As the ongoing Unsung Auteurs column amply proves, the annals of cinema history are positively crawling with long -gone or retired criminally under-celebrated directors boasting lengthy resumes of fascinating works. But there are also many, many filmmakers right at the height of their cinematic output not getting the recognition and attention that they deserve. We have covered many in Unsung Auteurs, and this week we take a look at another in the form of Brett Haley, a sensitive, upbeat director who has helmed six impressive features to disappointingly little fanfare.
Brett Haley was born in 1983 in Illinois, and began his love affair with cinema as a young child, making VHS home movies from the age of just nine before becoming a hardcore movie-lover in his teens. “From a young age, I was a storyteller,” Haley once said. “I just knew it was what I wanted to do.” Haley began his entry into the world of film in earnest at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in 2001, where he concentrated on directing and editing. Haley directed a number of short films while studying, and then in the period after graduating.
Jumping between Los Angeles and New York, Haley also worked as a production assistant before taking the plunge and making his feature directorial debut. Co-written with his sister-in-law, novelist Elizabeth Kennedy, on a scratched-and-scrimped budget of $5,000, 2010’s The New Year would set something of a template for Haley’s deeply humanist focus as a director, focusing on a relationship between younger and older characters, and treating both with complete respect and sympathy. Snappily written and warmly directed, the film stars Trieste Kelly Dunn (Banshee, See, Blindspot) as a young woman who returns home to care for her ailing father, and is then confronted with several loose ends from her adolescence.
With The New Year only seeing a minor release, Haley directed a clutch of short films and some episodic TV (Barmaids, No Limits) before moving onto a considerably bigger budget with 2015’s late-coming-of-age comedy drama I’ll See You In My Dreams, which stars Blythe Danner as a widow and former singer who makes a series of big late-in-life changes at the encouragement of her three best friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place). A rare film about “people of a certain age”, I’ll See You In My Dreams is warm and true, and showcases both the acting gifts of Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott (the film’s romantic lead), and the deft, sensitive touch of Brett Haley as a director. “I like that the film is about some heavy issues, but it’s dealt with in a light, fresh, hopefully funny and entertaining way without going over to the other side of being broad and pandering, so you’ve got to be really smart about riding that line,” Haley told The Moveable Feast.
Haley reteamed with Sam Elliott for his next film, 2017’s The Hero, which still stands as the director’s best. An extraordinary exercise in inner character development and meditative, highly controlled pacing, this bravura work written specifically for Elliott by Haley and co-writer Marc Basch stars the veteran actor as an ageing western movie star who faces his own mortality while being honoured at a film festival and romancing a much, much younger woman (Laura Prepon). If Hollywood was a fair and just place, the truly superb The Hero would have made Brett Haley a behind-the-camera star.
What Crazy Heart is to Jeff bridges, The Hero is to Sam Elliott: a role perfectly geared to the actor that he then takes to levels of performance hitherto unseen in his career. The Hero is a terrific movie, and the amazing Sam Elliott deserved an Oscar nomination for his astoundingly well-crafted and highly astute work in it. “Sam is not your average thing,” Haley told Asheville Movies. “He’s an older person and I think movies about older people are rare, especially when they’re handled in an honest, truthful way. It’s different, but it’s the first movie I’ve made that’s not about a woman and it was weird for me, but that’s how much I love Sam and wanted to do something with Sam.”
Though The Hero didn’t get the credit it deserved, Haley followed it up with another gem in the joyous form of 2018’s utterly charming Hearts Beat Loud, a feel-good winner about a record store owning father (the great Nick Offerman, who had featured to superb effect in The Hero) and daughter (the delightful Kiersey Clemons) who form a band together and become an unlikely success story. Another fil about a positive relationship between generation-split characters, Hearts Beat Loud, again showcases Haley’s rich facility for character. In short, this wholly accessible and beautifully made film should have been a big, feel-good hit.
“I was a fan of Brett’s film I’ll See You In My Dreams two films ago,” Nick Offerman told Deadline. “I thought it was really beautiful and touching—and simple. Brett and his writing partner Mark Basch write these beautiful stories about people dealing with life, and issues, and mortality. Then, I was able to work on The Hero with him, with Sam Elliott, and it was just a beautiful experience. One thing I love about Brett is that he does his best to give everybody something to chew on. He doesn’t just write a bus driver to push his plot along.”
After the mixed generation storytelling of Hearts Beat Loud and his previous work, Haley focused solely on youthful characters for his next two YA-style films, both made for Netflix in 2020. All The Bright Places stars Elle Fanning and Justice Smith as a young couple who confront major challenges in their burgeoning friendship, while All Together Now stars Auli’i Cravalho (the voice of Moana) as a high schooler who uses music to surmount life’s obstacles. Though Brett Haley has made a happy home in YA drama, we hope this excellent filmmaker will continue to merge the generations like he has so effectively in his previous work. A deeply humanist and wonderfully humane director, Brett Haley’s intimate, positive, character-based films are exactly what the world needs right now.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.