Walter Hill Chapter 6


INT: As long as we're on STREETS OF FIRE, who did the music?
WH: The score was done by RY COODER, who I've worked with on I think probably eight or ten movies. I had him score more than any single composer. Then the individual songs were written by various people. JIM WESTMAN would be the better known.


INT: We brought up COODER'S name, how do you work with a composer? You say with the actors you want them to show you their interpretation, but with a composer where is your starting point? Are you a musician yourself?
WH: No I'm frustrated. I'm a reasonable appreciate of music, though not classical which disqualifies me of serious consideration. My own feeling about, I was drawn to RY for instance, I'm wary of scores and big scores. The formal apparatus of Hollywood. I was very drawn, I don't like the idea that the music underscores the drama. I like it to surround the atmosphere. First I think it should be used a little more sparingly, but secondly it should be around the edges of the movie and play through and supply atmosphere rather than punching up the drama, which is the basic approach to underscoring movies. I thought when I first heard RY's, I always had done a lot of tinkering with the music in post. Drives certain people crazy. But that's the way it goes. Thinning out the scores in terms of their orchestration and sometimes I don't use the cues. Even though we cued it I will decide we shouldn't have music there. RY I thought supplied atmosphere. No real training in underscoring was a great advantage. I found precisely what I had been looking for in an instinctive and theoretical level. We got along well. As to how you work with the composer, I talked to them a bit and had them in place before we shoot. I don't like the idea of finishing a movie and then finding a composer. I don't like that approach. Given the script as soon as possible, I like them to come and visit the set if possible. Then as the film gets cut I try to keep them abreast of the cuts. Not every nuance, but most pictures as you know come down. You start at X, minus X to a certain point. Then you declare it to be in shape. With whatever I think is a significant cut I like to transmit that on while they are thinking about what to do.


INT: Are you using temp music at all?
WH: I do. Not as much as I used to. I think temp music is a great sop to the studio. They love temp music because they are scared to death I think that it will underline the drama and make them understand it better. I think you can get too used to it and everybody can think that is what the score is. Quite often the score comes in and disappoints which is unfair to the composer. Then when you fine cut and have a session for your cues, I like to keep it more philosophical and a general level. I always want the composer to agree music is a good idea. He or she goes off, in my case its always a he, then writes and gets into the studio. Most of the scores I ended up with came out of session work rather than big orchestras. In that you can build and lay and play around with it. When RY and I do scores it will take two or three weeks in a small atmosphere, different from two or three day big orchestra approach. You either like it or not but there isn't much you can do about it.


INT: When you are talking to a composer, you are not a musician. You are not talking notes to them, what language do you speak in? Do you talk in metaphors?
WH: Yeah, emotional values. Occasionally I will be presumptuous enough to think a certain instrument will be handy, or a certain sound. But on the whole I like to leave it to again see what they bring to the party. These are intelligent people. It's tricky. They have ideas but at the same time they want to make you happy. If you tell them too much they probably are going to make you happy. Of course we might have been more happy had we let them bring something fresh and original to the mix.


INT: That last statement actually applies to all the creative relationships. The trickiest part of being a director is knowing that line?
WH: It’s a blurry line. Its very hard to put your hands around the idea, but quite often the more people bring to you the more it becomes your own. It's utterly contradictory, but only someone who has gone through the process understands what I mean. It's one of the oldest debates about what makes a work of creation. Are they invented or are they discovered? It's an argument as old as PLATO and probably before. The idea that you don't invent things so much as discover them is true. The more people can bring you makes it more yours. It's discovery as opposed to invention. I think we should be open to the idea of discovery.


INT: Do you ever indicate that you don’t want to be limited by the boundaries of your imagination to the people around you?
WH: Absolutely. It’s a tricky thing because you still want to be captain of the ship. [INT: What's more exciting to you on a set? A shot or something you wrote, what is more satisfying, the execution of something that you imagined when you were sitting there, or something more akin to Jazz where you wrote a note and there is an artist who is able to land on a different note but is so exquisite you could never have managed it?] To rat out a bit on the question, the answer is both. It depends on the moment. It's always so subjective and complicated. We have our text, we go shoot things, we discuss, encourage the actors to bring something to it but still stage it as you had in mind. Surprise me. That's how I operate. The next thing is I never go to dailies. I haven't gone in close to 20 years. I think they are utterly, the editor runs dailies, cameraman often goes, they are looking for technical problems. I have my opinions about what happened and what happened in terms of performance.


