Thursday, 26 June 2014

Orson Welles: On Writing ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane (Directed by Orson Welles)
Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances... In a story by Chesterton — ‘The Head of Caesar,’ I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.  (Jorge Luis Borges)
The following extracts are taken from an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which Orson Welles discusses the writing of Citizen Kane:

Peter Bogdanovich: There’s a film written by Preston Sturges called ‘The Power and the Glory’ [1933] which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of ‘Kane’. Is that true?

Orson Welles: No. I never saw it. I’ve heard that it has strong similarities; it’s one of those coincidences. I’m a great fan of Sturges and I’m grateful I didn’t see it. He never accused me of it – we were great chums – but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him...

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife [the nine-year deterioration of their marriage is told through one continuing conversation over five flash-pans] –

OW:  – was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It’s a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family’s life –

PB: All at dinner –

OW: Yes, they’re all sitting at dinner, and they get old – people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and that life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I’d invented it. It wasn’t in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I’d unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?

OW: He was pleased...

PB: Just how important was [Herman J.] Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz’s contribution? It was enormous.

PB: You want to talk about him?

OW: I’d love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.

PB: Except for his part in the writing of ‘Kane’... Well, I’ve read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists – a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.

PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn’t like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible ‘writers’ buildings.’ The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second-class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun – when Hollywood, you understand, was still a funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank,... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.

PB: How did the story of ‘Kane’ begin?

OW: I’d been nursing an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure – couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script – the intricate flashback pattern – worked out between you?

OW: The actual writing came only after lots of talk, naturally,...  just the two of us, yelling at each other – not too angrily.

PB: What about the ‘Rashomon’ idea? It’s still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. ‘Rosebud’ was Mank’s, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn’t matter what it means  –

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

PB: The reporter says at the end, ‘Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything...’

OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer – a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you’d started shooting. From the point of view of Kane’s character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you’re remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he’s very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm – besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people’s allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way such people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it’s done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?

OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.

PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or, just maybe, it was twice...

PB: Before shooting began, how were differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That’s why I left him on his own finally, because we’d started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all – who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz’s.

OW: It’s very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It’s very perverse, because actually he was a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he’s never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn’t write it...

PB: What was the influence of your guardian, Dr. Bernstein? And why did you give that name to the character in ‘Kane’?

OW: [laughs] That was a family joke. He was nothing like the character in the movie. I used to call people ‘Bernstein’ on the radio all the time, too – just to make him laugh... I sketched out the character in our preliminary sessions – Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us...

PB: Yes, that scene with the reporter [William Alland] –

OW: That was all Mank, by the way – it’s my favorite scene.

PB: And the story about the girl: ‘One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry... There was another ferry pulling in, and... a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on... I only saw her for a second... but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.’

OW: It goes longer than that.

PB: Yes, but who wrote it?

OW: Mankiewicz, and it’s the best thing in the movie. ‘A month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of that girl.’ That’s Mankiewicz. I wish it was me.

PB: Great scene.

OW: If I were in hell and they gave me a day off and said, ‘What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?’ I’d see that scene of Mank’s about Bernstein. All the rest could have been better, but that was just right...

PB: You once said about the editing of ‘Kane’, ‘There was nothing to cut.’ What did you mean?

OW: When I made Kane, I didn’t know enough about movies, and I was constantly encouraged by [cinematographer Gregg] Toland, who said, under the influence of Ford, ‘Carry everything in one shot – don’t do anything else.’ In other words, play scenes through without cutting, and don’t shoot any alternate version. That was Toland in my ear. And secondly, I didn’t know how to have all kinds of choices. All I could think of to do was what was going to be on the screen in the final version. Also, I had a wonderful cast...

PB: Why did you decide not to have credits at the beginning of ‘Kane’? No one had ever done that before.

OW: The script dictated that. Look at all the other things that go on at the beginning, before the story starts: that strange dreamlike prologue, then ‘News on the March,’ and then the projection-room scene – it’s a long time before anything starts. Now, supposing you’d added titles to all that. It would have been one thing too much to sit through. You wouldn’t have know where you were in the picture.

