As Cinema Retro 'regulars' know, we have occasionally been able to find unpublished or rarely-seen interviews with legendary film personalities and provide them for our readers. In issue #1 of the magazine, Steve Mori provided an unseen interview Steve McQueen from 1968 and in issue #15, Steve did the same with a fascinating 1974 discussion with Lee Marvin. Now contributing writer Kris Gilpin has been kind enough to share with us with a 1988 interview with director Monte Hellman, whose work is revered by some of the great directors of our time. Please keep in mind that the text and events that are discussed in this interview took place in 1988 and have not been amended. (This is part one of a two-part interview.)
INTERVIEW WITH MONTE HELLMAN
By Kris Gilpin
Born July 12th,
1932 in New York City, writer-director Monte Hellman’s work is miles above
typical American drivel; while working in various traditional genres (war,
western, road film, etc.), he has produced a series of very personal character
studies, while still remaining true to the genre within which each film is
set.And his films have a definite
European flavor to them; in fact, he still has a huge following in Europe –
with Monte Hellman film festivals constantly being held there – despite the
fact that his last feature (the western China 9, Liberty 37, starring the late,
great Warren Oates, Jenny [An American Werewolf in London] Agutter and Italian
superstar Fabio Testi) was released a decade ago.
After studying theater at
Stanford University and film at UCLA, Hellman spent three years acting and
directing in summer stock before landing his first gig in film, as the
assistant editor on the Richard Boone TV series, Medic.He quit that job to return to directing plays
for a theatre company he founded, then accepted an offer from B-movie mogul
Roger Corman (who had invested in his theatre company); Hellman’s first film, Beast
from Haunted Cave, was shot back-to-back with Corman’s Ski Troop Attack in North
Dakota, using the same cast, crew and locations.He then helped finish a number of films for
Corman, one of which was the infamous The Terror, starring Boris Karloff, Jack
Nicholson and Dick Miller, a film they all made up as they went along.
Next, Hellman shot two
films back-to-back in the Philippines, Back Door to Hell, a war story with
Nicholson and country singer Jimmie Roders, and Flight to Fury, a film noir
starring, and written by, Jack Nicholson.(Hellman, who always edits his own pictures, was cutting Back Door at
night, while directing Flight during the day.)
His international fame
came in 1967, with a pair of westerns filmed in Utah (once again back-to-back):
the existentialist, purposely vague The Shooting (with Nicholson and Oates) and
equally existential Ride in the Whirlwind (with Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson,
who once again wrote the script).Four
years later I first saw Hellman’s subtle cult masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop (which
featured Oates in a superb performance, the late Beach Boy drummer-singer
Dennis Wilson and songwriter James Taylor, in his only starring role), and I’ve
been in love with road movies ever since that day.The film’s screenplay, by Rudy (Candy
Mountain – another road film – and Walker) Wurlitzer and Will Cory, was so
impressive it was published in its entirety before the film’s release in Esquire
magazine.This was followed by Cockfighter
(aka Born to Kill), again starring Warren Oates, this time with Harry Dean
Stanton; the film was recut by producer Roger Corman and not seen its original
form until several years later.
Now Monte Hellman is back
with Iguana, the story of Oberlus, a sailor from the early 19th
Century who is persecuted due to the lizard-like scales, which deform half of
his face and neck (Oberlus is played by Everett [Quest for Fire, Silver Bullet]
McGill).He flees to a desert island,
where he declares war on mankind, capturing castaway sailors and cutting off
the fingers and heads of the “slaves” who disobey him.When Carmen (Maru Valdivielso), a
beautiful/sexy Spanish libertine, comes to the island, the two of them
eventually play out a twisted version of Beauty and the Beast (the film also
features Fabio Testi in a supporting role).
Hellman was kind enough to
give me a friendly, long interview on Saturday October 29th, 1988,
in his Los Angeles home.I met his
pretty daughter, Melissa, and marveled at the framed stills and lobby cards
adorning the walls and bookshelves (early stills of Nicholson, John Ford [with
Hellman], Sam Peckinpah [who acted in
Hellman’s China 9], Martin Landau, Millin [The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind]
Perkins, the late Laurie Bird [from Two-Land Blacktop, as the hitchhiker who
unknowingly breaks up the cross-country race between Warren Oates and James
Taylor, and she was also in Cockfighter]; a foreign lobby card for La
Sparatoria [The Shooting], a Japanese lobby card for Two-Lane, etc.And you can still hear the loss in his voice
when Hellman recalls his old friends Oates and Bird).Many thanks to Monte Hellman (who has always
been a favorite filmmaker of mine) for giving me such a complete interview that
Kris Gilpin: Why has it
been 10 years since your last film?
