Lucky Man: An Interview with John Carroll Lynch
For his feature debut, acclaimed actor John Carroll Lynch directs Harry Dean Stanton in one of his finest and final roles. It’s a moving, frequently funny debut and a fitting farewell to one of the great icons of American cinema. Lynch spoke to Ian Haydn Smith about his first time behind the camera, and Harry Dean Stanton’s last time in front of it…
Lynch himself has no mean track record as a screen actor. He made his first great impression as Marge Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) husband Norm in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) and over the years has built a repertoire that ranges from noble, stoic blue collar workers (the doomed stationmaster in 1997’s Volcano) and authority figures (the sheriff in 2003’s Gothika) to more shadowy figures, from the prime suspect in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), Varlyn Stroud in Carnivàle (2005) and Twisty the Clown in the popular American Horror Story (2015-17). He is soon to be seen in John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (2019), about the men who hunted down Bonnie and Clyde. But after reading Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja’s script, Lynch finally decided to step into directing.
“I've been trying to put together a project to direct for quite a long time,” said Lynch at the beginning of our conversation. “However, circumstances have, for one reason or another, prevented it. But things came together here, primarily due to Harry Dean Stanton's participation. Drago and Logan approached me to direct the film because they wanted an actor to direct. They knew Harry would respond to that. (He was already attached when I came aboard.) I thought it was such a beautiful piece of writing, especially for Harry.”
Outside of its leading man, Lucky features and rich cast, from Ed Begley Jr., Beth Grant and a wonderfully grizzled Tom Skerritt, to David Lynch as Howard, a man bereft at the loss of his peripatetic tortoise. The filmmaker appears in the film as a favour to Stanton – the two have been friends for years (as evidenced by the rapport between the two in the 2012 documentary portrait Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction).
There was a moment when Lynch thought about casting himself in a role as well as directing the film: “I considered it very briefly. I recognised that I could have played one of two parts in the film. Barry’s [Shabaka Henley] – Joe, the diner owner – is one of the parts that we talked about, but when I started to prep the film it became perfectly clear that my participation as an actor was unnecessary. Barry had done the reading for us by then. I've worked with him on several occasions and think the world of him. His agreement to participate freed me up to focus on what I needed to focus on as a first-time director.”
Not all actors make great directors. Some, understandably, focus a little too much on performance, while others throw every stylistic trick that they have learned or seen other directors employ at the screen. Lynch’s approach is understated, capturing the nuances and slow tempo of his small, southwest American town. “I love actors and I love acting,” Lynch notes, “and it will always be something very important to me when I'm directing. But not paying attention to the visual landscape – not creating a visual poetry that supports the story, and hopefully enhances and amplifies the performances, to realise a more emotionally arresting palette, do a film a great disservice. Tim Shurstedt is a magnificent cinematographer and we really had a great time working together. It’s a film that requires strong framing. After all, it's not going to move a lot, so you want images to hold attention.
There were a variety of influences that Lynch and Shurstedt talked through. “Throughout the prep, we talked about several films and filmmakers. David Lynch was one of them. Obviously, he had directed The Straight Story (1999), a film on pretty much the same subject as Lucky. But we also thought about his work overall.” That influence feels particularly resonant in the red neon-lit night-time scene whose tone edges towards a very Lynchian surrealism. “But then there was John Ford for those magnificent vistas,” Lynch adds. “And Wim Wenders, obviously. You can't send Harry out into the desert without thinking of Paris, Texas (1984). We also thought about Peter Bogdanovich and Jim Jarmusch – his Mystery Train (1989) in particular.”
But ultimately, they key to the film is Stanton and he delivers magnificently. “I had an unfair advantage with the film,” Lynch admits “Every frame that Harry Dean Stanton stands in looks better because he was in it. It goes beyond his acting. It's something about the way light reflected off Harry’s skin that made things more beautiful no matter how meticulous we were about preparing the image, even before he started acting whenever he stepped in to the frame, it became beautiful. And that's his unique asset. And one that, frankly, as an actor seems totally unfair. But it certainly worked in his favour throughout his career.”
Stanton’s skill as an actor as shown in both independent or arthouse films such as Repo Man (1984) and Paris, Texas, as well as bigger budget films such as Alien (1979), in which he plays the extra-terrestrial monster’s second victim. He also has a scene-stealing cameo in Marvels The Avengers (2012), asking after the health of a recently revived Bruce Banner. “One of the things he brought to those brief scenes with Mark Ruffalo,” Lynch notes, “was a moment of humanity in a film that is so technologically complex. It's a real testament to him. Like that scene in Alien, where he's looking at the monster and is not quite sure what it is that he sees. That decision, on his and Ridley Scott's part, to create such a human moment, of complete misunderstanding of what is happening, made the scene all the more terrifying, but also more painful and pointed. He did that all the time.
One of the loveliest moments in Lucky unfolds as Stanton performs a song at a party. “It's a wonderful secret to have in your bag,” says Lynch. “He had this beautiful voice and an adoration of Mariachi that was incorporated into the screenplay. It highlighted the need for this character to reach out to others, maybe for the first time in years, in order to be connected to a community.” Stanton’s love of singing was a central part of Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. But Lynch sees it as even more integral to his being, along with his respect for musicians. “He was daring,” Lynch notes. “And he was so respectful of the mariachi band that we had. He loved them so much. I think he identified as a musician more than just as an actor. And I think that helps paint a picture of who he really was.”
[Words by Ian Haydn Smith]
Once upon a time he was personal assistant to Harry Dean Stanton, now he's the writer of the actor’s final film, Lucky...
Logan Sparks joins us at Curzon Soho this Saturday 15 September at 6pm to talk about the late, forever great Stanton, and the lighting of his final on-screen cigarette.
Lucky plays in Curzon cinemas and on Curzon on Demand from Friday 14 September