Director Amy Scott on Her Upcoming Doc, Once I Was: The Hal Ashby Story
You know the films — Harold and Maude, Coming Home, Shampoo, The Last Detail, and Being There – but little about the man behind them. A quarter century after his death, director Hal Ashby remains one of the more mysterious figures to emerge from the New Hollywood movement.
His rise as a director coincided with the brief but glorious period in American cinema when difficult, complex films were actually supported and encouraged by studios. That era came to an end with populist hits like Jaws and Star Wars, shifting the zeitgeist towards blockbusters and making it tough for uncompromising directors like Ashby to continue in the mainstream.
In part because of early death, film history hasn’t been particularly generous to Ashby’s legacy. But a movement to reexamine his work and impact has been gaining momentum. Former Filmmaker managing editor Nick Dawson’s authoritative 2009 biography Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel helped kickstart a reappraisal of his work. The book, in turn, inspired Amy Scott to give Ashby’s story some long-overdue screen time.
Scott, a Los Angeles-based editor, is making her directorial debut with Once I Was: The Hal Ashby Story. It’s a fitting transition since Ashby started off as an editor as well. Production on the project comes with blessing of the Ashby Estate, making it the first authorized documentary, a title that brings with it both credentials and responsibility. Momentum is building. Scott has already interviewed Jane Fonda, John C. Reilly, and Rosanna Arquette and recently brought on Ashby’s legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster to help wrangle more interviews.
Filmmaker talked with Scott about the convergence of forces that brought about the documentary; from discovering the book and working with the estate, to assembling her team. She discusses the influence of Ashby’s films on her work and the pressure and excitement of creating a documentary about the beloved director.
FILMMAKER: Which came first: your decision to get into directing, or the Ashby project?
SCOTT: This is very much the first project that’s come along where I sat up in my chair and had a very clear idea of how I would tell the story. There was no question I was making this after I exhausted Google and realized that it hadn’t been done already. The project dictated that I direct. But also I think that what Hal did so well was assemble a quality team together and create a [communal] atmosphere with people he trusted. This sounds so simple but it’s actually very difficult. When you find those people it’s easy to execute a good idea.
FILMMAKER: You mention that Hal was good at putting together a quality filmmaking team. How did you form yours to get this project off the ground?
SCOTT: I brought on people I knew were passionate fans of his films. (Producer) Christine Beebe came on almost immediately and she matched my enthusiasm. I edited Christine’s documentary Felix Austria! and she introduced me to Thomas Golubic, our insanely talented music supervisor from Breaking Bad, among a zillion other cool things. (Film archivist) Lisa Janssen comes from a similar world of digging up gold on unsung artists; she just edited a book on Curtis Harrington, Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood. Jonathan Lynch and Brian Morrow of Shark Pig are also producers and are working closely with me and our stellar DP Alex Naufel to give the film a very cinematic look and feel, not unlike something we think Hal might do. Heather McIntosh is our composer and is currently a 2014 Sundance Institute Time Warner Foundation Fellow. Brian Palmer and myself are editing this beast. And last, but certainly not least, is my husband Chris Scott — who probably has more experience doing this sort of thing than all of us combined. He’s our audio wizard and has to listen to me talk about this ad nauseam. The last film he did sound for premiered at Sundance, the historic and highly entertaining Art of Rap. So we’re pretty much like the Showtime-era Lakers in my mind.
FILMMAKER: Talk about your relationship with the Ashby estate. How did you get access?
SCOTT: We have a very good relationship with them. It’s actually just one man that takes care of it all. It just took a while to convince him that I wasn’t a flake! They’re rightfully very protective of Hal and his legacy. After I read Nick Dawson’s insightful book, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, I got in touch with him and he introduced us to the estate. Nick has been very open and generous with us as well, has opened many doors and has already done all of the really hard work.
FILMMAKER: Reading Dawson’s biography was the spark for the film?
SCOTT: Yes, Nick’s book was the catalyst. It was exciting to dig in, and I had many preliminary discussions with Nick. And then I started reaching out to folks I knew who would be interested and it gathered steam and enthusiasm. Cut to two years and a baby later and we’re crowdfunding to start production.
FILMMAKER: Ashby started off as an editor. You’ve been editing films for a while. How do you think being an editor “first” will inform your perspective and approach? Do you see any similarities or evidence of this perspective in Ashby’s work?
