Harry Dean Stanton's Long Ride in the Whirlwind
The character actor moves front and center in SXSW doc
By Shawn Badgley, 10:00AM, Wed. Mar. 6
On Thursday we unveil a dozen-plus interviews with filmmakers showing at SXSW Film. But print space is tight, and we have so many juicy outtakes, we’re sneaking some online early.
Swiss director Sophie Huber's Partly Fiction: Harry Dean Stanton is an impressionistic portrait of the legendary character actor. His face is instantly familiar from films like Cool Hand Luke, Alien, Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, Paris, Texas (scripted by Sam Shepard, who appears), Repo Man, and The Straight Story (by David Lynch, also interviewed here). Less well-known is that Stanton also sings; in Partly Fiction, he offers up renditions of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” Will Callery’s “Hands on the Wheel,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” among others.
Austin Chronicle: Your documentary at times brought to mind a Sam Shepard one-act called “A Short Life of Trouble,” where a character named Sam interviews a character named Bob, Shepard interviewing Dylan. They have this conversation, but when Sam gets home and plays the tape recorder, the only thing that comes out is Jimmy Yancey piano music.
Sophie Huber: That’s funny. I like that.
Austin Chronicle: Did you ever feel that way? Were you at any point vexed by Stanton as a subject?
Sophie Huber: In a way, yes, but I’ve known him for a long time. We’ve been friends for 20 years or so. I thought of recording his music before I did the documentary. I had heard him play at clubs like once a week here in L.A. And I just thought he was amazing; he just touched me in the way that he sang. So, I would go up to his house and record him doing songs there. That’s the other thing: So many people have asked him to record songs in the studio, including Bob Dylan, who actually did record some songs with him, but I couldn’t track them down.
Once I started doing it, I thought it would be great to document it in a film. It took another year to persuade him to agree. Eventually, I said, “Look, it’s not about you. You don’t have to talk about yourself. We’re just going to record songs. If you don’t like it, we can stop.” [laughs] And that was that. Initially, he would say, “No way, I’m never going to do that.” He doesn’t care about the past much; he says there’s no ego. So, of course, a documentary would be all about the past and a celebration of his career, but I knew that he had regrets of not fully using his musical talents.
Austin Chronicle: As it progresses, the film becomes more concrete as opposed to maybe being more impressionistic earlier on. He seems to open up a bit.
Sophie Huber: Yeah, he did, sometimes. He would open up for a couple of seconds after we would record a song. And then he would get back into his, sort of, how do you call it?
Austin Chronicle: Sort of his persona, or his act?
Sophie Huber: Yes, like his trying to not care about anything. I mean, it is a bit of an act, the way he reads the Buddhist philosophy of being nothing, and nothing’s important. Which, of course, is not very interesting when you’re interviewing somebody. [laughs] This whole idea of not having an ego is a little flawed.
Austin Chronicle: Do think he was playing another role in this film?
Sophie Huber: The funny thing to me is that he doesn’t play a role when he plays a role. He doesn’t play a role when he sings. But he plays a role when he talks, often. And I tried to find the pieces where he didn’t seem to play a role. Usually, either that’s silence, or some one-liner.
Austin Chronicle: Can you tell me about how you built the film, what your blueprint looked like, and whether you had to stray from it or if you ended up getting more than you thought you might?
Sophie Huber: It was clear to me that I didn't want to make a talking heads documentary. I wanted Harry to be the leading man, and I wanted to make his philosophy and state of mind palpable to create the kind of atmosphere that he exudes in person: a certain sense of peace and calm, at least when he is in a good mood. His main philosophy is to be in the present moment. He also says that everything is connected. I tried to find thematic and visual connections in the edit, through the placements of songs and also film clips, for example, from the guitar scene of Cool Hand Luke to the telephone wires in L.A. looking like strings. I wanted the film to reflect his thoughts, like a stream of consciousness, being in his mind and therefore, hopefully, feeling connected with him.
Austin Chronicle: Well, you succeeded. It’s beautiful and provocative.
Sophie Huber: It was really important to me to make it look cinematic, to not use cheap video that I would shoot myself, which at some point was an idea so that I could react quickly. But I wanted Seamus to shoot it; I wanted that look. Then, one of my all-time favorite portraits of an artist is the Chet Baker film Let’s Get Lost. So, I wanted that editor, Angelo Corrao, and I eventually found him, and he agreed to do it. He and Russell Greene were a really great team. They knew what I wanted, you know? I knew I wanted to tell his story through the songs, because it was impossible, otherwise, because he really doesn’t talk much. In songs, he’s more truthful than when he talks. There’s some emotion coming through that he rarely has when he talks.
Austin Chronicle: You’re active and present for stretches in the documentary as a reluctant, albeit important, interlocutor-slash-psychoanalyst. Was that a challenge?
Sophie Huber: Yes, it was. At times, it was really difficult. I have about 20 hours where he’s in a bad mood and doesn’t want to say anything at all, getting quite irritated. I just kept at it, but I had to be careful to not make him angry. Because I know him, it helped that I knew the balance. I wanted to cut out all of my questions. The ones that are in there are in there because one wouldn’t have understood the answers otherwise. It wasn’t my plan that my voice would be in the film at all, but it became necessary.
Austin Chronicle: Have you started thinking about your next project?
Sophie Huber: Yeah, I have. If you happen to have a contact for Dolly Parton, you know, I’d appreciate it.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction screens Friday, March 8, 9:15pm, Stateside; Saturday, March 9, 11am, Violet Crown; Tuesday, March 12, 9pm, Violet Crown; and Wednesday, March 13, 11:15am, Alamo Ritz.