Behind every phenomenal film is a highly potent screenplay, and that’s precisely why Monte Hellman’s and Steven Gaydos’ newest noir-thriller, “Road to Nowhere,” packs such a huge wallop. Destined for cult-classic greatness, “Road” begins with Lynchian-creepiness and ends on a thread of stealthy, believable-horror that resonates disturbingly long after the screen goes blank.
In this film-within-a-film, an independent movie director becomes obsessed with the historical destiny of his cinematic-subject, and the outcome is stunning— to say the least…
What makes “Road to Nowhere” creep into our veins and remain there is its simplicity. And even though its plot is a complex blend of espionage, supernaturalism, and murder— in the back of our minds we realize that what we perceive with such celluloid-intensity— could all too easily happen, in real life.
I caught up with writer, Steven Gaydos to discuss the birth, life and staying- power of “Road to Nowhere,” and to ponder how such a goth-inflected mind-boggler emerged from the pen of Variety’s finest.
I have to admit, this film floored me the first time around, and I wasn’t sure if what I thought I saw really happened.
Well, the potholes are kind of overwhelming. It’s a film that’s all holes and no spackle, you know?
But I love that.
What people have been telling me is that the second time they see the film they have somehow processed the basics of the plot, and can really plug into the feelings of the characters. These aren’t that apparent the first time around, [when] it doesn’t seem like these people have deep feelings for each other, or [are] maybe quite as driven.
Tell me about yourself.
I’ve been a working journalist and hobbyist screenwriter for a long time.
It’s interesting that investigative-journalists are often the best writers of believable fiction. Case in point, Hemingway.
(Laughs). No wonder you like the movie.
The idea of an investigation from all these different points of view is something that Monte and I have been trying to do for literally, 35 years. So to make a movie that’s investigatory and contradictory… is sort of like, well, wait a minute—what version of the facts are we dealing with here? At some point, we’re just not sure.
How did you go about researching the story?
Well, as a journalist of 30 years, I’m a perpetual researcher. My interest in crime-movies and journalism, overlap. There’s a part of me that really loves the archaeology of digging into something. So I read everything I could about Fontana Lake, and the road to nowhere—the real place. I’ve always wanted to make a crime story about some sort of a big government- scam. The scam in this movie started as a kickback, or scheme. Sometimes having no money is your friend because it makes you simplify things. And so we simplified Rafe Tachen’s kickback-scheme for a billboard. There was a big visual you would have seen—this giant, monster-billboard from this beautiful North Carolina road.
Hmmm, very political…
(Laughs). I’m sort of like this political-junkie and a researcher— and also, the research for billboard kickback-schemes is just me reading the paper for fifty years, you know?
So research is all right there at your fingertips, if you’re driven, or you desire to make a crime story about what people are doing in municipal government. It’s the asphalt jungle kind of stuff in hard crimes like this, and my lifelong research project. It was fun to put a little of that in this movie. So all that stuff is just background to these people, and trying to really grasp something deeper and accurately fundamental.
How much of the story was personal?
You know, I think that Monte and I discovered the personal side of the movie after he finished it.
Monte told me that, too.
I know absolutely, 100% there was a time somewhere after the shooting and maybe in editing that I went to him and said, ‘there’s a story [here] about what happened to Laurie… Laurie Bird.’ In my memory of so long ago, Laurie was a person who was really inscrutable and infinitely complex— and yet, very simple and wonderful. She was in a world of show business and jobs and pressures and people— and all this kind of falderal— and she didn’t survive it all. It was like she wasn’t aware perhaps, of how high-stakes are fraught with danger in show business, you know?
That reminds me of my conversation with Neil Jordan, when we discussed the woman who was the basis for his novel, “Shade.” Jordan has a knack for getting inside the female-head —and you do too.
Thank you. I gave up trying to write female-characters about twenty years ago. I think that was the time that I was trying [too] hard and not getting great results. The interesting thing about this movie is once you set down the story then the lead-female is the center of the story.
