Fall 2019

Hal Ashby's Humanity

The under-sung director of such classics as Coming Home, Shampoo and Being There embraced his characters' flaws and foibles, and helped define one of American cinema's greatest eras

By Peter Tonguette

Director Hal Ashby (Photo: Everett)

Hal Ashby liked characters—especially characters who were characters.

In Harold and Maude (1971), the maverick director sympathetically sketched a melancholic young fellow and his gregarious elderly confidante (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon), while in The Last Detail (1973), he presented a pair of crude, cussing sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) given the assignment of shepherding a naïve comrade (Randy Quaid) to a term in prison. In Shampoo (1975), he spotted redeeming qualities in a romantically profligate hairdresser (Warren Beatty), and was charmed by each of the man's lovers (Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant). Similarly, he found qualities to admire in a wounded veteran (Jon Voight), a hot-tempered marine (Bruce Dern) and his conflicted wife (Jane Fonda) in the Vietnam War drama Coming Home (1978). And, in Being There (1979), he even made an incomprehensible hero out of an illiterate gardener (Peter Sellers), whose vapid observations are lapped up by the high and the mighty in Washington, D.C.

Empathy was Ashby's ace in the hole. In a 1978 Minneapolis Star interview, Ashby admitted he didn't socialize with the set depicted in Shampoo, but he still went out of his way to present them in all of their flawed humanity. "They're not people I spend time with," he said of the film's characters, "but they're people I've looked at and felt badly for. So I spend a lot of time being very kind to those people. The other way's easy. To make fun of people is easy. Life isn't that easy."

Throughout his career, Ashby—who died in 1988—brought an understated camera style, a subtle approach to editing, and a total command of tone to telling the stories of the offbeat and unorthodox among us. Despite subject matter that could be challenging and sometimes bizarre, Ashby's films are easy to curl up with. "He was such a great storyteller," says editor Don Zimmerman, who worked on numerous Ashby films. "The ability to latch onto people was easy with him, because he would tell you an interesting story with interesting characters." Director Norman Jewison—for whom Ashby edited such films as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)—agrees. "He was always looking for a more unusual story," Jewison says. "I really liked his taste in material, because he knew that the story was the important element. He talked to me about various projects, and I would encourage him to go for the wildest one, the strangest one—because he was kind of strange."

Strange? Maybe. Talented? Unquestionably. In the eyes of many, Ashby was synonymous with the wild, woolly spirit of the '70s. "Hal Ashby is now largely forgotten because he had the misfortune to die at the end of the '80s, but he had the most remarkable run of any '70s director," wrote Peter Biskind in his history of that era's directors, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. In the 21 years since that book was published, however, Ashby's standing has soared: The director has been the subject of a full-fledged biography (Nick Dawson's Being Hal Ashby), an in-depth critical study (Christopher Beach's The Films of Hal Ashby) and, last year, an acclaimed documentary (Hal), in which such directors as Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne sing his praises. In addition, three of his films (Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There) have been enshrined with editions from the Criterion Collection.

The romanticization of Ashby's '70s glory days, however, is often undermined by the specter of a kind of goateed, wizard-like figure whose films emerged in a haze of mellowness and marijuana.

If Ashby was seen as a nonconformist, his upbringing sheds some light on his rebellious spirit. In a 1970 issue of Action magazine, an early DGA publication, the Ogden, Utah native frankly delved into his personal history: "Mom and Dad divorced when I was five or six. Dad killed himself when I was 12. I struggled toward growing up, like most others, totally confused. Joined the drop-outs in my senior high year. Didn't get along with my family. Married and divorced twice before I made it to 21. Hitchhiked to Los Angeles when I was 17. Started smoking grass at 18…"

Despite the adversity of his youth, a close study of his working methods reveals a conscientious craftsman who provided gentle but pointed guidance to everyone on his sets. He received his own tutelage as an assistant editor on films by such Golden Age directors as George Stevens and William Wyler. Simply put, few directors knew the nuts and bolts of directing better than Ashby.

In the early 1960s, Ashby established the partnership that would alter the course of his career while working in the cutting room of another famous filmmaker, Tony Richardson. Jewison, who was preparing to direct The Cincinnati Kid (1965), passed the room where Ashby was cutting Tony Richardson's The Loved One (1965). Intrigued by the unmistakable sound of Rod Steiger's voice, Jewison poked his head inside and found Ashby. "He showed me a little bit of a rough cut that he was working on, with two or three scenes," says Jewison, who connected with Ashby and hired him to cut The Cincinnati Kid.

From top: Director Hal Ashby on set for Harold and Maude and The Last Detail. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

"He was a rebel, and I kind of considered myself a rebel," Jewison says. "We used to go to all the anti-Vietnam demonstrations together… It was kind of a match made in heaven." Ashby edited four films for Jewison, culminating with his Oscar-winning work on In the Heat of the Night. "I used to have to try to get him away from the Moviola, because he was so committed and so devoted and always trying something new," says Jewison. "We were always talking about possibilities in casting. He was more than an editor. He was really kind of my confidant."

