Je reçois d'un "ami américain" le texte qui suit. Il s'agit d'un entretien avec Monte Hellman, réalisé en 1988 et peu diffusé (inédit dans son intégralité), que le site Cinemaretro («Celebrating Films of the 1960s & 1970s») a eu la bonne idée de publier. L'auteur, Kris Gilpin, avait rencontré MH quelques mois avant la première rétrospective intégrale organisée par Jean-Pierre Garcia et le festival du film d'Amiens, et la publication concomittante de mon bouquin sur le cinéaste, par les soins d'Amiens et des éditions Yellow Now. [Monte y fait allusion dans l'entretien, en en exagérant très nettement l'importance. Il est vrai - un peu d'orgueil bien placé n'a jamais fait de mal à personne - qu'il s'agissait en 1988 du premier livre consacré à l'homme de Two-Lane Blacktop. Vingt et un ans plus tard, il n'y en a toujours pas d'autre hors-USA] Rappelons que Monte Hellman vient d'achever, fin 2009, le tournage de Road to Nowhere ( CLIC ), avec la sublime Shannyn Sossamon (photo tout en bas, après l'entretien). Si les vents lui sont favorables, il pourrait se pointer à Cannes pour y présenter, au printemps prochain, son premier long métrage depuis 1989. Je remercie Joe Dante, Cinemaretro, Kris Gilpin et Monte Hellman, et j'embrasse Nicole Brenez.
Kris Gilpin: Why has it been 10 years since your last film ?
Monte Hellman: It’s been 10 years since the last movie I [completed]. I worked for nearly a year on Avalanche Express [1979; his name is in the end credits], finishing the picture for [director] Mark Robson; I directed a couple scenes with the actors and all the special effects, the avalanches. Then I developed about five different projects, each of which took several years. I worked for two years on King of White Lady for [producer] Francis Coppola, which was supposed to be done at Warners; it was not done because Coppola was never satisfied with the script. Warners was and they were ready to do it. I worked about a year on a picture for Paramount called Dark Passion; then I had a project called Falling for Fox and one for [producer] Martin Poll called Projections. Then I had three projects of my own: one was originally called Toy Soldiers, but that title was usurped by somebody else before we got to make it; in fact, it was originally called War Games, then Toy Soldiers, and now it’s called Chain Reaction. Then another one was called Secret Warriors, which I’m going to finally do a year from now with a Swiss company called Limbo Films. And my third one was called The Typhoon Shipments, which I was supposed to do just prior to Iguana then, finally, just after Iguana, and it was cancelled both times; the last three I co-wrote.
KG: That must’ve been incredibly frustrating all those years.
MH: Well, I guess I was a victim of two things, the increasing difficulty of getting any film made and just the basic odds at all times, which is you get about one film made for every 10 that are developed.
KG: What attracted you to Alberto Vasquez-Figueroa’s novel, La Iguana ?
MH: My initial response before reading the novel – I’d just been given a five-page synopsis of the story – was that it reminded me a lot of Phantom of the Opera, which I’d just seen in London. I only found out later, after becoming involved and starting to work on the screenplay, how different it was from Phantom [chuckles]. My initial feeling was that I was going to make a romantic Beauty and the Beast story similar to Phantom, and it turned out to be something radically different.
KG: And sexuality seems to be the key here, right ?
MH: Yes. I used to joke that some films contain gratuitous sex and violence and that Iguana has no gratuitous sex and violence – it’s about sex and violence [laughs].
KG: Where did you find the beauteous Maru Valdivielso ?
MH: She was in Madrid, and was actually suggested by Figueroa, who’s the author of the novel. She’d only done three small films and was not a star in Spain, and since Iguana she hasn’t stopped working. I knew the major Spanish actresses and didn’t feel any of them were right for the part; when I met Maru she had tremendous presence and tremendous beauty, and my initial response was, she’s so beautiful I’m sure she can do as well as anybody else – not even thinking there was a possibility of getting a really terrific actress in the part. Then, when I began to work with her, I was amazed at the skill and technique and talent she had as an actress, and it was overwhelming. She’s on the level of the best American actresses.
KG: This is based on a true story, right ?
MH: Yeah, in a sense it’s based on two historical figures, primarily one who was not deformed in any way but who became a kind of horror-instilling creature just by the way he lived and let himself finally look. But there was also a monster in that time who was also in the Galapagos, and the author combined the two figures.
