Director Amy Scott’s nonfiction feature debut, “Hal,” is an intense portrait of the work and life and life of work of a gone-too-soon filmmaker whose concerns with humanity and justice resonate to this day. In the 1970s alone, the Mormon-born boy from small-town Utah-editor-turned-auteur made seven lasting pictures: “The Landlord,” “Harold and Maude,”“The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound For Glory,” “Coming Home” and “Being There.” “Hal” is an impressive, quietly emphatic piece of work, which we talk about below, as well as how a formative decade in the Chicago film community set Scott on her way. (Disclosure: Scott and I collaborated on trailers for the twelfth Chicago Underground Film Festival in 2005, and interviewed documentarian Albert Maysles for Newcity.)
Why was it important to you to land in Chicago, and what did you discover here in the early 2000s?
I wanted to leave Oklahoma right out of college, but wasn’t too jazzed about making a life in New York or L.A. Both places kind of freaked me out, to be honest. I landed in Chicago with the intention of working for this music-marketing firm with a friend of mine who was also bartending at the Rainbo Club. We really just got stoned and called record stores all day. I found an apartment on Division and Damen, got a job at Jinx coffee shop across the street and could walk to said Rainbo Club in less than two minutes. It was glorious. I met a lot of people there that changed the course of my life. I got involved with a lot of film folks—worked a lot with Danny Alpert at the Kindling Group, worked with Bill Siegel [“The Weather Underground,” “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”], edited Usama Alshaibi’s Iraq War doc, deejayed a lot of political and film nights with Naomi Walker and worked with IFP and Chicago Underground. My last job was at the Chicago History Museum, working as Studs Terkel’s digital archivist, sifting through his hundreds of hours of interviews. That was the most meaningful job I’ve had to this day.
Chicago was my film school. Or at the very least, my “finish your shit” school. It was a completely necessary time to germinate ideas, be immature, find myself in all the corny ways one does in their twenties before they do anything of substance. I stayed for ten years. More than the jobs it was the people I met that enabled this sense of finishing that stuck with me. Everyone I knew was making a film or playing in a band or doing some political action work but usually all of the above and it was incredibly inspiring. I gleaned from my time there that if you can locate the thing or idea you are passionate about, nothing on earth should prevent you from pursuing it, so long as you pursue it to the finish line.
While your film’s subject has been gone for thirty years, you get good stuff from his contemporaries, as well as directors he influenced, like Lisa Cholodenko and Alexander Payne.
Robert Towne came over after the 2016 election and we had the darkest conversation on my back deck right before his interview about global politics. He smoked a Cuban cigar and asked us to join him. That was a real moment. Not like I was just hanging out with him, he was there with a purpose. I love that dude. He can do no wrong in my eyes. All of them were so intense. Haskell Wexler? Haskell was so fiery.
Judd Apatow tells you about the studios, “First they say they’re not going to fuck with you, then they fuck with you until you lose your mind.”
I love that line. Apatow really gave us the goods. Those guys learned how to navigate the sharky waters. They learned the language. They knew those Hal stories and it must’ve scared them too, knowing it could all be gone in an instant. David O. Russell had so many great lines that we couldn’t use, like, you must always be looking over your shoulder. You must treat every film like it is your last.
Your production took place across five years?
Yes. We raised enough to shoot two-thirds of the interviews, and no b-roll, but it was always our plan that we shoot, then edit a rough cut to see who we needed to go get strategically. Plus, we had to chase some of them for five years!
So that plan worked?
It did. Kind of beautifully. We knew there was an urgency to get all of them because of, well, age. But we didn’t want to blow it when we weren’t sure how the film was going to come together. We needed the foundational interviews, the Normans [director and mentor Norman Jewison] and Chucks [producer Charles Mulvehill] and then rounded things out as the cut evolved. It helped that my edit bay was like eight feet from my bed for four years. Until I lost my mind and had to pass it off to Sean Jarrett to make sense of it! There are a hundred different Hal Ashby movies you could make in there. Deep cuts. I think the final project file said “Hal_v27” or something like that.
You have audiotapes of Ashby talking intentions, and narration from the fiery letters he would write. Under all of them is his faith that work defines the art, you find the art through concentration.
Yes. I was really buying into and internalizing everything Hal said—”the film will tell you what to do”—and it just took a while.
The title card with his simple line signature is lovely.
It was so beautiful when I saw it, there was no other title it could’ve been. Yes, when I saw how he drew his name, there was an understated elegance to it. Simple grace.
That first set of interviews came off of crowdfunding, just under $60,000 raised from 360 backers?
