I think, at the very least, he deserves his name in a topic title… It is a constant embarrassment that I have not seen Two-Lane Blacktop yet, but I did manage to catch both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind many years ago playing back-to-back on television. At the moment I’m watching – more like listening to – a documentary about Hellman by Paul Joyce called Monte Hellman’s Life in a Day: Plunging On Alone. Apparently he hated the Cockfighter shoot.
He also says that all his films are heavily influenced by Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.
i finally saw “two-lane blacktop” earlier this year. i didnt enjoy it, and i didnt get what the fuss was about.
I really liked Two-Lane Highway, but I should see it again. I want to see his other stuff.
Why did he hate the Cockfighter shoot? Great film. I don’t like Two-Lane Highway as much as his other films I’ve seen (even if he’s probably best known for it).
Where did you find the doc on Hellman? I would love to see it. I really love Two-lane Blacktop, Warren Oates is great.
Elric, it was on Sky Arts – a UK tv channel.
Ari, something about the script that I didn’t catch fully.
Hellman was definitely on an existentialist kick, I think that’s a fairly obvious trait of all of his films, so it’s easy to see the Camus influence. My favorite of his films, Ride in the Whirlwind, has an incredibly existentialist flavor, although I’d say it had a tone more similar to Sartre than to Camus.
Either way, Hellman was a pretty fantastic director and Two Lane Blacktop deservingly rates among the pantheon of driving films, and his westerns are unfairly ignored.
No fans of SHATTER, eh?
That’s the real test of your Hellmanphilia.
Lol, Hellmanphillia. Now that’s a book title!
Of course it could be about mayonnaise, too.
The Shooting and China 7 Liberty 37 are teriffic films.
Shatter is the only one his I’ve seen. It’s not very good but I watched it more for the hammer link. However two lane blacktop is in the post as I speak. I hope it’s good.
‘Two Lane Blacktop’ is one of those movies that gets better each time you see it. Take your eyes off the screen for a second and you miss the whole thread of the movie.
I’m willing to take you up on this, Sakuragen, and re-watch Two-Lane if you explain what you mean by “Take your eyes off the screen for a second and you miss the whole thread of the movie.”
interview from slant
As befits the most idiosyncratic director to emerge from Roger Corman’s low-budget tutelage (an illustrious group that also includes Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jonathan Demme), Monte Hellman has led a long cinematic career that could mirror the winding journeys of the characters in his films. Whether envisioning the western anew with Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, or tracing indelible American landscapes of back roads and restless dreamers in Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, he’s consistently invested drive-in genres with a sensibility both pitilessly existential and achingly romantic. Ending an almost two decade-long absence from the big screen, Hellman’s new film, Road to Nowhere, finds the auteur in austerely stimulating form, fashioning a moody neo-noir mystery that also functions as a hall-of–mirrors portrait of image-making in the digital era. Supernatural romantic thrillers, Laurie Bird’s posthumous contributions, and an unexpected affinity with Hitchcock were some of the topics that came up during my recent interview with Hellman on the occasion of Road to Nowhere’s DVD release.
Slant: First, the title. It’s immensely evocative of the mood of your films.
Monte Hellman: The title was the basis for our shooting in North Carolina. There actually is a “road to nowhere” that was began by the federal government in the late ’40s, first as a dam which displaced a lot of people and cut off access to their cemeteries. As a result, the government agreed to build a road to give these people access, and it was under construction for 20 years, and it ends in the tunnel which we see in the picture.
Slant: How did the idea for the story come together?
MH: [Screenwriter] Steven Gaydos literally dreamed some of the elements of it. He told me about it and I responded, which he says is the first time I’ve responded to an idea of his in 40 years. He came up with a draft of the screenplay and we tossed it around between ourselves and a couple of friends. That became a blueprint for the movie, which like many other movies went through a lot of changes during the filming.
Slant: What kind of changes?
MH: Some things came out of the process of shooting. We’d do a number of takes, and then one of the actors would ask to try something different which would turn out to be revolutionary not just to that scene, but to the entire movie. And at other times actors would do little improvisations to keep things fresh, and they’d be so extraordinary that we’d include them in spots that weren’t in the original screenplay. We had a very creative group to work with.
Slant: I noticed many dreamlike elements throughout: repetitions, reflections, doubles…
MH: Oh, good. That’s what we were going for.
Slant: It brings back many of your old collaborators. There’s Gaydos, plus [cinematographer] Josep Civit, and Fabio Testi, who was in China 9, Liberty 37 and Iguana.
MH: Well, it’s much easier to work with people you already know and are in synch with. I originally spent two or three days at the Cinematheque of Madrid tracking down Josep. And then there’s casting, of course, which to me is 90 percent of the job in a movie, and certainly the most time-consuming.
Slant: And not just collaborators, but also family members. It has the feeling of a very personal project.
MH: Yes, it was. My daughter Melissa produced the film and raised the money, and my son Jared also helped in the production. It was very much a family atmosphere, which included friends as well as my students.
Slant: There’s a dedication to Laurie Bird at the end, which I saw as one of many links between Road and Two-Lane Blacktop. Shannyn Sossamon strikes me as a similarly slippery muse figure.
MH: There’s certainly a bit of Laurie in her. In fact, I’d consider Laurie one of the major contributors to the story. A lot of Shannyn’s dialogue comes from things I’d remember from Laurie during the making of those films.
Slant: The triangular relationship between the main characters reminded me of your short Stanley’s Girlfriend, which I liked a lot and also starred Tygh Runyan.
MH: He came aboard when problems led the original actor to leave the project. Tygh was somebody I knew and trusted, and I think he did a terrific job.
