It's been an excellent year for Hal Ashby's underappreciated body of work. The legendary director of Harold and Maude, Bound For Glory, Shampoo, and other classics of the 1970s has finally become the subject of a long-overdue biography, Being Hal Ashby by Nick Dawson, which was released this spring. Being There, one of his most popular films, was released in a 30th anniversary edition DVD. And Lookin' To Get Out, an under-seen later-career gem, was released for the first time on DVD in late June.
Lookin' To Get Out was co-written by its star, Jon Voight, the great actor whose popularity has remained consistent from his breakout role in 1969's Midnight Cowboy to his recent run on the show 24. Voigt was a dear friend of Ashby's, and had worked with the director previously on Coming Home, a beautiful drama about a romance between an Army wife (Jane Fonda) and a paraplegic Vietnam Vet. The lead role earned Voight an Oscar for Best Actor and the equivalent prize at Cannes.
Lookin', with its contemporary Vegas setting and apolitical plot, is miles away tonally from Coming Home, but it bears the hallmarks of Ashby's style: characters whose desperation is undercut by comedy; vibrant social milieus; and anxious class-consciousness. The film was infamously re-edited behind Ashby's back, however, and the resulting film was not one that the demanding editor-turned-director approved of. The new "extended version" recently released on DVD is an important step towards a greater appreciation of this underrated director. I spoke to Voight by phone about his friend, who died of cancer in 1987, and the films they made together, specifically Lookin' to Get Out, which was co-written with his friend and fellow first-time screenwriter Al Schwartz. We also discussed how he feels about Coming Home's generally left-leaning politics in light of his own current political values.
SPLICE TODAY: Nick Dawson's biography makes it clear that, after Being There, Hal had a half-dozen or more potential projects to choose from. What made him take a chance on Lookin' to Get Out, which was written by two untested screenwriters?
JON VOIGHT: Well, I didn't know at the time, but some information has come forth—from Dawson—and I think there was a very personal aspect to the story. It's a story about a fellow who's irresponsible. He says at one point that "people who have kids should be responsible," or something like that, about his buddy's ex-wife, but he really has to turn that judgment on himself in the end when he finds out he has a child from a few years ago, unbeknownst to him. And he has to make a decision which is very painful, at the end, when he see that the child has to go forward without him. And I think that may have been it. Because I found out later that Hal had a daughter that he never saw.
ST: And I understand you actually had a chance to meet her when the idea for this new DVD came about.
JV: Yes, and it was extraordinary to meet this daughter of my friend who I dearly loved, and I felt very badly that I didn't know about it sooner, because I felt that I could have encouraged them to get together. If you've read the book, you know that Hal had an awful lot of trauma, and I think that affected him.
ST: Lookin' to Get Out wasn't the first time you'd worked with Hal, and I'm curious how to came to know him. Was it through working on Coming Home, or did you know each other earlier than that?
JV: It's like this at all times in the film business. There are luminaries that come forth artistically and capture our attention and our imagination, and one of those people at that time was Hal Ashby. I knew him from his extraordinary work as an editor, culminating in an Academy Award with Norman Jewison [for editing In The Heat of the Night (1968)], and he entered into the directing realm with a very strong first film, The Landlord, and followed it with Harold and Maude, and then after that it was a period of very successful and important films. So everyone was looking at Hal and thinking, "Well maybe I'll find a way to work with him." For me, Coming Home was that door to work with Hal, and the subject matter was very close to him.
ST: You can tell Hal had that reputation, since so many of the big-name actors and cinematographers worked with him over that decade. But with a few exceptions like Lee Grant, not many actors worked with him twice. What did you learn from Lookin' in terms of working with him again?
JV: Well I tell you, I didn't know he was carrying the load he was carrying when he was making Lookin' to Get Out. I just thought everything was in its place, and he had just finished Being There. I didn't know that he was as burdened as he was. And my own participation in it—you know, getting thirty pages about gambling from a fellow who was recommended by my brother, and almost accidentally finishing the piece and putting my name on it—included bringing it to Hal Ashby. And Hal responded to it very quickly, and we were off and running with it.
