PRINT October 2010


THROUGHOUT A LONG AND EXTRAORDINARY CAREER, Monte Hellman has remained simultaneously at the cutting edge and at the very farthest margins of post-studio-era American cinema. In influential major films such as The Shooting (1965) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Hellman defined a distinct brand of art cinema by reinventing traditional genre formulas—here, those of the western and the road movie—to create boldly minimal and mesmerizing portraits of characters inexorably driven by obscure desires. Hellman’s debut film and improbable entry as an auteur director was, in fact, a horror picture—Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), an almost impossibly threadbare creature feature produced by Roger Corman and transformed by Hellman into a gripping, visually striking crime drama that announced his unusual talents as a bold stylist and intuitively resourceful artist. The early stage of Hellman’s career was, however, crowned by two relentlessly dark and violent revisionist westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), both produced by Corman and shot just weeks apart from each other in the barren hinterlands of Utah. Together, the two films took Hellman’s stylistic minimalism to a new and unyielding extreme, refining the tight economy of image and narrative displayed in Beast into frighteningly elliptical fables of innocence mercilessly destroyed by rabid posses and cold-blooded contract killers.

While extending the eccentric approach to genre defined in the 1950s by a group of maverick American filmmakers that prominently included Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, and Nicholas Ray, Hellman’s westerns also reveal his singular approach to performance and his meticulous distillation of narrative into nuanced and mysteriously intense character studies. Hellman’s steady interest in performance as a central focus and, eventually, a major theme of his films points back to his own roots in the vibrant West Coast theater scene of the 1950s and culminates in his best-known film, Two-Lane Blacktop. At one level a vivid documentary of American road fever and the obsessive world of street racing, Two-Lane Blacktop is also a sustained meditation on film acting as one of the most dangerous games, a form of high-stakes gambling where everything, including the film itself, is on the table. Indeed, the spontaneous cross-country race between two cars that forms the narrative spine of the film is also an extended and explicit showdown between two distinct modes of performance—with the musician nonactors James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their stripped-down Chevy pitted against the ultimate actor’s actor, Warren Oates, driving the decked-out orange GTO that gives him his name. If the laconic restraint of Taylor and Wilson, whose minimal dialogue remains almost entirely focused on their car, recalls the calibrated reticence of Robert Bresson’s “models,” Oates’s endless small talk and almost desperate search for hitchhiker companions to hear his invented autobiographies instead resemble a nervous mode of hyperacting closer to the style cultivated in John Cassavetes’s cinema at its most theatrical extreme.

There is, of course, deep irony in the fact that the musicians’ car has no radio and is instead an echo chamber for the rich sound track of the motor, the wind, and the steady purr of rubber on the asphalt ribboning away behind them, while Oates’s GTO is a veritable jukebox of popular music, thanks to its driver’s extensive collection of eight-track cassettes. The distinct attitudes toward sound and music—austerity versus excess—extend into the stark differences between the two cars themselves and the contrasting modes of acting they seem to embody. The musicians’ sparse vehicle is devoid of even the simplest accessories, with neither heat nor backseat, and the two musician drivers are indifferent to the comfort of the girl who joins them for much of the long journey described by the film. In the GTO, meanwhile, the passengers are given almost too much attention, with Oates fussing restlessly, asking each of the hitchhikers to choose the music to match the various roles that he performs for them—race-car driver, test pilot, wealthy bachelor—a chameleonlike shifting marked by the changing colors of his many V-neck sweaters. While the Chevy is a backstage where the difference between acting and being is blurred, the GTO is a front-row seat, close to the spotlights. The audience is the film’s ultimate passenger, shuttled back and forth between the cinema of presence and the cinema of performance, each held in suspended tension by the race until the famous closing image—the burning of the film itself, which signals Two-Lane Blacktop’s abrupt end. Does the blistering photochemical abstraction signal the destruction of cinematic illusion? Or is it perhaps the furthest expression of the radical materialism that so vividly conjures the speed and sound and loneliness of the street-racing world and here brings us even closer to the heat and fire that fuel the engines of the cars and cinema alike?

