Walter Hill Chapter 4


WH: In the end, on MACKINTOSH MAN, they told me my time was up. I went home, brought in several other writers. I was happy to get out of there although Ireland and England were fun. I had been over there for a while. Happy to get home. When things don’t work out great you have a bit of an attitude. I was happy years later, I was not at war with HUSTON. But when we were talking about this revenge thing, his script and my script, we had several meetings up in the hills. He was getting ready to do THE DEAD. Certainly such a giant, reduced by circumstance. I thought he pulled it off wonderfully well. Great dignity. My mother died of emphysema. It's a terrible, debilitating way to go. Wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. He had emphysema. He was moving into final stages. I remember, I think it was the last time, I don't know if I ever told this story. We were talking about THE DEAD. We were at the door of this little place in Laurel Canyon. I turned back and said how are you going to do this last line. I can't quote it, but she looks out the window, it starts to snow on the graveyard. It's a wonderful ending to this beautifully written story. I look back and smiled. Director dilemma. "How are you going to do the last line JOHN?" He paused, smiled and said "With music." About as good an answer to a shitty question as somebody will make. He made I think a fine film out of the last moment of his.


INT: So that takes us to 1975, HARD TIMES. Had you been trying to get a directors job up until now or were you waiting?
WH: I think in casual conversation I would have told anybody I wanted to direct. At the same time I knew Hollywood was a closed off place. This tectonic shift of how different it was then and now. I came along, I wouldn't have traded the time I came along, but in those days it was much harder to get in. To be an older director was a very positive thing. It meant you had survived, knew your way, could make things and make them meet your economic responsibilities. It was always paramount in studio minds, especially in those days. Almost all of those values are reversed. It's easier to get in. To be older is suspect. They believe you are separated from the greater part of the audience. I kind of caught both bad ends. I think I have gone through such interesting times, we all wish we were 25 years old again. I still would rather be 25 then than now. I knew that I wasn't going to get a chance to direct because I had not been a director. I was somebody who was a writer. I was making a good writer. If I was going to direct I was going to write my way in. No TV, no play, I was simply somebody who said I have a sensibility. I think I can do this. based on nothing other than my scripts basically.


WH: I met a producer, LARRY GORDON who moved over to COLUMBIA. Took the position, LARRY liked to take chances with writers. He thought several things. If you give them a chance to direct you could get the script at a reduced price and get a better script. As far as he was concerned, the chances are you weren't going to be any worse than at AIP, which was the way he looked at it. He was quite a character. So I made, wrote the script for scale and directed it for scale. I had long been sports fan, boxing is something that always interested me, combat. This was, he had this project about, I guess street fighting and gambling. It was all set in San Pedro in contemporary. I didn't think it would work. I converted it to the 30s and removed it to New Orleans, worked the script out. We got CHARLIE BRONSON to do it, big star. I got my shot at being a director. Did it in 38 days. It was harrowing. It was the best deal I ever made. Got a career out of it. Picture was well received on the whole, made money. Got me off and going.


INT: You shot it in New Orleans?
WH: Yeah, all in New Orleans. PHIL LATHROP was the cameraman, wonderful guy. As I say I had not directed anything. [INT: What was your biggest surprise?] I don’t know, I guess it wasn't a surprise. Before we started I was in my office later at night and LATHROP came by, noted I wasn't in a good mood. "Anything wrong?" I had never done it, worried if I will make it look alright. He immediately said "Don't worry about that. We will make a film, make the shots. If you are having a problem we will make the shots. I can already tell you you are ahead of other directors." He said "Anything we shoot we will cut together." He said "The problem that you're going to have is making everybody getting along and you getting what you want." And he was of course 100 percent right. That is the problem with direction. Beyond my first or second film, I don't think I've ever had terrible dilemmas based upon resources, but shooting and figuring out how is not a problem, never was. The problems that you have are getting everybody to be on the same page. That I think on the whole worked well.


WH: BRONSON was a bit of a character. Very angry guy. Exactly what he was angry about took me a while. He was angry every day. We got along pretty well. Didn’t get along with a lot of people. The only reason I can tell you he and I got along well was he respected that I wrote the script. He liked the script. Also I didn't try to get close to him. Kept it very business-like. I think he liked that. JIMMY COBURN who everybody liked and got along well with, he and I did not get along well. I think he was not in a good mood about being in a movie with CHARLIE, it was second banana. He had been up there more, and his career was coming back a bit. I don't think he was wild about being second banana. But CHARLIE was big star, perceived to be low rent. That was part of his anger. The real anger was about how long it took him to get their. He thought their was a cosmic injustice when he was not a movie star at 35. He didn't get there till 45 or whatever.