Yet the mentor admits to being schooled by his mentee. "I learned so much about editing and I learned so much about sound, because he was very good with sound cutting," Jewison says. "And also, I learned to relax, because he was always very cool."

Having proven his bona fides as Jewison's editor and right-hand man, Ashby was given a film of his own to direct, an urban drama centered on race relations called The Landlord (1970), starring Beau Bridges, Lee Grant and Diana Sands. Jewison, who ultimately served as the film's producer, first envisioned taking on the project as director but decided instead to make Fiddler on the Roof (1971), handing it off to his protégé. "He would send me these long, long letters," Jewison recalls. "It was usually about the problems and how to handle them." And yet Grant, who became a director in her own right, remembers Ashby as being in control on his first set. "He was sailing, as he did on all of his films," she says. "He was passionate on set—he was passionate with his actors and with his writer—and it showed. He was dancing your dance and wanting to be surprised by you."

Three years later, at the helm of The Last Detail, the director was already at the height of his powers. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who had been a camera operator under DP Gordon Willis on The Landlord, was chosen by Ashby to photograph the film. "I was terrified, because I had never shot much of anything except a few commercials," Chapman says. "And, my God, this was a movie starring Jack Nicholson with a script by Robert Towne." Ashby, however, supported the cinematographer, whose unfussy framing and lighting was in keeping with Ashby's no-nonsense style. "Pretty quickly it got to seem like we were shooting the 6 o'clock news," Chapman comments. "He didn't want to force unrealistic things… He wanted to let the world be as it was, and I think that is true of almost all of his movies."

Ashby didn't seek a writing credit on his films, and some of his most famous projects had been planned years before he became involved. During the preproduction of Shampoo, for example, Grant remembers Warren Beatty—also the film's co-writer (with Robert Towne) and producer—rehearsing actors a year before cameras rolled, and well before Ashby was hired. Yet the director's contributions in shaping the final product cannot be overstated. "Hal had already proven that he had this extraordinary, fresh, genius view of our lives in film, and so he was the cherry on the cake," Grant says. "But he ran with it—I mean, once he got up to be the engineer, he was the engineer of the train. And Warren lovingly and admiringly followed his lead.

The famously tough New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who invoked Jean Renoir when she reviewed the film, called it "the most virtuoso example of sophisticated kaleidoscopic farce that American moviegoers have ever come up with."

Ashby encouraged creativity on his sets, but he also took care to plot out some details ahead of time—even if he had a mere 72 hours to prepare to shoot. According to Bruce Dern, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Coming Home, Ashby was a last-minute replacement on that film upon the withdrawal of John Schlesinger. "After the first day, I think John Schlesinger felt he was not the right guy to direct this particular movie," Dern says. "So, in one day, [producer] Jerry Hellman had to recruit Hal Ashby, who lived on the same street Hal lived on, Malibu Colony Road—as did myself."

For the film's much-praised finale—intercutting Voight's character counseling students on the pros and cons of military service and Dern's character sprinting to his death in the ocean—Ashby suggested Dern listen to a song to get in the right frame of mind. "It was 5:40 in the morning in Hermosa Beach," Dern recalls. "We weren't sure what I was going to do except I was going to go into the ocean. And he said, 'Before you go out, I want you to hear something.' And all he had was a little tape recorder, so he played 'Once I Was.' I barely got through it—I mean, I barely got through it—because Tim Buckley was singing about my character." The director was certain of the destination but left the journey up to his actor. "He said, 'Go out on the beach and head for the ocean and do what comes to you—but make sure you're in the ocean at the end.'"

"He was passionate with his actors and with his writer—and it showed. He was dancing your dance and wanting to be surprised by you."
–Lee Grant, Actor/Director

Dern remembers Ashby shooting enough material to assure he had options in postproduction. "He didn't direct like an editor, but he made sure he got what the editor needed," he says. "The only arduous part of a Hal Ashby movie for me was, he would finish a scene—say, two or three takes—and he'd say, 'I got it. That's the scene in the movie. Now do it one more time.'"

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who shot three films for Ashby, describes the director as reluctant to intellectualize, but the two settled on a clearly articulated visual style for their first collaboration, Being There. Despite the improbable nature of the plot, it was decided to shoot the film with an aura of solemnity—not unlike, say, All the President's Men (1976). "The thing that Hal and I decided was that the film was a serious film about power and politics—and that the only thing that made it a comedy is Peter Sellers," says Deschanel, who is also a DGA member. "The usual comedy is lit brightly… We sort of played against that for the whole movie."

Within that overall plan, however, Ashby allowed himself to be responsive to the actors. During early rehearsals on Being There, the blocking of scenes could be chaotic as the actors were getting the lay of the land, Deschanel says. "I'd watch, and slowly Hal would just sort of go: 'Oh, that was good—I like that when you went to the window,'" he says. "Over four or five or six rehearsals, Hal would slowly guide it into something. And, sure enough, by the end of the rehearsal, Hal and I would end up in exactly the same spot and we knew that was where the camera would go."

