For actor John Carroll Lynch, stepping behind the camera as a director for the first time in his 25-year career was an aspirational move. He’s always been attracted to storytelling, but storytelling from a filmmaker’s perspective was something that intrigued him on another level.
“As a director, you’re no longer attached to telling stories just with the physical body that you’ve been assigned,” Lynch, 54, told me during an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year. “It frees you from those bodily constraints.”
In “Lucky,” his debut film as a director, Lynch, who has starred in a number of high-profile films in his career, including “Fargo,” “Zodiac” and “Shutter Island,” takes that ambition and proves himself to be a talent to watch as he evolves in his career. “Lucky” stars the late Harry Dean Stanton in his final film role as the title character, a 90-year-old atheist taking a final spiritual journey in the small dirt town he lives. It’s a perfect farewell for Stanton, who passed away in September at the age of 91.
During my interview with Lynch in March (Stanton was scheduled to also be at the interview, but had to cancel), we talked about his time with Stanton on the set and what he learned from other directors going into his first film project.
Was making a movie something you’ve always wanted to do?
I am an ambitious man and I have to deal with that in some way. I felt for a long time that I wanted to try this. This opportunity came in a way that was unexpected. In a miraculous way, it came together in such a fast period of time. There were such an amazing amount of yeses based on Harry Dean’s participation. I will always be grateful for that.
When you’re 90 years old, do you want to be like Lucky?
Well, I’d like to be 90. There’s a famous story I heard about Dwight D. Eisenhower celebrating his 80th birthday. Somebody told him, “Maybe you’ll live to be 100.” Then somebody said, “Who would want to live to be 100?” Without missing a beat, Eisenhower said, “The man who is 99.”
Talk about Harry in this film. He is a revelation.
The story is based on his life. It’s a fictional story but it’s inspired by his life. What I love about the script is that Lucky is not thinking about his mortality for the first time. He’s thinking about it for the last time. He also finds a certain sense of community he never thought he had before. He’s been in this little town and supported by this little town, but then suddenly he realizes there are people that care. I love that about the script. Harry Dean has such a presence. He requires from everybody a level of truth and honesty when they act with him. That’s aspirational for most people.
How do you direct something like that?
It was particularly challenging in this circumstance because this was his life. He had a personal stake in it. So, he had strong opinions because he had a strong personal connection to the material. One had to say to him, “Yes, this is a story in your life but this is Lucky saying it, so let’s create the construct of Lucky.” That was a tricky conversation to have because Harry doesn’t believe in acting at all. It’s an ironic thing because he is one of the best actors around. It’s kind of like not believing in music when you can play the guitar so well.
So, acting comes naturally to him at this point of his life?
I don’t know that it comes naturally to him. I just think that he forgot that he learned it. He’s done 236 films. I imagine that any master artist at the level that he’s at and at the age that he’s at knows what he knows. It’s like breathing.
So, it’s not Lucky you aspire to be, it’s Harry Dean.
I would like to be like Harry Dean. That I would like. I’d like to be as peaceful in my heart as Harry Dean is in his heart. He’s fiery in every other way, but in his heart, he is peaceful.
Is Lucky alone or lonely in your opinion?
I think at the beginning of the script he’s alone and suddenly realizes his loneliness. I feel some of that is a construct of the character. I think he sees himself as OK with the loneliness. It’s the American ideal of rugged individualism. I live on my terms the way I want to live. Those are small terms for Lucky. He doesn’t need a lot.
In the film, we learn a little bit about Lucky’s background, but not much. Did you have more of a sense of who he was in the past or was his life meant to be a mystery?
I think the strength of the script is in the specificity of the present. Lucky lives within these stories. There are foundational stories that make up what we perceive ourselves to be. The rest is intimated. Who did he love? Who are those kids? They’re not his kids, but he keeps a picture of them. Those are the mysteries of his personality. The audience is left with a really specific feeling, but not any information. I think that’s how I kind of lived in the story. I was never curious about what the script didn’t say.
You’ve worked with some great directors over the course of your career. Did you borrow anything from them as a first-time director?
Well, first, I spoke a lot to close friends of mine who are directors. Miguel Arteta (“Beatriz at Dinner”) was incredibly supportive and helpful. He was very inspiring. He gave me great advice to read Jerry Lewis’s book on directing. As for those people that I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the course of my career, I took what I appreciate about each of them. Every director who I think is a master who I’ve worked with has these things in common: they are extraordinarily good hosts. They host a set very well. They make sure the set is run smoothly and that the boat is pointed in the right direction. The other thing is that they bring clarity and purpose to what they’re after. They know what they’re interested in. They know what things will get in the way and easily discard them. Those are the things I wanted to aspire to during this process.
Talk to me about the day on the set when the song happens. Was that in the script? (Note: In the film, Harry Dean Stanton sings a mariachi song)
It was absolutely in the script. One of the things that people may not know about Harry Dean is that he’s a musician. Harry Dean also adores mariachi music. There were times when Harry Dean was acting and I’d tell him, “We need another [take]” and he’d say, “What was wrong with that one?” He really didn’t want to do another one. But when he’s playing the harmonica, we would get through three versions of [a scene] and we’d stop and say, “That was great!” and he’d go, “Do you want another?” It was the same with the mariachi. Actually, with the harmonic it was, “Do you want another?” and with the mariachi it was, “Can I have another?” He worked all that day on that scene. It all comes from him.