INT: Here, you described having one star on his way down and one who is up there but is angry, when you said difficulty, try to be specific, how did that play into the making of this movie, was it on the set or in between?
WH: They didn’t socialize much together. Reasonably polite. I remember I got into a belief out in the Cajun sequence. I was staging the preliminary part to the fight, no the immediate aftermath when they were being ripped off. JIM and I got into an argument over how to stage the thing. I got angry, first time I got angry. I threw my script across the set. Unlike me, I don't like emotional outbursts and that kind of thing. CHARLIE looked at JIM, had been totally silent, said "JIM let's do it his way." COBURN said "Alright, CHARLIE. If that's the way you feel fuck it." CHARLIE did that two or three times. When things had seemed to not be working well, or there was some impasse, CHARLIE would come down hard on my side. That was tipping point. I was first time director. You learn to overwhelm people by the time you've done it a couple of times. You don't present choices, your manner changes a bit. What its all about is getting things your way, which I believe in. But again I think you should be polite and create a positive atmosphere. I think the performance, I try to be very gentle with the actors. Pulling them through the exercise of rehearsal. Not going to lay it down. But I don't believe in group discussions about where the camera goes or how we stage it. JIM felt he should participate. CHARLIE pulled it out. [INT: Was it because it was your first time?] Absolutely, I don't think there is any question about it.


INT: Let's talk about this point in your career. I read something you said, you used a phrase decisive moment, you articulated about approaches of directors to the set. Do you know what one, a director who comes with a plan in his head? Or maybe a director like JOHN FORD who is prepared but wants to see what the clouds look like. If you could talk about that, and also where you fit in, particularly as you started out?
WH: Well the notion, one of the things I think is great about film directing is there isn't any right way to do it. Probably a lot of wrong ways to do it. To accomplish the story telling with in the boundaries of your personality, you are going to have to choose at some point. There is the tipping point, the point of decision about choice and what it's going to be. I guess HITCHCOCK is the example of somebody who works it out a head of time. He worked out the script and visuals, maybe changes a little but on the whole he records what he preconceived.


WH: Other directors want to make things happen. Look for the accident that makes things better. You can then take that idea, and you can do one of two things. You can rehearse up to the point where it has come to life and actors have it with life like experience, shoot once or twice and move on. Or you can continue the experimentation and shoot many takes and many more angles. At that point, the moment of decision, what you are saying, is the moment of decision is now postponed. Postponed into post and you are going to disassemble and reassemble. You want a lot of choice and fluctuation. The moment of post production becomes the decisive moment. No right or wrong. It is simply reflective of personality. There are outstanding examples of directors who have used any one of the three, others who have switched over mid career. And there are a lot who aren't any good at all who used one of the three. But we are all bound by this. That is the inevitable truth about direction, however one approaches it.


WH: As to myself, I have almost always had the major hand in the screenplay or some degree of the screenplay. I've always had control with I think maybe one exception, maybe two. My own position is that all the wisdom and the talent that all the people can bring to this thing probably didn't happen three months before, let's go out and make it happen. I don't approach it defensively as a writer. I don't like to shoot a lot of takes.


INT: How much do you shoot on a performance?
WH: Obviously you have to get it, but I think so many of the actors are so good. unless you've chosen an actor who is good or has a look, and you have to grind it out of them, I believe that you should rehearse up to the point where you think it is now happening. and then shoot just a few takes. After awhile, after the actors understand that's the way its going to be, they then rise to that occasion. I think what happens, the short side of it, I think in my own where I've fallen short I didn't rehearse enough, but I tend to use fewer. I get two prints at the most. You are subject to the actor and what they are bringing to it. They can have bad days too. I have had certain situations, JEFF BRIDGES is an actor I greatly love. I was fortunate to have him in a film I did, a western. There was always a tension. He is a very nice man, decent, hard working, got along well, no problems, but it was always a kind of tension between JEFF and myself. JEFF does a lot of takes, I don't. My focus is very intense, but when it gets to be you just doing it again and again I lose it and I find an awful lot of performers go stale. He would always have an idea he thought he could make something better. When someone says "I can do this better" it's hard to say "Fuck it let's move on." Though I am capable of that, more politely put than I just did.


