KG: Now to my favorite: Two-Lane Blacktop. Like author Rudy Wurlitzer, you’ve used the road-movie or searcher motif in many of your films. From where did you get this affinity?
MH: I don’t know; when I was a film student the only book I read which had any lasting effect on me was Kracauer’s Theory of Film, "Or the Redemption of Physical Reality". He makes a case for the Road Movie being the only valid form of cinema; any film that takes place within four walls without any relationship to the street outside is a play, not a film. So for him La Strada is the ultimate film. That was an idea which stuck with me. I didn’t choose Beast from Haunted Cave – there was a basic idea which existed before I became involved with it – but it’s a road movie; it’s a trek across the mountains on skis – a band of robbers escaping from a mine robbery with the loot on a ski trip. So that was a trek; the two Westerns are treks; the two Philippine pictures are treks; Two-Lane Blacktop is a trek; Cockfighter is not a trek a circle – they go around [in a circle] from one cockpit to another. Iguana is not a trek, but it is also a circle.
KG: After Easy Rider, the industry was selling Two-Lane as the second coming, what with the screenplay publication in Esquire and all. Do you think it was a case of over-hype which caused its initial "failure" at the box-office?
MH: No, it was a case of a different philosophy. I think Easy Rider was a film which was not offensive to the status quo because what it put down was a part of the status quo that everybody condemned. It wasn’t critical of the way studio executives live their lives; it was critical of Southern bigots, so everybody could get behind that. Two-Lane Blacktop was critical of middle-class morality – for want of a better term – it was critical of the way the average person lived his life, and the studio executives were offended by it, and they killed the film. It didn’t die a natural death, it was murdered.
KG: By the lack of publicity, right. I was shocked to read in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies that Laurie Bird (who played The Girl) had died; I didn’t know that. When and how did she die?
MH: She died in, I guess, ’79, of an overdose of Valium.
MH: Of the whole group, I think Dennis really was the most instinctive actor. James [Taylor, who played The Driver] was very serious about the work, as he is with everything in his life, and very dedicated it and very professional, but Dennis may be, I think, the only actor I’ve ever worked with who’s totally unaware of the camera; he was absolutely at home [in front of the camera].
KG: Totally unpretentious?
MH: It wasn’t even unpretentious; he was just unconscious of it, unconscious of the fact that he was performing in a way, and he would get into a scene and he would just start living it. He would get lost in the reality of the moment and you can see it in his face; you can watch him and the way he’s watching what’s going on in a scene, and he’s totally transfixed by it. He became it; it’s just an amazing thing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
KG: It seems to me that the majors (Two-Lane was a Universal picture) would rarely make a character-based film like that today, unless there were cute little, flying aliens in it or something like that.
MH: The films that they make today are so full of artificiality and shtick, they don’t bear much resemblance to any of the kinds of films that were made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
KG: That must also, obviously, be one of the reasons you take the time to try and find the projects that interest you.
MH: Well, I have a lot of things which interest me but most of the things I like don’t interest distributors and producers.
KG: Two-Lane ends with a famous optical shot, in which the film slows down, and is then made to look like it gets caught in the projector before it breaks down and burns. Was there any intent behind that other than it’s being a neat optical effect?
MH: Well, basically I’m a very instinctual, emotional kind of director; I’m not an intellectual in most of what I do. In that instance, I let my intellect impose a choice that was purely intellectual, that I hoped would be transformed into an emotional affect on the audience; I didn’t know that it would be and I was very hesitant about using it because of the way that it evolved. But what I was trying to do was make a relationship between the speed of cars on the road and the speed of film going through the gate of a projector; I hoped it would work and I guess it did, because a lot of people are moved by it, as I ultimately was, too.
KG: Was that Rudy Wurlitzer’s idea or yours?
MH: That was my idea.
KG: Why isn’t Two-Lane out on video again? I still see that question in video magazines all the time.
MH: Well, for the same reason a lot of other films aren’t; it’s because of music rights. At that time they didn’t anticipate video, so they didn’t specifically put video into the contract, so in order to put it on video all those songs would have to be renegotiated, and it would cost a fortune. I think it’s very unlikely it’ll ever come out.
KG: God, that’s a shame. It’s doubly ironic, too, because as I was first watching the film I got an eerie feeling that something was off-kilter or missing, and slowly I realized it was because there was no background music, no mood music in the film, not by Taylor or the Beach Boys or anyone. The only tunes were incidental, playing on a car radio or jukebox in a scene, and when the scene cut away, so did the music. I thought that was a brilliant tough of verisimilitude.
MH: I did the same thing in Iguana, as a matter of fact, with one exception, which was the opening and closing credits, in which we used a song [sung by Joni Mitchell] that was not source music. But in every other place it was all source music.
KG: How did Corman recut Cockfighter and why?
