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One of the legendary figures of the American cinema, the late Monte Hellman (1929 – 2021) is best known for directing Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), considered by many to be the definitive “road movie,” but Hellman’s career goes back to the 1950s, and his work in the formative days of television. Later, he worked for maverick producer/director Roger Corman on a number of projects, before branching out on his own as a director, while continuing his work as an editor for such luminaries as the late Sam Peckinpah. He was also involved in various projects with Vincent Gallo, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven and numerous other contemporary filmmakers. Hellman seldom spoke at length about his work in film, but in this interview he was willing to talk about nearly everything he ever did. Indeed, after this interview was conducted on January 19, 2004, Hellman made only one more feature, Road to Nowhere (2010), which was not well received by either critics or audiences. So for all intents and purposes, this is a nearly complete overview of Hellman’s work in film, and offers a number of interesting insights into his long and varied career. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and incorporates follow up questions asked a week later in a separate conversation.

You were born on July 12, 1932, in New York, New York. Could you tell me something about your early education and your family?

I was born in New York by mistake. My parents were from St. Louis, Missouri, and they were traveling in New York, expecting that I wouldn’t be born for a week or so, but I was born accidentally in New York.

My mother was a housewife until her kids were grown, at which point she worked in retail. She had a job as a salesperson at a clothing store, and then she sold real estate. She was also a bridge teacher. My father was in small businesses, like grocery stores and gas stations. He ultimately sold real estate as well.

So your parents were on vacation in New York, and then they went back to St. Louis, and that’s where your family was based?

No, actually they moved back to New York (laughs)! They moved to Brooklyn for about six months. Then they moved to Albany, New York, until I was about five years old, and then we all moved to California.  I was exceedingly shy, and my parents thought they would bring me out by giving me drama lessons when I was about six years old, and I became interested in theater and directing. When I was 10 years old, I went to a YMCA summer camp, and wrote and directed a 10-minute play. Later I went to John Burroughs Junior High and Los Angeles High, which by coincidence coincided with Dustin Hoffman’s education. I think I always wanted to be involved in movies, but I thought that not having a family in the business, the theater was a more realistic ambition. So I really expected that I would work in regional theater, which I had an opportunity to, but I did graduate work in film at UCLA after I finished theater studies at Stanford. I must have had some kind of hope in the back of my mind that I could make films.

When did you graduate from UCLA?

I didn’t graduate. I didn’t finish my graduate studies. I was in the Class of ’51 at Stanford and I finished at UCLA in ’53. Then my first real job was as an apprentice editor on the TV series Medic, with Richard Boone, the lovely old drunk. I got that because after I had done three years of summer stock, one of the members of my stock company was offered a job in the editing department at ABC TV. He wasn’t interested, so he turned me on to it. I applied, and my first job was cleaning out the film vaults at the ABC studios. I was actually an apprentice editor, my duties being to synchronize dailies and do hot splicing and things like that, but I unofficially moved up to assistant. I can’t remember what the reason was. The assistant must have been busy doing something else, so I was working as an assistant.

The Film Editors Guild had a rule that you had to put in eight years in the Guild before you could edit. I was a member, and as long as I was a member, the clock was running. It didn’t matter whether you were working as an actual editor or not. So, I decided to put in my eight years doing something else, because I got tired of being an apprentice editor. I quit and started my own theater company in Los Angeles. It was originally called the Playgoers Company, and then we were sued because the magazine that was handed out in all the theaters in LA was called Playgoers, so they handed us an injunction. We had to change our name to the Theatergoers Company. It wasn’t a stock company, so we didn’t have a group of players. We did a season of plays, with different casts in each one.

Roger Corman was one of the investors in my theater company, and we lasted a year, at which point we got evicted because they decided to convert the theater to a movie theater. By the way, the theater was a beautiful facility, which had been built by the Actor’s Lab, with a revolving stage. The first play we put on, which I also directed, was Waiting for Godot. That was the first LA production of the play, and the fifth production in the world at that time. But then we got thrown out of the theater by the landlord in 1958, and Roger said, “Okay, the theater is being converted into a movie theater, and you should take that as a sign. You should direct a movie.” So my first movie was Beast from the Haunted Cave (released in 1960). You know, I just was looking to do anything. Roger hired me because he thought he was getting a bargain.

