Walter Hill Chapter 8


INT: Let's just talk about GERONIMO. Background on how that one got started?
WH: I had a deal at CAROLCO. They came to me remarkably enough, almost never happens, and said "We think we would like to make a western and it should be about an Indian." And I said "Say no more this is fine." We hired JOHN MILIUS who did a draft. I thought a long time about doing CRAZY HORSE, but for various reasons I thought it was a little too difficult. I did a lot of reading and decided the GERONIMO story, I think it was not a good title. It should have been the Geronimo war. The conception was you make the film from the last time he came in and broke off and was sent away. The last time he broke off the reservations. This had been a recurring pattern. I thought that would be more accurate. MILIUS's screenplay was more inclusive of his early years and john was reluctant to doing any more work. I brought LARRY GROSS in. LARRY shaped it for what the film later became.


INT: How is doing a western, not the physical part but the story, how is a western different from other films in terms of storytelling?
WH: Well, I guess the first part would be westerns I have done by the James-Younger Gang, Hickock, Geronimo, these are all historical characters as opposed to other films. We are bound by a certain narrative truth. A story about hickock must end with going down to the number 10 saloon, Jesse James has to hang the picture and get shot by Bob Ford, Geronimo is going to be put on a train and sent to Florida. You are bound, doing a certain kind of western, you are bound by truth. I think the great advantage to the storyteller is that you are liberated and given the freedom to kind of walk around the moral universe of the old testament. Kind of unique in our experience as storytellers. They tend to be simple and moral tales, stories that are beyond what we usually think of. The characters don't have the recourse to the normal avenues to redress wrong. Something bad happens tonight we call the police. Law enforcement was to a great degree ineffective. You have this pure character in a wilderness environment where the reaches of civilization are weak and you are thrown into these moral confrontations. As I say the world of the old testament comes to mind.


INT: Was there any old testament tale that applied before, during, or after GERONIMO?
WH: I couldn’t say that.


INT: How long a shoot was that one?
WH: Sixty days something like that. We were in Utah, shot outside Moab, up there for a number of weeks. Shot the last two or three at COLUMBIA.


INT: In a picture like that where there is so much physical action, significant story, how do you in your planning think in terms of dividing your energies, in regard to how much energy is going to epic scenes, and how much in the meantime is going to go to the character scenes?
WH: I think you lay it out. You are getting a certain amount of money, and that breaks down into a certain amount of days. Then you track backwards to there. The production people tend to define the character scenes as the easy stuff so you get a lot less time. You get more physical scenes, obviously you are taking time to get equipment and get it all up into play and take more time to shoot. I think you lay it out with the best logic you can. [INT: Was the physical part difficult?] Yeah, it was difficult. We had weather problems at the beginning. If you are not intimidated by the size, I had a good cast. Not to be intimidated by the size. As long as you weren't you went out and owned everything. You weren't fighting everything like in a city film. My cameraman was a guy I had worked with. LLOYD my cameraman was as fast as you could be and still be real good. [INT: Was he the son of a cameraman?] Yes his dad was well known in the 40's 50's and 60's.


INT: So, when you are thinking about westerns as a director and writer, another thing that is different, there is so much of character reflected in behavior and the action a character takes. Decisions over drawing a gun, how does that figure into the dramatic understanding of the character?
WH: I think you are always trying to find, not limited to westerns, but if you can define character through gesture, stance, attitude, used to be the guy who broke the egg in the whiskey. If you can find some quixotic avenue into the psyche, through gesture, that seems to work very well. You are always looking for something, observation of people you know or happen to meet. Or in your room at night trying to think of something.


INT: Do you find in a western that those discoveries mostly take place in production?
WH: Yeah. The old time actors used to say if you have the right horse and right hat the rest was downhill. There is something in that. It's obviously a half truth, but if you get the look right, and the horse right, the drama tends to play through them. It takes on another kind of reality. It's almost like a dance. We all anticipate the steps, it's pretty to watch.


INT: Do you think, how much conscious influence do you feel when you are doing those in regard to the ford films?
WH: I don't think a lot. I did this interview with PETER BOGDANOVICH for his updating of his FORD documentary. I am obviously an admirer of films, he did great films. They are really not my favorites. I'm more of a HAWKS guy. I think RAOUL WALSH did good films. I tend to spread it around. ANTHONY MANN I like a lot too. I don't think I've ever had the notion of going out and shooting a days work where I said to myself I wonder how old jack would have done this. It doesn't work that way. You are trying to tell a very specific story within certain kinds of choices that are going to come up. Besides, repetition of somebody else will always be inferior. You have to find your own way.


INT: You were talking before about the most difficult part of westerns is dealing with horses?
WH: Knowing what you can and can't do. Kind of performances. Decisions about which scenes on horseback and which you will film on the ground. I'm not a horseman, I don't ride, but I work around horses a lot. When I was an apprentice assistant I said I did GUNSMOKE for years. I liked dealing with the wranglers. I have had a weakness for horses. It's part of your job knowing what you can do and how best to do it. It's amazing how they are when you get the right ones. The other thing that can save you is if you hire an actor who is a good horseman. That makes a tremendous difference.