KG: Was it as big a bitch as it sounds to have filmed on an island and aboard a ship ?
MH: Yes to both questions. The problem wasn’t so much that it was an island as the fact that customs regulations didn’t make it easy for us to bring things in and out. There’s the barrier of a border; in this case it was a hindrance. Physically it was difficult; the terrain itself is unfriendly to say the least and, beyond that, shooting on boats is always difficult. In this case, not having the facility of a big production, we had a problem just getting power for the lights and things like that, and frequently wound up shooting without lights.
KG: How big was the budget ?
MH: I don’t know, but the producer said the picture cost in the neighborhood of $3 million, which is not a super low budget for Europe but would be a very low budget anyplace else.
KG: How does this new film relate to your others ?
MH: All I know is what I read in the papers; I read a review that said it relates to my other films more by the way it differs than by the way it’s similar, in the sense that in all my other films there’s a minimum of dialogue and in this there’s nothing but dialogue [chuckles].
KG: OK. Where and when did you shoot ?
MH: We shot exactly a year ago in Lanzarote, which is one of the Canary Islands. [The crew hired to sail the reconstructed whaling ship in the film doubled as actors.]
KG: When will it be released here ?
MH: I don’t know; right now it’s being sold at [the big film market] MIFED, and I don’t know who’s gonna release it here or if it’s gonna be released here. If there isn’t a theatrical release date set fairly soon it’ll be too late because it’s due to go out on video in April 89.
KG: Tell me about that early acting class you attended with Robert Blake and Jack Nicholson, which was taught by Martin Landau.
MH: I wasn’t in the class as an actor; I did the same exercises and sense but I was there as a director working in an acting class, and it was terrific. I think Martin may be the best acting teacher I’ve come across, and I’ve seen a lot of them. There were a lot of exciting people in the class and Marty was a very stimulating teacher. I had been an actor but was no longer interested in acting when I took the class.
KG: What made you stop wanting to be an actor ?
MH: Because I’m compulsively, neurotically, obsessively a perfectionist and I didn’t feel I could be a good enough actor to please myself.
KG: I was curious, you ever meet James Dean ?
MH: Yeah, I knew James Dean at UCLA and I had the distinction of telling him I didn’t think he was gonna make it as an actor because he had all the qualifications, except that he was too short. [Laughs] I thought he was a movie star, he looked sensational and he was a terrific actor and I said, « Gee, it’s too bad you’re not tall, Jimmy ! »
KG: I never saw your first film, Beast from Haunted Cave [Allied Artists, 1959], but it sounds like fun. Was it fun to make ?
MH: No, [laughs] it wasn’t fun to make at all. It was my first film and we had 13 days to shoot, and by noon of the first day we hadn’t gotten a shot because the equipment was all frozen – it was 10 degrees below zero and we couldn’t get anything to run. This was in Deadwood, South Dakota and Roger Corman, who was the executive producer, was screaming on the phone that if we didn’t get our first day’s quota he was gonna be on a plane the next day and take over the picture. We managed to get it [working]; the sound was a little bit off-speed but we were able to correct it. It was a movie Roger seemed to be obsessed with and made over and over again; it was his rip-off of Key Largo – Key Largo with a monster tacked onto it.
KG: Is that out on video ?
MH: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it on video; Creature from the Haunted Sea, which is a rip-off of Beast from Haunted Cave [chuckles], was on video for a time; I don’t have either one. After I did Beast Roger asked me to expand four pictures for TV; they’d been [approximately] 62-minute movies, and he needed them to be 80 minutes for a sale to Allied Artists’ TV. So I went off and reshot scenes for pictures – some of them three years later – getting the same cast together and trying to duplicate the locations. So I expanded Beast from Haunted Cave, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Last Woman on Earth and Ski Troop Attack.
KG: What did you do on The Terror ?
