Walter Hill: stories from 50 years of Hollywood action filmmaking

From his beginnings running safety and security on the Bullitt car chase, the legendary writer and director looks back over a career in the driving seat of American genre cinema.

15 March 2023

By Matthew Thrift

The Long Riders (1980)

Sam Peckinpah. Paul Newman. Steve McQueen. John Huston. Xenomorphs. Across his 50-year (and counting) career, Walter Hill has worked with them all. He started out as an assistant director on the likes of Bullitt (1968) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), before making his name as one of the great screenwriters of his generation, lending his singular talents to Peckinpah on The Getaway (1972) and, with co-writer David Giler, forging one of the most successful film franchises in the Alien saga. 

As a director, Hill is known for his lean, muscular action movies, films that hybridised genres to electric effect. From westerns like The Long Riders (1980) and Wild Bill (1995) to neo-noirs like The Driver (1978) and Johnny Handsome (1989), Hill’s singular adaptability has seen him take the changes wrought by New Hollywood and the resurgent studio system of the 1980s in his stride. With his new western Dead for a Dollar (2022) recently released on home video in the UK, we sat down for an expansive conversation with the legendary filmmaker.

With the exception of the 2010s, you’ve now made a western every decade for the last 50 years. How do you think the genre, and the public’s appetite for the genre, has changed over that time?

I think as far as the public is concerned, there’s a division on that. The international audience is a little more receptive to the idea of the western, mainly because of the popularity in the 60s and 70s of the Italian westerns. But in America, the appetite for westerns is greater than people think, but it’s entirely the demographic that financiers abhor, which is older folk like me. Westerns don’t do good numbers in theatres, but they do surprisingly well on cable, streaming and network TV.

You dedicated Dead for a Dollar to the memory of Budd Boetticher. Did you know each other at all?

Yeah. Around the time I did Geronimo (1993), the Opry Museum held a special screening and a luncheon. Budd was invited to it, and he and I were seated together. He expressed admiration for the movie he had just seen, so we were off to a good start. He had a very engaging personality, so we agreed to meet. We had lunch together a bunch of times. I wouldn’t call him a good friend, but we were certainly friendly. He was a great storyteller. Not just on the screen, but personally. He spoke in a very straightforward manner but with great authority. And he had earned it, it wasn’t just theatrical.

Rachel Brosnahan, Christoph Waltz and Warren Burke in Dead for a Dollar (2022)

I was very fond of Budd, and I’d like to think he was fond of me. We spent a fair amount of hours together, always enjoyable. I tried to help him out a little bit. He was looking for finance for a script he wanted to do, but I wasn’t able to really help. But my personal relationship with Budd didn’t really have anything to do with the dedication. What happened was, the second time we’d gone through the movie with the editor, I looked up and said, “You know, Budd Boetticher would have really liked this movie.” It’s about a lot of the concerns that his films were about, it was made for a very modest budget, and it was made very quickly, in 25 days. These are all things he would have appreciated, so I thought, “Why don’t I say something about Budd?” He made a real contribution to westerns, and I don’t think he’s really discussed enough. I believe Budd’s influence to have been equal to the films. Although the films weren’t particularly popular, and were usually on the B-side of the double bill, many filmmakers have been influenced by Budd, and that’s the mark of someone doing good work.

When you talk about significant careers there are two kinds of director. There are certain directors whose genius is inimitable. Buñuel, one of my favourites, is kind of impossible to emulate. Jean Vigo is another one – special talents who are in a world of their own. Then there are those, like Kurosawa or John Ford, who bring something to movies that is immediately influential on filmmakers all around the world. Sergio Leone’s influence is vastly greater than any other Italian filmmaker. And Bill Friedkin. The French Connection (1971) was a breakthrough movie, stylistically, for so much that followed after. Michael Mann is a good friend of mine, but he’s a filmmaker who, consciously or unconsciously, is very much influenced by Friedkin.

Speaking of favourites, I was surprised to only find one western on your Sight and Sound ballot. What is it about The Wild Bunch (1969) that makes it the greatest of all westerns?

