Over the phone from his Los Angeles office, David Lynch told me, “It was all Harry Dean. I’d do anything for Harry Dean.”
The visionary director was referring to taking on an acting role in John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut, Lucky, which stars Harry Dean Stanton and is largely based on autobiographical stories the legendary actor had been known to tell. Stanton died last Friday at the age of 91, after these interviews were conducted.
The film is set in a small desert town where aging loner Lucky (Stanton) meanders through the last days of his time on Earth, too preoccupied with his imminent death to connect with the townspeople. The script was written specifically for Stanton two years ago by his assistant and friend Logan Sparks, as well as by Drago Sumonja.
“I dunno, it’s not me. It’s some character Logan dreamed up,” Stanton told me in our last interview.
Others disagreed with Stanton’s assessment.
“It’s the story of Harry Dean,” David Lynch stated plainly. “But it’s called Lucky.”
Stanton wasn’t convinced that the project — only his second-ever starring role in a feature film, after Paris, Texas (1984) — would come together. He had to be talked into playing the role of himself. John Carroll Lynch, something of a beloved character actor as well, understood Stanton’s hesitancy.
“As an actor in a similar position, people will tell you, ‘We wanna put you in this lead role,’ and you say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘That’s very nice’ and you never hear from them again,” he explained. Even as the filmmakers cast the movie with people eager to work with Stanton, the actor remained skeptical. As the director recalled, “Logan and Drago came back to him week after week, and he’s like, ‘I’m going to go back to my game shows. Nobody’s going to get this done before I’m finished.’ ” (Stanton’s character in the film also watches game shows.)
“I’ve been working with Harry Dean since 1987, when he worked with me on The Cowboy and the Frenchman,” David Lynch said. “What I love about Harry Dean is sitting with him. We both smoke cigarettes, and I like to sit and just be with Harry Dean.”
The friendship is reflected in Lucky, much of which takes place in a low-lit bar where the regulars have developed an unfussy love, even as they occasionally rib one another. Every character takes his turn to listen as another tells a tale, which means the script is composed mostly of talk much like Stanton’s real-life monologues — though John Carroll Lynch resists that term.
“I never attack a monologue as a monologue,” he said. “You and I are talking right now, and I’m primarily doing the talking, but I’m listening to see what your responses are. Your subtle uh-huh provides me with the impulse to move forward. What you’re looking for in the material are those moments of nonverbal response.”
How a person listens onscreen is just as important as how he delivers his lines. When David Lynch’s character seems engrossed as he watches Lucky talk, his mouth often dropping open in a curious smile, in awe of his friend, it’s not difficult to imagine that what we’re seeing captures something of what it was like to watch these two share stories down at Stanton’s favorite bar, Dan Tana’s.
And if you’ve seen Sophie Huber’s moving documentary on Stanton’s life, Partly Fiction, you’ll recognize some of the stories these characters tell. Yet no matter how many times you’ve heard them, they carry a kind of ever-evolving philosophical weight, like Aesop’s fables or biblical proverbs.
Take the one about the mockingbird Stanton accidentally shot when he was a child. His gun was crooked, so when he tried to fire a shot to scare the bird off, he hit it with the bullet. The bird died.
When Stanton tells it, it seems a tale of love and loss and guilt and innocence all rolled into one — not just the story of a kid who shot a bird. Critics have often tried to explain the prophetic gravitas we so often see in Stanton. Could it have been the angles of the wrinkles and folds in his face, the way they seemed to catch the light in just the right way to imbue him with ancient wisdom? Sometimes, of course, we might be reading too much into him, or his stories, and what might seem richly complex could actually be quite simple.
“The soul is an illusion,” Stanton once told me, over the phone. In the background I could hear a contestant on Chain Reaction solving a puzzle.
“I like to think Harry Dean is extremely spiritual,” David Lynch said when I told him that his and Stanton’s philosophies seemed incongruent yet similar, with Lynch’s accounting for if not quite an afterlife at least the possibility of one. For a moment, Lynch was quiet, considering Stanton’s lack of belief in the soul. “This nothingness is an interesting thing to think about,” he finally said. “They say the unified field is no thing — nothing. It’s a manifest, and that’s this big ocean of consciousness. But all things come from it, and it’s an eternal level of life. How Harry Dean sees it, if you look at it another way, he’s talking about the truth.”
Harry Dean Stanton, for as much as we knew about him, remains an enigma. When I asked him about life, he simply said, “It gets tiresome after a while.” But as bleak as that might sound, the people closest to Stanton saw the endless hope in him. Or, hell, maybe they just projected to make themselves feel better.
“To me, Lucky is quite hopeful,” John Carroll Lynch offered. “It can’t be kittens with balls of strings and rainbows — you have to choose joy on your journey.”
Happiness, in this film and in Stanton’s life, seems simultaneously simple yet also like a painful process of arriving and growing. Lucky acknowledges that Stanton would likely not be with us for too much longer, celebrating the life that he was living. Now that it’s being released so soon after his death, the weight of its message seems somehow clearer and more distinct.
“You know, you just keep talking,” John Carroll Lynch said. “Until you’ve gotten your point across.” He was referring to Stanton’s monologue stories, but really, he could have been summing up the actor’s philosophy.
Harry Dean Stanton talked and talked, until he could talk no more, and then we understood. And Harry Dean returned to the nothingness, or the truth, depending on how you look at it, and he wasn’t happy or sad about any of it. He just was.
Lucky opens September 29, Quad Cinema. “Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton,” a retrospective, opens September 22, Quad Cinema.
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