Monte Hellman: In His Own Words
"I directed my first theatrical performance in summer camp when I was ten, a short tragicomedy which I also wrote. I was an undergraduate in drama at Stanford University and a graduate in film at UCLA, taking time out from the latter for a three month tour in Europe. (I fell in love with both ships and travel, and now choose film projects as much for the location as for dramatic interest).
My first job after UCLA was as actor and director with the Stumptown Players Summer Theater in Guerneville, California--a company which I cofounded. In three years I directed six plays, fell in love with one leading lady from our second season, and married another from our third season--the marriage lasted three and a half years, during which time I became an apprentice film editor by taking a job no one else wanted--cleaning out the ancient film vaults at ABC studios. I worked briefly on the Medic TV series, then quit editing (temporarily) to start another theater company. Our opening play was one of the major events of my life--the first Los Angeles production of Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, starring Jack Albertson and Joey Faye.
Nine months later, my wife left me, my theater was torn down, and Roger Corman (who had invested in the theater) asked me to direct my first film. I never returned to the theater.
During the following decade (the 60's) I had various jobs as a truck driver, film shipper, assistant film editor, film editor and dialogue director. I was married to the mother of my two marvelous children, Melissa and Jared, and married creatively to Jack Nicholson, with who I made four and a half films plus one unproduced screenplay.
During the 70's I made three films and had various jobs as a film doctor and/or replacement for directors who died before their films were finished.
I have a reputation for "fighting the system" and "not selling out," "doing my own thing," etc. In reality, I have always been a hired gun. I have usually taken whatever job came my way. In fairness to the reputation, I did try to make the best of these assignments--usually hiring a new writer to make over the scripts more to my taste. But I was making other people's movies. Now I'm creating my own projects.
It's not any easier getting to make a picture. I'm more in control of my life as well as my career. Like Othello, speak to me as one "who lov'd not wisely, but too well." - World Film Directors Vol. 2, Edited by John Wakeman, 1988.
Long time readers of Cashiers du Cinemart might recall my fondness for the works of Monte Hellman. In the past I've reviewed COCKFIGHTER, TWO LANE BLACKTOP, IGUANA, and FLIGHT TO FURY and I was elated to get the chance to interview him.
Public recognition may not be at an all-time high, but with a full retrospective of his work being held at the American Cinemateque, and TWO LANE BLACKTOP touring the country and re-running on VH1, Hellman's work is starting to get the recognition it deserves from a new generation of critics and cinephiles.
Monte Hellman: The Interview
By Mike WhiteCdC: How did you get your start in film?
MH: Roger Corman had been one of the backers of my theatre company, where I directed WAITING FOR GODOT among others, and offered me BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE when I lost my lease on my theatre. I had always planned to go into film, and was 4 years into my 8 year apprenticeship as a film editor. (It wasn't necessary to work continuously in the Editor's Guild, just put in 8 years from the time you joined.)
CdC: Who would you consider your influences or who influenced your decision to be a film maker?
MH: I think my two strongest influences were John Huston and Carol Reed. I wanted to make films like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, FALLEN IDOL, ODD MAN OUT and OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS. I had studied film as a graduate student at UCLA after I was a theatre undergraduate at Stanford. At UCLA I saw many classic films, and was also strongly influenced by Griffith (BROKEN BLOSSOMS) and Pudovkin (STORM OVER ASIA). I was also influenced by Lewis Milestone (A WALK IN THE SUN), but I think the film that most made me want to direct was George Stevens' A PLACE IN THE SUN, to which I paid homage in COCKFIGHTER. I was also influenced by Rivette's PARIS BELONGS TO US.
CdC: My first exposure to your work was FLIGHT TO FURY. I was impressed with the shot of the old Japanese man flailing around in the bathroom to demonstrate the airplane's engine trouble. Can you tell me what inspired you to use a peripheral character in that way?
MH: It never occurred to us to begin the sequence with a shot of an engine smoking. I wanted to show a sudden and violent jolt, and doing it from the POV of a secondary character seemed like a good idea.
CdC: How was it shooting FLIGHT TO FURY back-to-back with BACKDOOR TO HELL?
