Interview: 'Hal' director Amy Scott on her tribute to a cinematic legend
“I just felt like, I know this guy,” says Amy Scott. “I mean, I know his work, but I know him. I know where he’s coming from.”
Scott, who makes her directorial debut with the new documentary “Hal,” never physically met Hal Ashby. The legendary filmmaker behind cinematic touchstones like “Being There” and “Harold and Maude” passed away in 1988. As a film, though, “Hal” deeply echoes Scott’s familiarity with her subject, a testament to the power of cinema and the impossible wonder of artists who remain eternally present, even after they are gone.
Like Ashby, Scott began her career as an editor. For the past five years, however, she has been working hard to pull together a moving, soulful tribute to the man on the other side of the silver screen.
“I don’t think I really connected with him until I was a fully formed adult and had been editing for awhile,” Scott explains. “So his would have been in my thirties. Then I remembered that he’d done all these great films, but that he was this Academy Award winning editor who had this whole other set of amazing movies… [An editor] is a personality type that holds up in a room for months on end and sacrifices a lot of personal life to be there and to be present with the movie. Production is so different. There are so many people that you’re relying on. Communication is key and all this. But in the Edit Bay, you’re, you’re in there by yourself for a good chunk of time and it’s very creative and free and it’s your show.”
A similar experience, somehow simultaneously communal and solitary, is a central part of the moviegoing experience.
“I like to go to the movies alone a lot,” Scott admits. “My husband’s great seeing movies with, too, but prior to getting married, that was one of my favorite things to do. Just to go out by myself and take it in.”
Growing up in Lawton, Ohio, Scott discovered a love of movies at a young age.
“I saw ‘Jaws’ and was so freaked out,” she laughs. “I remember my dad daring me to go get in our above ground pool. ‘I’ll give you $5 to get in that pool!’ I was like, ‘No! I can’t do it!’ That’s probably the effect of the cinema.”
“I remember that I was into [Jean-Luc] Godard and [Francois] Truffaut and fancied myself a high-minded cinephile in Oklahoma, which is maybe a bit contradictory,” she recalls. “This is all pre internet, or the beginnings of the Internet was just starting to happen. Having access to films was not easy. You had to really sleuth that stuff out. It’s my college roommates that were a couple years older than me and they and they were like, ‘You like all these great filmmakers, but have you seen ‘Harold and Maude’? I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ They said, ‘You’re skipping class. We’re going to go get it and we’re going to watch it. I think I watched it like three times in a row, restarting it and watching it over that day. I was floored.”
It was after reading Nick Dawson‘s biography, “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel,” that Scott reached out to the author.
“We didn’t know each other,” she says, “but he was really generous with me. We talked it over and I said, ‘I want to do this. I think it’s insane that it has not been done already. He’s an American treasure. We need to do this. He was like, ‘Good luck!’ and he was really helpful and put me in touch with the estate and a lot of key people early on.”
“Hal” features interviews with key figures from throughout Ashby’s life, from actors like Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda, to filmmaking talent like Norman Jewison and Allison Anders.
“We have a massive amount of additional material,” says Scott. “So much material in the first cut that I did because I don’t really know what it was doing this movie. I’ve always been cutting as we shoot. I add the interview to assimilate it into the cut and kind of build out the string out over the years. There were times when I would go off the rails with it, because I found it to be really interesting when Pablo Ferro breaks down the making of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and how they came up with the split screens… but it’s not really tracking Hal’s story.”
The biggest myth about Ashby that Scott wanted to set straight was the idea that he became a creative burnout in his later years.
“He did not, in fact, fizzle out or turn into this druggy waste that disappeared,” she says. “That whole narrative about him that sort of propelled by various books and whatnot… He just had such a great work ethic. Great to the point of probably damaging his emotional relationships, but I understood that.”
Being so immersed in Ashby’s work over the past five years, Scott says that it’s impossible for her to pick a favorite.
“I’m looking at these movies up and down inside and out with a lot of multiple viewings looking for different things. Like I’m watching ‘The Landlord’ and only focusing on the politics or the agenda or the gender education aspect of it. Or I’m looking at the racism that is being portrayed or I’m going to watch it and only follow Beau Bridges’ character. That has happened so many times that I have a sort of film dysmorphia in terms of his work, even though I’ve loved them all. What I will say, though, is that I do think that the films I would recommend in 2018 would be ‘Being There’ and possibly ‘The Landlord’. I mean ‘Being There’ and ‘The Landlord’ bookend the great decade of his career and are both extremely relevant right now.”
Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, “Hal” is set to open at Los Angeles’ NuArt Theater this Friday with plans to expand across the country in the weeks to come. The documentary may only run 90 minutes, but there’s quite a few films you’re going to want to watch (or rewatch) the very minute it ends.
“When you make anything about somebody else, there’s the feeling of, ‘Oh man. I’m never gonna make the ‘Harold and Maude’ superfans happy,'” says Scott. “They’re going to be like, ‘Ugh, Bud [Cort] isn’t in this?!’. That’s okay. I get that… I was pretty liberated, though, when I discovered Ashby himself talking about making a film about Woody Guthrie. He said, ‘Look, I’m making *my* film about Woody Guthrie. I’m not making your film. It’s about the spirit of Woody Guthrie. He said, ‘If you’re trying to make it for the man or for the people, you’ll never win.'”