. So everybody in the movie is one phone call away from someone in the production crew or in the cast. For example, I had worked with Barry Shabaka Henley, Ron Livingston and Beth Grant, Ed Begley was a long time friend of Harry Dean’s, Logan and Drago knew him very, very well. And of course David came through Harry himself—he was suggested by Harry—so that’s how that came about.
GT: You’ve given us a wonderful gift – it was Harry Dean’s perfect Harry Dean performance and an ideal last movie for a legacy. So thank you for that.
JCL: It was not conceived of to be his last work but it was always considered to be a celebration of who he is both as a performer and as a person.
Lucky screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017.