And because of [the female character’s] nature, and being kind of inscrutably reckless, dangerous, ambitious and crazy—man—what do you have to do after that?
(Laughs). She’s just there at the center of the story. Then in the words of the master, Monte Hellman, ‘then you gotta get lucky and cast somebody great.’
That’s the real trick.
I think the moral is to cast the idea of the crazy, dangerous, beautiful, mysterious person on the page. But I think 90% of it is Shannyn and Monte—and if that doesn’t work in the movie then you and I aren’t talking [because] there is no movie. It has to work spectacularly well which I feel, Shannyn does. You need to have an actress that can [capture] mysterious, beautiful, childlike, scheming and vulnerable—all this stuff—and we got Shannyn.
I think that Shannyn is so brilliant in this film that people just look past it and don’t get it. She’s not overacting—she’s just spectacular.
I agree. She gives an incredibly real performance—and that’s what’s so eerie.
I sure appreciate your enthusiasm for the movie. As you know, it’s a tough road out there, commercially, for movies like this.
What’s interesting is that I saw Malick’s film right before “Road,” but felt that “Road” got right into my system in a way that “Tree” did not.
You know, the only thing we have on our side, is this movie. And in this marketplace with the critics, papers, advertising—all that stuff… In that world only having the movie—and it’s not about it just being good—it has to be pleasant or formulaic in the Indie-formula way. It has to be life-affirming, or heartwarming, or dazzlingly, inventively, self-consciously cinematic— super-sexual, or super-something.
Right, that’s all well and good, but where are those movies now? Those are precisely the movies that drop out of my mind immediately after I see them.
I know. Listen, I’m very critical. I think the Indie-formula is every bit as restricting and boring as the studio-formula. I don’t know why Hollywood and filmmakers are denying themselves the joy of having fun and making a really fun movie. But fun for me is all in the writing and being able to make the kind of movie I want to see.
I think the writing in “Road” is fantastic. I haven’t been this excited about screenwriting since Kieslowski, and he’s dead.
(Laughs). Thank you, that’s quite a compliment. He was my hero. I still remember a conversation I had with Sydney Pollack one day. We were talking about Kieslowski. I mentioned that I’d spent some time with Kieslowski and had lunch with him a couple of times. Sydney Pollack just looked at me and said, ‘You have no idea what it would mean to me to be able to say that I’d spent some time with Kieslowski, who was the greatest filmmaker of my lifetime.’
I feel exactly the same way. Do you have a huge interest in philosophy, like Kieslowski?
Yes. I’ve been writing since the early ‘80s. I did a movie in ’95 called, “All Men are Mortal,” and bought the rights to that novel from Simone de Beauvoir, when she was alive. It’s a novel [written] completely of ideas and philosophy. It’s philosophy in the guise of a tale of a man who can’t die and a woman who’s afraid to die. He’s a prince who’s taken a potion and he sees the entire history of Europe over 900 years, and all he wants to do is sleep. I’ve had a long interest in making films that are philosophical and supernatural.
Do you have any other directorial influences?
Yes. Alain Resnais, Nic Roeg, and Monte.
That’s quite a wonderful group. I wish a very long life for “Road to Nowhere.”
The thing about people like you— and the voice of critics around the world who have come to love the movie— that support has already insured the life of this movie. [Especially} with the technology we have today, and the ability to look at this [film] on a beautiful big screen in your house… But the people who have discovered the film and gotten past its lack of marketing, that’s really the savior. And if you know Monte’s history, [his films] have always taken at least 10, 20, or 30 years to be recognized. As a producer, you don’t want to hear this. You want to hear that you’re going to get your money back in 28 months.
But how do you feel as the film’s writer, and as a businessman?
It’s a really tough road with a lot of wind in your face— but I think it’s going to be fascinating to see where this goes from here.