Interview: 'The Hero' co-writer/director Brett Haley
Brett Haley’s humane 2015 dramedy I’ll See You in My Dreams gave Blythe Danner a rare leading role as a widowed former singer who gets a second chance at love with a kindly man played by Sam Elliott. On set and during promotional interviews for the film, Haley enjoyed working with Elliott so much that he and co-writer Marc Basch crafted their next feature, The Hero, with the mustachioed character actor at the forefront as Lee Hayden, an aging L.A. actor in his early 70s who takes stock of his life and doesn’t much like what he sees.
Calling in from New York City, where he currently lives, the 33-year-old Haley spoke with me about making films centered on older characters as well as his recent side projects and experiences at his nearby alma mater.
Edwin Arnaudin: I was looking over your bio and was excited to see that, like many of today’s notable filmmakers, you’re an NC School of the Arts alum.
Brett Haley: I am indeed.
EA: How did you decide to go there?
BH: It was the only film school that accepted me. (Laughs) That is true, but also I had heard really wonderful things about the school and I had a friend who went there and he told me about it. And, yeah — I went for it, to the dismay of my parents, who had to pay out-of-state tuition.
EA: When were you there?
BH: 2001 to 2005.
EA: Who are some other recognizable names who were there while you were?
BH: Well, a couple of people. Rob Givens, who’s my DP. We were in the same class, so that was a cool connection. Chad Hartigan [Morris from America] and Aaron Katz [Land Ho!] were a year ahead of me. Zach Clark [the Asheville-set and shot Little Sister] was a year ahead of me. All the super famous guys that came out of there, like Danny [McBride] and David [Gordon Green] and Craig [Zobel, Compliance] and Jeff [Nichols], they were all ahead of my time, but it’s nice to…if I ever met those guys, I’m sure I could say, “Hey, NCSA all the way,” kind of thing.
EA: Is there a particular class you took or piece of advice you received there that you feel has been instrumental in getting your career where it is today?
BH: I really enjoyed Renata Jackson as a teacher. She taught film studies there. She just really made me appreciate and understand movies in a different way that I don’t think I had before. She was a great teacher and lover of movies and I think just made me love and appreciate movies even more.
EA: With me being an Asheville-based site and Winston-Salem not too far away, I’m curious if you ever made it to Asheville while you were there.
BH: Not often, but I do know Asheville and it is a beautiful town and the times that I’ve been there I’ve really enjoyed it.
EA: Speaking of enjoying things, I had a nice time watching The Hero, so thank you for putting so much time and effort into it.
BH: Thank you very much.
EA: My favorite parts of it — and the moments where I see the most growth in your filmmaking from I’ll See You In My Dreams — is the movie with the movie that Lee imagines. As far as those scenes’ look and content, were you inspired by any particular movies or filmmakers?
BH: Yeah. I think…Those are all dream-like. They’re dream sequences to me and I was very inspired by movies like 8 1/2 and The Sopranos, actually, has wonderful dream sequences that I was inspired by. I also come back to…there’s a great movie about making movies called Day for Night — Truffaut’s Day for Night — that has some cool repeating dream sequences within it, so those were definitely on my mind. And then I think visually, we were obviously going for classic westerns and I think Leone was definitely a big influence on a few of those scenes.
EA: You’ve cast some of my favorite TV actors and actresses in your films: Martin Starr in I’ll See You In My Dreams and now Laura Prepon and Krysten Ritter in The Hero. Do you watch a lot of TV shows?
BH: I do. I watch a lot of TV. I watch a lot of movies. I enjoy the form. I really think they’re more similar than ever now. Certainly not necessarily all network TV, but I think TV’s great. I enjoy it very much and I don’t think anymore we should be dictating the difference between TV actors and movie actors. They’re just great actors. If they can bring a character to life on television or on Netflix, or what have you, or on the big screen, I think it’s all the same.
EA: I agree with you, but I think that a lot of people still put one label or the other on certain actors. With that in mind, when you bring these performers aboard, is it as simple as them being the right fit for their part or are you intentionally giving them a chance to shine in a medium in which they don’t often work?
