Walter Hill Chapter 2


INT: So you were on your way to Michigan?
WH: I was gathering material I guess one would say. Having a reasonably good time, had a lot of fun in school. I thought it was as much a social experience as an academic. Very American attitude. [INT: Were you writing.] A bit. Mainly for myself. I was enormously influenced by HEMINGWAY'S ideas. The hardest thing to do is write clearly and simply, and make your point in an elegant way. I understood there is a great truth. I think the hardest thing is to be simple and still fashion something worthwhile. I understood the limitations. By forcing yourself into simple and direct, you are not going to be PROUST. Not to say the world shouldn't value PROUST, but somehow one takes things that are useful for ones self. In my reading, somehow HEMINGWAY spoke in ways other writers didn't. Again I understood the limitations. I never particularly liked HEMINGWAY'S novels, other than SUN ALSO RISES. I thought short stories were marvelous. I had read those in high schools. I used to reread them a lot.


INT: Then?
WH: No, great story, I finished school. In those days we were constantly being drafted, had to show you were a student to keep from being drafted. My board was in Long Beach, finished school, immediately got my notice. I came out back home. Layover waiting to go in the army of a couple of months. What turned out to be, who knows, but GENE WATERS who was a tennis player, good friend, joined air force. Learned to speak Mandarin at language school. GENE was going to PEPPERDINE, downtown. I went up to see him, couple of parties. I met some people that were involved, offshoot of ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA and they made educational films. Simultaneously while I was going into the army, we were suddenly told we were on our way to FORT POLK Louisiana, worst place for basic. Immediately after torturing you in training they would put you in light artillery. Not knowing, I asked. They said its everything and infantrymen is but you have to carry a mortar. This was beginning in 1964. Gotten my masters degree, carried me over another year. I got to the last desk, the guy said I'm sorry to say we are not taking you, childhood asthma. We will make you 1-Y. So suddenly, when you are that age, you think you are going to be in the army two years, it's a huge amount of time. You don't bother worrying about what you are doing. Suddenly, this whole thing was upon me. Didn't have to go into the army. I'm sure my parents were tired of seeing me sleep on the sofa in the afternoon. I got a phone call, asked if I would do research for them. Get the contract to do a series of educational films. I said sure.


WH: No other jobs. Came up to east Hollywood. Low pay. I began doing research and started organizing material, then very quickly I began writing scripts. Somehow, three weeks later I figured I should be directing these things. The other thing that had been happening had been my film going and appreciation, it had risen and risen. Seeing so many of the European films, Japanese films, I was part of this isolated community in east Hollywood. I remembered thinking just a little further west they are making the films I want to see. I'm going to do this. Sink or swim. I had become reasonably sophisticated. Certainly knew what directors did. The general organization of show business. I understood. I decided I was in.


INT: Did you want to be, you mentioned the BRITANNICA, did you set out to be a director or was there a point, once you knew you wanted to go there, what was in your mind? Want to be a writer on way to directing?
WH: I'm sorry to say. I don’t think this is necessarily a correct way to conduct your life. I wanted to be a writer on my way to being a director. Directors were already my heroes. KUROSAWA, number of Italian directors, many of whom I think are now unjustly overlooked. MONICELLI is still alive. Did so many wonderful movies. Wonderful time. Movies from England, France, Sweden, Italy. Poland, series of films out of Japan. Before we started seeing Hong Kong films. Wonderful, inspiring, one wanted a chance to tell stories in an open, loose, not constricted Hollywood kind of way. At the same time you wanted to work in Hollywood. I certainly don't think I was the only fella with that idea. Ironically, at the same time I was tremendously interested in genre films. Wanted to work within genre films. One of the first scripts I wrote was intensely personal about a love affair I had. It was terrible, I knew it. As soon as I started writing in a more structured narrative environment, I began to find my voice I think. I've lost the tread.


INT: I sidetracked you by asking if you wanted to be a director?
WH: The other thing I think that is kind of, I think now there is this attitude about being a screenwriter. If you don’t become a director you have somehow, not failed, but haven't fully achieved what it is you ought to be doing. Screenwriting is honorable craft. A lot of people by temperament and nature who are not directors. There is a lot that has nothing to do. It takes more than talent. Which is sadly true. There is a certain kind of, directors have different personalities from one another. At the same time I think there are certain writers I work with who would not by temperament make good directors. Do wonderful work. The idea that they don't direct shouldn't be held against them. I think the WRITERS GUILD is entirely right about that part of the argument.