MH: I was editing BACKDOOR at night while I was shooting FLIGHT, getting by on three hours sleep. It's the madness of a young man. In general, shooting two three-week movies back-to-back is not much different than shooting a seven or eight week single picture. It's more difficult when, as was the case with BACKDOOR and FLIGHT, the locations are hundreds of miles apart, and you can't scout both pictures before starting to shoot the first.
CdC: What was your favorite film to shoot?
MH: The most fun I ever had on a shoot was CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37. We were in a great location in the south of Spain, had a fabulous cast and crew (the Italian camera crew cooked pasta for the company every night), and I had a great rapport with DP Giuseppi Rotunno who has a great sense of humor. And of course I was working with Warren Oates and Fabio Testi, two of the best friends of my life.
The worst shoot was IGUANA. Again a great location, great food, a fabulous cast and crew, but it was spoiled by a stupid, neurotic producer who couldn't spend money until the last minute (when it was usually too late.) Nothing was prepared in advance. We didn't have lights until three weeks into the shoot, essential props frequently didn't arrive until late in the day. Lunch took over two hours because the restaurant could only seat us in two shifts. There were many days when we only were able to shoot for one or two hours. I was in a constant state of anger. But I wound up liking the film a lot. After CHINA 9 I took over for another deceased director, Mark Robson, on a film called AVALANCHE EXPRESS. I shot about 10% of the principal photography, shot all the special effects, and supervised the post production. Then I was hired to direct several pictures that didn't get made, including DARK PASSION which I'm finally getting to do, KING OF WHITE LADY for Francis Coppola, FALLING for Mike Gruskoff, and a film about out-of-body experience for Martin Poll. Then came IGUANA, followed by SILENT NIGHT.
CdC: What films are you most and least proud of and why?
MH: I don't like to show BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE any more, mostly because it's such primitive work on my part, and the story is silly at best. I find something to like in most of the others, with perhaps TWO-LANE, IGUANA, SILENT NIGHT and THE SHOOTING my favorites, and COCKFIGHTER one of my least favorites, only because I was not able to do as much work on the script as I would have liked.
CdC: How was it working with Charles Willeford? Was there any discussion of directing any more of his novels?
MH: I didn't work with Willeford on the script. In fact, I hired Earl (Mac) Rauch to re-write many sequences, particularly the ones involving the love story. Charles became an actor in the film at the last minute, when I fired the actor set to play his role the night before shooting was to begin, and had the idea to read Charles because he was there. I enjoyed working with him as an actor. I was unaware of his later novels until he became a cult writer.
CdC: Do you prefer shooting something you've written or adapting another person's work?
MH: All the scripts I've worked on as a writer have been adaptations. As a director, it doesn't matter whether the original material was a book or written directly for the screen. In the end, I do a final polish on every script and make it my own.
CdC: I was curious about the way COCKFIGHTER was shot. Were the fights filmed first with the shots prior done with similar looking chickens?
MH: Each sequence was filmed chronologically. The fights were all fixed, so we knew which chicken would win. The hardest thing was to get the chickens to walk away from the fight. I seem to recall that we were just lucky on that one.
CdC: This film was re-cut and retitled several times. What was different about the re-cuts?
MH: The re-cut eliminated the porch scene with Mary Elizabeth (one of my favorites) and added several dream sequences of tits-and-ass and car explosions, supposedly to justify their use in trailers. This cut was variously titled BORN TO KILL or GAMBLIN' MAN. Any version titled COCKFIGHTER is my original cut.
CdC: I recall reading that Lewis Teague was involved in shooting some of COCKFIGHTER. Is that true?
MH: I don't recall whether Lewis shot any footage. Roger got someone to shoot some added blood, (spattering on shoes, etc.). It's possible that Lewis shot some added extreme close-ups of cocks fighting, since those are the sequences he edited. I edited all non-fight scenes. Someone shot the scene of the man eating chicken at the last cockfight, because I didn't.
CdC: You have a very unique editing style (at least when cutting your own pictures). What do you look for in a shot? What is your rule as far as pacing?