INT: That takes us to BROKEN TRAIL. Before we get there, I left out one other picture, SUPERNOVA. Only because of the retiring of ALAN SMITHEE which is a wonderful anecdote. Give me a brief sketch of what happened on SUPERNOVA?
WH: This would have to be the most unhappy experience I had as a film director. I came in very late. Fired a director, wanted to go in about four weeks. I was interested in doing a science fiction thing. I thought they had script that had fixable problems. JIMMY SPADER was in it, an actor I quite liked. I knew him personally. I think he is very talented. Then MANCUSO came to me, had called. I made a movie for FRANK. Known him for a while. I always got along reasonably well with him. I went over there and did a quick rewrite. That's when the trouble started. The person running UNITED ARTIST, subsidiary of MGM. She had developed the script that she was partial too. I didn't realize how married they were to that. That started off as we were shooting a whole series of disagreements. They cut the budget halfway through the film. They were a studio in deep trouble. We limped in, in post we had a tremendous amount of effect stuff to do. They decided they wanted to preview the movie without the effects. I said this was insane, it's a science fiction movie. The effects had to be added. They wanted to see how it played. I told them it would be like shit, terrible, very bad preview, you will give up on the movie. These previews under these conditions are political. "Are you saying you wont preview the movie?" I said "You own the God damn thing. If you want to preview it I can't prevent you but I won't go." They saw this as defiance. I was told to stay home. I took my name off, several people recut it. The other thing that was, I'm probably remembering all too well. The movie was basically about a serial killer that gets on a spaceship and begins knocking off the crew. A couple of weeks after shooting they decided it was an R rating and needed a different one. I said "That's not the story." I was perceived to be a defiant fellow. It was an unhappy experience.


INT: What about the credit?
WH: I said I would take my name off. They first said I couldn’t. I said "There is a whole process." The GUILD got into it. The basic contract changed. I think I was the first example of not using the ALAN SMITHEE name when you take the name off. The new formula was I would pick a name that would trick them. I picked three names, they chose THOMAS LEE. In the end it sounded like a Hong Kong director or something. They went through a few teams of editors to fashion a movie they liked. It wasn't very good. [INT: But you retired the ALAN SMITHEE name?] I didn't retire it, I would love to have used it but it wasn't one of my choices.


INT: Let's, as we come up to BROKEN TRAIL, I want to talk about television. Your first experience as a director was on HBO, TALES FROM THE CRYPT?
WH: Yeah I was one of the producers. DICK DONNER, BOB ZEMECKIS, DAVID and I were partners, JOEL SILVER. I did three or four. I didn't have anything to do with the show. My deal was I would stay away as long as people left me alone. DICK did three. I did three then a pilot to another show that was a multipart pilot. I did one of those sections, then they took mine, called WIERD SCIENCE. Took my episode and put it into the body of TALES FROM THE CRYPT. I think that gave me four. They were fun to do. you get to do it about nasty characters, and then getting their come uppance. That's a kind of blueprint that works very well in short form television. Doesn't seem to work well in pictures. Can't get pictures made, whether it's the old HITCHCOCK show, nasty people doing nasty things with sudden and violent justice at the end. They were comic books. That's another thing I liked about them.


INT: And then you also did DEADWOOD, the pilot?
WH: Yes. [INT: What was that like?] Good. I liked the cast very much. DAVID MILCH had written the script. It was kind of going over the WILD BILL comes to DEADWOOD, so I resisted it but then I thought it was a new take. Thought it might be fun. It was a western. You shouldn't turn down westerns because you don't get a chance to do them very much. If you start turning them down you are probably shooting yourself in the foot. [INT: Right and you were, this was second time with WILD BILL?] Right, although he was just part of the general mix. It wasn't really about WILD BILL anymore than any other character. Fun to do. I think I did the only one made on budget. I had a good time.


INT: We only touched on WILD BILL, the feature. I read somewhere that if you were forced to select a film that was the one you were most proud of?
WH: Did I, I don’t know. I do like it. I thought JEFF gave such a fine performance. I think part of the thing too was I first wrote my version of the script right after I did the LONG RIDERS from THOMAS BABE's play. It was 14 years of failure before I ran into DICK and LILI ZANUCK. They had a DEADWOOD project and suddenly it got on. You wait a long time and things come around. BILL was interesting. Does he choose, he was a tremendous force of personality. Brave, realizes he had the choice, this is corny, but choice between love and the legend. At the kind of crossroads, are you going to be a legend or settle in. To me the ambiguity is whatever you choose is wrong. He chose the legend, knew the price to be paid. There was this anecdotal quality, tall tales. Trying to figure out which part was true and fabricated. Anybody that examines the Hickock fame is forced to figure this out. Try to understand how BILL built the legend. He was a prisoner, and he built it. I thought that was an interesting approach to the western. It had a fragmented structure. By the way there is another reel to GERONIMO which to me was some of the best stuff in the picture, it had to get shorter. I think there is about a real of stuff to BILL. I know they aren't short, but I hope someday DVD outfits will add the material. I think it helps to the understanding of both films. Again, the strongest thing in WILD BILL is JEFF. Physically he was splendid. Almost exact size and build. We tricked him out pretty well. I think he captured the spirit well. But sometimes on set, JEFF is extraordinarily sweet natured. BILL was a rough guy. Especially when dealing with rough guys. We would do these scenes. A lot of times you are colored by the reality and I would turn to the cameraman and say is he tough enough? The cameraman would say he is too mean, better be nicer. I thought he wasn't tough enough. We were both wrong, JEFF was right. When we cut it together I thought JEFF's choices were right on the money. Good lesson. You don't have all the answers and a good actor can lead the way.


