Inspired by Sam Elliott: Brett Haley on The Hero
Brett Haley discusses the ideas behind his latest film, the use of dream sequences, and the importance of opening yourself up to criticism.
In The Hero, Sam Elliot stars as 70s Western actor Lee Hayden, whose best performances are decades behind him. Now he seeks to rebuild his relationship with his estranged daughter, whilst looking for one final role to play.
Haley co-wrote the film with Marc Basch, his long-term writing partner. The film also stars Laura Prepon (Orange is the New Black), Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation), and Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones).
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Haley about the ideas behind The Hero, the use of dream sequences, and the importance of opening yourself up to criticism.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
It was really inspired by Sam Elliott. I worked with him on my last film (I’ll see You in My Dreams), and I wanted to write something for him. So we took the things that we knew and loved about Sam, and threw them into a blender, and came up with this story and this character.
What were some of those things, when speaking with Sam Elliott, that what really stood out for you?
Sam being known as a Western icon was something that we had thought about. But I think what I was interested in was the disposability of actors in this industry. If you have one movie that you’re known for, or one TV show that you’re known for, then that’s it. What does the collateral damage of that look like?
So I wanted to make an industry movie that was very much about the aftermath of the industry, if that makes sense.
His ex-wife is an artist, and then his new girlfriend is an up-and-coming comedian. How did you decide that? Did you purposely decide to make all those people creative, in creative jobs?
In my line of work, I’m pretty fascinated by the desire to create, to do something creative, to do something artistic or from a place of passion. And we all know how hard it is to make it in this world in any sort of creative job.
So I think I tend, in general, to write characters that are doing or trying to do something in the creative field, just because that’s what I do, so I can relate to it.
And it is a struggle, and it is something that’s very, very rare. So I do enjoy that journey, that process. Even in I’ll See You in My Dreams, Lloyd is a pool guy, but he’s also a poet. At least, he wanted to be a poet.
I think everybody has that side of them, something that they probably want to do that maybe they’re not doing, or maybe they are, and I just like to keep that in mind when I write characters.
Ali Wong is in part of the movie. Did she write her own jokes for those scenes?
Of course, Ali wrote her own jokes [laughs]. I wouldn’t dare to try to put jokes into a woman as funny as Ali.
She and Cameron did their own stand-up 100 percent. Ali even helped with Laura’s act a little bit, which was very nice of her.
There’s a thread throughout the film of dreamlike sequences for Sam Elliott. How important are dreams for the characters in your films?
This is the first time I’ve done dream sequences. It is a very subjective film, and I wanted to try and say some things without saying them, and rather show them instead.
I’m a big fan of the dream sequences from shows like The Sopranos, I love the dream sequences in 8½., and I think that there’s a lot you can do with it.
It’s really playful and fun, and there’s a lot of talk about dreams in the film, so I just thought it would be an interesting way to get into his psyche. He’s a very closed-up guy, so he’s not going to be like talking about his feelings, but rather we get into his head literally, and see what is causing him anxiety and strife.
So, that was the idea behind it.
Were there any particular cinematic influences on your dream sequences?
Yes. I think Sergio Leone was a huge influence. I wanted it to feel like a classic Western, something that, you know, you kind of knew right away. And I think Sergio Leone is definitely the best for that sort of classic, immediately recognizable, iconic Western. So he was probably the biggest influence, on one of those dream sequences anyway.
When Lee is with Charlotte, she asks him, “What do you want? And don’t think so hard about it.” Is he the kind of person who just doesn’t know what he really wants any more?
I think he’s a character who is struggling in this specific situation that he’s being presented with, which is a beautiful woman being, you know, a young woman. And he’s cautious. What does she want? What is she after? Is she genuine?
A lot of questions come up, and I think he is just sort of trying to figure it out. I don’t think he’s really had many connections with people like that in a while, so I think it’s new territory for him.
During the scenes at the Lifetime Achievement Awards, the song That’s How I Got to Memphis by Tom T. Hall is playing. How did you choose the songs for the film?
I choose songs that are, number one, songs that I love. Then songs that are appropriate for the film, and songs that, frankly, are affordable.
Songs are really expensive. So you end up being like, “Oh, I want this, you know, whatever, Rolling Stones song.” But that’s not going to happen. So it becomes a bit of a tightrope walk of what you can get, and what songs you love, and what you need to fight for, and what you can afford, and what’s realistic.
So a lot of things go into the decision-making process for music in film.
Has your partnership with Marc changed while writing this film?
It’s the same. Marc, you know, he’s my partner, he’s my guy. We still work together pretty much the same way that we used to. So, I’m very lucky to have him be in my life.
What do you think novice writers or new filmmakers waste time on in the beginning of their careers, and how could they improve?
I’ll put it this way. If they’re writing, they’re not wasting any time. I mean, I would say you’re wasting your time if you want to be a writer and you’re not writing. That’s the only way to kind of get better at this and to try to get it right.
So I think, in general, I just tell writers to write, actors to act, directors to direct. Just go out and do whatever you can, no matter how small, and just try to make the most of it. Because the learning is really in the doing.
The following questions are taken from an earlier conversation with Brett Haley.
Do you follow any formal approaches to structure when writing?
I don’t follow any hard-and-fast rules, but I do believe they can help those just starting out. It can hone people in to keep them from coloring outside the lines.
For Marc and I, we just do what feels natural for the characters. But the structure of movies, film in general, is always in the back of your mind. We’ve seen so many movies that we know what works and what doesn’t.
But we’re not counting pages to say what must happen by page ten. Every script is unique, and I believe there are several ways to write a great script.
So what does make a good story?
Something that’s honest and true to its characters. You can have any genre you want, but you still need that honesty. It must be authentic. Authenticity is very important in anything you’re doing.
Characters should come first—even above story and plot. Story and plot can get in the way of a good screenplay. They can interrupt a good screenplay or movie. You need to find a balance of twists and curves plotwise, while still focusing on character—the people. Because that’s who your audience is going to relate to the most.
Finally, do you have any advice for young writers?
Keep writing. It’s hard, but you have to keep writing.
Then you have to let people read your scripts. Take other people’s ideas in—writing is not a singular thing. You have to share your work. It’s hard work and nobody likes hard work, but if you want to do this thing, then you have to open yourself up to criticism. That’s how you become a better writer.
The Hero is in theaters from on Friday 9th June.
Featured image: Sam Elliot as Lee Hayden in The Hero. Photo by Beth Dubber.