FILM INTERVIEWS, ESSAYS AND ARTICLES BY PAUL ROWLANDS
'THE WHIRLWIND RIDE' - PAUL ROWLANDS INTERVIEWS MONTE HELLMAN
Monte Hellman is the greatest director that you have never heard of. He's a filmmaker who by all rights should be as lionized as any of the greats to have emerged since the 1950s. Now 79, Hellman has never been attracted to making commercial films or 'playing the game', preferring to make intelligent, carefully paced films that focus on character. Starting off in theatre (running his own company), Hellman is a filmmaker who has stayed his course since making his debut with the low-budget monster movie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE in 1959. Hellman worked with producer Roger Corman on various movies and in various capacities. He collaborated with a pre-fame Jack Nicholson on four highly interesting films, most notably on the existentialist Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (both 1966). Alongside Sam Peckinpah, he was quick to note the subtle brilliance of character actor Warren Oates, casting him also in four films (giving him the lead in 1973's COCKFIGHTER). Hellman's 1971 road movie TWO-LANE BLACKTOP was expected to be that year's answer to EASY RIDER (1969), and despite being an even better film, did not find it's audience until much, much later. It's now considered to be one of the most important films of it's decade. Since then, Hellman has worked as much as he can, creating great films in the shape of COCKFIGHTER (1973), CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978), IGUANA (1988) and his latest film (his first in 21 years), ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010). The first three films never found an audience for a variety of reasons that can simply be described as bad luck, something that has plagued his career but has never managed to kill his spirit or drive. A Monte Hellman movie is something to be treasured, and all of them are worth hunting down (apart from a few, including Criterion's excellent DVD edition of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, most of his films are either deleted, or available in very shoddy transfers). This is hopefully not the last time Money Into Light will have the chance to chat with this brilliant, humanistic, idiosyncratic director whose work is waiting to be re-discovered. The aim of this particular interview is to introduce readers to 'the whirlwind ride' of Hellman's career and extraordinary movies.
Q: Let's start with COCKFIGHTER, the first film of yours that I reviewed. Why do you remain ambivalent about it?
A: Because I was given an aborted chance to work on the script with writer Earl 'Mac' Rauch, which Roger Corman cut short after one week. The first week we began working on a page one re-write, and when we learned a week later that we'd only have one additional week, we chose a few scenes to work on, leaving much undone.
Q: Can you remember which scenes you chose to focus on?
A: Can't remember all of them, but the ones that come to mind are all the relationship scenes with Patricia Pearcy.
Q: COCKFIGHTER was probably Warren Oates's best ever performance, and a rare opportunity for him to play the lead. You used him in four films (THE SHOOTING, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, COCKFIGHTER and CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37), and the little-seen IGUANA (1988) was dedicated to him. Do you have any anecdotes that sum up the man to you?
A: Warren was a poet trapped in the body of a clown. He called me the day before he died, telling me he'd just had a heart attack. I screamed at him to get a doctor immediately. Then he went into denial mode, saying it was just indigestion. A few days later, the minister failed to show for the memorial, claiming he'd put the wrong date on his calendar. All us mourners conducted the service ourselves, then retreated to one of Warren's favorite watering holes, celebrating his life in a way he'd appreciate.
Q: What do you think the Monte Hellman of today would have to say to the Monte Hellman of 1971 waiting for TWO-LANE BLACKTOP to open?
A: I don't think I had time to wait, since we were working pretty much up until we opened. In any event, the only advice I'd give to that Monte, or anyone else asking my advice about a career in movies, is the same advice Fabio Testi gave me when I told him I was about to get married 'Monte, don't do it'.
Q: Let's go back to the beginning. How do you think working in theatre helped prepare you for making movies?
A: The same rules apply, only the techniques of implementing them are different. I learned about timing and emphasis, and guiding the audience's attention - the same things, by the way, that any magician must learn. I also learned how not to direct actors, i.e., that any direction is potentially harmful. What I learned instead was to use indirection.
Q: You worked with Jack Nicholson on four films as well (BACK DOOR TO HELL and FLIGHT TO FURY in 1964; THE SHOOTING, and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND), years before his success with EASY RIDER. You almost directed Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS (he's a huge fan of your work), and would have done so had Tony Scott signing on to direct TRUE ROMANCE (1993) not given him the clout to direct it himself. (You are credited as an executive producer.) Were you at all surprised both men went on to great careers?
