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Collaborators, War Stories and Roads Not Taken: An Interview with Monte Hellman

The cult director of _Two-Lane Blacktop_ returns with his first feature in twenty years.
Monte Hellman

For a self-described "reactionary" filmmaker, Monte Hellman is remarkably forward-thinking. Road to Nowhere (reviewed here), his first feature since 1989, is a film shot digitally that's partly about cinema in the digital age; from its very first shot—where a character pops a DVD-R with the film's title on it into a laptop—on, Road to Nowhere is a film about the slipperiness of digitally created, manipulated and viewed images. Written by longtime Hellman collaborator Steve Gaydos, it stars Shannyn Sossammon as Laurel, an inexperienced actress who is cast in a true crime drama also called Road to Nowhere (directed by one “Mitchell Haven” and written by one “Stephen Gates”); in this film-within-a-film, Laurel plays femme-fatale-ish Velma Duran, though the whole thing is ambiguous enough (in terms of structure, characterization, aesthetics, etc.) that at least one character begins to suspect that Laurel and Duran are in fact the same person.

Hellman is erudite and easygoing. We spoke by phone earlier this month, right before he was due to present Road to Nowhere at Karlovy Vary. I wanted to focus the conversation on his newest film and the last two films he made before taking a two decade leave of absence from directing: Iguana (1988) and the direct-to-video horror film Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out (1989). I began by asking him how Road to Nowhere had come together.

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MONTE HELLMAN: Steve Gaydos had the idea and he presented it to me. He claims that I haven’t liked any of his ideas in the last forty years; somehow this one attracted me. He wrote the first draft of the script. Then we sat around the kitchen table with a couple of our friends and tossed ideas around, then he went back another draft and then we started shooting. It changed quite a bit during the shooting, because the actors, after a few takes, would start to improvise a little bit. Sometimes, it was just a matter of restructuring it, putting scenes in different places.

NOTEBOOK: Did you work with Gaydos on the set, or, once the movie started shooting, was the restructuring all up to you?

HELLMAN: It just happened. We didn’t think we were restructuring. Steve was on location, but he didn’t come on the set very much and he didn’t travel around the rest of the world with us. A lot of scenes that were re-written were rewritten because we couldn’t afford a location. We were gonna shoot Florida as Cuba and it turned out to be too expensive a location for us, so, fortunately, we didn’t shoot the backstory with “the real Velma Duran.” I was intending to shoot that with Shannyn as well, but that would have been really confusing.

NOTEBOOK: There was originally a full backstory and an explanation of what’s going on?

HELLMAN: We hear it in the dialogue: “The real Velma Duran died fighting oppression in Cuba.” We were gonna show her being captured by the secret police in Cuba and being killed. It would have made the picture unweidly in terms of length and it would have made it more confusing that it already is.

NOTEBOOK: The end credits of the film say that it’s based on a true story.

HELLMAN: [laughing] Not that part. There is a part that we realized after the fact… Well, I think all fiction comes out of your life experiences. We found out that the basic situation of someone getting drunk and accidentally killing somebody had happened to a close friend of ours. Andpartially intentionallythe character of Laurel was somewhat based on Laurie Bird. A lot of her dialogue was lifted from things Laurie had said in life.

NOTEBOOK: You and Steve Gaydos have worked together for a long time. He wrote Iguana

HELLMAN: Yes, he worked on Iguana and he worked on a number of scripts that did not get made. We’ve been very close friends and collaborators for almost forty years.

NOTEBOOK: Didn’t he work on Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out, too? I heard he re-wrote it.

HELLMAN: I was taking a page out of Howard Hawks’ diary. Hawks frequently had several writers working on a film, and he had one writer who just wrote the gags. Steve wrote the gags on Silent Night, Deadly Night III.

NOTEBOOK: After Silent Night, Deadly Night III, you didn’t make a feature for a little over 20 years. Did you and Steve Gaydos work on any projects in the interim?

HELLMAN: There were a number of projects I was trying to get on, and, indeed, we’re still trying to get them made. The one I hope to do next is one I’ve been working on for at least that long. It’s harder to describe than Road to Nowhere. It’s a supernatural, ticking-clock timebomb romantic thriller. It’s about these two people. One is a CIA assassin, the other is the wife of a diplomat, and both are murdered in the first ten minutes of the movie. They meet after death, fall in love and find out that if you meet somebody after death that you were destined to be with, then—through some error of the establishment up above or wherever they are—you can go back to the moment of your death and live 24 hours. And if you’re still physically together and still in love at the end of 24 hours, you can live out your life.

