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ON THE REISSUE HIGHWAY
TWO LANE BLACKTOP Director Monte Hellman
discusses Cult status and new projects.


Monte Hellman is probably one of the most interesting directors around. He got his big start working for Roger Corman. He directed his first film, BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, in 1959 and has not stopped working since. His credits range from directing (THE TERROR, THE SHOOTING, COCKFIGHTER), to actor (LA WITHOUT A MAP), to producer (RESERVIOR DOGS), and finally to film editor (RIDE THE WHIRLWIND, THE KILLER ELITE). A filmmaker to the core, Hellman makes films about people. He casts his films to best exploit characters rather than box office and his low profile in Hollywood is his reward. With the advent of video and dvd, Hellman's films are finding a new audience of film lovers who are always searching for something better. With the re-release of TWO LANE BLACKTOP on DVD they may not have far to go. I spoke with Hellman on the telephone the Friday before Memorial day weekend. He was preparing to go to the Egyptian in Hollywood to speak at a screening of TWO LANE BLACKTOP before heading off for a long weekend with his wife.

Two Lane Blacktop

CA: First of all, were you happy with the DVD and what they did with all the transferring of elements.

MH: Well, it was my first experience supervising a DVD. I was very, very pleased with it. It's a chance to go in and get the kind of color that we had originally on Technicolor, the original dye transfer prints, which, as nice as Eastman color is, it's not like the dye transfer.

CA: So you were able to use all the original elements?

MH: No. We were able to use a good Eastman color print, but the whole process of DVD allows you to make the black's blacker and just really get good rich color.

CA: That's great, so you got to deal a lot with the technical aspects of the release. That must have been fun.

MH: It was.

CA: Most of the interviews and articles that have come out in connection with TWO LANE BLACKTOP talked about the extreme pre-publicity it got when it was first released, like the whole Esquire thing, and then the lack of publicity whenever the film was actually physically released. I got the feeling that you felt that the studio wasn't exactly behind the film when it came out.

MH: It's kind of like ancient history now. The studio itself was very behind it. The sales department, I think, booked the picture in more theatres that any other film that they'd had up until then. They had a tremendous hype on it. But I think that the executives, who don't really pay much attention until the films are actually made, particularly Mr. Wasserman, just didn't like the movie. I can't say they should have liked it, but he didn't like it and he just decided not to put any advertising money into it. The publicity had already been generated and Beverly Walker was the publicist and she did a sensational job. She was on location for the whole picture. She was terrific. She was the one who actually got the Esquire publication of the screenplay and a lot of other things. It's just that that (Universal) was a one man studio at the time, and I don't know if it was just that he didn't like the film or if he just didn't want to continue making pictures like it. Because they had a whole series of, I think five, five or six, I can't remember, films that were under Ned Tannen's supervision that were a similar mandate, which was to give filmmakers the freedom to make the films they wanted to make. And I think he (Wasserman) just very discreetly and quietly put a lid on that.

CA: You worked with Corman originally, and then you did this. What's your philosophy of filmmaking? Would you like to be working at a bigger studio like Universal or do you prefer to work where the filmmaker and the director has more to do with the actual product that comes out?

MH: :Well, oddly that was the most freedom I ever had. I had no problems with the process. We literally had in our contract "final cut." With one provision being that the picture be under two hours. Well, my first cut was three and a-half-hours. Then I brought it down to two and a half and then two and a quarter. Then I got it under two hours and I liked the process of whittling away so much, I brought it down another fifteen minutes. So I didn't feel any restriction at all in the process of making the picture.

CA: Any chance of the director's cut of TWO LANE BLACKTOP coming out at three and a-half-hours?

MH: No, no. The director's cut is at one and three quarter hours.

CA: How do you feel about the cult status that the film has taken on? People have been bootlegging tapes off of TV and now it's playing at the Egyptian in Hollywood. I assume to a full house.

MH: Well I'm not sure it will be a full house. It has played a lot lately. The Cinematheque (who does the Egyptian programing) has played it before, and it's also out on DVD now, so that makes a difference too. I must say that until now it's always filled the house. It has been gratifying every time it has played. As far as the cult thing, my feeling is that cult pictures come about because they're not available. I'm not saying if that's good or bad. I'd be very happy not to have it be a cult film, to have it be a film that everybody's seen.

