Probably no director made more artistic masterpieces while working for low-budget B-Movie king Roger Corman than Monte Hellman. His reputation has grown steadily in the last decade in America, and with a several new, director-approved editions on DVD, it’s all the easier for anyone to judge for themselves. The latest releases are two of the filmmaker’s Westerns, “Ride In the Whirlwind” and “The Shooting”. Film Threat sat down with the legendary director to gain a little insight into his career.
[ IN THE BEGINNING… ]^ [ How did you get involved with Roger Corman? ] ^ One of the first jobs I had in the movie industry was cleaning out film vaults at the ABC television studio, which was over near Griffith Park. So, I used to go up to Griffith Park and have my lunch on the grass every day. One day I go up there and Roger Corman is shooting “The Beast With Two Eyes” or something like that. I didn’t say hello to him then, but a year or two later, I had the opportunity to meet him because my wife at the time, had started acting in some of his movies. So Roger and I became friendly and started a theatre in Los Angeles. Roger was one of the investors in my theater. A year later, when the theater was torn down, literally, to be converted into a movie theater, Roger said, “Well, I think you have to see that as the handwriting on the wall. It’s time to get out of theater and into movies. How would you like to direct a movie?” That’s how I got started.
[ How did the two films shot in the Philippines, “Back Door to Hell” and “Flight to Fury” come together? ] ^ It came out of the fact Fred Roos was in the Philippines and Hong Kong and he saw “The Terror” and knew that Francis Ford Coppola and I had both worked on it but didn’t know who did what. He sent a cable to his boss saying there are these two young directors who worked on this movie I just saw and I thought the work was interesting and I think either one of them would be fine to do these movies. They couldn’t find Coppola so they called me.
[ Well, you probably had a much easier time in the South Pacific than Coppola did. ] ^ I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think it’s ever easy to film in the Philippines. There’s very little you can depend on in any movie shoot, but there it’s carried to the extreme. You never knew what you were going to have on any given day. On the first day of shooting on “Back Door to Hell”, which we shot first, there was no film.
[ What kind of working relationship did you have with Jack Nicholson? ] ^ Before we went to the Philippines, Jack and I had formed a writing partnership. We had been working on a script called “Epitaph” which was kind of autobiographical from Jack’s point of view. Roger had agreed to finance it. It was the story of a guy who’s a young actor in Hollywood. The idea was to use a lot of clips, because Jack had done dozens of TV things, and little parts in movies, and we though it would be great to have a story about a young actor and actually have clips from all of his movies interspersed. The story is about this guy who’s girlfriend is pregnant and he’s trying to find $300 to fund an abortion. He’s got three days to raise the money.
Roger had agreed to finance that. Then we went off and did the movies in the Philippines and when we got back, Roger said, “You know, I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s just too European. No American audience is going to see a movie about abortion.”
Later he said, “but if you want to make a Western I would be happy to finance that.” We were having lunch at the time and by the time we finished he said, “you’re already going to make one Western, you might as well make two. You can really do two as cheaply as one.” All the crew is already there and all of the equipment, and you can use many of the same actors.
We made a handshake deal. This was the day before Christmas 1964. On the second day of January, 1965, Jack and I rented an office in Beverly Hills, in a building called the Writer’s Building. Fred Astaire had the office next to us. We started working on the script on “Ride In the Whirlwind” and we hired Carol Eastman to write “The Shooting”. Two months later we were on location doing pre-production.
[ How long did it take to shoot each of the Westerns? ] ^ I think we had 18 days for each picture. I think we actually shot “Ride In the Whirlwind” in 17 days because I remember we finished on Friday night.
[ What kind of difficulties did such an abbreviated schedule produce? ] ^ What’s difficult about doing two movies back-to-back with so little time between them, we only had a week, the big problem is preparing properly for the second movie. “The Shooting” was shot first. Jack and I scouted all over the west trying to find one location that would serve both pictures. Lone Pine to Sedona, Monument Valley to Kanab, Utah. These are the primary Western locations. There’s always one set that’s the tough set. It’s hard to find in a lot of places. In this case it was the box canyon in “Ride In the Whirlwind”. That set was the key one. The other one was the barren desert in “The Shooting”. We had to find one place with both locations. The only place we could find was Kanab, Utah. Once we solved some of those problems, we had a lot of the work worked out. We still had the problem of prepping the second picture which is very tough to do in a week.
[ What exactly does the ending to “The Shooting” mean? ] ^ Well, let me just put it this way: The first public screening was at the Montreal Film Festival in 1966. After, at about three or four in the morning, I started getting phone calls from people who had seen it who wanted me to answer questions for them. They said they couldn’t sleep, that they were all arguing. My answer then is the same as my answer now. Just look at the movie, it’s right there if you look at it carefully.