And I must say, there were many dramas involved in the shooting of the film, some of which was indicated by Nick Dawson's research, but it was always fun. For me, it always fun to just be around Hal Ashby. I enjoyed him enormously, and I don't think anyone who ever worked with him wasn't touched enormously.
ST: It's amazing when you read the book—you can barely find a bad word about the guy from his collaborators.
JV: Right. I mean, he was a beloved man. He was a brilliant man, and he had a special wit about him, probably carved from adversity and pain. And he had that wisdom and that wit... It was just a real pleasure to spend time with Hal Ashby.
ST: I've spoken to another of his collaborators, Gordon Willis, the cinematographer on The Landlord, and he spoke with the same admiration, but he also mentioned Hal's considerable drug use. And this was back in 1969. To what degree do you think the reputation was earned? Did you see his addictions affecting his work, particularly as he moved into the ‘80s?
JV: I have to say that it was not my lifestyle. Our relationship never involved that, except that he would occasionally have a joint in front of me. But that wasn't my way, and he never alluded to it during our whole friendship. He was very laissez faire with everybody; he wanted people to be what they were. And I always interpreted that as just what he was carrying, particularly when I found out about his father, I realized there was a lot of psychic pain that he was carrying, and his way of self-medicating. He did a lot of drinking, too, and again, I didn't see it.
There was that tendency in him, and everybody knew it, certainly. I didn't know the extent... I knew he was taking marijuana, but I didn't know it was a lot of other stuff. But that was one of the ways he escaped.
ST: Sure. Coming back to your role in Lookin', you said that the project appealed to Hal on a personal level, but how much of your own self were you bringing to that role and that film? Did you have firsthand experience with gambling?
JV: My brother was a gambler. You know, it's funny because we were always together as children, my two brothers and I, but we were all very different. My older brother Barry was a volcanologist and an outdoorsman. And even when he was a young child, that was part of his persona, and he would always try and get his brothers out on these adventures. But after we participated in one or two, we found it wasn't for us; I don't even like mosquitoes. [laughs] I like a warm bed, and the rest. But he went on to become very well respected in his field, and a great adventurer and professor.
And then my other brother Chip [Taylor] was a singer-songwriter who wrote "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning," and a lot of other songs. He had his dramas in little ways, and he was very active in his children's lives, but he was a gambler. He had this other lifestyle, and while I was aware of it, I never knew that he was so dedicated to gambling for certain parts of his life. He was the one who met Al Schwartz, who I had had some interaction with and who was in the music business with Chip. Al had a wonderful personality, but I didn't know him real well until Chip presented me with these pages and said, "I think there's something to these." And I read them and they had a nice quality in the writing, a stylized quality and kind of a good humor, and I met with Al and encouraged him. I didn't mean to get involved further.
So my participation in the script was without a knowledge of the gambling world. I learned about it from Al and Chip. The story that I helped carve was the story of a person who had to face himself and his weaknesses.
ST: How about the rest of the casting? There are some bigger names, like Ann-Margret and Burt Young, and also Bert Remsen, who was in Robert Altman's earlier gambling movie, California Split. But no one who's immediately associated with Hal's work or who had worked with him before.
JV: I had seen Bert in one of Hal's movies before. Initially, Hal figured I knew the piece and encouraged me to participate in the decisions. And I said, "If I do this, the two people that I wanted to work with when I was writing it were Burt Young and Ann-Margret." I just thought that they would match up with me, and both had an authenticity to them in the genre and the environment. Ann-Margret because she's affiliated with Vegas and she's been through a lot of adventures there. We cared for her and saw she'd been through a lot. It was all perfect for the character of Patti Warner.
For the character Jerry Feldman, I was very impressed with Burt Young's work in the Rocky series. I thought that first movie, which came out of nowhere and had such power—there were many original things about it, and we cared for each of those characters. It was almost a fairy-tale story, but one of the things that anchored it was Paulie, Burt Young's character. He gave the whole piece a certain authenticity, and that doesn't mean the other characters weren't great as well, but something about him put Sylvester in the neighborhood somehow. I thought that performance was brilliant. And for some reason I felt he could do this character. I saw a certain humor in him, and also artistry. And in the final piece, he's great.