A similarly rich ambivalence between illusionism and metacinematic reflection lies at the heart of Hellman’s first feature film in more than twenty years, the enigmatic and visually striking Road to Nowhere, which debuted last month at the Venice Film Festival. Revolving around the story of a young and reluctant actress, Road to Nowhere is constructed like a series of nested boxes, disarmingly simple in its means yet deliriously complex in its lasting effects. The camera used to shoot the film seems a fitting emblem of the virtuosic resourcefulness that has made Hellman a legend—an off-the-shelf, digital single-lens reflex camera now deployed to capture moving images. Hellman, quite appropriately, prefers to call his cinema “picture making.”

In the late spring, and in the very final stages of postproduction, Hellman graciously welcomed me into his home in the Hollywood Hills to discuss his new film and to look back over the many roads taken over the course of his singular career.

HADEN GUEST: It’s astonishing that you shot Road to Nowhere using a high-end but basically conventional digital still camera. This has potentially revolutionary implications. But it’s also fascinating because it returns you to your roots as a visual artist and your work, in your youth, as a photographer. Could you tell us something about this early and little-known chapter of your career?

MONTE HELLMAN: My first interest was photography, and my first camera was actually a Brownie Reflex! I started taking pictures even before I was a teenager, of kids I was babysitting. I built a semi-permanent darkroom in a spare bathroom and an enlarger out of a large tomato-juice can, a sheet of opal glass, a cigar box, and an old bellows camera. When I returned to LA from Stanford [University] in the early ’50s, I began doing head shots for young actors, including a portrait of Jack Nicholson.

I’ve always been attracted to faces. Obviously, as a picture maker I like faces and realize the importance of them in terms of emotionally impacting an audience. One of my favorite movies is Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands [1952], and it’s all about faces and secondary figures that never speak but whose faces recur throughout the movie. As for photography, I was always interested in Yousuf Karsh and particularly Philippe Halsman, whose articles about technique I would read in the various photography magazines. John Engstead was another Hollywood photographer who definitely influenced me a great deal. I used to walk past his studio on Santa Monica Boulevard and study all the portraits in the window.

So I began with still photography, and recent technological developments have brought me full circle, allowing me to shoot a film using a still camera. There are several advantages to making a movie using a digital single-lens reflex camera primarily designed for still photography but capable of shooting motion pictures. Some of these cameras, including the one we used on Road to Nowhere, have a sensor the size of 35-mm still film, which is about two and a half times larger than movie film or most digital-movie- camera sensors. This gives you a very pictorial image, much like the image of 65-mm film, with tremendous color depth, almost like the original Technicolor. The cameras are also very small, enabling you to shoot in tight quarters, and because they “are” and look like still cameras, you can shoot in public places without people knowing you’re making a movie.

HG: To what extent did your extensive theater experience and training prepare you for your subsequent career as a filmmaker? Obviously there was the literal connection of your celebrated 1957 production of Waiting for Godot drawing the attention of Roger Corman, and you were active in the LA theater scene at a time when Method acting was still very much a dominant force.

MH: Well, in order to get my first job directing in theater I agreed to act as well, and I think that experience gave me a real connection to actors, an understanding of their fears and the basic psychology behind it all. I think that’s a great aid in communication.

I was exposed to the Method. I saw all of the productions of the Actors Lab (the Group Theatre in Los Angeles), but I wasn’t directly involved with them. In college I studied really ancient theater technique—they’d never heard of the Method at Stanford! And the funny thing is, I probably rely more on traditional technique than I do on the Method, which I use as well but mainly in dealing with actors. Whereas classic techniques of emphasis and how you translate them from theater to film—that stayed with me. The whole idea of understanding the mechanics of stage or screen direction: left to right versus right to left, top to bottom versus bottom to top. I think that ultimately comes from my training at Stanford.

One production very important for me was the first full-length play I directed, Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall, in 1952. I got a big kick out of seeing two hundred people jump out of their seats at the same time—and that led me in a certain direction ever after. There are a lot of jumps in the new movie!

