Walter Hill Chapter 5


WH: I think the other thing about cameramen, I know there are women who now do it, but I find it's important for me that I like them. You work so closely. You're not going to love everybody you ever work with in this business, but I would have a hard time if I didn’t like the person. At the same time I think one of the great mistakes quite often with directors - it's hard to talk about directors because we don't work with each other and we work alone, but what you hear is directors so often defer to cameramen. I don't believe in that. They can give you what you want, you tell them what you want.


INT: Do you use video assist?
WH: I don’t like it. I think it's terrific if you are doing a stunt or something. The idea that you are watching performance or frame line, I would be happy to give the whole damn thing up. I like to sit on an apple box under the camera. The actor feels my presence, I feel the performance. I also don't like the idea that people crowd around the god damn thing. It's hard to keep people from sneaking up. Especially if I'm sitting under the camera or walking next to it, then it's back over there. There is an intimacy that has been lost through video assist. First film I thought it was fabulous, but I grew to not like it much. [INT: Ever considered removing it?] I have it usually now where it doesn't play back. If you remove it, I think it is useful at certain points. Somebody will stand, I will say check this. I'd be very happy to make a movie without it. [INT: Director has power over the movie.] That's true. I made I don't know how many movies without it before it became a beast. I am more negative now than at first. Again, I know other directors who think I'm crazy. They think it's an absolutely necessary tool.


INT: Let's go back a bit now to preproduction in terms of rehearsal. Do you rehearse during preproduction?
WH: Usually not. A lot of times I have the scripts that kind of don’t, are conducive to a lot of rehearsal. The films are dialogues, but in physical situations to make sense. A director once told me don't sit and read the script with the actors. The only thing that happens is everyone hates the script. Doubts permeate. I like to work it out. I think there are things about directing perceived as disadvantages that are actually advantages. Shooting out of continuity was this terrible thing. But what it does is force everyone to rely on the director. If we shoot movies in absolute continuity, then there is a collective consciousness like a theater or play. Certain choices become self evident. I think lack of continuity works very well for directors. Walk across the street on sets in El Paso Texas, it's all to our favor. You become the indispensable person who chooses what's appropriate.


INT: As far as getting back to this writing directing thing, has there ever been in any of your films, where you set out with the script like all the others, that you are very clear about what it will be and look like, that the circumstances, I don’t mean this in any negative sense, but the circumstances of making the film as the director you took a 90 degree turn. A result of casting or narrative idea that was not revealed, did it change something significant?
WH: I think in terms of casts, I am a great believer in adjusting the script as you are shooting it to meet what you perceive to be the evolving talents, strengths, and weaknesses of the casts. The greatest mistakes a director can make is get somebody to do something they can't do. The thing with actors, and God bless them, I'm talking in worthless generalizations. Most actors think they can play anything. Most directors think they can only play a narrow channel. They are both wrong. Actors cant play anything, sometimes more specific than others. Directors need to be more flexible. It's more fashionable to cast against bits. One wanted to find something new, but the idea of casting against the part wasn't done a lot. It was a bit dangerous. I think in terms of changing the script, most of the stories I tell are stripped down and if anything simple. The story points don't change much. We cut things out, thought maybe you didn't need. Most of the screenwriting that happens while you are shooting to me is an adjustment of dialogue. I am a constant fiddler of change in the dialogue to meet the character. The hardest thing for me is not giving line readings. You're never supposed to do that. I find when I make a really good connection with the actor, quite often I can give him line readings. Like most directors I perceive myself to be a superb actor. Not in the physical sense, but to hit the line. NOLTE always liked it. He wanted me after a while to read a line for him. Other actors, you are not gonna. It's a counterproductive idea. Not everybody will sound like you. There is a certain slang, dialogue, comfort hitting pauses, phrases that you can help them with. They are not as comfortable. Once they heard it then they will make it their own.


INT: As a writer-director, you probably don’t get this problem very often in which actors will try to rewrite lines themselves?
WH: Well, there certainly have been a few moments. On the whole not. Sometimes they will come to you. My experience is not that they want to change their dialogue. What they will do is come in and say I was working on this scene and it doesn't work. I don't think this scene works. What you then do is make some kind of minor change in the dialogue and they say okay. I don't mean to say they are stupid or foolish, but it is easy to get into situations where you are working alone or with another actor. You are tired, get kind of blocked. Somebody will say something that is really a small thing. It opens all the doors. Try to avoid the long lengthy conversations about all this business. Try to keep it as simple as can be.


