My Times with Harry Dean Stanton

Actor turned writer-director Brian McGuire remembers his late friend, a screen icon who he directed in four movies.

September 14, 2017, out of the blue I was asked to write a piece on Harry Dean Stanton to mark the release of his film Lucky and an upcoming retrospective at the Quad Cinema. I was, of course, over the moon about it and said yes without hesitation.

Afterwards, I started to meditate on the amazing moments that I had shared with Harry and got caught up looking at the long list of Harry Dean films, making a list of a few I had not yet seen. I got tired and went to bed to dream about Harry.

—-//—-

I first met Harry in fall of 2008 at a bar called Cranes in Los Angeles. To be honest, I was scared shitless. Harry and I didn’t talk much, if at all, that night and I figured I probably would never meet my hero ever again.

Shortly after, I began working on my first film as writer-director, On Holiday, and was lucky enough to bring on board as executive producer a guy called Logan Sparks, who basically became the man who made the movie happen. During pre-production, Logan and I became fast friends and I learned that Logan had been working with Harry since they first met on a film set in the early 2000s. Harry invited Logan to a party one night after work, and after that they were an inseparable team. They would joke that they were “heterosexual life partners.”

Logan Sparks and Harry Dean Stanton

So naturally my mind went to, “Hey Logan, maybe we could have Harry play a small role in On Holiday…” Logan said he’d talk to Harry and see if he was interested. I still didn’t know Harry personally yet, and I was still in fear whenever I was around the poetic, rigid, angry part-Buddhist, part-wild dinosaur filled with Mexican song and a love for the history of his people, the Irish. Honestly. if it weren’t for my last name being McGuire, I’m not sure we would have become friends. Logan told me Harry was thinking about playing the role of Josh, the roommate’s dad. One scene. Harry would walk into a room filled with about 20 kids passed out on drugs to deliver just one line, “Are these people homeless?” And I had to call him to talk about it.

I am shitting bricks as I pace about my apartment. I dial. Harry picks up and begins to grill me about the character. “Where do I work? Am I married? How many kids do I have? Why are we stopping by the house? Where are we coming from? Can I wear my own clothes in the scene? Can I smoke in the scene?” A million questions, all for just one short scene and one line! I made up answers on the fly, but Harry had yet more questions. “Where are we going after we leave the apartment?” I said, “You’re going out to a nice restaurant for a celebration meal.” Harry: “Where?” I quickly spat back, “I don’t know, Harry, it’s been a long time since I had a nice meal. So you’re gonna have to pick the place.”

There was a long silence. Shit, did I just blow it? Did I go too far? Then I heard that classic old man voice say, “OK, I think I can do your picture.” I took a breath and smiled. The seed of our friendship was planted.

We shot On Holiday in November 2009. Harry was lovely on the day we shot his scene, and gave the perfect one-liner cameo performance. By the time I was at work on my second feature, The Black Belle, I had become friends with a bunch of the guys that Logan and Harry ran around with, and a few of them were playing parts in The Black Belle. There weren’t really any roles worth offering to Harry, so I hadn’t bugged him about this one. But as soon as we got close to production, Logan told me that Harry was feeling a bit left out. All of his boys were going to be in the film, so he wanted in. This time I didn’t have to have a talk. He just showed up and improved a few gems. I had now directed two films featuring Mr. Stanton. I could not have been more grateful.