PB: In that prologue you just mentioned, why does the light in his bedroom suddenly go off – and then come on again after a moment?

OW: To interest the audience. We’d been going on quite a while there with nothing happening. You see a light in the window – you keep coming nearer – and it better go off, or a shadow had better cross, or something had better happen. So I turned the light off – that’s all.

PB: Then you cut inside.

OW: That’s right. Maybe the nurse turned it off because it was getting in his eyes. Who knows? Who cares? The other answer is that it symbolized death. Got that? All right...

PB: What did you mean by the mirrors at the end, when Kane walks by and you see his image reflected many times?

OW: I don’t think a moviemaker should explain what he means. About anything. Leave it to the customers. Why spoil things for people who enjoy finding their own meanings?

PB: But you just explained the light going off –

OW: Next.

PB: The black smoke at the end has been said to symbolize the futility of his life...

OW: I don’t know – I hate symbolism.

PB: Fritz Lang said he dropped the use of symbols when he came to America because somebody at MGM said to him, ‘Americans don’t like symbols.’

OW: I’m one of those Americans. I never use it. If anybody finds it, it’s for them to find. I never sit down and say how we’re going to have a symbol for some character. They happen automatically, because life is full of symbols. So is art. You can’t avoid them; but if you use them, you get into Stanley Kramer Town.

PB: I know you hate to think up titles –

OW: No! I love to think ’em up, but can’t! Citizen Kane came from George Schaefer – the head of the studio, imagine that! It’s a great title. We’d sat around for months trying to think of a name for it. Mankiewicz couldn’t, I couldn’t, none of the actors – we had a contest on. A secretary came up with one that was so bad I’ll never forget it: A Sea of Upturned Faces.

PB: Can we talk about Leland’s betrayal of Kane?

OW: He didn’t betray Kane. Kane betrayed him.

PB: Really?

OW: Because he was not the man he pretended to be.

PB: Yes, but, in a sense, didn’t Leland –

OW: I don’t think so.

PB: I was going to say something else. Didn’t Leland imagine that Kane was one thing and then was disappointed when he wasn’t?

OW: Well, it comes to the same thing. If there was any betrayal, it was on Kane’s part, because he signed a Declaration of Principles which he never kept.

PB: Then why is there a feeling that Leland is petty and mean to Kane in the scene when he gets drunk?

OW: Because there he is – only there, because he’s defensive. It’s not the big moment. The big moment is when he types the bad notice afterward. That’s when he’s faithful to himself and to Kane and to everything.

PB: I wonder if that’s as simple as your answer is now, because if you were put in a position like
that –

OW: I’m not his character. I’m a totally different kind of person from Jed Leland. I’m not a friend of the hero. And he’s a born friend of the hero, and the hero turned out not to be one. He’s the loyal companion of the great man – and Kane wasn’t great; that’s the story. So of course he’s mean and petty when he’s discovered that his great man is empty inside.

PB: Well, maybe one feels that Leland could have afforded to write a good review.

OW: Not and been a man of principle. That Declaration of Principles Kane signed is the key to it. Leland couldn’t – no critic can. He’s an honest man. Kane is corrupt. I don’t think he betrays Kane in any way.

PB: Well, one has an emotional response to Kane in the picture, and I certainly felt that Leland betrays him – I felt that emotionally.

OW: No, he doesn’t. You’re using the word ‘betrayal’ wrong. He’s cruel to him, but he doesn’t betray him.

PB: Well, he betrays their friendship, then.

OW: He doesn’t. It’s Kane who betrayed the friendship. The friendship was based on basic assumptions that Kane hadn’t lived up to. I strongly and violently disagree with that. There is no betrayal of Kane. The betrayal is by Kane.

PB: Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?

OW: Because he likes principles more than the man, and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.

PB: Well, then, there you are.

OW: But that’s not betrayal. ‘Betrayal’ is a dead wrong word. He simply doesn’t have the humanity, the generosity of spirit, to have been able to endure Kane...

