"This is a strange circumstance," sighs John Carroll Lynch. It’s a muggy Monday afternoon in September at the Eliot Hotel in Boston. The prolific character actor has just flown in from upstate New York to introduce an IFFBoston screening of his feature directorial debut, “Lucky.” A loving tribute to craggy-faced screen icon Harry Dean Stanton, this funny and enormously moving film stars the cinema legend as a cranky old codger confronting his mortality amid a cast of barflies and eccentrics in a tiny Arizona town. Three days before our interview, Stanton passed away at the age of 91.
“It’s gonna change it,” Lynch sadly acknowledges. “I haven’t seen the movie since Harry died. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tonight when I watch it, or when I watch it the next time.”
I tell him that I saw “Lucky” shortly after learning of Stanton’s death, and how grateful it made me feel to see the star given such a fittingly unsentimental swan song. A film about Harry Dean Stanton that isn’t technically about Harry Dean Stanton, “Lucky” was written by the actor’s longtime friends Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and according to the director it’s “everything about his life, without being his life. Logan and Drago were driving across the desert and said what if we were to make a movie about Harry Dean and made it something fictional, a part he could play? They came up with this idea of a character like him living in this little desert town and they used stories from Harry Dean’s life.”
Stanton’s sunken, twinkling eyes and hangdog charm have felt like a permanent fixture in movies since his film debut in 1956. “He made it look so easy for 60 years,” enthuses Lynch. Indeed, every era seems to have its own iconic Harry Dean Stanton performance, from the prison yard troubadour in “Cool Hand Luke” to Molly Ringwald’s doting dad in “Pretty in Pink.” Stanton played the huckster apostle Paul in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” with the same effortless authenticity he brought to a doomed space trucker in Ridley Scott’s original “Alien.”
“His work doesn’t seem like anything’s happening,” Lynch continues. “He walks onscreen fully in life, three-dimensional with his own key light and his own shadow. He lived that way, and he played that way. That is an estimable thing. That is something to be inspired by and aspire to.”
In “Lucky” Stanton’s title character stares down his dwindling days and struggles to make peace with “the nothing” that awaits at their end. The rare movie to address an atheist facing death with no promise of a greater reward, it finds our protagonist often referring back to his precious Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word realism: “The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.” In his own prickly, often terribly amusing way, Lucky’s just trying to be prepared.
“It boils down to this journey that he had already made by the time we were shooting,” Lynch explains. “Some of the time the struggle between Harry and I was really about him going back to a place that he had already moved away from — these places of fear, these places of worrying about mortality — because he wasn’t worried about it anymore. As ready as anybody ever is to die, he was ready. As he said, I only eat so I can smoke.”
Our chat soon veers off to our favorite Harry Dean Stanton performances, and Lynch’s face lights up when I mention “Repo Man,” director Alex Cox’s gleefully nihilistic 1984 punk manifesto that was supposed to be banished to cable television until bookers at Boston’s old Nickelodeon theater turned it into a midnight movie sensation. “I think I saw that movie in Boston!” he exclaims.
“I was on a theatrical tour, and I saw it in Kenmore Square. I saw ‘Repo Man’ and a movie where aliens were killing people at the time of orgasm for their power — I can’t remember the name of that movie, it was a double feature. Afterward we were all supposed to meet at Club Spit, which was a punk bar right by Fenway Park. A couple of people in our group didn’t show up, turned out they’d got rolled in an alley and were in the hospital. Boston was a lot different then.”
Lynch laughs, his thoughts returning to “Repo Man” and his friend. “Harry just came on and he took that movie by the throat — so ferocious and vital, that performance. He was that ferocious and that vital in person, too. Even at 89 ... I’m so happy we got this movie made. I’m so thrilled with having had an opportunity to watch his performance over and over and over again, to guide him to whatever degree I did, and to make a movie that encapsulates his journey.”
“Lucky” opens Friday, Oct. 6 at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.