Walter Hill Chapter 3


INT: When you call for a shot, you don’t even know why coming from the intuitive part, don’t you find that that is sometimes or often a problem when dealing with producers, or studio executives, or somebody calling on the cognitive part to explain why you are doing something or not doing something?
WH: Maybe not questioning it but directing the director while you protect at all cost the child part of you, the intuitive part. There's nothing more precious than getting the work in.


INT: Do you find that is a problem that slows you down?
WH: Listen, having this conversation, it is my understanding that this is essentially for other directors and people who want to see it later on. And it is candid in a way that I am not usually candid. I believe in worst circumstances. This is the defensive. I believe in being cryptic, in not being, I think if you get into the free flow of ideas about your own needs people will take advantage of you. You need to draw firm boundaries and make certain hopefully not out of line demands, but you say this is the way its going to be. This is the way I'm telling this story. Sometimes you can explain too much. I think that sometimes works even in the relationship with a writer. I think relationships with a writer is more open. I always say your cameraman is your brother, your editor is your priest. The producers, I've had a series of really good producers, I've been lucky on the whole. But at the same time there is a separation and a distance. I think it has to be. Probably your inner most workings and instincts, try to get into situations where they are respected, but don't explain it much.


INT: Do you have a method in which you execute that, a way of working that helps you check that part of you?
WH: Friendly gruffness that somehow is slightly forbidding, and I think that’s an act that many directors have adopted. I think I probably played the role pretty well. As I say, in the first place I don't think there is a lot of time for this yada yada stuff, so it's got to be in your head. Your job is to create an environment where other people can do their best work as someone once said. There is so much of a performance but at the same time you get it the way you want to do it. Tricky circumstances, occupies your time figuring out how you are getting your way. I'm a great believer that the greatest achievement in film has been when directors got their way. One way or another, with film that we would call directed, it's now 80, 90 years. A lot of film has been shot, not as old as Greek drama, but a lot of film done with capital intensity. I think the most significant films, the films that last, of greatest cultural interest not so much at release but over the long term are films that are strongly directed. We all need good scripts, performances. A good director will not make a good film out of a bad script. You have to have something before shooting. Now there can be a lot of disagreement of what it is that's worth shooting. I did a film where the script seemed very rudimentary, THE WARRIORS. Constantly fighting with the studio. And it turned out to be the film that did well at the time and people continue to write about it. They keep trying to remake it. Now it's been, according to the producer, they have now spent trying to develop the remake three times as much as we spent making the film. That's the way of show biz I guess.


INT: Let's get back on the track, we will ultimately get to directing, but let's talk about your experiences as a writer. It will help to illuminate this whole ongoing discussion about screenwriting and directing and where they mesh. The first two things that are significant, HICKEY AND BOGGS and THE GETAWAY. Talk about them in terms of your life as a screenwriter?
WH: It wasn't in that order. HICKEY & BOGGS was first thing I wrote, it was an original. I had sold it to WARNER BROTHERS who developed it, made at UNITED ARTISTS, but they had read another script I had written so when I went out and pitched the idea of a detective thing. Detective films were very old hat, not the kind of thing a young screenwriter was going to pitch. I think they were intrigued, maybe fresh air could be blown into a venerable genre. [INT: This was a pitch, not a specific script?] It was a pitch. I went on the lot at WARNER BROTHERS. I was in their young writer program. A bunch of us out there, DAVID GILER I had written with, partner down the hall. Knew him, but that was when we came close. MILIUS, MALICK, BILL KERBY, any number of people that did things in the 70's. I wrote HICKEY & BOGGS, then I did a rewrite. They liked it. Gave me a rewrite on something called THE THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER. I did a good sized rewrite, quite surprised, but I ended up with the sole screenplay.


WH: Then I did another rewrite, then I did THE GETAWAY which came about - they were looking for writers, STEVE MCQUEEN and DAVID FOSTER had partnered up on a JIM THOMPSON novel. Hired PETER BOGDANOVICH to direct. I met PETER. I'm still not sure whether he had read my scripts, but his estranged wife POLLY had read my scripts and recommended me. PETER hired me to co-write the getaway. He got into a beef. Was shooting WHATS UP, DOC?, and wanted to accelerate things. There was tension between him and STEVE, to put a polite face. PETER came off it. I finished the draft. PECKINPAH came in, I worked with SAM. He was quite busy. SAM had just finished JUNIOR BONNER, still in post with STRAW DOGS with DUSTIN HOFFMAN. There were a few ideas added. The script got better but didn't change all that much. I got along with Sam who is a volatile personality. Enormous fan of his work. Thought he had done some awfully good films.


