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).

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