NOTEBOOK: That sounds like a pretty complicated production…

HELLMAN: [laughing] It’s not too bad, really. There aren’t too many characters, except for all of the ghosts wandering around in the background.

NOTEBOOK: You shot Road to Nowhere on a Canon 5D. It’s referenced in the dialogue—there’s a moment where the Mitchell Haven character, who I guess is analogous to you, touts the cost. Having taken a 20 year break from directing features, what’s it like to come back at a time when you can shoot a feature on what’s essentially a consumer still camera?.

HELLMAN: The character is not based on me, but the work he’s doing and the way the movie is shot is definitely linked to my experiences. I’m a reactionary filmmaker, but I’m an early adopter in terms of technology. I’ve been into digital still photography for a long time. I’ve had a number of shows with digital prints, so it was a natural progression. I think digital photography is so much better. You have more precise control over dodging, color, everything in digital still photography. The same is true in motion picture digital photography. It’s so much better than sitting with a timer and having a lab act on your suggestions and waiting for what happens with a bunch of chemicals. Here you can instantly see the result and it’s locked there. And, that particular camera—[Haven] compares it to the Thomson Viper, which is a half-million dollar camera. God knows what it costs to rent. And the 5D is $3,000, and in most ways it’s better.

NOTEBOOK: Why call yourself a reactionary filmmaker?

HELLMAN: Well, my style of directing hearkens back to Hawks and Hitchcock and Huston and George Stevens.

NOTEBOOK: But the film to me feels very modern. Maybe it’s the use of technology, and the way technology is involved in the plot. Do you think of yourself as a person who is trying to use modern technology to explore what you believe are classical ideas?

HELLMAN: [laughing] I’ll accept that.

NOTEBOOK: I’ll take that as a “yes”… Besides Steve Gaydos, you’re worked before with this film’s cinematographer, Josep M. Civit, who also worked on Iguana

HELLMAN: That’s right. That was our first picture together. You find somebody that does it the way you like, it’s natural that you keep wanting to work together. The process of finding Josep was extremely difficult. I had gone to Spain looking for the man who shot The Spirit of the Beehive, Luis Cuadrado. He had been suggested to me by Néstor Almendros. I got to Spain and discovered that, not only had he died, but that he been 95% blind when he photographed Spirit of the Beehive. He would have his assistant describe the sets to him and would then tell the assistant where to put each light in the room and how much intensity and so forth. So then I tried to get his assistant. He signed on, but then we were delayed and he committed to another picture. So I spent days at the cinematheque in Madrid looking at one reel each of about 25 movies before I found Josep. And once you find an actor or any other collaborator that you like working with, you don’t wanna go through the process of searching all over again.

NOTEBOOK: How did Iguana come together?

HELLMAN: Ate de Jong had been asked to direct it and he was not interested in the project, so he suggested me. The producer had a number of other names he was looking at, but he called me first because he believed in numerology and—as you now know—my phone number has two 3s in it. He called me and I went to meet with him in New York. He had a screenplay, which was just the worst you could imagine. My first reaction was just to turn it down. We had another meeting in Los Angeles and a friend of mine who speaks Italian was there as a translator and when I would say "Well, I don't think I could really do this," he would translate it as "I can do this as long as I can make some changes to the screenplay." So, inadvertently I wound up getting involved in it and we did indeed write a whole new screenplay. 

NOTEBOOK: As unusual as Iguana is, Silent Night, Deadly Night III is usually pointed out as the oddest work in your filmography.

HELLMAN: Well, I had the flu and my good friend Arthur Gorson asked me to direct it; it was his first picture as a producer. Again I turned it down—I didn't need a translator this time—but he kept asking me. I guess in a weak moment I said the same thing that my friend had mistranslated before: "Well, if I can throw the script away and start all over again..." And he said fine. We literally wrote a new script in a week. Steve came on board and my daughter came on board and they kind of polished the original script and we were off. We were literally still writing the script when I, in my weakened condition, was going off and scouting locations. Three weeks later we started shooting.

NOTEBOOK: A lot of people assume making the movie was a negative experience for you, since you didn't make a feature for two decades afterwards.

