Interview with John Carroll Lynch, director of Lucky

Even if you don’t know his name, John Carroll Lynch is a face you’ve undoubtedly seen, from Fargo to The Drew Carey Show, to Zodiac, his career has spanned decades and placed him alongside some of the most iconic cinematic artists. Lynch is now moving behind the camera with his directorial debut, Lucky, starring the late, great Harry Dean Stanton. Cinedelphia caught up with Lynch in anticipation of the film, slated to premiere in Philadelphia on October 6th. As a testament to Lynch’s enthusiasm, this is the only interview in history which opens with a question from the interviewee:

John Carroll Lynch: So you’re in Philadelphia?

Cinedelphia: Yeah, I’m in Philadelphia.

JCL: I worked on a show there. It was, at the time, the lowest rated premiere in the history of network television. That only lasted a couple of weeks and something else was then lower rated.

C: What show was that?

JCL: It was a show called Do No Harm, and we didn’t. We didn’t do any harm at all.

C: That show was actually shooting outside of my old apartment building. I stumbled into the craft services tent while trying to catch a bus.

JCL: Awesome. I hope you got a bagel.

C: No, unfortunately I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So, I gotta say, I was quite enamored with Lucky. It was wonderful. What drew you to this project?

JCL: Well, on a level of creation I was interested in the idea of telling the story of someone who was fine, but wasn’t. And who knew that for him there was no second act. There’s no reincarnation, there’s no resurrection. This is it. This is all he’s got. How is he gonna live with he uncertainty of his mortality and when it’s gonna happen? To increase the drama of that and make it about a person who’s not 39 but 89 — that’s the story that we tell in the movie and it’s one of living. Of how to live. That being said, the opportunity to work with Harry Dean Stanton and to direct this screenplay was something that obviously I couldn’t pass up.

C: Is this a script that you sought out or or did it find its way to you?

JCL: Gratefully it found its way to me. Drago Sumonja, one of the screenwriters, the other being Logan Sparks, gave it to me to read. I was sitting in a Starbucks in LA by happenstance — I had moved to New York by that time, but I was in LA working — he came down and gave me a script and I said “Okay, I’ll take a look at it,” and I opened it and blew right through it. I thought it was excellent. I called him back and said “Yeah, man. Count me in. I’m happy to act with Harry Dean (Stanton). Because that’s what I was being asked to do. I was being asked to act in the movie. And Drago had known I’d been trying to wedge my way into directing for a while, trying to raise money for various projects, and none had yet come to fruition. Later on, he and Logan asked me if I had wanted to direct the piece and I said yes. We talked about what I thought the movie was about, and how to go about telling the story. They had very strong visual cues in the movie and we agreed on where we wanted to tie the movie down. So we started the process of kinda walking through it; setting up the transitions and doing all the things you want to do before heading out to financiers. Harry Dean was already attached to the movie, since Logan was his assistant for a long time. Drago knew him from years ago, and I had met him a couple of times, so I was familiar with him. We started getting yesses all around and that’s how it happened.

C: That’s amazing. Would I be correct to assume that this script was written with Harry Dean Stanton in mind?

JCL: Yes, it was tailor-made for Harry Dean. I would go so far as to say it was inspired by his life. Not the character’s life — it has nothing to do with Harry Dean — but the story and the material is his story. What we learn about him, all of that, is from Harry’s actual life. On top of that, the process of his day-to-day existence was reflected in the film as well. The construct, the narrative of the movie was about trying to get to the philosophical, spiritual, and emotional essence of the journey I think Harry had been on for a long time. That’s what we wanted to capture.

C: A highlight in the movie for me was the monologue by David Lynch about why he respects his missing tortoise. That really drew the thematic framework together for me, while also being quite humorous.

JCL: Yes, yes. It’s a fine line to walk. You know, you can over-quirk things. You can over-spin them. David’s Howard is so disarmingly earnest, and he’s so believable in his love for his friend President Roosevelt (note: that’s the tortoise’s name), that he just breaks your heart.

C: You’ve acted for so many legendary directors, and now here you are directing David Lynch. What is it like to flip the script?

JCL: Obviously David Lynch has forgotten more about filmmaking than I’ll ever know. So I didn’t have any expectations. I had no intention of trying to prove myself (to him). I was just trying to do the best I could with what I knew and what I’d learned — and also to serve this story which we both had agreed to serve. He (David Lynch) came for Harry Dean. He came because Harry asked him to. That shows in the picture because Howard and Lucky’s relationship reflects the same love that David and Harry had and still have. So we were ahead of the game already. I had seen his work and I knew he could act as people other than his own creations and I’d seen the two of them in the documentary Partly Fiction — they had such joy. There was this sort of internal laughter between the two of them that I knew would play so beautifully in a two-shot, and it did.

C: I love that phrase. “Internal laughter.” The film absolutely captures it. How has having sat in the director’s chair affected your acting and vice versa?

JCL: I approached the work, and will continue to approach directing work from the point of view of character and story because that’s what my passion is. I am also learning to be more visually ambitious in the way in which stories are told, using the elements given to the director through camera and editing and music and color and sound and all the other tools that are available to the director to tell a story. But I will always approach it as an actor first. That being said, it has changed my acting already in terms of my handoff — I now understand how far into the process the actors come in. There were long conversations that actors were not privy to because of the pre-production of a film and the amount of time you have with them. So I now understand from an experiential point of view something that I only knew from and intellectual point of view. So that will change my relationship to the storytellers that I’m joining. In terms of watching Harry’s work, and being involved in caring for and watching over that performance, I believe I will trust the camera more and more and more to reveal what’s inside. When we were going to Locarno with the film — Jeanne Moreau, she died as we were going there, as did Sam Shepard – it’s been a tough summer — and Moreau said “actors don’t disguise, they reveal.” Maybe I’m misquoting but the “reveal” portion is what I responded to and I immediately thought of Harry. He revealed himself to us when he acted. He was willing to let us be with him, but he didn’t tell us where to go or what to do. Never did. Even when he took a film by the throat like he did with Repo Man — just grabs the entire frame and shakes it — he didn’t do it for effect. He did it because that’s what the character’s life was. I aspire to that kind of acting.

