Walter Hill on the anti-buddy movie and the evolution of the action film
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Combining the spirit of genre masters like John Ford and Howard Hawks with the pared-down, haiku-like simplicity of Jean-Pierre Melville, Walter Hill is one of the great action-movie directors of his generation. His career has also drifted into comedies and musicals, as well as stints as a producer (mostly notably of the Alien franchise) and an Emmy-winning TV director (Deadwood, Broken Trail). Though he started later than Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and other “film brats” of the ’70s, Hill began his career with a run few could hope to rival: 1975’s Hard Times, his flavorful debut feature about a bare-knuckled boxer (Charles Bronson) during the Depression; 1978’s The Driver, an existential crime movie that heavily influenced the recent favorite Drive; 1979’s The Warriors, a colorful odyssey through a New York comic-book gangland; 1980’s The Long Riders, a one-of-a-kind Western about the exploits of the James-Younger Gang; 1981’s Southern Comfort, a kickass backwoods action movie about Weekend Warriors mired in a Bayou swamp war; and 1982’s 48 Hrs., the gold standard of buddy action movies. From there, Hill’s filmography has been consistently eclectic, from ambitious odd-duck projects like 1984’s Streets Of Fire to a series of ’90s Westerns (1993’s Geronimo: An American Legend, 1995’s Wild Bill, and 1996’s Last Man Standing) that attempted to keep the floundering genre alive.
More than a decade after his last feature—the woefully mistreated Undisputed—Hill has teamed with another ’80s action icon, Sylvester Stallone, for Bullet To The Head, a throwback to the meat-and-potatoes fare that defined the era. Stallone stars as a hitman who seeks revenge after his employer puts out a contract on him. Sung Kang (Fast Five) co-stars as the by-the-books cop who compromises his principles in order to team up with Stallone and catch the Big Boss. There’s also an ax fight. Hill recently spoke to The A.V. Club about shooting Southern Comfort, his philosophy on “brevity of statement,” and the art of the “anti-buddy movie.”
The A.V. Club: You’re doing a screening of Southern Comfort tonight, is that right?
Walter Hill: I am, yes. Some people called me up and very kindly said they’d like to show this old film of mine and could I come by and defend myself. [Laughs.] I was actually rather flattered and said that I would.
AVC: What do you have to say about that particular film? What will you talk about?
WH: I don’t have anything to say about it. I made it! I always liked it. I never know what the hell to say about a film. If you knew what to say, you wouldn’t have to make them. It’s kind of why you make them. Well, other than it’s a living and that kind of stuff. It was a good experience. I was always amazed at the reception. The American reception was a real kind of nothing. But it was very nicely received around the world. I was very proud of the actors in it. It was a tough movie to make, and they put up with a lot. They would probably tell you they put up with a lot from me. [Laughs.] But they really did it without complaint. And I just thought I was very fortunate to have the cast that I had. Jesus, it was a hard movie to make.
It was much harder than it probably even appears in the film. I think when you see the movie you can see that this one wasn’t nightclubs in Vegas. But it was just very hard locations to get in there. Very hard to shoot. I remember so many times we’d only have a few minutes to set the camera because the bottom of the swamp would give way. And so, for your camera positions, you had to stage and shoot very quickly in many cases. It just was hard, and the weather was miserable. However, I will say this: If you choose to go make a movie in a swamp in the middle of winter, you probably deserve what you get. [Laughs.]
AVC: But Southern Comfort seems to be one of those situations where the shooting conditions give it a texture it wouldn’t have necessarily have otherwise.
WH: Oh, absolutely. I think the weather conditions probably helped everybody. It’s a tough movie. It’s a tough-minded movie. But at the same time, in a perverse way, I think I had kind of a good time making it. I certainly was given a great deal of freedom to make it. It was one of those [projects] the studio didn’t want to touch, so it was independently financed and then—what we used to call negative pickups—through Fox. So in that sense, it was a very good experience.
AVC: Where was Bullet To The Head when you came on to the project? What appealed to you about it?
WH: I had a couple of things fall apart on me, and I was sitting at home wondering if graceful retirement was in my future and the phone rang. And it was Sly [Sylvester Stallone], who wanted to send me the script, and I read it. I went over and he and I had coffee together over at a hotel nearby the next day. And I told him I thought that if you did it as a kind of retro movie that valorized the style of the action movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and particularly with him if we could figure out a few things, I thought there was room for some humor. The story itself, I didn’t think it was very plausible, but these things tend not to be. Also I don’t think whether these things turn out to be any good has much to do with the premise. They’re about something else. There’s always this kind of cliché that directors say that these are “relationship movies” or “character movies.” But I don’t actually think that’s quite true, either. The characters [played by Stallone and Sung Kang] kind of represent certain thematic codes, codes that these guys live by and the argument, the central argument… people always want to call them buddy movies. They’re really anti-buddy movies. They don’t like each other, and they’re never going to like each other too much. The best you can hope for is they will achieve a kind of begrudging respect. But it’s interesting that they both represent points of views and very different codes, and each perceives himself to be an exemplar of those ideas. That, to me, the bump of those things, is the plus of some jokes. And hopefully you can make the fights interesting and all that sort of thing.
AVC: One of the virtues of your movies is they have this stripped-down efficiency to them, and that definitely applies here.
WH: I am very much a proponent of—how to put it—brevity of statement. One of my chief complaints about most of the films I see is that they’re way too long and overstated. But to each his own. I like to keep things moving right along, and I like to state things just a few times, or once, preferably. Hit it and move on and give the audience credit for absorbing what you’ve been trying to do there. But it seems to me that a lot of times good action movies, the literary equivalent isn’t really a novel, the literary equivalent is a short story. And I think you know there’s something in the idea that you should use what the literary model is to the short story. Possibly the ideal could be turned and put into cinematic terms.
