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Monte Hellman, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 91, was nothing short of a legendary figure in American independent cinema.
From his start in the Roger Corman stable in the early 1960s, a veritable breeding ground for the talent that would emerge at the tail end of the decade, Hellman began his career with a bang, forging a partnership with Jack Nicholson that would yield four features as director – two written by Nicholson himself, one by Carole Eastman, who would go on to write Five Easy Pieces (1970) for Bob Rafelson.
From his first two B-movie quickies with Nicholson, Back Door to Hell (1964) and Flight to Fury (1964), shot back-to-back in the Philippines, Hellman developed a style that played with established genre sensibilities to singular effect. It was his next two pictures however, that cemented his reputation abroad: two hypnotic westerns that paved the way for the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1968) are remarkable films, all the more so given the fact that each shoot lasted a mere 17 days.
The Shooting in particular is a masterpiece of form and invention, a Beckettian fever dream set on the Utah salt plains starring Nicholson and Hellman regular Warren Oates. It subverts and deconstructs traditional notions of western archetypes and builds to a conclusion of breathtaking tension and ambiguity.
Later came the existential masterwork Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), a film which picks apart the notion of American self-mythologising, deconstructing the essence of the American Dream on the cusp of a new decade.
Hellman’s was a career spent as much in limbo between projects, from filming second unit on the likes of Robocop (1987) and filling in for directors who’d died during production, to helping young filmmakers get their work off the ground – whether it be young upstarts like Quentin Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs (1992) Hellman produced, or old stalwarts like Sam Peckinpah, for whom he cut The Killer Elite (1975).
There was a gap of some 20 years between Hellman’s last two features, the for-hire gig Silent Night, Night Deadly 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) and the deeply personal Road to Nowhere (2010).
Hellman was very active on social media in the months running up to the release of the latter back in 2010, and generously agreed to a conversation about his career for the (now long-defunct) blog I had at the time. Said blog vanished into the ether many years back, but I was delighted to find a copy of the interview on an old hard drive last year. What was meant as a short, 30-minute chat turned into a two-hour conversation on the telephone from Hellman’s Los Angeles home, where he was preparing for a retrospective of his work at the American Cinematheque.
Matthew Thrift: How did you first get involved with Roger Corman?
Monte Hellman: It’s kinda funny. I was working as an apprentice film editor at American Broadcasting Studios, just east of Vermont Street, and my job was cleaning out the film vaults originally, stuff that had been in there 100 years. These were the studios that Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford started. I used to take my lunch up in Griffith Park, and I saw this young director shooting a movie who turned out to be Roger Corman. I didn’t say hello to him at the time but I was married to a young actress and she began working on Roger’s movie and that’s how I first met him.
Were you confident going into Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)? It must have been reassuring being surrounded by filmmakers in a similar position to yourself – Coppola, Bogdanovich, Jack Hill…
Well, at that time I didn’t know how many there were! I wasn’t aware of all these other people, I was very early on in the Corman stable. I didn’t have any confidence at all, I didn’t know what I was doing! OK, I take it back, perhaps I knew a little as at the time I’d been working as an apprentice editor, observing a wonderful film editor and I learnt a lot from him, perhaps more than I did going to film school.
What exactly was your contribution to The Terror (1963)?
As far as I know there were three directors: Roger Corman, Francis Coppola and myself. I was the third and Jack Hill was my screenwriter.
Roger started making the movie without a full-blown script – he’d shot for two days on a set he had left over from a previous movie with Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, and had asked Francis to write a script and finish the movie. Francis worked for about five weeks and Roger didn’t really feel that he was getting anywhere, so he hired me for five days to finish it and I think I had maybe twice as much footage after five days as Francis had shot after five weeks!
How did your relationship with Jack Nicholson come about?
I don’t remember when we actually met, but we became friends when I was associate producer on a picture a friend of mine was shooting for Roger called The Wild Ride (1960) in northern California. We formed a partnership and began working on a screenplay which never got made.
Was that Epitaph?
That’s right. We worked on The Terror and then the four pictures together after.
Can you describe the writing process with Nicholson?