ST: Particularly in that opening scene, when your two characters are interacting, he's so deadpan that it almost seems underperformed. But by the end, I started feeling that it was more honest than anything. It made their relationship so believable.
JV: Yeah, there's a chemistry there. And finally, the hope of the film is in the area of friendship.
ST: Let's talk about Coming Home, too. It's tonally very different from Lookin', and it's quite clear you were all going for a very different kind of production.
JV: It's very realistic in a certain way. It's really a portrait of a time, and a painful time. It's very much about examining America in the ‘60s. Everyone had strong feelings at that time, and each person on the set had their own feelings about it, because it was a time of great turmoil. We'd all been touched by it and had lived through it and had our own subtly different points of view. But each one of us wanted to make the film. And we were composing it as we went because, as it turned out, the writer Waldo Salt, who had written Midnight Cowboy, came in with Jerry Hellman, who kind of scratched the script and wrote it based on his friendship with Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July. And so my character was written in a very angry fashion, and it was full of long speeches and tirades and things. It didn't quite work.
Now, I feel that the movie Born on the Fourth of July is brilliant, the best that Oliver [Stone] has made, really, and that Tom [Cruise] is brilliant. But this was another movie, and more of a two-hander, even a three-hander. Waldo Salt wrote his last version, and I always thought when I had read it that it had to change a little. But we all came to it from our own personal feelings. I was very lucky to get that part. I would have played the captain, Bruce Dern's part, but I asked finally to do the main soldier's part. Knowing that a lot had to be done, because as I said, it was going off in this different direction. But I probably got it because it didn't work. At that time Jack Nicholson was being asked to do it, Stallone, I think Pacino, too. And no one wanted to do it because the script wasn't appropriate at that time, and I wanted it because I knew it was an opportunity to work on the piece and I had an idea. My idea was a simple one: I said it's a love story. And I think I'm right for this. When Hal chose me, the decision was made among all the people and there was a lot of controversy at that time, it was almost like, "Okay, we've got to all work together now."
And what happened was that Waldo Salt got sick and his doctor said he'd have to quit the picture. And two things happened: We had to make a decision about whether to go forward, and it was always very tentative. But it had already been green-lit, and it was like, "If we wait now we won't get this impetus back and we'll lose this film." And we had to ask what we'd do if we went forward, and decided that we'd have to roll up our sleeves and come up with another draft. We were all really up for finding our way through it, and it was really Hal's decision.
ST: When you come back to that film now—and this isn't to say that's it at all a didactic movie or even a political one so much as a humanistic one—but since you and your coworkers on the film were so active in the antiwar left, what's your opinion when you look back at it? Do you second-guess any of the motivations you had when making it?
JV: Well, I feel that if I were going to make the movie today, I'd make it a portrait of our military as liberators. I wouldn't make the same movie. That movie was a portrait of the time and I think a pretty accurate one. But I agree with you that it's not didactic, and there must have been some angels watching over us so we didn't get that way.
ST: I've also read in interviews that you attribute your political reawakening to the moment after the Vietnam war when you saw how the activist left reacted to the U.S.'s pulling out of there. If that's true, that must have been shortly after filming Coming Home.
JV: And during it.
ST: Right. So I can only imagine that it was a very intense, personal work environment. Did this transformation you had affect your relationship with your collaborators, like Jane Fonda and Hal and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who were very kind of notable lefty figures?
JV: At that time, if you went back and look at interviews for the movie, Jane and I didn't always agree on things, artistically or politically. And though I never confronted Jane, there were always differences. And I was very grateful. I remember thinking that I don't want to become chummy just because we're all in the same line, because we'd be giving up the energy of the work. We all capitulated between one another. There was good chemistry between Jane and I, and I knew it, and part of it was because we all brought our full artistic differences and enriched the piece.
With Hal, he always had his eye on what he thought was the truth in behavior. I think he's the one who put the signature on the film. It's his film. But I think the examination of the personalities in Coming Home and the examination of the time—I think he took a very high view of it. It's not all polemical. I think he was looking at those people as humans. We ended with a lot of improvising in it, but it was Hal's film.
