“If That Kid Hits Me in the Face, I’m Going to Hit You in the Face”: Tony McNamara on Ashby
In an early scene in Ashby, an English teacher asks the film’s young protagonist Ed (Nat Wolff) to expound on the themes of Ernest Hemingway. Wolff answers, “Proving you’re a man by trying to get killed,” tossing off the line as if it were an absurd relic of a less enlightened era. He then spends the remainder of the film embracing that antiquated view of American masculinity, whether it be in pursuing classmate Emma Roberts, taking a hit on the football field or befriending his terminally ill, ex-CIA assassin neighbor Ashby (Mickey Rourke).
Ashby writer/director Tony McNamara describes the film as a “coming of age, facing your death” movie. Lovers of ’70s cinema might – with the helpful hint of the film’s title – make the connection with Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude. Ashby’s namesake isn’t as revered as New Hollywood luminaries such as Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, but Hal Ashby’s run in the 1970s was every bit their equal: The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. McNamara spoke to Filmmaker about blending the dramatic and the absurdly comedic, budgetary horse-trading and the perils of shooting boxing scenes with Mickey Rourke.
Filmmaker: Where did you grow up and how did you fall in love with movies?
McNamara: I grew up in a small country town in Australia and we didn’t have a cinema. Occasionally my parents would take me to the city to go to the movies, but not very often. Maybe once a year. I mostly saw movies on TV. Because I lived out on a little farm, movies were like another world to me.
Filmmaker: Did any particular films from those trips to the city leave a lasting imprint?
McNamara: Dumbo and Mad Max are the two I remember. Wildly different, but both great movies.
Filmmaker: You must have been pretty young when you saw Mad Max. Did your parents take you?
McNamara: I think my mom went shopping and dropped (my siblings and I) at the cinema when we were 12 or 14 or something like that. It was Australia, so they didn’t really pay attention to ratings that much back then. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Did it mean something to you that Mad Max was made in Australia, or at that age did you just want to see the car crashes?
McNamara: I do remember it meaning something. I remember the period when Australian cinema took off when I was quite young and my parents taking us to see Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career. That was different to us because they were our stories, even though (they were set) in an old-fashioned Australia.
Filmmaker: What about Ashby made it feel like a story that needed to be set in America rather than, say, the suburbs of Sydney?
McNamara: It was a few things. I love American football, I was very interested in American politics, and we don’t really have a CIA, so even when I first thought about the story it didn’t fit in Australia very well.
Filmmaker: Are the Australian suburbs similar to the American ones?
McNamara: Australia is very like America in that way, and our football is incredibly important in the same way. I went to a school that is a lot like the school in the film, where football was more important than the education, and I was a footballer. It was important to the community in a way that nothing else was. The teacher and the coach in Ashby are very much based on a teacher and coach I had in high school.
Filmmaker: The film is very much about generational ideals of masculinity. Was there something in particular about those ideals in America or in younger generations that interested you?
McNamara: I think our views of masculinity are quite similar in a lot of ways, culturally. As far as the Hemingway thing, I was just looking for a view of masculinity that is romantic and in some way true, but in some ways not true, something that Ed would find ridiculous at the start of the movie. This idea of getting hurt or getting in trouble (to prove his masculinity) was something he couldn’t get his head around.
Filmmaker: The story is set in suburban Virginia, but was shot in North Carolina. In addition to the financial incentives of shooting there, what else drew you to North Carolina?
McNamara: We were trying to find somewhere that looked like it might be the suburbs around Virginia. Someplace that seemed like it mightn’t be too far from Langley. Charlotte’s a really distinctive place in terms of its colors. It’s incredibly green and lush, so that dictated a lot of the film’s look. Also, there was a scene that we originally hoped to shoot in Washington D.C. and we wanted to be near enough that we could get there in a day, but we didn’t end up with enough money to do such a thing.
Filmmaker: What other budgetary hurdles did you have to leap? All the film’s football games are set in the day and I thought perhaps that was a budgetary consideration to avoid lighting that stadium at night.
