Swiss director Sophie Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction offers a fascinating portrait of an iconic American actor who has made a career out of playing offbeat, world weary characters in films like Cool Hand Luke, Missouri Breaks and Alien. A self-described loner and a man of few words, Stanton has a wry sense of humor and was a singer before he was an actor. Huber skillfully reveals her subject through intimate, unguarded moments and film clips from some of his 200 films interspersed with Stanton’s own poignant renditions of American folk songs. Elegantly lensed by D.P. Seamus McGarvey, the film explores Stanton’s enigmatic outlook on his life, his unexploited talents as a musician, and features candid reminiscences by David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson and Deborah Harry.
During a fun interview at his favorite watering hole, Dan Tana’s eatery and bar in West Hollywood, Stanton chain smoked and sipped Merlot while he and Huber talked about what inspired their collaboration. They discussed the documentary’s non-linear style, convincing McGarvey to shoot the film, the upcoming soundtrack album, why Paris, Texas and Repo Man are Stanton’s favorite films, his memories of working with Allison Anders, rooming with Jack Nicholson, his recent guest shot on HBO’s Getting On, the surprise of getting a blow job at 87, being applauded by a new generation for his cameo in The Avengers, and why he doesn’t feel his legacy as an actor is important. Check out the interview after the jump:
SOPHIE HUBER: Thank you. That’s good. That’s what it was meant to do.
Have you made other documentaries?
HUBER: No, this is my first.
Harry, what inspired you to make this documentary with Sophie?
HARRY DEAN STANTON: Oh, I love Sophie, and I did it mainly for her.
HUBER: I did it mainly for you, too.
Can you talk about how this project started and what the process was like putting it all together? How long did it take you to do it and were there any unusual challenges?
HUBER: First, it was quite hard to bring Harry in. It took about a year to persuade him to agree to do it. It started through the music because I started recording songs with him before we filmed. That was the basis for me. That’s where it began. Also, that was how I could finally persuade Harry to agree to do it, by putting the focus on the songs rather than his personal life, and that opened him up a little more. We shot over a period of 2-1/2 years, and the film is pretty much what I hoped it would be.
What about the other people you were able to bring in like Kris Kristofferson and David Lynch?
HUBER: Well, I wanted to either find people that are connected to his work in film or through music. I didn’t want it to be a talking heads sort of film where you interview 20 friends because it would be hard to choose them. I wanted to focus on the ones that I would use clips from, or Kristofferson, because I knew that he was an important musical influence for Harry, and they were in more than one film together.
The film is not linear. It does not go from the beginning of his life to where he is now. Instead, it moves back and forth in time and that approach works very well. Did you know beforehand that was how you would do it or did that evolve as you put it together?
STANTON: I’m not what?
HUBER: You’re not a linear person.
STANTON: Linear? What does that mean?
HUBER: It’s like a straight line. It’s like if you tell a story from the beginning, from when you were born to now, like many documentaries are told. If you want to be true to your subject, then you have to find ways to tell his story the way he is. It was important. Also, since he doesn’t express that much verbally, I needed to find things that would make the atmosphere stronger. I wanted to create an atmosphere that’s the same as I feel when I’m around him, which is like what you said, relaxing and calming. Also, Harry talks a lot about being present in the moment, and therefore, it would not make sense to tell a normal biography about the past and everything. So, I tried hopefully to achieve that so that one feels in the present.
One of the themes I saw throughout the film was that of leaving home and that you left home early. The final song and the lead role in Paris, Texas are both about somebody who leaves his family. Was that part of what went into your creative process?
HUBER: It’s both. It’s also looking for home, which for Harry, in a way, is the music, too, which gives him harmony. That’s what I think.
STANTON: It’s about looking for home and looking for enlightenment somewhere.
This felt like a road film, but without going too far away. Have you traveled a lot in the world?
STANTON: I hate flying, taking my clothes off, and going through the whole security.