HG: Your first feature, Beast from Haunted Cave, set in motion a pattern of creatively reinventing genre formulas that stretches across your entire career. This was, of course, also a forte of Corman’s, so I’m curious to know how the overall strategy and framework of the film were decided on.

MH: On Beast I was involved with developing the script, but that film really all started with an idea of Roger’s—an idea so simple it’s unbelievable. I don’t know why nobody has noticed that about 25 percent of his movies are based on Key Largo [1948]! So it’s really taking Roger’s passion for film noir and combining it with his knowledge that you could make money off horror movies.

HG: What was Corman’s involvement with your first two westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting?

MH: Roger suggested that Jack Nicholson and I make a western, and I’ve always had a great affinity for the genre. Westerns were my first love. But for those pictures Roger didn’t control the material that we were working from. For the first time, Jack and I were given the freedom to start, quite literally, with two blank pieces of paper and make movies out of them. When we delivered the scripts, Roger was horrified. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were far off his idea of what a commercial movie was, but I guess I was just a babe in the woods. I saw the movies that I liked and that were a huge influence on our westerns—films like Henry King’s The Gunfighter [1950] and William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident [1943]—and I thought at the time they were “normal movies.” Of course, these weren’t commercial movies at all! But they made me think we were just making normal Hollywood movies! [Laughing.]

HG: All of your films share a certain starkness, a taut minimalism that strips things down to their absolute essentials. While I understand this may often be, in part, an expression of limited resources, this attitude has nevertheless remained a constant throughout your career and certainly lies at the heart of Two-Lane Blacktop, where you had final cut, and also of Road to Nowhere. How do you shape your films to find the balance between too little and too much? How do you know when you’ve achieved just enough?

MH: I don’t know, but it’s funny, I find myself being attracted to that kind of sparseness in the films of others. I’m a huge fan of the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, especially Goodbye, Dragon Inn [2003]. Even though I was kind of working in that vein before, when I see it in someone like him I say, “Wow,” because he goes way beyond anything I ever did. I think he influenced my new movie and helped push me toward a spareness I’d never attempted before.

HG: Your attitude toward dialogue is very important to the minimalist economy of your films and their careful understatement. Indeed, you often have a character who can’t speak—willfully so in Cockfighter [1974]—or characters who are extremely restrained. You seem to deliberately play against the long tradition in American cinema of dialogue-driven narrative.

MH: A picture’s worth a thousand words—or however many. I have an antipathy toward exposition and explanatory dialogue. If I see a movie where the characters tell you everything that is going to happen in the first sixty seconds, my tendency is to walk out or flip to another channel. That’s a big turnoff for me. I love the beginning of Road to Nowhere, in which we managed to get through all the exposition without a word of dialogue. I feel very proud of that. The script originally contained explanatory dialogue in the first few scenes, but we were ultimately able to remove it. Our original script was heavily influenced by Alain Resnais—there was a lot of Last Year at Marienbad [1961] and Stavisky [1974] in it, the idea of telling a story in bits and pieces and letting the audience put the puzzle together.

HG: The most fundamental establishing shot of a film typically takes place during the opening credits—that’s when the audience is most forcibly reminded what they are watching and where they are sitting. But in Road you use the credits to totally disorient the audience. Once the credits start to roll, we don’t know what we’re watching!

HG: In Road, and in your films in general, the motivation of your characters is kept wonderfully obscure. Yet at the same time those characters are incredibly driven. And driven is such a powerful word when one thinks of Two-Lane Blacktop. What attracts you to this type of obsessive, taciturn character again and again?

MH: Well, I used to say that Two-Lane could just as easily have been about moviemaking, and Road is about moviemaking but it could just as easily have been about street racing. I think that there is a strong tendency for directors—myself included—to be pulled by autobiography. I just saw one of my favorite films the other night—In a Lonely Place [1950], which I screened for a class I teach at CalArts. That film is a double autobiography in the sense that Bogart was attracted to the material for obvious reasons because he felt this was him, and Nick Ray was breaking up with Gloria Grahame at the time and makes this story about the impossibility of relationships, and there is so much personal stuff on both sides of the camera. It’s quite astounding.

