Walter Hill Chapter 7


INT: I want to go over this again. We mentioned around '80 to '84 you did WARRIORS, LONG RIDERS, STREETS OF FIRE, and SOUTHERN COMFORT. And you also wrote ALIEN?
WH: A little before. I was working on the script just before WARRIORS and after THE DRIVER.


INT: Where did the idea for ALIEN come from?
WH: It was an original script by a couple of fellas given to me through an intermediary. DAVID GILER and I had a company production deal at FOX. Hoping we would take it on. We thought it was a very crude script. If it was developed we thought it might potentially be a good film. We had the idea at the time, which is commonplace now, that if you did what was always perceived in Hollywood as a B picture with new hyped techniques, terrific photography, in your face dub, better special effects than the crude things used in these films. This was not the first movie that had that kind of story line. You kept it simple and hard, maybe a different reality to the characters. We used to describe it as truckers in space. None of this was in the script. I did a couple of passes. DAVID and I together did a couple. That's what ended up as the final film. We produced it, it was a good film. I think it's still, after all these years I think it's RIDLEY's best movie. I'm proud to be associated with it.


INT: Did you ever have hopes directing it?
WH: I was going to at a time but I dropped out. I didn’t know enough about the facts. I wasn’t the kind of guy who had patience in post production for it. In a way, it turned out to be a hit, but I think I was right. I think RIDLEY was right in his wheel house as they say. He did a marvelous job with it. I've never regretted the decision. I think the film maxed out the way it turned out. I think the contribution DAVID and I made in terms of the script, didn't get screen credit, which was a bit of a frizz, but at the same time show business is funny the way these things work. We were both very happy with one of the few times where you made a contribution and everything seemed to turn out well. The discovery of SIGOURNEY was a lot of fun. She did a marvelous job.


INT: Special effects is not something you have a great deal of patience with?
WH: Floor effects I have no problem with. All this post stuff. It's just a question of who you are and what your taste is.


INT: One question, getting back to the action, do you storyboard your action sequences?
WH: No. I did storyboard a little bit on GERONIMO because it was complicated. It was in the budget, a young guy who was an Indian who showed up. I liked him a lot, his sketches, so I thought maybe we will get something out of this. There is something about the way I stage and shoot that isn't conducive to storyboarding. I think it has to do with the sets, the fact you are finding things outdoors. You can lay things out but the wrangler says the horse can't climb the hill. Usually your storyboard goes over the shoulder.


INT: If you are not storyboarding sequences, are you rehearsing them on the day, enough time?
WH: Well it’s a little tricky. You’ve talked about it a head of time what you are generally going to do. Somehow you go out there and make it work. [INT: Use multiple cameras?] Yeah. Usually on fights and things. I use two and three. On certain stunts I use as many as five but that is rare. [INT: Action sequences are ultimately mechanical?] You have to be careful. You know but sometimes the people in the audience don't understand. You do not hire stunt men because they can get hurt and the actors aren't supposed to. It's different. You don't want to get anybody hurt. Compliment the drama, take time and be careful and knock on wood I've been very lucky about people not getting hurt on my sets. Do some tough stuff. I think it's all towards what you want the audience to feel. I have an idea that rarely are you meant to glory in the action and violence in the end. If you are honest about drama, there is a sense of melancholy in the end. And I think you can see it very much in my films, there is a touch of sadness to the end of things. A slight sense of futility that its come to this kind of thing. Slight sense of melancholy is almost always necessary if you are doing anything good. It applies to comedies also. There is a wistful quality that gets into the very best comedies at the end, that the journey is now complete. We are going to leave these characters and go on. I think that the audience doesn't always love the idea but I think they accept it. I think that they can go with the honesty of it. I think its HEMINGWAY, but all loves story ends sad, somebody dies first. Nobody how pure and good the love. They all have sad endings. I think as storytellers you cant set out always to tell a sad story. I think you cant avoid a certain dramatic and human truth. You need to touch on it. Just a touch, maybe obliquely. My common criticism of direction is I feel that a lot of people just hit things to hard. They make them too obvious. You can touch on things and its there. It's a lot of times people believing the audience won't be with them.


INT: The business, the touch of wistfulness and sadness is a subversive idea in Hollywood?
WH: I think it is if you are talking to executives and producers. I think historically it's true. I certainly think the only film, I've done a lot of films that are kinetic. I think I've only done one movie that is perceived to be a flat out comedy and that was BREWSTER'S MILLIONS with PRYOR. Whatever its deficiencies, I think the wistful quality was there. I was happy about that. The picture did well and made money. [INT: Had you not had that, would it have possibly made a little more money?] Possibly, no one knows either. [INT: Even IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE has a wistful quality about it.] Sure. You know, whether it's THE APARTMENT or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, any number of LEO MCCAREY movies, this is not something I discovered, this is a known truth for a long time. But I think that people don't like to address it.