Was that a Filmgroup production?

Yes, it was. We had 13 days, and the reason Corman thought he was getting a bargain was that he hired me as a writer, director, and editor. The budget was about $13,000 or something like that, shooting in 35mm. Gene Corman, Roger’s brother, was actually the producer on the film. We were shooting the film on location in South Dakota, and Gene told everybody that we were from UCLA doing a student film! So he made a deal with the hotel for $1 a day per room, and he put two people in a room. We had cold Velveeta sandwiches for lunch, or sometimes salami. This is ten below zero, mind you, so not even a cup of hot soup. So, it was very low budget from every point of view.

Leo Gordon started the script, then Chuck Griffith finished it, and then I supervised some rewrites that Chuck did. And it’s funny; Roger didn’t get me as an editor either, because it wasn’t a union production, and so my union (the Editor’s Guild) wouldn’t let me edit it.

How did you get involved in Corman’s film Ski Troop Attack (1960)?

Well, Corman shot Ski Troop Attack back to back with Beast from the Haunted Cave. Then a couple of years later, when he sold everything to television, he sold a number of films that were made as companion features, B movies for a double bill, and they were all 60-minute movies. For television, they needed to be at least 70 minutes. So he hired me to expand four of his old pictures for television. One was my own picture, Beast from Haunted Cave, one was Ski Troop Attack, which he had shot back to back. And then the two pictures that he shot at Puerto Rico, Last Woman on Earth (1960) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

Robert Towne starred in The Last Woman on Earth under the pseudonym of Edward Wain, in addition to writing the script; another Corman economy. And, of course, Towne went on to write many more films of his own after that, including Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). So, I shot additional scenes for all these films, just to make the sale to television.

Then you went to work on Corman’s multi-director film, The Terror (1963).

There were actually only three directors. Roger directed two days on a set he had left over from The Raven (1963), because he had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, both of whom were in The Raven, and he’d finished that film ahead of schedule. So he shot two days, and then he shut the film down. Then Francis Ford Coppola and I shot all the rest of the stuff. Coppola did all the stuff that was down at Big Sur. (Other sources contend that Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson also shot some material for The Terror, but Hellman disputes this.) I shot all the exteriors that Coppola didn’t do; Coppola shot most the scenes with Dorothy Neumann, who played the witch, Katrina, in the film.

Now I have an interesting credit here. Harvey Hart’s film Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965), based on a play by William Inge, who refused the screenplay credit; he used “Walter Gage” as a pseudonym. You worked on that film as an assistant editor. Were you on the set at all?

A little bit, but not that much. That was cut by a great old editor, Folmar Blangsted. He was very, very demanding of assistant editors. An assistant has a lot of work to do on his own, syncing up dailies and so forth, but Folmar demanded that the assistant do all this work after hours, and that during the day the assistant would stand by Folmar, just to hold a piece of film that he might need in the cutting. The next scene, whatever, like a human trim bin. So it was demanding, but he was great. I learned a lot from him. But then I was offered two pictures in the Philippines to direct Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury (both 1964). So I told Folmar that I had this terrific opportunity, and I was going to go to the Philippines and direct these two films. And he was furious! How dare I desert him in the middle of a film? So that was unfortunate, but I did go to the Philippines, and shot those two films back to back for Roger.

Before we get to that, I want to talk about The Wild Ride (1960). What was your involvement in that?

The Wild Ride was a picture for Corman directed by Harvey Berman, who was one of the people in my summer stock company. Roger wanted me to go up there to make sure everything went okay. It was a teenage rebel movie. That was really when I got to know Jack Nicholson, who was the star of the movie.

Now back to Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell. These are both in the Philippines. These were your first real serious directorial credits?