I look back at that very first scene, which was real, with all the Vietnam vets. And most of the vets were antiwar guys, but a few were not. And Haskell was doing the camerawork—maybe not handheld, but it's brilliantly photographed. And you see [one of the pro-war vets] speaking about "We went over there and freed these people," and you can see his hand making a gesture and Haskell follows his hand. It's a very strong statement, and it sets up the conflict between those guys. And that's Hal, looking for the truth.
And later, when I'm having my big tirade and I'm swinging my cane and complaining about my condition, not being able to get my urine bag emptied, and I meet Jane for the first time. Hal had these guys in the background laughing at my pain. That's how they survived, by laughing at the craziness of it. And the whole film is filled with details like that, where people kept themselves from falling into despair. And that's what they did for themselves. If you go into a hospital, the guys don't let each other go down, they keep themselves up by constant humor and teasing and camaraderie. It's a survival mechanism, and it's extraordinary to see this courage. That's where the heart of the film is, and Hal understood that.
ST: I'm thinking also of the soldier who pops up every now and again with the ventriloquist's dummy. It's such an odd detail that you wouldn't think to put in the middle of this very heavy movie.
JV: And that is Hal. It was his masterpiece, I thought, along maybe with Being There.
ST: Did spending so much time with these vets give you a deeper appreciation for war and soldiering? When you say now that you'd represent the soldiers as liberators, did that thinking come out of the time you spent preparing and shooting Coming Home?
JV: It sure did. One of the things that happened in the ‘60s was the draft. I entered the reserves and I didn't want to go. I'd made a decision to be an actor and I knew it was going to be a long haul-I wanted to learn my craft and start my life. And I was afraid to go. I was fearful to lose my life. I wouldn't have been very helpful, though you never know. A huge percentage of these guys didn't want to go, and then they suffered over there and suffered more when they came back because the public turned their back on them. That's something in our collective consciousness as Americans that we really need to correct.
A lot has to be understood about that period of time, and mostly I think we need to make amends for how we treated these guys. They lost their buddies, suffered terrible injuries as all warriors do, and they came back to a country who turned their backs on them. We should never do that again. We should know the real value of the military and the heroics of that vocation, and the need for that vocation. The people who have this idea that we can just hug one another and everything can just go away-at least we've come away from that naïveté. But there's still evil in the world, there are still people who want to murder innocent people, and somebody has to stand up. And it falls to these young people, and we should do everything for them that we can.
ST: Having worked with so many strong-personality directors, like Jon Boorman, John Schlesinger, Brian De Palma, or Michael Mann, what made Hal different to be with on set? What was different about his personality?
JV: Every director I've ever worked with has a strong personality. And they have to have a tremendous amount of knowledge. A director has to know every department. The young directors who start out, maybe they come from one set of artistic understandings and then they have to learn others. But a master director has to know every department-the camera, how to get performances, how to protect the set, how to prepare. It's very hard work. So the director is the man. So they all have to have those personalities.
What marks Hal in his work is that obviously he came from the world of editing. Not many directors do that. Many come from writing now, some come from commercial shooting, or television. But especially when you're an editor of the caliber that Hal was—he was the guy at the time he made In the Heat of the Night—then it means a couple of things. It means he knows what film can do; he's in love with film. And he's used to watching carefully for details in tone.
Also Hal was very wedded to music. He would go into the editing bays and he would play music, and the rhythms of cuts are very much like the rhythms of music. There's a lot to be said about that, and an interesting portrait of Hal to be drawn from the music in his films. Now, in Lookin' to Get Out, he wanted to work with The Police's music. This was before the big album was even out, but he determined that they would be appropriate for this piece. This kind of energy would work. And he didn't get that music that he wanted. It was prohibitively expensive or something, and so he lost that battle. He had his friend Johnny Mandel write a score based on the rhythms of The Police, and for this new version that we have, he used the music that he had. It's not his favorite music, and it's not what it would be if he had had his druthers. But at least this new cut, it feels like him again.