HELLMAN: It was not a negative experience. I had a great time working on it! But it did in effect kind of stunt my career. Just because of the genre, everyone assumed that it was gonna be horrible and they still call it the "blot" on my career. Whatever the movie was, I thought my work in it was my best to date, though naturally I think Road to Nowhere surpasses that by a lot. I don't think that Iguana is necessarily my best work because I was hampered by really bad production. We literally had nothing that we needed. I feel like it's my equivalent of directing Our Town on a bare stage with two ladders. We had no lights for three weeks. We were waiting for them to arrive by a slow boat by way of China or something. Josep did admirably; I think one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie was in the church where the priest is lecturing—and that was all natural light. We were shooting interior and a few exteriors all with only the aid of reflectors. I think we had no lights until our last week of shooting in the Canary Islands.  

NOTEBOOK: Before embarking on shooting a film digitally, did you look at any recent films that had been shot digitally for inspiration?

HELLMAN: Well, it was really a brand new camera. We ran it through every possible test, so that we knew what its limitations were and what its advantage were. It was a very conscious choice to choose the [5D] over the Red. There's such a myth about the Red; I think the 5D goes way beyond it. The color looks so much like original IB Technicolor, it's incredible.

NOTEBOOK: You said earlier there were some scenes you didn't end up shooting...

HELLMAN: I think the only part we didn't shoot was the backstory with the real Velma Duran, but we did shoot pretty much everything else, though the scenes wound up in different places in the movie. Just as an example: the script opens up with the scene of Velma in her room and then cuts to Fabio Testi and Cliff De Young. There were so many different things going on very quickly and I decided in the editing processand maybe I knew it when shooting, or else I wouldn't have spent so much time on the hair dryer scenethat I wanted to open with the simpler backstory of the plot where she pretends to commit suicide. 

NOTEBOOK: Partly because there's a film-within-a-film in this movie, the identities of the characters often shift around. Is that something that was intended from the beginning?

HELLMAN: No, the only thing we wanted to do was to get into some of the stuff that Alain Resnais had done. It seems like [Road to Nowhere] is influenced by Last Year at Marienbad, but really the movie that influenced us the most was Stavisky...—it's one of my favorite movies. I was involved with a Robbe-Grillet project, though: an adaptation of La maison de rendez-vous. We prepped that movie, but the producer pulled the plug before we had a chance to make it. That was in about 1973.

NOTEBOOK: I'm intrigued by all of these unrealized projects, especially since you mentioned that you were trying to get movies made between 1989 and 2010. How many were there?

HELLMAN: There were at least half a dozen. And before 1989, many more. The ratio of movies I've worked on to the movies I've made is probably five-to-one.  

NOTEBOOK: Is there one that "got away?" One you really wish you could have made?

HELLMAN: Well, I still intend to make it. The most personal project for me was one that I was hired by Paramount to develop. Originally there was a Mark Peploe screenplay, then a Charles Eastman screenplay and then I kind of stole from each of them to create a combination screenplay. That's one I've been trying to make since the early '80s. 

NOTEBOOK: What's it about?

HELLMAN: It's a film noir. It's Lionel White's Obsession. Lionel White worked with Kubrick on The Killing. I guess when Kubrick was about to make Lolita, Lionel wanted to do the screenplay. Kubrick had other ideas, so Lionel wrote this novel, Obsession, which is his noir version of the Lolita story. 

NOTEBOOK: A lot of films about about filmmaking tend to be nostalgic for an earlier time, but Road to Nowhere is a movie that's very enamored with the way movies are made today: digital cinematography, the video village... 

HELLMAN: I hope to make more movies soon. I'll make them as fast as I can find money. But I really feel that the way they're shooting the movie in Road to Nowhere is not that all that different from the way it was before. The crew isn't all that different from what we had on Two Lane Blacktop. It's pretty much the same kind of equipment—we just needed bigger trucks then. You need just as many lights to shoot digitally, but you don't need the same intensity. Other than that, it's pretty much the same as I've been making movies all along. Well, except for the really low-budget ones, like The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, where we had a crew of ten people. 

Thank you so much for interviewing Hellman. I’ve been waiting for an explanation for Silent Night, Dead Night since I first saw it. I love that he’s not ashamed of it. Like everyone else, I had presumed that it was an unpleasant experience for him. Glad to be proven wrong.
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I’m interested in seeing this new film. It sounds like some sort of cross between “Mulholland Drive” and “Certified Copy”. And I like that CIA sci-fi idea he pitched.
Great interview- I had been wondering what happened during the “Lost years”.
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http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2011julsep/hellman.html Harvard Film Archive is doing a Hellman retrospective. The link has some interesting information on his films.
Shooting on the 5D is advantageous also because it gets more attention than if he shot it on the RED. There’s a whole community of DSLR filmmakers who will check it out for that fact alone and certainly journalists wouldn’t be asking questions about his choice of camera had he chosen the RED. Smart move.

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