Yes, I think that they were the first films that I did that I felt were real movies. They were back-to-back, but I was upset about Back Door to Hell because it was the only film that I had done that I wasn’t the sole editor on. I was shooting Flight to Fury while somebody else was cutting Back Door to Hell (Fely Crisostomo), which I didn’t like at all. And then I got really deathly ill, and I was in the hospital for a long time, and nobody could figure out what it was. It was some strange tropical disease; they never did figure it out. They gave all kinds of tests and finally Jack Nicholson came to the hospital, and put his hand on my head and said, “be well; you’re healed,” just like that.

And believe it or not, the next day I was out of the hospital scouting locations. I was not completely 100% but nearly 100% better. So, Fely put Back Door to Hell together in a rough edit while I was in the hospital, and when I came out, I was horrified – it was totally botched! So I recut it while shooting Flight to Fury, and my schedule was something like this. I would get up at 5 in the morning, have breakfast, leave for the set at 6, sleep in the car until we got to the set at 7, shoot until 6PM, drive back to the house from 6 to 7 at night, sleep in the car during that time, have dinner, and then go to the cutting room to recut Back Door to Hell, work until 2 in the morning, then sleep from 2AM to 5AM, and then repeat the same process the next day. So, I fought for that one.

It’s really hard to recut a picture once somebody has done the first rough-cut. You haven’t seen the original dailies, you can’t pick the takes. That just doesn’t work for me. I never was really happy with the way Back Door to Hell came out, even though I put a lot of effort into it. Years later, when I was brought in to recut some of the Killer Elite (1975) for Sam Peckinpah , from my previous experience I just knew that I couldn’t do it. I said, “Listen, I can’t recut somebody else’s cut. I’ll have to order all these dailies over again, and start from scratch,” and he said, “Fine,” and so that’s what I did. You just can’t do it any other way.

What was your relationship with Peckinpah?

He was a wonderful, sweet guy who was also impossible to deal with. He was a wild man. Some friends of mine made a movie about insanity called Fit to be Untied (1975). And that’s him.

What were the schedules and budgets on Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell?

I had 18 days, and something like $35,000 on one, and $50,000 on the other.

The Shooting

Would it be fair to say that you and Jack Nicholson became good friends on Flight to Fury? At this point in your career, he’s in all your films, and then he wrote the script for Ride in the Whirlwind (1965).

Well, he also wrote Flight to Fury. As I said, we had gotten to be friends on The Wild Ride. So we wrote a script together, which was never produced, and when we came back from the Philippines, we went to Roger, who had basically promised to give us the money for the script. But he’d changed his mind, and so that’s how we did Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, two westerns shot back to back (both films were shot in 1965, but Ride was released in 1965, and The Shooting in 1967). Corman said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to make this picture. But if you want to make a western, I’ll back that. And as long as you’re making one, you might as well make two.” So Jack went away and wrote Ride in the Whirlwind, and Carol Eastman wrote The Shooting.
Cameron Mitchell was in Ride The Whirlwind, and he was crazy. We were shooting during the TV hiatus period, when all the series were shut down, so we got all of our costumes from Western Costume (a famous costume rental company). A lot of it was stuff that was used regularly on some TV series or other, Rawhide or something. So, he had these beautiful chaps that we’d rented for him, and behind my back Cameron took a pair of scissors and cut holes in them because he wanted them to look rough and weather beaten. So now, I had to explain this to Western Costume, and ultimately I had to buy his costume, because he’d ruined it. I didn’t believe what he was doing.

John Ford & Monte Hellman

Millie Perkins is in Ride in the Whirlwind, as is Harry Dean Stanton. Is this another example of Corman’s ability to pick out actors early on in their careers?

Well, Millie Perkins was my next-door neighbour. But I tried to cast Ride in the Whirlwind in a normal way. I thought about Sterling Hayden and Donna Winters for the shooting. But then I was in a bookstore in Beverly Hills called Martindale’s, a great bookstore. And I remember I had just kind of a flash, a light bulb that suddenly appeared above my head. And the light bulb said, “Millie Perkins, Warren Oates and Will Hutchins. These are your actors.” Now, Jack was a given. Jack was part of the deal; he was my partner. But I just had a flash of the three of them all together as a unit. I was so excited by it that I called Jack right away, and he was equally excited. He knew Warren Oates a little bit. I don’t know if either of us knew Will Hutchins. Hutchins was in the early TV western Sugarfoot (1957). And Will was actually the kind of catalyst that made Ride in the Whirlwind happen, because he was the best known of anybody.

