When sitting around discussing favorite all-time directors, I can usually draw a number of blank stares when I put Hal Ashby at the top of my list. Most folks don’t know who Ashby is off the top of their heads but when you name such indelible films as “Harold and Maude,” “Coming Home” and “Being There,” people usually come around. Either that or they have no taste and don’t deserve to hang around me. Joking aside, it’s always been an annoyance to me that Hal Ashby never gets the props he deserves for being only being one of the best directors of the Seventies in terms of being a voice of the times, but from his directorial debut in 1970 with the completely underrated “The Landlord” through 1979’s masterpiece “Being There,” Ashby was on quite a roll.
He worked with a huge variety of cinematic titans including Jack Nicholson, Haskell Wexler, Warren Beatty, Robert Towne, Peter Sellers, László Kovács and even The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. He had married and divorced twice before his 21st birthday and further, he persevered through nasty rumors of drug use and failing health. All these amazing films, colleagues and stories were tucked safely away in the minds of cinemas legends yet no one had taken the time to actually do the work and bring Hal Ashby’s story to life…until now.
“Film in Focus” editor Nick Dawson has finally put the proverbial nose to the grindstone and after close to six years of research and interviews has crafted the enjoyable, insightful and highly readable book “Being Hal Ashby,” the first proper biography on one of cinemas greats. For me personally, the book couldn’t have come at a better time as my Masters Thesis in Cinema Studies is based on Ashby’s films. However I think the world of cinema fandom is greatly served by this book because now people are able to put a face and personality to the Hal Ashby name.
I was fortunate enough to touch base with Dawson a few weeks after “Being Hal Ashby” found it’s way to the public. He was nice enough to take the time to chat with me about the legendary Ashby, his book and the adventures in the making of both.
Don R. Lewis Firstly, I just want to say how happy I am that not only did someone create a much overdue biography on Hal Ashby, but that it turned out so well. It was always so frustrating to not have much information on one of my favorite filmmakers. Why do you think no one has tackled the Ashby story before?
Nick Dawson For a start, thank you. It’s always great to hear such a positive response. In the course of writing the book, I came across a handful of people who were trying to or planning to write a book on Ashby, and heard about more besides. In fact, yesterday I was emailing with someone who said he also nearly wrote a biography of Ashby! Ashby’s story is incredible and I think I’m very lucky that I was the first one to tell it. Ultimately, I think the reason this was the first Ashby biography is that no editor was going to give anyone an advance to write this book because – at least in the eyes of publishers – he’s not a commercial enough subject. For me, I was determined to write the book come hell or high water, despite the fact that when I began I was just out of college and living in Scotland. Hardly the best location considering the task! I also think that digging up Ashby’s past was quite challenging, and I was very lucky that I was sufficiently persistent – and obsessive! – that I managed to find a group of people who gave me a really strong insight into his completely undocumented pre-Hollywood years. But it took years of work and was all self-funded, and I’m not sure if anybody else wanted to do that.
Don R. Lewis How did you go about compiling your information and finding out the more personal anecdotes about Ashby?
Nick Dawson When I started working on the book, I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland. For a year, I trawled the internet for every piece of information even vaguely linked to Ashby, went to libraries around the country and started tracking down people who had known Ashby. I made contact with his brother, classmates from school, old friends, colleagues, and interviewed them by phone and/or over email. I then spent three months in Los Angeles at the AMPAS’ Margaret Herrick Library going through Ashby’s personal papers, and interviewing yet more people. I was a first-time biographer, but Ashby’s name opened a lot of doors and I ended up talking to people like Julie Christie, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Andy Garcia and many more, all of whom were very keen to give me their memories of Ashby in order to try and help me tell his story. Also, his friends from the 1950s all told me wild stories about him which really helped bring that period of his life – which had previously been a complete blank – vividly to life. By the end, I had millions of words of notes and had interviewed just under a hundred people, and was able to lay out a timeline of Ashby’s life made up of everything from letters written to and by him, to shooting schedules, to legal depositions, to stories told to me by ex-girlfriends and ex-wives.
Don R. Lewis What was the biggest challenge you faced in compiling this book? Was there anything you really wanted but were unable to get information, interview or story wise?
Nick Dawson The big challenges facing all biographers are basically money and time, as there’s never enough of either. Also, the research process is completely addictive so it’s actually really difficult to decide that you have to stop doing research – the fun stuff – and sit down to actually write the book! Inevitably there are always things that you don’t get: certain stories are dubious or disputed, people you want to talk to disappear or die or refuse to be interviewed, certain periods in a subject’s life remain shadowy at best. I would certainly have liked to talk to a few more of his ex-wives: I became friends with one, now sadly passed, but the other four are either dead or unwilling or unable to be reached. In the end, though, you just have to do the best with what you have, use your in-depth knowledge to make judgments, and be upfront about things which are unclear or have been portrayed differently by other people. Fortunately, though, the picture of Ashby’s life that I managed to assemble ended up being massively more detailed than I could have imagined, so I really have no complaints!