MH: I made the last version of the movie; there’d been several versions before but I made the one that finally got released. Roger had shot some scenes on a set he’d been using for another picture and he said, « Before we tear it down, let’s get Boris Karloff to walk around and do a few scenes » [chuckles]. So, based on that material and some scenes Francis Coppola had shot, I shot for five [more] days and we finished the film. Contrary to Beast from Haunted Cave, The Terror was a lot of fun. On the four pictures I expanded really had autonomy; I wrote the scripts for, and produced and directed, the scenes I was expanding, and I did the same thing on The Terror. I found the challenge of making a movie in five days exciting, especially with no budget; instead of getting a wrangler to bring a horse out, we went to Griffith Park stables, rented a horse and trailer, and brought them to the set, and nobody could get the horse back into the trailer after we’d finished shooting; it just refused to go. Finally, [actor] Jonathan Haze [from the original Little Shop of Horrors] said, « What will you pay me to get the horse into that trailer ? » I was going crazy because, when you have five days to shoot, if you lose 10 minutes it’s like [losing] three days on a normal movie. So I said, « I’ll give you $50. » So he walked up to the horse, whispered into its ear and the horse walked into the trailer. I said « You gotta tell me, what did you say to it ? » He said, « I told him that if he didn’t get into the trailer I was gonna beat the shit out of him ! »
KG: So, now, how do you remember those Corman days ?
MH: Well, Corman was great because he really gave you a lot of freedom; all he cared about was that you came in on budget and that he had a product he could sell. The only time he was ever difficult at all was on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind because he absolutely hated the script of The Shooting and he didn’t want to make the movie. He finally agreed to make it on the basis of his peculiar logic, which was that he’d already invested $5,000 and the picture was going to cost another $70,000; if he didn’t make the picture he was out his $5,000 and if he did make it he knew he’d [at least] get back his $75,000 [chuckles], which of course he did. So he made the movie.
KG: What was it like making Back Door to Hell, your early war story with Jack Nicholson.
MH: Well, Jack and I had known each other before; we’d become friends on The Wild Ride , and after that we decided to form a partnership and write some scripts together. So we wrote a script called To Hold a Mirror – it was finally called Epitaph – which Roger was going to produce; it was gonna star Jack and Millie Perkins. Before starting the picture I got offered the two pictures in the Philippines – [producer] Fred Roos had seen The Terror in Hong Kong and he’d cabled the executive producer telling him he knew that Francis Coppola and I had both done scenes for The Terror and that he was very impressed with it. He didn’t know who’d done what, but he said he’d be happy with either one of us as director for these two pictures in the Philippines; they couldn’t find Francis so they called me and I got the job. Anyway, I got the job and I wanted Jack to write one of the scripts and act in both pictures; [the producers] were very happy and eager to get Jack because they’d used Jack in a [previous] picture, and I think he’d also worked on that screenplay. It turned out that he’d made a much better deal than I had [laughs] so I was already a little teed off at him – I’d gotten him the job and he was making more money than I was. But, we went over there by ship, sailing from San Francisco to Manila, and during the three weeks on the ship we wrote both scripts, Flight to Fury – which Jack wrote – and Back Door to Hell, which we shot first; as a result of working on the shooting and conversations we had about his performance he said something just clicked, and he understood something about acting he hadn’t known before. And he did make a major change in his working; I think if you look at that and at The Terror, it’s a vastly different kind of performance. So it was exciting and a very good experience.
KG: Why do you think Nicholson gave up writing and producing in those early days ?
MH: Well, he didn’t. I think he was interested in directing; certainly, and he directed two movies [Drive, He Said and Goin’ South] and he was very intensely interested in what he was doing on both of those, but I think that after the second film failed [at the box office] it was just too damaging to his ego. He liked being a successful actor and he didn’t like being an unsuccessful director.
KG: Flight to Fury was a comedy-adventure, right ?
MH: It’s not a comedy but it has comic overtones, but it is a satire which satirized those kinds of genre movies; it just took every cliché and put them all together. Warners just bought Fight to Fury for video; it’ll be coming out soon; Fox owns Back Door to Hell but I don’t know what they plan to do with it.
KG: The first time I saw Ride in the Whirlwind (about three cowboys who are wrongly accused of being outlaws) it said to me, « There are situations in life in which you might become involved, over which you have no power and there ain’t a fuckin’ thing you can do about it. » Am I close ?
MH: This is what you got out of the picture [chuckles] ? Well, if I had to say the theme in one phrase I would say, « Guilt by association », and it’s also the consequences of not speaking out. Here these guys ride into an outlaw camp and they don’t protest; they accept the hospitality of the outlaws and spend the night there, and they suffer the consequences. A kind of you-make-your-bed-you-lie-in-it kind of thing.
KG: Shot in ’65 but released two years later, those Westerns started your popularity in Europe, correct ?
