In Hollywood’s post-studio era, Monte Hellman helped redefine the Western and the road movie as the director of The Shooting (1966), starring Jack Nicholson, and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). A maverick and a jack-of-all-trades, he shot for television, edited for Sam Peckinpah and Jonathan Demme, and was the executive producer of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. His 2010 film Road to Nowhere marked both his return to directing and a reaffirmation of his role in the revival of American filmmaking.
interview by SIMON LIBERATI
portrait by EVA IONESCO
SIMON LIBERATI — Your family wasn’t involved in the movie business at all?
MONTE HELLMAN — Nothing close.
SIMON LIBERATI — What did they do?
MONTE HELLMAN — When I was young, my father was a grocer, in a tiny grocery store. Later, he had a gas station, and then he sold insurance. In his later years, he was a real estate agent.
SIMON LIBERATI — He had many jobs. What was your mother doing?
MONTE HELLMAN — My mother mostly raised her kids, but later in life she also worked in a department store. That’s what she had done as a child, actually. Her family was in the shoe business, so she worked in the shoe store when she was 15.
SIMON LIBERATI — You were born in New York but moved to California?
MONTE HELLMAN — Well, I was born in New York by accident. My parents were visiting, and I “came early.” [Laughs] They didn’t expect me. They were from the Midwest, but they did wind up living in New York for six months after I was born. They didn’t want to leave right away. And then they moved upstate, to Albany, until I was four. After that, we came to California. So, all I remember is California.
SIMON LIBERATI — Your background is in the theater, not directing. How did you begin there?
MONTE HELLMAN — I studied theater at Stanford University, and then I did graduate studies for cinema at UCLA. All the way through school, I worked as an actor, in college and high school. So, when I was still in the middle of my cinema studies, a group of my friends formed a theater company and invited me to join it. It was a summer theater up in Northern California. I was invited to be an actor, but I said, “I’ll only come if I can also direct.” And that was the beginning. [Laughs]
SIMON LIBERATI — What made you want to transition from acting to directing?
MONTE HELLMAN — I think, in the back of my head, that’s what I always wanted to do. And I also knew that, in the world of school plays, I was a successful actor, but I wasn’t as good an actor as those I respected. I wanted to do something that I thought I was better at. After three years with the summer theater, I came back to Los Angeles and began working in film, at the very lowest level. My first job was cleaning out old vaults, at the oldest studio in Hollywood. It was terrible for my asthma, but I got into the film editors union. The way the system worked at that time was you had to spend eight years before you could edit, but you didn’t have to be working during that time. You could go off and travel the world as long as you were in the union for eight years. So, while I had a few jobs as an apprentice and an assistant editor, I started a theater in Los Angeles. Roger Corman was one of my investors, and we did the first LA production of Waiting for Godot, as well as three other plays. At the end of our first year, we were evicted. The people who owned the space — now the New Beverly Cinema — converted it into a movie theater and threw us out. And Roger Corman, who was already well established, said, “Take that as a sign: it’s time to get into the movie business.”
SIMON LIBERATI — Pretty good advice when you look back at it.
MONTE HELLMAN — Well, what he added was, “So you can be healthy,” meaning: “So you can make money.” [Laughs] The big joke.
SIMON LIBERATI — You shot your first movie in 1959? The very first two minutes were in a car?
MONTE HELLMAN — Those first minutes in the car were added two years later. What Corman did was he made all of his movies to play as the second feature. This was in the days when they had “double features.” And so they were one-hour movies. And then TV came along, and in order to sell them to TV, they had to be 70 minutes. So we added 10 minutes to each movie.
SIMON LIBERATI — I think your taste and your signature were already very strong when you started directing your first Westerns. How did you shape your style, because it feels like it was already there from early on?
MONTE HELLMAN — Just before I did the Westerns, I was in the Philippines, also with Jack Nicholson, and we made two movies there at the same time. There’s a certain kind of necessary discipline when you shoot so fast and with such small budgets. For example, in the Philippines, I don’t think they even owned a dolly. So dolly shots were made with a wheelchair and/or a bicycle. And again, with the Westerns, there wasn’t even time to think about that since everything was done with a tripod. So, we would shoot inside a room, for instance, and once you put the tripod down, moving it is not so easy. We would shoot every single scene in the whole movie from that point of view. We didn’t shoot scenes; we shot shots, and all the way through. You had to have tremendous concentration and a good script supervisor. Normally, actors like to work with some kind of continuity, and when they are doing a scene, they want to play that scene, but we couldn’t do that. We would play one piece of a scene from this part of the script, and then play another one from another part of the script, all from that one tripod position.
SIMON LIBERATI — How and when did you meet Nicholson?
