Cult filmmaker Monte Hellman talks about ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ and ‘Road to Nowhere’ in exclusive Indie Ethos interview


Ahead of his “appearance” in my neighborhood (well near Miami: Miami Beach), film director Monte Hellman agreed to a short chat over the phone to connect what is probably his most notable work, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, with his most recent, Road to Nowhere. Both will be screened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning with a one-night only screening of Two-Lane Blacktop (this Thursday at 8 p.m.), which will also feature Hellman’s live appearance via Skype on MBC’s big screen for a Q&A with the audience about the influential film. Then, the MBC will host nightly screenings of Road to Nowhere beginning the following day (Friday, at 7 p.m.) and every day after until the end of the month.

Edit: On July 9, 10 and 17, the film continues its South Florida run in Fort Lauderdale, at the Cinema Paradiso.

Edit 2: Road to Nowhere will screen at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema on Friday, July 29 @ 9:15 p.m.; Saturday, July 30 @ 5:45 p.m.; and Sunday, July 31 @ 6:15 p.m.

The one-night only screening of Two-Lane followed by a Q&A with a director who worked with Roger Corman in the late fifties and throughout the sixties is truly a special opportunity for fans of cinema. Hellman is often associated with that bold generation of filmmakers that broke out of California after the Motion Picture Association of America dumped the self-censoring rules of the Hays Code and adopted the current rating system. It was an era in Hollywood inspired by the unrestricted art films that had begun pouring in from Europe and the social movements of the time. Films like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Bonnie and Clyde defined the start of that time in Hollywood.

Following his work with Corman, Hellman made Two-Lane Blacktop with a couple of popular musicians in the lead roles, who would otherwise never act again. James Taylor played “the Driver” and Dennis Wilson (drummer for the Beach Boys) was “the Mechanic.” No names, just a couple of manly men living on the road from one drag race to another in a souped-up ’55 Chevy. Their co-stars were Laurie Bird as “the girl” who tags along with them while hitchhiking and Warren Oates as their cross-country competitor, “GTO.” What unfolds is much more than a road trip movie but a meditation of what it was to be a man in a changing era.

According to the press kit for Road to Nowhere, Two-Lane Blacktop was Hellman’s first major studio film. But when a Universal executive did not like the results, the film rolled out into theaters with little publicity and in limited release. Hellman has since earned the last laugh with a cult audience growing up around the movie on video ranging from car enthusiasts to music fans to cineastes interested in the counter-culture period of Hollywood. Some of the more famous fans include two directors who epitomized the new nineties era of independent cinema: Quentin Tarantino (Hellman executive produced Tarantino’s breakout debut Reservoir Dogs) and Richard Linklater (see his 16 reasons to love Two-Lane Blacktop). Most recently, Two-Lane Blacktop was blessed with a double DVD treatment by the premiere home video company, the Criterion Collection (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the DVD on Amazon via this link).

More than 40 years later, Hellman continues to reinforce his independent ethos with Road to Nowhere. In his profile piece in the “New York Times,” “Elder Statesman’s New Story,” John Anderson wrote: “Road may also be as significant to the indie feature as Avatar is to the popcorn movie: the entire film was shot on what is essentially a still camera (the Canon 5D Mark II), while looking like a mega-million Hollywood production.” In the article, screenwriter Steven Gaydos noted the film cost “under five million” to make.

But beyond technology and budget, Hellman explores narrative in an incredibly radical manner. Road to Nowhere is more than a movie, but several layers of movies wrapped into one. Tygh Runyan plays Mitchell Haven, a Hollywood director, behind a modern film noire based on a true story within the story of his making of the movie. The “femme fatale” at the center of the stories is played by Shannyn Sossamon. A tangled relationship soon develops, and the results are dark in that classic grim seventies sensibility of the unhappy endings that Hellman matured in as a filmmaker.

The movie made its world premiere at the 67th Venice Film Festival (where the picture of Hellman at the top of this story was taken by Lesly Hamilton), in 2010. It was also the place where Tarantino presented Hellman with a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award. It made for a fitting tribute as the film is as much about movie making as it is about film narrative, which happens to focus on one of Hollywood’s most beloved genres, coined film noire, by the influential critics of the French New Wave.

I asked Hellman, who is also a teacher of cinema studies at the California Institute of the Arts, about both movies as well as how they fit in with today’s film culture …

Hans Morgenstern: The ending of Two-Lane Blacktop really is gorgeous, and the pay off for you must be that it only gets better with time because it’s so open-ended and at the same time enhances every action that has played out before the film stops in one of the most definitive endings of cinema. 

Monte Hellman: It was a hard to decision to make because there were a lot of people who advised against it … collaborators and just friends, they just said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and a lot of critics did criticize it. It’s just some people love it and some people hate it.

It was one of those things that came to me kind of in a dream, and I did have some misgivings about it because I felt it was a kind of intellectual conceit, but I was moved by it, and I still think it works.

What do you expect of audiences when they see an ending like that?

Well, it’s the same thing I expect of audiences in general. I have a great respect for the audience, and I demand a lot of them. I want them to be the final collaborator of my movies, and I think, by and large, the audiences come through. They are terrific collaborators.

This and Road to Nowhere are being shown as a double feature. What do you think connects them?

