Like many people, Amy Scott first came to the work of iconoclastic director Hal Ashby through “Harold and Maude.” The singularly joyful and macabre love story has been a staple of repertory theaters and college video viewings since it was released in 1971. “It blew my mind, it shifted my personal narrative,” says Scott, who makes her feature documentary directing debut with “Hal,” which screened this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival and opens in selected theaters on Sept. 7.
After being introduced to Ashby through her friends in film school, Scott continued her career as an editor, and when she read the biography “Being Hal Ashby: The Life of a Hollywood Rebel,” she realized that there was still no documentary about the seminal filmmaker.
Despite creating so many distinctive films of the 1970s, including “Coming Home,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound for Glory,” and “Being There,” which Scott calls his masterpiece, Ashby remains less heralded than his contemporaries such as Robert Altman.
Ashby also started his career as a film editor, working with Norman Jewison on films like “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “In the Heat of the Night,” so Scott felt she understood where he was coming from. “There’s a personality type that comes up through the dark edit bay — you’re in there by yourself with your ideas and possibly your marijuana and it’s just your time,” she says, referencing Ashby’s notoriously copius weed consumption.
But although Ashby’s films were hailed for their humanity, adept command of visual storytelling and use of music, they were frequently misunderstood by the studios. Though they racked up Oscar noms and wins, his works seldom resulted in box office success.
After a crowdfunding campaign, Scott started filming about four years ago, and was able to interview “Coming Home” and “Bound for Glory” cinematographer Haskell Wexler before he died in 2015. Once interviews with Ashby’s stars and collaborators like Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges and Jewison were secured, the rest fell in line, including the notoriously hard to get Yusuf Islam, whose songs as Cat Stevens brought so much heart to “Harold and Maude.”
Ashby had a deep connection with some of the musicians of the era — he nearly secured Neil Young to do the soundtrack for “The Landlord,” Scott says. He also directed the Rolling Stones concert movie “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and Young concert video “Solo Trans.”
His devotion to meticulously choosing rock tunes to symmetrically complement particular images clearly left a deep impression on filmmakers including Jonathan Demme, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Cameron Crowe.
But after 1979’s “Being There,” Ashby seemed to lose his way. He missed out on directing “Tootsie,” which “would have been a game-changer” for his career, Scott says. A string of oddball projects followed in the 1980s, until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 at just 59 years old.
What was it about that decade that resulted in such a fruitful run of indelible movies? “The 1970s were a perfect environment for a personality type like Hal,” says Scott. “Studios invested in filmmakers who were highly creative and non-commercial.
“They were making such different kinds of films — Cassavetes, Monte Hellman. But because of the latitude they were given and the freedom, it was extra hard for a guy like Hal — it was not in his nature to compromise,” says Scott. Other directors were better able to pivot, she thinks, and the 1980s were less kind to such distinctive visions.
As Rosanna Arquette, who starred in his 1986 misfire “8 Million Ways to Die,” says at the end of the docu, “They didn’t respect him, and it killed him.”
Below, Scott details why so many of Ashby’s films remain fresh and relevant today, starting with his lesser-seen 1970 directing debut “The Landlord.” Keep an eye on cable schedules for those that aren’t currently available digitally.
“The Landlord” — “An incredible debut film,” Scott says of the drama starring Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Louis Gossett Jr. and Diana Sands. “He tackles race relations, white privilege, gentrification — it’s an important film to watch now, with highly creative editing and a great soundtrack.”
“Harold and Maude”: “If you’ve ever felt disconnected from society, if you’ve ever felt marginalized, if you’ve ever felt people are trying to tell you who you can or cannot love, you should watch this film,” Scott says of the 1971 Bud Cort-Ruth Gordon tour de force that is perhaps the cult classic of all cult classics. “Even more fascinating than Harold is Maude — after all the things she’s endured, she gives zero fucks about authority or social norms. She’s living her best life, and that to me is admirable in the darkest times.” Rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes and more.
“The Last Detail” — “You should see anything written by Robert Towne,” Scott says of the 1973 comedy-drama, singling out performances by Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. “It’s really acerbically funny and clever. The way they’re stuck in this system of injustice…I can also identify with the slower moments, like when they’re on the train taking Quaid to prison.” Rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes and more.
“Shampoo” — “A really fun ride,” Scott says about the 1975 Warren Beatty-Julie Christie comedy-drama about a Beverly Hills hairdresser and his wealthy clientele, “So much style, killer soundtrack, Warren Beatty’s hair, and Julie Christie’s backless dress. But with Richard Nixon creeping in the background, it’s a sexy look at cultural narcissism in the midst of a foreboding political bad dream.” Rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes and more.
“Bound for Glory” — “Wexler shot it like a documentary, and it’s the first time Steadicam was used. There were so many cameras, they shot and shot and shot. It’s a gorgeous film,” says Scott of the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic. “It’s not necessarily accurate — it’s in the spirit of Woody Guthrie.”
“Coming Home” — “It’s a love story, but also a look at how we’re treating our veterans,” says Scott of the 1978 drama that won acting Oscars for both Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. “I cannot imagine that if this were shot today it would be a rosier portrait — it has not gotten better. The opening scene is shot like a documentary — one of the guys talking was a sniper. Hal was so touched by this guy.”
“Being There” — The existential comedy-drama, for which Peter Sellers was Oscar-nommed, “takes a look at celebrity worship, how celebrities can just be created out of thin air. It’s a dangerous concept, and we’re kind of living through it now. He constantly commented on the times he lived in,” Scott says. Rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes and more.