We took a ship to the Philippines and he wrote the script for Flight to Fury on the ship. He’d go down to the lobby or whatever you call it on a ship, and write each day, getting feedback and information from whatever passengers were kibitzing at the time. On Ride in the Whirlwind, we rented an office in Beverley Hills, right next door to Fred Astaire’s office, in a building called the Writer’s Building, appropriately enough. We’d go there every day and I would pace and he would sit down and write the script out in longhand.
I understand you did a bit of acting yourself back then, right?
Well, I acted in Summer Stock but not in the movies really.
Didn’t you go to acting classes with Jack Nicholson and Robert Blake, taught by Martin Landau?
I did, but as a director. I did the same exercises the actors did but I wasn’t really interested in it at the time.
Didn’t you know James Dean too?
I knew James Dean at UCLA. I had the honour of telling him he’d never make it because he was too short.
How did he take that?
I don’t think he believed me [laughs].
It must have been a steep learning curve, filming two features back-to-back in the Philippines. Did you enjoy the process?
It was enjoyable and it was a nightmare. I loved the weather, I just love hot weather, I don’t care if it’s dry or wet. So I directed the movies in shorts, with a handkerchief on my head and drank coconut juice every day, eating fresh pineapples straight off the tree. We had great beer too! I don’t know how they got it cold, they didn’t have any refrigerators but they managed to get ice from Lord knows where.
It was a great experience. The first picture we shot was Back Door to Hell and I enjoyed it a lot. We were really in the middle of nowhere, deep in the jungles south of Lausanne. It was fantastic, we had a typhoon in the middle of the shoot and everyone said, “You can’t shoot,” so I said “Let’s shoot!” So we shot the typhoon [laughs].
Then I got some mysterious illness and I was in the hospital for the three weeks between the two pictures. It was time for me to go out and scout locations but I wasn’t up to it, then Jack came in to my hospital room and put his hands on my head and said “You will be well! You will be well!” and the next day I jumped out of bed and got in the jeep and we went scouting locations – I was fine!
You shot Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting back-to-back soon after. Were you able to utilise lessons you’d learnt in the Philippines for the two westerns?
I don’t know. Whatever you learn, it’s incremental. You don’t know if you’re learning it when you’re shooting or when you’re between pictures. It’s been 20 years between my last feature and Road to Nowhere and I’ve learnt an enormous amount in that time. Maybe it’s because I was teaching and I learnt from my students? I’m not sure what the process is but of course you learn on every movie.
On Back Door to Hell I used a dolly for the first time. Then we used several kinds of dollies; I used a wheelchair as a dolly, I used a bicycle as a dolly, we didn’t have a real dolly, but I made my first dolly shots! Every time you try something you learn from it.
How did Carole Eastman get involved with The Shooting?
I had done a few additional scenes for some of Roger’s movies that needed to be expanded for television. He had shot the movies as second features for theatrical release and they were 60-minute movies, which for television needed to be expanded to 70 minutes. So I added 10 minutes to not only Beast From Haunted Cave, which was my movie, but to three of Roger’s movies that were in the same situation: Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961), Last Woman on Earth (1960) and Ski Troop Attack (1960).
Carole was a friend of mine and an actress primarily, and I asked her to write a title song for one of the films, so she wrote Creature from the Haunted Sea, a very funny song which the lead actress, Betsy Jones-Moreland, had to sing in one of the scenes I shot. That was my initial involvement with her creatively, as opposed to just socially.
Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting seem to purposefully subvert and reject traditional western archetypes. Did you set out to put a new stamp on the genre?
I don’t know how much was really conscious. I know that at least in the development of Ride in the Whirlwind – when I say development I know that’s a strange term to apply to a script which was written in four weeks and then went immediately into production – but we knew we wanted to play a few tricks on some of the traditional aspects of the western.
With John Ford, you know that if a character is revealed as liking his mother, or his dog, then he was going to die. We decided not to do that kind of thing; to start with traditional scenes but let them play out with a different conclusion.
With The Shooting, I don’t think I ever had that discussion with Carole, she just kinda did her thing! I would go and read her five or seven pages at the end of each day; I’d be shooting with Jack all day then I’d go see her at night to decide if we were going to go in the same direction or take a different road. It was a very incremental and open-ended process; she didn’t have an outline she’d work from, she’d just let each scene lead her into the next one.