INT: So you don't look at dailies at home, nothing before you completed shooting?
WH: This is what I do. It's a photographic medium, a performance medium, jumping past the script obviously. It's photographic, performance, and editorial. Until you combine the three, I think you are just kidding yourself. I will shoot something the next day, I will have a conversation with the editor on the set and say what did you think? I will lay it down, X did a real good job, I thought Y struggled. When you put it together you might want to start with this. Then I will go in on the weekends and look at a piece of the cut footage. I will say this worked out well, or what the hell was I thinking of. I then, by seeing it in an editorial context, I think I can make much better decisions. Dailies, to me is a waste of time and energy and energy is something you need to protect as a director. RICHARD BROOKS said to me as I was getting ready to do my first film. He said "I will tell you one thing, don't start real fast and run out of gas. You have to be just as good the last shot of the last day as you are the first or second week." That's true, not going to dailies is... well if the editor calls me and says "We have a terrible problem," obviously I will run right over and take a look. Just as an admiration of dailies, I don't feel I need that. I want to see it in the context of being assembled.


INT: How long, depends on how far away, do you have the editor with you?
WH: I've had both. Lately the last few endeavors. The long form and the last few features it seems like the editor stayed in Los Angeles and I just talked to him on the phone. [INT: How long goes by before you see them? What is the time?] If I am shooting in town I will see stuff every weekend. If I'm not in town I will get it every ten days. [INT: Have you selected the print already with script supervisor?] Yeah, no I'm sorry. I only get two prints and I will tell the editor choose which one is best. I will tell him which I thought was best. But again I liked the editor. Guy I've been with for years, I have great respect for his taste. [INT: When you have your assembly in post, do you look at everything?] No, unless the edit is a mess. [INT: So you don't recheck unless you're unhappy?] I think it's a totality and you are trying to get someplace. I can remember pretty well, I can usually remember if I thought there was something a little better than what we got. [INT: Look through the lenses while you shoot?] Not very often. I used to. Kind of tell them where we cut.


INT: Let's talk about lenses, this is a good place, and you mentioned moving camera. Your technique is clear, you don’t believe in moving it for movement's sake. It's not stationary, but there is panning and dollying?
WH: I'm not much for unmotivated camera moves. The panning and dollying is not something I'm seeing. I don't say its wrong. Certain directors make it right for themselves. But for what I do, I think it takes the audience out of the story.


INT: And also you obviously favor the wide angle. What is it you shoot with mostly?
WH: The 35 mm is the old traditional. LLOYD and I have been using a zoom on with a good lens. We just adjust to the sides. I have shot certain films at the long end. 48 HOURS we did for various reasons. That was a big cheat. We were only in San Francisco for a brief time because of budget reasons. I thought a longer lens would keep the curse off. After you had established real San Francisco it would hold the audience better. I would like to shoot a film, I just finished this science fiction script. Think it would lend itself to wide angle. I think the technique should match the story. Somehow the content I always use, we only have two or three stories in us. They tend to have a similarity.


INT: I didn’t realize you used a zoom. You don’t use it as a zoom. It's funny, the lenses look very consistent. 35 or 28 sometimes.


INT: So, I think we are on STREETS OF FIRE and THE WARRIORS. You had MICHAEL PARE was that his first film?
WH: No he had done the film about a rock star. MARTY DAVIDSON's film. I saw him in that and thought he was quite a promising young fella. Loved the way he looked. Had a young presence about him.


INT: One more thing about THE WARRIORS and STREETS OF FIRE, let's talk about action which is one of your trademarks. In your approach to action and violence, particularly the gang fights, how would you describe your approach to that?
WH: I have had a lot of physical combat. Fistfights or gunfights or knife fights. I plead guilty. I think the cinema lends itself to physical conflict as well as other kinds of dramatic conflict. I tend to like action films though on the whole they are dumber and have a checkered history. But a good action film, as soon as somebody makes a really good action film they never call it an action movie. SEVEN SAMURAI becomes an epic. You don't say KUROSAWA's action movie. They get elevated if they work at a good enough level. As far as shooting action, what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to impress the audience with one of the character's abilities? Show the audience the price that's paid by violence. I think the biggest thing about action is you must not separate it and think of it as action. What does it fit into the drama. How does it fit into sequence. Shoot it as an extension of the drama itself, probably with the same value system with dialogue scene. Hopefully the same approach to dramatic truth. The other thing is you have to have a lot of patience. There is a tendency and I certainly have had some wonderful stunt coordinators but I think you have to get in there and do it yourself. There is a tendency to make a Hollywood theatricality that unconsciously copies other films. I think you have to get in there. I said earlier I was a frustrated ballplayer. But I liked this physical stuff. Getting in there and helping the coordination for effect. Nobody can know the drama like you can.