INT: It's finding, another way to say that, I had never thought about this before, it's where the humanity finally is in the film, a comedy or action film. When you get to a wistful feeling that’s where the humanity is, you are invoking real feelings?
WH: I like to think that. I have tried however imperfectly, but I think so many of the last scenes in the films are attempts at getting to a wistful melancholy, even when you put the jokes in. The last scene in 48 HOURS where Reggie steals the cigarette lighter, but they say goodbye to each other. But they are cognizant of where they are and the perish ability of their time together. It's now gone and it was a remarkable 48 hours. [INT: One other thing about that moment that is more sophisticated, that is the inescapability of the characters. he stole the lighter, NOLTE pulled it back.] Still cop and crook. [INT: Hadn't changed.] They had changed. Found an understanding, achieved a muted respect for one another. Which they did not have at the beginning, but as to their essential nature, I think you are quite right, they are who they were.


INT: Getting us into 48 HOURS, there's the issue in the making of the film, dealing with EISNER, was you were making an action film with humor, and they wanted a comedy film with violence?
WH: That’s complicated. They started out wanting an action movie. When EDDIE came into it they slathered for a comedy. At that point, the conventional wisdom of studio people was a comedy for a reasonable amount of money was the best financial bet for a studio. They I think saw me as somebody who was not only one of the writers, but a director of a movie that had made money before. THE WARRIORS. But when EDDIE came into it, I think they thought this is now not the guy to take us to our dream, meaning me. In their eyes I was not known as a comedy director. I think the seeds of acrimony were pretty well laid down. And there was plenty of that. Until I stopped reading them I found some of their story notes were utterly insulting in their simplicity. It was a tricky time, DON SIMPSON was in his last days as a studio executive, he was not happy. I never got along with EISNER very well. Great businessman, but I never thought he was a lot of help in the creative ways. It was a good shoot. EDDIE was terrific. I loved working with NICK. I always said about the movie, if you went to it as an action movie it was very funny. If you went as a comedy, you were appalled by the violence. This was a little abstract for their understanding. One of the executives told me I would never work at PARAMOUNT again. A few years later I worked there and he was gone.


INT: This story is a classic director story. It has all the dramatic elements of what it is to be a director. You are hired to do a film which everyone things you are appropriate, then a piece of casting which greed begins to dominate the thinking. Now they see EDDIE MURPHY and they see opportunity. There is the director. before EDDIE MURPHY is on, now he is the wrong person. How did you insulate yourself. Most directors in that situation, how did you steal yourself to get through that movie so that you would still believe you were the right person?
WH: I never had a problem with that. I always assumed that most jobs they didn't want me. I just think you have to be very resilient. It's part of this craft. Always looking for somebody, we can't finance our films, somebody who says yes and let's us do it. Nine times out of ten, whoever you ask will say no. You can't let it get to you. I never doubted that I was going to do a reasonable job on the film. I had no idea that EDDIE was going to break through quite the way he did. People say to me what a great discovery, EDDIE really owes you. I always thought the other side of it. Number one he was a tremendous talent. I was just the guy who was smart enough to use him, but if I hadn't someone else would. The second thing is EDDIE could have killed me. Given the politics of the damn thing, if EDDIE had gone to them I would have really had a problem. The fact we were a good shooting company, not in trouble budget-wise, everybody getting along made us a united front. when the studio tried to get into it and the dailies aren't funny as they could have been, we basically said "Fuck you."


INT: You knew when you were shooting it that the film was good?
WH: I thought so. I thought EDDIE was doing fine. Their problem was, 25 years ago hindsight is easy, but their conception of a funny black man at that time, first place they thought there was only room for one and RICHARD PRYOR was there. if you were a funny black man you needed to act like RICHARD PRYOR. EDDIE was something different, new, not RICHARD. Both are great, but EDDIE had his own way. Money, the only thing they think is safe is the imitation of something already successful. The same thing no matter what studio or network. The money only thinks the money is safe by imitating something they have seen be successful. They are half right. There seems to be a patience with the audience that they will watch the second third and fourth Xerox copy and at some point they get sick of it. At that point the studio is in peril of the total rejection, have to try something different. The good executives, rare though they are, have to understand that principle. Filmmakers, you are either being asked to imitate something else that they saw that was successful or to imitate your own success from the past. Both of which are horrendous kidney punches to anybody trying to do something. The reality is they are not so unsophisticated that it baldly gets put that way, but that's what it really is. That's one of the thing I admired but disliked about EISNER is he did put it that way. He would be very direct. EISNER was also good about one thing. Didn't care about what you thought. So many of them are kind of obsequious in the room, as soon as you leave the knives come out. Or they are worried they will be foolish and you will make a hit. MICHAEL had his opinions. I didn't think they were any good but he had them.


INT: What happened when the picture was such a success, did you have a conversation with him?
WH: No, never did. They insulated. Signed EDDIE to a long term contract, I went over to UNIVERSAL and did a movie. One of the hardest things, I'm sure you will appreciate this, is two films in a row for the same organization. Usually there is so much blood on the trail you go your own way for a couple of years until they decide they love you again, if they ever decide it. But the truth is they don't love you anyway. You don't love them. [INT: Nobody acknowledged that it was a success.] They acknowledged it, but never came in and say boy you were right, we were wrong. They fashioned it that we listened to them. We have to ask too much to get you to do it right. They all say as funny as it was it wouldn't have been funny if we didn't want it funnier. The stacks of bullshit in the business are endless. Your opponents to doing as good a work as you can do are often very clever people. That's probably the most dispiriting of all. They are not stupid and remedial.


