The Director's Chair Interviews
Rides the Western Wave.
by Marianne Cotter
MovieMaker, September 1994
The downtown Los Angeles neighborhood where the production vans and trailers are assembled is more reminiscent of Walter Hill's many urban dramas than the Western he is currently shooting. But following the electrical cables down a blackened alley through a set of doors to their destination in the wings of an old movie palace, the location begins to make sense. The stage is dressed as a replica of a Wild West Show that took place at the Bowry Theater in New York City in the late 1900s. Everywhere actors in buckskin, including a very baggy-looking Jeff Bridges in suspenders, are looking at new script pages as they prepare to break for lunch.Meanwhile, director Walter Hill, a husky man with a gray goatee and shaded glasses, repairs to his trailer to have some lunch and talk about his work-in-progress, Wild Bill. A Long Beach, California native who never went to film school, Hill made his mark in Hollywood in 1972 as the screenwriter of The Getaway directed by Sam Peckinpah, with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. As a director, Hill quickly became known for his urban action-crime dramas, including the popular 48 Hours in 1982 and its 1990 sequel, Another 48 Hours, as well as many more intense and volatile films like The Warriors, Streets of Fire, Johnny Handsome and Trespass. Still, he is no stranger to the Western, having made The Long Riders in 1980, well before the genre sprang back into the mainstream, In 1993, Geronimo An American Legend with Jason Patrick and Wes Studi firmly established Hill in the genre. Wild Bill, an interpretation of the life and times of Wild Bill Hickok, that is expected to open theatrically next spring, promises to put Hill at the center of the modern Western along with Lawrence Kasdan, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and George P. Cosmatos.
Hill, however, is not convinced that the Western is indeed making a comeback, especially in its traditional genre form. "If you'll forgive me, I think a lot of this talk about the revival of the Western is journalism," he explains. "Every five years there is a series of stories announcing that the Western is back. When I was a kid, Westerns were a staple of the American entertainment film industry as well as the American mythmaking process. In that sense, they did not come back and will not come back. In another sense, you can never get rid of the Western. It is a permanent part of our tradition and it is a dramatic form that filmmakers - and I think there is some evidence that filmmakers are more attracted to it than audiences - like to take the chance to explore at some point in their career. Today you almost have to look at Westerns as period films."
The time frame that these period films cover is short, perhaps 25-30 years, between the end of the Civil War and about 1890, the year historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier was closed. All of Hill's Westerns are concerned with historical characters and incidents that fall within this time frame. The Long Riders told the story of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gangs in post-Civil War Missouri; Geronimo: An American Legend told of the Apache leader's last days of freedom before his surrender to the U.S. Cavalry, and now Wild Bill explores the life of Wild Bill Hickok and the people around him. "It seems to be my fate as far as the Western is concerned to retell stories based on real historical Americans," says Hill, who had long discussions with Jeff Bridges in the early stages of the project as to why a movie about Wild Bill Hickok should be made.
Historical reinterpretation finally provided the answer. "If you're not reinterpreting," asks Hill, "why make the movie?" The old interpretation is there artistically and historically.
People have always interpreted the West, meaning this short period of time before the frontier was gone. We as Americans have decided that this period is part of our mythmaking process and it is endlessly fascinating to us."
In many modern Westerns, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves in particular, this new interpretation includes a need to re-address historical points that have become controversial in retrospect: the treatment of Native Americans, the validity of Manifest Destiny, and the pressing need to conquer the land and subdue nature - in essence to demythologize the West. Hill's work shows some evidence of this revisionist thinking. In Geronimo: An American Legend, Jason Patrick's character is almost Hamlet-like in his indecision as to how to proceed against Geronimo as evidenced in Robert Duvall's remark, "You don't love who you're fighting for and you don't hate who you're fighting against."
"This is probably my greatest problem as a filmmaker," admits Hill. "The distinction as to what passes as a good guy and a bad guy is often blurred in life and in history and in the telling of a story. As far as what I was trying to say in Geronimo, everyone agrees that what happened to the Apache and all the American Indians was a tragic thing, a sad thing, but nobody wants to talk about the fact that is was very nice people who did it. They like to think it was the terrible guy who worked for the government and stole the Indian's beef shipment when it was due. One of the things I was trying to show in Geronimo is basically these were very good, decent people, very much the kind of people we see in the American heroic tradition. It's that comfortable notion that bad people did it while good people were asleep."