PB: Do you think that Thompson, the reporter, is changed by going through the Kane story? Is he altered?

OW: He’s not a person. He’s a piece of machinery –

PB: To lead you through.

OW: Yes.

PB: Was there any mystery before the Rosebud element? I mean, did you try anything else?

OW: Yes. And there was a scene in a mausoleum that I wrote – it was a quotation from a poem or something, I can’t remember – and Mankiewicz made terrible fun of it. So I believed him and just said, ‘All right, it’s no good.’ It might have been good – I don’t remember it, because I was so ashamed from Mankiewicz’s violent attack on it.

PB: Why did you begin and end with the No Trespassing sign?

OW: What do you think? Anybody’s first guess has got to be right.

PB: A man’s life is private.

OW: Is it? That should theoretically be the answer, but it turns out that maybe it is and maybe it isn’t...

PB: Is the name Kane a play on Cain?

OW: No, but Mankiewicz got furious when I used that name, because he said that’s what people will think. We had a big fight about that.

PB: The original name was Craig.

OW: Yes. And I said I thought Kane was a better name –

PB: Just because it was a better name –

OW: Yes. And Mankiewicz made the other point: ‘They’ll think you’re punning on Cain’ and all that, because we had a big murder scene in the original script. And I said they won’t, and he said they will, and so on. I won...

PB: Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from ‘Kane’?

OW: You couldn’t mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn’t in terms of story construction?

OW: No, the things that I valued didn’t seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: It seemed to me that your memory of your mother is reflected in the scenes with Kane’s mother.

OW: Not at all. She was so different, you know.

PB: I don’t mean the character, but the affection of Kane –

OW: Really no comparison. My mother was very beautiful, very generous, and very tough. She was rather austere with me.

PB: Well, the mother in ‘Kane’ was not a sentimental mother –

OW: It isn’t that. There’s just not any connection.

PB: It’s not so much the mother herself but the emotion of remembering a mother. As in the scene where you meet Dorothy Comingore and tell her you’re on a trip in search of your youth, and she has that line, ‘You know what mothers are like.’ And you say, in a sad, reflective tone, full of memories, ‘Yes.’ It’s one of my favorite moments in the picture.

OW: No, Peter, I have no Rosebuds.

PB: But do you have a sentiment for that part of your past?

OW: No... I have no wish to be back there... Just one part of it, maybe. One place. My father lived sometimes in China, and partly in a tiny country hotel he’d bought in a village called Grand Detour, Illinois. It had a population of 130. Formerly it was ten thousand, but then the railroad didn’t go through. And there was this hotel which had been built to service the covered wagons on their way west through southern Illinois (which is real Mark Twain country, you know, and people like Booth Tarkington). My father spent a few months of his year there, entertaining a few friends. They never got a bill. And any legitimate hotel guests who tried to check in had a tough time even getting anyone to answer that bell you banged on the desk. Our servants were all retired or ‘resting’ from show business. A gentleman called Rattlesnake-Oil Emery was handyman. One of the waitresses had done bird calls in a tent show. My father was very fond of people like that.

Well, where I do see some kind of Rosebud, perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies – a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life, with a country store that had above it a ballroom with an old dance floor with springs in it, so that folks would feel light on their feet. When I was little, nobody had danced up there for many years, but I used to sneak up at night and dance by moonlight with the dust rising from the floor... Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of. It really was kind of invented by my father. He’s the one who kept out the cars and the electric lights. It was one of the ‘Merrie Englands.’ Imagine: he smoked his own sausages. You’d wake up in the morning to the sound of the folks in the bake house, and the smells... I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from those short summers.

PB: It reminds me of ‘Ambersons’. You do have a fondness for things of the past, though –

OW: Oh yes. For that Eden people lose... It’s a theme that interests me. A nostalgia for the garden – it’s a recurring theme in all our civilization.