Firstly, I have to say that I was deeply ashamed of my ballot. As soon as I sent it off I thought of 10 other things that should have been on there. I can’t believe I forgot to put The General (1926) on there. I don’t know that I think The Wild Bunch is the greatest western. It’s a wonderful movie, and an important movie. Stylistically, it’s a very important movie. As you know, I worked with Peckinpah on The Getaway (1972). I was watching the local Turner channel last night and they were showing Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which I hadn’t seen in years and years. Of course, there’s the famous death scene at the end, and I remember how furious Peckinpah used to get about accusations of him emulating Arthur Penn and the ending of Bonnie and Clyde. I usually kept my mouth shut, but he was steaming about it once so I said to him, “Nobody believes that stuff, everyone knows you stole everything from Kurosawa.” He didn’t think that was so goddam funny, and I was in the dog house for a couple of days. 

He treated me very well though. I was a completely insignificant screenwriter with a big opportunity, but he never dealt with me in those terms. He was a difficult man; there’s no getting around it. Some of it was the drinking. He was beginning to lose control, I think, but there was a natural kind of paranoia, I guess you’d say. He was always testing for disloyalty, that kind of thing. But at the same time, he had a great sense of humour, was very articulate, and was pretty well read too.

Peckinpah was a writer too, of course. Was it useful working with such a distinctive voice so early in your career, or was it a source of tension?

I don’t want to be disrespectful to Sam in any way, but I think he was a very limited writer. I don’t think he really wrote anything that wasn’t a western. He was mainly a television writer. He wrote when television was making probably the least demands on the audience. I don’t think he was a distinguished sensibility until he was a director. Although he didn’t like to admit it, he had seen a lot of European movies and he was very well versed in Kurosawa. He was also very well versed in the history of the western. Those things synthesised. If he was in one sense a very Hollywood guy, he was also a Hollywood outlaw. He wanted to be on the fringe, bristling against the Hollywood establishment.

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), based on Hill’s screenplay

Wasn’t it Peter Bogdanovich who got you the Getaway gig?

That’s exactly right. Peter hired me to write The Getaway while he was getting ready to shoot What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Then he had a falling out with Steve McQueen, but they told me to keep writing. I turned in my first draft and Steve said he wanted to do it. Steve was very much in command. It was his production company, so he was in effect the producer. He’d done a movie with Peckinpah a year before, and I remember he said to me several times, “Sam’s a great director, he just has to be controlled.”

Weren’t he and Peckinpah tearing each other’s throats out on that previous film, Junior Bonner (1972)? 

I didn’t hear many stories about Junior Bonner, but they certainly had some falling outs during the prep for The Getaway. Steve was determined that the film wouldn’t turn out as violent as The Wild Bunch, while Sam was like, “I’m the fucking director. If you want me to direct, I’ll direct. You stay over there in your office and come to the set when you’re called.” I came in one morning and Sam wasn’t there, but there was this big hole in the wall. It looked like a cannon ball had been shot through it. Sam’s secretary said, “Steve threw a magnum of champagne at Sam last night. Thank god he ducked.”

You and Bogdanovich seemed to share a reverence for the old Hollywood masters.

Well, he knew so much more about it than I did. Peter was a real scholar. He was a guy of many talents, but he had a habit of rubbing an awful lot of people the wrong way. I always liked him, but he wasn’t what I would call my kind of guy. I was much friendlier with his wife, Polly Platt. With The Getaway, he didn’t want an old-time screenwriter, he wanted someone fresh and new, but he trusted very few opinions other than Polly’s. He had a very wary eye. Polly had read a bunch of my scripts, I think particularly Hickey & Boggs (1972), and she recommended me. I was familiar with the Jim Thompson book, and I knew Steve was involved, but I remember not being especially happy to get the job. I didn’t have a good feeling about Peter’s approach in terms of this being a Steve McQueen movie. Ultimately it was Steve’s product, he was the producer, and he was close to being the biggest movie star in the world at that time.

Did you and McQueen get on?

Yeah. He resisted people trying to get close to him. I always kept everything polite and business-like, and he did too. We had one meeting about the script where he wanted to see me without Sam. I went up to the roost he was living in above the Chateau Marmont, and his main note was, “I’m saying too much. I don’t have to say all this.” He had perfect confidence that even if everyone else was doing the talking, the scene would still be about him. He was much more than an actor; he was a movie star, and they’re rare. Steve thought like a movie star, he didn’t think like most actors are trained to think. He was loyal only to what he thought his audience wanted. He didn’t give a shit about the opinions of other actors very much, or directors. He didn’t give a shit about producers at all. That was the way it worked.

