Cinema Retro is proud to present the concluding part of writer Kris Gilpin's 1988 interview with director Monte Hellman.
KG: Now to my favorite: Two-Lane
Blacktop.Like author Rudy Wurlitzer,
you’ve used the road-movie or searcher motif in many of your films.From where did you get this affinity?
MH: I don’t know; when I
was a film student the only book I read which had any lasting effect on me was
Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Or the Redemption of Physical Reality.He makes a case for the Road Movie being the only valid form of cinema; any film that
takes place within four walls without any relationship to the street outside is
a play, not a film.So for him La Strada
is the ultimate film.That was an idea
which stuck with me.I didn’t choose Beast from Haunted Cave – there
was a basic idea which existed before I became involved with it – but it’s a
road movie; it’s a trek across the mountains on skis – a band of robbers
escaping from a mine robbery with the loot on a ski trip.So that was a trek; the two Westerns are
treks; the two Philippine pictures are treks; Two-Lane Blacktop is a trek; Cockfighter
is not a trek a circle – they go around [in a circle] from one cockpit to
another.Iguana is not a trek, but it is
also a circle.
KG: After Easy Rider, the
industry was selling Two-Lane as the second coming, what with the screenplay
publication in Esquire and all.Do you
think it was a case of over-hype which caused its initial “failure” at the box
MH: No, it was a case of a
different philosophy.I think Easy Rider
was a film which was not offensive to the status quo because what it put down
was a part of the status quo that everybody
condemned.It wasn’t critical of the way
studio executives live their lives; it was critical of Southern bigots, so
everybody could get behind that.Two-Lane
Blacktop was critical of middle-class morality – for want of a better term – it
was critical of the way the average person lived his life, and the studio
executives were offended by it, and they killed the film.It didn’t die a natural death, it was
KG: By the lack of
publicity, right.I was shocked to read
in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies that Laurie Bird (who played The Girl) had died; I
didn’t know that.When and how did she
MH: She died in, I guess,
’79, of an overdose of Valium.
Hellman's most acclaimed film, the cult movie Two Lane Blacktop
KG: What was Dennis Wilson
(as The Mechanic) like to work with?
MH: Of the whole group, I
think Dennis really was the most instinctive actor.James [Taylor, who played The Driver] was
very serious about the work, as he is with everything in his life, and very
dedicated it and very professional, but Dennis may be, I think, the only actor
I’ve ever worked with who’s totally unaware
of the camera; he was absolutely at home [in front of the camera].
KG: Totally unpretentious?
MH: It wasn’t even
unpretentious; he was just unconscious
of it, unconscious of the fact that he was performing in a way, and he would
get into a scene and he would just start living it.He would get lost in the reality of the
moment and you can see it in his face; you can watch him and the way he’s
watching what’s going on in a scene, and he’s totally transfixed by it.He became
it; it’s just an amazing thing.I’ve
never seen anything like it.
KG: It seems to me that
the majors (Two-Lane was a Universal picture) would rarely make a
character-based film like that today, unless there were cute little, flying
aliens in it or something like that.
MH: The films that they
make today are so full of artificiality and shtick, they don’t bear much
resemblance to any of the kinds of
films that were made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
KG: That must also,
obviously, be one of the reasons you take the time to try and find the projects
that interest you.
MH: Well, I have a lot of
things which interest me but most of the things I like don’t interest
distributors and producers.
KG: Two-Lane ends with a
famous optical shot, in which the film slows down, and is then made to look
like it gets caught in the projector before it breaks down and burns.Was there any intent behind that other than
it’s being a neat optical effect?
MH: Well, basically I’m a
very instinctual, emotional kind of director; I’m not an intellectual in most
of what I do.In that instance, I let my
intellect impose a choice that was purely intellectual, that I hoped would be
transformed into an emotional affect on the audience; I didn’t know that it would be and I was very
hesitant about using it because of the way that it evolved.But what I was trying to do was make a
relationship between the speed of cars on the road and the speed of film going
through the gate of a projector; I hoped it would work and I guess it did,
because a lot of people are moved by
it, as I ultimately was, too.
KG: Was that Rudy
Wurlitzer’s idea or yours?
MH: That was my idea.
KG: Why isn’t Two-Lane out
on video again?I still see that
question in video magazines all the time.