– From Peter Bogdanovich: Interview with Orson Welles. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane:  A Casebook (ed. James Naremore. OUP, 2004)


Friday, 6 June 2014

Walter Hill: Last Man Standing

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
Walter Hill developed his craft as a screenwriter and director while working as a second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), Take the Money and Run (1969), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Hill’s first screenplay, Hickey and Boggs, was produced in 1972. Later, he penned The Getaway (1972) for director Sam Peckinpah, who became a major influence on his own filmmaking style. Hill also wrote The MacKintosh Man (1973) which was directed by another mentor, John Huston. 

In 1975, Hill directed his first feature film Hard Times starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn. He achieved great success in 1979 with the stylized gang movie The Warriors, which he wrote and directed and was released the same year he wrote and produced the hit science fiction thriller Alien (1979). The 1980s brought more success with films like The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), 48 Hrs. (1982), Another 48 Hrs. (1990), Brewster’s Millions (1985), and Red Heat (1988). Hill also wrote and directed episodes of the television series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1991) and the westerns Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wild Bill (1995), and Last Man Standing (1996). 

The following discussion is an edited extract from an interview with Jon Zelazny.

JON: A couple years ago, you did an audio commentary and on-camera intro for a new DVD edition of ‘The Warriors’. It was the first time I’d ever seen you; is it my imagination, or have you kept a low profile over the years?

WALTER HILL: I’d never done a commentary before on one of my films. I don’t like the idea of explaining a movie; I think it inevitably comes off as ego-driven, or pitiful: ‘Hey, look at this! I did this; isn’t it terrific?’ I think a good book or a good film speaks for itself. Also, people always want to ask you what a film ‘means,’ which is another reason why I don’t even like doing interviews like this – nothing against you.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Do you have a particular term for the kinds of stories you tell? Whatever the genre, they primarily concern men in violent conflict – 

Somebody once asked me why I never did horror films, just action, and what was the difference? I said horror movies terrorize women, and action movies terrorize guys. For some reason, several people found that definition objectionable. (chuckling) I thought it was brutally accurate... I didn’t answer that too well, did I?

I’m a big Anthony Mann fan, and there are a lot of parallels between your bodies of work. Mann said his movies were about ‘the use of violence by thoughtful men.’

The kinds of stories I like to tell are part of a tradition – and I’m not comparing myself to, or placing myself as the equal of some of the great storytellers I’m going to mention; I’m artistically modest, as everyone ought to be – but it’s the tradition practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller.

I think there’s less room in the marketplace now for the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, and which I tend to think of as my strength; action movies today are more fantasy, exaggerated, comic book… That sounds pejorative… but tastes change. Audiences change. I think the older tradition was more intellectually rigorous, and the newer tradition is more pure sensation… and that’s not necessarily bad…

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
As a youngster, were you more interested in books or movies?

Both. I was particularly interested in the Western genre, in pulp novels of the thirties and forties, and film noir. That’s probably why I liked EC Comics as well; because they were so dark. I lived a lot at a fantasy level, I think. I was asthmatic. Stayed at home a lot. Didn’t go to school for weeks at a time. My mother and my grandmother taught me how to read.

Do you remember what movies first made you conscious of the director… or simply that there was someone making decisions about how the story was being told?

I began reading about films when I was in high school; my awareness of directors probably came later. The first filmmaker other than Orson Welles I was really terribly aware of – and who made me aware of what directors do – was Ingmar Bergman. And I saw his very early ones, before he became kind of fashionable. The other filmmaker who impressed me at a very early age was Kurosawa. I got quite interested in these foreign films, and I read a lot of criticism about them, which in turn opened my eyes to American film, and kind of led me to rediscover American genre film. I mean, I’d seen Howard Hawks films and Don Siegel films growing up, but without that awareness of their sensibilities.

But Welles was the first?

I’d seen Kane and Ambersons on TV when I was a kid. My dad and mom told me a lot about him. He was, of course, quite famous in a notorious sense. Even down in Long Beach, where I’m from.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Your first two movies had big movie stars; ‘The Warriors’ did not. What’s the difference, and which do you prefer?

The presence of movie stars is something you feel more in the reaction of the people that surround the movie. It doesn’t have much to do with the filmmaking process.

