We can be Heroes, just for one day — an interview with The Hero director Brett Haley

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Writer/director Brett Haley got rave reviews for his movie I’ll See You in my Dreams (Blythe Danner, Rhea Perlman, June Squibb), and he’s getting great reviews for his latest — The Hero. I emailed him some questions about the second movie he’s done with Sam Elliott, the first lead role I can recall Elliott having.

Josh Board: Sam Elliott is the perfect choice for this role. Could this movie have been made with anybody else?

Brett Haley: You are correct. It could not have been made with anyone else.

Josh Board: You’ve worked with Elliott previously [I’ll See You in my Dreams]. Is it easier doing a film with an actor you’ve worked with? I can imagine sometimes it could be difficult, if they’re difficult, despite how good their work is on the screen.

Brett Haley: There is certainly a shorthand between Sam and I after working together which made things a lot easier. Sam is not difficult any way as an actor in terms of collaboration. He’s a wonderful collaborator and a good friend so we both found the experience of working together extremely rewarding.

Josh Board: You and [co-writer Marc Basch] do a good job of not overwriting. One of my pet peeves when watching a movie is when screenwriters try too hard for the humor. The opening scene of Elliott doing voiceover is a perfect example. You laugh because of what he’s saying, even though it’s not really funny. It’s actually a great line for BBQ sauce [Lone Star barbecue sauce…the perfect partner for your chicken]. Another screenwriter would’ve tried to make the joke be about the copy being bad. Yet realistically, it wouldn’t be. It’s a national spot. Where the humor is, and where it should be, is the lack of direction, he gets when he’s constantly asked to read it one more time. He’s never told why, or if he should do a different style of read. Is this a result of you consulting voiceover actors?  

Brett Haley: It’s partly inspired by Sam in real life as he’s known as a voiceover actor. It’s also just real – it’s funny because it’s real. A lot of the best humor comes from acknowledging what’s honest and true and not what’s over-the-top and false. So we just tried to make every scene as honest and real as possible and a lot of times in life, honest and true situations are quite funny and ridiculous.

Josh Board: Another example of not overwriting for a cheap laugh involves him taking ecstasy in the limo. Instead of him becoming a stoned mess, he still has his wits about him at the awards ceremony. We occasionally get the camera showing us that he’s a bit out of it, but he can still be clever enough to sign an autograph and be witty about it. This is smart writing I wish more people in Hollywood did. Is this scene one you spent a lot of time writing and thinking about, to get just right?  

Brett Haley: Yes. I think that drugs are also a trope and a cliché that can be misused in film or used for cheap laughs and again, we just wanted to have it come from an honest and real place and have it come from the heart and that was certainly the goal with the awards ceremony. A lot of thought went into that to try and get it right.

Josh Board: When you’re working on a movie like this, does it bother you if a movie comes out before your film that has similar scenes? I’m thinking of the slightly disappointing The Comedian (Robert De Niro). It had a similar relationship with the older star and younger woman, as well as an incident going viral that helped the star regain some popularity; or is that all just par for the course when it comes to filmmaking, in a day and age where so many movies come out so often?

Brett Haley: I think it’s the latter. I haven’t seen The Comedian so I didn’t know that those were plot points until I read this question just now. There’s bound to be crossover between films because of how much stuff is being put out. I think it’s annoying if a critic holds that against you, like you planned it, or like “well it didn’t work in this movie,” and just because it didn’t work in that movie doesn’t mean it can’t work in another movie. It just seems to me that it’s part of the deal – no big deal. My movie is not The Comedian.

Josh Board: Another movie I thought of while watching this was The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke). The relationship with the father and daughter. In your movie, I didn’t feel it was as powerful as it should’ve been. I’ve talked to other critics that didn’t feel the same way and it worked for them. Now, the scene you did with Elliott auditioning was perfect. I love how we realize he’s thinking about his daughter and perhaps other things in his life, and just as the audience is thinking that his emotions will help him get the part…it actually ruins the audition. Brilliant! And the fact that the casting directors are all so respectful of him.

Brett Haley: As a director I’ve been in a lot of rooms with people auditioning and I always want them to succeed. No director or casting director wants an actor to come in, fall apart or fail. So I think that part of it is very true to life. We worked really hard on the emotional aspects of that scene being more complex and honest than rather than just obvious. Going back to your previous comment about the daughter, this is where the audience really feels and learns more about the relationship with the daughter which is all in backstory. We can’t spend a lot of the film explaining backstory because that’s really dull.

Josh Board: I liked the relationship with the ex-wife. It’s refreshing in a movie when the ex’s don’t hate each other. Did you know you’d have Katharine Ross (Sam Elliott’s real life wife of 33 years)?

Brett Haley: Yeah, that part was written specifically for Katharine. I wanted to capitalize on all the history that Sam and Katharine have and put it on screen.

The Hero is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center on Carmel Mountain Road, the Hillcrest Landmark, and the ArcLight in UTC.