CA: When it died in the theatres did you ever expect it to get resurrected like this again? Or did you just think it was gone forever?

MH: I think when you're raised to make movies, you're taught in kindergarten that it's a temporary thing. The product is disposable. You generally are led to believe in three or six months it's forgotten. So it is nice. I think that maybe it's a result of video and DVD. Whatever the reason it's terrific that these films are available and we can see them.

CA: Since I've had the DVD, I've been showing it to people and most of them haven't heard of it, but since I'm a film buff I tend to make people come over and watch stuff they've never heard of. When I try to describe the plot, of which there is very little, they don't think "oh, wow, let's watch that," but whenever they do watch it, they're riveted. Why do you think that that such a slow methodical story has so much appeal?

Taylor & Wilson

MH: Oh, God, I'm the wrong person to ask.

CA: Why do you say that?

MH: Well, I mean first of all, I like movies with a lot of plot. And so this was kind of against my nature to do something like this, but I think that what it is, I mean what attracted me to the subject matter, before there was this wonderful Rudy Wurlitzer script, was I think, gambling. I think I'm attracted to that theme. I'm in the process now of trying to instigate the release on DVD of some pictures that I like, putting them under my banner, and kind of tauting them. Two out of the first group that I like, I don't know if I'll get the rights to them, are movies about gambling.

CA: I read somewhere that you felt that TWO LANE BLACKTOP was more of a gambling film than a road film.

MH: Well, I only like road films. I think all of my movies are road films, but that's kind of like the generic background. The subject matter is never the road, and in this case the subject matter is gambling, but it's also more than that. Gambling is the subject matter, but the theme is really "quest for perfection." That's another thing that interests me.

CA: A lot's been written about your male leads, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, both of whom went on to notable careers in music. But Warren Oats is just amazing in his portrayal of this man who is just relentlessly searching for something.

MH: I think that Warren in particular, required the least direction just because we'd worked together so much...I guess at that point though, we hadn't really. We did all the work on the first one. When we did THE SHOOTING we argued and we actually came to lock horns on one occasion. He refused to do a scene, until we compromised, and I said, "ok, we'll do it your way and we'll do it my way and I'll decide later which one to use." And he got the point, and after that we never really had to talk about it. We talked about a lot of other things and we became lifelong friends. We just got through it all on the first movie.

CA: Everything I've read about this film has talked about the three male leads, as far as characters go. I didn't really see much about "the girl." What was that character for you? I mean as a woman watching the film I was interested in her because she seemed to have the most interesting agenda, because there was almost a non-agenda to her actions. The men all seem to think they have their goals figured out.

MH: She's interesting as a character because I think that she's one of the few female protagonists in my movies who doesn't have a strong agenda. I think that for one reason or another, the women in my films tend to be kind of involved in a quest of some kind or involved in a statement, and they tend to be much, much stronger women, and stronger antagonist truly. I mean in THE SHOOTING, she really is the antagonist. In IGUANA, she's the antagonist. Here she is more of a catalyst. She's more of a strong structural figure. She causes everything else to happen.

CA: I love the scene when she leaves. When she decides to leave her entire bag of belongings in order to just take off because she's through with everything...

MH: I guess this may be forbidden territory for directors to talk about, but I have to say that that's one of the things I love about the process of making films. That was not scripted. We discovered when it was time for her to get on the motorcycle, that she couldn't take it with her.

CA: That's excellent...that makes it even better actually.

MH: You know, that's what it is on a day to day basis. Every scene is like that because there are discoveries that you make. That was the great thing about shooting in sequence.

CA: Where did you find Laurie Bird (The Girl)?

MH: She was a model in New York. A teenage model, and someone had recommended her. Rudy and I met with her and were really intrigued with her, I mean who she was. And we did three hours of taped interviews with her, and this is at the very beginning of the process. She was, in many ways, a prototype for the character. Then I tried to find an actress to play the role. We literally interviewed five hundred actresses from New York, LA, and I made a trip to San Francisco, and couldn't find anybody. Somebody had the brilliant idea, "let's test the original."

CA: Harry Dean Stanton, he probably has one of the greatest cameo scenes in the world. How did he come to be in the film?