Though stars certainly influence a picture with their well-known personas. I assume the young cast of ‘The Warriors’ was much more dependent on you to help shape their performances?

That’s true. One had to intuit what their personas were, and try to work out how they would play. It is an advantage to go in with a sense of what an actor will bring to it… though a mistake actors make consistently is they think they can play anything, and a mistake directors make is they think actors can only do what they’ve done before.

My favorite advice to directors about casting that I read was by the great Broadway director George Abbot, who said ‘Directors like to think there’s only one actor who can play a certain part, but there’s always somebody else.’ I think that’s true.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Early in your career, you wrote scripts for John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. What did you pick up from them… or from the other prominent directors you worked for, like Norman Jewison or Woody Allen?

They were all talented filmmakers; interesting individuals, but as far as learning anything… I think what you learn is everyone makes their own way.

As far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It’s that Platonic idea that you don’t really write a poem; it’s already there, and you find it. I think that’s true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that’s the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller.

Now Huston and Peckinpah had very similar outlaw personalities. At the same time, they were wildly disparate fellows; Sam worked in a much narrower – some would say deeper – channel, while Huston had a wider field of interest. I think it was also important that he was a much more omnivorous reader… which isn’t to say he was smarter or more talented, but he possessed a worldview, and sophistication, that went way beyond the very restricted world Sam chose to live in.

I think you see that in Peckinpah’s films. In his later career, he seemed to be sinking into pure nihilism, while Huston always loved these offbeat character studies – right up to ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ (1985) and ‘The Dead’ (1987).

I think one of the biggest differences was that Peckinpah was purely a guy of film. He worked in it his whole life, from the time he got out of the Army, and his heroes were filmmakers, like Kurosawa and Bergman. Huston was from the generation before that; most of his generation never really regarded filmmaking as a serious artistic pursuit.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
I guess that’s why Huston could make so many films he didn’t really care about. He could take a job and just amiably do the work in a way Peckinpah never really could.

Huston was a soldier of fortune, as anybody in film has to be to some degree. He also liked to travel, and to drink. He liked high society, beautiful women, horse races, and buying great art… and to live that kind of life, you have to make a lot of money. John could turn a buck… Sam mostly lived in a trailer in Paradise Cove.

And only made about a third as many pictures as Huston did.

But what’s so memorable about Sam is what a powerful, personal, artistic stamp he put on his work. His name alone conjures up a vision… I think what we respond to most with Sam is his purity of commitment. And that’s always easier to idolize. And I’m not a critic, but I think it’s true his work fell into severe decline, while Huston was – in and out – but basically good until the end...

What’s tricky when you look at those guys – any of those American masters of genre film – is understanding how they transcended all the hackwork going on around them. With Kurosawa or Bergman, the artistic quality of their pictures is obvious; with directors like Ford, Hawks, or Mann, you have to look harder. What usually distinguishes their work is their sensibility.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Did you always aspire to continue in that tradition?

I came into the business at an interesting time… when it was still like running away to join the circus. But within five years, the whole sensibility changed. Young people coming in, the so-called next generation, were all very influenced by European and Japanese cinema. The people who were older than me – like John Huston – their attitude was, if you have artistic ambitions, you should be off writing novels or plays. The cultural primacy of film as an attitude came from my generation, and the one after…

We should probably get back to ‘The Warriors’ at some point. From your comments on the DVD, it sounds like you essentially discarded Sol Yurick’s novel, and went back to the original Greek history tale for inspiration.

The movie was thrown together very quickly, and for very little money. The producer, Larry Gordon, and I were going to do a Western, and the financing collapsed at the last minute. He was trying to do a deal at Paramount, and said maybe he could get The Warriors going. I read it, and loved it, but I said, ‘They’ll never let us make this. It’s too good an idea.’ Then – I’ll be a sonuvabitch – he got it going…

Then I had to figure out how to do it. The novel attempts a kind of social realism that I didn’t think worked very well. But there’s a scene in it where one of the gang members is reading a comic book about the march of Xenophon and the 10,000, and he says, ‘Hey, this is just like us!’ And I thought, that’s the way to do the movie –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I take it that also inspired the comic book framing device you’ve added to the new edition. Had you been a big reader of comic books?