You’d worked with him before The Getaway, too. In the summer of ’68 you were in San Francisco, working as an assistant director on Bullitt (1968).

Yeah, I was on Bullitt. I was in charge of security and safety. While they were doing a set-up, I had to work out where we would put the police and the other assistants. We were grabbing everybody during the big chase to stop people from running out into the street. We were scared to death that some onlooker would somehow get involved and we’d have a terrible accident. So every goddam shot of that chase I was having a coronary.

The poster for Hill’s 1978 film The Driver

Were there any lessons from that shoot that you were able to take into The Driver (1978)?

There were. We shot the chase for two weeks, which is a very long time. You usually only get a couple of days. I remember thinking we were spending too much time with set-ups inside the car, and not enough on the outside stuff. And I was 100% wrong. The thing that makes the chase great is the POVs, the fact that you’re in the car. Peter Yates and [cinematographer] Bill Fraker deserve a lot of credit for that. 

Steve was very much involved too. Not so much in terms of camera style, but what the cars were gonna do. On the weekends we would go up to a race track in Marin County to test his car and break it in. Steve was not only a fast driver, he was a great driver. He could drive as well as any stunt man. I think there were just two shots they wouldn’t let him do for insurance reasons.

After Peckinpah and McQueen, you were off to Ireland to write for John Huston and Paul Newman on The Mackintosh Man (1973). Huston must have been in his element in Ireland, but that wasn’t a great time for him.

It was a lousy time. He had gotten married and was very unhappy in the marriage to this younger woman. She hated Ireland. It was kind of a mess. I remember that after the movie came out, I had lunch with an older veteran of the screen wars, and told him about how they gave me sole screen credit, even though Huston ended up writing half of it. It was John Huston – a legendary director – Paul Newman and James Mason, all wonderful talents, but the movie stinks. I said it was very disappointing, and that people will probably think the screenplay was so bad that even these people couldn’t overcome it.

You worked for Newman again on The Drowning Pool (1975). What was he like to write for? I understand he could be a pretty tricky customer for screenwriters.

Paul was one of those guys who wanted everybody to love him. If you saw him in a meeting he was very friendly. I heard he was difficult for some writers, but it really didn’t come up with me. Huston, on the other hand… Incredibly engaging, wonderful to talk to, good ironic sense of humour, and a very smart guy who had been around a long time. He’d had a lot of success alongside things that didn’t go so well, but he always seemed to be like Teflon. Failures couldn’t stick to him. Some of his films would’ve retired many a director, but his legend kept him going, and once in a while he’d do something very good.

I found myself in a curious position. I’d done this script to escape a law suit from Warner Brothers, which I won’t bore you with, but I did it just to get myself out of that business. It was meant to be a quick writing job to get me out of trouble and that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t the end of it. I got a call from Warners saying Huston and Newman were gonna do it. I didn’t think it was all that. My first draft was a pretty faithful adaptation of a not very good book, in my opinion. But Huston kept defending the book. Nobody is more respectful of John Huston’s contributions than I am, but in this case, I was right. It was by mutual agreement that I was sent home.

Still, six weeks in Ireland with John Huston makes for a great time. Dinner and lunch with John every day was great, even if he was sick a lot. He’d go a number of days without coming downstairs. His wife always said it was because he didn’t want to deal with her.

Dominique Sanda and Paul Newman in John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (1973), based on Hill’s screenplay

Tell me a bit about those first screenplays. Were you writing in a bid to sell them, or were you looking to direct straight away?

I thought that I would have to write some reasonably successful films in order to get a chance to be a director. The world is such a different place now, and in many ways a lot better. In those days, if you wanted to be a director, there was really no such thing as the independent cinema. Some people were doing good work in documentaries, and there was a little bit of independent cinema, but it didn’t seem to count or matter, and it didn’t seem to meet the definition of making movies, which were a substantial investment of time and money. Movies were things that went out into hundreds of thousands of theatres and sought their fortune. We were all in that game. Writing some movies that worked would hopefully give you license to go out and hunt bear.