—-//—-

It was a Christmas Eve party, and Harry, Logan, and the rest of the gang were there. Drunk and rowdy, of course. It had been some time since I had seen Harry. When I arrived, Logan brought me to him: “It’s Brian, Harry.” Harry’s age had caught up with his eyes, so this reintroduction happened many times. It was my last name that would always tell him who was in front of him. “Ah, McGuire!” he would say, and our chat would begin. This time after the “Ah, McGuire!” Harry asked me a question: “Are you the one with the table theory?” I looked Harry right in the eyes. I said, “Yeah …,” but really had no idea what the old man was talking about. As he launched into this “table theory,” it started to sound familiar to me. This theory was indeed mine. One morning, a few weeks back, when the world was sitting heavy on Logan’s shoulders, I’d told him about my own spiritual beliefs, which probably do not fall too far from Harry’s own amazing bastardized personal version of Buddhism. I’d spewed out this stream-of-consciousness story about how all things in this world are alive and connected through vibration. I used the coffee table between us as an example of a living object that had feelings and thought. Somehow this “table theory” meant something to Logan and brought him out of his funk. Later that day, Logan had relayed to Harry what I’d said. So here I was listening to Harry tell me my theory of the universe. We went back and forth on the concept, until he said, “Why don’t you write stuff like this in your movies?”

On my next film, Carlos Spills the Beans, I knew I wanted to write a role for Harry that had more meat on it than the two previous cameos. This time, me and my co-writer Joey Capone wrote the part of an old barfly, always bellied up to the bar, silently drinking time away. I knew it was kind of a long shot to try and pull off casting Harry again this time, as he’d starting to talk a bunch about not wanting to act anymore. But I’d had the idea to write a “table theory” monologue for Harry to deliver in the film, figuring this might be the way to get him to sign on. We put a table read together and Harry kindly came. When it came to Harry’s monologue, no one in the room breathed. Everyone watched the old master crush the moment like the deep pro that he was. Afterwards, most of us went out for a few drinks and I knew I was gonna have to ask Harry what he thought and if he would do the movie. He was on the fence. He was not outright saying no, but it wasn’t looking good. We started to argue. He yelled at me, “I don’t fucking like any of the fucking characters in the film. I don’t understand what the fuck they are saying! The only character that says anything that makes any sense is the one that I was reading.” I said, “That’s the point, Harry. Isn’t that kinda how it is for you in everyday life? Isn’t this basically how the world works?” There was that pause again, like the one from that phone call two years before. Harry looked at me and said, “I don’t know what the fuck I am doing. I don’t know the next words coming out of my mouth … I am old. I just wanna watch game shows!” I told him that I got it and understood. And I did. I was pretty certain he was not gonna do the film. The next day, Logan called me and said Harry was in.

Carlos Spills the Beans was the first film where I actually felt like I was directing Harry Dean Stanton, One time, the crew was setting up for a shot and Harry came over and sat down next to me. He started asking all these questions about the relationships of the character, and their relation to him. It was right in the middle of this conversation that I had the thought, “Holy shit, I am actually directing this fucking legend!”

While doing press for Carlos Spills the Beans, a reporter from a London newspaper wanted to interview me, if Harry would agree to also be a part of the interview. So I went to Harry’s place on the top of the hill so we could have a phone chat with the journalist. When I arrived, Harry was watching game shows. I joined him. I brought a joint and we smoked it. He ate roach. I had seen him do it before and I always thought it was gross. But he seemed to like it. Finally, the phone rang. The reception was shitty. My phone was not working well and Harry was about to lose it, but then I found a spot on the floor where I got pretty decent reception. So here I am lying on Harry’s floor, Harry is leaning as far forward as humanly possible to hear, and the journalist is firing off his questions, until he made a mistake: “Harry, you’re one of my favorite character actors of all time and …” Harry started to shake violently and cut the reporter off right there. “I am also a leading man – I was pretty good in Paris, Texas, so what do you think about that!” I almost lost it laughing. The reporter did not know how to respond and didn’t make a good recovery. At this moment, I realized that this 87-year-old man still had the mentality of a 20-year-old actor, always and forever fighting for the lead role.

I directed Harry for the last time on a movie I made called Sick of It All, which came out this year. I wrote a small part for Harry, who played a news reporter. To get Harry to agree to play the role, we made it so he did not have to leave his house. We brought the shoot to his place, a small crew of Logan, the D.P. Robert Murphy and myself. We threw up a green screen, some lights, put Harry in front of the camera. He smoked through the scene and never put pants on. He followed the same pattern he always did when I was directing him. He would start tense and disgruntled and fumble through a take or two, but then, like a magic trick, the light would turn on. The energy of a teenager would swell up behind Harry’s eyes and he would deliver the most epic, powerful, beautiful performance. Everything! Perfection. I would then call cut, and the teenager would quickly leave the room, and Harry Dean would return to the little old man.