Monte Hellman: It’s been
10 years since the last movie I [completed].I worked for nearly a year on Avalanche Express [1979; his name is in
the end credits], finishing the picture for [director] Mark Robson; I directed
a couple scenes with the actors and all the special effects, the
avalanches.Then I developed about five
different projects, each of which took several years.I worked for two years on King of White Lady
for [producer] Francis Coppola, which was supposed to be done at Warners; it
was not done because Coppola was never satisfied with the script.Warners was and they were ready to do
it.I worked about a year on a picture
for Paramount called Dark Passion; then I had a project called Falling for Fox
and one for [producer] Martin Poll called Projections.Then I had three projects of my own: one was
originally called Toy Soldiers, but that title was usurped by somebody else
before we got to make it; in fact, it was originally called WarGames,
then Toy Soldiers, and now it’s called Chain Reaction.Then another one was called Secret Warriors,
which I’m going to finally do a year from now with a Swiss company called Limbo
Films.And my third one was called The
Typhoon Shipments, which I was supposed to do just prior to Iguana then,
finally, just after Iguana, and it
was cancelled both times; the last three I co-wrote.
KG: That must’ve been
incredibly frustrating all those years.
MH: Well, I guess I was a
victim of two things, the increasing difficulty of getting any film made and just the basic odds at all times, which is you
get about one film made for every 10 that are developed.
KG: What attracted you to
Alberto Vasquez-Figueroa’s novel, La Iguana?
MH: My initial response
before reading the novel – I’d just been given a five-page synopsis of the
story – was that it reminded me a lot of Phantom of the Opera, which I’d just
seen in London.I only found out later,
after becoming involved and starting to work on the screenplay, how different
it was from Phantom [chuckles].My
initial feeling was that I was going to make a romantic Beauty and the Beast
story similar to Phantom, and it turned out to be something radically
KG: And sexuality seems to
be the key here, right?
MH: Yes.I used to joke that some films contain
gratuitous sex and violence and that Iguana has no gratuitous sex and violence
– it’s about sex and violence
KG: Where did you find the
beauteous Maru Valdivielso?
MH: She was in Madrid, and
was actually suggested by Figueroa, who’s the author of the novel.She’d only done three small films and was not
a star in Spain, and since Iguana she hasn’t stopped working.I knew the major Spanish actresses and didn’t
feel any of them were right for the part; when I met Maru she had tremendous
presence and tremendous beauty, and my initial response was, she’s so beautiful I’m sure she can do as well
as anybody else – not even thinking there was a possibility of getting a really
terrific actress in the part.Then, when
I began to work with her, I was amazed at the skill and technique and talent
she had as an actress, and it was overwhelming.She’s on the level of the best American actresses.
KG: This is based on a
true story, right?
MH: Yeah, in a sense it’s
based on two historical figures, primarily one who was not deformed in any way
but who became a kind of horror-instilling creature just by the way he lived
and let himself finally look.But there
was also a monster in that time who was also in the Galapagos, and the author
combined the two figures.
KG: Was it as big a bitch
as it sounds to have filmed on an island and aboard a ship?
MH: Yes to both
questions.The problem wasn’t so much
that it was an island as the fact that customs regulations didn’t make it easy
for us to bring things in and out.There’s the barrier of a border; in this case it was a hindrance.Physically it was difficult; the terrain
itself is unfriendly to say the least and, beyond that, shooting on boats is
always difficult.In this case, not
having the facility of a big production, we had a problem just getting power
for the lights and things like that, and frequently wound up shooting without
KG: How big was the
MH: I don’t know, but the
producer said the picture cost in the neighborhood of $3 million, which is not
a super low budget for Europe but
would be a very low budget anyplace else.
KG: How does this new film
relate to your others?