MH: My editing style is unique because I place performance first, regardless of the type of shot. So each scene comes out differently, because at any given moment I'll be on the shot that has the best performance.
CdC: How do you deal with your actors? I was really impressed by the acting in BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE. It might have been a totally different picture with different performances.
MH: The first thing I do is choose good actors who are suited to the role. This is 90% of directing actors. The second thing I do is give them lots of love, and win their trust. I make them believe (because it's true) that I'm looking out for them, that I will protect them, and that I will never let them look bad. Once they believe that, they'll be free to try things because they know if it doesn't work, I'll shoot it again.
CdC: How did you meet Warren Oates and Sam Peckinpah? Both you and he got such great performances out of Oates.
MH: I met Warren Oates casually beforehand, but essentially became friends during the filming of THE SHOOTING. I met Peckinpah while editing KILLER ELITE.
CdC: How did you and Jack Nicholson meet?
MH: We met in the late '50s when I had a theatre company in L.A. that became a magnet for young actors. We became friends when we worked together on THE WILD RIDE in the summer of 1960. He was the star, I was Associate Producer and Editor.
CdC: What is your opinion of Nicholson as an actor?
MH: I think Jack is a great actor, as does much of the world. I don't think we've always seen great performances, as he is clever enough to give the audience what it wants to see often enough to maintain his position as a movie star.
CdC: As a writer?
MH: I have only experienced him as a writer twice. Both times I thought he gave me good material for the job at hand, and I was able to shoot both scripts with very little modification on my part. I had the advantage, however, of working with him on a day-to-day basis. I would characterize him as a good craftsman, as I would characterize myself. I don't think either of us have the natural brilliance of, say, a Charles Eastman. But Charles requires much more re-working and editing for my purposes.
CdC: I've heard that you and Nicholson wrote a script that was never produced.
MH: We wrote a screenplay called EPITAPH just before we went to the Philippines [to shoot BACKDOOR TO HELL and FLIGHT TO FURY]. We had an agreement with Roger Corman to finance it but when we came back Roger had changed his mind (he thought an abortion story was too "European") and hired us to do THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND instead.
CdC: Do you still maintain contact with Nicholson?
MH: I talk to Jack every few months, and see him about once a year.
CdC: Why wasn't he in your later films?
MH: I have not been able to afford Jack since he became a superstar.
CdC: How was it working with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson on TWO LANE BLACKTOP?
MH: James and Dennis were very easy to work with, with James being especially conscientious and professional. In general, they were as easy as most actors (and easier than some temperamental actors).
CdC: What was the size of the crew on that shoot?
MH: We had a somewhat smaller than normal crew, by special arrangement with the unions for a low budget picture, but it was still a fairly large company -- 35 or 40 on the crew. We still had big vans to move the equipment, props, etc.
CdC: Did you actually shoot on the road or were all locations in one general area?
MH: We travelled and shot in sequence, starting in Los Angeles and ending up in North Carolina.
CdC: I heard you had trouble releasing RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING.
MH: The problem with distributing RIDE and SHOOTING was that they sold to TV first, so there was no chance for a first run theatrical exclusive release in the US. Distribution in France was delayed because they were initially sold to a company that went bankrupt, and the films were held up in legal technicalities for three years.
CdC: What was your involvement in THE TERROR - I've read of four separate people having their hands in directing that film.
MH: Roger directed for two days on a set left over from a previous production, and without a proper script. He hired Francis Coppola to write a script and finish the picture. After five weeks of shooting, Roger fired Francis, and hired me to finish the picture. Jack Hill was hired to write a new script with me. A lot of what Francis shot was thrown out, except for the stuff with the witch from WIZARD OF OZ. (Dorothy Newman), and I finished the picture in five days of shooting. All of the interiors are Roger's (with the exception of Francis's witch's lair), and most of the exteriors are mine. To the best of my recollection, and contrary to legend, Jack Nicholson did not direct any of the film.
CdC: What was your involvement in the shooting of ROBOCOP?
MH: I shot all the second unit in Dallas, which included the van chase, Robocop driving around the city, Robocop going through his old house, parts of the new robot shooting up the conference room, the man going through the plate glass window, etc.