MH: Well, he was part of my stock company. He didn't know what the role was. In those days you could just summon an actor who was also a friend and just say, "I want you to do this role for me," and they would just come. And he came to Oklahoma or wherever it was that we shot that. He read his scene and was horrified. Literally he read it and wanted to get back on the plane and go home. He said, "I'm not gonna play a homo." Well, I calmed him down, and I think it's among his best work. Unfortunately, you can't see it very well, but he cries real tears in that scene.

CA: Really? Well, it was a fabulous scene, and it was probably one of the most touching scenes in the film. It really evoked the loneliness of the situation. The whole film has an air of loneliness and of trying to capture something illusive. A lot of the reviewers have likened it to a vision of the American Dream falling apart. It seemed more to me like a debunking of the American Dream. Like maybe it doesn't exist and maybe we're all just out there searching for nothing. How do you feel about all of that and how it relates to the film? Did you think about any of that while you were making it?

MH: Well, I certainly felt a lot about loneliness. It's been a theme that has attracted me, even before I started making movies. When I was doing theatre I directed a production of OF MICE AND MEN, and that is so much a theme in OF MICE AND MEN it becomes like a sonata that repeats throughout the course of the play or the movie. Every character, at one point or another, talks about their own loneliness. I think the other thing that I thought about when I was preparing the film was SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (Francois Truffaut, 1962). I think that the kind of isolation of that character in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, I felt related to the kind of isolation that I saw in these characters.

CA: Rudy Wurlitzer did the rewrite on the original Will Corey script. How much of the script is yours. It seems like you have a lot of input on it. Or did it just change as you were directing?

MH: The script is Rudy's. He didn't take a word from the Corey script. But the germ of the idea was Will Corey's, so the idea of a cross-country race that's all that remains. The characters are different; everything was different.

CA: Which script was it that Esquire published, was it the Corey or the Wurlitzer?

MH: The Wurlitzer, but they published the full Wurlitzer script, which is the three and a half hour movie. So it's not the movie, it's the script. What is mine is really what's left out.

CA: So they missed the final editing process.

MH: Yeah.

CA: I've watched a ton of films, and I'm pretty jaded as far as techniques go, but I have to tell you the ending of the film really got to me. I had to flip back and watch it again to be sure of what had just happened. While I was watching the movie, I was totally enjoying it, but I was wondering where it was going to go. It would have been boring if they made it to DC and somebody won the race, but the ending made it into a perfect film for me. Not perfect in the concrete sense, but perfect in the sense of possibility I was left with. Was that in the script, or was that something you did.

MH: It was written, and it was an idea that I asked Rudy to write. Rudy ended the picture with the GTO driving into the sunset. The idea of burning the film was mine.

Taylor & Wilson

CA: I heard you were working on a new project? The PAYOFF, possibly in Austin.

MH: I'm not sure yet were going to shoot in Austin. There's some of it we're going to shoot in El Paso, and we'll shoot most of the film around Austin or Dallas. We really haven't really made the final choice yet. I would like to shoot in Austin, I think it's a great place. It's really wherever we find the locations we need. We have a script and we're in the process of locking down the lead actors. Hopefully by next week we'll have our two leads and we'll start casting the rest of the movie.

CA: And what's it about?

MH: It's kind of a...I don't know what to tell you. It's a crime movie. You don't say film noir anymore, because then that doesn't really describe this. It's a Western Noir (laughs). It's in the tradition of, but nowhere the same movie, but in the tradition of THE GETAWAY.

TWO LANE BLACKTOP
Monte Hellman, director
Anchor Bay [DVD]
Re-release

two-lane blacktop

   TWO LANE BLACKTOP may be one of the great existential American films of the 1970's. It's title is absent from most video and cult movie books and chances are you've never heard of it, but thanks to video and DVD you can now remedy this injustice with the price of a purchase or a rental.

   TWO LANE BLACKTOP is the story of four characters whose lives intersect on the back roads of America. The road is the frame for a picture of the lives of two drag racing drifters in a '55 Chevy, a directionless loner in a GTO, and the apathetic girl hitchhiker who drives them together. No one has a name in the film, they are simply The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), GTO (Warren Oats) and The Girl (Laurie Bird), and the exact location of the roads they drive is never clear. BLACKTOP was shot before there was a Denny's on every corner and Tom Bodette was promising to leave the light on for a nation of travelers. Names and locations are unimportant because in this narrative, and I use the term loosely, we are enraptured with the character's actions, as well as their in-actions.