You made four films with perhaps my favourite actor, Warren Oates. How did you both meet?
He was someone that Jack knew, I’d only seen him in a stage production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I was toying with the idea of Sterling Hayden and Donna Winter for The Shooting, and one day I was in a bookstore in Beverley Hills and in a flash I had the single idea of Millie Perkins, Warren Oates and Will Hutchins, all three. I don’t know where the idea of Will Hutchins came from, but I’m sure that the idea of using Warren Oates came from the experience of seeing him in Cuckoo’s Nest. Millie was my next door neighbour, so that was easy.
What would you say the differences were between his acting style and Jack Nicholson’s? Who was easier to direct?
At that time, Jack was really discovering who he was as an actor. I think he made some connections when we were in the Philippines. I remember when we were shooting Flight to Fury, there was a scene where he was sitting under a tree apart from everyone else, and whilst he was sitting under that tree, a chestnut or something must have fallen on his head, because afterwards he said he’d had a real revelation and that he finally understood what it was all about, what acting was for him. Apparently it was a real breakthrough moment for him; he certainly thought it was. Warren had a few years more experience, but was a little more sure of who he was as an actor. Jack was still making a lot of discoveries, even when we made the westerns.
I understand Warren was something of a poet too. Have you read any of his work?
I never saw any of his poetry until after he was dead. I don’t think anything was ever published, I’ve only ever seen a few pages of things.
You also had the experience of directing Sam Peckinpah, who has a great little scene in China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). Did he take direction well?
I was grateful that he made the trip to appear in the movie and I was also grateful that it was only one day of shooting (laughs). Any more would have been the end of me. He was so difficult! He wouldn’t say the lines, he would just do anything to avoid making a commitment as an actor.
Was that a conscious thing do you think? Was he just being mischievous?
No, I just think he was afraid, I think he was seriously afraid.
How did that experience compare to when you cut The Killer Elite for him?
That was earlier. We’d go into the cutting room at nine in the morning and he’d keep us there until he came to review our work at the end of the day, which was usually at around 10 or 10:30 at night. We’d have to stay until he arrived and he’d always arrive completely drunk – it was alcohol at that particular time – and you’d think that he would just be completely incapable of doing the job, but he was just brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. He would speak so quietly that you would have to put your ear an inch away from his lips to hear what he was saying, but he would come up with these simply astounding ideas. I think I learnt more from him in those few weeks of editing than almost anything else I’ve done.
Am I right in thinking you were going to direct Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid?
Yes, I developed it. I was originally hired to direct it by Gordon Carroll, I’d developed the screenplay with Ray Wurlitzer, but then it was put into development hell at MGM and shelved for three years. Then a new administration came in, headed by the man who had just produced Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and they found the script and decided to make it with Sam.
I’m particularly fond of China 9, Liberty 37. There’s a romanticism in the film that’s absent from many of your other works; the characters’ decisions are governed as much by love and lust as by their sense of honour. How did that film come about?
I’d been having meetings for several years with (producer) Elliott Kastner, who sent me a script that he had. He was in Rome setting it up and he asked me to direct it. I said that the script had a lot of problems which he replied were fixable, then he asked how quickly I could get to Rome.
This was a couple of days before Christmas, which I was planning to spend with my family, so I said, “How about I come just after the firstof the year?” So in those eight days I wrote a new script, which was essentially China 9, Liberty 37, loosely based on his script. I arrived in Rome and his partners there loved the script, and he hated it! So he dropped out of the project and I made the picture for these very ‘colourful’ Italian producers. It was a great shoot.
Your compositional sensibilities have always been extraordinary – the way you utilise the foreground and background of a frame for emotional impact. The hanging man at the start of Ride in the Whirlwind, the gas station paraphernalia in Two-Lane Blacktop, the tree-trunk separating Oates and Hutchins from Perkins in The Shooting, Jack Nicholson standing over Dewey Martin in his hotel room in Flight to Fury, Fabio Testi and Jenny Agutter close together but miles apart emotionally after the dinner scene in China 9. Do you spend much time storyboarding these kinds of elements, or discussing them with your DoP, or are you generally clear of a scene’s requirements once you’re on location?