INT: What is a lot of takes for you?
WH: I think if I go over 5 or 6, usually I try to get two prints. Rarely go more than five takes. My first film, STROTHER MARTIN had a block one day. I remember I went 17 or 18 takes just to get one. It was driving me crazy. I didn't yell at him or anything. Nothing to be done about it. There is something within me that resists that kind of repetition. [INT: Something to do with the work ethic?] I don't know. I think a lot of these things you just feel them and you don't know why. I just think everybody goes a bit flat and lose the edge. You are going to do another angle. I try not to do a lot. Again I think, I try to do cutting edge genre films at the same time and take the chances. At the same time there is something traditional about my approach. I think the easiest, most overrated thing in the business is moving the camera. [INT: So WILLIAM WYLER is not your...] I don't make any, WYLER was a great director and it worked for him, and it doesn't work for me. He got unbelievable performances, but I don't think I would be a better director if I tried to direct like WILLIAM WYLER. [INT: Parenthetically, one of the explanations I heard was WYLER's English was his second language, and it was because of his problem with English.]


INT: Let's go back now, you actually didn’t exactly say which one of those categories you are in?
WH: Again I certainly don’t fall in the HITCHCOCK approach. I try to give the actors a lot of room and see if they bring things and not do too many takes. The amount of coverage in the middle period I did more than was necessary, probably just because I was given more time. I liked working with fast cameramen. I like to have a lot of activity on the set, but I think I cover less now. I didn't cover much when I was beginning, and cover much less now than in the middle period. From BREWSTERS MILLIONS to about GERONIMO, I covered a lot. Now much less.


INT: You haven't worked with that many cameramen. LLOYD AHERN, LASZLO, WAITE, maybe some others, but those were the three you worked with?
WH: My first two films were with PHIL LATHROP, I did several with ANDY LASZLO, and the last 10 or 12 years I worked exclusively with LLOYD. I believe in the first place, if I think the cameraman did a good job, out of loyalty you should offer them your next picture. If they are not available then its up for grabs. I believe that about all key positions. I like the same people, familiar faces, it makes everything more comfortable, and you know they have done good work. LLOYD, I have literally known him forty years. I knew him when I was apprentice assistant director. The kind of friendship, understanding, shorthand that we do is the kind of thing years together can produce.


INT: How do you work, as long as we are there, how do you work with the production designer in preproduction and the DP? Do you come from the HITCHCOCK way with a clear vision in wardrobe, or do you have a result you are looking for? Do you work off another medium with paintings and pictures? And then on the set with the DP, are all the camera positions yours?
WH: I think essentially I feel that everybody should get a shot. When I work with the production designer, art director, costume designer, it's like working with the actors. Show me what you think is appropriate. You are here not to be a robot. You are talented, done this before, think about it, I am here to appreciate what you bring if it is appropriate. The old KAZAN thing is it's a collaborative art, everybody collaborates with me. You take the ideas and you modify them. You can say I think we are in the wrong mode here. I'm not trying to use German expressionism. But the critical thing is how far can you push it. Most of the time, you have the basic script. The story to be told. How far are you going to stylize it, present it in a realistic manner.


INT: Have you made a lot of those decisions, I realize this changes throughout the career, as a writer director, have you made a lot of those decisions while you were writing your script? Obviously you are doing shots while writing, that is directorial, but that directors part is it over here until you finish the script, or is it in the script?
WH: It's in the script but I don't put it in the script. It's there, I can see what I'm generally going to do. It took me a long time to convince people we weren't making a gang movie about modern New York. It was fantasy, closer to sci fi. No matter how many times I would say it, it was difficult because we were out at real sets at night. In stylized ways dealing with real social issues. The idea that on the streets you would be making a fantasy level film, and an entirely new bunch. FRANK MARSHALL was the executive producer, I had worked with him once before. But everybody was new, including the cameraman. So getting everybody on this wave length of we have to be crazier took a while. I think in terms of picking the shots, I harkened back. Certainly we pick the locations, I have a good idea of where we want everybody to start. Where are they going to be when we find them in the scene. You either find them or let them in. Then we rehearse it. Again I encourage the actors to move, feel comfortable and feel natural with what we are up to. These are general things that are specific. Every scene is different. We aren't making cookies or cars. After the scene is blocked and the actors have marks, I can see the shots. I like a cameraman that's very flexible. I say we are going to be here here and here. He will say do you want one of these. Sometimes yes and no.


WH: DON SIEGEL told me once that when you go out to shoot, you quite often walk onto the set and there is never enough time. By the middle of the movie so much of what is thought of has now been exploded by circumstances. You walk on and you think over here is good. You walk around, over here is pretty good too. He said go with your first instinct. I don't know if that works for everybody. I think on the whole, that's a good way to approach it. Once you got the scene how you want to shoot it. Knowing how I'm shooting something before I see it doesn't strike me. I know there are directors who do it all the time and have very good results, but again the neat thing is that its all kind of personal with us. I always say you are never waiting for me. I can think of the shots a lot faster than we can make them.