by Anthony King
At his memorial on December 30, 1988 Bud Cort walked up to the podium and the first thing he said into the microphone was, “I was his favorite.” A rolling laughter, quickly escalating to hoots and hollers spread through the friends and family in attendance. They all knew what Bud meant. When you worked with Hal Ashby you were his favorite. He made you feel loved. While his best friend Norman Jewison was speaking he said, “His greatest priority in his work was to always tell the truth.” When you watch a Hal Ashby film, you know you're watching a Hal Ashby film.
Those that knew him when he first arrived in California all said the same thing: Hal was always only about peace and love. Before the hippie culture even took hold, Hal embraced the ideals of pacifism, free love, and even sported the long hair before it became in vogue. He immediately found work on the major studio lots doing odd small jobs for various films where he met hundreds of people and made connections with the ones that could seriously jump start his career. Hal started getting jobs as apprentice editor and eventually was hired to cut the Tony Richardson film The Loved One starring Robert Morse. It was here that Hal met his future collaborator and best friend, Jewison. Developing an unbreakable bond almost immediately being kindred artistic spirits, Jewison remembers warning Hal, “The studio is the enemy of the artist. We must always stick together.”
Jewison and Hal worked in tandem for the next few years with Jewison as director and Hal as editor on the films The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (where Hal earned his first Oscar nomination), In the Heat of the Night (his only Oscar win), The Thomas Crown Affair, and Gaily, Gaily. During these years cutting Jewison's films, Hal developed a reputation as an obsessive editor. It was common practice for him to work 24 hours at a time without a wink of sleep. During one job Hal spent seven months in the editing room without leaving; he essentially moved in and would sleep on the floor or the couch when his eyes couldn't stay open any longer. In 1969 Jewison was tapped to direct Bill Gunn's adaptation of Kristin Hunter's novel “The Landlord,” a satirical tale of a young man who buys an apartment building in a black neighborhood in Park Slope. Jewison was deep in pre-production on Fiddler on the Roof, though, and turned to his most trusted and extremely capable friend to direct The Landlord. Seeing how the film dealt head-on with social issues, primarily racial disparities and the gentrification of black neighborhoods, and these issues were something of a passion for Hal, he was the perfect choice to direct the picture. The Landlord was well received (although it's rarely talked about today), and allowed Hal Ashby to become an official, card-carrying, union-backed motion picture director.
In 1973 author Lawrence Block created the character of a cop called Matthew Scudder. Block was tossing around this idea with his agent when it was suggested he develop the story into a series for the paperback house Dell Books. At first Scudder would be a full-fledged, badge-wearing member of the NYPD, but Block didn't quite like that idea. He was “more comfortable with the perspective of a loner, an ex-cop, an outsider.” Black recalls those early days in the creation of Scudder, “I thought Scudder would be actively drinking and an old loner hanging out on the same bar stool until his liver failed or I stopped writing.” And that's when Matthew Scudder became an alcoholic ex-cop who had recently quit the NYPD and left his family after accidentally shooting a young girl while trying to stop a robbery. This character lived in Hell's Kitchen, and quietly and unwittingly becomes a private investigator – “I do favors for friends and in return they give me gifts.” Speaking with Screenwriter's Utopia, Block said about the Scudder books, “The series as I wrote went in its own direction. It did things that surprised me... There was a level of realism operating that required that he age and required that he be changed by what he experienced.”
Again, the book did well enough, didn't break any banks, but this time it got the attention of Hollywood, specifically one man, a screenwriter and director who was quickly making a name for himself – Oliver Stone. Through his representatives, Stone got in touch with Block and ended up optioning 8 Million Ways to Die and securing the film rights. After gaining the rights to the novel, Stove wrote a first draft of the script with the intention of directing it himself, according to a Screenwriter's Utopia interview with Lawrence Block. Stone flew out to New York to meet with Block and the two sat down for a brief lunch at Matthew Scudder's favorite haunt, Armstrong's. Stone told Block that he wanted Block to co-write the screenplay with him, but Block thought he'd be the worst person in the world to do that since he'd already written the story in the form of his novel. In retrospect, says Block, “I'm not sure that was the right decision.” But the decision was made, and Matthew Scudder was going to transition from the page of a paperback to celluloid projected on the big screen.
With the rights secured and script written by Stone, the Mark Damon-owned production and sales company Producers Sales Organization, primarily known for taking American films and releasing them around the world, was in the market to start financing and producing their own content. Having rebranded to the name of PSO Productions, Inc., 8 Million Ways would be their first baby along with Short Circuit and 9 ½ Weeks. By this time Ashby had drastically cut back on his drug use, cut his hair, and trimmed his beard to look half-way “presentable” in order to try and get his career back on track. With a slew of failures in the '80s, Ashby still had that brilliant string of films in the '70s to fall back on, and Damon and company were willing to take a chance on him with one of PSO's first original productions. A script, financing, and a director - now it was time to find their Scudder.
The search to fill out the rest of the cast continued with famed casting director Lynn Stalmaster – the first ever casting director to win an Oscar. For the role of Sarah, Stalmaster first considered Cher and then Jamie Lee Curtis, but neither of them had time in their already booming acting careers. Enter Rosanna Arquette, who was not yet known with Desperately Seeking Susan being released only a few months before 8 Million Ways. As it turned out, Ashby was Arquette's favorite director and she had dreamed about working with him. At the time she was married to composer James Newton Howard, who would go on to compose the score for 8 Million Ways. She read for Stalmaster, did well enough to warrant a callback where she got to meet the man she'd dreamt about working with, and eventually landed the role.
The rest of the cast was filled out with Randy Brooks as Chance and Alexandra Paul as Sunny, the prostitute who is murdered in the first half of the film. To Block's disappointment, production had made the decision to move the story from New York to Los Angeles. The script was getting another pass. Bridges was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to prepare. Paul was speaking with call girls in the area to get a feel for her role. To prepare for her role as the “Pete Rose of the brothel” Arquette met with the “Madame of Hollywood” in her spacious mansion where she was surrounded by several Persian cats. Hal was known as an actor's director. Being an editor first, he had an eye for how shots should be set up and how to work with the actors. Before cameras ever started rolling, Hal, his crew, and the cast had all developed close relationships; they trusted each other and were willing to experiment and do whatever was necessary to make the best film they could make. Even if that meant going into day one with only 60 completed pages of a shooting script.
Next week: production gets underway on 8 Million Ways to Die, and Hal's worst fears come true.
Neon Badges is an oral history on '80s Cop Movies
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