INT: From SAM'S work, was there anything that became yours, his approach or technique?
WH: Well I think the most obvious thing which relates to a time… I'll tell you a couple of stories. I think the reason a lot of times people think there is a more direct work to PECKINPAH'S work and my own had to do with using slow motion in action stuff. I don't use it as much as I did. I think it got to be a critical cliché that slow motion technique was labeled PECKINPAH. As a matter of fact, I will tell you, one day I went over to see him. We were working on THE GETAWAY. He was a complete fury. He had read something an eastern critic had said, the slow motion technique of THE WILD BUNCH had been lifted from ARTHUR PENN in BONNIE AND CLYDE. I said, overstepping my bounds, "Don't pay attention to that, everybody knows you stole from KUROSAWA." This did not...he saw the humor but at the same time he didn't think it was the funniest remark. He didn't hold it against me. He used to tease me pretty hard. He teased me about HAWKS, didn't like his films and knew I did. He looked at me and said "You think THE THING is a wonderful movie, huh?" It's one of the things about HAWKS that is difficult to those who appreciate him. How do these films separate themselves from just Hollywood product. So much superficially the same as average Hollywood product. HAWKS, in SAM'S defense, HAWKS had personally attacked PECKINPAH. SAM's reaction was not just theoretical that he didn't like the films. I have strong opinions about what I see but in interviews I try never to say bad things about other directors. We take enough from people paid to do it in the press and I don't think it makes us stand taller trying to knock another director. I think HAWKS in a way was wrong to attack PECKINPAH. SAM's reaction was understandable.


INT: So, this grew out of a question?
WH: The other thing, I ran into PECKINPAH a lot over the years, his declining years. I don’t know, it was probably seven, eight, nine years later, I had done THE LONG RIDERS which used quite a bit of slow motion. He called, we had this phone conversation, he had seen LONG RIDERS. He had seen a great number of my films, I was surprised because he wasn't a great film-goer. He had fabulous respect for BERGMAN and for KUROSAWA. He didn't usually go see a lot of film. He had seen THE LONG RIDERS, he said people are comparing slow motion in THE LONG RIDERS and THE WILD BUNCH. He said, "They're wrong, aren't they?" I said "Yeah." Conversations with him were always tricky. There was always an edge. He said "Why are they wrong?" I said the use of slow motion extends reality, makes it more real. LONG RIDERS is the opposite. Nightmare, more traditional use to bring upon the feeling of experiencing the nightmare. He said "That's right doctor." I certainly think, I haven't got the dialogue quite right. This was a conversation from 25 years ago. But that was the essence of it. He took a look at the film and he may have looked at it because somebody told him he was copied. But he was so smart. There is always that superficial analysis, slow motion is slow motion. Well slow motion isn't slow motion. Slow motion is a technique to get you to very different ideas and very different places. It's sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. PECKINPAH's use of extending the moment and making a kind of heightened reality which he got from KUROSAWA. He took it to a much greater degree. SAM's genius about this was he understood that KUROSAWA's discovery of extending reality and exploding could be taken to a greater degree than KUROSAWA had used it. He took it to a greater place.


INT: It's almost like the whole thing was constructed to get you there. When it happens it is emotionally prepared. Do you agree?
WH: I do. His films are difficult. He only made a couple of really good ones. A lot of them are, I think there is an awful lot of silly stuff that gets accepted as gospel. There are a lot of films that get praised simply because the director had done something else of significance. I think SAM's work is very uneven. I think it had to do with his personal health. He was an alcoholic, suffered the ups and downs. Wasn't always in a good shape to make a movie.


INT: Were you happy with THE GETAWAY?
WH: I think it was, where do we start. I didn’t think you could do THOMPSON's novel. I thought you had to make it more of a genre film. THOMPSON'S novel is strange and paranoid, has this fabulous ending in an imaginary city in Mexico, criminals who bought their freedom by living in this kingdom. It's a strange book. It's written in the fifties, takes place in fifties, but it is really a thirties story. I did not believe that if you faithfully adapted the novel the movie would get made, or that MCQUEEN would get the part. There was a brutal nature to Doc McCoy that was in the book that I thought you weren't going to be able to go that far and get the movie made. I found myself in this strange position, trying to make it less violent. It was certainly known as a violent film. I thought of the films I wrote, I thought it was far and away the best one, and most interesting. I thought SAM did a few things while shooting that was terrific. When they jump on the bus after they buy the gun, I just had them take the bus out of town. SAM had the bus circle around and come back through. That heightened the tension. Terrific move I thought. At the same time I think you always have mixed... I thought the stuff with the veterinarian got too broad and too sadistic for the rest of the film. But again I thought it was good film. It was not reviewed very well, but a huge hit. Biggest hit SAM ever had. One of the reasons I think he was always glad to see me. His association with the film was in his eyes, he would always say we did this one for the money which is one of those kind of half truths. I think the fact he was well paid and the movie made a lot of money and the fact it was about the only film where his points meant anything, he took a fair amount of money out too. After all the disappointment and heartbreak of all these films he had never gotten any reward or been well paid, meant a lot to him. Certain family responsibilities. Had an uncertain future, determined not to compromise his personal life. The way he was living, you don't have to be a genius to figure out he wasn't going to last a long time.


INT: You mentioned the bus in THE GETAWAY, I flashed on STREETS OF FIRE when you have the car that the gang is in. I seem to remember that kind of thing comes back, the cops don’t expect the car to reappear. Do you remember that?
WH: I do not, but I probably copied it. All directors I believe borrow what they must. It's again part of all of us being connected. I don't think you can look at anybody's work and not see something else. [INT: SCORSESE talked about that very consciously, forget which movie but he took a shot from PSYCHO which he employed on-set.]


