Director Brett Haley made waves in 2015 with his feature I’ll See You In My Dreams, which was a minor critical and commercial hit and co-starred Sam Elliott. Now two years later, Haley’s returned to screens everywhere with a new film, The Hero, that’s once again centered around his mustachioed muse.

In this turn, Elliott plays a movie star who’s had a career trajectory similar to the one he’s had in real life, but with several notable differences. For one, he’s diagnosed with cancer early on in the film, and spends the movie evaluating his mortality while trying to start a relationship with a much younger woman, played by Laura Prepon. The Hero is a fascinating look at an aging actor who’s never really received his due (you can check out our IFFBoston review here), and Vanyaland got the chance to speak with Haley about molly, tight shooting schedules, and the modern blockbuster.

Nick Johnston: Thanks for giving Sam Elliott fans everywhere reason to celebrate this summer.

Brett Haley: [laughs] Well, thanks a lot.

You use a lot of Sam’s iconography as an actor in this: You’ve got him doing voice-over ads, reading for big-budget movies, and appearing in classic westerns as his character in The Hero. How essential was it for you to draw on that?

There’s actually very little of Sam in the character at the end of the day. They’re both actors, they both do voice-over commercials and are known for being in westerns, but that’s about where it starts and ends. Sam doesn’t smoke pot all day — he doesn’t smoke pot at all, in fact, he’s happily married, he has a great relationship with his daughter, he has a very successful career, but frankly all of those things would have made for a very very boring film. So we decided to fictionalize some of the things that maybe people know about Sam and create a more dire situation for him.

Speaking of drug use, the scene in which Sam gives a monologue at an awards ceremony while on molly was done just wonderfully, and you avoided a lot of the pitfalls of typical “drug scenes” in movies. How’d the idea for that scene come about?

I don’t know [laughs]. I really don’t know. I think I just probably wanted to see Sam Elliott on molly. I thought that would be kind of fun. Drugs in movies are, like you said, oftentimes mishandled, and I’m trying to have it be a positive, something that brings out something good in someone. He would not be as open as he is emotionally if he were not on drugs at that awards ceremony, so it was something that kind of saved him.

What qualities did you look for when you started casting around him?

I think we really wanted to put someone like Laura Prepon in the role of Charlotte because we wanted someone to stand up to him. It’s a tough relationship and we wanted to nail it and I think that Laura brings a certain strength and presence, but also a real sensitivity and sweetness that I think the character requires. The entire cast is just an incredible gift, and everybody was really wonderful to work with. I always say that directing is 90 percent casting, so if that’s true then I think I did a pretty good job directing this one.

Absolutely. Laura’s really interesting here, and she really helps to make this May to December romance a lot less icky and a whole lot more interesting than it could have been. It’s really something you don’t normally see.

Yeah, I always like to see actors in roles that you don’t normally see them in. In fact The Hero is mostly about that, about a guy who’s only known for one role, and they want to keep him in that box, and he ends up at peace with that. Like Nick Offerman, everybody knows him as Ron Swanson, and I think Laura gets the same. She’s either “the girl from That 70’s Show” or she’s “that girl from Orange is the New Black,” and I think they’re all so much more than that. They’re all so much more.

And I’m trying to give them opportunities for them to play real three dimensions — well, not to say those other roles aren’t three-dimensional — but I try to give them something organic and that they can sink their teeth into, so they can play something fresh and different. Because I like to see different sides of actors when I put them in [my films]. I also put actors in lead roles that don’t normally get lead roles. So I like to do things just slightly differently, especially at this [small] budget level where you have the freedom to do that, unlike big-budget stuff. So that’s a real joy of mine, being able to [cast] somebody like Sam, who normally wouldn’t be allowed a role like this, and being able to have that power.

Speaking of big budget movies, there’s a really incredible scene between Elliott and Offerman in which Sam reads from a role in a fantasy screenplay that he’s trying to get a role in, and it’s just heartbreaking. That reminded me a ton of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria in a way, like it was finding significantly deeper meaning in modern blockbuster films. Was that intentional?

Well, I love big movies. I grew up on blockbusters and big films, but I think over the years things have gotten a little haphazard. People get so excited about certain films, and they go and they see them, and they’re like “well, that wasn’t fun” or whatever. I mean, obviously people are going nuts about Wonder Woman because it seems to have been able to find that sincerity and earnestness and humor and action and character development and fun and stakes that I think we all want from our big films.

You know, I loved Logan — I thought it was incredible — because it had stakes, because you cared about every scene because you didn’t know what was going to happen. No one was safe in that film. The same could go for something like Rogue One, there were stakes there. The highest. I think sometimes Hollywood knocks it out of the park with some of these films and I think that there is value in films that have a simpler goal in mind — of entertainment, of good versus evil, and stuff like that — I’m all for that.

And I think that harkens back to the western. I think with a lot of blockbusters right now, too many things need to happen plot-wise. It’s like, “who cares?” Just do less, like in the great blockbusters of my childhood like Alien and Die Hard and Jaws. Maybe four things happen [in those films], and they’re so compelling. They’re more about character than plot, but you have the ingredients for a great genre film or superhero film or whatever in that, so I think that would be my thing.

What was the most challenging part of the shoot for you?

The whole thing? [laughs] Well, when you shoot a movie in 18 days, it’s hard.

Wow.

Yeah, eighteen days. [laughs]

What lessons did you learn from making I’ll See You in My Dreams, and how did you apply them to the making of The Hero?

I think, uh, efficiency and getting coverage. Like, having a vision, but also sort of covering your ass were important. You know, you learn little things at every turn, be it in writing or directing or working with actors or editing, you take the little things. And just doing it. You know, it’s like working out, for an athlete. For a basketball player to stay sharp, they’ve gotta shoot constantly, they’ve got to work out. So in the doing, you learn and you get better, and you get better every time. Your movies might not necessarily get better; that’s kind of out of your control, to a weird degree, like whether you make a good film or a bad film or whatever, you’re just trying to make what you want to make. But I do think you get better and more comfortable in the pocket. And it just becomes more natural all over.

The Hero is in theaters now, and currently showing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

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