INT: Were you happy with ELLEN BARKIN?
WH: I like her very much. Thought she was wonderful and I thought she played it well, but I would have liked to have had a more historically accurate, I thought we did a better job in DEADWOOD than in the film. I thought he understood her better and physically she was more accurate.


INT: Is there anything else about that film you want to say, WILD BILL?
WH: No. As to my liking it more than my other films I'm not sure of that. I'm not sure, people ask you what you like best you say the next one I do. I'm always worried. These are social experiences as well as aesthetic. You lived a life making it as well as the final product. The final what it is is open for many people to judge, value, devalue. For you to say this one is my favorite is a kind of insult to the other films. So I don't like to get into any of that. They are all your children. I guess you make room sometimes for your children to have a harder time. But I don't think you should divide them up into your favorites.


INT: That brings us to BROKEN TRAIL. Last film, also a western that you made for AMC. That started with DUVALL?
WH: It did. DUVALL developed the project with ALAN GEOFFRION, brought it to me, it was to be a feature. I thought it was a good idea, good story. I questioned whether we would get the money to do it as a feature. I was correct. BOB came back and asked if I would do it as a television film. I thought absolutely, a good story is a good story. He asked if I could take it to my agency. They packaged it, got it on with AMC. But the first area of concern was we had a script that was pretty well padded up at a hundred and 20 pages as a feature. We now had to be 180 minutes. We needed new material. This became a matter of dispute. [INT: As to whether that should happen or how?] How, what areas it would affect.


INT: Were you writing, did you write this last version?
WH: No, I made contributions to the script but I really did not rewrite it. My fingerprints are on the film I think. Saying too much. [INT: What were the issues, normatively?] Mainly it was feeling that, two things. There should be an expansion of the part of the young Chinese girls which I thought under any circumstance was mandatory. In the original script they barely spoke. This wasn't always well-received but I felt the drama was best perceived through the eyes of the Chinese girls. Although the story was a fine story, the most unique element was the young Chinese girls. We wrote scenes, another writer came in named RON PARKER. He wrote most of the scenes with the Chinese girls. The other area of contention was the story of the bad guy who is on the trail, stealing the horses and tracks them down. He was a shadowy character. In the original script he didn't appear until the end. The idea that that character should be built up so there was a kind of inevitability to the showdown seemed to some of us to be an obviously good idea, but not everybody concurred. [INT: What was the alternative?] More scenes with certain people talking more about the wisdom of the west I guess.


INT: Let me ask you this, what's interesting to me is I think directors have had this experience where the chemistry with actors improves over more than one film, and sometimes it’s a completely different experience. Was your experience with DUVALL on GERONIMO and BROKEN TRAIL, was there a big difference?
WH: Yeah, there was. On GERONIMO it was positive. Obviously he wouldn't have sent the script to me if he had not thought it positive. He was also one of the executive producers on BROKEN TRAIL. Somehow the stretching of the boundaries didn't work so well. But listen, we are judged in the end by what's up there. I think it came out to be a good film. I think it could stand to be 10 to 15 minutes shorter, but the idea that we got that amount of film in forty five days was pretty good. I think most of it is reasonably well told, good story, the performances are good. Whatever. Sometimes the road is windy. That's part of the deal too.


INT: You shot those four hours in 45 days, forgetting about personality problems, just the big western scenes which were extensive, did you find shooting them difficult? You did GERONIMO in 55 days?
WH: Can't remember. [INT: You basically had to do two movies in the time of one. How was that, forgetting about everything else, how did you approach that. How is the experience different?] That's a good question. Again, same cameraman, LLOYD. We sat there and said we have to go like hell. I printed quite often one take instead of two. Held the coverage down to an absolute minimum. We scheduled a tremendous amount of work and did it. It was not easy. We also worked 10 hour days, five day weeks. Comes out actually about 39 or 40 days, lost one day to weather. How we did it is a mystery. There was no, we just turned them into the cross light, kept the background neutral, shot the big stuff, and the actors were very good. It's easy to say LLOYD did a wonderful job, or WALTER was on his game, but the actors had to be up to it. And they were. You can't give them enough credit. The performances were very good. [INT: Forced to bring back one movie instead of a movie and a half.] Yes.


INT: That’s great.