“You’re not likely to get a one-word answer out of me,” laughed the as-a-rule loquacious John Carroll Lynch. Lucky marks the actor’s first time behind the camera — directing Harry Dean Stanton in what turned out to be the 91-year-old actor’s farewell performance.
One is reminded of Billy Wilder’s exchange with William Wyler while exiting the funeral of the sparklingly witted producer-director Ernst Lubitsch. “No more Lubitsch,” lamented Wilder. “Worse than that,” Wyler replied, “no more Lubitsch pictures.”
No more Harry Dean Stanton pictures. The prolific performer’s career spanned 63 years; his list of credits on IMDB stops one shy of 200. A lanky, hollow-cheeked character actor, Stanton felt equally at home as a cowboy riding the range as he did a machine-gun-wielding racketeer, a decidedly underdressed Disneyesque Christmas angel, or a repo man snorting speed off the glove compartment door to keep awake while spending the graveyard shift cruising through “bad areas.”
Here, his Lucky represents the last cowboy, wandering the streets of a small New Mexico town, backed on the soundtrack by Stanton on harmonica gently blowing “Red River Valley.” Both Harry and Lucky were cooks in the Navy. The good fortune of never having to leave the ship earned the latter his nickname.
One look around Lucky’s sparse accommodations reveals a loner at heart, a dedicated nicotine addict whose morning exercise routine is punctuated by puffs. The furniture, what little there is of it, skews brown, while the once-white walls have yellowed with time and tar. A refrigerator in the kitchen keeps cool a single carton of milk. Add to the menu a steady pack-a-day diet of butts to defiantly drag on and, at the risk of confusing star and character, in my mind’s eye, Lucky’s shack is precisely how one might have envisioned the actor’s living arrangement.
Lucky is a film comprised of first-rate actors, each given the opportunity to spin a yarn or two. His doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) advises his patient to keep smoking because at this point, quitting would bring about more harm than good. Lucky spends his evenings in a tavern, doing time with a pack of long-term friends, swapping and re-swapping oft-told stories. Paulie (James Darren) has repeated the same story so many times that any one of his cronies could do a fair job of telling it himself. But they love the enthusiasm Paulie brings so much that they never tire of listening to him espouse the redemptive powers of love.
“I approach it from the actor’s point-of-view — the desire to express something,” says Lynch. “Each of these stories had the desire to express something to Lucky or Lucky to someone else. These aren’t monologues. They’re stories in which the person is trying to get something across, and this is how much time it takes to tell that story.”
At 91, Lucky has earned the right to say pretty much whatever he damn well feels like. A lawyer played by Ron Livingston becomes an instant target of disdain, in part because he leaves the unusually ornery old-timer begging to be ignored. “There’s only one thing worse than awkward silence. Small talk!” grumbles an unfortunate-sounding Lucky. Funny coming from a guy who uses crossword-puzzle research as barroom banter. “But he certainly takes it seriously,” Lynch adds with a laugh. “It’s not small talk to him.”
Some of the first-timer’s choices puzzled. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, so long as it ends with some sort of payoff. At one point, James Darren entered the bar, and in an instant, everything changed. The lighting, the heightened use of color and sound — the entire look warped into a Lynchian (David, not John Carroll) hallucinatory state. But no sooner does Lucky walk through the entrance door marked exit than he wakes up to reveal...it was all a dream. Really? Chalk it up as a tribute to David Lynch (no relation), who pops up in a small role as the film’s foremost authority on tortoises (not turtles). Or perhaps first-time screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja are to blame? Their stabs at surrealism in the otherwise strong script were best held off for the climax.
Death looms large, but don’t expect a downer. Lynch acknowledges that his goal was to make “a movie about living. That’s what I love about the screenplay. Logan had been Harry’s longtime assistant, who, along with Drago, had kind of been inspired to write this movie for him. For Logan, it was Harry’s conversation about ‘the void.’ It touched him, and he wanted to encapsulate it in the screenplay. And I like the decisions Lucky makes about living.”
A spoiler alert is probably in order. On two of Lucky’s daily constitutionals, he strolls past a golden-haloed entryway kept out of camera range. What’s inside upsets him to the point where he twice proves unable to refrain from screaming out the “c” word. The third time’s the charm. The camera finally turns to reveal a cherubic water fountain in the middle of a mini Garden of Eden. Did his lack of dropping the vituperative cuss word indicate that what Lucky saw no longer displeased him and that he was ready to pass into the afterlife?
“Yeah,” Lynch deadpans. “There’s your one-word answer.”
Or is it? “There’s so many levels to this,” he continues. “We knew it was a chewy screenplay. You can look at it in a lot of different ways. [Producer] Ira Behr loved the fact that there are going to be people sitting in bars talking about whether he died or not. And now that Harry’s died, his walk over the hill at the end has a different quality to it. We don’t know how long he had left, or if he’d already left us. What we do know is these moments that we shared with him were precious.”
A triumph for both actor and director, Lucky ushers in the end, the long-awaited end, of this year’s summer of blockbusters. Other than watching a nonagenarian in otherwise perfect health taking a fall and a curtain shot of CG tortoise (the latter fooled me), there’s not a special effect in sight.
More with John Carroll Lynch below: thoughts on The Founder, a happy accident for James Darren, clarity of vision, and how a 91-year-old man carried his film.
Did juggling release dates contribute to The Founder not finding an audience?
“When movies change opening dates like that, movies start to get a smell around them in some ways. People become skittish. It doesn’t feel confident. But you really never know why. I think that movie is terrific. John Lee Hancock did an amazing job of directing. Michael Keaton is wonderful in the movie. And I am very proud of my own work, which I never say.”
How did James Darren land the role in Lucky?
“The part was written with Paulie Herman in mind, but the dates fell out and he couldn’t make them work. We were looking for somebody. We spent most of our Sundays during pre-production at Harry’s house going over the script. We’re on our way to Harry’s house and there’s Darren broken down by the side of the road. Ira Behr worked with James Darren on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He pulls over ,and the two start talking. ‘Look, I’m going to send you something,’ Ira says. ‘We don’t know exactly what part, we just want you to read it. Let me know how you feel about it.’ It was the character Paulie. That’s how it happened. Talk about a fortuitous circumstance.”
On the moment in the filmmaking process when it all seems to come together:
“In every experience I’ve ever had that’s been successful, there comes a moment where everybody is making the same movie. And that was true of Lucky. We had disagreement about how to get there, but it was never about where we were going. That was clear. And the movie started to instruct us. It became clearer that the simpler the edits were, the more compelling the story and the performances became.”
Where where you when news of Stanton’s passing arrived?
“I was told that it was likely to happen at any time. I had landed in Albany. I was flying back from a word-of-mouth screening in Minneapolis. He had died 20 minutes before. Logan [Sparks] was with him. He called to let me know before I heard it anyplace else. I was grateful that he had done the hospice and that he was free of any pain. I never met anybody who seemed to be as filled with life and at the same time as fragile as Harry. To make it to 91 is incredible. Not many people do. To be able to do what he did in this movie seems unreasonable.”