INT: So getting back on the agenda here, you wanted to get over into west Hollywood, did you know any directors?
WH: No, didn’t have any relatives. Didn’t know anybody. That work ran out, I was very good at living on a tiny amount of money. I worked for a short time in the mailroom at UNIVERSAL. Somebody told me that was a good way to meet people. I didn't understand how constricted and difficult union situations were. I thought maybe you could work a year or two in film editing as an assistant. I became an assistant director for a couple of years while I was trying to write nights and weekends. I had a hard time finishing scripts. My problem was finding certain character narrative concerns. Once I finished scripts, I almost instantly made a living. Not only made a living, but got them made. From the time I finished them to the time they were getting made, making progress on the trail, that all happened pretty quickly.


INT: What did you discover your problem was, obviously you can start a lot you never ran short of ideas, but what was the blockade you were able to remove to finish them?
WH: I don’t think I had thought them out enough. I don’t write scripts anymore, for a very long time now. I won't start until I can take a piece of paper and write three or four acts. I don't believe in big outlines, but in the simplest of terms give some kind of narrative progression that gets you to an end. There may be only fifteen or 20 moves, but I got to have those. Then you fill in scenes. All that time, usually you start out with a character situation. Movies, we all talk about character. When we talk to actors we talk about character. The audience loves the performers and the characters that they play. Without thematic resonance however understated and narrative progression you don't get very far in all this. Nobody wants to talk about narrative concerns. Not fashionable or endearing to the critical analysis, but it is the spine. Until I know that I have some kind of narrative structure that basically will hold up, I don't start. I would paint myself into a corner. I also think being a screenwriter, I think very few can simply sit down and do it. If they are not novelists or playwrights which usually takes them years to master those techniques. In my case, I was somebody who was not a novelist, not a playwright. I was learning to find the voice and learning within the craft of screenwriting. It takes a while, it is a while. It's more of a craft than an art. It's the old joke, if you get the craft good enough it becomes an art. But it is craft. We are bound to it. I think that my inability to finish, I think it also has to do, although I usually worked, I was a bit lazy. I had fun with my social life. I think I paid too much attention to the fun in my life. Three or four years had gone by, I suddenly said to myself, maybe we better buckle down here. I noted I had already passed the age of ORSON WELLES when he had done two films of unbelievable note. I didn't have those ambitions, but anyway I started finishing scripts. Thinks went well after that.


INT: Let's go back, couple of minutes on the first AD, that’s also a rather unusual step. You were not aware of how rigid the structure is about union jobs, and moving from one to another is not simple. How did you get that first job?
WH: I was never first, I was second. I was first on re-shoots for a WOODY ALLEN movie, a couple of commercials as a first. I was a second. Worked as apprentice assistant directors, now called trainees. I signed up, took a test, got a job through the GUILD. First class of apprentices I believe. Very different then than now. I think they really now figured out the kind of people they want to become assistant directors and managers. I didn't have a shred of desire in those areas. I wanted to work and be around films. I certainly took my duties fairly seriously and all that. I didn't see it as a long term kind of commitment.


INT: Did you have - the first one was a JEWISON film?
WH: I worked in TV as an apprentice, the first one going into the GUILD, I can't remember what it was, you had to work 150 days to join the GUILD. The first one I worked on as a full second assistant director was NORMAN JEWISON's THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. I did BULLITT, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN.


INT: So when you, did you have proximity to the set when you were doing that? Were you able to observe?
WH: Yeah, in every instance I was what is now called the key second. Also I had been on the sets for a previous year and half on television. GUNSMOKE, WILD WILD WEST, during the apprentice days. What other shows, I did WARNING SHOT with BUZZ KULIK. BONANZA a couple weeks. I did a lot of shows for a couple of weeks, they would rotate you through.


INT: Now, you are really getting direct exposure to the role of the director. At the same time, writing at night?
WH: Three worlds. World of daytime where you got up early and went to work. Get the actors in make up and on set. But basically you saw how things were made and it was nuts and bolts. It was whatever the amount of pages a day and we did not fall short. The death penalty seemed to fall on someone if you didn't make the schedule. Everyone in the crew was part of that. You worked late on television and it was murderous hours. So there was that, then to my life there was trying to write nights and weekends. Pretty tired from the set. At the same time, a lot of film going and this great theoretical, I was seeing fabulous films coming across from Japan and France, Sweden. That kept, there was a great source of strength. Wonderful counterbalance to what you see. The problems of a director doing GUNSMOKE and what you imagine the problems of being INGMAR BERGMAN would be were different but somehow connected. It was an interesting time. And of course, the country was falling apart, reshaping itself in '68. Between Vietnam, the civil rights movement, changes in pop culture and music, seeming collapse of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, rise of counterculture films. It was a very exciting time. I began to despair if I was ever going to find my place. But things worked out.