Slant: I’ve always marveled at how naturalistic performances are in your films. They feel more like just being rather than acting, a matter of glances, gestures, and the way characters hold themselves and each other, as opposed to dialogue.
MH: Well, I certainly discourage overreliance on dialogue, as you may have guessed. [Laughs] What I try to do is get the actors to trust me and try to reveal a bit of their own subconscious. It’s the kind of thing that you can’t consciously create, it really something that has to naturally come out of the performer, even if as an accident. It’s important for the character to become the actor, not just the other way around.
Slant: I see it as a movie about its own making, with screens within screens and actors playing actors.
MH: We’d have one camera shooting some action, and another camera shooting the camera itself. You see the actual filmmaking paraphernalia, which of course we didn’t have to create as we were already surrounded by it. I like that near-documentary aspect.
Slant: I was surprised to read you comparing yourself to Hitchcock, as I get a very intuitive sense from your films that couldn’t be more different from Hitchcock’s strict storyboarding.
MH: “A skinny Hitchcock” is what I called myself. [Laughs] I sure don’t want to know everything that’s going to be in the movie before I start. I want to be surprised by the journey of it, so in that sense I’m certainly not like him. But I think I like the same kinds of stories that he liked.
MH: Thrillers, sure. Mysteries.
Slant: Come to think of it, in a way the movie is a globe-trotting thriller. It has several stops in England and Italy.
MH: Yeah, we tried to capture the look of a James Bond movie in that aspect. [Laughs]
Slant: Speaking of looks, Road to Nowhere has a very modern, sharp look. How did you like the digital cameras?
MH: Digital cinematography is fortunately not too different from film cinematography today. In the early days, it was much more challenging, as the latitude of the digital image was nowhere near that of film image. Now, however, they’re very close to each other, and with a few of the most recent cameras I think can even surpass certain aspects of traditional film cinematography. Here we treated it very much like we’d treat film, other than the fact that the intensity of the lighting doesn’t have to be as great.
Slant: I was moved by the scenes of the young characters huddled around a small TV screen, watching classic films. Do films retain their impact in these smaller screens, or do you feel they need their original, large projection?
MH: Well, small screens are useful for certain things, like casting for instance. I do a lot of casting by using YouTube, not watching movies but looking at talk shows where you can see actors being themselves in conversation. I learn more from that than from, say, an audition tape. But movies survive best on large screens.
Slant: And the movies you picked to play here, like Spirit of the Beehive and The Lady Eve?
MH: Spirit of the Beehive is absolutely my all-time favorite film. The Lady Eve of course comments on our film’s plotline…
Slant: “It’s the same dame!”
MH: There you go. And The Seventh Seal, another favorite of mine, adds a little sinister note.
Slant: And film noir?
MH: It’s my favorite genre. If I could, I would do nothing but film noir.
Slant: This was the first time I believe that you had somebody edit your footage, as opposed to doing it yourself. Did it alter your perception of the work?
MH: It was an accident in this particular case, or rather a whim. I had Céline [Ameslon] put together the first sequence, and I liked it and had her continue doing it. She was incredibly valuable. With so many narrative strands, it’s great having a different pair of eyes working on it, especially as a contrast to what I originally had in my own mind.
Slant: I’m curious about the gap in your filmography between 1989, when your last feature film [Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! ] was released, and now.
MH: Well, I think the biggest chunk of time was taken by Freaky Deaky, from the Elmore Leonard book, a project that I was supposed to do for Miramax in the ’90s with Quentin Tarantino producing. There were also attempts to get my own projects off the ground, but which for various reasons never materialized. A movie with Francis Coppola was another one that got away.
Slant: You both got your starts with Roger Corman in the early ’60s.
MH: We became friends during that time. I shot the prologue for Dementia 13 for him.
Slant: Corman also produced your westerns, and Cockfighter, which I’m a big fan of, though I read that it’s not as personal a work as you’d have liked.
MH: Mainly because I wasn’t able to do the kind of rewrite I usually like to do. Roger let me bring in a wonderful writer named Earl Mac Rauch, and we were going through the script when, at the end of the first week we were informed that Roger didn’t want us to continue. So from week two on we were hopscotching through the material to find what scenes we could work on that were most important to me. I never got the film that I wanted, but I do like a lot of the documentary aspects of the movie, the milieu mainly.
Slant: I understand you also taught film classes. Has it affected your directing in any way?
MH: I feel like I’ve learned more from my students than I’ve taught them. I can’t really give you any examples right now, but I’ve certainly gotten ideas from them, particularly in the use of modern technology.
Slant: What’s next for you?
MH: I have a few projects on the front burner right now. The first one I’m hoping to work on is called Love or Die, and it’s a ticking-clock, time-bomb thriller. It is also supernatural and romantic, which I suppose makes it even harder to describe than Road to Nowhere. [Laughs]
MH: Spirit of the Beehive is absolutely my all-time favorite film.
Me too !
I love Monte Hellman. He’s one of my favorite directors, and (as an aspiring filmmaker) one of my biggest influences. His use of space is absolutely brilliant, and his characters are some of the most fascinating that American cinema has to offer. “Two-Lane Blacktop” may just be my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose, which is a very difficult task, haha); the feeling I get from watching that film is unequaled by anything else I have ever seen (save maybe Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”, but for different reasons). “The Shooting” and “China 9, Liberty 37” (though admittedly, the print I saw of it was rather shitty) are also personal favorites of mine. I wish he would have had more success early on; maybe we would have a few more masterpieces from this ridiculously underrated and even more ridiculously under-seen filmmaker. Nevertheless, I am very excited to see “Road to Nowhere”, despite the mixed things I have heard about it.