INT: Now, do you ever see yourself questioning the difference between when an actor comes to you with a problem and when an actor comes in with a very good idea, or caught a real problem. Are you open to that difference, or are you sure that even though the alternative is interesting that's not what you set out to do?
WH: It's always about specifics, but I think so often you are working, I don't know how to sound this without sounding pretentious. You are working on a poetic level. The actors are uncomfortable if you say that to them. Through their training, this wouldn't have been true a hundred years ago, but they all want psychological realism to be applied. If it's not in that context they have a problem with it unless its SHAKESPEARE. They kind of get that. I'm sounding patronizing, I don't mean to be. I think the hardest thing in this business, storytelling communal effort, the hardest thing is to be a performer. As a director you are the story teller and all that. We are there to help them perform as best we can. The ability to stand up there with trucks and cranes, people beyond the ropes and stay consistent within an abstraction of a character and make it hold up for 90 minutes is a fabulous gift. Few people who choose to go into it really have it. But as I say, working at a more, for lack of a better category, poetic level that is beyond a kind of social reality, it's amazing the audience accepts it right away. The whole thing about all of this is you establish the rules you are telling to the audience and then you go with it. Just be consistent


INT: You’ve come to the heart of something, you are always working outside the boundaries of those two places, not that they don’t exist but you are somewhere on the outer edges of that always tipping towards fable. The edge of fable and reality. One would think any actor who comes to work with you would understand by your body of work that they are working in this margin?
WH: I certainly think, I don't disagree with your category. As to the actors coming, I try to keep as much continuity as you can. Certain people, two come to mind that I have worked with over the years. POWERS BOOTHE, KEITH CARRADINE are very comfortable in it.


WH: NOLTE and I, I think there was always a tension. I feel badly. I liked NICK, whenever I run into him I'm pleased to see him, but there was a kind of, I felt I could help him more than I did. I couldn't get him on the wave length. His basic, it was beyond his performance. I had no basic problems with his performance. He was so intent on being some version of a serious actor. Sounds like a reasonable goal. I kept saying to him, I wanted him to be a movie star. I wanted him to be EASTWOOD or one of those guys. He was desperately. He would get angry, putting it crudely, he wanted to be one of the New York guys - [INT: DANIEL DAY LEWIS] That kind of thing. It's so difficult to talk about ones vision of one's self. Very decent guy. Lovely, funny, used to have an enormous amount of laughs. Always this thing. I'm more convinced than ever in watching his career go the way its gone that I was absolutely right. He was meant to be one of the others, and he has chased this down a rabbit hole. He would disagree with me. NICK was a serious actor in a way that hurt him a bit. I used to say you work at this other level and see what these guys are doing in terms of think of the audience, then you can do anything you want. You are one of the few who has the physical capabilities for this. You work at that level and you can do anything. I never could get him, I haven't won the argument.


INT: Do you think BRUCE WILLIS fits into that category, does these pictures every so often?
WH: I think BRUCE is ambitious but he is, Bruce and I were not close when we did the film. I liked working with him. It was impersonal. Classic, "I know what you mean. You want me to be a BOGART, MITCHUM kind of guy" and I said "Exactly. Let it happen." He then took that and gave what I thought was a very good performance. I always sensed there was a kind of core resentment that BRUCE felt he should be more appreciated for his talents. At the same time I think there is a limitation, does certain things better than others, hasn't always chosen so wisely.


INT: Going back now to you and this theme. I realize now, its almost like you declared your career in the opening of THE WARRIORS. The prologue was ANABASIS, declared it was a fable. Almost, I'm overstating, almost as if so many films fall into that same point of view, that same sensibility?
WH: I would say it preceded that. HARD TIMES was a tale told around a campfire. Everybody used to have fights, this guy... you know. Kinda stories I used to hear as a kid. You read JACK LONDON as a kid. I think in THE WARRIORS you have reference to the tape that came out a year ago that had more of the ANABASIS stuff, XENOPHON. [INT: Yes it was in the DVD.] That was a point of roaring contention. I didn't think the film would work without the reference to Greek history. I thought you should say a bit of that. You also had to say this took place in the near future, science fiction a bit. And third that it was lurid and comic book. The best way to deal with it was to use comics to introduce the approach to character and narrative. The studio had agreed to this approach, in post we did not agree. They wanted it to be just put out. I said the film wouldn't work, it was too crazy. I was wrong, the film did well. I also think the film did better than what I wanted it to be in this DVD when they came to me and asked if I wanted to do it that way. [INT: They saw it as WEST SIDE STORY without music?] Yeah, that and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.