MH: He added two 20-second segments of dream sequence; it was something that had nothing to do with the movie-cop cars getting blown up and naked girls. The reason was, he wanted to have material for a trailer and he didn’t want to cheat, so he wanted it to be footage that was in the film. It was very offensive, and he cut the three-minute porch scene. [It caused a rift between us] at that time. [Eventually] the uncut version came out probably because – although I don’t know for sure – [L.A. cable channel] the Z Channel insisted on it, which meant that the video in general became that version, and also the version that’s played on cable.
KG: Warren Oates was mute through most of the film; was his character that way in the book, not wanting to speak until he won the big fight?
MH: Yeah, that’s the character. Warren pretended like it was the easiest job he eve had; he said, "Wow, I don’t have any dialogue to learn? Fantastic! They’re overpaying me." [Smiles]
KG: How do you think it stands up today?
MH: Well, it’s no secret, I guess, that it’s one of my least favorite of my films and the reason is, it’s the only time I haven’t been able to do the work on the script that I would like to have done. In every other film I’ve made I’ve been able to create the script that I wanted; in that case it was Roger’s baby and he hired me to do it with the production already in place, with a start date and everything. I told him I wanted to do some work on the script and he said, "OK" and I hired Earl Mac [Buckaroo Banzai, Wired] Rauch to come in and work on the script. We worked for a week and Roger saw a sample of what he was doing and he became panicked; he thought we were ruining his baby, so he said, "OK. You’ve just got one more week and that’s it." I’d planned to go through the script methodically from beginning to end, and Mac worked on the first 10 or 15 pages; at that point, when Roger pulled the plug, I decided to have Mac, in the remaining week, just do the key scenes that I thought needed the most work. So he basically did everything relating to Warren’s relationship with his girlfriend in the film.
KG: What are your thoughts today on China 9, Liberty 37?
MH: I like it. When you start making analogies between one film and another, I think that every film is different and that, essentially, my style changes with the nature of the material. I think China 9’s certainly the most romantic film I’ve made, and I like it.
KG: What was it like directing Sam Peckinpah in a small part in that film?
MH: He was [laughs] very difficult to work with. He wouldn’t finish a sentence; we would say three words and then stop. I literally had to piece his performance together. He was ornery as hell but we were very good friends without really ever spending a lot of time together; there was a great affection between us, and he was an amazing man, really amazing. I think he was one of the great American directors for sure.
KG: How were you involved with his Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (also written by Rudy Wurlitzer)?
MH: I was the original director and I developed the project, and had worked out with Rudy Wurlitzer the basic idea of the film, which was unique I think in Billy the Kid stories, in that it dealt with the only period in the history of Billy the Kid that nobody knew anything about. He literally disappeared from the time he escaped from jail until the time he was shot and so, rather than repeat any of the known history of Billy the Kid, Rudy and I decided to develop a picture that could be completely fictional because it was about a time [of] which nobody knew the real story.
KG: And then, as they did with all his later films, the studio cut an ironic opening sequence in the film, which showed James Coburn (Garrett) as an old man, and recut the entire film.
MH: I can’t remember how Sam’s script differed from the last script that Rudy and I turned into MGM – I have a copy of it somewhere – but I know the film’s now been restored to what they believe was a version he would’ve preferred. But who knows; in the process of editing it goes through so many different changes; to say, "This is what Sam really wanted," is a little far-fetched. But I think it’s a much better movie now than it was then.
KG: Did the studio bump you in favor of Sam?
MH: No, what happened was, we had a development deal and the studio developed it and decided not to make the picture, and then a year later a new studio head came in who happened to be Peckinpah’s most recent producer, found the script on the shelf and said, "Let’s make it."
KG: Mark William’s Road Movies states that you approach all your films as comedies. Is that still true?
MH: Yeah, I see life as a comedy [laughs], so I see everything as slightly humorous.
KG: So, what’s definite in the future, coming up?
MH: Right now, the one that’s set up is Secret Warriors, which is the one with Limbo in Zurich. A second one we’re trying to set up now is one that Ivan [Cutter’s Way] Passer’s going to be producing for me [but] I really can’t talk about it.
KG: OK. Are you happy with your oeuvre or would you like to go into other directions?
MH: Well, there are always things that one would like to do. I’d like to make a full-out comedy, I’d like to make a musical [chuckles], but I still have a lot of other kinds of films that I’d like to do again, [but] better. I’d like to do some more film noir, and adventure; whatever.
KG: If they don’t mess with you, would you like to make more films for the majors?
MH: Sure, yeah.
KG: But they never really leave your stuff alone, right?
MH: Well, they leave you as much alone as anybody else does. Just because you’re making an independent film doesn’t mean that they leave you alone.
The director then invited me to stick around and watch Iguana on tape; it’s a fascinating story with excellent acting and a shocker ending (and I liked the costumes, too). Again, my many thanks to Monte Hellman for the pleasures I’ve derived from all his films over the years, and for being so warm and hospitable to me in his home.
(Kris Gilpin has written about the cinema since 1980 and has worked as an extra and an assistant film editor. You can read some of his archived interviews with film personalities at the Tower of Schlock site by clicking here.)