First-time director John Carroll Lynch has had the pleasure of spending most of the past year promoting “Lucky,” a quirky, occasionally comedic and often affecting drama featuring a then 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton as the title character — one who has lived a long, hard and uncompromising life and is forced to contemplate its inevitable end.
The film has been rolling out on the festival circuit to rave reviews, and in mid-September, Lynch had just returned home from another great showing in Minneapolis when he got a call from “Lucky” co-screenwriter Logan Sparks.
Lynch had gotten off a plane and was driving to his house in upstate New York. “About 15 minutes into my drive, I heard Harry Dean died 20 minutes ago.”
Since Stanton’s death on Sept. 15 at age 91, “Lucky” has gone from a celebration of a legacy to a swan song. But Lynch said his grief can’t completely mask the joy he felt in getting to work with such an iconic screen actor on his first feature film.
“It was such a great honor that I had the opportunity to work with him in any capacity,” he said. “To work with him in my first feature is like being able to start your first managing job in baseball and have Babe Ruth in your lineup.”
The film will have what is billed as its world premiere Thursday night to open the 2017 Harry Dean Stanton Fest, the seventh edition of the event held to honor Stanton, who was born in West Irvine and went to Lafayette High School and the University of Kentucky. That’s where he discovered a love of acting, with encouragement from theater professor Wallace Briggs. After the screening, Lynch and co-writer Drago Sumonja will participate in a question-and-answer session.
Like Stanton, Lynch built a reputation as a go-to screen presence before he sat in the director’s chair, having starred in “Fargo” and “Zodiac” and having had small-screen turns on “The Drew Carey Show” and “American Horror Story.” With actor-writer Sumonja and Stanton’s former assistant, friend and actor Logan Sparks writing the film with Stanton in mind, and Lynch as director, “Lucky” was a film created by actors for one particular actor.
It’s only Stanton’s second starring role. The first was 1984’s “Paris, Texas,” which the Stanton Fest will screen Friday afternoon.
The 18-day shoot in the film’s desert-town setting took a physical toll on Stanton, then 90, because he was in almost every scene. But whether he had the screen all to himself or interacted with an eccentric cast of characters played by the likes of David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr. and Tom Skerritt, Lynch said “Lucky” showcased an actor and his many, many strengths.
“It encapsulates his artistry as an actor in as full a way as I can imagine,” he said. “The movie allows the audience to spend the entire film with him, and he stretches his legs, both literally and figuratively.”
In the weeks since Stanton’s death, Lynch said, many things have changed about “Lucky,” from the way he talks about it to the way the audience experiences it.
“I think it puts in relief what is happening to Lucky in the movie and what is happening to Harry Dean in the time that he was making it,” he said. “His example, Lucky’s example, is an extreme example of what is happening to all of us. That’s what (Stanton) was uniquely qualified to express: that sense that this moment is the most important moment you’re going to have, and that’s what he did in the movie.”
As he speaks in anticipation of the red carpet premiere of “Lucky” on Thursday night at the Kentucky Theatre and the Harry Dean Stanton Fest, Lynch said it’s a testament to Stanton’s career that a yearly festival can consistently showcase so many aspects of Stanton’s talent. He is looking forward to being in the company of people who are dedicated to Stanton’s work and is grateful that his unique experience of getting to direct the late actor — one people could look to to see a performer whose life eventually ended but whose talent never truly peaked.
“If people think the best way to get to know Harry Dean Stanton is to start with ‘Lucky,’ oh man,” Lynch said. “That is something I could dine out on for the rest of my life.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Harry Dean Stanton Fest
Thursday: Red carpet premiere of “Lucky” at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., followed by Q&A with director John Carroll Lynch and writer Drago Sumonja. 7 p.m. $25, after-party at The Bar complex.
Friday: “Paris, Texas” screening, Kentucky Theatre. 1 p.m. $6.
“The Green Mile” screening, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. $6.
John Doe in concert, The Green Lantern Bar, W. Third St. $12 advance, $15 at the door.
Saturday: “Fool for Love” screening, Central Library Farish Theatre, 140 E. Main St. 1 p.m. Free.
“Slam Dance” screening, followed by Q&A with musician and actor John Doe. 3 p.m. Farish Theatre. Free.
“The Straight Story” screening at Kentucky Fun Mall, 720 Bryan Ave. Includes mural unveiling. 7 p.m., film at dusk. Free.