A: I wasn't surprised, which is not to say I expected it. It's just that, in retrospect, everything about them made it likely, if not inevitable.
Q: How did it feel when Sam Peckinpah told Playboy in 1972 that TWO-LANE BLACKTOP was 'a potential work of art'? Any anecdotes from editing his film THE KILLER ELITE (1975) and directing him in CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37?
A: I actually heard Peckinpah on The Tonight Show talking about how much he respected TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. I had just come out of seeing THE GODFATHER (1972), and was in a restaurant where the TV was playing the show. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Like Woody Allen, I'm reluctant to join any club that would have me as a member, so praise from any quarter makes me slightly uneasy. But hearing it from Peckinpah was somehow tremendously gratifying. I felt justified.
Peckinpah was amazing to edit for. We'd wait until 10 PM for him to arrive in the cutting room, view the day's work, and give us notes. The first thing he'd do, after staggering into the room, was piss out the window. After watching the newly edited scenes, he'd start his comments, speaking so softly we had to lean in, putting our ears close to his mouth. Given his drunken state, we didn't have great expectations. Amazingly, he was coherent, precise, concise, insightful, creative, and brilliant. One night he had the idea to intercut two completely different, but equally difficult, scenes, resulting in a scene that's perhaps the best scene in the movie.
Directing him was another story. He was no longer drinking, except for a bottomless bottle of white wine, but he had replaced hard liquor with cocaine. And he was terrified at having the shoe on the other foot, although he was a born actor. So he would find any excuse to avoid saying even one line completely. He'd start quoting Tennessee Williams, or ad lib to a joke, or just stop in mid-sentence, and then rush off to his dressing room for consolation. I ultimately had to create his performance from bits and pieces of lines, which we'd luckily been able to capture piecemeal. In spite of it all, his scene is a highlight in CHINA 9.
Q: Do you remember which scene from THE KILLER ELITE was the 'best scene in the movie'?
A: As I remember it, it's the fight scene in the airport, intercut with a dialogue scene in an office.
Q: What attracts you when choosing material to film?
A: What attracts me to material is being moved by it. The same thing that attracts me to some movies over others. But to be honest, while I love watching movies like ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980), as a picture maker I'm more apt to choose a genre movie.
Q: You've had to face many challenges in your career (being unfairly fired from 1974's SHATTER and a 1975 episode of the TV series 'Baretta'; various unrealised projects; your films being cut by producers or studios; your films being difficult to see because of poor distribution etc). What have you learned from such challenges?
A: I can't say I've learned anything, since I've always seemed to have the innate faculty to view obstacles as, to use your word, challenges meant to be surmounted. I've always seen the glass as half-full, and never felt daunted by any hand I was dealt.
Q: What, as far as you can see, have been the main differences that have occured in Hollywood and independent filmmaking since you started making movies?
A: Never knew much about Hollywood, but as an observer from across the street, I'd say it's become corporate and impersonal - a far cry from the days of Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Darryl Zanuck, whatever you thought of their taste. At least they knew what they liked , and it was their own opinion, and not some committee.
I guess the definition of 'independent' was 'not one of the majors'. If that was true, then there are none left, because the so-called 'independents' are now branches of the majors. The good news is that now it's possible for someone fresh out of film school (we should start calling them picture schools) to raise a few thousand dollars, and make a movie of his or her own - truly independent.
Q: Which two or three of your films are you the most proud of?
A: I don't think pride is an emotion I feel, since I don't feel possessive about my movies. As I recently said to someone else, I feel more like a mid-wife than the father of the child. But I do take pleasure in watching some of the scenes in them. I think the ones that give me the most pleasure are THE SHOOTING, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and ROAD TO NOWHERE, but I might be overcome by one scene or another in almost any of them.
Q: Which filmmakers have inspired you the most? Which modern filmmakers do you enjoy and respect?
A: I've been inspired by D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Pudovkin, Bretaigne Windust, Ford, Hawks, John English/ William Witney, John Huston, Carol Reed, Victor Erice, George Stevens and too many others to mention. Of the current crop, I particularly like Tsai Ming-Liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akin, Arnaud Desplechin, and of course my friends, Rick Linklater, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. And I'm constantly making new discoveries like Matt Porterfield, and my past and present students.
