Slugfests, chases, standoffs and shootouts in Walter Hill’s films are the equivalent of dialogue scenes in other directors’ work. From his street-fighting debut, Hard Times with Charles Bronson, through the megahit 48 Hrs. and his myth-cracking Western Wild Bill, the action sequences in a Hill movie tell us all about his testosterone-case protagonists, how they negotiate their environment.
But Hill’s fall from favor as a studio director — one too many box-office misses, no matter the flashes of brilliance in his ’90s films Geronimo, Trespass and Wild Bill — is one of genre moviemaking’s big losses. Television, meanwhile, has gained, and last week the American Cinematheque celebrated this rugged stylist, who won an Emmy last year for directing the pilot episode of Deadwood, with a theatrical showing of his new two-part, four-hour Western, Broken Trail, an original first for the classic-movie network AMC. (It premieres on television Sunday and Monday.) Broken Trail is a handsomely mounted moral yarn about a patriarchal cowboy, Print (Robert Duvall), and his taciturn nephew, Tom (Thomas Haden Church), who, while driving a herd of 500 horses through the Pacific Northwest, cross paths with a quintet of enslaved Chinese girls being trafficked to a mining town. Like the heroes of many Hill films, Print and Tom are uncomplicated men forced to deal with a complicated world, and the 64-year-old filmmaker imbues their perilous and transcendent journey with a poetic grasp of beings traversing land that’s as reassuringly steady as a well-tended campfire. There are killings too, and while this isn’t what Hill terms one of his usual “blood and thunder” sagas, there’s no small amount of emotional brutality considering the Chinese girls’ predicament. But then Hill — a student of two-fisted Hollywood whose instinct for character-driven mayhem is lacking in today’s impersonal multiplex thrill rides — doesn’t separate inner turmoil from physical violence. As this bearish-looking, graceful conversationalist reminded me during a recent interview at the Polo Lounge, “Wuthering Heights is one of the most violent stories anybody has ever cooked up.”
L.A. WEEKLY:You’re working in commercial television for the first time. How did that go?
WALTER HILL: I’m the world’s oldest rookie. I’d done Tales From the Crypt and Deadwood for HBO, but that was noncommercial. Here, I got a chance to do another Western. I’m not ready to quit yet.
TV tends to favor close-ups, but I was grateful for the panoramic beauty of Broken Trail.
Not to place the characters in the context of the open country — the size and difficulty of managing a herd — would be poor storytelling. I tried to shoot it big. You know, TV screens are getting a lot bigger these days.
This is a fictional story, and your previous Westerns dealt with historical characters: Geronimo, Wild Bill Hickok and the James-Younger gang in The Long Riders. What attracted you to this material?
This thing came to me. Bob [Duvall] had been developing it, and it was a chance to do something about workin’ fellas rather than great heroes or notorious bad men of the West. What’s the Shakespeare thing? These are men whose greatness is thrust upon them. In the middle of a struggle for economic gain, and facing, if they fail, economic catastrophe — the traditional American dilemma — they become the possible protectors of five young Chinese women. And it’s not convenient for them. These guys are ill equipped but, within the boundaries of their personalities, stand up and do the right thing.
What’s your take on the current state of the Western?
I’ve been answering this question since The Long Riders. The perception is that it’s moribund or no longer relevant. The reasons for the decline are clear. There was probably an oversaturation of them when I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s.
The number of them on television back then, for one thing.
I think so. And the Western is the most subject to parody, to a celebration of genre tropes, if you will, so that there’s this preserved-in-amber feeling about it, which fights against vital storytelling. But the biggest reason is just generational. People have much less of an identification with the American rural past, the way they have with their urban past. That, and ethnic shifts in our population. But in the last 10 years, it’s pretty clear that the real home of the Western as a continuing force is cable television. AMC didn’t jump on this because they loved our personalities. When they show Westerns, the older films, their ratings go up. The economic arguments against it are pretty weak.
You grew up a Western buff, and started in the movies writing screenplays for famous hard guys Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway) and John Huston (The Mackintosh Man). When you began directing, what had your knowledge and experience taught you about the job?
Let’s invent a term here: the decisive moment. We’re gonna make a story and put it on film. Is the decisive moment when I wrote the script, made sketches at my desk? That’s Hitchcock. Or is the decisive moment “We’re going to go out there and work something out on location”? Well, that’s Ford and Hawks and Huston. Or is it “We’ve got this location, we’re going to stage the actors, we’ve got rehearsal, we’ll shoot from over here and over there, and nobody is so smart that they’re going to figure out how everything fits together, but we’ll have lots of choices and put it together as artistically coherent in the editing room”? For a director like Kurosawa or Peckinpah, it was in the editing room. What you learn is, it’s getting comfortable with yourself. The truest thing that’s ever been said about any of this is, the hardest thing to direct is yourself. It’s not the camera, the actors, not even the horses. It’s “What do I want?”
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 at Broken 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.