INT: You actually, you more than conceive, you actually participate in the blocking?
WH: Oh yeah. As long as its all first unit stuff. It’s the kind of movies and problems so much of it now. You are forced into certain second unit situations. Very difficult on everybody. Obviously somebody is shooting something you should be shooting. They do it for time and finance. It's very hard on the second unit director. Very difficult job. Hard enough to make a movie but to make faithfully somebody else's movie is a nerve wracking position to find yourself in. The only way around it is a lot of conversation, blocking in the hotel room, drawing pictures. The incidents of that didn't work let's try it again, that's going to happen with the second unit approach. I try to keep as much of it in the first unit. I've had wonderful help, some of these people are awfully helpful. I like to see what the coordinator sets up after we've had chats. Get what everybody brings, then get in there and work it a bit yourself I find.


INT: You actually get in there and become one of the participants?
WH: I hope nobody hits me but yeah. [INT: That’s to discover something fresh that is not a repeat of another movie?] That’s part of it. The other part is I'm comfortable that way. I have this picture down in the basement of me showing someone how to punch a guy who happens to be our governor at the moment. I always think somebody said to me you should sell it. I did a movie called RED HEAT. No idea he was going to be governor needless to say.


INT: So, that’s about the process of the action sequence. Let's talk about the result of them and your intention. Whether it’s a western or films like STREETS OF FIRE, there is always a high body count. Is this in your mind, do you want an emotional result or are they supposed to be graphic comic book things that are part of the story advancement?
WH: Again I think it depends on the film. For instance in THE WARRIORS, the splash panel comic book approach was absolutely part of it. THE LONG RIDERS you see these guys who made certain choices. The choices had inevitable consequences. The price paid in blood, so much of it was not a stretch from the truth. COLE YOUNGER was shot 15 to 16 times in Northfield. I shot the shit out of DAVID CARRADINE. JIM YOUNGER, 12, BOB YOUNGER, 9. What seems like excess, these guys paid terrible prices for their excess and I wanted the guys to go through it. In 48 HOURS the guy had done terrible things for whatever reasons. There was a kind of dramatic inevitability that would have been disappointing to the audiences had they handcuffed him and taken him off to jail at the end. There was a kind of dramatic justice that demanded blood for blood. I'm a great believer in dramatic justice. These things work on a fantasy level that the audience takes in.


INT: What do you mean it works at a fantasy level?
WH: The notion of audiences being so moved by violent drama that they are going to imitate it is patronizing and underestimates the audience. I think they realize certain types of things and fantasies, and don't run out and buy guns. You get into this thing, there is one person who does a bad thing based on a film. I would never say nobody ever did that. But you then get into the larger question of if a million people go and see it and see it as part of their fantasy life, making that part of their life more complete, and one person goes and does a terrible thing, what do we do. Never make these dramas? I don't think so. There is sometimes a terrible dilemma about a free society. Not to say there isn't an excess.


INT: What about, again I don’t remember if this applies to 48 HOURS. Where you have a pretty extensive shootout, a number of shootings over a short period of time and the story doesn’t stop for emotional response. Bodies become a part of a body count. What is behind your thinking. Does that fall into fantasy as opposed to something like SOUTHERN COMFORT which is one of my favorite of your films. There is a higher level of emotional content to the violence?
WH: Again I think you start out again with the audience. They accept the idea of violence. Almost all drama depends on violence. What is more emotionally violent than WUTHERING HEIGHTS. How different is emotional violence than physical violence in terms of an audiences understanding. It's a very blurry line. if certain dramas, if you are going to do the Persians invading Greece, you can't do the story with honesty unless you do it violently. These are stories of violence. We are all too emotionally lazy. I'm as guilty as anybody else. but we say war is evil. It's a commonplace, people run for office on this. Well wars are terrible and desperate and horrible things happened. But it was war that ended the concentration camps, ended chattel slavery in our country. It's more complicated than saying war is terrible. Terrible things happen. Sometimes human beings find themselves at an impasse that violence is a reasonable recourse. Sad to say but true. It's just too easy to say lets take the easy way.