Jack and I did a road trip of every known western location, trying to find one location that would work for both pictures. The pictures are vastly different, and there were key scenes that needed specific locations, and I didn’t want to compromise. So, we traveled around, searching. We went to Lone Pine, we went to Arizona, south of Flagstaff, we went to Monument Valley, John Ford’s home territory, all over the place. Then we went to Kanab, Utah, and Kanab was the only place where we thought we could shoot both pictures in the same locale without having to move the company. It worked out very well; they both came in on time, and on budget.

And what did you do after this?

I edited The Wild Angels (1966), the Hell’s Angels film Roger directed with Peter Fonda. Back to work for Roger!

Ride In The Whirlwind

How did Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting get released?

Well, that’s the sad part. They were both shot in 1965, and they actually were never released. I think they had a very brief theatrical release in 1971, for something like three days in Texas.

So how did they make money?

Straight to television! That horrified both Jack and I. Roger made the deal. He sold them both to a company named Walter Reade Sterling. They had a mess of theaters, and we thought, “Wow, we’ll get theater distribution all over the country!” But all they wanted the pictures for was a TV package. So they went direct to television, and that was it. After you do that, there’s never really a chance to do a theatrical release.

The next credit I have is easily your best-known film, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), but there’s quite a gap of time in here – about five years. What did you do in between?

I was under contract at Universal. Then I developed another picture for Corman, and I was a dialogue coach on Roger’s film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), which he shot over at 20th, his first big studio picture. I also did some editing for Roger on a film thing called Target: Harry, which finally came out in 1969. And then I was set to direct a picture for Corman about a black sheriff in the south called Explosion and we cast it, rehearsed it, and we were set to shoot the following week. And for the first time Sam Arkoff (co-founder of American International Pictures, where Corman got his start) decided to read the script. So, this is the Friday before the shoot. And Arkoff tells me, “I grew up in Kansas, and we didn’t have any racial tension.” I said, “How many blacks were there in your town?” He said, “Well, we had one, everybody liked him.” It was impossible. So that was it. He cancelled the picture at the last minute.

Cockfighter

Was that pretty much the end of you and AIP and Corman?

Well, not totally. I did another picture for Corman in 1974, called Cockfighter, for which I ultimately didn’t get any credit. We’ll get to that in a while – not a pleasant experience. 

Two Lane Blacktop

Tell me about Two Lane Blacktop. What’s the genesis of the film? What do you think when people compare your work to (directors) Robert Bresson, or Yasujiro Ozu? Does this seem ridiculous to you, or does it make sense?

Well, I was familiar with Bresson, because I was part of a film society, and I think the first picture we showed was A Man Escaped (1956). But I don’t think I had ever seen an Ozu film, until years later. But it’s flattering. I think Bresson and Ozu are great filmmakers, so I have to be flattered by that.

How did your directorial style evolve into an almost trance-like state with Two-Lane Blacktop, which is really about the locations and about the road trip more than anything else?

I would have to credit one person with my philosophy, and my approach to theater and film. Arthur Hopkins was a producer/director in the 20s, 30s, and 40s in New York. I never met him, or had him as a teacher, but I read a collection of his lectures that he gave at Cornell University. He had a tremendous amount to do with discovering some of the greatest people in the business. He didn’t really discover John Barrymore, but he directed Barrymore’s Broadway stage production of Hamlet in 1923, which really made his reputation. I think he was the first to cast Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy on the stage. He was casting the original Broadway production of The Petrified Forest in 1935, and he was having a hard time finding the right person to play Duke Mantee. But by a stroke of luck, he walked into another theater where a play was in rehearsal, and heard this dry, tired voice that belonged to Humphrey Bogart, who up until that time had only played juveniles on the stage. Bogart didn’t want to do the role, but Hopkins insisted, and the role ultimately made Bogart a star.