MH: Well, they were both delayed; Jack went to the Cannes festival with them in ’66 and sold them, and the company that bought them went bankrupt, and the pictures were literally held up in customs in bond for three years, because of the lawsuit against the company that owned them. Finally, they were sold to another distributor in ’69 and The Shooting opened in Paris and played non-stop there for one year, and Ride in the Whirlwind opened [abroad] sometime later and played for seven months. They were enormously well-received critically, and I’d say they were directly responsible for [my getting] Two-Lane Blacktop.
KG: You get asked to many festivals of your films in Europe, correct ?
MH: All the time [laughs]. It’s always nice to be appreciated and be wined and dined and taken good care of, but it’s got to the point now where I turn down about five out of six offers to go to festivals [of my films] because I just don’t have the stamina. They just did a retrospective in June in Sodankyla, Finland; it’s a terrific festival called the Midnight Sun Festival; it was absolutely the best audience I’ve encountered. It’s really more like a rock festival than a film festival; kids come from all over Finland and camp out all over the town, and the films run 24 hours a day in three theatres, and the sun never sets. It’s during the mid-summer. It was a great experience, and next month I’m going to Amiens in France, where they’re gonna do the most complete retrospective ever; they’re gonna show all the films plus all the little pieces of things, like the 10 minutes I shot for all these other movies [chuckles]. They’re gonna show everything. And they’re also doing the first book on my films, so they’re gonna publish that in conjunction with the festival; it’s gonna be a beautiful book; it’s got 250 pages with about 50 stills.
KG: Why did you decide to make a vague ending to The Shooting ? I love that film and always find the ending a bit frustrating as to who lives and who dies.
MH: Well, I didn’t see it as vague [laughs]; I think it’s very clear if you look at the film. They all die because there’s no way out, but if you look at the film there’s only one person who’s shot: Coin, the one on the hill. Millie [Perkins] shoots him, and the other [identical twin brother, played by Warren Oates] falls because he’s reaching out to stop her and loses his balance.
KG: The fact that we eventually learn they’ve been searching for the twin brother all along signifies man’s struggle within himself ?
MH: Well, certainly, anytime you have twins you can read that into it but, essentially, it was a story about two brothers or about vengeance, or whatever. The one thing that’s purposely ambiguous is what it’s all about, why all this is happening, and that’s built into the story and the reason for the story. It’s suggested by a story of Jack London’s in which a bunch of people are sitting at a bar, and there’s a painting over the bar and they’re talking about it. The painting is of a crisis point in an action, in which somebody is shot or something like that is happening, and they talk about how interesting that is, because here you see an event, an action, and you don’t know what led up to it; you don’t know the reasons for the drama which led to this vile act. And they start philosophizing, saying how similar that is to life, because in life you can see things happen [while] never knowing what really happened; and then [one of the characters] tells a story which is somewhat similar to our story. [The Shooting] is really about someone who’s hired to go along on a mission to kill somebody, and he never finds out [laughs] why. We mention that a man – maybe with a child – was run down in town, but you can conjecture whether that’s why or not.
KG: You made so many films with Warren Oates; what was he like ?
MH: He was one of my closest friends, and a very wonderful, charming, brilliant, enigmatic man. I knew him for, I guess, 15 years, until he died – a little more, maybe – and I never knew he was a poet until after he died; in fact, I think there may be a book of his poems published.
KG: All those early films look like they were great fun to make. Was that the case ?
MH: To a greater or lesser degree. I always enjoy myself; I like shooting movies so for me it’s always fun; it wasn’t necessarily fun for everybody else, though [chuckles]. I know the crew during the shooting of Ride in the Whirlwind became very disgruntled and felt like they were being taken advantage of, and that it was a terribly harsh shoot; they didn’t see any reason for it because they had no idea what they were shooting. When they all came to a screening we had at Fox they, one by one, shook my hand and said, « I’m really sorry I was so difficult; I’d no idea we were making a film as beautiful as this. »
KG: Were you very upset that Corman passed on the script you and Nicholson had written, in which he was to play an actor ?
MH: We made a deal to do that one and then we went off to do the two Philippine movies and, when we came back, Corman decided he no longer wanted to make that picture, and he offered us two Westerns as a compensation.
(Kris Gilpin has written about the cinema since 1980. You can read some of his archived interviews with film personalities at the Tower of Schlock site by clicking here.)