The only picture that I ever storyboarded, in a very crude way, was Beast From Haunted Cave. I did it late at night and would arrive on the set having had no sleep, and I soon realised that wasn’t a good way for me to work. I don’t think I ever did it again.
Two-Lane Blacktop is like an anti-mythic update on the western. How did you arrive at the decision to end the movie with the famous ‘burn-out’ of the celluloid itself?
The original screenplay ended with ‘Those satisfactions are permanent’ and the GTO going off into the sunset, which is probably the logical place to end it. But I had a dream one night, which is the way that I do a lot of my creative work, and I dreamt the new ending.
I wrestled with the idea for a few days because I was uncomfortable with it from the point of view that I felt that it was an intellectual concept – this idea of the film burning in the gate was somehow not organic but intellectual. I immediately thought that it referenced Persona (1966), so I played with the idea and ultimately thought that as intellectual as it might be, there was an emotional resonance to it, it did have an impact on me, it certainly had an impact in my dream, so I decided to go for it, and sure enough half the world thinks it’s an intellectual conceit and the other half likes it, so who knows?
You’re often labelled an existentialist, and you’ve spoken in the past of the influence of Sartre and Camus on your work – there’s certainly something of L’etranger in The Shooting. Is that a label you’re comfortable with?
I don’t mind being called an existentialist as there may be a little bit of truth to that; but my two westerns that are often called existential westerns, I don’t see that they relate to existentialism. People refer to them that way, and I guess it’s become an easy label, but I don’t see how it applies.
Literally, existentialism refers to the idea that ‘existence exceeds essence’. Dramatically in Sartre it’s the idea that a character has to make a choice, that he has freedom of choice but he’s going to do what his experience has led him to do at that moment. He can change his direction but he doesn’t. Maybe if I really thought about it I could find a way that that connects to Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting but I don’t see it immediately (laughs).
You’ve spoken about the impact of the JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations on the making of The Shooting, and Two-Lane Blacktop feels in some way reactionary to the period that preceded its production. Would you consider yourself politically motivated in the making of your films? There are certainly a number of different academic readings of those two pictures in particular. Are you interested in those kinds of intellectualised readings of your films, or are you more concerned with their emotional impact?
I love reading everybody’s interpretation of any movie that I make, I’m fascinated by all these different readings, but my primary intent is to move the audience. It goes back to D.W. Griffith saying “What I’m trying to do, above all, is to make you see.” I would agree with that but also add to it “…and make you feel”.
There’s an elegiac quality to your films, a certain fatalism that suggests the end of a given era or way of life. Few of your characters seem to get what they want by the end of your pictures, and even fewer make it to the end in one piece. Many are victims of circumstance, fighting forces beyond their control – essentially good men who are punished for their bad decisions (Warren Oates in The Shooting and China 9, Nicholson in Ride in the Whirlwind), whilst others suffer as a result of their own flaws, whether it’s greed (in Flight to Fury) or an obsessive need to compete (Two-Lane Blacktop; Cockfighter, 1974).
All seem to be searching for something, yet few seem to find it. You seem to hold little stock in redemption. When Gashade asks Millie Perkins’ character what the point of it all is in The Shooting, she simply tells him there isn’t any. Do you think your early films in particular tend towards the nihilistic or the fatalistic? Or is there humour to be found in the futility of the characters’ battles against inevitability?
I think those kind of stories appeal to me, and that’s what draws me to them or guides them in that direction, especially if I’m involved in the writing process. Obviously it’s not much fun making a movie that you wouldn’t want to go see, so those are the types of film I inevitably end up making.
There’s a real economy in the cutting of your films: they’re all incredibly lean and brilliantly paced. What are your principle concerns when it comes to cutting and shaping a picture? Do you cut to the strength of the performances, narrative momentum, or more to establish a mood in a given scene?
Having worked in the editing room with some brilliant editors, they’re always kind of shocked at the way that I edit because I do edit for performance. There’s no academic approach to it, it’s purely the way the chips lie and it creates a kind of arrhythmia in a way that startles film editors. Performance is always the most important aspect and that’s what I go for.