C: Into terms of that, did you allow for any improvisation on set or were you married to the script?

JCL: The script was so well-honed that there was very few times that I felt improv was necessary. Yet there were times where improv happened because that comes out of good acting, right? The one time I can remember very distinctly was the first day of filming. It was between Ed Begley and Harry Dean, and we had a scene were Ed was giving Lucky the bad news that there’s nothing wrong with him. Before we started shooting, Ira Steven Behr (producer) was like “We need something on that scene. Wouldn’t it be great to have Ed give him a lollipop?” I said “I think it would be. Let me talk to Ed about it.” So I came to Ed with it. On the day of the shoot I said “Ed, how do you feel about giving him a lollipop at the end?” and he goes “Oh yeah, okay that sounds good!” So we do it in rehearsal and Harry goes “what am I supposed to do, stick it up my ass?” We all were like “Harry, say that!” and he says “Yeah, but Ed’s gotta have a comeback for that. What would you say, Ed?” and Ed says “How ’bout you just suck it?”

So he and Ed both wrote those lines and it works beautifully. We all knew immediately that was the end of that scene.

C: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It has that great line where, I’ll just call him Dr. Begley, says “All you can do is just stay alive and let me study you.”

JCL: Yeah, he’s a great character, and Ed is perfectly tuned for it. He was going to play that part from the time they started writing it. They wrote it beautifully for him and he was just terrific.

C: He’s incredible. He blows my mind with his level of talent. I love that man.

JCL: I agree. When we were at Locarno Nastassja Kinski was getting an award and it was not an accident that during her tribute reel the first thing you saw was Cat People and Ed Begley’s face. And then they went to One From the Heart and of course Harry was in that. They (the festival programmers) knew what they were doing, and then of course they showed Paris, Texas. They were tying that all together and it was a great tribute to her and also filled with references to Harry and Lucky.

C: One of my favorite things is when a creative project becomes enhanced or even defined by a limitation. Did you run into any limitations which turned out to be a benefit to the film?

JCL: Well, we had several limitations, some of which we blew past which were just as interesting as the ones we didn’t. We had such a limited time to work in (sic) – that was were we shot the town – and we really had to be judicious. One of the things we had to create was this place where Lucky goes to yell invectives at. When we did, we couldn’t dress the place that it was so we were looking for someplace else. We found, just in the outskirts of town, this driveway that a guy was willing to let us rent. Almitra Corey (production designer) put together the interior of that place and I swear to god it was incredible. When you look through the frame it looks amazing, and if we were to move an inch to the left or the right it would blow that whole thing. To be able to create, in those limited circumstances, that important image in the movie — the way that the mysteries in the movie are revealed — that is revealed in such a satisfying way to me. There was barely enough there, but it was beautifully arranged. I can’t say it enough. There is just so much beauty in that movie. Probably because Harry’s face is so beautiful.

C: It’s very striking whenever he leans into that setpiece and, to use your term, yells invectives. It’s a very honest moment.

JCL: Yeah, he knows that quite well.

C: We’re there any films or styles you chose to channel in making Lucky?

We talked about things like Runaway Train, The Last Picture Show, obviously Paris, Texas. That Jarmusch film, Mystery Train. There was so much vivid color in that movie and there’s so much vivid color in this movie. Along with a willingness to let the camera hang. We also talked about John Ford. What if John Ford made a character piece? We wanted that kind of space in the frame. A vista. The sense of the desert being a character, and it was a character.

All of these films, with maybe the exception of John Ford are performance-based films. The camera doesn’t draw attention to itself. I found that as we went through the edit, the less editing we did, the better the movie became.

C: It does sort of feel as if Lucky was born from the desert itself and will one day return to it. Just a colorful being emerged from it. Like lightning struck a rock and he popped into existence.

JCL: Yes, kinda like President Roosevelt, when he crawled up outside and wondered whether he was a living rock.

C: And finally, I must ask. Do you believe in luck?

JCL: I believe in fortune. Luck is weird. I mean, I’ve had a lot of really lucky breaks in my career. I’ve fallen asleep on a couch in an advertising agency and ended up with a commercial. Weird things like that happen to me. And of course you have to have those things in order to have a career of some kind, some luck, but then you actually have to pay off. But sure there are things that just happen. There are randomnesses in the world but luck is always in the eye of the beholder. There’s good and bad luck, so it’s always based on whether I’m judging something as good or bad. Frankly, I don’t know if I have that kind of perspective.

C: I guess it’s really about just being prepared.

JCL: Yes, that’s true, but it’s also about letting the world come to you. I couldn’t have guessed that a short film I did with Drago Sumonja 20 years ago would’ve led me to my first directing job. You wouldn’t put that together. But that’s how it happened. It’s fortune, but it’s also the way the world unfolds.

C: We at Cinedelphia are certainly lucky to have had this opportunity to speak with you. Thank you very much.

JCL: Thank you! Enjoy Philadelphia!

 

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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