a SIFF 2017 interview
Laughing and Crying
Sam Elliott and Brett Haley on Constructing an Authentic Hero
In many ways, most of them obvious, it feels like The Hero is the film iconic actor Sam Elliott has been building towards for his entire four decade-plus career. Reuniting with his I’ll See You in My Dreams director Brett Haley, the film follows Western legend Lee Hayden during the later years of his life, the former cinematic mainstay now stranded doing radio voiceover commercials for BBQ sauce and making appearances at fringe genre festivals picking up lifetime achievement awards. He also smokes marijuana with his former television costar and friend Jeremy (Nick Offerman), is on cordial speaking terms with his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross) and continually worries he was a terrible father to only daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), all the while wondering if one last great role will come his way before he inevitably succumbs to illness, age or a combination of the two.
Along with fellow Cinema Squabble contributors Adam Gehrke of Seattle’s Q13 news and Matt Oaks of Silver Screen Riot, I had the pleasure to sit down with Elliott and Haley while they were her for a visit during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival back in May. Here are some of the highlights from our freewheeling, almost 30-minute conversation:
Question: So you two do one film together and you decide this is a partnership that you just can’t end? Is that how that worked?
Sam Elliott: We can’t get enough of each other.
Brett Haley: Yeah. I mean, Marc Basch, my co writer, and I, when we were thinking about what we wanted to do and we had written some other projects and things. [But] we always had this idea of a project specifically written for Sam in our minds. We had talked about it with Sam a little bit and it was going to be a TV show. But, for a myriad of reasons, we turned it into a film and knew that it was specifically for Sam. He was the inspiration behind it in terms of just him as an actor, just wanting to see him do this. That was it. I mean, we just started right there and ended there.
Sam loved the material, and we said, let’s go do it again. Let’s get the band back together. It was fun
Question: Where does the Venn diagram of Sam Elliott and Lee Hayden cross over?
Sam Elliott: There’s definitely some. There’s no question there’s some. There’s some that’s not similar or real at all. The unbridled drug use; I’ve had my share of weed over the years but nothing to what Lee Hayden does. The failed marriage, the relationship with the daughter, the cancer diagnosis; those are all fictitious. But beyond that there’s a certain similarity, probably, at the core. I think a lot of this came, and I know that it did, when Brett and I were doing the press on [I’ll See You in My Dreams]. We traveled a lot, got to know each other pretty well and talked a lot over, you know, a few drinks along the way and a lot of plane rides. Brett found out about me. We both wanted to work together. He and Basch delivered this incredible gift and opportunity. I’ve never had anyone write anything for me before, not a script. I’ve had people write parts for me. But I’ve never had anybody even think about writing a script for me. It’s pretty incredible.
Brett Haley: I just love Sam as an actor. We’ve all [grown] up on his films and was a huge fan of him forever. Seeing him as ‘The Stranger’ [in The Big Lebowski], or seeing him in Road House or Tombstone or Mask or The Contender or “Justified,” I mean, he’s shown incredible sides of himself. We Were Soldiers. He can do it all!
I just wanted to see the side of Sam that I got to know, as a sensitive and really caring person and someone [who epitomizes this] as an actor. All actors, I think, are incredibly vulnerable. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. I wanted to tell the story about that vulnerability and about that legacy. Listening to Sam and his stories about being in this industry and seeing what he’s seen, I sort of took some of those themes and those elements and put them into this.
And I also got to have my cake and eat it, too! I got to put him in a cowboy hat still. So, you know, I didn’t go too far outside of the box. But, I do think that the film is one of those things where if you love Sam Elliott you’re going to love this film. It’s a love letter to him, but it’s also a love letter to a lot of actors and to a type of film that isn’t made anymore.
But it started and it ends with Sam. I’m just so happy that people have been responding to it. I always knew that Sam had this kind of insane appeal as a leading man, as not just the guy, you know but as The Guy. I think that we’re starting to see that now. I really, truly think so.