I read a lot of the EC Comics back in the fifties. I never particularly liked superheroes. People think of comics as exclusively about superheroes, but back then you had horror comics, and humor, and romance, and westerns; there was a whole experience one could have outside of superheroes. I particularly liked the EC comics because they were darker.

I saw The Warriors as graphically driven, as situational; it was broad, easy to understand, but kind of self-mocking at the same time… those were the aspects that suggested a comic book flavor to me. The idea really came up because when Paramount made the movie – and Paramount was a very different place back then – they hated it. They couldn’t understand what the fuck it was, or what it was about. They wouldn’t show it to critics. So I was trying to explain it to them: ‘In some sense, it’s science fiction, or… imagine a comic book based on a story from Greek history…’ But it was like talking to the fucking wall.

To be fair, it’s pretty unique. The only movie I can think of that looks like it might have been an influence is ‘West Side Story’ (1961)… uh, was it?

I honestly had not seen the movie, but I certainly knew what it was, so to say you weren’t influenced by something so pervasive in the culture is probably naïve. I think we’re all influenced by everything.

When you and your designers began to conceptualize all the exaggerated costumes and make-up the various gangs would be wearing… were you ever afraid audiences were just going to laugh?

Yeah, I was.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
The whole idea… when you really think about it, it’s just audacious.

I don’t think I could have done it as my first movie, but at that point I thought, ‘Well, they’re either going to buy it, or not.’ If I deserve credit for anything, it was for knowing I couldn’t go halfway. Halfway was death. And I just didn’t think it could be done realistically; the premise of the story was ridiculous. I think that was something Sol Yurick never understood about his own novel: he was trying to be socially accurate within this preposterous plot. Most people probably would have tried to make the movie more real; I said no, let’s make it more unreal.

I consider it a pretty good movie for the first… well, the first hour or so. We never really figured out what the hell to do at the end.

One of your tasks is deciding the characters’ fates. Who has transgressed, who should be punished, and to what degree. Movie scholars like to point out that Sam Peckinpah’s father was a conservative, Western-style judge; can you describe the influences in your upbringing you’d most credit with shaping your moral perspective?

My parents, and many of my extended family, were people who had a high sense of ethical responsibility, and some members of my family were definitely churchgoers. I went to church every Sunday until I was about fifteen or sixteen, before I could ‘escape,’ which is how I thought of it back then. I now perceive it – and the lessons I was taught – to be gold. One of the things I’ve found to be the most interesting about making Westerns is that it’s like walking around in the Old Testament; the stories are all about primary ethical concerns. Of course, most storytellers shrink from that whole idea of being a moralist, from taking that responsibility –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
But somebody has to make those calls. In drama or comedy, characters’ fates can be much less decisive, but a story based on a collision between shades of good and evil – 

There are no set rules; it’s just a matter of your taste. But you’re right; storytelling in some specific way requires you to be judgmental about the characters. I think you can be forcefully judgmental and still be a great artist, or you can be more open-ended, which I think the greater artists tend to be.

Have the shifting moral standards driven you crazy over the years?

If you’re someone who thinks society is always supposed to be moving forward, that the story of history is the story of progress, and that we are all moving towards some idea of utopia, then I don’t fit it. I don’t have that worldview. While there are certainly discoveries made in science that materially alter the way we live, I think most of the ethical guidelines that determine personal human behavior have remained remarkably constant, for thousands of years. As we said, audiences change, especially when you’re dealing with popular entertainment… but ultimately they’ll always come around again for a good story.

What inspired ‘Southern Comfort’?

David Giler and I had a deal with Fox; we were supposed to acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I meant was there some actual incident where Cajuns had clashed with the Guard?

No, that was just our story. And we were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.’

If you know about Vietnam, you can make those connections, but the story certainly stands on it’s own.

And Vietnam is hardly the oppressive presence today that it was in 1980. The story becomes much more universal.