BH: I think it’s both. Directing is 90% casting and you definitely want to get the right people in the right roles, but I do like giving parts to actors that maybe they wouldn’t normally get.
EA: As more movies like it came out, I started referring to I’ll See You In My Dreams as “the Citizen Kane of retired women get their groove back movies.” I felt like your film was at the forefront of a trend that later brought movies like Grandma, The Meddler and The Last Word. Not that Lee is retired, but in the wake of The Hero, do you think we’ll see an uptick in “older men get their groove back” movies?
BH: I don’t know. To be completely honest, I think there are plenty of movies about men out there — (laughs) — and have been for a long time. I think that movies about women and other minorities…people of color, I think those movies are actually more important and it’s resonating with people more. At the same time, I think to some degree Sam is not your average thing. He’s an older person and I think movies about older people are rare, especially when they’re handled in an honest, truthful way, so I do think there is a place for that as well. It’s different, but it’s the first movie I’ve made that’s not about a woman and it was weird for me, but that’s how much I love Sam and wanted to do something with Sam.
EA: Are there other actors of his generation that you’d like to see starring in their own films that maybe aren’t getting those chances?
BH: I’m sure there is. I don’t have a working list at the moment, but I’m sure there’s plenty of people that don’t have…I think a lot of those great actors who were supporting players for a long time deserve the spotlight as well.
EA: You’re 33 — what draws you to make movies about a generation a good deal removed from your own?
BH: I’m not really sure. I don’t know that I’m necessarily drawn toward making movies about people of a certain generation. Movies happen in really strange and weird ways and these two movies just happen to be about people of a certain age for lots of different reasons — forthematic reasons, for reasons of wanting to work with someone like Sam. So, it wasn’t a specific thing.
EA: And is it true that you’re in preproduction on your next film?
BH: Umm…I’m…yeah, let’s call it preproduction. (Laughs) We’ll see.
EA: Can you reveal whether or not the new film will be about 60 or 70 year-olds?
BH: No. It’s not. But again, I think to some degree you never know what you’re going to be making next.
EA: I want to move on to some of your other recent projects, starting with the video for The War on Drugs’ “Holding On.” How did that opportunity arise?
BH: That came through Krysten Ritter, actually, who dates Adam [Granduciel], the lead singer of The War on Drugs. She came up with an idea and sent to me and said, “What do you think of this?” And I worked with her on it and talked to Adam and got Frankie Faison involved and we went and made it, so it was a really fun experience. I’m proud of that video. I think it turned out really well.
EA: Had you done other videos before?
BH: I’ve done small ones. That’s certainly the most mainstream video that I’ve done, for like a proper record label and a big, known band, but I’ve done smaller music videos.
EA: And you also adapted Jim Shepard’s novel Project X to the screen with Shepard. [The movie is called And Then I Go and stars Melanie Lynskey, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz and Tony Hale.] How did that collaboration come about?
BH: I wrote that probably seven or eight years ago now. It was one of the first things I wrote out of film school. I got friendly with Jim through my brother [Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End], who’s a writer as well, and asked him to adapt it and then he agreed and we worked on it together. And some producers that had been trying to make it for a very long time finally put it together and it turned out great, I think.
EA: What was it like turning that book into a screenplay with the person who wrote the source material?
BH: It was easy. Jim is brilliant. I really just wrote pages and he sort of rewrote them, basically. (Laughs) Jim knows his movies as well as his books.
EA: Was that the first time you’ve written a script and not directed it?
BH: Yeah, it was. I was always meant to direct it, but the way that it shook out was that they kind of needed to make it and needed a green light, so I gave them another great director. Vincent Grashaw took over and I like Vince and just gave them the go-ahead to go make it. I think Vince did a great job.
EA: How did you feel about letting someone else be in control of something you wrote?
BH: It’s a different experience. I don’t regret not doing it. I think it was cool. It was a cool experience to see somebody else interpret your work.
EA: Are you currently working on any other side projects?
BH: Not at the moment. Just trying to get the next movie going and hopefully we’ll get something going, but it’s always a challenge and it’s always difficult to get things made. So, I’ll do what I can and keep fighting the good fight and try to make good movies and we’ll see what comes of it.
(Lead photo: Beth Dubber. All others: The Orchard)