Filmmaker Brett Haley was born and lived half his life in Key West and Pensacola, sleepy tourist/retirement towns in Florida.
So it’s natural that he has found a connection with a film audience that much of Hollywood ignores — filmgoers over 60. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was a post-retirement romance starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. And his latest, “The Hero,” is another showcase for Elliott aimed at an audience that, like the film’s titular character, grew up on Westerns.
“I don’t write for any specific demographic, because you’re not doing what’s coming natural to you,” he says. “I shoot from the gut, and the heart. But I sometimes get an idea of wanting to do something with a particular actor, and write with them in mind. I wanted to give Blythe and Sam a vehicle in the first film, and I wanted to create a showcase for Sam to show everyone what’s in him.”
All audiences want the same thing, and “people of a certain age,” he says, are no different. “They want a movie they connect with, with characters who they can identify with.”
And one thing Haley, 33, figured out with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is that the gravelly-voiced Texan with the “aw shucks” twinkle and epic mustache, has a huge following.
“We’d see it at screenings at festivals,” Haley says. “I’m just shocked nobody else figured that out.”
Well, maybe the Coen brothers, who had the good sense to park Elliott as the Old Cowpoke/Voice and Face of the West in “The Big Lebowski.” Whatever else he does, the actor really “ties” the film together, and that’s almost certain to lead his obituaries when he rides off into the sunset. Haley builds on that iconography, casting Elliott as a Western star reduced (like Elliott) to voice-over work in commercials, but proud of his past and the Hollywood that used to make Westerns as the ultimate expression of Americana.
Elliott, like Lee Hayden, his under-employed, on-his-last-legs-physically character in “The Hero,” seems like a man out of his time.
“He’s not exactly the character he plays — he just has a few things in common with him,” Haley says. “He does voice-over work, like Lee. He’s known for Westerns, like Lee. But Lee Hayden is a relic. He’s not cast any more. Sam? He’s got ‘The Ranch’ on Netflix,” and a recurring part on “Frank and Gracie” on the same streaming service. “It’s just that the sort of real man he’s played and represents doesn’t show up on screen. ‘Logan’ may be a comic book movie, but that’s a Western. It’s just that Hollywood doesn’t see that.”
Attaching Elliott to the film made the rest of the casting easy. Haley made actress Katharine Ross, Elliott’s wife in real life, his ex-wife here.
“Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) is friends with Sam in real-life. Ask him to play Sam’s one-time co-star and pot dealer, and he was there. Laura Prepon (as an odd daddy-issues love interest) and Krysten (Ritter, who plays Lee’s estranged daughter) didn’t know Sam, but loved his screen image, his work, and jumped at the chance.”
“The Hero” has earned warmed reviews, with Ty Burr at the Boston Globe calling it “a welcome tribute to a lanky, taciturn presence” and Sara Stewart of The New York Post labeling Haley’s Elliott showcase “true cinematic Zen.”
Haley hopes the movie can re-start the cinematic argument about “what constitutes a real man, in the movies.” Elliott is, naturally, Haley’s paragon of this real man.
“Available emotionally, able to admit mistakes, tough, responsible and sensitive.”