There were a lot of debates about the end of cinema, the end of Hollywood, the end of genre. A lot of changes were happening in Hollywood. The influence of European cinema on people of my age was enormous. I was a lot more influenced by the Japanese filmmakers, especially Kurosawa. To me, he remains the master of masters. He made more important films any other single filmmaker. But that was not a popular theory. His reputation had been declining, especially in France, where Godard and a few of the others always decried Kurosawa as being basically overrated, and that Mizoguchi was superior.

So there was a debate about genre, and I said right from the beginning that we’re never gonna get past what we call genre filmmaking. These narratives are the grain of the wood. You’ve got to do them in a fresh way, you can’t do them the same way they were done in 1945. Whether it was through style, character, or narrative concerns, we had to escape the conventions of bourgeois mentality that had put a lid on so many aspects of filmmaking. Which we did, to our profit and loss. We could have profanity, nudity and more realistic violence, but you couldn’t make a movie about the French revolution. It pretty much wiped out historical dramas. Subject matter became more restricted than ever before.

Genre has always been a useful tool for tackling social and political questions, but it’s a fine art to weaving those things in without it becoming too theoretical.

Well, that’s the task! Some people are good at it, some aren’t. At 80 years old, I’m not as mobile or capable a director as I was. I couldn’t go make Southern Comfort (1981) now; it’s just too physical. But I certainly think I’m writing as well as I ever did. As a matter of fact, I’m under the impression that I might be writing better, but that’s for other people to decide.

Southern Comfort (1981)

You once described action movies as the “purest form of cinema”.

Well, yes, in a sense. They usually have the most clear narratives. Doesn’t mean they’re not morally complicated. Then there’s the physical aspect: what is it that separates motion pictures from novels, plays or graphic arts? It’s our ability to photograph motion in narrative terms, and make meaning out of action, what people are doing.

You’ve always had a great eye for a fight scene. The whip fight in Dead for a Dollar is inspired, as is the knife fight in The Long Riders (1980).

We shot a couple of versions of that Long Riders fight one morning and they were just lousy. I got the cast together and told them I was about to go have lunch with Sam Fuller down in the commissary, and I wanna bring him back to show him the fight. I said it’s going to be awful embarrassing if this is what we’re gonna show him. This goddam thing stinks, and it’s not coming together. You guys better be prepared to be embarrassed. I had lunch with Sam, and he came back to the set, lighting up his gigantic cigar. We set up with the handkerchief between the two actors’ teeth, and he instantly said, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like that.” I called action and the two actors, David Carradine and James Remar, almost killed each other for Sam Fuller. I should’ve brought him down every day.

You’ve spoken about Alien (1979) a lot in the past, but I wanted to ask you about its original director, before Ridley Scott came on board. What was Robert Aldrich’s vision for the film?

David Giler and I had re-written the script, and the studio wanted to make it. So we started sending it out to prominent directors, and they all passed. We held out for Aldrich, who had just finished shooting The Choirboys (1977), and he called back and said he really liked it. We went to visit him in his very dramatic penthouse, with its sunken sofas and dim lighting. Aldrich has two ways of dressing. He either wears these overalls, like a farmer, or a suit, but with the tie undone. We go see him and he’s dressed like a farmer. Both David and I were huge fans of his. He was such an important director, one of the most anarchical sensibilities that ever got loose in Hollywood, and a good man too.

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), produced and co-written by Hill

He said he liked the script, that it’s a patrol movie, a horror movie – it does all that stuff. “It will always be about what the creature is,” he said. “The success or failure of this thing will depend on that, so we’ll have to be very inventive. I was thinking we could get an orangutan… and shave it.”

Wow.

It was a strange idea, but it was certainly inventive. He didn’t want to leave the US to shoot it though, and we were already locked into Pinewood. The studio said no, we had to shoot it where Star Wars (1977) was made, as they had a call on the stage. Then The Choirboys came out, which was commercially and critically a dud. So that ended that.

We went out looking again and got another series of rejections. Then David had gone to the Cannes Film Festival, where he saw Ridley’s The Duellists (1977). He came back and said, “there’s a guy who shoots really good, and he seems to do good stuff with sound.” We thought that as a second-time director we could scare him enough that he wasn’t going to change the fucking script. Ridley wanted to do it and it proceeded from there.

I want to ask you about one of my favourite films of yours, Extreme Prejudice (1987). There are shades of Dead for a Dollar in there in its moral conflict, as well as hat-tips to Peckinpah, not least in that final shoot-out. I was surprised, revisiting it recently, to see you didn’t have a writing credit on it.

