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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monte Hellman Speaks on Road to Nowhere, His Career, and the State of U.S. Independent Cinema

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Filmmaker Monte Hellman earlier this month at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
  • Filmmaker Monte Hellman earlier this month at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Monte Hellman is one of the true mavericks of independent film in the United States. His varied, idiosyncratic career began at Roger Corman's movie factory in the late 1950s. In the 1970s, Hellman defined himself with Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and China 9, Liberty 37 -- all of which costarred Hellman's friend, Warren Oates.

Since then, Hellman's filmography has been sparse but memorable, particularly the unusual shipwreck adventure-drama Iguana. Now, after 21 years, Hellman comes roaring back to the big screen with Road to Nowhere, a supreme noir drama. Road to Nowhere is beautifully shot, skillfully acted (the lead performance by Shannyn Sossamon is riveting), and it achieves a high degree of polish on a low budget.

Monte Hellman spoke with us in advance of retrospectives of his work (including Road to Nowhere) that begin Friday.

What brought you to show business?

I was an incredibly shy child, and at about age 6 my parents decided that the thing to bring me out would be acting lessons. I think that was the beginning of the bug. In high school, I started acting in plays. When I was offered a job [acting] in summer stock after a year and half of graduate work at UCLA, I said I would do it only if I could direct as well. And that was the beginning of my directing career.

And directing live theater provided your original connection to Roger Corman, is that right?

He was a small investor in my theater company. When we got shut down (because they were tearing the theater down), he suggested that I "get healthy," as he put it, and make a movie. Well, working for Roger, you don't get healthy -- I don't think I've ever gotten healthy in the movie business.

What was the environment like, working for Corman in those days?

It was a project-to-project situation. For my first movie, The Beast from the Haunted Cave, I was paid $1,000 to co-write, direct, and edit. And then my union wouldn't let me work as an editor because I hadn't been in the business long enough. So [Corman] had to hire another editor and I was an observer.

You seem to have an interest in different genres and the expectations surrounding those genres.

As an audience member, I prefer genre movies, particularly film noir, which my latest film Road to Nowhere is about. I got thrown into some of these by Corman, with the horror movies and westerns. I don't know whether I've consciously subverted the genres. But when I got into the slasher genre, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!, I couldn't quite do that without subverting it in some way, to keep myself sane.

Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop
  • Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop

You shot Two-Lane Blacktop road-trip style, moving in sequence from west to east. Had you scouted the locations already?

We made the whole trip in advance and found our locations. We found local actors -- and nonactors -- for small parts. And we had an advance person traveling with the production, who was always two or three days ahead, preparing the next location for us. We had a full crew -- about 50 people, which would be a small crew today, you understand.

Was Two-Lane Blacktop the only film of yours that had studio backing?

Yes. Except for the work I did on pictures like Avalanche Express.

Avalanche Express just came out on DVD. You walked into a crazy situation when you took over on that production, stepping in after director Mark Robson and star Robert Shaw had died.

Principal photography was about 90 percent finished. The most difficult part of it for me was having to fire Robson's editor, who was one of the most famous editors of that time. She was trying to be loyal to what she thought was Robson's intent, but I don't think I could have made the movie work with that relationship. We literally rewrote the script and shot some additional scenes, as well as the scenes Robson hadn't finished. The job was about a year in length, and I supervised the special effects -- the avalanche footage and the miniature trains.


Tell me about Road to Nowhere in terms of the old adage about every movie existing in three stages: the film as it's written, shot, and edited.

It happened exactly like that. There were those three stages. Originally there was a third element to the movie, which was the real Velma Duran, who was killed as a freedom fighter in Cuba. We planned to shoot scenes with her being captured and killed. We decided to eliminate them because we were planning to shoot Miami as Cuba, and that put us too much over budget. So we replaced those scenes with further scenes between Velma's father and Taschen and Laurel. All of those scenes where Laurel is coming to meet them, auditioning for the part, were added on the spot, written a couple of days before we shot them.

Have you consciously avoided studio involvement in your career?

No, not at all. But today, what's happened is the studios very deliberately have put independents out of business. They've pretty much monopolized distribution. For instance, even though we've demonstrated we do better business the second week than the first week -- that we actually have a movie that builds an audience as it goes on -- we can't get any play date that will keep us longer than a week. Whereas studios can stay as long as they want.

Also, the studios have destroyed the DVD market, except for themselves, because they've eliminated the video stores that were great for independent movies because you could walk up the aisles and discover things. Now they have these kiosks where you rent movies for next to nothing, and they're filled up with the studio titles. So the independents are eliminated from that market, unless you order from Amazon. But to do that, people have to already know about your movie.

So it's harder to get independent distribution now than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Yes. It's almost impossible. We were very lucky to find this wonderful company Monterey Media. I would say 19 out of 20 independent movies don't get distributed.

Hellman appears at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Friday, July 22, and at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on Saturday, July 23.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Casey Burchby


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