by Nicholas Pasquariello
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 17-18
As evidenced by the list above, Monte Hellman’s career as a film director has been a spotty affair, at best. On the face of it his record of seven features completed in fifteen years seems fairly typical for an industry where the planning and shooting of a picture takes about two years on the average. However, on closer examination one finds that just over half (or five) of Hellman’s pictures were very short (less than two week) schedule, low budget (under $100,000) productions. This kind of picture does not take two years to plan and execute.
Why hasn't Monte Hellman directed more pictures? One rather conjectural answer is that he has had trouble finding script material that he wants to work with, and—at the same time—which his potential producers have been willing to bankroll him to direct. When he has had some control over his script material—and consequently ended up with a screenplay he was reasonably satisfied with—the results have always been interesting (FLIGHT TO FURY, TWO LANE BLACKTOP) or even extraordinary (THE SHOOTING, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND).
Indeed, in the latter two pictures, Hellman has succeeded in transcending his material, and bringing to two adventure stories mythic as well as existential elements rarely, if ever, seen in U.S. film. The characters here are in search of mysterious, unconquerable forces (perhaps their very souls) which are always just beyond their reach. Yet they are driven on to the very edge of life itself in their search.
In search. Perhaps
more than any other two words, these sum up the theme of Monte Hellman’s
work. The search for what mysterious forces motivate men to greed (FLIGHT
TO FURY), to compete (TWO LANE BLACKTOP, COCKFIGHTER), to understand the
nature of life and death (RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, THE SHOOTING).
P: Could you describe how your current film, COCKFIGHTER, came to be made?
H: Roger (Corman) gave me the script to read, and I liked it immediately, and I said that I would like to do it. In January, I began working on the script, I hired a writer to do: some dialogue polish. Early in march, I went to New York, because the picture was to be as fully as possible cast out of flew York, largely for economic reasons. Then I spent three weeks in Georgia, before we started to shoot, and we spent four weeks shooting, and we spent an extremely short time editing—it was very fast. The editor (Lewis Teague) and I worked on it in separate cutting rooms so that he cut half the picture and I cut half the picture.
P: Was that an economy move?
H: No, it was a time move: we had a release date that made it impossible for me to work on the first cut on the entire picture. Normally I cut my own pictures and do everything from beginning to end. In this picture there wasn't enough time for me to do that.
P: Did you know that going into the picture?
H: I knew that in front, yes.
P: Was there a significant disadvantage to working that way?
P: Not a bit, because as it turns out, he’s an excellent editor. We hadn't worked together before, but we saw eye to eye on most things and he made suggestions about the scenes that I had cut. We really worked as a team. Essentially what he cut were the most difficult scenes, the cockfighting scenes. His major experience had been in the documentary field, so I felt that he was better qualified to do those scenes than I was.
H: How did you get Nestor Almendros as your director of photography on COCKFIGHTER?
P: I guess he had worked for Roger before, and he was an acquaintance of mine. He’s a beautiful person, and he’s terrific to work with: he’s fast, and he couldn't be better.
P: Was the whole crew American?
H: The rest of the crew was American, unfortunately.... It would have been much better if he had brought over his own assistant and his own gaffer because they were people he had worked with before and who understood his way of working. We were slowed down by the problem that the people working with him weren't familiar with his methods, and also by the fact that they were really the most inexperienced crew that we could have had. They were fresh out of film school, and some of them were just incompetent, particularly the camera crew. I wasn't happy with the crew except for Nestor; he was terrific.
P: Do you think it affected the way the picture looks?
H: Oh, yeah. For one thing, we lost a lot of scenes because of bad focus and things like that, so you have to make editorial decisions based on the material that you have. It also affected us because we had less time to shoot because of the inefficiency of the crew. On a four week schedule you have to be pretty damn efficient, and if you're loosing two hours a day because of fuckups, that’s a lot of time to loose.
P: What was Almendros feeling about the situation?
H: He’s such a good hearted person that he just accepted it. He’s really the most easy going, forgiving person I've ever met in my life. He just said, “Well, too bad.”