I wrote almost all of the Powers Boothe stuff, but I didn’t put in for credit. It was John Milius and one of his buddies. John and I have known each other for years. We were never close friends, but I liked him. Out of that whole generation of scriptwriters coming out in the 1970s, I thought John’s scripts were the best reads. They were like reading a good novel. I thought Paul Schrader wrote the deepest stuff though, the most intelligent. There was always a lot going on in Schrader’s scripts. I’m a great respecter of Paul and his work, the way he’s hung on. I thought I wrote the best tough-guy stuff, that was my little niche. But I think best screenwriter of our generation turned out to be Paul.

Extreme Prejudice (1987)

Nick Nolte is the lead in Extreme Prejudice. For my money he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation. Tell me about working with him on 48 Hrs (1982). How did such a seasoned pro take to working with the cocky new kid on the block, Eddie Murphy?

You’re right in your assessment of how good he is, but he has a lot of self-destructive tendencies, I’m sorry to say, which means his career hasn’t perhaps had the full flowering that it should have. He didn’t really want to do 48 Hrs. He had borrowed a lot of money from the studio or something and he owed them a movie. Nick didn’t want to play a cop.

Wasn’t it written for Eastwood?

That was years before. But Clint wasn’t going to be the cop, because that would’ve made it Dirty Harry (1971). Clint was going to be the prisoner, but he decided to go do Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Then, as I was leaving that earlier version of the project to go do Southern Comfort or The Long Riders, I don’t remember which, I suggested Richard Pryor. But that was dismissed instantly. So I went on to do a couple of things, and then Larry Gordon called me when I was in post on Southern Comfort and asked if I wanted to do 48 Hrs.

Nick Nolte was in by this point, and he asked if I still wanted a Black actor to play the other role. But there was one catch, in that they had to have the movie out by Christmas, and this was probably March. We wanted Gregory Hines to play the prisoner, who wanted to do it, but was locked into Sophisticated Lady on Broadway. So it was suggested by Eddie Murphy’s agent that we look at these tapes of Eddie, who was not well known. I sent the tapes to [studio head] Michael Eisner, but he and I did not get along.

Walter Hill
François Bouchon/Figarophoto

You had a double-act to deal with in Michael Eisner and producer Don Simpson on that one.

Don was a character. I got along fine with him. You could tell Don he was full of shit and he didn’t take it bad. They used to send me his notes and I just threw them in the waste basket. But Eisner, to his credit, called me back and said if we can make a deal with Eddie Murphy, let’s go with him.

There had already been a number of careers that had come out of Saturday Night Live and into motion pictures, people like Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray. Eddie was shooting around the clock on SNL, but I went to meet him and that went well. So I flew back, and I remember saying to Nolte, “Nick, I’ll tell you something. This guy’s very talented, but he is not a trained actor. What that means is, you’ve got to be good every take, because the one take he’s good, that’s the one we’re gonna go with.” Nick grumbled, but he’s a generous man by nature, and he was really good with Eddie.

You’ve always shot quick. That must have seen you in good stead for the smaller, independent films you started making later in your career.

Like everything, there’s good and bad, and profit and loss with this digital revolution. You can shoot much faster now than you could 30 years ago, and if there’s something you don’t like you can fix it in post. I’m like any old guy in that there are aspects of the old times that I miss. But there’s a lot of good stuff being made today. I wish more of it was being done in Hollywood, but that’s a different story.

Nobody knows where it’s going. It’s all going to streaming, but the streaming outfits claim to be losing millions. They’re probably telling the truth. Nobody believes in network TV any more, and, most crucially, nobody believes in theatres except for huge spectacle movies. Something like Avatar (2009) will always have a place on a very big screen.

Motion pictures are a hundred or so years old. They’ve evolved enormously. There’s been good work done in every era. But the world always wants stories. If you go to the smallest village in Tibet, the hut at the end of town will have an aerial, and inside they’ll be watching I Love Lucy. That’s the nature of the human beast. Nobody can tell you how the future is going to play out, but one thing I do know is that stories will be demanded and stories will be told.


Dead for a Dollar is out now on Blu-ray and to stream from iTunes and YouTube.


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