Question: Sam, if you, like Lee, were to look back on your career and choose a film that you felt has defined it up to this point, what would you say it is and why?
Sam Elliott: I don’t know that I could say that there was any one film.
Maybe this film [The Hero] because it encompasses so many different tones and so many elements. I mean, this is as defining of myself than anything else I’ve done only because it’s closer to me. You know, I mean, I’ve had some opportunity to play some great characters, both contemporary and historical. And those are all great gifts. This isn’t who I am. It’s what I do, these parts.
But now I find myself playing an actor, which is what I do, what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid. [Lee’s] pretty much me on some level, although I don’t take it that serious where I was going to do too much, I don’t know, fucking damage. So, if you’re going to ask me a question like that, which one is the most defining, then I’d have to say The Hero, as much as I can’t stand the fucking title. [laughs]
I say that, obviously, very glibly. When it came to me as a treatment it was called Iceberg. That whole theory, that whole thing about the iceberg and the screensaver that Offerman’s got on his laptop spoke volumes to me. Like, you know, the eighth that you see, is that all there is? Or is it the seven-eighths below the surface where all the meat is.
Brett Haley: Yeah, the real stuff.
Sam Elliott: Which I happen to believe. That’s kind of the way it was with Lee. I mean, these people knew, they knew him because of his visions that he’d created or these characters that he’d created onscreen. And they mistake him for that. People think that [character] is you.
Brett Haley: They think he is The Hero. That’s why it’s called The Hero, because he’s not a hero. He’s not that guy.
Sam Elliott: He’s fucking everything but. I mean, he fails with his wife, fails with his daughter.
Brett Haley: Exactly. And that’s the irony of the title.
Sam Elliott: He’s fucking stoned all the time. He’s a fucking waste, you know, on some level.
Brett Haley: But people know him as this pure symbol of good, of “heroicism.” I think that’s what’s very interesting about being an actor, or being a known entity in this industry and this business and people remembering you for that one thing. It’s like, no. It’s as Sam said, “That’s what I do.” This is who I am.
So, I wanted to get to know this actual guy. Who’s the “hero?” And I think that’s why the title it, [well] it’s more commercial than Iceberg, certainly. But also, if you see the film, you understand that [it] has this triple meaning, really. It has many meanings. If you look at Nick Offerman in this film, a lot of the time they forget that Nick is Nick. He’s not Ron, you know? He’s way more than that. He created an incredible character, a memorable character. People see him and they see Ron Swanson. That’s how good he is. He’s Nick Offerman, though, you know?
Same with Katharine. Katharine gets remembered for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She gets remembered for The Graduate, for The Stepford Wives. It’s like, no. Katharine’s Katharine. She did these amazing things, and it’s wonderful to be remembered for those things.
In fact, everybody in the film has that. You know, Krysten is now Jessica Jones. And she’ll have to fight to say I’m more than just Jessica Jones. [Laura Prepon], from “That 70’s Show” to “Orange is the New Black,” it’s the same shit. But, at the end of the day, these actors are more than that sum, you know? And they can do so many things. I try to put them in films where they get to do stuff that they normally don’t get to do, which I always enjoy.
Question: It is interesting, though, that it seems like, for whatever reason, people maybe forgot just how great an actor you are. And yet, suddenly within the last few years, here you are in Grandma with Lily Tomlin. You’re in I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner. You’re here in this movie. You’re allowed to give these really complex, emotionally resonant performances.
Sam Elliott: It’s incredibly gratifying in some level. I don’t know if it’s growing older. I’m, like, fucking 72. I don’t know if it’s growing older and figuring, or feeling that I don’t have a lot of fucking time left to really do good work. So, something’s changed. Or if it’s just evolution of one’s creative juices, for lack of a better way to phrase it, over time. I wasn’t very fucking good when I started out. I’ve always wanted to do it. I always thought I could do it and do something good.
I think a lot of luck comes into it at some point in time. I think that I’ve done enough films that an audience responded to that are fucking basically live-streamed on TV that you can’t escape from. It keeps me in the forefront of people’s minds.