MH: All I know is what I
read in the papers; I read a review that said it relates to my other films more
by the way it differs than by the way
it’s similar, in the sense that in all my other films there’s a minimum of dialogue
and in this there’s nothing but
KG: O.K. Where and when
did you shoot?
MH: We shot exactly a year
ago in Lanzarote, which is one of the Canary Islands.[The crew hired to sail the reconstructed
whaling ship in the film doubled as actors.]
KG: When will it be
MH: I don’t know; right
now it’s being sold at [the big film market] MIFED, and I don’t know who’s
gonna release it here or if it’s
gonna be released here.If there isn’t a
theatrical release date set fairly soon it’ll be too late because it’s due to
go out on video in April ’89.
KG: Tell me about that
early acting class you attended with Robert Blake and Jack Nicholson, which was
taught by Martin Landau.
MH: I wasn’t in the class
as an actor; I did the same exercises and sense but I was there as a director
working in an acting class, and it was terrific.I think Martin may be the best acting teacher
I’ve come across, and I’ve seen a lot of them.There were a lot of exciting people in the class and Marty was a very
stimulating teacher.I had been an actor
but was no longer interested in acting when I took the class.
KG: What made you stop
wanting to be an actor?
MH: Because I’m
compulsively, neurotically, obsessively a perfectionist and I didn’t feel I
could be a good enough actor to please myself.
KG: I was curious, you
ever meet James Dean?
MH: Yeah, I knew James
Dean at UCLA and I had the distinction of telling him I didn’t think he was
gonna make it as an actor because he had all the qualifications, except that he
was too short.[Laughs] I thought he was
a movie star, he looked sensational and he was a terrific actor and I said,
“Gee, it’s too bad you’re not tall, Jimmy!”
KG: I never saw your first
film, Beast from Haunted Cave [Allied Artists, 1959], but it sounds like
fun.Was it fun to make?
MH: No, [laughs] it wasn’t
fun to make at all.It was my first film
and we had 13 days to shoot, and by noon of the first day we hadn’t gotten a
shot because the equipment was all frozen – it was 10 degrees below zero and we
couldn’t get anything to run.This was
in Deadwood, South Dakota and Roger Corman, who was the executive producer, was
screaming on the phone that if we didn’t get our first day’s quota he was gonna
be on a plane the next day and take over the picture.We managed to get it [working]; the sound was
a little bit off-speed but we were able to correct it.It was a movie Roger seemed to be obsessed
with and made over and over again; it was his rip-off of Key Largo – Key Largo
with a monster tacked onto it.
KG: Is that out on video?
MH: I’m not sure I’ve ever
seen it on video; Creature from the Haunted Sea, which is a rip-off of Beast
from Haunted Cave [chuckles], was on video for a time; I don’t have either
one.After I did Beast Roger asked me to
expand four pictures for TV; they’d been [approximately] 62-minute movies, and
he needed them to be 80 minutes for a sale to Allied Artists’ TV.So I went off and reshot scenes for pictures
– some of them three years later – getting the same cast together and trying to
duplicate the locations.So I expanded Beast
from Haunted Cave, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Last Woman on Earth and Ski
KG: What did you do on The
MH: I made the last
version of the movie; there’d been several versions before but I made the one
that finally got released.Roger had
shot some scenes on a set he’d been using for another picture and he said,
“Before we tear it down, let’s get Boris Karloff to walk around and do a few
scenes” [chuckles].So, based on that
material and some scenes Francis Coppola had shot, I shot for five [more] days
and we finished the film.Contrary to Beast
from Haunted Cave, The Terror was a
lot of fun.On the four pictures I
expanded really had autonomy; I wrote the scripts for, and produced and
directed, the scenes I was expanding, and I did the same thing on The Terror.I found the challenge of making a movie in
five days exciting, especially with no budget; instead of getting a wrangler to
bring a horse out, we went to Griffith Park stables, rented a horse and
trailer, and brought them to the set, and nobody could get the horse back into
the trailer after we’d finished shooting; it just refused to go.Finally, [actor] Jonathan Haze [from the
original Little Shop of Horrors] said, “What will you pay me to get the horse
into that trailer?”I was going crazy
because, when you have five days to shoot, if you lose 10 minutes it’s like
[losing] three days on a normal movie.So I said, “I’ll give you $50.”So he walked up to the horse, whispered into its ear and the horse
walked into the trailer.I said “You
gotta tell me, what did you say to it?”He said, “I told him that if he didn’t get into the trailer I was gonna
beat the shit out of him!”
