By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Your first few pulpish movies —Hard Times,The Driver,The Warriors— boast the thrill of a filmmaking voice being forged, but in the ’80s, it’s as if you were struggling to get any personality into a newly homogenized, blockbuster-mentality industry. Is that a fair assessment?
I did try to make some films that more actively sought a wide audience. But I felt more confident when I was doing Johnny Handsome or Southern Comfort than some of the others. The ’80s were really the beginning of the less craft-oriented approach. Many years ago, George Cukor said to me, “I think it’s much harder for you guys. It was harder to get into the club, but once you were in, you made a movie every year, and some of them worked, and some didn’t. But you went right back to work. Now, if you have a film that doesn’t work, you may not work for four years.” Before my time, directing was a profession. Now, everyone’s looking for a masterpiece. Good, solid work is often not particularly highly valued. John Ford was a director for 15, maybe 20 years before he did anything that is generally perceived to be of huge artistic merit.
Lately, it seems the action genre as you practiced it has been replaced by superhero films.
Yeah, it’s become a comic-book fantasy. The kind of Burt Lancaster/Steve McQueen/Lee Marvin tough-guy movie, they don’t make very many of those. This, of course, is a shattering blow to me. [Laughs.] Both as a filmmaker and as an audience. I love those things.
Do we blame the talent pool of male actors, some of whom in their 40s still don’t seem like grown-ups?
Most young actors, if you were to say, “What do you want to project onscreen?,” tough guy isn’t one of the first things they’d think of. The mold is different. But what’s more decisive is there’s less of a system that supports bringing to fruition those kinds of actors. If it’s perceived to be out of fashion commercially, the whole underpinning goes. People stop writing for them, people stop making smaller versions of that. The whole system withers.
Looking at a bold, brusque and funny movie like 48 Hrs.again, I wonder if you had an inkling while you were making it of its impact on action-comedy.
I think it’s a good one. I don’t make any claims beyond that. It has been imitated in an enormous way, but I’m always surprised how much people didn’t quite imitate what the real motor was, which is that the two guys [Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy] didn’t get along very well. That they had to work out their relationship. What most imitators did was throw two guys together, and one’s funny.
It’s a seminal balance of hard violence and gritty laughs. How did you work out the balance between those two?
I always said, if you went expecting to see a comedy, you were on shaky ground because it was a pretty tough movie. But if you went to see an action movie, it was funny as hell. I had a lot of arguments with the studio about it. They wanted it to be funny because we had Eddie Murphy, but being a good Hawksian, one of the principles is that if you’re doing something funny, don’t try to be funny right away, because then you’re always trying to top yourself. So I cranked it really hard the first 15 minutes, as tough as I could fuckin’ be, and then when you start to introduce the humor, it’ll be a relief. Now, this is 2006, and you and I can both see the wisdom of this, but trying to explain this to the people who ran the studio was not easy. It’s always better not to explain.
How do you feel about this director’s-cut world we live in, where the notion of artistic purity can get a little confusing?
Most of the films I’ve done, what was out was better off out. These things where the director goes back and brings in stuff, I can’t say they usually get better. They just get longer. Broken Trail was tricky for me, because I think brevity of expression is a virtue, not a vice. Raoul Walsh is an example of a great kind of American storytelling principle, where every shot advances the story. I’ve never been able to live up to that. I’m always digressing. Pictorial beauty is the devil.
It’s rare that you make a movie over 90 minutes. Should we look atBroken Trail?, then, as two Walter Hill movies over two nights?
You can. Look, I just approached it as a story. I remember having lunch with Jacques Demy once around the time of Heaven’s Gate — wonderful man, sweet and gentle — and he said he thought that Americans were losing contact with one of their greatest artistic discoveries in filmmaking: that the perfect playing time for a motion picture was 90 minutes. It’s the right amount of time you could sit and not get uncomfortable, that you could go without food, drink and going to the bathroom if you were in reasonable health. [Laughs.] I’ve never forgotten that.
BROKEN TRAIL | AMC | Sunday and Monday, ?8 p.m.
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