What was it about the production of Cockfighter that made it such a bad experience for you?
It wasn’t so much a bad experience, I just wasn’t happy with the script because I was cut short in my work on it. I was allowed to bring in a writer for a number of weeks and at the end of the first week we were told we could only have one more week, so instead of being able to go through the whole script methodically from beginning to end, we just had to pick certain scenes that we would work on.
Roger Corman notoriously re-cut Cockfighter without your involvement. He’s clearly an incredibly astute businessman, but do you think his need to sell a picture can often cause it to suffer from an artistic perspective?
I don’t know if the things he did ultimately had any impact at all. As you know, the people who bought the movie for video wanted the original version, they wanted the director’s cut, so what we see now is the version I intended to be seen. It’s happened on many of my pictures: the producer has come in with what he thought were better ideas but the marketplace has finally exonerated me.
What are your thoughts on the film now?
I’ve always liked the documentary aspects of it; some of that stuff is amazing, especially those people who are real cockfighters. I’ve always enjoyed that part of it.
We’re still waiting for a UK home release; I think there are still certification problems due to the cockfights.
The US DVD is pretty great. Nestor Almendros [the film’s cinematographer] preferred that to any of the prints because the colour was finally corrected properly. It really looks great.
Your films are pretty much all road movies in some form or another. Some in an explicit sense, like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Shooting. Ride in the Whirlwind is a journey interrupted, followed by an escape, its characters on the run, much like Flight to Fury. Even Beast from Haunted Cave involves a trek across the mountains, and Cockfighter and Iguana (1988) have a certain circular structure to their journeys. What is it that attracts you to this type of story? Is Road to Nowhere structured similarly?
The idea of the road movie as a separate genre is, in a way, a little absurd because every movie is in some way a road movie. [The German film theorist] Siegfried Kracauer said that any legitimate movie had to take place in the street or in the road; if you had a set with no windows onto the road then it wasn’t a real movie, it was a play.
Was making Road to Nowhere an enjoyable experience?
The best ever. One of my characters says a line that I’ve frequently said in real life, which is, “The first job of the director is casting. The second job of the director is casting. The third job of the director is casting.” It’s 90 per cent of the job and I can’t remember what the other 10 per cent is.
I ended up with a fabulous cast, and any of the casting decisions that could have gone awry, and nearly did, could have destroyed the movie. I was very lucky. One of my mentors was Arthur Hopkins, and he talks about the casting gods, and if the casting gods smile on you there’s nothing more auspicious for a successful endeavour.
You shot Road to Nowhere on a Canon 5D, I understand?
Yeah, it’s the first feature film to be shot entirely with a DSLR.
I’ve not seen it yet, but I understand it’s a movie about the making of another movie, or certainly contains that element. Where do you think the film fits into your filmography?
It’s a road movie, it covers three continents, it’s a movie about real life and it’s a complete fantasy. It’s anything you want it to be [laughs].
How do you think the business has changed in the past 50 years in terms of getting a picture made?
I think it just gets harder, and harder and harder. I hate to be a conspiracy theorist but I think that part of it is really by design. The studios literally put themselves out of business by destroying the video industry. They set up these little kiosks where they were renting their movies, and only their movies, for $1 a day and our biggest video store, which was Blockbuster, was destroyed. Blockbuster was the only place that the independents could get a fair shake, if someone came in and came across your video box and liked it, there was a chance they might rent it. That’s not there anymore.
You made Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting in 35 days in 1965. Why isn’t it possible any more to go to Utah with a bunch of actor pals and a digital video camera and come back with two masterpieces 35 days later?
Those movies couldn’t get made today. It’s possible to make a movie for under $100,000 today with a digital camera, but it’s not going to look like what we think a movie should look like.
Road to Nowhere looks like a movie that was shot on film, only it’s shot digitally; it’s only because we took the same pains with lighting and so on that it looks so good. You don’t need lights to shoot with a digital camera, but it won’t look real, it won’t be representative of cinematic reality anyway. That’s the bottom line.
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