February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
There was a certain moment, as the Sixties dream dissipated into the Seventies, when narrative filmmaking flowed with a defiant realism, a truer than life, stranger than fiction battle cry that shot through the studio sludge. Its safe to say there were few directors at this time with a purer sense of the slow unfolding of the day to day than Monte Hellman. The films he has given us capture a moment where experiment was embraced, when possibility spread its arms wide.
“It’s interesting,” reflects Hellman today, “because anyone who is honest will tell you that at the time, no one knew that what they were doing was anything special. I just made the movies that I could with the opportunities I was given. There was a certain amount of necessity that resulted in invention, but other than that, we were just doing the best with what we had.”
Hellman earned a drama degree from Stanford and a film degree at UCLA’s moviemaking program. His first real job was with Roger Corman, a producer who had carved a lucrative niche out of B horror films and biker flicks. Corman knew the public’s taste, but he also had a keen eye for young talent. His roster of employees, writers and directors for hire, would boast many artists who would go on to revolutionize filmmaking. Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola are a few examples of moviemakers who honed their chops under Corman’s guidance. Hellman directed his first film for Corman in 1960; a micro budget gore fest entitled Beast From Haunted Cave. In the following years he would helm several other Corman projects, including Creature from The Haunted Sea and The Terror.
“It was training ground,” Hellman says of his initiation, “trial by fire. You were handed a script and a strict budget and expected to deliver in what was a basically impossible amount of time. You learned everything the hard way, but you learned it very quickly.”
In 1964, for the war film, Back Door to Hell, Hellman was paired for the first time with another Corman protégée, 27 year old actor and screenwriter Jack Nicholson. The two traveled to Philippines to make the film, an adventure that would serve as catalyst for a lifetime of friendship and collaboration. The result of their partnership was a series of cinematic experiments, films made for no money, but with true heart.
“We started to deviate from the norm,” remembers Hellman, “ but as long as we brought the film on budget, it was tolerated. And when the films began to be received fairly well, at least critically, that gave us even some freedom to take what we were doing even farther, to put our own mark on the material.”
The duo took the long held traditions of the Western genre and modernized them, transforming those themes into broad existential meditations, which reflected the self-exploration of the times. Ride the Whirlwind (1965) and in particular, 1967’s The Shooting – shot in the dust of the Utah desert, took the ethos of the cultural revolution and deposited those ideas amid a familiar filmic structure – the myth of the lone cowboy and the violent pioneering of the west. Nicholson starred in both films and wrote the latter, and Hellman, as director, found himself suddenly awash in international accolades, in the unexpected position of auteur abroad, B-list helmer at home.
Hellman took what opportunity he was offered and ran fast, making sure to bring some of favorite talent along for the ride. We have Hellman, in part, to thank for some of Nicholson’s finest writing and performances, as well as for providing a showcase for the riveting talents of the late, great character actor Warren Oates. Oates was undoubtedly one of the finest of the era, still waters that ran impossibly deep. Hellman recognized Oates’ unique magic and framed it gracefully, allowing Oates, with his haggard hangdog face and ragged voice, to inhabit his characters completely, lingering on those unforgettable features with an unbridled curiosity. Oates starred in some of Hellman’s most defiantly unconventional work, including what is arguably his masterpiece, 1971’s Two Lane Blacktop.
A road movie with minimal dialogue, Two Lane is the story of a race across America between two good-looking hippie kids (balladeer James Taylor and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson) and a life-worn middle-ager played with aplomb by Oates. Exploring the generation gap with a subtle and stubbornly unromantic eye, Hellman created one of the most fascinating reflections of the times, with Oates adding grit and spine to the film’s pop star casting. In later work, such as the Western, China 9, Liberty 7 and the brutal drama, Cockfighter, Hellman would explore an evolving masculinity, with Oates serving as his personification of gender complexity.
Since the Seventies, Hellman has continued to maintain a hard won individuality, a tougher than nails defiance of Hollywood expectation, most notably in his executive producer capacity for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs debut. He is currently working on several new projects, including a horror film, a Western and a supernatural thriller. He’ll also be honored guest at several international retrospectives of his life’s work.
“It’s been a real pain in the ass sometimes,” admits Hellman on getting his films made, “but you keep going, even when you know how hard it can be. You keep going, because, let’s face it, there’s nothing else like it.”