WALTER HILL ON 'THE COWBOY ILIAD' (PART 1 OF 3)

Walter Hill made his name as the screenwriter of the Sam Peckinpah classic THE GETAWAY (1972), and following his directorial debut in 1975 with HARD TIMES, went on to establish himself as one of Hollywood's biggest filmmakers, achieving success and acclaim across many genres: the Western (THE LONG RIDERS, GERONIMO, WILD BILL, BROKEN TRAIL, the pilot to the Deadwood TV series); crime movies influenced by noir, the Western or ancient Greek literature (THE DRIVER, THE WARRIORS, 48 HRS, STREETS OF FIRE, EXTREME PREJUDICE, RED HEAT, JOHNNY HANDSOME, TRESPASS, LAST MAN STANDING, A BULLET TO THE HEAD, THE ASSIGNMENT) and comedy (BREWSTER'S MILLIONS). He also co-wrote and co-produced the first three ALIEN films (1979-92), and was an executive producer on the anthology TV horror series Tales from the Crypt (1989-96). Hill is most closely associated with the Western genre, and he returns to the Old West with his new project, the audiobook The Cowboy Iliad - A Legend Told in the Spoken Word. It tells the story of a legendary shootout that occured in Newton, Kansas in 1871. Produced by Bobby Woods, with music by Les Deux Love Orchestra, the album is narrated by Hill himself. In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Hill about how he came to the project, his intentions for it, and about his love of the Western genre.     

How did The Cowboy Iliad come about?
 It was basically done by two guys in a garage, Bobby and I, although Bobby does have an orchestra as a resource. We didn't keep them in the garage! Bobby Woods and I have been friends for a number of years. Bobby is very conversant about the music business. It kind of grew out of conversations we had. I was interested in these talking books, which I had occasionally come across as a kid. I remember that some of them were Western-oriented, and that Walter Brennan and, I believe, John Wayne, did a couple.

(1)
But I think, actually, that the creative origin came from when I was a small child listening to the radio and the dramas that the old Gunsmoke used to have. The radio Gunsmoke was very different to the television version. They had a wonderful actor named William Conrad, who also did many movies. He had a wonderful voice. He was the original Matt Dillon. There was a serious and a hardness to those shows that I think somehow imprinted themselves on my mind.

Anyway, Bobby and I had many dinners and we would talk about the music business, and somehow we kind of started daring each other. He wanted me to write something, and I said I'd do it if he did the music. My film editor whom I've worked with for many years, Phil Norden, had a sound library so that was another thing. You might also want to cite the influence of alcohol! The idea always seemed to get better later in the evening. 

When you made your own Western films, was a part of you harking back to sitting in the kitchen listening to those radio shows? 
Yes, I think so. Without being too lugubrious about it, I was what you would call a sickly child. I was very badly asthmatic as a kid. I had several years where I really didn't go to school very much. I was kind of left to my own devices, although I was taught to read and write by my grandmother. My parents were both working. My recreational time, as I was restricted on physical activity, was mainly reading. I was a good reader. And listening to the radio. We didn't have a television yet. We were among the last to get a TV.
(2)

Would you say then that your love of Westerns comes from mainly the storytelling aspect of the genre, rather than the visuals of the TV and movie Westerns?
Well, my brother and I used to go to movies all the time. People say ''Oh, you must have loved Westerns'', and I did like them very much. The truth is that not only did I like the Westerns, but I also liked the noir films very much. I liked musicals, anything, if I thought they were good., except I didn't really like movies about kids very much. I always wanted to see adult movies because the fights were exciting and the women were beautiful. The adult world was much more interesting to me than the kid world.

But it was mainly the Westerns and the noirs. I used to divide the Westerns up in my head very clearly. There were the knock-around, bullshit Wild Bill Elliott/ Johnny Mac Brown Grade 'C' movies. They were fun. And then there were the 'adult Westerns'. Whether they be SHANE (1953) or THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), those kind of things. I was an enormous fan of those. 

(3)
Are you thinking of also doing The Cowboy Iliad as a TV or film project?
I really don't have any plans. I'm negotiating on a movie to be done in New Orleans, kind of a contemporary Gothic tale. A small movie with two female leads. People are asking me about doing a series of things in the vein of The Cowboy Iliad.

  I have always envisaged you as a private person, but before The Cowboy Iliad you also recorded a narration for the director's cut of THE WARRIORS (1979) and you did a voice cameo for Edgar Wright's BABY DRIVER (2017).

The serious fights that Bobby and I used to have about The Cowboy Iliad were because I thought we should hire an actor. I laid down the temp track but Bobby insisted that we stick with my voice to the extent that he said he'd boycott the project if we didn't. In the end, I caved into his wishes. I've had enough people tell me that it was okay! 

BABY DRIVER was at Edgar (Wright)'s insistence. It was his way of getting my blessing for his film, and I was very happy to do it. Edgar is a great friend and a great talent. I'm very fond of him.
 
(4)
Am I right in saying the stories that make up The Cowboy Iliad are believed to be true stories?
The first part of the story – the gun fight in Perry Tuttle's dance hall – that is absolutely true. It's kind of amazing, considering the amount of mayhem that was done, that it is not better known in the annals of history. For instance, it was a much bigger battle royale than say, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which is endlessly depicted in films and written about and all that. This gunfight in Perry Tuttle's dance hall in Newton, Kansas in 1871 is barely mentioned in most books, but I thought of it as a remarkable true incident. The way I got to that was that I knew about the story in the New York newspaper, and that's been reprinted a few times. I had read that account, which we would now regard as 'fake news', and I originally thought that that story alone and the implications of that story would be what the album would be about. But then I shrunk it all together and gave you all a little philosophy at the end, and there it is.

In The Cowboy Iliad are there elements that make up the nutshell of what appeals to you about the Western genre?
Well I suppose. I tend not to want to ask myself questions of process, and why, and think like that. I think when you get into that kind of self-examination, you run the risk of damaging the process. It's much better just to function. I have no idea why I have the taste, inclinations, attitudes or personality that I have. We're all products of biology and environment and God's unchanging hand as they used to say. So you take your pick. We're all who we are. I have no idea how we got this way, and I've no idea how I ended up talking to you on the phone in Japan! But here we are!

I get a sense with The Cowboy Iliad that although the events depicted are of a sickening, mindless, bloody cycle of violence with philosophical implications, it also reminds us that the Old West must have been an exhilarating time to live in, where one really had to live by one's wits.
What it tries to examine really is our fascination with these stories. On one level, a bunch of drunken knotheads got together and had a dispute in 1871, and shot the shit out of each other and did some horrible things. And yet we are fascinated by it and want to read about it. There's a need for completion in all of us, and the story seems incomplete to us, however factual it is. And so the other story becomes a necessary complement. It makes us somehow fascinated with the whole. When you think about that, this is the argument for the most primal of attitudes about our needs for stories.

The Cowboy Iliad is available on Amazon on CD, MP3, and as a companion book, written by Walter Hill. 

Extract from the audiobook.

Photo information (all rights to the copyright holders): (1) Hill with Bruce Willis on the set of LAST MAN STANDING (1996); (2) Hill with Michael Beck and others on the set of THE WARRIORS (1979); (3) Hill with Isabelle Adjani on the set of THE DRIVER (1978); (4) Hill on the set of STREETS OF FIRE (1984).     

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.

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