But despite this, Hill does not embrace an apologetic tone in his Westerns. Quite the contrary, he sees much of our national character exemplified in the frontier days. "I can't honestly say there's a sense of bile when I'm making Westerns," he says, "but there is room for other ways to tell stories. It's impossible to live in 1994 and not have a rather different attitude about the making of a Western than what we had in 1900 or 1935.
"To many very conservative minds something was lost when the Indians were no longer a resistant force to Westward expansion, if only in the sense of a noble opponent. People make this incredible mistake when they don't read. They think that Custer hated Indians. He needed the Indians so he had something to fight and he knew it. That was true of the whole period. They went to where the fight was. It's not fashionable to acknowledge it, but there are people who need that, especially at that time. It was so much ingrained in the idea of a hero. In Wild Bill I try to examine the idea of what a hero is. Jeff [Bridges] and I discussed the idea of "hero" at length when we talked about why this movie should be made.
"Wild Bill was a guy who had to live with fame. He was one of the most famous Americans of his time, like a sports champion or an entertainer. He couldn't go into any bar in the West without being recognized. Some guys wanted to pick fights with him and other guys wanted to buy him drinks. And this movie examines both the good and the bad of his attitudes toward, and his being a product of, celebrity."
Hill also sees in Hickok an archetypal American character that no longer exists. "I'm starting to think this country no longer remembers guys like Wild Bill," he says, "and I think it's a terrible mistake to forget this kind of person. There's a tremendous amount of literature about Hickok and it falls pretty clearly into two camps. There are those who present him as a scoundrel and those who say that, whatever you think of him, he did some remarkable things. I think the great burden of evidence very much favors him as a man who was in some rather remarkable situations and came through with style and notoriety."
As one of the premier action directors of his generation, Hill's films, which typically depict renegade men and tough women in survivalist situations, have been cited negatively by critics for their high quotient of violence - something Hill sees as an integral part of human nature and of our society. He may have expressed it best in his 1989 allegory, Johnny Handsome, in which Mickey Rourke plays a deformed criminal who, when surgically given a new face, is unable to turn away from the ugly behavior that is germinal to his character.
Hill, who is aware of the controversy, is nonetheless surprised to learn that Blockbuster Video has put many of his films on moratorium due to their violence content ("What, they're not stocking my movies at Blockbuster?"). Still, he defends his films as being realistic. "I hesitate to get into the subject of violence because it is such a complicated issue," he explains.
"But I, like many of your readers, am a concerned parent. I have three daughters, two of them very small. I have a stake in this country being a good and decent and safe place just like the people who are screaming and hollering. But I think at some point there are several other things that have to be talked about. If a million people see your work and one is influenced badly and does something terrible, should we then manufacture dramas that will not offend that one human being? Is that what they want? We live in a violent society. To make dramas that don't deal with violence is just artistically dishonest. Last year there was a weekend when 23 people were murdered in Los Angeles County. Now not to make movies about the kind of people who are doing these things or having them done to them is dishonest. What are we pretending?"
As much as violence is a hallmark of Hill's films, so are other, more subtle accomplishments. His work is distinguished by a certain panache in the photography due to creative lensing techniques that sometimes elevate the film above its story. Hill works closely with the cinematographer on each shot.
"Movies are a combination of classical drama and the visual arts," he explains. "The visuals don't have to be flashy and they must be appropriate for the moment, but movies are a form of visual storytelling."
As Hill sees it there are three keys to the presentation of a story: the cinematographer, the production designer, and the film editor, all tempered by the vision of the director. "Every creative decision in a motion picture, ultimately, is made by the director," he explains, "so the movie is an extension of the director's imagination. The director approves every set even though the production designer may have suggested it and certainly built it and certainly added the details. But the director approves it. To that you add the lighting, staging, camera angles and, even though everyone knows how to do their job, it would be chaos without the director. So finally the film is the director's creative vision."
With 16 films under his director's belt and countless writing and producing credits, Hill is surprisingly detached from his accomplishments. He can point out no particular favorites and doesn't consider any of his efforts regrettable. "Most of them were honest efforts, given the time and money I had to make them," he states. "There are some I wouldn't make today because it would be too scary sailing in there on the small tide of money, now that I know better. But there are none that I wouldn't make story-wise."
"The truth is I don't have opinions about my own movies other than recalling where I was and what I was doing at a certain point in my life. I never look at them. By the time I'm done with a film I'm either out of time or money or don't know what else to do and I kick them out.
There was an expression we used to say when I started in this business and I quite liked it. It was, "Leave it where Jesus threw it."
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