   TWO LANE BLACKTOP is a unique film in that the characters don't spend any screen time explaining their actions. We never know how they got to be where they are now. Sometimes they don't even speak. There are more comfortable silences in this film than you see in a successful twenty-year marriage Warren Oats as GTO has one of the funniest running gags in the movie. Each hitchhiker he picks up is treated to a different history of how he got to be traveling on the road. The stories are successively more and more exotic and he really hits his stride when he picks up an old lady and young girl going to a cemetery to visit the girls parents who were killed in an accident caused by street racers. Other than these obvious tall tales there is only the present and the next race for the Mechanic and the Driver, and the hope GTO holds out that the Girl will choose to go with him over the young Chevy drivers.

   It's worth mentioning that one of the hitchhikers GTO picks up over the course of his journey is the up and coming character actor, H.D. Stanton, aka Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton steals the scene in what is possibly one of the most touching portrayals of loneliness and desperation I've ever seen. Rumor has it that Stanton did not want to do the part due to the sexual nature of the scene, but finally relented, and I for one am grateful.

   The thin plot of the film revolves around a drag race arranged between the Chevy and the GTO drivers to race to Washington, D.C. for pink slips. But the amazing script by Rudy Wurlitzer never allows the film to face the possibility of such a concrete goal. It is the journey that is the story and in the final scene, which was designed by director Monte Hellman, it is clear that the journey is never over. The original story was scripted by Will Corey, his only screenplay credit, and Wurlitzer (PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KIDD, WALKER, LITTLE BUDDAH) was brought in by Hellman to rewrite the script. Hellman then edited the final film down from the 3-1/2 hour screenplay to the exisiting 1-3/4 hour movie.

   The Girl is perhaps the most interesting character in the movie. Maybe because this reviewer is a girl who, in her youth, would have felt that her only choices were between the three men. The Girl comes to ride with the Mechanic and the Driver when she transfers her bag from a truck in the parking lot of a diner to the Chevy while the boys are eating. Through the course of the movie she hops between the GTO and the Ford, responding with a blank look to promises of the future that each of them offers. The Girl finally chooses to leave them all in search of whatever unstated goal she is on the road to, hopping on a motorcycle and leaving her bag of belongings on the side of the road because it will not fit on the new drivers vehicle. You are left with the feeling that while she may not know what she does want, she knows she doesn't want anything the men have to offer. It's also clear that the men will go on with their supposedly well-defined agendas.

   The ending of the film, well, the whole film actually, but especially the ending, is a testament to allowing filmmakers to make their own films. One can't help wondering if John Sayles or Jim Jarmusch is a TWO LANE BLACKTOP fan. Made at Universal with a "final cut" clause for Hellman, BLACKTOP could have degenerated into an action film with a lot of T& A and no point under the studio today, but in 1971 Easy Rider was still the Holy Grail of filmmaking and studios were willing to take a chance. Director Hellman has crafted a near perfect film using actors he chose for their likeness to his vision of the characters rather than their box office draw.

   Esquire gave TWO LANE BLACKTOP a cover and its vote as Best Film of the Year in 1971. It published the entire 3-1/2 hour Wurlitzer script (not the final cut). When the film was released on the 4th of July weekend in New York, the advertising department, for unknown reasons, did not take out one ad to announce it's opening even though it had been booked into more theatres for its opening than any other film Universal had released that year. This year, the January 2000 issue of Esquire put its endorsement of TWO LANE BLACKTOP into its mistakes of the 20th century list. This says a whole lot about the popularity of a film having meaning over the content of the film. In 1971 the Academy Award for Best Picture went to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a marvelous action film starring Gene Hackman. I'm not saying that BLACKTOP was better than CONNECTION, but I will say that the direction Universal took and the film the Academy chose that year was a marker for things to come. Esquire should never have apologized for its decision to herald TWO LANE BLACKTOP as a monumental film. The film not only holds up today, but it is possibly more poignant today than it was when it was made. And now due to the miracle of modern home viewing systems, it is available to a whole new generation of film viewers who might be looking for a little more in a road film than ROAD TRIP might have to offer.

Jane Hinde

 

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