INT: Let's talk about how, it's interesting to me that here you are on the set, second AD and solving problems, and then writing scripts. Did having the experience of being present on the set watching directors and different kinds of films, did that begin to influence the way you were writing, change the direction in which you were going? Were you driven by a need to sell story or writing a ticket to directing?
WH: Well I'm not sure I was conscious of, I don't ever remember writing a script thinking this will sell. It doesn't work that way, or maybe it does. Not so much in my life. It was always, despite my social life, I was introspective in a way. This was one of the few moments of insight in my life. What is probably laughable, I decided we had all become vastly sophisticated in ways that were counterproductive. What I really needed to do was get back to the kind of emotional responses and intellectual responses, but particularly emotional responses to film and stories that I liked so much as a kid. The experience of being 19 and 20, and 22 years old and becoming vastly more sophisticated about film from seeing it and reading about it. One didn't want to take it back. But this wasn't somehow the road. The road really had to do with getting in touch with a more primal instinct. When I started writing I remember thinking I was going to try to tell simple and more direct stories. In doing that, it seemed like it fell into place not long after that.


WH: I do have this feeling, there are certain writers you connect with. I know BORGES always says that the idea is not to give them something new but give them something they feel they have seen before but in another context. The audience wants to be with you out of a common and shared experience in the past. Ideas like that I have to say resonate with me. I'm not a terribly political person. We all have our opinions about what's going on, but I don't define myself as a political person at all. There has always been this conflict in me. A conservative core in one sense and at the same time there is that idea that civilization does need progressive ideas, trying to make things better. Change is inevitable. I had a more complicated...Vietnam was such an unbelievable wrenching thing on the country and everybody I knew. Tremendous arguments within families, old friends. I remember my own attitude was I hated the war, but didn't like the anti-war movement. I thought the anti-war movement had become over-aggressive and enthusiastic and was now in favor of the other side. Friends of mine, I had not been chosen to go over there, but guys I had grown up with had and they were getting shot at. I didn't go and much though I was very much against the war. Take the country to war without support from the people is ridiculous. The goals were elusive. I was very uncomfortable about the idea of the anti-war movement as such.


INT: Talk about going back to the business about your interest in the primal, was there a HEMINGWAY influence in stripping down?
WH: I'm not sure that thematic, you get into this story thing. It’s the characters, the narrative progression. It’s the theme. These are the unities. Some of us were taught this. In that sense I was a good student. I think when you have things that are pure character, they can be interesting but tend to run out of gas early. If you are narrative-driven, there is a staleness to the work. If you overstate the theme however noble, usually in direct proportion to the nobility of the theme it becomes patronizing to the audience. There is this thing about story telling. You try to reach an audience, you try to say look at this, this is worth an hour and half of your time. I've certainly had hit movies, it's how you sustain yourself, but I think a lot of times I'm not as good an entertainer as I get more into my own values. I really think that's the way you have to be. Studios and producers used to think that. Nowadays, this folk wisdom about the business is largely lost.


WH: Certain directors are very lucky. We are all lucky, come along at a time that their particular passions and story telling proclivities work for the general audience. FORD is a good example. I think he is a great director, but came along at the right time. Had he come along later, he would have modified his ideas, but I don't think the career would have worked as well. The same with my favorite, I guess if I have a favorite, is probably HAWKS. Great success in relating to an audience, a lot to do with timing. Somewhat, you can do good work but somehow it doesn't connect. [INT: Like gears, some directors mesh perfectly.] With the times. Fortunate men and women. It doesn't last. The other thing is the particular moment that you so connect inevitably that moment, popular culture moves and it moves in a way our tastes don't. It used to be a rule that all directors have only five to ten years. I don't believe that by the way.


INT: Do you think that directors are trapped in their own vision, that’s the hardest thing to deal with. The compulsion to tell certain kinds of stories, a certain approach or technique, impossible to get out of that?
WH: Yeah, you have to face what it is. I think you have to start out by saying we are all fortunate to not be in the field. We have a fun way to make a living if you can achieve popular success while dealing with your own passions and ideas. There is this wonderful thing between idea and instinct, we all do things that we don't know why but it turns out to be the best shot you made within the sequence. It's not what you were thinking about the night before. Separation of the intellect and instinct can be very wrong for a director. The thing about being a director is what you go out and shoot you have to live with for the rest of your life. The idea you can redo a scene almost never happens. This is not what happens to anybody else in the arts. As a painter you can paint away, a writer you can scratch it out and improve it, put it in a drawer, see the problems. Directors do not. We are all lucky we are not lifting something. At the same time it is the trickiest part of art. The old joke about just as soon as you finish shooting something now you know how to make the damn thing. Finally got it out, but there are things that you could do differently if you started again. It's probably good that we don't have the chance.