INT: Terrific story. Let's talk about SOUTHERN COMFORT, which is a wonderful film. How did that film happen?
WH: DAVID and I, our company at FOX, we had developed a survival story in the swamps. Hired a fella to write a draft and then DAVID and I took it over and rewrote it. No studio wanted to make it, but an independent guy showed up who had a relationship with FOX. Liked it, said he would finance it. You have to get used to rejection. All you need is one person to say yes. Those who say no you forget about. He said yes, if we could make it for 6 million I think. We said yes, whipped down to Louisiana and shot the picture. [INT: Long shoot?] I think it was 55 days. Wasn't short, but it was brutal. As tough a movie as I've ever done. The swamp was the swamp. Putting on the rubber outfit and then wade in and try to shoot. So often you would get a camera position, you had to get a shoot in a couple of minutes before the soft bottom sunk. There was no going back to the trailers for the cast, they had to stand under the tree. Against a Cyprus tree, it was hell. The cast was great, they were a great bunch of guys who did not complain too much. I tried to be disciplined. If I started complaining, then everybody complains. I thought because the weather was terrible, even when it's nice in the film, it was always terrible.


INT: Was that physically the most difficult film you did?
WH: I think so. Most of the westerns everybody thinks are so tough, they're not as tough. The hardest thing is knowing how to work with horses, what you can and can't do. You are out there in God's green earth, you own it. Any direction, not much around. I think city pictures are harder than westerns. Everything is hard but fun. SOUTHERN COMFORT, we owned anything in every direction, it was just so physically unpleasant. We were in the Cattle Lake area outside of Shreveport.


INT: It seems to me that all the things I saw, that film is the most intense. That to me was the most real. Did you feel that way?
WH: I didn’t find any, anything can be a fable, but that was the closest thing to realism? The movie was both celebrated and attacked as being too obviously a metaphor about Vietnam. I remember, you ask me about cast readings. We read through the script one time, I remember saying to the cast, I just wanted to hear them once. I remember saying this movie a lot of people will think is some kind of statement about Vietnam. I don't want to hear about it on the set, I don't want to hear about it. We should play it like its now, it's real, and its Louisiana and that's the situation. Having said that to the cast, and having repeated it now, I think it is inevitably metaphoric, but something can be metaphoric without intention. The perception of the beholder I think is equally valid as the intentions of the creator. One of those things. The truth or lack of truth of that statement is the thing that can keep you up and drinking for quite a while. It's worthy of long discussions with writers you are working with and the cast. But probably not while you are shooting.


INT: Did you write that one?
WH: Co-wrote with GILER and MICHAEL KANE. Not the actor.


INT: The other thing about that film was the fact that it had another level which was different. You were never sure as to what, who was really, the intentions of the people who populated the film. Motivation which is a word I know you don’t like. The intention of each of those characters, you were always left unsure and that's what made the film so unsettling?
WH: There was a kind of ambiguity that surrounds. It is not a simple action movie where the people chasing the other out there is bad. Our guys are good. It is clearly in a sense the kind of fault of our guys for getting into this situation. In the collective group, there are individuals who are not as highly evolved as the others. And the answers to the dilemma, I mean both nature's noblemen, those of higher character through some innate quality. And you have people that operate on a sliding scale downward to the brute level in their response to the situation that they have gotten themselves into. All of which I think is a kind of, war is terrible. It's a wartime situation. With mixed results and accompanying paranoia even by those who are the best and the brightest of the bunch.


INT: Yeah, you know, as I think about that film, one of the interesting things is the characters were not ever, there was more revelation along the way. More character development?
WH: Well it was more conventional character development. It's closer to a kind of social reality that we understand. The character that seemed superficial turned out to be a defense against certain aspects of that personality. Defense against trying to address certain truths in his perception of where he finds himself in life. The distant hard guy reveals himself to be a different kind of person on the journey. They all are in their ways, various degrees of not just rounded, but I keep going to this idea of ambiguous. None of us are quite as good or bad as we construct them. SOUTHERN COMFORT is trying not to be an easy drama. Didn't make a nickel. Hot pretty good reviews, didn't make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything.


INT: It had a lot of complexities in it. First of all, the Cajun guy they had who you didn’t think understood a word of English, there are also these narrative complexities. When they take that boat, that one mistake could be the fatal mistake. The narrative is filled with those things when you talk about a different character. For me it was one of your more complex films.
WH: I think yes, more conventionally complex movie. My last memory of it, having last seen it in Spain at SAN SEBASTIAN. Screening over there in 1981. I had a very good screening. Sounds so trite but I was proud of the film. Sometimes they don't get to where you think they will get. But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure. It didn't do well. Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I don't think anybody loved it anywhere. [INT: I think today you would get a different response to it.]