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Stanton’s Sendoff Was a Labor of Love for Lucky Filmmakers

The quirky yet elegiac character study about mortality and spirituality gives the late, beloved actor a rare starring role in a fond farewell.

On Sept. 15, the evening after prolific character actor Harry Dean Stanton died at age 91, a screening of Lucky was scheduled for the famed American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.

Everything went as planned, with one exception: A screenwriter and two of the film’s producers shared a bottle of tequila — one of his favorite drinks — with the audience in Stanton’s honor.

It was an appropriate tribute, and so is the film itself, a quirky yet elegiac character study about mortality and spirituality that gives the beloved actor a rare starring role in a fond farewell.

“It just creates a resonance for the picture that deepens the experience of it,” director John Carroll Lynch said of Stanton’s death.

In the film, Lucky is an irascible rebel who plays by his own rules while living in a rural house. He drinks milk, he does yoga, he watches game shows, he smokes a pack of cigarettes, and he visits the same diner and bar every day, where he interacts with the quirky townsfolk. Between gripes, he might even burst into song. The similarities between actor and character are numerous.

Lynch is a veteran character actor himself who makes his directorial debut with this low-budget project. It came to him through screenwriter Drago Sumonja, a mutual friend of both Lynch and Stanton who decided — with Stanton’s longtime assistant, Logan Sparks — to create a vehicle that celebrated his eccentricities, from atheism to chain-smoking and everything in between.

“Drago and Logan thought it would be cool if he played this sort of guru who lived on the edge of this desert town. They could encapsulate his worldview. Lucky was what came out,” Lynch said by phone. “Because it’s a screenplay that’s inspired by the stories that he told them, and by his person in general, there was a very delicate dance to create a fictional character, based so strongly on the actor.”

At first, Lynch (Shutter Island) accepted a supporting role in the film, but the original director had a scheduling conflict. Sumonja knew Lynch wanted to try getting behind the camera.

“They knew it was a performance-driven movie, so they thought it would be better with an actor in the director’s chair,” Lynch said. “So we worked on the story of the movie and beefed up some roles and focused more on the idea of people trying to impart lessons to Lucky along the way.”

Carroll, 54, never worked with Stanton as an actor. Their first meeting came only two years ago, at one of Stanton’s favorite Hollywood hangouts, to discuss Lucky.

“For longer than I knew who he was, I’d been a fan of his,” Lynch said. “He could be fierce and he could be funny and he could be anything, but what he could do better than anybody I can think of is he could ‘be’ on film. He had that level of truth. He made you believe in the world he was in, whether it was Russian-occupied Michigan (in Red Dawn) or the Nostromo (in Alien) or those deserts in Paris, Texas.”

That acclaimed 1984 Wim Wenders drama represents one of Stanton’s more memorable roles, and Lynch sees some parallels with his performance in Lucky.

“They reflect the rich and confusing tapestry of humanity. He was able to bring that with him in everything he ever did,” Lynch said. “I think that’s why actors loved him.”