Sundance Review: HAL Gives The Amazing Filmmaker The Documentary He Deserves

A look at the legend.

The burgeoning subgenre of documentaries dedicated to influential 1970s filmmakers gets an essential entry with Amy Scott’s Hal, a conventional yet wholly enjoyable journey through the life and filmography of the era’s revered maverick. If you know your film history, you’re well aware of Hal Ashby’s role as the tragic hero of that decade’s studio revolution. It’s rough to hear that story again, but the interviews with his contemporaries and the later generation of filmmakers he influenced long after his untimely death are insightful and entertaining enough to justify the doc’s existence. If it inspires just one young cinephile to check out Shampoo, it will have done a great service to the medium.

Scott shows that she gets it with the film’s first shot: a KEM flatbed editing machine being manipulated by a pair of hands, one of which has a joint pinched between its fingers. This is the Ashby we’re read about in numerous books and profiles. Scott then begins to tell Ashby’s story in his own words as much as possible, with Ben Foster giving voice to the lively letters Ashby would fire off to friends and enemies alike. Ashby possessed an all-consuming passion for filmmaking, and a strong sense of social justice; the latter attribute was the spark for a rich creative partnership (and lifelong friendship) with director Norman Jewison. Jewison and Ashby were a directing/editing package deal in the mid- to late-'60s, rattling off classics like The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night (for which Ashby won a Best Editing Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair.

Jewison gushes over Ashby’s skill and commitment to the postproduction process, which Scott backs up with old interviews where Ashby brags about spending seven months holed up in the editing room. Indeed, when the duo set up shop in Frank Sinatra’s old bungalow on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, Jewison had Ashby’s space decorated as if it were his home because, for the better part of a year, it literally would be. Feeling the need to bring his full creative talents to bear, Ashby made his directorial debut on The Landlord, a brilliant comedy about race relations that’s as resonant today as it was then (when it whiffed with critics and stiffed at the box office). Ashby’s sophomore effort, Harold & Maude, was also dismissed by critics in 1971, but, unlike The Landlord, it would eventually find a fervent cult following. While Scott’s m.o. with this doc is to keep things zipping along, I nevertheless found myself wishing she’d spent a little time demonstrating how profoundly Harold & Maude shaped the sensibilities of Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow (the last three are interviewed in the film).

Scott continues to move chronologically through Ashby’s oeuvre, reveling in the triumphs (Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There), while ignoring most of the ‘80s misfires. If you were hoping to get the down-and-dirty on Second-Hand Hearts and The Slugger’s Wife, you’ll need to track down a copy of Nick Dawson’s Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel (Dawson was interviewed for the film); however, Scott does devote a fair amount of time to the turbulent making of 1982’s Lookin’ to Get Out, which has special resonance for Ashby’s daughter, Leigh MacManus (she believes the non-existent relationship between Voigt’s character and his daughter, played by a six-year-old Angelina Jolie, was an acknowledgment of the filmmaker’s failure as a father). Lorimar famously butchered Ashby’s cut of the film (the ultimate insult to an all-time great editor), but it’s since been restored to its original length. The clips selected by Scott make me want to give this one another spin (it helps that she didn’t skimp on the Burt Young).

Ashby contributed more to professional struggles than the film acknowledges, but there’s no debating the fact that Lorimar screwed Ashby out of the chance to direct Tootsie by vindictively forcing him back into the editing room on Lookin’ to Get Out. He was fired from his last two films before he had a chance to deliver a cut, which, Hal contends, may have been a tragedy in the case of 8 Million Ways to Die (though it's hard to see from the existing version how it might’ve been salvaged). Two years after that debacle, Ashby succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of fifty-nine.

Throughout the film, Scott drops in fascinating footage from Ashby’s memorial service, including a hilariously touching remembrance from Bud Cort (“Hal liked me the best”). She also digs up some nuggets that were brand new to me, like Ashby expressing genuine excitement over the potential of digital editing systems (he thought it would help a “slow” cutter like himself explore more ideas). For a lifelong movie lover who’s well acquainted with Ashby’s extraordinary ‘70s output, these tidbits are gold. They shed new light on a master filmmaker who occupies a place in the pantheon alongside Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma and Spielberg.