‘I had my hands full with Harry’ – Stories from the set of Harry Dean Stanton’s goodbye film, Lucky

Harry Dean Stanton played his last major role in Lucky, an affecting portrait of an ageing man facing the end in a desert town. Actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch shares some memories from the shoot.

12 September 2018

By Lou Thomas

Lucky (2017)

A fitting tribute to its star, Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky is an unhurried, thoughtful affair with a mischievous edge. Stanton, who died aged 91 in September 2017, two weeks before the film’s US release, plays the eponymous nonagenarian with grace and vitality.

Lucky’s life in his small desert town is a simple one. He makes daily trips to the convenience store to buy cigarettes and milk, sips coffee at the diner and drinks in the local bar with friend Howard (a pleasingly eccentric turn from David Lynch, Stanton’s real-life friend and occasional director). Other films have more action, but the nuances of Lucky suggest the profound meaning in life just being lived.

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Debut director John Carroll Lynch is best known for his role as Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996), but he’s also worked as an actor with directors including Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, John Woo and Martin Scorsese. Here he discusses working with Stanton and how this farewell role came to be.

Lucky is dominated by Harry Dean Stanton. Did you want him to play the lead from the start or did you consider any other actors?

This material was specifically tailored. Both the writers, Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks, had known Harry for over 15 years. Logan had worked for him as his assistant. They were driving through the desert, after getting some footage for a documentary they were making about some tribes in Arizona that Logan has friends in, and they thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if Harry played some kind of guru on the edge of the desert?” That’s how it began.

He agreed to it before I came aboard, but no one in their right mind would have tried to make this without him. We certainly wouldn’t have.

It was a weird set of circumstances – for an actor to play a fictional role, based on himself.

Lucky (2017)

Watching the film, it’s impossible not to feel that he knew this was going to be one of his very last roles. Did you ever discuss that with him?

No. At 89 I would imagine that every time you brush your teeth is the time you think it’s gonna be your last time. I don’t think that was something he was unaware of. But he was for all intents and purposes retired. He had been offered roles this size in the last few years and he just thought they were too much work so he said no.

He really was more interested in being home than being in a movie. [He agreed to do] this particular script because of the nature of it, but also because it said some things that I think he wanted to say, coupled with his love of Logan. He was Logan’s best man at his wedding. Logan’s son is named Stanton. They were very close.

So it was a combination of things that made him come out of his tent like Achilles and do this one last battle, but it was a lot for him. He’s in every scene. We did our best to husband his energy and make sure that he could get through it, but it was exhausting.

John Carroll Lynch directing Lucky (2017)

You mentioned that you felt the film says things that he wanted to say. Can you give me any specifics?

The scene where he describes his worldview. He fully embraced the kind of Buddhist nihilism that made you – forced you, in some ways – to focus in the moment you were in and not in the moment you’re gonna have next. That was in terms of his work and his life.

How would you describe the experience of working with him?

Delightful, challenging, frustrating, angering, as well as breathtaking and surprising. He focused so clearly on the moment that he only responded to notes you had on that individual moment of how to play something. You had to say it in a way that was clearly about that moment and not about what you needed as a director. Structure was of no interest to him.

Lucky (2017)

Lucky reminds me of work by people like Jim Jarmusch and Kelly Reichardt in that not much happens but, at the same time, everything happens. Did those kinds of filmmakers influence you?

We talked a lot about Jim Jarmusch, about Mystery Train (1989) and other films. His ability to let things breathe was certainly important in the making of the film, in terms of what was inspiring to both the writers and to me. It’s interesting, we think of plot in a way that is odd to me.

It used to be there was a three-act structure or a five-act structure to plays or screenplays. Now they are built like video games, where there is an incident and then you reach a boss. Then the stakes are raised, until finally you get the big boss and the video game is over.

David Lynch has a memorable supporting role as Howard. Did you feel intimidated having to direct such a formidable director?

I had my hands full with Harry so I didn’t really think about it too much. It’s a funny thing, when you are looking at two Lynches on a movie and we’re in the wrong jobs. Anyway, he did a magnificent job as Howard. I can’t imagine the movie without him.

Lucky (2017)

Do you have any anecdotes about Harry?

Before shooting we were at one of his local haunts, Dan Tana’s of West Hollywood. He was outside, as he often was, with his shot of tequila and a cigarette.

This guy came up and had just driven in from Florida. He had sold everything. He was close to my age [55], had been divorced recently, and was gonna change his life and move to LA. All of a sudden he says: “Have I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour?” Shortly after that I left.

Next morning my buddy said: “That guy that you were talking to sat next to Harry and started asking him if he was accepting Jesus Christ as his personal saviour.” I said: “What did Harry do?” Because I thought Harry might just bite his head off.

But Harry said: “Do you even know if we’re actually here? Do you actually know that this moment is actually happening? What is your evidence that this is real?” They were both trying to convert each other for about two hours.

I wonder who won…

I think it was a draw. I can guarantee you Harry was fully committed to his worldview. He was not about to become a Christian. His favourite thing was to find out what your sacred cow was and poke it.

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