Arthur Hopkins taught selflessness. He believed that anyone, whether actor, director, designer, whoever, who called attention to himself, did so at the expense of the production. Everyone must be a servant to the work he’s creating. He also taught simplicity—the elimination of everything that isn’t necessary. And he agreed with the adage that you can’t serve two masters. If you do a play (or film) because you’re sure it’ll be a success, and it fails, you have nothing. If you do something you’re passionate about, and it fails, you’ve created something you love.

His approach turned me around, and gave me a kind of a vision of what I wanted to do. This leads to the approach with the actors I used in Two-Lane Blacktop. That film came about because I had been in Italy preparing a picture from Patricia Highsmith’s book The Two Faces of January. Mark Damon was the producer, and he was going to star in it. He brought me over to Rome, and I wrote the script, but he was not able to raise the money. So I came back to LA, and my agent, Mike Medavoy, brought me into his office and introduced me to (producer) Michael Laughlin, and said, “Michael has a picture that he is interested in having you direct.” Michael actually offered me two picture, Two-Lane Blacktop and The Christian Licorice Store (both 1971; James Frawley ultimately directed The Christian Licorice Store). I really was not interested in The Christian Licorice Store at all, but I liked the idea of Two-Lane Blacktop. The idea intrigued me. I think the reason that I was interested is that my father was a professional gambler and a bookmaker, besides selling real estate. So I was naturally interested in the subject of gambling, and that’s what turned me on to Two-Lane Blacktop.

When you came on board, what input did you have? Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, James Taylor, and former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are all in the cast; how much did you have to do with this?

The picture was already pretty far along in pre-production. It was not only cast, but they had paid $100,000 for a script, which I threw away. So I was looking for somebody to write a new script, not rewrite the old one, and I found Rudy Wurlitzer (Wurlitzer’s later credits included the screenplays for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Shadow of the Wolf (1992), and Little Buddha (1993)). I gave Rudy the original script to read, and he read about five pages, and said, “I can’t read this.” I said, “That’s okay, we have the basic idea, a cross country race, and we can work from that.” So, Rudy took the names of two of the characters from the original script, which were The Driver and The Mechanic, and rewrote the whole thing.

Who wrote the original script?

The guy who wrote the original script was Will Corry, who gets a co-screenplay credit, and credit for the original story on the film. Corry wrote the script, which we threw away, and he got paid $100,000 for it, and bought a yacht. He had been recently divorced, he had a two-year-old daughter, so he took her on a trip around the world, just the two of them, on this yacht. We shot the film on the road from Los Angeles to North Carolina, driving in a caravan, just shooting a little bit, driving a little bit, and then doing the same thing again the next day. We drove and shot every day.

Are you happy with Two-Lane Blacktop?

I’m never totally happy with anything. But you know, it’s not my taste. I really like a lot of plot.

That’s funny. Two-Lane Blacktop is nearly plotless, and for many people it’s your signature film.

You’re right; a film with no plot was a little bit weird for me to get involved with, but it was a terrific experience making it, and I felt we had tremendous freedom. I think it’s the only time I have had final cut on a movie. Getting the film funded, though, was something of a hassle. Originally the picture was set up at Cinema Center, but nobody read it until we were ready to start shooting, and when they did, they cancelled the movie at the last minute. We were in turnaround, and we took the script of Two-Lane Blacktop to every studio. We took it to Columbia, MGM, Warners, and everybody said, “You know what it’s going to cost?” and we would say, “A million one (hundred thousand), and they would say, “It’s not possible, you can’t make it for that.” So the next studio we go to we would say, “A million three,” and they said, “Impossible,” said “You can’t make it for that.” Nobody believed that we could do it for that small a budget. And finally we took it to Universal and—

So, what are you up to now, 2 million?

We went back to a million one, (laughs) and they said, “If you can make it for $900,000, we’ll finance it.” Actually, it wound up costing $850,000.

What about Cockfighter?

