Brett Haley Interview


Interview by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Brett Haley spoke with Greg Carlson ahead of the Fargo Film Festival’s screening of “The Hero” at 7:00 p.m. on March 24.


Greg Carlson: Congratulations on “The Hero.” I was at the second Sundance screening. The one where you had been up all night and had just sold it.

Brett Haley: That was a great screening.


GC: We are so happy to have “The Hero” at the Fargo Film Festival.

BH: I am very excited about the film. It is getting released by The Orchard. They’re a great fit for us, and I’m just excited to be sharing the film at these great festivals around the country, including Fargo.


GC: What was the first movie you saw that inspired you to want to make movies?

BH: I think I realized what a director was when I saw “Pulp Fiction.” Something that wild and that singular had to be created by someone. Kids today are really savvy and they know what a director is but back then I didn’t know that directing was a job.


GC: Since you worked with Sam Elliott on both “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “The Hero,” what kind of adjustments did you make between the two in terms of directing him?

BH: Sam is a real collaborator. He is an actor that likes to be directed. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He likes to have input and involvement and he likes to know what I think. I saw that on “I’ll See You in My Dreams” but we had also become a lot closer as friends and collaborative artists by the time we made “The Hero.” Since he’s in virtually every frame of the film there had to be a lot of trust.


GC: Is your co-screenwriter Marc Basch on the set when you are shooting?

BH: Sometimes. Marc has a full-time job and a family so he can’t always be there. But he would come for some of it. I love having Marc on set. He is my creative collaborator. We’ve created these characters together and written everything together so I like to bounce things off of him. He’s a much different personality type than I am, but he likes being on set and I like having him there.


GC: Do you and Marc write in the same room? Who wins the arguments?

BH: We do not write in the same room, ever. We pass pages back and forth and most of our communication is via text. Occasionally we’ll hop on the phone and talk things out, but we don’t argue much. It’s more a discussion about the best way to tell the story. We’re trying to get at the best version of each scene, and making sure that things are happening in a way that we want them to happen.


GC: One of the things I love about “The Hero” is the patience of the movie. Nothing is hurried or rushed. Do you edit your own movies?

BH: I do. I edited this one and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing that.


GC: Taking on both directing and editing sounds like a lot of gray hairs.

BH: It is. It can be a lot of pressure and a lot of work to do both, but I enjoy editing quite a bit. I am open to changes and to notes. I am not precious about my work. I think on the next one I might hand it off to an editor just simply to ease the workload. I’m glad that I cut “The Hero,” because that is where you discover the movie. You write it again, or rewrite it, in the edit.


GC: Do you shoot dialogue as written or do you like to see actors improvise?

BH: Mostly as written. Occasionally we’ll do some improv. Actors always make it known if they don’t believe a line or if a line is not ringing true to them. Once I’ve gotten what I need I let the actors try whatever they want. It’s a balancing act. You want everything to feel real and honest. I am not a writer of the caliber of the Coens or Kenneth Lonergan. Marc and I are more loose with it. I always say the best idea wins.


GC: Along with Ozu and Cassavetes and Audiard, who are some of your other filmmaking inspirations?

BH: You just named three of the all-time greats. I think Truffaut is also on the list. The Coens are probably my favorite directors. I wish that I could do what they do. Kenneth Lonergan’s script for “Manchester by the Sea” is just impeccable. Brilliant from start to finish. I was inspired by that film. I am drawn to films where the writing and the performances are front and center.

Audiard was my biggest influence on “The Hero.” But some of the sequences were Leone, classic western films, spaghetti westerns that I love, like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”


GC: I am teaching a class right now on Wes Anderson.

BH: I love Wes Anderson. I go back often to “Rushmore.” I think “Rushmore” is his finest piece in terms of writing. That script is amazing… the way he handles Max Fischer, an incredibly flawed character, and yet you really care for him and you root for him and you see him hit rock bottom and come back. And when you see a Wes Anderson frame, you know it. That’s impressive that he has gotten to that point.


GC: What is your style?

BH: If you look at “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and then at “The Hero,” even though it’s the same DP, the same writers, the same production designer, even the same actor to a large degree, and the same director, they are very different movies. “The Hero” required something very different than “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”


GC: I love Blythe Danner’s karaoke in “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Who selected “Cry Me a River” for the scene?

BH: That was a song that Blythe suggested. I think she hadn’t sung publicly in a long time. She was nervous, which was good for the scene, because I wanted her, or her character Carol, to be nervous. The character hasn’t sung in a public setting in a long time either, so it was good that Blythe had a little bit of uneasiness about it. It made it feel very real. She got up there and was incredible, and owned it.


GC: Do you get starstruck? I see Katharine Ross in “The Hero” and think, there’s Elaine Robinson from “The Graduate.”

BH: I am very starstruck because I’m such a fan. It’s never easy to meet people that you’ve admired for a long time. I remember talking to Nick Offerman for the first time on the phone and I was very nervous. I have to remember, “Oh yeah, I’m a collaborator! I’m not just a fan anymore.” You have to shake yourself out of it a little bit. And even though that is Katharine Ross right there… I’ve got to do my job. But I’m still a fanboy at heart. There’s no doubt about it.


GC: What new things are you seeing in “The Hero” now that you are watching it play with audiences?

BH: I’m genuinely surprised that it is a crowd-pleaser. Because it is such a meditative film, I thought it could be perceived as too slow. There’s a lot more laughs than I thought there would be, which is a wonderful surprise.

This movie is different in a packed theater than it is in your home by yourself. They both have their advantages, but seeing the film in a full auditorium where people are laughing, and you can feel the quiet when it needs to be quiet, and people are engaging with the film is wonderful.

I am always thrilled as a filmmaker when people respond to the work. You do your best and you hope it is good. You put it out into the world and you don’t know what you’re going to get from critics and you don’t know what you’re going to get from audiences. So all of this is a cherry on top.


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