And I think a couple of people that are really gifted have taken chances with me, and therein lies what you mentioned, the last couple of years’ body of work. I think I’m better now than I was before. I care about it on a different level, maybe. Or I understand something on a different level. It’s like, what the fuck? What are you holding back for now at this point, you know? I mean, it ought to be. I just did something with Bradley Cooper [A Star is Born] two weeks ago I’ve never done before on film on an emotional level. I just fucking went for the fucking wall because that’s what Bradley wanted. He’s directing this thing, you know? And it’s like, that’s my game. That’s my job as an actor. I’m one of the fucking crew. I think it’s all about a guy on a ship, you know. One of these kids comes up with something. He’s on a fucking voyage. And I’m on the crew. And I want to do anything I can to help that guy get his ship where he wants to get it. I work for him. Bradley drew this performance out of me, I was like, what the fuck, man? He texted me on the way home from work and said, “I hope you’ve got a big shit-eating grin on your face in this nightmare fucking traffic.” [laughs]
Brett Haley: And it was fun to, to do that with Sam, too, in The Hero, where there are some really vulnerable and emotional moments there that I don’t know that people have seen Sam particularly do. I think Grandma has [some of that]. It has that beautiful scene in the middle of that film. And Sam is really angry in that scene. That character is really angry. I wanted to see a slightly different side and we get to see Sam do all things in this film, which is fun. But I wanted to see the vulnerability and the sensitivity that he can bring.
Question: This film speaks in a lot of silences as well as it does in words. How did you go about shooting these scenes?
Brett Haley: You’ve got to let your actors breathe. Words are words, and they’re important. But sometimes they’re a little too important. When I rehearse the scenes, when we’re working on the scenes, I don’t rush. I always say this thing as a director to actors: Don’t rush to the fucking line, don’t rush to the page. I’ll give that direction more than anything. I learned it from taking an acting class.
I still take acting classes and I’m not an actor. But I take acting classes to stay sharp and understand what the other side of this job is. That’s my job. Number one on my job is to work with the actors. Everything else is just noise. I mean, it’s important noise, but you’ve got to start there. So, for me, it’s like don’t rush. Don’t say that line until you’re ready.
I edit my own films. It’s a powerful tool. I can create longer silences or shorter ones. So, if on the day Sam and Katharine need a minute between lines, I’ll take it. If it’s honest and it’s real and it’s from them, and they’re not ready to say that thing that comes out in the next line, then don’t say it. I’ve found in the editing that a lot of the times less was more, that I could say volumes with [Sam’s] reactions or someone of the level of Katharine Ross just looking [his way]. That says it.
There’s a scene that everybody talks about in the film which is a wide shot [of Sam and Katharine]. It’s body language. It’s not even reaction. People have an emotional response to that. That is the power of cinema. It’s a visual language. The words are super-important. But on this one in particular I just sort of lean back and let the silences and the reactions do a lot of the work, and I think it’s really cool. It was a risk, but I’m pretty pleased with it.
Questions: The Hero deals with this somewhat familiar trope of some older professional looking back on their career and expressing regret and kind of questioning everything that’s come, that’s led them to this point. You know, they’re kind of disappointing their families. They’ve had a rocky middle. I’m wondering Sam, is this something that you related to? Like, has fame been a rocky road? Or has it treated you pretty well?
Sam Elliott: I think it’s treated me as one would expect it treats you. It’s not an easy game. You are gone from a home a lot. That’s no way to fucking have a family life, to be absent, you know? That said, I’m married to Katharine. We’ve been together for 39 years, been married for 33 of those. I love my daughter more than anyone in the world, see her all the time. The family unit is fully intact. So I did something right along the way. I made a lot of choices early on to not go here or not go there. I think earlier on it was easier for Katharine and myself to be apart because we understood the game and we trusted each other. I think that’s what it all boils down to in the end, trusting someone. But, that said, it’s harder now that I’m here and she’s down south. It’s like, fuck, man, you know, really? You’re going to go to fucking Seattle? But she’s totally in support of it. She’s thrilled with it. She’s told me umpteen times I could not do what you’re doing. It’s fucking grueling at this point. It’s nobody’s favorite thing. If you’re a filmmaker, that’s the process. That’s the romance. That’s the love. But marketing is not fun. I feel like a shill sometimes.