Don R. Lewis Along the way to creating this book were there any thoughts or assumptions you had about Ashby both personally and professionally that were reaffirmed and was there anything that really surprised you?
Nick Dawson I basically embarked on the process of writing the book not so much as a fan but as somebody who had become fascinated with Ashby’s life after reading Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” I found him a very compelling character and wanted to know a lot more about him. But I think history has been extremely reductive in the way it has portrayed him – essentially as a hippie director whose career was undone by drugs – and it was very important to me that I found out the truth about what really happened. As the book explains, drugs actually had very little to do with his decline, but I think the most surprising thing for me was finding out the richness of his life before he became a director. I managed to find so much material on that period, and every time I read, say, a letter he wrote to his mother after hitchhiking to L.A. as a penniless 18-year-old, or listening to stories of his bohemian exploits with his friends in the 50s, it was a genuine thrill to me. The wonderful thing about starting with an almost blank canvas is that every discovery is that much more meaningful and exciting.
Don R. Lewis Obviously we’re both big fans of Ashby and I always respond to the gentle humanity in his films. However I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed by what a cad Ashby was. Granted, the 60’s and 70’s were a more sexually free time, but he still left quite a wake of confused and jilted women in his wake.
Also, it was very disappointing to see that he abandoned his only child at a very young age. As you discovered more about Ashby, was there anything that hit you and sort of surprised you in terms of his personal life?
Nick Dawson Trying to piece together the exact details of his relationships – whether it be with his five wives, or his many exes, or his daughter, or the children he looked after (but were not biologically his) – was a real challenge at times. As he grew older, ironically, he grew more “laidback” about relationships: he went from five marriages pretty much back-to-back, to having a handful of long-term relationships, to basically playing the field in his latter years. Ashby had major abandonment issues that stemmed from his father committing suicide when he was twelve, so once the honeymoon period (either literally or figuratively) was over in a romantic (or business) relationship, he would always be careful to make sure that he was the one to leave, rather than the one who was left. He was certainly a man who had a lot of women but it’s important to note that – with a few notable exceptions – most of the women he split from stayed in contact with him and the ones who are still alive now speak very fondly of him. He was certainly a very imperfect man in his relationships – a friend called him an “emotional cripple” – but the things he did wrong were seldom if ever done out of malice.
Don R. Lewis Having said that…I’m working on a Masters Thesis based on Ashby as a different sort of auteur, more of a thematic auteur than a visual one. Prior to reading your book I really picked up on the theme of the man-child constantly at odds with an overbearing matriarchal figure and/or the “establishment.” While Ashby did spend time in a military school and that clearly had a big impact on him and his anti-authority stance, he seemed to be particularly close to his mother. In fact the only time she seemed to be “overbearing” was in calling him out for his lack of maturity or lack of contact with her. What do you attribute his theme of the overbearing, bourgeois mother figure to?
Nick Dawson Ashby’s mother was, in fact, pretty overbearing, but he left home at 18 and never really saw his mother much afterwards in order to escape her controlling nature. Over the course of his life, he consistently tried to stay away from situations where he was not sufficiently in control, whether it was fighting for final cut or feeling like he had sufficient autonomy in a romantic relationship. As to the shadow that his mother cast over his life, though, it’s interesting to note that there are mothers in all the three of the films he directed while Eileen Ashby was still alive: in “The Landlord” and “Harold and Maude,” they are the domineering mothers of the man-child protagonists, while in The Last Detail – made just before her death – the three main characters go to visit Meadows’ mother, but find she is out. After that point, not a single one of the male protagonists in any of Ashby’s films has a mother figure. To me, that says a lot.
Don R. Lewis What are your top three favorite Ashby films and why? Which is your least favorite?
Nick Dawson I’m a great champion of the underdog, so when asked what my favorite Ashby movies are I always say “The Landlord,” a criminally underrated movie and one of the great debut films ever, and “Lookin’ To Get Out.” Not the original released version of “Lookin’ To Get Out,” but Ashby’s own Director’s Cut of the film, which I discovered a few years back and – thanks to the wonderful efforts of Jon Voight and Warner Bros. – is being released on DVD on June 30, 2009. It’s a really amazing film and totally puts paid to the idea that he somehow “lost it” after making “Being There.” As for a third… I think I’d have to go for “Being There,” though “Coming Home” and “The Last Detail” are both right up there too. I don’t really look on any of his films as being my least favorite, though I think I can safely say that neither “The Slugger’s Wife” nor “Second Hand Hearts” turned out quite how Ashby – or I! – would have wanted them to be…
Nick Dawson’s biography “Being Hal Ashby” is available at Amazon and fine indie bookstores everywhere…