I think the biggest parallel is visual: that swamp looks like Vietnam. You’d have to do some research to be able to discuss the parallels with Iraq. As a former Army officer, I think your depiction of military characters, dialogue, and attitude is dead-on; in ‘Southern Comfort’, and ‘Geronimo’ (1993) as well. Both depict soldiers during peacetime. Warriors without true wars, stuck doing shit work… you have a very intuitive understanding of that mentality.

I’m pleased to hear you say that, but I think it’s just my intuition about human nature. And what I’ve read. People I’ve known. I have an uncle who was a career military guy. Wonderful man. Now in his eighties.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
In my few years in uniform, I certainly met versions of all your Army characters.

I was never happy about the title Geronimo. It’s not about Geronimo. It should have been called The Geronimo War.

Or ‘The Three White Guys Who Caught Geronimo’.

Right. It’s as much about the Army as it is Geronimo. That came out of my reading of historical accounts, and realizing that so much of what we think we know about the Indian campaigns is wrong. The Army is generally depicted as the enemy of the Apache, but in many cases, the people who were most sympathetic to their plight were those soldiers.

Because they were there. They saw what the deal was.

And tragically, it was these same soldiers who then had to go out and be the tip of the spear.

Yeah, the moral trap they eventually find themselves in is heartbreaking.

I thought the character of Gatewood, who was a real person, would be of great interest. But not a lot of people saw the film...

There’s a longer version that exists. They cut about twelve minutes for the theatrical release, and most of it was about Army life. I always thought they should do a DVD release of the full version. It was damn good.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
It seems like half the shots in ‘Southern Comfort’ show those guys sloshing through swamp water up to their knees. How did the actors keep from getting trench foot?

That was a very tough movie. I don’t know how we ever…

I know you can’t keep guys in the water that long.

We did. We went out there every day, and just slugged it out. I was in the water too; it wasn’t like I was directing from some safe island.

Were you wearing waders?

Yeah, we had wetsuits on underneath. But it was just miserable. We were out there about fifty days. Six days a week, for nine weeks. And just to get out there took this enormous drive; we had to get up at four in the morning to be ready to shoot at the crack of dawn.

So nobody had to ‘act’ exhausted.

I’ll say this about that cast: they didn’t complain much. They knew what they were getting into, they were all in very good physical condition, and they went out there and just took it. It was very much a collective experience, and it’s certainly one of my favorite films. Sometimes pictures become favorites for reverse reasons: because it was hard to make, or because people didn’t much care for it. It didn’t do particularly well. It did better overseas; the foreign critical reception was very good.

What were the circumstances of the American release?

Well, it was a negative pick-up. The studios, especially in those days, tended to treat those like the stepchildren in 19th century novels. So they didn’t spend a great deal of money trying to get us launched. The movie didn’t cost too much, so it wasn’t like it was some huge financial disaster… but I think the subject matter is just not widely appealing.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
How did you get involved in ‘48 Hrs.’?

Larry Gordon had an idea for a crime movie set in Louisiana where the governor’s daughter is kidnapped, and has dynamite taped to her head, and the bad guys are going to kill her in 48 hours. The family assigns a top cop to rescue her – one aspect of the story was the cop getting one of the kidnapper’s old cellmates out of jail to help him.

Roger Spottiswoode, my editor on Hard Times, wanted to be a director. I told him he should try writing, so Larry gave him a shot rewriting that kidnap story. Roger was living in my house at the time, so we discussed it a lot. His draft got the story out of Louisiana, got rid of the dynamite on the girl’s head, and made it a more realistic, big city cop thriller.

That was at Columbia. Then Larry’s deal switched over to Paramount, a few more drafts were written, and then they asked me to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. Larry and I flew up to Carmel to see him and he liked the project, but felt he’d already done that kind of cop character enough, so he wanted to play the criminal. I began tailoring it to that end when Eastwood decided to do Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979), and since he played a prisoner in that one, that was really the end of his interest in our project. At which point I suggested we try to get Richard Pryor to play the criminal.