Brett Haley: Selling a product.
Sam Elliott: I feel like I’m working in fucking Vegas, you know? You hope that people come. You hope that people embrace what you’re doing because it’s an artistic endeavor. You get a certain amount of validity, I suppose, out of that which I guess is important. But maybe not for some artists. It’s like, fuck it. It’s my painting. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, too. But, I don’t know.
My apologies for rambling on. I think I just get off track sometimes. I’m being wiped out. There is a lot of crossover. I think that’s what made it such a joy, on some level, to play the part. I mean, what the fuck, man? I got to roll around with Laura, smoke weed with my buddy Nick and watch him [Brett Haley] gesticulating all kinds of shit behind the monitor.
Brett Haley: Yeah. [laughs] I do a lot of movement behind the monitor.
Sam Elliott: He gets into it. When this guy gets into it, it’s like he’s fucking directing a fucking orchestra. It’s unbelievable.
Brett Haley: Yeah. That’s really fun.
Sam Elliott: It’s good.
Question: This movie, in many ways, is sort of the masculine counterpoint to Dreams. Was that a conscious thing on your part? How did you tap into that where you made a very decidedly feminine drama about late-in-life romance and life, and then sort of switched gears to look at the other side of that coin with The Hero?
Brett Haley : This is my third feature film. My first two films are about women. They’re very feminine. I believe [there should be] more films about women. I believe in more films about people that aren’t just, you know, white males and about white male problems. So, this was a tough. It was tough for me to attack this because the inspiration started with Sam and he is who he is. I had to start there and I was nervous about that. I wanted to make sure that the women in this film were strong and that they were stronger and more put together than the men. The two men in this film are messes, to put it bluntly. The women are pretty strong and put together, very sure of themselves.
Look, I knew that I was making a film from the male point of view because it’s a subjective film. You’re in [Lee’s] shoes, for lack of a better term. I just wanted to be cautious. I knew I was going down some rocky roads, and some well-traveled roads, but not so well by Hollywood, with the age difference in the relationship, with a couple of other things.
Obviously there are tropes in this film. That’s the reality of the world. You start making something that’s too “different,” and you’re just doing it to be different. Everything that Marc and I write comes from a place of honesty and reality. I’m not going to try to make something happen just to make it happen. I wanted to balance it. I think when you see the film, you’ll see that I do pull that masculine rug out from under Lee many times and let him know that [he’s] vulnerable. To see a man break down or put himself out there to his daughter or to his loved ones is an important thing right now. Sensitive men on camera is rare. I wanted to show that you can look back on your life and say, “I fucked up. Let me try to make it better now.” So, it was hard. But I think Marc, Sam and I, we all worked hard to make sure that we were doing it right. We tried.
Question: The film focuses on a number of sequences that appear to be dream sequences where we’re seeing Lee going someplace place alien. Is there a dream that is a recurring dream for you that you’ve had over the years that maybe involves your career? And then also, Brett, for you, is there a psyche that we’re looking into, maybe as he’s going into these trailers? Can you explain a little bit behind the dream sequences?
Sam Elliott: No. Not that involve my career. I think the things that come to me at night more are just fucking anxiety about the fucking amount of dialogue I have the next day. This is true. That’s my big sweat.
Brett Haley: You’ve got to remember that dialogue.
Sam Elliott: That’s my big sweat.
Brett Haley: Remember those lines.
Sam Elliott: Yeah. It’s fucking embarrassing to go in there and say, “Line, please.”
