After attending Stanford and UCLA, Monte Hellman founded a Los Angeles theater company that was one of the first to stage Waiting for Godot. When the company’s building was sold, Roger Corman told the young director to “get healthy” and gave him a thousand dollars to start making movies. He began by directing the low-budget features The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and The Terror (1963).
Collaborating with Jack Nicholson who co-wrote as well as acted, Hellman directed and edited Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury, both in 1964, and the offbeat westerns Ride the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1966). He also served as editor for Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), the Peter Fonda warm-up for Easy Rider (1969). From its beginnings, Hellman’s work was distinctive for his ability, in the words of biographer Brad Stephens, to “think visually.” Hellman’s best known film, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), began as an unremarkable script about a cross-country race. Hellman and novelist/screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer [Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)] turned that slight story into an expansive road picture shot in sequence along Route 66. More nuanced than the superficially similar Easy Rider, it became a victim of studio politics at Universal. In the ensuing years, film buffs and hot rod fans kept interest alive. In December 2012, Two-Lane Blacktop was one of 25 “works of enduring importance to American culture” added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. To top it off, a director approved Criterion Blue-ray special edition became available in January 2013. After Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman never made another studio film but stayed busy with a variety of assignments. When Quentin Tarantino was shopping the screenplay of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Hellman was instrumental in getting it made. Going the Orson Welles route, he secured financing for his next pictures in Europe, including the elliptical pirate fantasy Iguana (1988). His daughter Melissa Hellman, the little girl in Two-Lane Blacktop, produced his most recent feature, Road to Nowhere (2010). Never one to sit still, two films are in the works.Hellman has taught at USC and the California Institute of the Arts. Information about private classes and seminars is available through Facebook. I interviewed him in 2013 shortly after he returned from a career retrospective at Portugal’s Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival.
Q: Could you say something about directing Warren Oates?
MH: He was my alter ego.
Q: You’ve said he reminds you of Jimmy Stewart. Could you elaborate?
MH: I don’t remember saying that. Maybe I meant he was completely in the moment, without trying to predict his behavior in advance. Q: I find something like that with Jean Gabin. I always believe his performances.
MH: Gabin has a kind of blue-collar masculinity. It’s sexy but at the same time it’s self-effacing. I mean, everyone’s individual and Warren had a terrific quality of his own and of course, Jimmy Stewart, but they’re all unique and not necessarily able to play the same roles.
Q: Any favorites with Gabin? You showed us the Renoir film [Le Grande Illusion (1937)] and Port of Shadows (1938).
MH: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: What’s your take on poetic realism?
MH: Well, I don’t know what the “realism” really refers to, but I’m attracted to the poetry and there’s a synchronicity between their poetic realism and plays like The Petrified Forest and Winterset. It’s a romanticizing of suicide. There’s a great similarity between Port of Shadows and The Petrified Forest. Q: How does that relate to film noir?
A: There’s a romanticizing of the death wish even in a movie like High Sierra (1941), for instance. Q: In Cockfighter (1974), there’s a cameo from novelist and screenwriter Charles Willeford [Miami Blues (1990), The Woman Chaser (1999)]. He plays a cockfight promoter and completely looks the part. But, how do you direct someone who wrote the lines he’s saying?
MH: Once I cast him in the part, I no longer thought about him as the writer. I related to him the same way I related to the other actors, which is primarily as a friend they could trust to look out for them, never do anything to embarrass them and ultimately protect them from the forces of evil in the world. A: How did you go about staging the cockfighting battle scene in the hotel room?
MH: I never think about how I’m going to stage a scene other than to try to avoid doing things I’ve done in other scenes. I do remember thinking that using a wide-angle lens would give a subtle indication that it was a scene of dream or memory.
Q: Gambling is the driving force behind cockfighting. I’ve read that your father was a gambler and that Two-Lane Blacktop’s winner-take-all wager is what initially piqued your interest in the story. Was he a professional gambler?
MH: He was a part-time professional gambler.
MH: I have a great respect for whatever method works for a given actor, including “The Method.” I don’t believe every actor should seek training, nor that every trained actor is necessarily inferior to an untrained one. There are no rules. Q: In one of Muhammad Ali’s rare dramatic roles, he played himself in the docudrama The Greatest (1977). What was it like working with Ali? In the ring, he truly was “the greatest,” but how would you rate him as an actor?
MH: I guess that was a case where calling what Ali did in the movie “acting” would be inaccurate. I can’t comment on how well he did in portraying himself, but I can definitely say he was a very nice person.
Q: Did you film him at all?
MH: No. He came to the cutting room. I had planned to shoot a number of things. Mainly, I planned to use the great footage of him in the Olympics and they wouldn’t pay for it, wouldn’t pay for the rights. Mainly, I just worked on post production, but he spent some time with us in the cutting room. Really a nice guy.
Q: Do you have any favorite boxing movies?
Q: Is boxing hard to film and make look realistic?
MH: I don’t know. I almost did it. I did location scouting and prepped for Fat City (1972) but wound up not making the movie.
Q: Aside from speeding, there’s no crimes being committed in Two-Lane Blacktop, yet it’s surprisingly noir.
MH: Again, that’s something that never occurred to me. The movie I thought about most when making it, aside from Shoot the Piano Player (1960) , was The Clock (1945). Q: Is that the Vincente Minnelli picture?
Q: I haven’t seen it, but I’m guessing it’s a musical?
MH. No. It’s a love story and I always thought of Two-Lane Blacktop as a love story.
MH: (laughs) All Westerns are noir. They’re really about the good guys and the bad guys, right? They’re all gangster movies in the Old West.
Q: Would you mind commenting on some directors?
MH: As long as they’re dead.
MH: I met Sam Fuller in Rotterdam in 1979 and we stayed in touch after that. I remember some of his early movies that had quite an effect on me but particularly Pickup on South Street (1953), my favorite of his.
Q: Jules Dassin?
MH: I didn’t become aware of him until he went to France but also very influential, that whole time period in France. There were a few of those refugees.
MH: I used to jokingly refer to myself as the skinny Hitchcock. I think anybody interested in becoming a movie director had to be affected by Hitchcock. I can’t even remember any of his movies that I didn’t like. He has a unique position.
Q: Billy Wilder?
Q: Nicholas Ray?
Q: So, you saw it when it first came out?
MH: I saw it in Paris. I remember the theater I saw it in and I remember when I got out of the theater the Metros were all closed and I had to walk about an hour to get home.
Q: John Huston?
Q: Could you tell us your Top 5 Noirs and explain why you like them?
MH: Off the top of my head: The Big Sleep (1946), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Série noire (1979), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Vertigo (1958). Because they all invaded my dreams. Oh, I forgot about The Maltese Falcon (1941). I’d better quit before I think of all the other great ones.