It’s a long story. I went to Hong Kong to set up production on a picture called In a Dream of Passion, but it never got made, because the producer bailed on us at the last minute. Then I went back to Hong Kong a year later to do a film called Shatter (1974). That was a Hammer Films Production, and then I got fired by the producer, Michael Carreras, halfway through the shoot. I think that Michael really wanted to direct it from the beginning. (Carreras directed a few films in his career as a producer for Hammer, most notably the suspense thriller Maniac (1963).) We just fought a lot on the set. I didn’t like the way he was treating a black actor (Yemi Ajibade) in the film. I thought it was demeaning, the things that he wanted me to make him do, so we had a lot of fights. And I just finally said, “There is some shit I will not eat.” Peter Cushing and Anton Diffring were in that – all the stuff of them in Shatter is mine. Michael waited until all the English actors were finished before he fired me. Stuart Whitman is in the whole picture, so Michael shot some stuff with him, but I did all the stuff with Cushing and Diffring, who were very professional to work with. But we were way over schedule, because Michael had made a deal with the Shaw Brothers.

Yes, (producers) Run Run Shaw and Run Me Shaw.

Right. Run Run basically had his crews working 24 hours around the clock in three shifts. But because we were not a real Shaw Brothers picture, but rather a Hammer co-production, like a facilities deal, we would get on the set at 6AM, and our crew wouldn’t show up until noon. So at the end of three weeks, I was only halfway through the picture, and I think it was supposed to be a four-week picture. Then Michael Carreras said, “All right, I’m taking it from here.” He spent four months doing the other half of the film, and of what he shot, only a tiny portion made it into the final cut. Basically, the film is two-thirds mine, even though I only shot half of it.

What about Cockfighter?

I came back from Hong Kong, having been fired, and I got a call from Roger Corman. This was completely out of the blue. Roger just called me up and said, “I’ve got this film set up; will you do the picture?” Again, I did a total rewrite on the script, but since this was Roger’s baby, he got very upset and anxious. After two weeks he put a stop to it, and said, “Okay, that’s as much as you can do. Whatever you’ve got now, you have to work with.” This is for Corman’s own company, New World Pictures.

Once again, the cast seems awfully familiar. You have Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, all actors you’d worked with before. How much control did you have over the casting?

Well, because of the fact I couldn’t get really the script that I wanted, it’s my least favorite of my movies, with the exception of Beast from Haunted Cave. But I like the authenticity of the kind of milieu; I think as a documentary about the “sport” of cockfighting it works fairly well. It was shot in Atlanta. But I was never really happy with it; it just didn’t work for me, basically because of the script.

What about (the TV series) Baretta (1975), with Robert Blake? What was your involvement with that?

You’re really trying to hurt a guy, aren’t you? (laughs) That’s the other case where I was fired, but I still get residuals. I just directed half of one Baretta. Bobby (Blake) had been an old acquaintance of mine. We had known a lot of the same people. But he was just hostile from the moment I walked on the set. He kept saying, “I know you’re a feature director, but this is television. We do things differently here,” and that kind of stuff. Every time I tried to do something, he would say, “No, we don’t do it that way,” so it was impossible. So I just directed half of one episode, and that was it.

What about The Greatest (1977), the Muhammad Ali biopic that you took over from Tom Gries?

Well, I’ve had a small secondary career taking over for deceased directors on films (laughs). Tom had died, the film wasn’t completed, and they brought me in to finish it. I’m kind of like the kiss of death (laughs). But all these experiences were interesting. On The Greatest, I had a lot of ideas that couldn’t be realized because of budgetary problems. Since we had Muhammad Ali starring in it, I wanted to open a picture with stock footage of his Olympics fight to open the picture. But the Olympics committee just wanted so much money for the stock footage that Columbia wouldn’t pay it.

What can you tell me about China 9, Liberty 37 (1978)? It’s a really unusual project. Sam Peckinpah appears in it as an actor, along with Warren Oates and Jenny Agutter. It’s a very peculiar western. It seems to have also gone through a lot of different titles, including Amore, piombo e furore, Clayton & Catherine, Gunfire, and Love, Bullets and Frenzy. And who is Tony Brandt, who gets a director’s credit on some prints of the film?

