Sophie Huber never set out to make movies, but she changed her mind in split-second or rather it was a split second changed her mind.
“I realized I’d have half-a-second [where he was open],” Huber says of her subject Harry Dean Stanton, the legendary character actor of “Repo Man” and “Big Love” fame who’s almost as legendary for his reticence as he is for his extraordinary world-weary mug. Yet Huber, a friend of Stanton’s for over two decades wanted to bring attention to something he’s not as well-known for, his singing, which is as genuine and sweetly gravelly as his performances in other mediums.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the recording studio – Huber discovered Stanton would crack a window ever so slightly to ponder what the lyrics meant and cracked a window ever so slightly to reflect on his life, from his upbringing in Kentucky to stumbling into a career where he could be himself. Soon enough, she enlisted the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) and though Stanton himself was a tougher sell, Huber eventually got permission to make a beautiful portrait of the man who never considered himself much of an artist, told as much through the songs and clips from his career as it is through his friends and collaborators such as David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Debbie Harry and Kris Kristofferson, who tells a killer story from the making of “Cisco Pike.”
Unlike Stanton, Huber was more open to sitting down to talk about the making of her film, and did so in nearly the exact same spot where she first met him at the cozy, dimly lit Italian joint Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood.
How did you actually first get to know Harry?
Two booths over. [laughs] We met through a mutual friend 20 years ago right there and we’ve been friends ever since.
Was it interesting to have one experience of knowing him and then having another by placing a camera on him when you know he’s so private?
First of all, it was a really long journey to get him to agree to have a camera there. I did expect resistance, but not to that degree. So many times I thought it was going to be impossible to do it, but eventually we persuaded him and it was basically through telling him that it’s going to be a documentary, that we were just going to focus on the music and record some songs and that will be it.
It changes a little bit if you’re friends then you do a documentary about your friend, you obviously want something from them, so it gets a little bit tricky friendship-wise because we would talk a lot on the phone before, but all of a sudden, I’d want to save that for the times when we would film him. So it shifted a little bit, but we survived it well.
Were you ever conflicted as to what you’d want to be public versus what would be kept private?
He’s professional enough to know what he says on camera might be used. I could’ve made the choice to go find some relatives, but that was clear that I didn’t want to portray him that way and only reveal what he’s willing to reveal.
You’re able to get these really relaxed interviews from Harry’s friends and collaborators. Was it an easy process of getting them to be so comfortable?
Usually, it would take a long time to get to them because we had to go through publicists and agents who never get back to you. Luckily, I found a way to most of them, then once you sit with Debbie Harry or Sam or Kristoffersen or Lynch, it was different because they interacted with Harry more. It was important to me to create something that had a relaxed tone because that’s how I experienced Harry.
Both the songs and the clips you use are carefully curated. How did you choose which ones to tell Harry’s story?
I really had to find things because he doesn’t say much verbally. I would have to fill these holes. To me, the songs say a lot about his emotional life and he chose the songs that he sings, so I just tried to find places for them so that they’ll be connected to the things to the left and right of it. [Harry] says, “Everything is connected, it’s all one connected whole,” so I tried to find these visual connections or thematic connections. Sometimes I would just take a visual clue to put a clip where it is.
Did the songs come first?
Before I started doing the documentary, I started recording songs with him at his home because he’s never really recorded, except for the films that he’s done. That started the whole thing, and then that was the way to persuade him to do the movie, so that’s the centerpiece. Except in acting, that’s how he really expresses himself and he would be a little more open after he sang.
Did you actually think of recording an album first?
Yeah, first it was an album. It didn’t even cross my mind it could be a film, but when I started recording him, I thought I have to document it somehow because there are so many things happening in his face too that enhance the songs.
Did the aesthetic of black-and-white inside and color when he ventured outdoors come about fairly naturally?
It was clear quite quickly because Harry looks better in black and white and it’s more dramatic. The other thing is I wanted to create the illusion that it would be [like] spending a day with Harry or a night, rather, in real time. We shot at his house in the daytime and then to connect it with the driving scenes, which was more difficult. If it’s black and white, you can almost believe it would be at night.
Was there a favorite moment did you have during filming?
Probably the first day of shooting, after having such a hard time getting him to agree [to make the film]. That day, we were at his house for two hours and at the end he sang “Danny Boy” and there I just knew we had something really special.
“Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” opens on September 13th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and in New York on September 11th at the Village East Cinema.