Yes, and then we had two independent investors come in and help, then signed with Cinetic, and then dog-paddled our way to the finish line until we found out about getting into Sundance. But yes, this is a movie of the people!
You found a form to reflect the way the absent subject thought of the world, and there are recurring visual and thematic motifs that elevate the movie. There’s so much about water, including in those extended clips from his movies.
Hal was obsessed with water. So many of his films featured people taking off into the water! If you walk the beaches in Malibu Colony you’ll totally understand why. Strange vibes. I don’t live in Chicago anymore, I just used the word “vibes” not ironically.
Your sound design isn’t obtrusive, but there’s a lot going on, including how archival footage sounds versus new interviews, and small sounds behind his voice or the letters read by Ben Foster.
Our post-production sound designer, Mike Weinstein, is really talented. That audio was horrific and he managed to make it artful. I personally enjoyed all of the strange audio that he created during the “letters”: barking dogs, explosions in the distance, things that might’ve set Hal off. I didn’t realize what an impact sound design could have, even in a doc. You can tip something in a direction you want to go that perhaps just isn’t in the footage. Or you can wreck the balance, it can go both ways.
There are a lot more filmmaking manifestos inside the film, drawn from Hal, than I expected. Your film itself invokes and advocates the urgency of Hal’s ambition and ethos. Those angry letters: “IS THAT WHAT THE FUCK WE MAKE A FILM FOR, FOR THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!”
Okay, so that middle-of-the-road line was haunting me. Lisa Janssen, another Chicago ex-pat, is our producer-archivist and she was very frank with me early on about one of the versions of the film. It was so middle-of-the-road. It had no voice, and she told me, gently, to delete the project and start over. I was aghast, only because it was at least six months of work. But she was right. I wasn’t taking any chances, I wasn’t digging deep, I was trying to get every goddamned film that he ever made in the movie and spend equal time on it and it was so dull. I kept hearing him say that and it was freeing to me, to not think about what people expected me to make. It’s a huge responsibility to make something like this, he is so beloved. And you want to please everyone, but you can’t. So you have to make the film the only way you know how to make it, and not up the fucking middle.
“Every sonofabitching time you sit down and you thread up a goddamned reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it you get a different idea and whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do,” Hal says in your film.
It was all there in his work, and in those audio tapes. I just had to really hear the man. He was always directing me, I felt. Corny and mystical, yes, but I was having these dreams where we would smoke a joint and he would say “go back to the archives,” and I would and inevitably something would turn up.
Ashby was an adept of exploring music and songs… and pop… This is sort of a musical documentary at moments. You have SIX Cat Stevens songs! Plus, Cat Stevens.
I’m proud of that! A lot of Cat Stevens, people! Cat’s music goes straight to your gut, and it is hard to replicate that kind of emotional resonance. We had to work those babies in.
Is there more to say about finding a kindred editing spirit?
Yes, he was my editing kindred spirit, that’s why I made the film. And I am done with editing now. That was my “The Landlord.” He was forty when he made that film; I was thirty-seven when I started this. He was a weirdo from a small conservative town. I felt a connection beyond just his films.
The lost furies of that good mind. Pancreatic cancer is one of the worst and fastest.
Jonathan Gold just died of the same cancer at almost the same age.
The “Being There” section is so pointed. Did the edit and focus of talking about it change after that Tuesday night in November 2016? A man who finds information only in the reflective surface of the television. That’s always been wild in the movie, but you pluck out some lines that sting today, like “Chauncey you had the Russian ambassador eating right out of your hand!” and “It is very useful to speak Russian today…” Hal’s greatest stuff is fucking timeless, but here it’s scary.
Are you kidding me? The entire film changed course after November 9. I did recut the film after the election, partly because I was so depressed and all I could control was this film in front of me, but mostly because it meant so much to go back with more of a social lens and really examine these films for what they said about humanity and society. And it all just sort of apexed with “Being There.” I often think maybe that section was too long, like I was really beating my point home too much.
Chilly prophecy is always worth the real estate.
Isn’t it, though? My creative partner in all of this, Brian Morrow, my producer, we would constantly send each other these timecode moments that were so mind-blowing that either we never saw before or they just weren’t stamped with the same urgency in our minds. Brian literally found that Russian line the night before the film was to be turned in to Sundance. I can’t believe we were still cutting then. And that “white privilege” line in “The Landlord” from Hal, it gave me chills when I first stumbled across it. I couldn’t believe it. He truly got it.
Don’t even have to call Hal a visionary. He. Just. Got. It.
Hal always got it.
“Hal” opens in Chicago in the fall.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.