MH: Well, for the same
reason a lot of other films aren’t; it’s because of music rights.At that time they didn’t anticipate video, so
they didn’t specifically put video into the contract, so in order to put it on
video all those songs would have to be renegotiated, and it would cost a
fortune.I think it’s very unlikely
it’ll ever come out.
KG:God, that’s a shame.It’s doubly ironic, too, because as I was
first watching the film I got an eerie feeling that something was off-kilter or
missing, and slowly I realized it was because there was no background music, no
mood music in the film, not by Taylor or the Beach Boys or anyone.The only tunes were incidental, playing on a
car radio or jukebox in a scene, and when the scene cut away, so did the
music.I thought that was a brilliant
tough of verisimilitude.
MH: I did the same thing
in Iguana, as a matter of fact, with one exception, which was the opening and
closing credits, in which we used a song [sung by Joni Mitchell] that was not
source music.But in every other place
it was all source music.
KG: How did Corman recut Cockfighter
MH: He added two 20-second
segments of dream sequence; it was something that had nothing to do with the movie-
cop cars getting blown up and naked girls.The reason was, he wanted to have material for a trailer and he didn’t
want to cheat, so he wanted it to be footage that was in the film.It was very offensive, and he cut the
three-minute porch scene.[It caused a
rift between us] at that time.[Eventually] the uncut version came out probably because – although I
don’t know for sure – [L.A. cable channel] the Z Channel insisted on it, which
meant that the video in general became that version, and also the version
that’s played on cable.
KG: Warren Oates was mute
through most of the film; was his character that way in the book, not wanting
to speak until he won the big fight?
MH: Yeah, that’s the
character.Warren pretended like it was
the easiest job he eve had; he said, “Wow, I don’t have any dialogue to
learn?Fantastic!They’re overpaying me.”[Smiles]
KG: How do you think it
stands up today?
MH: Well, it’s no secret,
I guess, that it’s one of my least favorite of my films and the reason is, it’s
the only time I haven’t been able to do the work on the script that I would
like to have done.In every other film
I’ve made I’ve been able to create the script that I wanted; in that case it
was Roger’s baby and he hired me to do it with the production already in place,
with a start date and everything.I told
him I wanted to do some work on the script and he said, “O.K.” and I hired Earl
Mac [Buckaroo Banzai, Wired] Rauch to come in and work on the script.We worked for a week and Roger saw a sample
of what he was doing and he became panicked; he thought we were ruining his
baby, so he said, “O.K.You’ve just got
one more week and that’s it.”I’d
planned to go through the script methodically from beginning to end, and Mac
worked on the first 10 or 15 pages; at that point, when Roger pulled the plug,
I decided to have Mac, in the remaining week, just do the key scenes that I
thought needed the most work.So he
basically did everything relating to Warren’s relationship with his girlfriend
in the film.
KG: What are your thoughts
today on China 9, Liberty 37?
MH: I like it.When you start making analogies between one
film and another, I think that every film is different and that, essentially,
my style changes with the nature of the material.I think China 9’s certainly the most romantic film I’ve made, and I
KG: What was it like
directing Sam Peckinpah in a small part in that film?
MH: He was [laughs] very difficult to work with.He wouldn’t finish a sentence; we would say
three words and then stop.I literally
had to piece his performance together.He was ornery as hell but we were very good friends without really ever
spending a lot of time together;
there was a great affection between us, and he was an amazing man, really
amazing. I think he was one of the great
American directors for sure.
KG: How were you involved
with his Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (also written by Rudy Wurlitzer)?
MH: I was the original
director and I developed the project, and had worked out with Rudy Wurlitzer
the basic idea of the film, which was unique I think in Billy the Kid stories,
in that it dealt with the only period in the history of Billy the Kid that
nobody knew anything about.He literally
disappeared from the time he escaped from jail until the time he was shot and
so, rather than repeat any of the known history of Billy the Kid, Rudy and I
decided to develop a picture that could be completely fictional because it was
about a time [of] which nobody knew the real story.
Zelda Rubenstein, who played the medium in the Poltergeist films, has been hospitalized for the last month and was recently taken off life support. Cinema Retro contributor Kasey Dickerson pays tribute to the actress and her distinguished career on his blog. Click here to read