AVC: The first page of your script for The Driver surfaced a year or two ago, and it just had seven short lines under each of the three characters’ names describing simple things about them. When you have a script that isn’t your own, like Bullet To The Head, do you try to pare it down to that kind of simplicity?
WH: Well, you try to. I mean, I do. Really, the process itself takes away all the other stuff. You’re out there with actors that have essential personalities. They are very well-trained at their craft, but they have essential personalities and there’s a basic story to be told. So you’re building it up from, it seems to me to be, the simplest origins. The principles of these things—I mean the narrative principles—is wicked people doing wicked things, and for various reasons they need to be stopped. I tend to be not terribly interested in people that are trying to take over the world. I like a more modest storyline, I guess.
AVC: What happens to a script when you get your hands on it?
WH: I don’t think I’m conscious of working in any different way. In some ways, I think there’s an advantage to working with other scripts. I think you’re inevitably a little less defensive about it. And all that aggressive questioning of everything is not a bad way to begin. If you’ve written it, since you went through the sweat and toil, you’re probably a little defensive when some of the ideas are subject to question. But again, I think you must be rigorous about yourself. There’s that old thing: The hardest thing about directing a movie is directing yourself. People always want to say, “What about the actors? What about the camera? What about the editing? What about the music?” It’s really about figuring yourself out. You are going to be modified by circumstances.
This film is not the biggest swing at the ball that I’ve ever taken, but I think it has certain virtues. I think Sly is very good in it. And I think it does its work in an efficient manner.
AVC: It’s amazing that you hadn’t worked with Stallone before. Given how prominent you both were in ’80s action cinema, it seems like a natural pairing.
WH: Well, I’ll tell you something: It’s very clear to both of us that we should have. And Sly and I have known each other a long time. I’ve known him since the mid-’70s. The first time I met him was before Rocky came out and before Hard Times came out. He was introduced to me by a lawyer that was both our lawyers—still is, as a matter of fact. I tried to get him to do a few films. He tried to get me to do some. It just never quite worked out. And it’s too bad. I like the guy very much. He is a legitimate star, obviously. He’s an actor. He was trained as an actor, he’s studied as an actor, he went through the process as an actor. But he has the virtues of a star. He can communicate with millions of people, and he can carry a movie. There are few enough really wonderful actors, but a wonderful actor that can carry a movie? Boy, that’s gold. With Sly, there’s no accident that he’s been around as a major player for, I don’t know, what the hell—it must be 35 years?
AVC: You talk about movies like this one as anti-buddy action movies. What does it take to get the chemistry right? Here you’ve got Stallone and also Sung Kang. How do you work with them to get the chemistry going?
WH: I think you play the situation. You play the character. I always say don’t ever play a joke but let it… Listen, one’s a cop, one’s a crook. They’re already forced together. Now, it’s a pretty artificial construct, but I think that the thing that leavens the artificiality of it is humor. And the humor comes out of the basic situation. At the same time, when I say the movie is in some ways a valorizing of the action films of the ’70s and ’80s, it may be an homage in many ways, but it is not a satire. It is played with the old premise that I always wanted for my films: The jokes are funny, but the bullets are real.
AVC: One thing that sets a film like this or 48 Hrs. apart from other films of their kind is that there’s a genuine suspicion and contempt between these two. A lot of 48 Hrs. imitators were much softer in this respect.
WH: First principle is that you don’t make movies to be imitated. You make a movie for various reasons and you hope it has its own ground to stand on. If it then turns out to be popular, imitation inevitably follows. But I think that the people wanted to mine the vein. I always say this about 48 Hrs.: I never claim it’s the best movie or anything like that, but it did turn out to be a very imitated film. How much imitation is conscious and unconscious, I’m not sure. You’d have to know the inner workings of each film, and you never know that.
The easier road to take, when you throw [characters] together, is to have them like each other because it’s more pleasant for everybody. Probably the greatest single fight that one has in trying to sell ideas to become movies is there’s always this tendency to think that if the characters are having a good time, the audience will be having a good time, too. And the truth is that the more miserable time the characters are having, usually the better time the audience is having. Like everything in the business and everything about the creative, there are exceptions to any rule. But it’s a pretty good rule. But I always thought, “Look, we’re trying to find drama here. If we get along and like each other, it’s nice for our life, but it’s not very dramatic.” I think one of the great masters was [Howard] Hawks. And I think Hawks rather impatiently answered, when being asked certain questions—“Will he live or will he die?”—“That’s drama.” Once you’re in that situation, that’s the fundamental business of an action film. I like being an action director. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted, really.
AVC: A movie like Bullet To The Head gets back to certain action fundamentals. It’s a very hard-hitting, physical action film as opposed to something more effects-driven. Do you feel the vanguard of digital technology has diminished the genre in some way?
WH: Yes, I do. Obviously it has. But at the same time, maybe things were worn out a bit. Audiences change. Audiences’ tastes change. There was the decline of the Western, which was a very big aspect of action movies. It does seem to me that the premise has changed. But films as a kind of mass entertainment are really about 100 years old. Action films have always been a very big part of that. But the guiding principle of Westerns and actions, if you can throw it in a big gigantic category, was that they were Homeric. They were about extraordinary men with extraordinary courage or powers, strength, in situations that were larger than life, but at the same time they were part of the tactile world as we understand it. And there were enlargements upon that. It seems to me that about 10, 15, 20 years ago, another kind of film became dominant in what we call action movies and that is basically the fantasy, comic-book kind of orientation. Which can be mined for all kinds of nuance and subtlety. I don’t mean it to be pejorative. It just seems to me it’s changed. I’m a fan of the action movie, and I think I know how to do the one. I don’t really know how to do the other.