HG: Considering the autobiographical dimension of your movies, then, would it be fair to say that filmmaking is for you something similar to the activities that define so many of your characters and into which they seem deliberately to lose themselves—like street racing in Two-Lane?

MH: I think that filmmaking is—I can’t stop the habit of using that term, though I prefer to call it picture making now. I don’t know where the expression filmmaker started, but it wasn’t that in the beginning. They called them pictures, and then later movies. As the medium of film is rapidly becoming obsolete, it certainly seems inappropriate to call a digital movie a film.

In any case, picture making is related to unleashing the unconscious—not only of the picture maker but of all the other collaborators as well, particularly the actors. So I find that there’s more than one autobiography in a movie. It could be the director’s autobiography, but it’s also the autobiography of each of the other participants, especially of the lead actors.

I’ll give you an example. Shannyn Sossamon, the primary actress in Road to Nowhere, was brought to my attention because Steven Gaydos, who wrote the script, saw her in a restaurant and thought she looked the part. He had no idea that she was a real actress or anything. I’d seen her in one movie a number of years ago and had actually been interested in her for a picture I was producing at that time. In working with her on Road, I saw how she transformed her character into something that went beyond the written script because she was putting so much of herself into the part, and so it became a kind of autobiography. In fact, some of the best moments in the movie are unscripted—things that came from her just because she was free to let her unconscious guide her, transforming her character, and the movie, into something completely different.

HG: How did you come to understand this autobiographical dimension of filmmaking?

MH: You don’t always know where these things come from. But in this case, I know what the inspiration was. I remember reading a review, years ago, of a Norwegian novel in Time magazine—I don’t even know the name of the novel—but I remember the reviewer’s synopsis. It’s the story of an old actor who has not officially retired but no longer gets any parts, until one day he gets a call from a young director. So he goes back to work and they start rehearsing the play, and it’s the greatest role of his life. He’s so excited by it and desperately wants to succeed. About a week before the play is to open, the actor goes to the director in despair and says, “I have to tell you, I’m really upset. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to become this character.” And the director says, “Well, that’s your problem. Your job isn’t to become the character. The character has to become you.” That hit me like a ton of bricks, and it influenced the way I’ve worked from then on.

HG: How does this approach fare when you are directing actors so incredibly larger-than-life, charismatic, and endearing as Nicholson and Warren Oates?

MH: With actors like Warren and Jack—at least back when I was working with Jack—they instinctively knew. Jack, of course, wrote two of the movies we did together and wrote the characters for himself. But they just knew. I think that real movie stars know. I don’t think Gary Cooper was a great actor, but he did some wonderful things—because he just knew that what he had was Gary Cooper. Bogart was that way, too. You look at In a Lonely Place and you see Captain Queeg in Dix Steele. Bogart was able to use the different aspects of himself and make it seem like it was character acting, but it was really movie-star acting.

It may sound facile, but the only thing that’s important is casting. That’s pretty much the only job of a director. And beyond that a director should heed Sam Fuller’s advice to Robert Stack when Stack asked, “How do you want me to act this role?” and Fuller replied, “Don’t.”

If the actors want to know how to act, tell them, “Don’t,” and if you want me to tell you how to direct, my answer is “Don’t.” You should do as little as possible as a director and then only when absolutely necessary. All of this is in the movie, by the way. All of these anecdotes are in Road to Nowhere.

MH: Road to Nowhere came from an idea of Steve’s. The initial inspiration was just to recount some of the adventures we’ve had making movies, and so the characters were originally called Steve Gaydos and Monte Hellman. But then I started feeling that, rather than making it more interesting, using our names made it less so, because the gesture called attention to itself. I’m very concerned about what I call—what I was taught to call—detrimental empathy, which is anything that takes the audience out of the experience and makes them think instead of feel. And so I thought rather than use our real names we should create aliases, much the way novelists do when they tell autobiographical stories. Like Humbert Humbert in Lolita. And so that’s what happened—we just created aliases.