I think what connects them for me, and there’d been a few movies in between that had followed through on the same theme: I got hung up after seeing Shoot the Piano Player on just the idea of a man’s conflict between his profession, his work in life, and the need for love in his live, and I’ve experienced some of those very problems along the way (laughs), so it’s very personal to me. I kind of can’t get away from that theme.

More often than not, I hear going to the movies as an “escape” from the day-to-day, yet these movies both sort of try to re-create life and its open-endedness.

Certainly movies that are pure escapism have validity, but I think there’s more that movies can offer. I’m kind of interested in that more and what theater offered even in the times of Greek tragedy and Aristotelian purgation of pity and fear. I think that if audiences can get more than escape then they’re better off for it.

In my studies, especially in film studies, I was taught the structure of story, and how long you should dwell on a very specific story arc. If you do a script, it is supposed to be this long; by this page, this should happen, etc. How important do you feel the classic narrative is? Would you agree it is more powerful to subvert it over following the rules?

I don’t know if it’s more powerful. I think movies that are structured in that kind of form can be very successful and very satisfying. The first thing that comes to mind is the one with Bruce Willis in the tall building … Die Hard. Die Hard is a terrific movie, and it’s a formulaic movie, but you don’t really mind that it’s formulaic, but, for whatever reason, I don’t usually make those kind of movies (laughs). I do abandon all those rules … but when they’re done well, they’re terrific. I’m not putting them down in any way.

There are some lush moments of waiting for action in Road to Nowhere, but for the most part it is more fast-paced than Two-Lane. Can you tell me about how the pacing of films has changed today?

I really think that I let the movie tell me how fast to go, and I was concerned in making Road to Nowhere that today’s audience might be impatient with the movie, so I purposely decided to really slow it down at the very beginning, and then, hopefully, they would think the rest of the movie was moving fast … I think it worked.

Talk about your use of non-actors. I know you used real cops in Two Lane Black-Top, but are they real in Road to Nowhere?

They were real cops. Whenever possible I like to use people doing what they do because they know how to do it. You don’t have to give them direction. Sometimes people say I use non-actors in so-called acting roles, and that’s misleading because when I cast someone like James Taylor and Dennis Wilson or Rob Kolar and Waylon Payne [also musicians] in Road to Nowhere, they’re not specifically actors or trained to be actors, but they are performers. They are singer-songwriters, they play in a band or whatever, and it’s not that different from being an actor, so they’re not really non-actors, but they’re essentially untrained actors. Sometimes it can be an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

My wife’s favorite character in Two-Lane was the girl. She called her the future: An empowered woman who is in control of her destiny.

(Laughs) I love that. Terrific. At that time even then she may have been the present already … the new present.

Your new film is dedicated to Laurie Bird. Can you tell me why you chose to dedicate it to her?

Because she had a lot of influence in the creation of the character. I used a lot of her dialogue. We should have given her an extra dialogue credit (laughs). A lot of things she said wound up in the movie.

Did your interest in cinema wane at all after Silent Night, Deadly Night III ? What happened after that movie (21 years ago)?

I was just trying to get pictures made. I basically spent a lot of time developing pictures for other people. I worked for a couple of years on Freaky Deaky for Miramax. I had worked on a project for Francis Coppola. I didn’t stop working. I didn’t have a day off other than when I went to a film festival. A lot of pictures just didn’t make it to the starting gate.

Which film would you consider your most personal and fulfilling as a director?

I have to say Road to Nowhere in many ways. I don’t think there’s even a close contest. It chronicles a lot of experiences I had making movies. It has a lot of my own beliefs that somehow made it into it and a lot of just personal relationship stuff. It’s very personal.

I heard you filmed the movie without permits. Was this only in Europe?

Only a couple of times in Europe, and it was really mainly because we didn’t have time. If we had gotten permits, we would have had to wait for three months, and it made it possible to shoot anyways, so we did it. In the US everything was permitted.

… and you used a still camera’s movie feature to shoot the scenes, a camera which cost under $3,000?

The fact that this camera is accessible, and it’s a great camera, really, but it doesn’t mean that it’s that much cheaper to make a truly— professional is a bad word because there’s a lot of great amateur work of every kind— but to make something that really takes advantage of the medium in the best ways, it’s not that much cheaper than shooting on film. I just think it happens to be, in my opinion, better. But we had to have pretty much as many lights as you would use in a film production and pretty much the same size crew for the type of movie we were doing. I’ve made relatively low budget movies on film. Two Lane Black-Top was shot on film. We had essentially the same size crew, the same size production as Road to Nowhere. It didn’t make that much difference. We made it pretty much as cheaply.

Do you agree with the idea that technology’s advance, for instance, cheap digital cameras and YouTube, has resulted in more creative works or more junk?

I think for some people who become addicted tuning in to YouTube and spending all their time watching as much as they can, there is some great stuff in there. Granted, you can go back in time and see things you might have missed 50 years ago or 30 years ago or whatever. The fact that more people can express themselves through this medium is terrific, is great.

*  *  *

Have some of your own questions ready, if you plan to attend this special screening of Two-Lane Black Top on Thursday (June 23) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The event begins at 8 p.m. and is free for MBC members but $10 for non-members and $9 for students.

… just don’t ask him to analyze his own movie. When he appeared at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic with a newly restored print of Two-Lane Blacktop, he was asked to explain what the film’s about. In the commentary track on the Criterion DVD with filmmaker Allison Anders, he recalled that he simply stated, “It’s about an hour and three quarters.”

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)



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