P: Is that the way you reacted to this situation?
H: No, no, I was furious. I tried to fire half the crew but I would have had to pay their salaries if I did. They would have had to have been paid for the full four weeks (because of their contracts); I would have had to have paid the extra transportation to bring somebody else out. It would have taken my whole salary to replace the crew.
P: Did Corman hire the crew?
H: Yes. Which is also unusual for me. Usually I have control over the crew, which I hire myself. On every other picture that I've made I've hand selected the crew.
P: Did you have much hesitancy in accepting this whole arrangement?
H: No, because I wanted to make the film. I had a hard time finding a film I wanted to make—I like the material. I just accepted the limitations as part of the deal. I knew it wouldn't be a perfect experience.
P: You would think that after all these years Corman would know how to put together a good crew.
H: It’s not a question of good, it’s a question of ... cheap. He knows how to make a picture for the budget that he wants to spend.
P: What was the budget for COCKFIGHTER?
H: The budget was in the neighborhood of $400,000, but I think it cost considerably less because he was so good at cutting all these corners.
P: Shouldn't one be able to hire a competent crew on that kind of budget?
H: Right, sure, but he was just so used to making pictures for $150,000, that he hired the crews the same way that he did when he would do that kind of picture.
P: Do you know if Almendros got paid anything like his regular salary?
P: I think so. He got paid more than we would have had to pay a cameraman here. That was one exception; Roger just wanted him and was willing to pay for him.
H: Does Corman share any of your feelings about the ineptness of the crew?
P: No, he doesn't. I don't know if he’s ever worked with a good crew; it doesn't bother him. (laughter) It’s all relative anyway. I wasn't really happy with the camera operator on TWO LANE BLACKTOP but I found a way to work with him so that I wasn't affected by problems that he presented. What it does, it affects the style of the film in a subtle way.
P: What was your relationship with Corman in terms of the editing of the fine cut of COCKFIGHTER?
H: After I finished editing the picture he has made changes in the picture without my knowledge. He brought in another editor and made further modifications of the film. During the actual editing, in many cases he was just trying to pick up the pace. In some cases he wanted the cockfighting to be cut together in such a way as to make it more brutal and more bloody. At one point had some second unit footage of blood shot and inserted into the film. Then he discovered that audiences were repulsed by this and he took some of that out.
P: Did you run previews?
H: We had one preview.
P: And that was when he discovered that audiences were repulsed by the blood?
H: What did they do? Were you there?
P: Yeah, I was there. They went, “Oooh....” In actuality, there is very little blood in cockfighting, and they (Corman) inserted blood that was really unrealistic.
P: So it sounds as if you're saying that Corman’s pressure on you during editing had some bad effects, as well as some good ones.
H: Normally I enjoy that kind of conflict with a producer because it forces you to satisfy him and yourself at the same time. I liked being forced to find a way to say the same thing only more economically, with a faster pace. We had a problem that was built into the script where the story didn't really get started until about forty minutes into it—what little story there is. Consequently, everything that happened before that point seems slow.
There was a lot of good material. At the same time it didn't really hold the audience as well as things that happen after the major questions are raised. We knew that we had a problem there. We knew all that material had to be cut down as much as possible. He found ways to cut it down even more. He kept saying, “Maybe you can trim this, maybe you can trim that;” and in that area he’s very good. I found it stimulating to work with him along those lines.
P: Do you have any specific things which you like to make clear to a cameraman when you begin a shoot?
H: It depends on the cameraman. I tend toward a kind of realistic documentary style in costuming, choice of actors, and in camera. So if I'm working with a cameraman whose natural bent is away from that I will try to influence him to lean to what I want. With a cameraman like Nestor (Almendros) whose natural bent is almost further along those lines than my natural bent, it’s really a question of telling him how far I want to go toward meeting him. Let’s for the sake of argument say that naturalistic photography (or naturalistic directing) is the left, and theatrical style is the right. Well, I would say that Nestor is even more left than I am, so I just had to be sure that the final result wasn't going to be too left wing. (laughter)
P: How was (Gregory) Sandor in that regard? (Sandor was cameraman on THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND.)