Brett Haley: I think the dreams are really important. To me it’s what separates this movie from other films like it. I mean, not that the dream sequence is a groundbreaking thing. There’s a great line that Lee says in the film: “Movies are other people’s dreams.” What a truthful! Marc Basch wrote that line, so I can say how much I love it. I didn’t write it. And, it’s true. We put our dreams up there on the celluloid, or now the digital frame. We say this is what we dream about. “This is my dream.” To see Lee dream almost in movie talk, like movie cinema language, one of his dreams is like a Sergio Leone scene, you know what I mean? That’s totally why we did it. It’s what he dreams of being in and what he dreams that he could still be doing it. It’s a mix of, is it him shooting the original scene, or is it new? And then he’s on a tennis court.
Obviously, it’s very abstract. And his daughter comes into that. And then he’s in the trailer. That trailer is important because most actors live their life in a trailer of some sort. But yet this trailer is not a normal trailer. It’s just off.
Question: One of the moments, perhaps my favorite moment of the film, and one that’s surprisingly emotional, is when Lee is reading lines with Nick Offerman’s character for that silly space soap opera. It’s just so raw and so emotional. It’s almost like he’s baring his soul through these pretty silly lines. But, it also got me thinking. My God, I would love to see Sam Elliott as a space cowboy flying around in some giant $100 million blockbuster! Would that be something that you’d ever be interested in doing, like a giant blockbuster? Or are you much more interested in these smaller, more character-driven dramas?
Sam Elliott: I think these are a lot more fun. They’re a lot more real, you know? I mean, those big blockbusters, when it’s computer-driven and all that, effects-driven, it becomes something else. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy doing that, too. But, you know…
Brett Haley: And Sam’s done movies like that. Sam has done huge movies. He did The Golden Compass. I mean, that’s kind of roughly what that idea [the part he’s auditioning for] is based on. The Golden Compass is an amazing… book. [laughs]
Sam Elliott: Yeah, book. [laughs]
Brett Haley: But I think Sam is also incredible in that film. Just seeing his presence, it’s like if you need, for lack of a better word, a space cowboy or fantasy cowboy, you call Sam Elliott. I just wanted to see not only Sam do that and let everybody know, hey, this guy can rip apart a fucking terribly-written monologue, just destroy it, but so can Lee Hayden. Lee Hayden can kill it still. He’s still got it. Underneath all that dope and all that shit, he’s still got it. If you notice in the film, it’s the first time where Offerman goes, “You want a hit of it?” that he doesn’t take it. You know he’s going, “I’m coming back.” It’s this wonderful moment in which you see Lee Hayden can fucking act. That was an important thing for me. That was the most fun scene I’ve ever shot. Ever.
Sam Elliott: That was a fun day. That came out of fucking left field for all of us. For all of us.
Brett Haley: Yeah. That was the best scene I’ve ever shot. Day three, and I just remember going, holy shit. We got something. It was so fun. It was wonderful to see Sam. Nick’s reaction couldn’t have been more genuine. It was a great day.
Question: At the end of the day, what do you want people to take away from this film? What do you hope they’re talking about as they leave the theatre?
Sam Elliott: Entertained. That’s what it’s about, in the end. If it’s provocative enough to make people think about something or take something away or uplift them in some way, [that’s great]. Making movies that are downers is a bummer, I would think, dark films, and there’s too much of that shit out there. The fucking world is dark, period, right now, so give them [audiences] a chuckle. There’s some pretty funny stuff here. There’s some fun stuff. It’s about entertainment in the end. It’s got to be.
Brett Haley: It’s about connecting, connecting with people and making them feel something. I’ve told this story, but I had a young guy probably my age come up to me after seeing the film, and he just said, “I just wanted you to know I just called my parents. Your film made me want to call them.” That’s the kind of stuff you love to hear as a filmmaker, that maybe they can take a piece of the theme, a piece of the emotion that they felt watching the film, and bring it into their normal life.
You’re not going to change people. You can have people forget about their problems for 90 minutes, but not in a cheap way, [but] in a real way, a human way where you’re actually talking about the connections between people in this world because at the end of the day that’s all that matters. That’s what this film is about. I just want people to connect with it and, yes, be entertained. Laugh and cry. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than laughing and crying. That’s why I make movies.