One night around the time the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction came out, I went to dinner with Harry and Logan. I got to talking with Harry about his conversations with Marlon Brando. They had talked almost every night for the last three years of Brando’s life, for hours at a time. When I asked Harry if he and Brando ever talked about James Dean, Harry searched his memory, “No, I can’t remember, but Marlon did teach me this Shakespearian monologue during one of our chats.” Before I could respond, Harry launched into the monologue. Harry’s face was about two feet from mine, and he was delivering the most intense performance, nailing every word with truth and precision. This moment has become my absolutely most favorite Harry Dean performance I have ever seen and it will always stay fresh, burned into my mind.

Brian McGuire (top left), Harry Dean Stanton (center left) et al on the set of Carlos Spills the Beans

Last year, 2016, I got a call from Logan. He was on the set of Lucky, which he’d co-written and Harry was starring in. There were only four shooting days left. “Hey Brian, you wanna come to set and work with Harry for the last few days?” “Sure, what do I gotta do?” “Pick him up, look after him, and run lines with him.” Of course, I agreed. Everything was going smooth with Harry until we started to run lines. Harry would ask me major questions about the script and his character. I was not schooled enough in the story to be able to have such conversations. I hadn’t read the script in months. Harry was getting pissed at me because I couldn’t help! So after lunch, Logan walks up to me with a big smile and said, “Well, you got fired. Ha ha – by Harry.” “What the fuck? For real?” Logan began to explain that Harry needed the writers to help him solve the puzzles of Lucky. Overhearing our conversation, Harry came over, put his hand around my shoulder and said, “It’s not you, Brian. I love you, I just need Logan and Drago to help me out.” This was the first and only time Harry Dean told me he loved me. Again, a moment that will be forever burned into my brain. Logan told me to hang out for a moment, and five minutes later I was rehired to do the same job – minus running lines. I got lucky on Lucky, as David Lynch was acting with Harry the next two days. It was the first time I got to meet Mr. Lynch, and it was beautiful watching these two legends and old friends laughing and interacting together.

In my moments with Harry, we talked about old Irish tunes, movies, game shows, the meaning of life and death. He would tell sweet old-school jokes or tell you that you were nothing. When working with Harry, I always would hold these thoughts: “This is an actor who worked with Hitchcock. This is an actor who has has thrown a director off set before doing the scene. This is an actor that Coppola let direct a scene. This is an actor that does the crossword puzzle every morning with Logan and Ed Begley Jr. on the phone.”

—-//—-

September 15, 2017, I woke up with Harry on my mind. I had planned to start writing this article over the weekend. I was on the phone with my mother, telling her how honored and excited I was to write about my hero and friend Harry Dean. Then I got a text with the news. Harry Dean Stanton had gone.

The tears came quickly. I got off the phone with my mom and immediately called Logan. We bawled our eyes out and shared important words of love.

As I write this, it has not yet even been 24 hours since we lost him.

Even though the man was 91 and we knew that the end was coming, it still hit me hard. None of this feels real. I believe if Harry heard me say that, he would smile and say, “Exactly.”

There are a million Harry Dean stories I could tell, but these are mine. It has been a dream come true to be a small part of the long and beautiful book of Harry Dean Stanton. It was predestined. Or, as Harry would say, “It has been written.”

Good night, sweet prince.

 

Images by Stefania Rosini.

Brian McGuire is a a writer, director, actor, music maker, skateboarder, born in Chicago and raised in Austin, Texas. LeftHouse is his production company. Some have called him the king of independent film. Others have called him a young Bill Murray. And some have even called him one of the good ones. Find out more at lefthousefilms.com.