MONTE HELLMAN — I don’t know. We became friends in 1960, when I was Corman’s kind of “representative” on another movie he was in, which was being directed by a friend of mine during my summer-stock days. Corman just wanted me there so he could feel secure, so that this guy wasn’t fucking up too badly. [Laughs] So Jack and I hit it off and became friends, and I encouraged him to think about work beyond acting. We began writing together. And then we made, essentially,
five movies together.
SIMON LIBERATI — What was your working relationship with Jack Nicholson?
MONTE HELLMAN — He is very appreciative of a director. Not that I ever gave direction. [Laughs] In my opinion, what a director needs to do is give the actor encouragement. Make them feel secure. He’s really the first audience. My movies are all comedy, so I find that when I’m directing, I laugh a lot, and this encourages the actor to believe he’s doing it right.
SIMON LIBERATI — You’re known to pay a lot of attention to the details in your Westerns. The one you wrote with Nicholson, for example, was apparently from an old book?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes. The Bandits of the Plains. Again, as a director, I work primarily to encourage everything, to give the others the comfort to be creative. And so, a lot of the details of my movies don’t come just from me, but from the creativity of everyone around me. In this case, Jack spent three days in the public library, going through all these really old kinds of journals, and he got a sense of reality, which is sometimes not paid attention to in Hollywood. It used to drive me crazy to see a movie like The Professionals, and Claudia Cardinale is wearing a fitted blouse with her boobs enclosed with thread all around, which was not accurate. We wanted to be accurate.
SIMON LIBERATI — The way you set pan shots, one after another in that specific way, makes it very elegant.
MONTE HELLMAN — Oh, thank you. Basically, I have very few rules that I follow. But one of the few rules I do have is to keep the audience from being aware of any kind of technique. I dislike a pan shot that has no motivation. If a pan shot moves and nobody is moving, then all you notice is the camera. You become aware of it. So, I don’t pan unless there is a purpose to it. If someone is moving over there, I’ll move with them. Otherwise, if you’re not moving, I don’t change.
SIMON LIBERATI — When did you meet Warren Oates?MONTE HELLMAN — I had seen him in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, playing the same part Jack played, but I didn’t know him personally. And because of having seen him in that play, I thought of him for the first movie we did together. I think that Jack knew him and contacted him, and that was when I first met him. From the time I first worked with him, he was on every movie, except the first Western, until he died. He was doing Two-Lane Blacktop; Cockfighter; China 9, Liberty 37 and so we worked continuously together until the end.
SIMON LIBERATI — You also directed Sam Peckinpah in your last Western, correct?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yeah, that was fun. [Laughs] Well, he was someone I knew and also someone the writer knew, so we kept trying to get him to come over and play a part, but he never showed up. We had him set for three different roles, and each time he didn’t arrive. So, someone else did it. It was the last day of shooting, and we tried one more time. He finally came.
SIMON LIBERATI — How was it to direct him?
MONTE HELLMAN — It was challenging. He was terrified, and what he would do was he would come and instead of saying his lines, he would recite some sort of gibberish that didn’t make any sense. He just didn’t want to begin the process. And then he would do half a sentence and stop. I literally had to piece his performance together from little bits of different scenes.
SIMON LIBERATI — When did your Westerns start showing in theaters? Because the first time was on TV, right?
MONTE HELLMAN — Well, Sam didn’t know he sold it to TV. He sold it to a theater chain, and they decided to release it on TV.
SIMON LIBERATI — When was the first time it was shown in a movie theater? Was it in France?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes. It had been shown in festivals before,
but the first public screening was in Paris.
SIMON LIBERATI — So what brought you to Two-Lane Blacktop?
MONTE HELLMAN — I had actually been in Europe, at the time of the Westerns being shown in Paris. They weren’t shown immediately. First, they were bought by one company, which went bankrupt. So, you know, they were in a warehouse for three years. And then they got released in ’69, and I had been in Rome developing a project that never got made. I came back through Paris and back to LA. Hollywood was in love with France, and so the idea that my Westerns were successful in Paris suddenly made me a “cool guy.” And so I got offered this job to do this movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, which was nothing like the movie we finally made. You know, I’m a very subversive person, and this is an example. When I was invited to Moscow, they would want us to sit and listen to politicians talk for hours about how great the Soviet Union was, and I would lead a revolt and say: “Let’s not listen to this shit. Let’s go look at the city. That’s what we are here for.” And so I would get a little group of five people to go out on our own, away from the bigger group, and we would explore. I would get my guy, who was only supposed to show us the accepted places, and I’d say, “I want to go to the bar, see what the people are like.”
I’ve always been like this, and I’ve done the same thing with my movies. I’ll say “Yes, I agree” to projects, and I throw away the scripts and start all over again.
SIMON LIBERATI — And it was your neighbor’s old studio that asked you direct Two-Lane Blacktop?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes, but that was not the beginning. The beginning was when the producer, Michael Laughlin, made a deal at a studio called Cinema Center, which is just over the hill here, much closer than Universal. We began there, and he allowed me to get a new script made. And he allowed me to cast it, mainly with unknowns. We did a screen test, and everyone was very happy. But in the case of other studios,
the people who really made the decisions finally looked at the project and decided not to make it. So, we went and shopped it around. Nobody believed that we could make it for the budget that we said. They would ask what the budget was, and we would say 1.3 million, and they would say: “Not possible. It would cost at least 1.6 million.” And we would go to another studio and we would say 1.1 million, and they would say, “No, 1.3 million.” Finally, we went to Universal and said 1.1 million, and they said, “No, if you make it for 900,000, we will do it.” They actually said
950. We agreed and actually made it for 875.
SIMON LIBERATI — What did you do with the rest of the money?
MONTE HELLMAN — I wish we kept it. [Laughs]
SIMON LIBERATI — The casting was very unusual for Two-Lane Blacktop; you had two musicians.
It seems that music has been very important in your life, which is why you hired Dennis Wilson —
a musician, not an actor.MONTE HELLMAN — No, it had nothing to do with it. I was very sure in my own mind that
I didn’t want their music in the movie.
I thought that would be, to use a term I grew up with in my training, “detrimental empathy.” Which is to say, anything that takes the audience out of the movie. And so I worried they would be thinking, “Oh, that’s James Taylor and Dennis Wilson.” I was very strong in not wanting their music in the movie.
SIMON LIBERATI — In that case, why did you choose these two guys for your film?
MONTE HELLMAN — I couldn’t find any actors that were as good for the parts and they were both already performers. It’s not like it was a big difference. I saw James Taylor’s picture on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, advertising his first album, and I liked his face. So, we brought him in and met, and then we finally did a screen test. He was terrific. You know, he had tremendous charisma. And then Dennis Wilson was the last one, and I really couldn’t find anybody. He actually was that character. He grew up working on cars like that.
SIMON LIBERATI — When did you shoot, exactly?
MONTE HELLMAN — We shot in the late summer and early fall of 1970.
SIMON LIBERATI — Dennis Wilson was very troubled by drugs around that time, correct?
MONTE HELLMAN — I didn’t know any of that, but he was a volatile personality. He had a gun, and he and his wife, Karen Lamm — we stayed friends after the movie — he bought her a new Mercedes-Benz, and then he shot holes in it.
SIMON LIBERATI — Is it the personality of the actors that gives this movie its odd character and makes it stand out so much?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes, well, I didn’t know about James’s drug problems. I was unaware of that, and he was not using drugs when we made the movie. But I think they really were prototypical of the time…
SIMON LIBERATI — How did you end up casting Laurie Bird, because the whole group of actors gives a very strange and surreal feeling to the movie?
MONTE HELLMAN — She was actually one of the first people I met. I went to New York after I found Rudy Wurlitzer to write the script, and at the same time I had the idea that since the girl was so young, I would not find an actor. So, I met with models. I didn’t find her through them, though. I found her through a friend who just suggested I look her up when I got to New York. We met with her, and I felt that she was an interesting kind of model to build the character around. Rudy and I sat with her and recorded a three-hour interview just to get ideas. She had a very unique kind of early life. Her mother died when she was three, and her father was never home. He worked long hours. She literally raised herself in the streets. She had a history that gave her a very unique personality, but it never occurred to me that I would actually cast her in the movie. I thought we would use this for the basis of the character, and I would find an actor to play the part. Finally, I couldn’t find anybody, and somebody — I don’t know who — said, “What about the girl you interviewed who became the basis of the character?” And so we flew her out and did a screen test, and everybody said, “Wow, yes!” And that was it. She was barely 17 when she first came out and turned 18 while we were shooting the movie. She died six years later. When it comes to affairs of the heart, I get very timid and shy, so I’m not very aggressive in pursuing women. She was the person I felt comfortable with because she convinced me she was a lesbian. She was nonthreatening. And so we became friends and then lovers. And then we were eventually married.
SIMON LIBERATI — Laurie reminds me of Maria Schneider.
MONTE HELLMAN — That’s interesting. I actually knew Maria very well. We stayed at the same hotel in Rome. And, well, she was a lesbian, so I was not her lover. [Laughs]
SIMON LIBERATI — But Laurie was a lesbian, too, and you eventually changed her mind. [Laughs]
monte hellman — But Laurie was never a lesbian.
SIMON LIBERATI — When the film was finished, before it even came out, Esquire created a lot of buzz around it, correct?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes, that was the main source of buzz. And
I don’t know how many people read Esquire then, but they immediately said they made a big mistake after they saw the movie. [Laughs]
SIMON LIBERATI — So Universal didn’t put any effort into the film?
MONTE HELLMAN — Well, Universal, you have to understand, was ran by one man at that time, Lew Wasserman, and he was offended by the movie, as many people were. I took the movie to Moscow to show it in the festival, and they decided not to show it. They thought it was subversive. Lew felt it was subversive. It was subversive everywhere! [Laughs] It was a movie that offended everyone. It’s, like, I always have some kind of racist joke in my movie. I always say, “I’m Democratic.
I want to offend everybody.”
SIMON LIBERATI — We read in Contact magazine that people who love cars are really into your movies.
MONTE HELLMAN — Oh, yes. Everybody loves the cars. But they don’t care about anything else. They go just to listen to the engine.
SIMON LIBERATI — How did it feel to be a young director considered subversive by everyone?MONTE HELLMAN — Um, I don’t know. There was something about the original story that attracted me, and yet I hated the original script. The original script was like a Disney movie: very, very silly. But I think I was attracted to the idea of people who live by gambling. In a sense, that’s what my father did. Besides being a small businessman, he was a kind of professional gambler, so that appealed to me. But that was just the germ of an idea. The other thing that appealed to me, which wasn’t in the original script and somehow came into the final script, was that kind of character that Charles Aznavour played in Shoot the Piano Player. The thing about that character that attracted me was the tragedy of his inability and difficulty in communicating — and so that became James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.
SIMON LIBERATI — When the film was over, and we all know it didn’t get the recognition it should have gotten right away, were you conscious you had made a really good movie?
MONTE HELLMAN — Everyone likes to have some sort of positive reinforcement, and we did get that from half the critics, but the most important half! The New York Times was a rave. Time was a rave. One of them said, “It may be the most important movie of the last five years.” So, that’s pretty good reinforcement.
SIMON LIBERATI — Was it a difficult time for you to find directorial work?
MONTE HELLMAN — It was no more difficult than ever! [Laughs] It’s always difficult.
SIMON LIBERATI — The following movie was Cockfighter?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes, but before that I was working on an adaptation of a Robbe-Grillet novel, La Maison de Rendez-Vous. That never got made, but I spent three months in Hong Kong for pre-production.
SIMON LIBERATI — Who started that movie with you?
MONTE HELLMAN — I’m not sure, but we met with Robbe-Grillet. We had dinner several times in LA. Great guy. So different from what you would imagine from reading his books. I imagined him being someone who looks like Rohmer, but he is just the opposite! He was kind of big, robust, jolly, and happy.
SIMON LIBERATI — Why did you go on to make Iguana?
MONTE HELLMAN — Iguana was just something that came out of the blue, and I did my best to refuse it! I tried over and over. I went to New York and met with the producer, and then he came out here. One of my good friends, who was an Italian film star, would be my translator, and every time I’d say, “Tell him I can’t do it,” he would say, “Well, he is interested as long as he can make some changes.” He literally forced me by mistranslating me.
SIMON LIBERATI — Was it terrible when you filmed this movie? Did you have problems with the production?
MONTE HELLMAN — The producer was so neurotic, and I’m not sure if you know the movie The Asphalt Jungle — well, you know the character that Marc Lawrence plays, he’s the one with the money, and every time he handles money he sweats — that was this guy.
SIMON LIBERATI — Tarantino is said to love your movies?
MONTE HELLMAN — Yes, he does love my work. But there is no movie he doesn’t love.
SIMON LIBERATI — What was your role in Reservoir Dogs?
MONTE HELLMAN — The executive producer is usually the one who comes up with the money. So, I found the money.
SIMON LIBERATI — You’ve also worked with your daughter?
MONTE HELLMAN — She was in Two-Lane Blacktop. She was in
Better Watch Out!, my next-to-last horror movie, and she was the
producer of Road to Nowhere. And she’s also involved with the new project.
SIMON LIBERATI — Can you tell us something about the new project?
MONTE HELLMAN — It’s moving. We were interested in a big actor, who is with a big agency, and the actor eventually turned it down.
But now the agency is helping us.
SIMON LIBERATI — You haven’t wanted to work with Jack Nicholson again?
MONTE HELLMAN — I have, up to a certain point in time, and then it just became obvious he would put my movies out of balance. To have him in the kind of movies that I do, all you would think is, “Oh, that’s Jack Nicholson.” So, it didn’t work anymore. But Jack and I always keep in touch.
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