WASHINGTON — He’s one of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood history, from “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) to “Alien” (1979), from “Paris, Texas” (1984) to “Repo Man” (1984).
Now, just days after his death at age 91, Harry Dean Stanton gives his final performance in the indie dramedy “Lucky,” marking the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (“Fargo”).
“I haven’t seen the movie since he died, so it’ll be interesting,” Lynch told WTOP. “It certainly changes the context of the film, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the film or the warmth or the humor or anything else about it. It’s really a movie about living. … How do I live well with my death in mind? I know it sounds stark, but it’s not. … It’s a very practical question.”
The story follows the spiritual journey of 90-year-old Lucky (Stanton), who has outlived most of his peers and now roams a remote desert town contemplating the twilight of his life.
“He’s a cantankerous, self-reliant man who lives on the edge of this Arizona town and the desert,” Lynch said. “He’s lived there for years, he has his routine, he knows everybody, but thinks of himself as the sheriff of this little town, the de-facto mayor. He goes to his diner, watches his game shows, does his crossword puzzles, goes to his bar and that’s his life.”
All that changes one morning when he collapses in his kitchen, staring at his coffee pot in a trance. Lynch uses the blinking red “12:00” digits to flash a strobe light across his face.
“Those things that are red represent a kind of mortality, a kind of spiritual checkout,” Lynch said. “The clock, the phone and the red alley are all moments where mortality is present for him in a way that is not extraordinarily comfortable. That frightens him. You’re inside his head the whole movie, inside his heart really, so you have to follow it from that point of view.”
After his coffee-pot collapse, Lucky realizes his time is limited.
“He goes to his doctor and starts wondering how much time he has left, [realizing] that he may not have years and decades left, he may just have months and weeks,” Lynch said. “It really messes with him, but he comes to a realization of how to live in the shadow of death.”
Lynch says you don’t have to be 90 years old to relate.
“It’s actually how I’m living, how everybody is,” Lynch said. “The illusion that we live under is that we’re not living under [the] shadow of death. It’s in your periphery but it’s hard to keep in focus, and it’s particularly hard because it’s so frightening. But this movie demystifies all of it. He’s such a seeker in the movie and really comes to a place about it that is actually doable.”
In this light, the name “Lucky” is fitting.
“It’s definitely metaphorical,” Lynch said. “Anybody who gets to be 89 years old in good health is ridiculously lucky. Most of us don’t get there and his vitality as a human being, which we see literally in the same body as his fragility, is so resonant and so beautiful. It’s also so funny.”
Yes, despite the dramatic elements and end-of-life questions, Lynch mostly considers his film a comedy. As Stanton delivers quirky exchanges with co-stars Ron Livingston to David Lynch, it’s a unique delight watching his curmudgeon quips and independent spirit.
“He really wanted to smoke pot in the movie,” Lynch said. “He said, ‘Why don’t we just smoke pot?’ I was like, ‘We’ve got a long day ahead of us. I don’t know if that’s the best choice in terms of work ethic.’ He also wanted to have real alcohol in his drinks, so we managed that. Although there was tequila in his drinks, it wasn’t nearly as much as he thought. But when you have someone who insists on that level of truth, it brings everyone else into that same realm.”
Regardless, the result is an admirably subtle, deeply human performance.
“Harry Dean is such a captivating actor and human figure,” Lynch said. “His characters are always complicated, and this one’s a beautiful performance that fittingly ends his career. … It’s interesting to see all of the outpourings of love for him and his worth over his 60-year career.”
The filmmaker’s favorite Stanton role remains David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999).
“[It’s] a 5-minute piece,” Lynch said. “He sees this lawn mower that his brother rode all the way to his house. You watch Harry Dean reenact the whole trip you’ve just watched for an hour and a half. He does it all without saying a word. It’s all in his eyes. It’s a clinic of film acting.”
Lynch appreciates Stanton’s talent because he’s a stellar actor himself. After graduating Catholic University in 1986, Lynch worked with some of the top directors of our time.
Who can forget his suspect in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007)? His acting chops are on display in two scenes: first as he’s called into the police station where the cops remark, “Nice watch.” They don’t seem to notice the clue right under their noses: the watch is a “Zodiac” brand.
“[Fincher] did a great job,” Lynch said. “That [acting] foursome — Elias Koteas, Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo and I — had one of the best days on set that I’ve ever had.”
His final scene is just as brilliant, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Robert Graysmith enters Lynch’s hardware store, engaging in a silent staredown that suggests he’s the killer.
“Graysmith so desperately needs to know,” Lynch said. “The scene is written like the end of ‘Moby Dick’ where Ahab is tied to the whale. Melville writes, ‘The whale looks at Ahab, and Ahab looks at the whale.’ That’s how I saw it. They recognize each other in that moment.”
Still, Lynch’s most lovable role remains in the Coens’ “Fargo” (1996), playing the husband Norm of pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). It marked a groundbreaking gender swap, as McDormand won the Oscar as the gumshoe, while Lynch woke up early to fix her breakfast as a stay-at-home husband painting duck stamps in his spare time.
“The Coens grew up across the street from three brothers, the Hautmans, all wildlife artists,” Lynch said. “I set up an appointment [to meet] the youngest brother [and learned] they’re not postage stamps, they’re wildlife refuge stamps. If you want to go bird watching or duck hunting, you have to buy a stamp to get on the property. … I came back to the Coens and said, ‘I don’t want to change a thing, but just so you know — they’re not postage stamps.”
It’s that attention to detail that’s made Lynch the finest of actors, demonstrating a willingness to learn new things that ultimately took him into directing. While the Coens used a distant frame for Marge’s “prowler needs a jump” scene, Lynch wanted more intimacy for “Lucky.”
“Their control of the camera is so strong, but in this particular movie … I want to feel like I’m in the room with him, sitting across the couch from him, in a diner booth with him,” Lynch said. “I don’t want to be coldly watching him from another room. … After the fall, it becomes much more point-of-view and intimate. That was the visual vocabulary we began with.”
Along the way, he enjoyed making directorial decisions for a change.
“The preparation was beautifully intense discussions, not only with Harry Dean but with the writers, producers and collaborators: director of photography Tim Suhrstedt, production designer Almitra Corey and costume designer Lisa Norcia. Those are conversations that as an actor you don’t get to have. Suddenly, I’m having them and just loving everything. To have a meeting where you get to choose the phone! You have six phones [to choose from].”
As for atmosphere, Lynch patterned the film after his all-time favorites.
“I watched ‘Paris, Texas,’ ‘Last Picture Show,’ the feeling of the fraying of this town. Also, I watched Jim Jarmusch. … ‘Mystery Train,’ because there’s so much vivid color.”
In the end, Lynch calls it a “beautiful film” he’s “very proud of.” And yet, after Stanton’s death, there’s a twinge of sadness that his legendary star never got to see the finished film.
“I’ll [never] know what it would’ve been like to have a premiere in Los Angeles where all of Harry’s friends got to come with him in the audience,” Lynch said. “I can only imagine the raucous and sustained adoration they would have provided for him, because his work is so extraordinary. We’ll never get to know what that would have felt like. I do know I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to work with him and tell a story that only he could tell.”
Click here for more details on “Lucky.” Listen to our full chat with John Carroll Lynch below: