Inside Hal Ashby's The Landlord
In an exclusive extract from his just-published biography Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, FilmInFocus editor Nick Dawson looks at the production history of The Landlord, an influence on Focus Features’ forthcoming Away We Go.
As part of Movie City Brooklyn, we look at the making of a classic movie made in the hip New York borough. In the following extract from the biography Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel by FilmInFocus associate editor Nick Dawson, former editor Hal Ashby comes east from Hollywood to make his directorial debut with The Landlord, an edgy culture clash comedy about a rich 29-year-old from Long Island who buys a tenement building in Brooklyn’s then-African American neighborhood of Park Slope:
A true hippie, Ashby believed that film was a communal art in which the best results were achieved when everybody involved contributed ideas, yet he worried that after absorbing the contributions of so many others the film might not feel like his own. However, after watching the first batch of dailies, he was reassured: “It really blew my mind when I . . .saw so much of me coming out on that screen.” Ashby philosophically concluded: “You don’t do a film unless you want to make it, so once you have a real reason to do it, it will always be you.”
Ironically, while these relatively abstract worries had troubled Ashby, he seemed unfazed by much more tangible problems. Like Jewison, he was a believer in location shooting for realism, which meant filming in one of the rougher areas of New York City.
Ashby filmed in Brooklyn’s then largely African American Park Slope district, where he employed a significant number of black crew members and took on many locals as extras. The company was based in Manhattan, and as the trek to Brooklyn was costing $5,000 a day, Ashby decided to abandon the production’s cumbersome trailers and instead rent apartments by the day for the cast. When Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands suddenly became neighbors, the “film people” were welcomed into the community. One woman found out that Sands loved soul food and took time off work to cook in her garden for the cast and crew, and Bailey also took to cooking on the set. At the center of everything was a now very serene Ashby. “People realized he had put his trust in them,” says Bridges. “People were invited in for soup, and it was just a party.”
Safety was, however, still an issue, and though one policeman was posted on the set, Ashby’s approach to the matter was decidedly unorthodox. “Working on the film was a real life lesson,” says Bridges. “Instead of hiring a lot of police to keep the peace, Hal just hired the toughest guys in the neighborhood.” The idea of turning potential enemies into friends paid off, and everybody felt safe and relaxed on set. An exception was the day they shot the scene where Beau Bridges’s character, Elgar Enders, is chased down the street by a group of his tenants, led by Copee (Lou Gossett). As Bridges ran, Park Slope residents, not realizing it was part of the film, hung out their windows screaming, “Kill that white motherfucker!” The scene was being shot with a long lens, so when the action finished, Bridges found himself three blocks away from Ashby and D. P. Gordon Willis. As he turned to rejoin the crew, he noticed he was slowly being surrounded by the people who had been shouting from their brownstones. Suddenly, he felt an arm around his shoulder and turned to see Gossett—his pursuer in the film—smiling at him. The two walked together back to Ashby, Willis, and the crew, just about safe.
The atmosphere that Ashby created on set was relaxed and intimate, and he added to the feeling of community by one night taking the whole cast to see Robert Downey’s incendiary black comedy Putney Swope (1969)—even though they had a 6 a.m. start the following day. Lee Grant, who was delighted by his unconventional approach, told reporters, “Working with Hal Ashby is the cat’s pajamas. He has a genuine relationship with all the actors, he establishes real friendships.” Pearl Bailey described Ashby’s abilities by saying that he “had The Key to All of Our Locks.” Journalists who visited the set noted how unobtrusive Ashby was, how trusting of others to do their job well; suggestions from anybody starting with the screenwriter, Bill Gunn, all the way down to a lowly grip were welcome.
“He was so human and of the people,” says Bridges. “He was a great communicator; he had his hand on the pulse. He did not direct from on high. There was no wisdom coming down from the mountaintop—it was all fun. He would mine you for gold, he would set you up so you could do your best.” When Bridges’s love scene with Sands wasn’t going well because the pair were uncomfortable with the dialogue, Ashby quietly suggested that they improvise. “You guys know what to say,” he said. “Let’s just say what we’d say.”
When they were filming the party thrown by Marge (Pearl Bailey) for Elgar, Ashby put on a Chambers Brothers record, and everyone in the scene danced and hung out. Ashby just let the camera run, his editor’s instinct telling him not to limit the possible ways the scene could be cut. Bob Boyle, a regular Hitchcock collaborator whose Hollywood career spanned four decades, watched Ashby’s directorial instincts emerge: “He just saw the material, he was just one of those filmmakers that had a good sense of what he was doing at all times. He was a real film person.”
Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of film he was shooting and his naturally relaxed pace, Ashby fell behind schedule, upsetting the Mirisches back in Los Angeles. Walter Mirisch had already complained about scenes where the actors’ eyes were not clearly visible. Ashby wanted to make the ghetto scenes darker, while the scenes of Elgar’s WASP family mansion, by contrast, would be bleached out. “But this is a comedy, and you’ve just got to see their eyes,” Mirisch persisted, relenting only when he saw the scenes of the Enderses’ home and finally understood Ashby’s vision. Ashby’s comic sensibility was, in any case, unconventional, and Bridges says that he had “a bizarre, crazy sense of humor that people weren’t ready for” and that he would “deal with problems that way. He would talk about the world, and he would say, ‘Let’s burst this fucking bubble! And let’s do it with a joke.’ Many of his films are profoundly tragic, but expressed with humor.”
When the company moved from New York to shoot the Enders house out in affluent Great Neck, Long Island, local newspapermen commented on Ashby’s hippie attire, which stood out in such conservative surroundings: “A shoulder-length grey-blond, Ashby looks like a hippie who’s made peace with the Establishment. He’s wearing a blue shirt, an (American) Indian medallion, dungaree jacket, grey-green jeans, sandals and sunglasses.” The description was totally accurate, except for one thing—Ashby had in no way made peace with “the Establishment.”
Jewison had always told him that producers and the studios were “the enemy.” “It’s not about money,” he would say. “It’s all about power and creative control.” Ashby had never forgotten that. Jewison had so far been an absent producer on The Landlord, but when two weeks of bad weather and transportation problems pushed Ashby even further behind schedule, Jewison flew out to New York. Ashby had been mostly ignoring communications from the Mirisches, which he felt were distracting him from his creative task, but Jewison begged him to act more prudently.
“You gotta calm down here,” he said. “You can’t be too much of a rebel.”
“But you said we had the power!” Ashby replied. He had taken Jewison’s words so seriously that, to him, the conflict was black-and-white: creative filmmakers versus mercenary producers. Over his sixteen years as a director, he never lost that mind-set.
Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel by Nick Dawson (University Press of Kentucky, 2009) is currently available at all good bookstores or online from Amazon.com.