What about in the old days when they didn’t do that?
STANTON: No, I never really liked it. I’m not afraid of flying. I’m afraid of falling.
Do you like where you get to when you arrive at your destination?
Are there any favorite places that you’ve visited outside of Los Angeles?
STANTON: I’ve been all over, everywhere. It’s all the same.
HUBER: That’s what Harry said when we went to Joshua Tree [National Park], too. (to Harry) When we went to Joshua Tree, you liked it for five minutes, and then you said, “Oh well, it’s all the same.”
Harry, in the film, you said that if you had it to do all over again, you would have gone into music.
STANTON: I said that?
You said that in one of the interviews.
STANTON: Well, that’s stupid.
Okay. So you wouldn’t have?
STANTON: I don’t know sometimes what I say.
You’ve been recording your singing for some time now. Is there a whole collection of your songs?
STANTON: There are collections. Yeah. I don’t listen to them.
Is there a way that others can listen to it? Will there be a soundtrack album?
HUBER: I’m working on that. The answer is yes and soon I’ll know when.
I suspect that once this film is out, you’re going to get requests for your music. What are you going to do with them?
STANTON: I have no idea.
Will you worry about that when they come in?
I hope that not only the soundtrack album comes out, but if you do have a collection of recordings you’ve been making for years, at some point those will be released, too.
HUBER: Yes, that’s the plan. The CD would be a collection of all those recordings.
Will they be original pieces?
HUBER: No. Harry doesn’t write songs, so they’re all cover versions.
Harry, you’re still working now. What is it that you love about acting that keeps bringing you back to one new role after another after all of these years?
STANTON: It’s all the same, on camera or off camera. It’s all a movie.
Are you saying life is the same on camera and off camera?
You’ve played so many great roles throughout your career. Is there one memorable role that stands out that you enjoyed the most?
STANTON: Yes. My favorite films are Paris, Texas and Repo Man.
Why those two?
STANTON: It’s the writing and the cinematography. Mostly it’s because the writing is good.
How did you find it working with Wim Wenders as a director?
STANTON: He’s good. He’s a good director. He’s an introvert.
Sophie, I’m curious which of Harry’s films do you hold near and dear to your heart?
HUBER: Well, obviously Paris, Texas. I saw that growing up in Switzerland. It was this whole vision of Americana.
HUBER: In Paris, Texas, there’s that whole Americana visual quality that is extremely interesting for us Europeans and a character who wanders through the desert, which we don’t really have because we have no deserts. We don’t have that sort of desolation. So, that had a great impact. And then, I loved the strange story and what Harry does in it.
STANTON: David Lynch.
HUBER: Yeah. I like all of them, and I’m sure there are some other ones that I can’t think of right now. I like Paris, Texas because it’s also his biggest role. It’s the one that’s most prominent.
Harry, in the documentary, you mentioned working with Allison Anders who was a production assistant on Paris, Texas.
STANTON: Oh yeah, Allison Anders.
Did you enjoy working with her?
STANTON: She was great. I played a part where the guy was – I’m still trying to think of the psychological term where you don’t talk. You close off. I can’t remember what it’s called. I’m still trying to figure out what the name of it is. Asphyxia? Aphasia? What is it when you don’t talk?
It might be Aphasia.
STANTON: Anyway, Allison said she was like that. She had that experience when she was a teenager. She didn’t talk to anybody. I said, “You didn’t talk? But could you hear other people talk?” She said, “Oh yeah. I heard my mother say, ‘I know she can talk.’” And I said, “Why didn’t you talk?” and she said, “Because I was afraid I would lose it.” She would freak out if she said anything. That was similar to the part I played.
You talk quite a bit about Jack Nicholson in the film. Did you try to interview him for the documentary?
Was he opposed?
HUBER: Well, actually Harry asked him himself, and he said no.
Did he give any reason?
STANTON: He just didn’t feel emotionally up to it. We were very close. We used to live together for 2-1/2 years.
Sophie, there’s only one woman in the film. Was that by design or just the way things turned out?
HUBER: (laughs) She’s the only one, but she’s in color.
STANTON: Who’s that?
HUBER: Debbie Harry.
STANTON: Oh yeah. She wrote a song about me.
I think there are two women in the film actually. You’re in the film, too.
HUBER: I wanted to cut that out but I couldn’t.
STANTON: You wanted to do what? Cut Debbie?
HUBER: No. Not her. I wanted to cut my voice out of it, but we wouldn’t have understood Harry’s answers so…
Debbie Harry said a lot of very interesting things. One of them was that you essentially played yourself.
That reminds me of Marion Dougherty, the great casting agent, who said that the person she looked for was the person who played himself or herself. Did you ever work with Marion? Did she ever cast you in anything?
STANTON: I don’t know. The name sounds vaguely familiar. I don’t recall.
STANTON: I don’t remember that particular phrasing.
HUBER: There’s a documentary about her now, too. It’s called Casting By.
STANTON: On Deborah?
HUBER: No, on Marion Dougherty.
She was head of casting at Paramount and then at MGM. She pioneered casting in this town.
STANTON: Yes, I probably have met her then, but I can’t recall at the moment.
Sophie, can you talk about how Seamus McGarvey became involved in this? His cinematography is so elegant and the black and white images are stunning.
HUBER: Well, I luckily met him through a friend while I was recording the songs with Harry, and I started thinking I should film him, too, because the expression on his face adds to the songs. I wanted somebody who was really good and who I knew Harry would get along with. And he immediately said yes, he would do it, and that’s how it went. It was important that it should look cinematic and not just like a video that I would shoot myself.
Ellen Kuras shot some, too. Which parts did she shoot?
HUBER: She shot the Logan Sparks interview here at Dan Tana’s and some of the night footage.
What did you shoot on?
HUBER: The Canon 5D.
Did you use the Canon 5D for the whole thing?
HUBER: Yes, everything except the Super 8 footage.
Harry, you just did a small part on HBO’s Getting On where you got a blow job in a hospital. Do you remember that?
STANTON: (laughs) Oh yeah.
How was that scene?
Was it fun to work with those guys?
STANTON: Oh yeah. They’re very talented.
But more recently, you did a scene on Getting On with Ann Guilbert from The Dick Van Dyke Show who’s been around forever. One of my friends who works on the show told me you were on it and you were great. You’re 87. What’s it like to get a blow job at 87?
STANTON: Surprising. A blow job at 87 is surprising.
The show is about getting older and about taking care of all these women, and your character comes to see one of them who is his friend. Apparently, there’s a lot of stuff going on in these elderly wards.
STANTON: Yeah. It’s a dark comedy.
This documentary has been pretty much everywhere within the span of a year. How do you feel now that it’s finally coming out to theaters?
HUBER: Well, it’s great because I always hoped that it would be released theatrically, and for a while that was not clear because of all the rights we had to pay for and everything. So I’m very happy. It’s because I think Harry belongs on the big screen.
STANTON: Belongs where?
HUBER: On the big screen.
I like how this documentary sheds light on you to a new generation. I remember going to see The Avengers and the audience applauding when you appeared on screen. What do you hope people will remember the most about you, your amazing career, and your legacy as an actor?
STANTON: That it’s not important. Nothing is important. Red Buttons told me that. Ever hear of Red Buttons? He was an enlightened man. I asked him once, I said, “Red, are you afraid of dying?” and he said, “Harry, I’m a comedian. I’ve died thousands of times.” I loved him. I said, “Nothing is important.”
There was a scene where you were talking to the bartender at Dan Tana’s and you said you’d been with him for 43 years. Do you remember that? So maybe there’s enlightenment here as well because this is a holy place?
STANTON: As we speak. Yeah.