By Sean Axmaker
October 3, 2005 - 11:41 AM PDT
SA: What is your interest in the comic book idiom and comic book style and how do you think your interest has influenced the way you approach filmmaking?
WH: That's a good question. The truth is that I don't have a continuing interest, in this era of manga and graphic novels and all that. I see them and I look at them, but it is not a great passionate interest of mine, I have to tell you, at this phase in my life. But it was when I was a kid and I suspect there was some triggering device within my mind somehow. It was telling stories in a very graphic way, using minimal dialogue and a lot of visuals to compel. I've always admired the shorthand, the way that comics can drive stories forward, and to enlarge the reality from a subjective point of view. I think I just kind of understood that instinctively when I was a kid, or was drawn to it, and I think so much of that is applicable to filmmaking. But at the same time, there is film and film and film, and it's all valid if it works and if it's good enough. I guess James Ivory, when he was a kid, was reading Henry James. I was reading comic books, and it's all fine, the way things work out.
SA: I'd like to talk about The Driver. Ryan O'Neal is not the obvious choice to play a tough, silent getaway driver.
WH: No he wasn't, and there was a lot of discussion about it ahead of time and then there was a lot of discussion afterwards. I think Ryan gave a very good performance. I was always very happy with what he did. But a lot of people did not accept him in that role because it was so different from anything that he had done before or, I guess, after.
SA: What inspired you to cast O'Neal?
WH: Well, it had been offered to others and they chose not to do it. Ryan's agent called and asked if I would consider him, and Ryan and I talked a few times. You know, Ryan is a big, physical guy. He's not extraordinarily big but he's a very physical guy and we talked about the role and talked about the minimalist approach I wanted to try. He felt he could do it and we just got comfortable with each other. The financiers believed that Ryan in the movie was an attractive thing so it just kind of worked out.
SA: There exist rumors of a longer cut of The Driver. Can you either confirm or put to rest that rumor?
WH: I'm not sure I can. Like every film, there's a longer cut, because you start from assembly and you cut it down. We certainly did cut some scenes out because we wanted the thing to push a little better. The studio recut the film for television and I think they added some material that we had cut out of it, but it was, I thought, a dreadful cut. So that's probably what people are referring to.
SA: I'm going to dig up a quote from an interview that you gave decades ago and throw it out at you, so feel free to duck.
WH: [chuckles] It's probably time to disown it.
SA: You said: "Every film I've done has been a Western." At the time you had made The Long Riders and since then you've made more traditional westerns [Geronimo: An American Legend and Wild Bill], but apart from those, do you still believe that that's a true statement, and could you explain what you mean by that.
WH: I guess you get into the "What is a Western?" question. I think probably what I was referring to - beyond my kind of adolescent sense of drama and heroism and all that kind of thing, liking things to play out through physical action - I guess it's that the Western is ultimately a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary things. It seems to me I'm always trying to get that quality into the movies, where you're away from the normal recourse of civil relief to the problem and the characters have to work it out for themselves.
Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant in Deadwood
SA: You won an Emmy for directing the pilot episode of Deadwood, which set the style and tone of the series. What is different about preparing to direct a pilot, particularly something you hadn't been involved in the creation of, versus directing a feature film, in which you are very involved in the development of?
WH: Every experience is a little different. Most of the features I've done, I've either written or co-written the script. The Deadwood script was given to me and I thought it was an admirable script, so my job was largely, as you suggest, tone, design, style, and all that kind of business, and trying to make it work. I thought it was a very good script, but at the same time it was so non-traditional that, trying to push it into credible believability, trying to make the world come to life in a credible way, that was really my job. And once it's going and once people accept it, that's the coin of the realm, but at the time, it seemed a bit daunting. Although I had a lot of fun doing it and I was pleased about the whole thing. I like the cast and I like doing westerns so that was fun.
SA: I believe that Undisputed is perhaps the most misunderstood and unfairly neglected American film of the past decade. You create vivid characters and a complex social structure within the prison in brief scenes and few words, suggesting so much behind every word.
WH: Well, thank you. I'm told it actually did better in DVD sales than it did in the box office. It didn't seem to get a lot of support. It was financed by one organization and sold for distribution to another. Sometimes things get a bit lost in the transfer of property rights or whatever. I did like the film. I thought it was a credible film and I thought it was structured like a good short story. I thought the acting was good in it. I think I shot it in 35 days or something like that, it was a real quick thing. Sometimes these are gallows that you build yourself for yourself. There's that old Kinky Friedman line: "Sometimes things are too high for the lows and too low for the highs." It's in one sense a comic book story: tough guy in prison fights the heavyweight champion of the world and emerges with honor and victory. That's a hell of a stretch. And yet, at the same time, you try to do something with it and build a kind of social fabric and sense of reality about it. But I was pleased with it.
SA: The scenes I found most powerful involved the treatment of the rape accusation that sends Iceman [played by Ving Rhames] to prison. There is never any doubt in my mind that the accuser believes with all her heart that she has been raped and she is terrified of Iceman, and that Iceman believes with all his heart that he is innocent. Between those two poles, you say something very perceptive about the nature of power and control and fear, and the way celebrity and power determines social situations.
WH: What can I say? That was the intention. We call it the Rashomon effect, I suppose. Both sides are passionately involved with the idea of their version of events, their memories. And it's very hard to reconstruct these things. But yeah, that was very much the notion and it was constructed in such a way that was not asking the audience so much to take sides as it was to think about it.
Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes in Undisputed
SA: You don't necessarily make them good guys but you sure give them their dignity.
WH: I think that Wesley's character, well, actually with both characters, have this inarticulate understanding. They may not be perfect fellows but there is finally a kind of grace and dignity about their athletic prowess and it does separate them from everyone else. And the kind of understanding that it's a passing thing, that it's only there for a while. There's that scene where Wesley is chewing on a toothpick and the police administrator is talking to him while he's in solitary and I thought that was a very critical scene. I thought Wesley did it very well.
SA: Your Westerns take place predominantly in the sunlight, but your urban action films - like Streets Of Fire and 48 Hours and Trespass - take place almost exclusively at night. What is it about this nocturnal urban underworld that you like so much?
WH: It just seems to me to be dramatically appropriate. It's almost an instinctive thing that you operate that way and you designate scenes day or night for people doing this and doing that. Westerns are all, by their nature, outdoors and daytime situations tend to dominate. For instance, what I'm doing now is very much an outdoor film. They're driving horses for close to a thousand miles, the guys are. Again, I think the story dictates a lot of it. I'm sounding evasive, I think, and I don't mean to be. Your question is really about personal taste and how conscious of your personal taste are you, and I think a lot of the time you are not, or at least I am not.
I also think it's better not to examine it, in the sense of whatever it is that makes the machine work, don't mess with it, you know? [chuckles] Operate on your instincts, operate on your first impressions, operate on that first sense of what's dramatically appropriate. I think the closest you can keep to that emotional level and not reduce things to an over-thought exercise, the chances are that it will work better. So much of all this is technical when you're making films; you solve technical problem after technical problem, so it's kind of the grand design that you first create that comes to determine and you don't wind up thinking about that a lot as you're working on them from day to day. Does that make sense? I think that comes as close to an answer as I can figure out.
SA: Thank you for your time. You've been very generous and I've already gone over my allotted time slot.
WH: Thank you for the attention, it's always good, you know. The fact somebody still pays attention to something you were doing 25 years ago is kind of nice. Anyway, what the hell.
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"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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