The titles are the result of different versions that the producers put together, one of the things that was very frustrating. But for all of that, I think it’s the best experience I ever had in a movie, the most fun shooting a movie I have ever had. (Director of cinematography) Giuseppe Rotunno and his crew were fantastic to work with. We had taken over this hotel in Al Maria, Spain. The camera crew would go into the kitchen at night and cook pasta. We would have caviar and chilled vodka every Saturday night.

I got involved in the film through (producer) Elliott Kastner. Elliott and I have been tossing around ideas for a movie for a couple of years, and then he found a script he wanted to produce, and I got a call from him just before Christmas in 1976. He called me up, and said, “I’m over in Rome, I want you to fly over right away to talk about doing this script with me.” And I said, “You know, Elliott, the script is really not very good. I don’t know if I want to do it.” He said, “Maybe you can do a little work on the ending. You’ll put it in shape, don’t worry about it.” I said, “Well, it’s Christmas, I can’t fly over now. I’ve got to spend some time with my family.” But he kept after me, and finally asked me point blank, “Well, when can you be here?” I said, “Give me ten days.”

Well, in ten days, I flew to Rome, with a new script written by Jerry Harvey. Jerry just took the original script, and rewrote it. So I came over with the new script under my arm, and Elliott hated it. But the Italian producers loved it. So, Elliott left me in the lion’s den with the Italian producers. We did the picture, it was a lot of fun, a lot of fights, but nothing that made it too unpleasant, and we had a great time. The picture was invited to the Cannes Film Festival. It was basically a western, and I thought it turned out well. I had made a deal that I would take my name off the picture in Italy as director and that Tony Brandt, who was my assistant, would be listed as the director. In exchange for that, everywhere else in the world I would not only be listed as director, but as one of the producers. So, that was a trade.

Anyway, the producers apparently were having trouble with their subsidy (funding), which was based on the fact that Tony Brandt was the director of record, because there was all this publicity about me during Cannes actually being the director. And so the producers withdrew China 9, Liberty 37 from the festival; it made the front page of Variety. Gilles Jacob (director of the Cannes festival) was outraged. Everybody in the world knew that I directed the movie. So, it was a terrible situation, and I was very disappointed, because obviously I wanted my picture in the Cannes Film Festival. So, it turned out it played in the Cannes Festival market, out of competition, in a terrible theater where they had two projectors, which were mismatched. One was so dark you couldn’t even see the screen. And then they started recutting the picture, which is my fate on a lot of my movies; changing the title and doing all of that stuff.

On Avalanche Express (1979), you took over from Mark Robson, who died during production. How much did you direct of that?

I would say I directed maybe 10% of the principal photography, and all told I worked a year on the picture, shooting all the other stuff. I did all the special effects; all the avalanches, all the miniatures of the train and so forth. I worked with Lee Marvin and Maximilian Schell, but not with Robert Shaw, who was also in the picture, because he died during the shoot! I worked with Max because I had to re-loop him through the whole picture. We had to replace Robert Shaw’s voice with another actor (Robert Rietti), and that took a lot of time. I directed a lot of the interiors on the planes, and some of the action sequences.

What about Iguana (1988)?

This was another one of these strange Italian deals where I was very uneasy about the whole thing. We had literally the worst script I had ever read. It was taken from a novel by Alberto Vázquez Figueroa, and the entire script was, much like the novel, written as a diary. So the whole thing was voiceover, there is no dialogue. It was just unbelievable, so unprofessional you can’t believe it. Again, I was allowed to hire not one but two writers, and I was the third writer.

I hired Steven Gaydos and David M. Zehr as additional writers, and I wound up being the third writer, because I went to Cannes again, and while I was there, David and Steve had written essentially two different scripts. I kind of put them together, and did a lot of writing of my own.

How did you get involved with the splatter film Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)? And is that your daughter in it?

Yes, that’s my daughter Melissa, as Dr. Newbury’s assistant. She was also in Two-Lane Blacktop, in a small role, when she was much younger. One of my best friends was producing, Arthur Gorson, and he asked me to do it, and I said, “No.” Once again, the script was no good. But finally I said, “Well, if we can throw the script out, I’ll do it.” And so we rewrote the script in, I guess, a week. It had a good schedule. We had 23 days, and something like $800,000.