Q: Whom do you identify as the key figures who have helped your career?
A: Having worked with Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates and Fabio Testi were not only great boons to the movies I made with them, but major factors in the development of my craft as well. But the three people I learned the most from were my directing teacher at Stanford, F. Cowles Strickland; the editor I first worked for, Bob Seiter; and his sound editor, 22 years old at the time, Jim Nelson, who's remained a life-long collaborator and friend.
Q: How do you feel about having books written about you, and winning career achievement awards (such as the Special Lion Award for Overall Work at the 2010 Venice Film Festival)?
A: I never read the books, many of which are mercifully written in languages I don't understand. I enjoy the retrospectives, particularly when I get to travel to marvellous places like Gijon, Sitges, Moscow, Amiens, Buenos Aires, Harvard, etc., etc., etc. The career awards are somewhat embarassing and/ or hopefully premature. But I have to admit that receiving a Special Gold Lion in Venice was one of the great thrills of my life.
Q: Can you tell us about your involvement in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), ROBOCOP (1987) and BUFFALO 66 (1998)?
A: Mike Medavoy suggested me to add some scenes to FISTFUL to sanitise it for American TV, and Sergio knew me and my work, and agreed. I went to Cuernevaca to set up a little team, hire a double for Clint, and shoot a couple of scenes with him and Harry Dean Stanton.
Mike had also suggested me to direct ROBOCOP, but Jon Davison, who was a friend, thought I was not the right director for an action movie. Ironically, when Verhoeven got behind schedule, I was brought on to direct second unit, which turned out to be some of the action scenes.
Vincent Gallo wanted me to direct BUFFALO 66. I set the picture up, but the studio wanted to wait until the following Fall for snow. Vincent was too impatient, so he decided to direct it himself, without snow.
Q: Your new film, ROAD TO NOWHERE, is your first in 21 years. Has the experience of making it rejuvenated you? Whom can we thank in the background for the fact the film exists?
A: I'm very lucky to have the mind and spirit of a 20-year old, and I'll be damned if I'll give them back to him. So I didn't need rejuvenation. But hopefully ROAD TO NOWHERE will put some spark into my, until then, dormant career. As for who to thank, no amount of gratitude would be sufficient . My daughter Melissa claims she couldn't bear to watch TWO-LANE BLACKTOP at one more festival until I made another movie to break the monotony. So she almost single-handed took it upon herself to raise the money and produce ROAD TO NOWHERE, without any previous experience in either department.
Q: How would you describe ROAD TO NOWHERE?
A: ROAD TO NOWHERE is an homage to film noir, and a love poem to all movies.
Q: How would you place ROAD TO NOWHERE in your ouevre?
A: I can't remember making any other movie.
Q: How do you measure the success of a film you make?
A: Whether it's still being watched 40 years after I made it.
Q: What would you say you get most out of your post teaching the Film Directing Program at the California Institute of the Arts?
A: Being forced to clarify the few things I know about making movies.
Q: Can we expect any DVD or Blu-ray releases from your back catalogue in the near future? A: Masters of Cinema (in the UK) is about to release the first Blu-ray of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, and Criterion claim they'll be doing the same with THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, but I suspect these will be a couple of years down the turnpike. King Records are about to open ROAD TO NOWHERE theatrically in Japan, and I'm sure a DVD and Blu-ray will follow. At the same time, Capricci will be releasing a DVD/ Blu-ray combo edition of ROAD TO NOWHERE in France.
Q: Have you started working on any special features for the Criterion release?
A: Haven't begun the special features yet.
Q: One of my favourites of your films is CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37. Any plans for a DVD or Blu-ray release in the future?
A: Don't hold your breath on CHINA 9. I don't think Warners are planning any video releases, and they have a strict policy against sub-leasing rights.
This interview was conducted via email, 6th - 9th December 2011.
I would like to thank Mr. Hellman for generously agreeing to be interviewed, and for his honesty, candour and humorous answers! Those wishing to learn further about Hellman and his films are directed to Brad Stevens' superb 'Monte Hellman: His Life and Films' (McFarland, 2003), and also my review of COCKFIGHTER at http://www.money-into-light.com/2011/10/cockfighter-monte-hellman-1974.html