KG: So, now, how do you
remember those Corman days?
MH: Well, Corman was great
because he really gave you a lot of freedom; all he cared about was that you
came in on budget and that he had a product he could sell.The only time he was ever difficult at all
was on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind because he absolutely hated the script of The Shooting and he
didn’t want to make the movie.He
finally agreed to make it on the basis of his peculiar logic, which was that
he’d already invested $5,000 and the picture was going to cost another $70,000;
if he didn’t make the picture he was out his $5,000 and if he did make it he knew he’d [at least] get
back his $75,000 [chuckles], which of course he did.So he made the movie.
KG: What was it like
making Back Door to Hell, your early war story with Jack Nicholson.
MH: Well, Jack and I had
known each other before; we’d become friends on The Wild Ride , and after
that we decided to form a partnership and write some scripts together.So we wrote a script called To Hold a Mirror
– it was finally called Epitaph – which Roger was going to produce; it was
gonna star Jack and Millie Perkins.Before starting the picture I got offered the two pictures in the
Philippines – [producer] Fred Roos had seen The Terror in Hong Kong and he’d
cabled the executive producer telling him he knew that Francis Coppola and I
had both done scenes for The Terror and that he was very impressed with
it.He didn’t know who’d done what, but
he said he’d be happy with either one of us as director for these two pictures
in the Philippines; they couldn’t find Francis so they called me and I got the
job.Anyway, I got the job and I wanted
Jack to write one of the scripts and act in both pictures; [the producers] were
very happy and eager to get Jack because they’d used Jack in a [previous]
picture, and I think he’d also worked on that screenplay.It turned out that he’d made a much better
deal than I had [laughs] so I was already a little teed off at him – I’d gotten
him the job and he was making more money than I was.But, we went over there by ship, sailing from
San Francisco to Manila, and during the three weeks on the ship we wrote both
scripts, Flight to Fury – which Jack wrote – and Back Door to Hell, which we
shot first; as a result of working on the shooting and conversations we had
about his performance he said something just clicked, and he understood
something about acting he hadn’t known before.And he did make a major change in his working; I think if you look at
that and at The Terror, it’s a vastly different kind of performance.So it was exciting and a very good
KG: Why do you think
Nicholson gave up writing and producing in those early days?
MH: Well, he didn’t.I think he was interested in directing;
certainly, and he directed two movies [Drive, He Said and Goin’ South] and he
was very intensely interested in what he was doing on both of those, but I
think that after the second film failed [at the box office] it was just too
damaging to his ego.He liked being a
successful actor and he didn’t like being an unsuccessful director.
KG: Flight to Fury was a
MH: It’s not a comedy but
it has comic overtones, but it is a satire which satirized those kinds of genre
movies; it just took every cliché and put them all together.Warners just bought Fight to Fury for video;
it’ll be coming out soon; Fox owns Back Door to Hell but I don’t know what they
plan to do with it.
KG: The first time I saw Ride
in the Whirlwind (about three cowboys who are wrongly accused of being outlaws)
it said to me, “There are situations in life in which you might become
involved, over which you have no power and there ain’t a fuckin’ thing you can
do about it.”Am I close?
MH: This is what you got
out of the picture [chuckles]? Well, if I had to say the theme in one phrase I
would say, “Guilt by association”, and it’s also the consequences of not
speaking out.Here these guys ride into
an outlaw camp and they don’t protest; they accept the hospitality of the outlaws and
spend the night there, and they suffer the consequences.A kind of you-make-your-bed-you-lie-in-it
kind of thing.
KG: Shot in ’65 but
released two years later, those Westerns started your popularity in Europe, correct?
MH: Well, they were both
delayed; Jack went to the Cannes festival with them in ’66 and sold them, and
the company that bought them went bankrupt, and the pictures were literally
held up in customs in bond for three years, because of the lawsuit against the
company that owned them.Finally, they
were sold to another distributor in ’69 and The Shooting opened in Paris and
played non-stop there for one year, and Ride in the Whirlwind opened [abroad]
sometime later and played for seven months.They were enormously well-received critically, and I’d say they were
directly responsible for [my getting] Two-Lane Blacktop.