HG: But in Road you do take some serious risks along precisely these lines of making the audience think instead of feel. But I suppose you also do at the end of Two-Lane. The act of burning the film, that’s a huge risk. Yet it works. There is something deeply emotional, a sense of loss . . .

MH: But it also signaled that the film was over.

HG: Literally!

MH: We take the audience out and we don’t care if they get back in. We take that even a step further in Road to Nowhere in the sense that we do it continually throughout the movie. It’s kind of an experiment in conscious detrimental empathy. We continually jerk the audience out of the movie, telling them it’s only a movie, and yet it takes them only about two seconds to get involved again. And I’ve never seen anything like it. To me, it demonstrates the power of the medium. When we go into this big, dark room and the lights go down and the screen lights up, it’s much as in the theater—there’s a willing of suspension of disbelief. We go in there and know it’s Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and immediately we accept them as the characters they’re playing and we believe the story. Because we want to. We want to believe. We want to be swept away into this experience, and so, in Road to Nowhere, we continually burn the film—not exactly, but something like that, and the audience is shocked but then immediately believes again. I’m fascinated by scientific experimentation, and Road is an experiment in willing suspension of disbelief. And it’s powerful.

HG: For you to say this is a film that pushes the limits, that’s pretty extreme, because so many of your films push the limits of their genre.

MH: Yes, but in films like The Shooting, we let the audience experience those things. But here we are continually stopping and saying, “Wait. It’s only a movie.” And then forcing them to—or letting them—get right back into it and believe again. The beginning of Road to Nowhere plays with you, but you’re still hooked. Once the plane crashes, you’re hooked.

It’s everything I don’t believe in, but somehow I was drawn to test the limits. This is a movie about testing the audience’s limits. Interestingly, some people see it and the first words out of their mouths afterward are “You’re really fucking with me, aren’t you?” They enjoy the process of having us blow their minds and play these games with them. It’s pleasurable. In fact, the tag line we want for the poster is “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

HG: How do you see the progression of your films? Do you think one film prepares for you for the next? Thinking retrospectively . . .

MH: Well, there was a certain time—in 1964–65 I made four movies. That was an extraordinary year. It was an amazing thing to actually do two sets of back-to-back films within a twelve-month period [Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell (both released in 1964), and The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both shot in 1965; screened at Cannes in 1966; released in France in 1969 and in the US in 1972)—Eds.]. But I’ll never know what prepared me to do Road other than the fact that I’ve had twenty years of developing a lot of projects and twenty years of some pretty amazing life experiences. I think that—without naming names—there are a lot of filmmakers who only relate to other movies, and while obviously I’m in dialogue with other movies, I’m also interested in real life and in developing stories around real human psychology and exploring all aspects of human relationships and endeavor.

HG: There is a documentary aspect to certain of your films—Cockfighter and Two-Lane especially, but even Iguana [1988]. Is the same true for Road to Nowhere?

MH: Well, Road to Nowhere is very much a documentary about the making of a film. In fact, it’s a documentary about the film we are making.

HG: Is it, then, also a documentary about yourself?

MH: Well, not so much. Yes, there are elements of myself in the character, and there are certainly elements of my relationships in the relationships in the film. But there are also elements of Steve’s relationships and hopefully everybody’s. Every one of us is unique and at the same time, as anybody who has ever undergone therapy or analysis must realize, we’re so easy to figure out because our story is everybody’s story. [Laughs.]

When I think about the autobiographical nature of the actor’s relationship to the character, or of my relationship to the story, I try to be as specific as possible. I try to put in as much personal detail as I can, and I encourage the actors to do the same—to be as specific as possible—to make it as uniquely personal to them as they can, because I feel that that is the most universal thing, precisely what allows the audience to truly project themselves onto the characters. Strangely enough, this specificity is exactly what makes a film universal.

Haden Guest is director of the Harvard Film Archive.