H: He’s further right than I am, so I have to bring him over to the left a little bit.
P: How do you do that?
H: Just by talk.
P: You find that consideration is also involved in working with actors?
H: Yes, though... because in a sense actors are less flexible than cameramen or directors. An actor really only has himself, and if you choose a certain actor you have to accept what he has to give you. Hopefully you'll select an actor whose style fits the role he’s playing. I don't mean whose personality or whose type fits the role. I mean whose style of acting fits the role. Some actors are more theatrical and some actors are more documentary in style.
P: How would you define a documentary style of acting?
H: If you're totally unaware that the person is an actor. Some roles can be played by actors who are obviously actors, and you enjoy them for the fact that they are obviously actors; and the character himself then becomes a theatrical person, just as many people in life are theatrical and other people are less so. I think the character of GTO in TWO LANE BLACKTOP is a theatrical character, and it wouldn't have been proper for Warren (Oates) to have played him non-theatrically, let’s say. Whereas the driver and the mechanic and the girl, had they been theatrical, would have struck a false note. The one character (GTO) in the film is bigger than life, so it’s the role in the film that could not have been played by an inexperienced actor.
P: Or could not have been played in a non-theatrical or documentary style.
H: That’s right.
P: How do THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND fit into this scheme of things?
H: In THE SHOOTING all the characters are bigger than life. The whole thing is painted with primary colors on a grand scale. It’s not really a documentary style film at all; it’s bordering very closely on satire. The character that Jack Nicholson plays is really a takeoff on the character that Jack Palance plays in SHANE.
In COCKFIGHTER the style is very documentary and the whole picture could have been cast with non-professionals. As it turns out, Warren is able to act in either style and he fit in with many of the real people in the film. But a real cockfighter could have played the part too, though not as well. Essentially FLIGHT TO FURY and THE SHOOTING are films about other films rather than films about life.
P: What films of yours are films about life?
H: COCKFIGHTER, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND; I think TWO LANE BLACKTOP is neither. It’s a film about inner life rather than outer life. But it’s not a film about other films; it’s not a pastiche.
P: How did you work on the script of COCKFIGHTER?
H: COCKFIGHTER was a script that was presented to me. It was already completed, and I was allowed to hire another writer to do a small amount of rewriting and then I did a lot of editing on the script. I didn't really have the advantage of working with a writer from the beginning of it.
P: How much time did you have to work on the script?
H: About six weeks.
P: Were you happy with the final script?
H: Not completely. I would have preferred having had a more complete rewrite. It was really a matter of basic structure which just didn't exist, and there wasn't really much that we could do to alter that at the time that I came into it. It would have taken as thorough a rewrite as we did on TWO LANE BLACKTOP. On TWO LANE I literally threw out the first script, hired another writer, and started all over again. If we'd done that with COCKFIGHTER we probably could have found a way to give it those qualities (of being larger than life). I didn't have the freedom to do that (on COCKFIGHTER). I was fortunate with TWO LANE.... in that the studio (Universal) accepted by desire to do it completely over.
P: What exactly was the problem with completely rewriting COCKFIGHTER?
H: The producers just weren't interested. As it was they weren't very interested in my doing a dialogue polish on it. I don't think a film can ever be the same kind of experience for me when it begins with a script that’s given to me as opposed to its beginning with a blank piece of paper. They're two different ways to make a film, and I'm much happier starting with a blank piece of paper than I am with a script that I'm not really free to tamper with that much.
Essentially, the experience of filmmaking for me is one of constant discovery. If I know too much in advance I just tend to become disinterested sooner. The ideal situation for me is working on a film like THE SHOOTING or even TWO LANE BLACKTOP where there are so many unconscious things happening in the creation of it that even after finishing the editing and mixing, and the making of the final print, I can go to see the film and still find new things in it. That to me is a stimulating experience.
I like to work on a film like that where it’s continually opening up its secrets to me. I think that any work of art, not just a film, is a mystery. I think it was Cocteau who said that it should reveal its secrets slowly.