Director Brett Haley found one particular scene of “The Hero” with its star Sam Elliott to be extra special.
“I had to pinch myself that day,” Haley said during a recent visit to The City. “I was like, ‘I’m making a Western with Sam Elliott right now! Doing a dolly in on him in a cowboy hat. It was exciting!”
“The Hero” tells the story of aging actor Lee Hayden, who is diagnosed with cancer and taking stock of his life. The Western scenes are part of a dream sequence associated with Lee’s most famous role.
“It was a tough day, really hot, kind of intense,” Haley says. “But the stuff that we got was really special. At the end Sam came up to me and said, ‘When are we doing a real Western?’”
In “The Hero,” Lee begins a relationship with younger woman (Laura Prepon), tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), and spends time with a fellow actor-turned-drug dealer (Nick Offerman).
As Lee goes through many emotions — high and low, lucid and drug-fueled — Haley makes sure that the character is, above all, truthful.
“We didn’t want to make a cancer movie,” Haley says. “It’s a catalyst for his action. It causes him to start reaching out to people in his life where normally he probably wouldn’t. It’s about the living, not the dying.”
Elliott’s wife of over 30 years, actress Katharine Ross, also joins the conversation. Best known for her roles in “The Graduate” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” she has a small part in “The Hero” as Lee’s ex-wife.
Of working with her husband, she quips that it’s “easier than real life! I could pretend I was divorced but I didn’t have to get one!”
Ross, who harbors no jealousy over the film’s May-December relationship, is enthusiastic about the way it’s depicted.
“Age is so immaterial,” she says. “Isn’t this all just the blink of an eyelash?”
“Time and age, that’s us putting labels on people,” Haley adds. “You can learn from someone who’s older and you can also learn and be revived by someone that’s younger.”
Though he’s in his 30s, Haley — who earned accolades for his 2015 dramedy “I’ll See You In My Dreams” starring Blythe Danner, 74, and Elliott, 72 — is becoming known as a filmmaker who tells sympathetic stories about characters over 70, a rare thing in Hollywood.
“There’s a lot of me in both movies, even though the characters are very different from me,” he says. “They have a youthful glow, but they’re honest about what it means to look back on your life, which I think about fanatically.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter
Written by: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Directed by: Brett Haley
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes