Walter Hill Chapter 1


INT: My name is Robert Markowitz, today is February 26 2007, I'm conducting an interview with Walter hill for the DGA Visual History Program, at the DGA in Los Angeles.


WH: My name is WALTER HILL, name at birth was Walter Hill. I don’t have any nicknames that are printable. Born January 10th, 1940. I was born in Long Beach, California.


INT: What I'm interested in, seeing your films and a pattern that lies not far below the surface, how those came to be, before you even knew you were going to be a filmmaker. Talk a little bit about growing up. Where you were born, brothers and sisters, what your experience was as a child. Leading up to having a creative life?
WH: I was born in Long Beach, my father worked at Douglas Aircraft, my mother was a house wife. I have one brother, Dennis. Both parents deceased, I'm close with my brother. Being a kid in Long Beach, in the 40's and 50's, my conscious memories, generally marked by a couple of things. The outlying family was all close. Both sets of grandparents lived nearby. Many aunts and uncles. My father worked nights. Quite often. I was a sick kid, I had asthma to an acute degree. In the strain, my brother is close in age, the strain was tough on mother. I was half raised by father's grandparents as well as parents. I didn't - the asthma was such I didn't go to school an awful lot until it seems like I would use months of every school year due to asthma until I was 11 or 12. By the time I was 15, somehow the asthma was acute but not chronic, I suddenly kind of outgrew it, although it hovers over you during your adult life. It does come back on you a bit. Pretty common, it's starting too with me sorry to say.


WH: What all this produced, my father and grandfather were typically American fellows I think. Solid working men, quite smart, knew how to take things apart and put them back. Of course the real American touch, "how do we make it go faster?" Very good at mechanics. My grandfather was a wildcat oil man, driller, was owner and operator of wells. My father became a supervisor at an assembly line at Douglas. Started out as a riveter, that kind of thing. Took it in the depression, not gone to college. With the responsibility of the family, that became his life's work. I think one of the early lessons I ever had was I was quite determined to get out of Long Beach. I didn't see myself hanging around. My father was very hard working, responsible person. Up at 4:30, wouldn't get back till six at night. The big thing was he did not love his work. He did it to take care of his family. I think this is a great act of heroism. I have been a very lucky guy. I've made not only a good living, but something much more important, something I am constantly interested in doing. It tickles the imagination and a sense of enterprise. The most fortunate thing is someone who likes what he does for a living. All the problems and necessities. We know all the mistakes we made, but on the whole, I think you share this, we are all ambiguous about show business but whole heartedly positive about the possibility to tell stories on film. The two go together. I'm not interested in show business but I'm very interested in telling stories on films. If I could just figure out how to tell stories and get everyone else to leave me alone it would be terrific but it will never be that easy.


INT: Let's go back to childhood. Your father was working nights, asthma left at about age 15. When did it come on you?
WH: Right at birth. As long as I can remember. I was bedridden. I had bad luck in that anything that came to town I got. I had the whole battery of childhood illness including whooping cough, which is esoteric these days.


INT: I had mentioned to you the other day that this is very interesting because SCORSESE is asthmatic, COPPOLA suffered from Polio. When you were bedded, is your brother older?
WH: Younger. [INT: What was going on in your imagination then, how were you filling your time?] This has come up before. How does somebody get the frame of mind to do all this? I wasn't bedridden most of the time. It wasn't house confinement. It was quarantined. House in the backyard. What it did for me, despite the discomfort, it made you comfortable being alone with yourself. You weren't as surrounded by your peers as everybody else your age was. You learn to amuse yourself. In my case it meant tremendous amount of reading at an early age. I knew how to read at an early age. Mother taught me. I read, listened to radio. This was before we had a TV. I became utterly besotted with daytime serials. In the later afternoon, when kids were meant to be home, there were more adventures. I liked that. A long way of making the point, it enabled me to live in an imaginary world where one is comfortable with abstract ideas, dominated by stories, narrative, and characters. radio, books, and later TV. When I got a bit older we got a television, it opened up the world of movies and movies of the 30's and 40's which were constantly being shown then. I was instantly captivated.


WH: Of course I went to films all the time. I was starting, I think the first film I remember is SONG OF THE SOUTH. I would have periods of being better. At that time I was trying to live a normal kid's life. In those periods I get to go to movies. I remember the TARZAN movies, my favorites were the westerns I saw. The other thing that was common in these booking patterns, to rerelease big hit movies of the past. So for instance when I was about 11 years old, I saw STAGECOACH in my neighborhood theater. I remember JOHN WAYNE seemed remarkably younger when I saw this movie, but it was a great opportunity not to see things in a historical context, but to go as a kid who wanted to see the film. STAGECOACH still played marvelously, I remember to an 11 year kid. My own prejudices I recall were becoming developed at an early age. I didn't like kid movies. One would say my taste was juvenile. I liked adventure, westerns, but I liked everything. Musicals. But the general, I remember not liking kid movies. They were patronizing. I didn't like movies about kids. Kids were the lead. Still don't, I think that's hung on.


INT: Little bit more about family, you said you had a bigger family, did you travel, once you were not ill or even during the time you were ill, were the a lot of family excursions?
WH: We visited each other, but as far as real travel - [INT: I meant did you have to go on long trips to see each other.] Not long. Both sets lived very close, most of my aunts and uncles lived within a short drive. There was a lot of family interaction. It's a kind of life that was very typical of that time, and now except in rural areas is not very typical. We live in a world where most of us don't know our neighbors. We are separated from our family. When wives have children, they don't have the support system and the help of the family situation. One of the things you realize when you become a father is that having a child is too great a burden for any one or two people. It does take help. It's enormously difficult. In this time we live in, most of us have lost the support system of the extended family. Made up for it and people now hire help.


INT: So after you were fifteen, you said you wanted out of long beach, did you travel? Let me tell you what I'm getting at. Two patterns in your films are there like clockwork. One is a group led by a leader to get from place A to B. WARRIORS, GERONIMO, all have to get from one place to another. The other factor, in 48 HOURS, is a ticking clock. These themes are so dominant, I was wondering where that came from. Your own experience as a child, influenced by films?
WH: I think the latter is true. I think it has to do not so much with the life I led. The life I led led me to a more imaginative and creative areas than would have been true if I was more healthy. I think at the same time that my prejudices and preferences and what makes films really has to do with literary attitudes that come from strong prejudices about what I read and like. I feel very strongly that we are all so linked as artists. This idea, I think there is a twin thing. If you are any good, you demonstrate a sense of personality in the work. If the work is going to be a good story, it needs to have some point of view. Something the storyteller is comfortable with. At the same time, we are all connected. The chances of you really going out and inventing something are almost non-existent. There was a time in my life, I don't think accurately, but I was perceived to be very much influenced by PECKINPAH. I don't say that he was not some influence, I don't think he was as great as others. At the same time, whatever the validity of that, SAM was an enormously powerful personality on film. You cannot look at his films without seeing KUROSAWA. Can't look at him without seeing FORD. Can't look at him without seeing GRIFFITH. Can't see his without seeing CHARLES DICKENS. I'm not trying to put myself in this crowd, but I think we often look, we get saturated with material as an audience. We look for something new, but usually somebody figured out another way to do it. We are all connected to a mighty core of 2,000 years of storytelling.


INT: I was going to ask you this later, but it seems appropriate now. The other element in your films is that you most often, there's very rarely any less than two characters. Very often there's a lot more in the core of your story. Your heroes, whether they're led by MICHAEL PARE or JEFF BRIDGES, there's still a surrounding group that are very, very present in all of your films. I was wondering where that came from. In some ways I think your films are rather unique in their consistency in the fact that you're always presented the community, sometimes facing another community of evil, but they are not subjective. Generally the hero is not presented in any -
WH: As a loner. I think there is some great deal of truth. I think it's fatal while in the process to analyze your own impulses. I would plead guilty to what you just said. I like to have a strong duality, I like the ability to bounce off each other. My films are often dialogues about conduct and dilemmas, solving dilemmas and more interestingly how one behaves within the context of solving the dilemma. I think the dramatic utility is better within the context of either a small group or a duo. By inclination, I think it's gone that way. The script LARRY GROSS and I are finishing is very much a dialogue between two protagonists with different ends and goals.


INT: One of the things I noted, other than the iconic visual feast you offer, the basic shot for you is the two shot. In THE WARRIORS, DIANE LANE, is it THE WARRIORS or STREETS OF FIRE?
WH: She was in STREETS. [INT: Alright. When she arrives she arrives in a two shot. Appears you love it the most?] I don't use close ups as much as, it's always hard to talk in general about technique. I think technique must serve the story. I've always resisted, I've shot a lot of close-ups. But singles to me, if I can hook them into overs, to me I use those instead of singles as much as I can. One of my first, if one wants to call it with some grace, aesthetic perceptions was how often close-ups popped in watching film. They would jump out at you in a way that interrupted flow. It was the first thing I was aware of about motion picture technique. I didn't know editors or directors. I was a bit visual. Could draw well. I liked to draw. What's the oldest maxim, the artists is first of all observant. Close-ups in the old days, what I was reacting to was not only the use of the technique and interruption of the flow was the fact that close-ups didn't match. Mainly because they often shot in this almost suicidal need to cut the film in the camera. They would only shoot part of the performance in the close-up. Just give me these lines. The actor would do them, it would jump because they aren't in the same intonation and position. One of the great innovations in motion pictures, I was led to understand this was GEORGE STEVENS, but when you do your close shots you did the entire performance. Now no director would think of doing the scene with the close-up. STEVENS was first. Most of the editors would pride themselves on we only need the four lines. I don't think that the secret to motion picture storytelling is improvement of technology. I can make the case that some technology has worked against the film director. There are certain innovations that are more obvious like sound and body mics. but just the way we go about organizing and shooting the scene on the whole, we have a better handle than in the old days.


INT: So you turned fifteen, wanted to get out of Long Beach, where were you headed? When you set out on this journey, did you set out knowing that what you really wanted to do was do something creative, or was that your mission?
WH: I avoid this question like death. For the DGA I will say this. I usually say I wanted to be a baseball player or something. Having got rid of the asthma, I did my best to be an athlete. I knew and I rather thought I was going to be a writer. I think I thought that from by the time I was 15 or 16 on. Whatever the drifting, I had know idea what I was going to do. Somewhere along the line I was going to try and convert it, get it down on paper somehow. My first, because I knew there were so many examples, I thought I would get into journalism. Go to college, get into journalism, then at the proper moment write something that would reveal the inner artist and fabulous things I had to say. Then the world would be ready. It didn't work that way.


INT: Before you go past that, where was the incipient part of that. Were you reading?
WH: I think it all has to do with reading. First place its all mystery. How are we the person we are. I don’t know. Is it where we grew up, our parents? There is a lot more to it. It's enormously mysterious. All this about the reading, my parents were very good readers. My father used to read the Russians. My mother read all contemporary fiction. Books and magazines around the house. It wasn't that I had to fight my way to the library. So much was there. I had no idea how one turns out. My brother, more or less same environment became an urban planner. Ran the transportation department for the City of Long Bbeach. Responsible and difficult job. Kind of hard to imagine something being a little more different than what I ended up doing.


INT: So now you were talking about, decided you knew at some level you were going to be a writer, then what happened?
WH: I went to school down in Mexico, about as far as I could go. Read some KEROUAC and all that business. Down and out in Mexico City. I had a buddy, he and I went together. After some time down there, there was the social life which was interesting. The studies were too. I'm certainly having a very good time. I can make enough money in the summer. In those days education was unlike the racket it has become. It was an affordable thing in those days. You didn't have to be a film director to send your kids to school. I can make enough in summer work to scrape along. There was also the theory that if you graduated the degree might not be worth much. I knew people from MICHIGAN STATE, was interested in the Midwest and the big ten, never interested in the eastern schools. I could never have gotten in, largely a different student. I ended up back in Michigan, and then studied history and literature.