SCOTT: I’ve been editing for 15 years so one of the primary reasons I wanted to make this film was because of our shared training. I felt like I really understood this person, and the decisions he made. On the dark side, that particular skill set has the ability to keep a person chained to a machine for hours, days, months on end — existing on caffeine and artificial light. You lose sight of relationships and forget to feed your cat. You can, in some cases, build a wall around yourself in the editing room and conveniently not have to deal with the outside world. I think Hal definitely did this to some extent. On the bright side, editing other people’s films gives you insight into how to construct story, build character depth, and literally consider all of the angles. It teaches you patience, but also frustration when a director was lazy in shooting, or didn’t thoughtfully cover a scene. This frustration coupled with the hands-on training of story editing produces a very unique desire to do everything correctly. Nothing about this process seems abstract to me — again, when surrounding yourself with talented people it is much easier to take the “editing mind” forward into production with a kind of easy grace. Hal Ashby had that “easy grace” with him from the editing room and took that forward, which I think is why so many people loved working with him. Editing isn’t one of the more ego-driven jobs, and I think that’s the way Hal approached the set. He trusted that his actors and crew were all working toward a common goal, and had a heavy communal hand in directing. We’re approaching this film the same way.
FILMMAKER: When you take on the story of a beloved director with a cult following, there’s a lot of responsibility to get it right – as a fan yourself, what’s most important to you when telling his story?
SCOTT: Sometimes I imagine a Khaleesi-sized army of cinephiles coming after me — but I try not to focus on that in the moment. It is a lot of pressure but in a way, having time constraints makes you hyper-aware of the utility of every minute. Are we moving forward, digging deeper, uncovering new material, asking the right questions, spending a respectful amount of time on each film? These are the questions that I have constantly. It’s a huge responsibility but I do think the most important thing we can do is let Hal do the talking — where we can find it — and let his friends, family and colleagues dictate to us who this man was. And the films, of course, the films speak for themselves. Our archivist Lisa Janssen is scouring the earth for Hal footage and audio recordings and she’s recovered some really great finds that I don’t think anyone knew existed. So basically we just get out of the way and do the best job researching and interviewing and digging up lost footage that we can.
FILMMAKER: You’ve written “This was a man who gave everything to film, sacrificed his personal relationships, his health, and sometimes his sanity in his devotion to the craft of directing.” Now that you’re in production, have there been any surprises?
SCOTT: I guess they aren’t surprises so much because Nick’s book was insanely thorough. But embracing the reality that Hal was human, that he made huge mistakes in his life — some of which were never remedied — that was something I have had to reconcile once we started. I would have loved to have worked with Hal but I don’t know that I would have wanted to be romantically involved with him. He had such a rough childhood that seemed to constantly inform his personal decisions. One thing that I’m not surprised by is the large number of people that have been reaching out to us globally to offer their help, or just to say how his films changed their lives. That’s not a surprise.
FILMMAKER: Ashby’s career has a dramatic trajectory: major success in the ‘70s and a precipitous downfall in the ‘80s. Do you think that was a result of his personality or the changing industry?
SCOTT: The ‘80s killed everything good! It was most likely both things happening, but I certainly lean more towards a vindictive studio system changing in ways that Hal wasn’t down with and that eventually shut him out of the process completely. What was done to him on 8 Million Ways To Die was flat out abusive. His hands seemed to have been bound creatively by the money guys that he made those later films with — which was a really crippling process for an artist like Hal. The ’80s valued the blockbuster, and a guy like Hal Ashby had no horse in that race. It’s truly a shame that he isn’t alive today. He would have thrived in this atmosphere of independent filmmaking.
FILMMAKER: You’ve said that Once I Was: The Hal Ashby Story is intended to set the record straight. Tell us about what needs to be straightened out.
SCOTT: I sound like the Beastie Boys on “Time For Livin”! I think what I intended to say was that he isn’t as revered as his more famous contemporaries, that he’s been marginalized in film history and yet his influence can be seen everywhere in cinema today. I’ve said this before but I wasn’t taught Ashby in school and I had really fantastic professors. I’ve gotten the sense that because of his ’80s films and early death he was written off to some extent in pop culture,,but at the same time most people have a favorite film that he made. Hopefully, this documentary will celebrate his entire body of work, and get us closer to knowing the real Hal Ashby.
FILMMAKER: What do you want people take away from the film?
SCOTT: We are focusing a lot on Hal’s ability to create complex characters full of internal struggle that were treated with love and compassion, thus paving the way to tackle larger issues. In the case on Coming Home, conservative audiences were not as defensive and could actually deal with the film emotionally as they were moved to understand the plight of returning handicapped vets. This kind of treatment of character prevented it from being a sensationalized polemic. The same film if made today would be so different. Anyway, I want people to see our movie and to realize Hal Ashby had what Jeff Bridges refers to as “art balls” and used that integrity to make the films he wanted to make.
FILMMAKER: One last question, what’s the story behind your title?
SCOTT: Hal used Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” in the final scene of Coming Home and it’s really powerful. Buckley was set to play the part of Woody Guthrie in Bound For Glory but died right before production, so the song was really important to Hal. It’s such a great song about life, death, love and remembrance. It seemed perfect to me.
Scott is currently in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for this documentary. Visit the page and consider donating here.