KG: You get asked to many
festivals of your films in Europe, correct?
MH: All the time
[laughs].It’s always nice to be
appreciated and be wined and dined and taken good care of, but it’s got to the
point now where I turn down about five out of six offers to go to festivals [of
my films] because I just don’t have the stamina.They just did a retrospective in June in
Sodankyla, Finland; it’s a terrific festival called the Midnight Sun Festival;
it was absolutely the best audience I’ve encountered.It’s really more like a rock festival than a
film festival; kids come from all over Finland and camp out all over the town,
and the films run 24 hours a day in three theatres, and the sun never
sets.It’s during the mid-summer.It was a great experience, and next month I’m
going to Amiens in France, where they’re gonna do the most complete retrospective ever; they’re gonna show all the
films plus all the little pieces of things, like the 10 minutes I shot for all
these other movies [chuckles].They’re
gonna show everything.And they’re also
doing the first book on my films, so they’re gonna publish that in conjunction
with the festival; it’s gonna be a beautiful book; it’s got 250 pages with
about 50 stills.
KG: Why did you decide to
make a vague ending to The Shooting?I
love that film and always find the ending a bit frustrating as to who lives and
MH: Well, I didn’t see it
as vague [laughs]; I think it’s very clear if you look at the film.They all die because there’s no way out, but
if you look at the film there’s only one person who’s shot: Coin, the one on
the hill.Millie [Perkins] shoots him,
and the other [identical twin brother, played by Warren Oates] falls because
he’s reaching out to stop her and loses his balance.
KG: The fact that we
eventually learn they’ve been searching for the twin brother all along
signifies man’s struggle within himself?
MH: Well, certainly,
anytime you have twins you can read that into it but, essentially, it was a
story about two brothers or about vengeance, or whatever.The one thing that’s purposely ambiguous is
what it’s all about, why all this is happening, and that’s built into the story
and the reason for the story.It’s
suggested by a story of Jack London’s in which a bunch of people are sitting at
a bar, and there’s a painting over the bar and they’re talking about it.The painting is of a crisis point in an
action, in which somebody is shot or something like that is happening, and they
talk about how interesting that is, because here you see an event, an action,
and you don’t know what led up to it; you don’t know the reasons for the drama
which led to this vile act.And they start
philosophizing, saying how similar that is to life, because in life you can see
things happen [while] never knowing what really happened; and then [one of the
characters] tells a story which is somewhat similar to our story.[The Shooting] is really about someone who’s
hired to go along on a mission to kill somebody, and he never finds out
[laughs] why.We mention that a man –
maybe with a child – was run down in town, but you can conjecture whether
that’s why or not.
KG: You made so many films
with Warren Oates; what was he like?
MH: He was one of my
closest friends, and a very wonderful, charming, brilliant, enigmatic man.I knew him for, I guess, 15 years, until he
died – a little more, maybe – and I never knew he was a poet until after he
died; in fact, I think there may be a book of his poems published.
KG: All those early films
look like they were great fun to make.Was that the case?
MH: To a greater or lesser
degree.I always enjoy myself; I like
shooting movies so for me it’s always fun; it wasn’t necessarily fun for
everybody else, though [chuckles].I
know the crew during the shooting of Ride in the Whirlwind became very
disgruntled and felt like they were being taken advantage of, and that it was a
terribly harsh shoot; they didn’t see any reason for it because they had no
idea what they were shooting.When they
all came to a screening we had at Fox they, one by one, shook my hand and said,
“I’m really sorry I was so difficult; I’d no idea we were making a film as
beautiful as this.”
KG: Were you very upset
that Corman passed on the script you and Nicholson had written, in which he was
to play an actor?
MH: We made a deal to do
that one and then we went off to do the two Philippine movies and, when we came
back, Corman decided he no longer wanted to make that picture, and he offered
us two Westerns as a compensation.
Gilpin has written about the cinema since 1980 and has worked as an
extra and an assistant film editor. He also specializes in creating and
publishing movie-related crossword puzzles that can be accessed by clicking here. You can read some of his archived interviews with film personalities at the Tower of Schlock site by clicking here.) READ PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW BY CLICKING HERE