McNamara: Yeah, we couldn’t afford to do the games at night, which was a shame because that’s when they should be shot. But we just weren’t able to swing it. That’s just one of the things on low-budget films — you’re always trying to horse trade for things you want and doing your best with whatever the compromises end up being.
Filmmaker: How did Mickey Rourke become involved in the film?
McNamara: I’d finished the script and we sent it to the agencies. Mickey read it and he really loved it. Initially the character was supposed to be older, but Mickey’s such a great actor and he really got the script. He understood the religion part of it and he understood the violence of it. He thought it was really funny and different from what he’d done before. So we met and we got on. He seemed a more interesting choice to me than how I’d initially viewed the character. He brings a little more edge and a little more danger, which I liked.
Filmmaker: Outside of Diner, he hasn’t really been in comedies.
McNamara: When you meet him, he is very funny. And I’d seen Diner and Barfly, which he’s very funny in. I just felt if the chemistry was good between Mickey and Nat, then the humor would come. Because Mickey is a more dramatic actor than I first envisioned, the tone of the script is probably not as dramatic as the final film. But from a director’s point of view, my approach with them was always to be truthful rather than going for the joke.
Filmmaker: The opening scene preps the audience for the movie’s tonal shifts. It begins with Rourke suffering a health emergency in his car and it seems as if he’s careening toward a street full of children at a crosswalk. Then you cut to a wide shot to reveal the car is rolling at about three miles per hour.
McNamara: I wanted it to feel like you were in a dramatic moment and then break it out into this unexpectedly funny moment. Hopefully it prepares the audience a bit for the movie and its shifts from relatively serious moments to relatively absurd moments in the same scene.
Filmmaker: Did you have any rehearsal period to help establish the relationship between the actors?
McNamara: We did have a chemistry afternoon where we read things together with Nat and Mickey. As soon as they started reading together I knew they had a nice chemistry from the way they bounced off each other. They’re such good actors that once we found the rhythm of it, they were off.
Filmmaker: Nat Wolff’s delivery has a particular rhythm. I know it’s not the case, but it almost felt like you wrote the character with his cadence in mind.
McNamara: A friend of mine here in Australia who’s produced a lot of TV saw the film and said, “It was like you wrote it for him.” And I think that’s why I loved Nat. He and I clicked together incredibly as writer and actor. Nat’s such a talented actor. The biggest joy of the film for me was working with this younger actor who I think has a great future. And he’s a lovely guy as well.
Filmmaker: Did you encourage much improvisation? There are certain moments that feel spontaneous, such as an early scene in a diner when Nat steals some of Mickey’s bacon off his plate to end a scene.
McNamara: I think because I’m a writer/director I’m pretty script-focused and both guys loved the script so we stuck with it. But we often would let them improv into or out of a scene and that brought some good things, because they’re both clever guys.
Filmmaker: Talk about putting together the wardrobe for Mickey’s character. I would swear some of those vests came right out of Mickey Rourke’s closet.
McNamara: (laughs) Mickey is very particular about his wardrobe. He really works out his character a lot through his wardrobe. So he had a lot of ideas about it. It’s very much a part of his process and how he approaches characters and (the character of Ashby) has a very distinctive look. That’s how Mickey saw the character — this guy who’s been hiding in the suburbs for years, but has this other life.
Filmmaker: Like you, I grew up as a big fan of Mickey Rourke, because of many of the same films we’ve been talking about – Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly. To finish up, let’s go out with a good Mickey Rourke story from the set.
McNamara: (laughs) It’s hard to think of just one. Okay: on the day we shot the boxing scene (where Mickey teaches Nat to take a punch), Mickey was very concerned about getting hit because, weirdly enough, he hates fight scenes in movies. Because, from his point of view, there’s always a bad stunt coordinator and you end up getting hit. I think he’s been accidentally punched in the face, a few times so he was very adamant and he brought down his own guy from New York. He kept saying to me, “If that kid hits me in the face, I’m going to hit you in the face.” (laughs) But then once we started, because he’s a boxer, his boxer’s instincts kicked in. Even when I’d say cut, he’d keep throwing jabs and Nat was like, “We’ve stopped! We’ve stopped!”
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.