Was that your first notion that the piece had the potential to be funny as well?

Yeah, I’d say so. Again, the story was preposterous; why not make it kind of humorous?

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Was that also when you decided the prisoner would be black?

Yeah. The part wasn’t written that way yet; it was just a verbal concept. But Paramount did not see the wisdom of that, so I went off and did The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, and then I got a call saying Nick Nolte wanted to do 48 Hrs., and was I interested in doing it with him and a black actor? I said, ‘Absolutely.’

The reason it finally got going was because Michael Eisner, who was running Paramount then, wanted a second movie for Christmas time – they had Airplane II (1982) as their big Christmas release, and he wanted a thriller for some non-Christmas-y counter-programming. But we couldn’t get Richard Pryor, who was a huge star by then, so we decided to go for Gregory Hines, but he wasn’t available either. Eddie Murphy’s agent had sent me a lot of tapes of him, and Paramount approved him, so we went with him.

We had one tough break in that Eddie couldn’t shake out of his TV show early. We’d already been shooting for two weeks before he joined us, so he came in absolutely cold. It was his first film, and he was a seasoned performer, but not a trained film actor, and we really could have used a good week of rehearsal. It’s one of the few times I’ve been sorry I didn’t rehearse. One old-time director told me once, ‘Don’t ever fuckin’ rehearse. All that happens is the actors don’t like the script.’ And there is some merit in that.

What’s your S.O.P. in that regard?

Well, action movies, with all their physicality, tend to be hard to rehearse.

Which of your films was most rehearsed?

Probably The Warriors… just because with more experienced actors, it’s easier to work things out on the set.

48 Hrs (Directed by Walter Hill)
When did you start to realize during ‘48 Hrs.’ that Eddie Murphy wasn’t just funny, he was really, really, really funny?

What I realized right away was that he was really good; that he was bringing something to it. There were always these stories that circulated about tension between the studio and me; that they were angry, and even talked about firing me, because they didn’t think Eddie was very funny… and it’s true they brought me in to talk about that.

Were they expecting a more traditional comedy?

That’s how I took it: that to them, a funny movie with a black guy meant the guy should act like Richard Pryor. And I was perfectly happy with the way things were going. I thought Eddie was doing a very good job.

Of the movies you admired, which ones most informed that tone?

Probably the most obvious example is Robert Aldrich’s work, particularly The Dirty Dozen (1967). As far as guys playing off each other like that, I think the great master was Howard Hawks.

I think both Murphy and Nolte’s characters understand that the antagonism between them is a game they’re playing. It’s a tough game, a dangerous game, a nasty game, but these guys are positioning each other. They’re also not so thin-skinned that some casual remark is going to alter their attitudes. I don’t think Nolte’s character is really a racist.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Were you amused when everyone in Hollywood then decided the ticket to success was to do a cop movie where one of the cops was played by a comedian? There were a slew of those for the rest of the decade.

What surprised me was how they didn’t quite understand what the motor of it was. It was always called a ‘buddy cop’ movie for instance, when in fact they’re not buddies. They don’t like each other. I think what the imitators always tried to do was copy the structural foundation of 48 Hrs., but fill it in with the more homogenized sensibility of Beverly Hills Cop.

Often when directors score such a massive hit, they’ll use their new clout to mount some kind of epic… be it an ‘El Cid’ or a ‘Heaven’s Gate’. I’m curious why you never did.

I don’t know. The closest I probably came to doing an epic was when Warren Beatty talked to me about doing Dick Tracy (1990). But it didn’t work out.

Lucky for you!

(chuckling) Well, I like Warren… but we certainly disagreed on the way it should go. I had in mind something much more like The Untouchables (1987).

I guess I’ve always just been interested in telling the kinds of stories that appeal to me. You can make films for three concerns: for the mass audience, for yourself, or for the critics. I’ve probably been guilty of making films more for myself, and hoping the audience will like them as well.

– Excerpted from Jon Zelazny: ‘Kicking Ass with Walter Hill’ (For the full interview go to:, Dec. 8, 2012).