CdC: How did you get involved in producing RESERVOIR DOGS?
MH: Someone sent me the script with the idea of me directing it. I liked it, and met with Quentin. The day we met he sold TRUE ROMANCE, so he told me he now could hold out to direct RESERVOIR himself. I was so impressed with Quentin personally I offered to help get RESERVOIR made. The rest, as they say, is history.
CdC: Are there any more plans to work with Tarantino?
MH: Quentin and I are now planning three pictures, two for me to direct that he would Executive Produce, and one that I would Executive Produce for him.
CdC: What's your opinion of the controversy surrounding him in regards to his plagiarism of other films?
MH: Shakespeare "borrowed" most of his plots from other sources.
CdC: What do you think of all the use of the bathroom in PULP FICTION? I counted seven different instances of it being a setting. Do you think that FLIGHT TO FURY might have been an influence?
MH: I haven't the foggiest.
CdC: Can you tell me about RED RAIN?
MH: RED RAIN has been pushed back as of this moment. The next picture I'll do is DARK PASSION. It's a classic film noir, there's no distribution set, Barry Cooper will produce and Quentin Tarantino & Lawrence Bender will executive produce.
CdC: What are some of your favorite recent films?
MH: I liked SEVEN, 12 MONKEYS, BOTTLE ROCKET, BROTHERS MC MULLEN, and Tavernier's LIFE AND NOTHING BUT.
CdC: What do you do between projects?
MH: I'm always working on a project (90% of the effort goes into getting a film made, 10% goes into making it). My only holidays are working vacations, usually a film festival I'm invited to. My main hobby is also work related: computing. I'm constantly going on the internet to update my software, etc. I also like travelling with my wife and two grown kids (and dogs whenever possible).
CdC: Here's a filmography I've come up with for you. Could you double check and perhaps make comments about some of the films?
Creature From The Haunted Sea
This was about 10 minutes of added scenes which I shot along with similar chores on SKI TROOP ATTACK, LAST WOMAN ON EARTH and my own BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE shortly before I worked on THE TERROR.
Beast From Haunted Cave
Back Door To Hell
Flight To Fury
Ride in the Whirlwind
Two Lane Blacktop
China 9, Liberty 37
Silent Night Deadly Night 3
Between TWO-LANE and COCKFIGHTER I directed about half (all the scenes with European actors) of a film called SHATTER in Hong Kong. Between COCKFIGHTER and CHINA 9 I directed half of a TV episode of a series called "Baretta", and I finished a film called THE GREATEST for deceased director Tom Gries.
The Wild Ride
Bus Riley's Back In Town (I was assistant editor and quit to go to the Philippines)
Back Door To Hell (uncredited for contractual reasons)
Flight to Fury (same deal)
Ride In The Whirlwind
Two Lane Blacktop
Cockfighter (uncredited co-edited with Lewis Teague)
China 9 Liberty 37 (uncredited for contractual reasons)
Silent Night Deadly Night 3 (uncredited)
The Killing Box
Love, Cheat & Steal (which I took my name off after it was re-cut by someone else)
Christian Licorice Store
Warren Oates: Across The Border
Someone To Love
CHRISTIAN LICORICE STORE and SOMEONE TO LOVE were the only "acting". CHAMBRE 666 came next, but was really a documentary in which I "played" myself, WARREN OATES: ACROSS THE BORDER was a documentary in which I was interviewed, which was preceded by OUT OF THE BLUE AND INTO THE BLACK (about BBS and the Hollywood of the late '60s and early '70s) and a couple of documentaries entirely about me PLUNGING ON ALONE and HELLMAN RIDER.
Thanx to Monte Hellman for all the help and patience!
After CHINA 9 I took over for another deceased director, Mark Robson, on a film called AVALANCHE EXPRESS. I shot about 10% of the principal photography, shot all the special effects, and supervised the post production. Then I was hired to direct several pictures that didn't get made, including DARK PASSION which I'm finally getting to do, KING OF WHITE LADY for Francis Coppola, FALLING for Mike Gruskoff, and a film about out-of-body experience for Martin Poll. Then came IGUANA, followed by SILENT NIGHT.