After acting in television and movies for almost three decades, John Carroll Lynch decided to sit in the director’s chair for the first time this year, collaborating with screen legend Howard Dean Stanton for Lucky. CutPrintFilm got the chance to sit down with the freshman director at the film’s premiere at SXSW to discuss how the project landed in his lap and his greatest takeaways in his first directing job.
CutPrintFilm: Was stepping behind the camera more than you bargained for?
John Carroll Lynch: I was aware of the amount of effort necessary to direct a movie because friends of mine have directed. But to experience that is different kettle fish. I also felt in this circumstance, the resources that we had with the time that we had in mind, it was an extraordinary stretch for me because I’d never done it and a stretch for the production itself to get to the level of beauty that [DP name]’s images requested.
CPF: The roles I remember you in are typically darker but you also have a comedic side. Is that what brought you to this project?
Lynch: I thought the script was really funny and even though I started throwing a lot of elbows playing a lot of dark parts, I started in comedy both in terms of theater and in film. But I thought the script was really funny. I also thought it was really moving and true. I really liked the script from the beginning and everything we did to shape it and to lock and down and to make it to work on transitions was all about trying to heighten the essential essence itself.
CPF: At 90 years old, was there anything Harry Dean Stanton couldn’t do for you?
Lynch: Not a single thing changed. He gave everything he had every day. It was physically difficult and it was emotionally difficult. And it was just sheer size difficult. I was exhausted and I was 52. Harry was 89 and he showed up, he worked his ass off because it’s personal script for him because 80 percent of what he says comes from his life. I’m hesitant to say that because it might discount the level of vulnerability he was willing to share. Some people misunderstand what acting is sometimes. In this case, acting was revealing in a fictitious setting. I would say soul but Harry would yell at me because there is no such thing.
CPF: Earlier I was wanting to say this has some dark elements but I think you said it better that there’s truth here.
Lynch: It’s shadow and light. And I gotta tell ya, one of the things I realized that just isn’t fair about life: We set up the Hell Alley scene where he goes into the alley and it’s this kind of this dream and this really harsh red light and really harsh green light. He walks in, it’s beautiful. Light refracts off his face in a way, I swear to god, I was looking through the lens thinking, “How is this possible him just standing in that light takes your breath away?” That’s why I struggle with his “There is no spirit” because the radiance of who he is from everything he does. I know he’s nothing, that’s what he says all the time. But he’s a lot of something for nothing.
CPF: For not being a religious film there is a lot of spirituality going on like Lucky’s bible looks like it’s on an altar and is his guiding light/
Lynch: In a way, it is. It is his guiding light. The guiding light for Lucky starts, I think, with this sense of rationality. Everything has a reason. Everything is a puzzle that can be figured out. Then after the fall, he starts figuring it out. “How can I be healthy and still be dying?” That doesn’t make any sense. “That’s bullshit,” as Lucky says. It’s the bullshit we’re all living with. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are right now. At some point, this thing, this body is gonna break down and you’re gonna have to deal with it. For most of us, we let it fade in and out of our understanding. It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about. I’d rather do Level 357 on Candy Crush. But for Lucky, he has to stare it in the face right now because this is the time he’s got to really deal with it.
CPF: What I appreciate the most is he seems like this “get off my lawn” character but we grow to see he’s more accepting that that, like the scene at the diner with the gay couple sitting in his spot.
Lynch: I love that we played with that, the audience can a feeling that “Oh, it’s because he’s homophobic.” That he might have a problem with them sitting there. But then you realize that didn’t bother him at all. What mattered was “Someone’s in my seat. I sit there every day. You can’t take that seat.” Not to mention the fact, they’re so young. Here he is and they’re so young.
CPF: I think the first scene the audience feels he’s the old cranky guy is when he seemingly yells at nothing. Can you talk about that was designed to hide it until the end?
Lynch: It was boldly written and in the screenplay from the very beginning. It’s a very risky structure. Everybody who was involved had long discussions of that and we all eventually came to understand that the structure in the screenplay was exactly right, that the mystery of what that place is, is discovered by Lucky in the exact right place in the screenplay.
CPF: I had an early screening link so I saw some notes at the bottom talking about some visual effects in the final shot to clean up this tricky shot controlling a tortoise. Can you talk a bit about the ending?
Lynch: We had to do some movie magic. Somebody asked this question, I got an email from somebody that said, “I have a question about that tortoise. I remember how much trouble Truffaut had in Day for Night with that cat. And I’m wondering how many takes did they have to do with that tortoise?” And I laughed and said, “Oh yes, I’m just like François Truffaut!” And the other one was, François Truffaut did not have VFX.
CPF: That’d be quite the opposite of French New Wave.
Lynch: Yes, it would. But it’s also magical because you don’t know. I mean, that tortoise did all that walking but didn’t do it all in the way we wanted him to. It’s really hard to wrangle a tortoise. By the way, you do it with strawberries. They love strawberries.