When he returned to home turf—that is, the cutting room—Ashby adopted an attitude of genuine collaboration. Don Zimmerman, who was brought in to edit Coming Home and Being There after serving as an apprentice or assistant on all but one of Ashby's previous films, remembers the director soliciting his opinions, as well as gently expressing his own. "He said, 'I want to see your thoughts,'" Zimmerman says. "Then we would just sit together and talk and say, 'Oh, let's try this or that' or 'That's really a good idea' or 'Why don't we try going this way?'… He wouldn't say that you were wrong, but he would just guide you in different avenues."

Ashby was unafraid to reconceive a scene if it wasn't coming together or didn't elicit the intended reaction. Originally, Coming Home concluded with Dern's character entering the ocean, but studio executives found it too grim of a denouement, so a button to the scene was shot: After the intercutting between Voight's character's speech and Dern's character's death, the film cuts to a brief shot of Fonda's character entering a market, opening a door reading "OUT"—an oddly hopeful note that life will go on. "What was nice about it is the fact you do wrap up all three leads," Zimmerman comments. "Before, you could wrap up one or the other or the other, but you'd have a question still of, 'What happened?'"

Alas, "what happened?" was a question many asked about Ashby as he entered the '80s. During Ronald Reagan's "morning in America," the director whose '70s films were honored with 24 Oscar nominations, had lost his way. Maybe he got in his own way, too. For example, Zimmerman says Ashby agreed to direct Lookin' to Get Out (1982)—an intelligently directed but unsuccessful gambling farce—out of a sense of friendship to its co-writer and star, Jon Voight.

Perhaps no film better illustrates the contrast between vintage Ashby and '80s-era Ashby than Second-Hand Hearts (1981), an amiable but rudderless road movie starring Robert Blake and Barbara Harris. "In my opinion, it was off the rails from the first day," says editor Amy Holden Jones. "Robert Blake's very exaggerated performance was extremely consistent—he did it take after take after take." And, because Second-Hand Hearts was being edited concurrently with Being There, one project took precedence over the other. "I think he knew he was making a masterpiece in one (editing) room and a disaster in the other," she adds.

Nonetheless, Holden Jones credits Ashby with teaching her "every single trick in the book as an editor." For example, the director would pluck a line reading from one take and put it in another take. "You would have something that you liked visually, and the reading was not any good. Hal was a real master at figuring out how to slip it in," Holden Jones says. And, even on a film as troubled as Second-Hand Hearts, Ashby never quit. "The film was always plastic to him," Holden Jones recalls. "He, like many editors, shot insane amounts of film," including master shots, reverse masters and all of the accompanying coverage. "There was a lot to pick from."

From top: Shampoo; Being There. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Ed Thrasher/Lorimar)

Other late-career projects included the Neil Simon baseball comedy The Slugger's Wife (1985) and the Los Angeles crime drama 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), starring Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic police officer. "When I read the script, it didn't really feel like a Hal Ashby movie somehow," says Bridges.

The experience was not among Ashby's most harmonious. "The producer of the film, from my point of view, didn't really respect Hal's process," says Bridges, to whom Ashby gave a lot of creative latitude—specifically on a broadly outlined scene that called for Bridges' character to deliver a speech at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among other things, Ashby suggested that Bridges consult with the film's technical advisor. The finished scene is one of the film's most memorable.

But it would be shortsighted to dismiss Ashby's '80s output altogether as subpar. His two concert films—Let's Spend the Night Together (1983), featuring the Rolling Stones in all their stadium-rock glory, and Solo Trans (1984), a one-man showcase for Neil Young—reflected his acute pop sensibility, and more or less paved the way for such pure-performance classics as Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads) and Heart of Gold (Neil Young).

Let's Spend the Night Together chronicled three performances from the Stones' 1981 North American tour with 15 cameras. Deschanel reunited with Ashby to serve as DP. "The one thing that Hal brought to it from an editor's point of view… is that we had it all rigged up so that all the cameras were on TVs in a control room," Deschanel says. "Hal would be in there, and he could watch everything. And then we had headsets for everybody."

The New York Times' Janet Maslin called the film "the handsomest rock-and-roll movie ever made," adding that Ashby managed to replace the Stones' trademark raggedness with a "vibrantly colorful, seamless style."

The late Demme, who was befriended by Ashby early in his career, has talked about how Ashby had bequeathed the editing set-up he invented for his Stones doc to him for Stop Making Sense. "Hal had devised this system with 36 three-quarter-inch decks with 36 little projectors," recalled Demme at a Lincoln Center tribute to Ashby in 2008. The decks were synched up, added Demme, "so that all 36 angles were [projected] on this wall (simultaneously). And it was what people are now doing on computers."

Later, Ashby would offer sage advice to Demme about dealing with studio bureaucracy. Ever the rebel, Ashby would not go down without a fight, even when cancer consumed him. "One thing he couldn't accept was his own frailty, his own sickness," says Jewison about visiting Ashby in the hospital near the end. "His own death was going to be totally unacceptable to him."

But Hal Ashby hasn't died. Not really. Those sailors, that hairdresser, that gardener—they live on.

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