INT: Obviously there was a controversy, before we get to what happened after, we know the source of the story, but do you remember when you had the idea that this was something I wanted to do?
WH: Well LARRY GORDON had SOL YURICK's novel, and he had me read it. He developed a script from DAVID SHABER. I said "LARRY, I would love to do this, but nobody will let us do it." It was going to be too extreme and too weird. We were going to do a western that got canceled, he calls me up a week later and says "Do you want to do that gang thing, I can still get it on at PARAMOUNT." Which he did. A week later I was in New York working on the script at night. We made a deal to make a low budget film, working on script at night and locations in day time.


INT: When that picture was released, there were gang incidents right afterwards?
WH: There was an incident in Oxnard, California where a guy had gone into the theater, came out and got into a beef with other guys and was killed. That same night in Palm Springs, I can't see it had much to do with the movie, but a fella had gone home and discovered his girlfriend wasn't home. Went to the drive in theater and killed the guy who was with his girlfriend. Hard to tie that to the film, but the press managed to. Two deaths the same night, sad to say. Then there was another bad incident back in Massachusetts and reports of lots of fights. THE WARRIORS was the first film I think, many others followed, but attracted a certain kind of youth culture. Would see enemies across the aisle and had fights. The films became a staging ground for a number of social incidents. The movie was pilloried by those most righteous in our society. Chiefly politicians and certain religious leaders. You look at it now its unbelievable. It's more like a musical than a violent film.


INT: What were you trying to say in that film, if anything?
WH: I don’t, I always resist that kind of thing. I don’t believe you can reduce it down. What made it a success with young people, and I think this answers, goes to your question, is that for the first time somebody made a film within Hollywood, big distribution, that took the gang situation and did not present it as a social problem. Presented them as a neutral or positive aspect of their lives. As soon as you said in the old days gang movies it was how do we cure the pestilence and how do we fix the social waste. We want to take these kids, make sure they go to college. [INT: BLACKBOARD JUNGLE.] I suppose. They were perceived as social problems. I have full respect for that. This was just a movie that conceptually was different. Accepted the idea of the gang, didn't question it, that was their lives, they functioned within that context. And the social problem wasn't were they going to college, but were they going to survive. It's the great HAWKSIAN dictum, where is the drama? Will he live or die? That's the drama.


INT: It's hard to talk about that without also linking it at the same time with STREETS OF FIRE, how many years?
WH: About 3 or 4. [INT: STREETS OF FIRE, that was between '80 and '83. The opening, the whole rock concert was ahead of its time. It's almost like it’s THE WARRIORS with music. Any connection?] Absolutely. LARRY and I wrote it with the idea we were doing a musical fantasy. This is where cultural history was tricky. We wrote it and began production when there was no MTV. By the time it came out, always a problem with movies, the movie was damned as the first MTV movie and condemned. What was happening to this art form? Is this the way of it? [INT: You prostituted musicals?] Just the imaginary, I think we tripped into something which was you could set up - I was always fascinated. The audience will go with you when you set up an abstract world with teenage values and play out a drama within this. It was kind of real but it wasn't really. I always said whenever someone says fantasy they immediately think of more DISNEY-esque. The idea of a hard hitting drama in a fantasy world, that was kind of different at the time. The simultaneous rise of MTV and the musical overtones. People asked me about STREETS OF FIRE, I always thought of it as a musical. They kind of saw it worked in the world of an MTV video. This other reality of the song. You can take the other reality of the song and extend it. Bit of a precious conceit. I don't see these things after I do them. Never. I think it's counterproductive. I'm trying to go forward. An interview like this is difficult because it's all about what I did so many years ago. I think at some point you can sit down and take a look, but I can't change it or fix it. I can't do the things that make it better until they take it away. They aren't finished until they are abandoned. The previous film had been a big hit, 48 HOURS. I had a lot of time.


INT: I was going to ask you, that looked like a big picture?
WH: It was a good size. Didn’t cost that much. The talent was all low price. [INT: We are talking about that later. The opening of STREETS OF FIRE was so ahead of its time. Right now it doesn’t look unusual with everything after that.] The music, most of it was done down here on Wilshire and Western. Our basic theater and then the backlot of UNIVERSAL, and then Chicago for a couple of weeks. I felt humbled by the shooting. I think I thought I could handle things. Didn't know how to shoot music. Music had been important in my films, it was usually post production. This was tough stuff to shoot. I already had a great respect for people like MINNELLI. I just couldn't seem to work it out without just putting up multiple cameras and shooting an awful lot of film. [INT: Was that unusual to you?] Yeah, but I just could not...I later realized or talked to people about this and MGM in the old days everybody was on contract and they would rehearse for weeks. We don't get that. We would stage it and shoot it. We got the songs a lot of times just a few days before we shoot. We only get the final song. The structural advantage of the old studio system we didn't have. It made a very inefficient shoot. I don't think there was any other way to do it given the circumstances.