Premiering at Sundance, Hal is a documentary that–break your heart as it may–offers closer a look at the career of the underrated director, Hal Ashby.
In her directorial debut, editor-turned-director Amy Scott assembled a wide array of interviews, archival footage, and a soundtrack heavy on Cat Stevens over the last five years to give movie fans the long-overdue documentary on Hal Ashby. The documentary in itself is a reminder that many directors don’t get to have the control of films that they deserve. Ashby’s letters are read by actor Ben Foster. In Ashby’s case, there’s no doubt that his reputation for being a drug user helped bring down his career and he was doomed to a death at the young age of 59, caused by pancreatic cancer.
Not many directors can say that they had a solid amount of work put out in a nine-year period like Ashby–seven films, to tell the truth. Some of these include classic films such as Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. Would these films have gotten similar honors under the rein of a different director? It’s hard to tell as the underrated director brought his own sense of humor to projects–a sense of humor said to be shared by a director he once worked for, Norman Jewison.
It is heartbreaking, nevertheless, to see how Ashby was treated by producers and studio heads. They knew what they were getting when they hired him and yet they didn’t like the end result of a project upon completion. In America that was changing, Ashby went against the grain of the industry even as he was once considered to be a rising star as far as directors go.
Among those directed by Ashby to be interviewed include Lee Grant, Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Louis Gossett Jr, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, and more. The directors talking about Ashby’s films and his influence on their careers are Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, Adam McKay Lisa Cholodenko, and David O. Russell. Among Ashby’s colleagues interviewed are Norman Jewison, Robert Towne, Haskell Wexler, and Pablo Ferro–some of whom were there for the beginning of his legendary, albeit brief, career.
There were many new filmmakers that Hollywood gave rise to in the 1970s. Some of them continued to work into the 1980s and beyond with much success as they were able to adapt to the changes in the studio system. Ever the independent filmmaker, Ashby just wasn’t able to translate his success from the 1970s into the following decade and that’s a shame.
An official selection of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Hal premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition.