By Sean Axmaker
October 3, 2005 - 11:41 AM PDT
About a year ago, in a post-film late night discussion at the Vancouver Film Festival with film critics Dennis Lim, Scott Foundas, and Mark Peranson, the talk got around to Walter Hill. The upshot of the debate was that Hill (and John Carpenter) were roundly praised as the most underrated American directors working today, and that the unjustly neglected Undisputed is a resonant and rich drama of sin and redemption in pure genre terms of tough guy prison yard morality.
Like the directors he reveres - John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh - Walter Hill is a lean director with a tradition sense of dramatic elegance and a resonant feel for dialogue that says volumes in few words. And he's most at home as a genre director, finding nobility and honor in action. "What I like is to put interesting characters in tough situations and force them to make choices about conduct," he once said. It's as good a description of Hill's work as I can think of. His characters live and die by their choices, they define them, damn them, and sometimes redeem them.
Walter Hill began his career in the training program of the Director's Guild of America, graduating to work as second assistant director on Bullitt and The Great White Hope before turning to scriptwriting. An English major with pulp sensibilities, the first script he sold was the buddy private eye picture Hickey and Boggs, which Robert Culp helmed as a reunion project for himself and his I Spy co-star Bill Cosby. Dissatisfied with the results of his work for hire (with the exception of Sam Peckinpah's direction of his adaptation of The Getaway), he finally made a deal to direct Hard Times, a film Pauline Kael described as "unusually effective pulp - perhaps even great pulp." Since then he's directed some 20 films, produced many others (such as Alien, on which he also provided an uncredited script polish, and Aliens, which he co-wrote), and won an Emmy for directing the pilot episode of HBO's revival and reinvention of the western, Deadwood.
Currently, Hill is in Calgary shooting a western mini-series for AMC called Daughters of Joy, starring Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church and Greta Scacchi, which is where I called him one weekend midmorning for my allotted interview slot. "I have an interview with Walter Hill," I said to the man who picked up, who I believed to be his assistant. "Well, you got him," he answered in an easy-going, warm, hearty voice. He confessed that he was still sleepy from a late night shoot but you never would have known it from his easy-going conversational style and periodic chuckles. He put me right at ease, made me welcome (very gracious for a man interrupting a film shoot to promote a DVD release of a 25-year-old film), and we began discussing his films, past and present.
Sean Axmaker: In the introduction to the new "Director's Cut" DVD of The Warriors, you stated: "This will represent my intention when I was working on it... better than my original version." Had you always intended to frame the film with the historical prologue and the comic book panels?
Walter Hill: Yes. When I do films I tend to, like most directors... you do the film, you do your best, it goes out and meets its fate and you move on. You tend not to look back. But I had had a series of, shall we say, misunderstandings with the studio at the time of The Warriors lo those many years ago and there were three things that I felt were very critical to the understanding of the movie. I thought that it was very important that we establish that all this take place in the future, but the near future. That is to say, it was removed from the immediate social reality and was, if you will, a kind of science fiction.
Second, I thought it was important that we establish the root of the thing, the Greek history and the story of Xenophon and the march of the ten thousand to the sea. Orson Welles was going to do the brief narration. It was never meant to be any longer than it is in the DVD, just a few lines to set that context. And the other thing was I felt that I had shot it in this, I guess we'd say comic book style, and the notion was kind of this comic book come to life. There's a brief moment in the novel where one of the characters is reading a comic book about Xenophon and the march of the ten thousand and that is what inspired me to shoot the movie the way that I did. And I wanted that to be clear to the audience. The studio wanted a more straightforward, "Let's not cloud anything with framing devices," that kind of thing. And I felt that the movie wouldn't be properly understood and might not even work at all. I was clearly wrong about that. It found an audience, a lot of people quite liked it. So when Paramount came to me, wanting to do a special edition, they asked if there were any missing scenes or things like that. I said "No, not really." I thought the main text of it was really very much as I wanted it. It was the framing devices that I thought positioned the film in terms of my intentions. So they said, "We'll let you do all that, if that's what you want to do."
I've been a bit reluctant to cooperate in these things because my instinct is: you do a film, you put your name on it, and it should explain itself. This kind of idea that you go along and explain to everybody how wonderful your intentions were and how wonderful the realization is, always strikes me as a little hammy. Again, I think the film is supposed to speak for itself. But even after 25 years, I thought it would be interesting to have a version of the film that was reflective of what I was trying to do then and what, had I been left alone, the film would have been. I don't claim that it's necessarily better, I just think it's a clearer understanding of my intentions. It's better for me, but if somebody wants to take the position that the straight-ahead version was cleaner and harder driving, I understand that point of view.
SA: Who speaks the narration in the prologue on the DVD?
WH: That's me. I'm a poor replacement for Orson Welles, but they asked me to do it and I said "No" and "No" and "No," and they kept asking, so finally I said "Fuck it, I'll try it." I've done narration before, temp narration on films. Where we had narration, I would do the temp tracks and it had been suggested that sometimes we should have left the temp tracks on. [laughs] That was kind of the origin of the whole thing.
SA: Are there any other changes in the film in the new "Director's Cut?"
WH: There's also a lot of opticals that we improved or that the studio originally cut out or economic reasons.
SA: I noticed the wipes were more prevalent, or at least more effective this time through.
WH: I think we just did them better. With the new digital process you can control them better at a reasonably economic price. I think it's there as a record of my intentions. As I say, it does not bother me if somebody likes the first version better. I think the intentions of the filmmaker are always somewhat interesting, and there you have it.
SA: You've said that you once hoped to be a comic book illustrator.
WH: Absolutely, when I was a kid. But at the same fantasy level as "I'd like to be a baseball player."
SA: The Warriors isn't your only film to draw from the comic idiom. Streets of Fire is a veritable rock and roll comic book and I've always thought that the opening scene of Red Heat is one of the great comic book sequences of all time.
WH: I know for a lot of people that it isn't one of their favorite films of mine, but I always thought that the opening scenes, until Arnold's character comes to the United States, I always thought that the Moscow sequences were terrific and were the best part of the movie. As a matter of fact, I always felt that I had made a terrible mistake. Of course this is one of those things you understand only after you make the movie, that we should have shot the whole thing over there and the American cop should have gone to Russia, and it would have been more fun and more interesting. I very much liked that first ten minutes or so.
"You tend not to look back.""Trying to make the world come to life in a credible way, that was really my job."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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