You appeared as yourself in Wim Wenders’ Chambre 666 (1982), a film that Wenders made during the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, in which he asked a number of directors for their thoughts on the future of film. Quite a cast: Michelangelo Antonioni, Jonathan Demme, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Yilmaz Güney, Werner Herzog, Susan Seidelman, Steven Spielberg and you, to name just a few of the many filmmakers who were interviewed. Wenders set up a camera in a hotel room, and asked everybody where they thought the future of film was headed. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Well, it was a horrifying experience. Wenders turns the camera on and then he leaves the room and leaves you sitting there, and you got to talk to a wall! It was terrible, just terrible.

Did you ever see the finished film?

I don’t think I did.

You know what Jean-Luc Godard did in the film? Wenders turned on the camera, as you know, and left the room. Godard talked for awhile, stared at the camera for a bit more, then got up, walked towards the camera, and turned it off. And that was that.

That’s great. I should have done that.

How did you wind up working as a second unit director on RoboCop (1987)?

Well, Mike Medavoy, who was the head of the studio, wanted me to direct it, but Jon Davidson, who was an old friend of mine and a fan, felt that I was not an action director, and he wanted somebody else to do it. And then (Paul) Verhoeven was hired, and it got behind schedule, so ironically I was brought in to direct a lot of the action.

You’re listed as executive producer on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). How did that come about?

Again, I was asked to direct the picture, and they set up a meeting between me and Quentin, and we met. But the day that we met, Quentin sold his script for True Romance (which was made into a film by (Tony) Scott in 1993). So he said, “Now I have the money to hold out to direct Reservoir Dogs, which is what I really want to do.” Quentin said he was sorry that he had wasted my time, but by the time we finished our hot fudge sundaes, he asked me if I would help him get the picture made. So I sent the script of Reservoir Dogs to Richard Gladstein, who had been the executive at Live Entertainment when we did Silent Night. Richard loved it, and agreed to do it if I would kind of stand behind Quentin, and kind of guarantee that he would finish on time and on schedule. Which he did; he did a great job.

What about Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998)? You get a “thanks” (both laugh). Thanks, Monte!

I know. I set it up for me to direct, and Vincent Gallo was unhappy with the deal, because the producers had this strange idea of wanting to wait for snow. And Vincent wanted to shoot the film on reversal (as opposed to negative) film, and the whole thing got very complicated.

The producers wanted to wait for it to snow?

Yes. The studio wanted to wait for snow, and Vincent wanted to shoot right away, so he decided to direct it himself.

What about the films that you didn’t get to make, projects you wanted to get off the ground, but never were able to?

Well, I’m still working on most of them. One of them is a picture called Dark Passion, which Bert Schneider hired me to direct at Paramount about 20 years ago. Dark Passion has been called by Oliver Stone, and a number of other people, the best unproduced screen play in Hollywood. It’s from a novel by Lionel White. Lionel White wrote the novel (Clean Break), which was the source material for Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Lionel knew that Kubrick was doing Lolita (1962), and was campaigning to be the screenwriter. But Kubrick decided not to hire him. And so, as a kind of revenge, Lionel wrote this book, which was kind of his take on Lolita.

I hope you get it off the ground, needless to say. But looking back over your long career to date, what do you think of your past work?

Well, I think the thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction is the fact that there are some filmmakers who say, whether it’s true or not, that they were inspired to make movies because of Two-Lane Blacktop. And so I really feel, as Sam Peckinpah would say, “justified.”

Note: Portions of this interview first appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and are reprinted by kind permission of the editor, David Sterritt. My sincere thanks also to Dana Miller, once again, for a superb job of transcription typing, and to Richard Graham for research assistance. 

Monte Hellman

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film, Third Edition (Rutgers University Press, 2018, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s most recent book is Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Dixon is also an experimental filmmaker, whose works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The National Film Theatre (UK), LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The Jewish Museum, Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque and elsewhere.

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