INT: Then there was THE MACKINTOSH MAN in which you worked with HUSTON?
WH: That was not a happy experience. I wrote a script from a novel that I was enamored of, it was a complicated situation. I was being sued by WARNER BROTHERS. They signed me for a screenplay, I was mad because they sold HICKEY & BOGGS to UNITED ARTISTS for what seemed to me to be a great deal of money and instead of making it themselves. Also no further remuneration to me. It seemed like hawking the wares was not in the way we set this thing up. I decided to forget about the script I owed them on general principle and a couple years had gone by, year and half. There was a compromise. My agent said they are sending you a box of books. Pick one out, write a script, get it over with. That's exactly what happened. They had an enormous development, bought novels and very few became scripts. The development process was going through changes in the old days. I wrote a quick script which I was not particularly enamored with myself. Much to my shock and surprise I had taken a trip to northern California and my agent tracked me down. I called him, he said you better get back here, PAUL NEWMAN is doing your film, I think JOHN HUSTON is directing it. I thought, Jesus Christ. One would like to think you are mistaken about the wonders of your work, but I didn't believe it. That part turned out to be true. I went over to work on the script with HUSTON. He wasn't very well, I ended up with sole screen credit, but one of the problems is the screen credit is misleading very often. I wrote 90% of the first half, various people wrote the rest. I didn't think it was a very good film.


INT: You were 31 years old, 3 or 4 years from the time you moved down sunset you are working with iconic people. PECKINPAH, MCQUEEN, HUSTON, NEWMAN. As you look back, do you remember surprise about where you had arrived?
WH: Well, they were well known. I didn’t get to know NEWMAN. STEVE I knew from assistant director days. I knew him quite well. HUSTON had iconic status, but SAM was a controversial and notorious figure. It somehow, the first couple of days, I've never been very, well known people has never bothered me. I think you do your best. You aren't getting along with everybody. HUSTON and I had a wariness. He was a marvelous guy to have lunch with, have a drink with. That kind of thing.


INT: What about the fact that he was also a writer director?
WH: He was a good writer. Had been, real classic kind of Hollywood screenwriter. Many voices, could write many different kinds. He wasn't limited, his areas weren't narrow. At the same time, JOHN, this is hard to explain I think because the world is such a different place. Now, I have a 17 year old daughter who wants to be a director. The kids you meet coming out of college want to do this business. When I was that age, if you were serious in your pursuit of the arts, the idea was you would become a novelist or playwright. That was still part of our culture. The idea that JOHN FORD for instance or HOWARD HAWKS are vastly more revered cultural figures than MAXWELL ANDERSON. You talk about ANDERSON only educated people know who he was. In 1950 the idea that the most important playwright was not more culturally important than these two Hollywood directors would have been unthinkable to the NEW YORK TIMES. The point is, HUSTON and PECKINPAH, PECKINPAH was a man of the cinema. He was in cultural awe of certain things. KUROSAWA and BERGMAN. Very much felt American cinema was riddled with compromise. HUSTON was different, had that tradition that there was something faintly disreputable about show business. Real artists were writers and playwrights. He himself was much more a soldier of fortune, had traded of his talent for a wonderful life. Sometimes I think he was not happy with the choice. Most of the time he was. Enjoyed a purity in others. Great reader. The ideal for a guy like HUSTON was HEMINGWAY. Uncompromised, disdained Hollywood. As I say, the world has changed in the attitudes. When I got into this it was like joining the circus. People despaired. Family worried if you would be heard of. [INT: Wasn't an institution.] Certainly wasn't a well thought of occupation. Despite the blandness of codes in terms of product, there was an assumption that Hollywood was corrupt and people should avoid it. That lasted up until the 70's I think was the change over. Don't you? [INT: Yes I do, that was a beautiful cultural picture you painted. I was on the east coast and you were right. ]


INT: This is a way of getting back to your point, while I refer to him as iconic, you say this was part of a circus, just passing through their lives particularly in the ends of their careers?
WH: I think there is something peculiar with me. I am not a very good flatterer. I sound self aggrandizing I realize. When you deal with these large figures, they are used to compliments and obeisance. I am intensely uncomfortable on both ends. I was respectful. I don't mean to say I was going in knocking. The idea we wouldn't all work as equals, intellectual equals I always saw the director as first among equals. I didn't really have a terrible problem in adjusting to these guys. I knew their work pretty well. I think that is a better kind of flattery. I could talk to them about their work. Interesting. I'm certainly glad I got a chance to work with HUSTON. Years later, he had run out of money and was living up in Laurel Canyon. About the time he was doing JOYCE's THE DEAD. RAY STARK was trying to get me to do REVENGE, JIM HARRISON'S novella. He wanted to shoot, HUSTON wrote a script, it turns out I wrote a script with DAVID GILER years before. Made it complicated. HUSTON wrote it not knowing about previous scripts. There were several. STARK wanted one last project. It would have been wonderful, but he was no longer physically capable of directing that kind of phone. He was chair-bound and had the oxygen bottles.