[ Okay, but what was the intent? ] ^ Let’s talk about what does it mean. It has a lot to do with loneliness and people kind of trapped in the shells of their bodies and things like that. If somebody else gets something completely different, I think that’s great too. (Audiences) find something that mean something to them. I think the meaning of the film is summed up in a little bit of dialogue when (Gashade, Warren Oates’ character) says to Millie (Perkins’ character), “If I heard your name I wouldn’t know it, would I?”
She says, “No.”
Then he says, “then I don’t see no point to it.”
She says, “there isn’t any.”
When I was a kid, I used to go to movies. I could never tell you the plot of the movie because watching a movie sets my own dream going. So, I’m living an experience that is parallel to the movie I am watching that is stimulated by the movie. I think that’s valid too. If somebody has that kind of experience, I think it’s great.
[ I tend to think the best movies are the ones are subjective to the kind of life experience you bring to them. ] ^ Yeah, the movies that I care most about I couldn’t explain why, other than that they resonate with me. (Carol Reed’s) “Outcast of the Islands”, that movie moves me so much. That obviously has to do with my life experience and a whole bunch of other things. That’s great, that’s what movies are for.
[ How does “Ride In the Whirlwind” relate to the context of the times in which it was made? ] ^ I’ve said and I think Jack Nicholson has said a number of times that these pictures were tremendously influenced by the assassination of John Kennedy and by the whole aftermath with Lee Harvey Oswald. I don’t think about that when I’m watching the movies now. I watch the stories and I get involved in whatever is going on in my head now. But what was going on then had a tremendous effect on us and everybody else in America. It got into the movies.
[ What led you to “Two-Lane Blacktop”? ] ^ I had been in Rome writing a script based on a Patricia Highsmith author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley book, “The Two Faces of January”, and the project fell apart.
[ Was that a Tom Ripley book? ] ^ It’s not a Ripley book, but it’s the same character. It’s just a different name. The financing for that fell apart so I came back to L.A. and my agent told me there was someone who had a project he wanted to talk to me about. It was Michæl Loughlin, and he had two projects. He wanted me to direct a script he had called “Two-Lane Blacktop”, which was not the script that we shot, and another script called “Christian Lickery Store”. This was all based on the heat of “The Shooting” and “Ride In the Whirlwind” having opened in France. Well, “heat”, I use that term loosely. There was a lot of publicity that was generated by that and there were people then (not today) that were kind of in awe of the French and the whole serious way the French looked at movies. Anybody who was celebrated in France was taken more seriously in Hollywood then than they would be now. I benefitted from that feeling for a brief 15 minutes. So, he offered me these two scripts and I really didn’t like either one of them but I thought there was a germ of something in “Two-Lane Blacktop”. I told Michæl that it interested me. Then I hired Rudy Wulitzer who wrote a new script entirely.
[ How did the casting come about for that film? ] ^ I had a sensational casting director named Fred Roos who actually produced the two movies in the Philippines. He brought in everybody. I went to New York and did casting there and I went to San Francisco… but the hardest part seemed to be the Girl. I really had a nationwide search for that part. It was hard to cast the other roles as well. The only role that wasn’t was GTO. I thought of Warren immediately. At one point it didn’t look like he was going to be able to do it. I actually made an offer to Bruce Dern. He was a good actor, but he wouldn’t have been as good for that part as Warren. He didn’t make the decision fast enough, and Warren became available so we withdrew the offer.
For the Driver and the Mechanic, I literally saw everybody: Al Pacino, John Voight… I saw every young actor in Hollywood, and finally wound up with two unknowns. Well, except they were well-known in other arenas.
[ Why do you think they never pursued acting after that? ] ^ I think James was really afraid to do anymore. He found it a very difficult experience, he found it very difficult to give up control. He tried to control the other actors, but he didn’t realize he couldn’t control the movie. I think it was psychologically disturbing to him. He seemed to enjoy the experience other than that. Maybe he was never offered anything else.
[ Read part two of our ] MONTE HELLMAN INTERVIEW part 2>> with tales of Quentin Tarantino, tales from development hell and more.
Get the whole story in our MONTE HELLMAN SPECTACULAR! Read the feature KUBRICK IDEAS ON A CORMAN BUDGET: THE GREATNEss OF MONTE HELLMAN. Plus, read all of our Monte Hellman movie reviews: THE SHOOTING, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, FLIGHT TO FURY, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, COCKFIGHTER, and the classic TWO-LANE BLACKTOP.