Monte Hellman began his career as an associate of producer and director Roger Corman. Like the best directors from Corman's circle, Hellman found ways to incorporate unusual, artful elements into B-movies, most famously in his unconventional 1967 western The Shooting. Co-starring and co-produced by Jack Nicholson, the film also marked the start of Hellman's long association with actor Warren Oates, an association perhaps best exemplified by the newly unearthed Two-Lane Blacktop. Released to much acclaim and little popular success in 1971, Blacktop has since developed a cult following. While the film's mystique can be at least partly attributed to its scarcity, its recent, long-delayed video release proves it to be the lost American classic of its reputation. Two-Lane Blacktop stars James Taylor, just then beginning his musical career, and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys as hot-rod enthusiasts drifting east in a '50s Chevy, making a living by drag-racing. Along the way, they encounter a hitchhiking teenager (Laurie Bird) and Oates, the owner of a new GTO who challenges the pair to a cross-country drag race, the winner of which will take possession of the loser's car. The fact that Blacktop is a film about car-racing that features no real racing segments says everything about Hellman's willingness to flout convention. What he includes instead—an oddly stoic tone, a distinct sense of time and place, and a great performance by Oates—makes the lack of action irrelevant. Aside from executive-producing Reservoir Dogs, Hellman has been less active in recent years, but as Two-Lane Blacktop begins to find a new audience, he's also poised to resume directing, a subject addressed in a recent interview with The Onion.
The Onion: Why was Two-Lane Blacktop unavailable for so long? Was it just the song rights?
Monte Hellman: That's apparently what the reason is. I think it was complicated by the fact that Universal didn't have any urgency about it. Every time we asked them about it, they didn't really give the excuse of the music rights, but just said they only release very few films from their catalog each year. They said they just hadn't gotten around to it yet.
O: I'd always heard of it as a lost great film.
MH: Studios don't always think what fans or even critics think.
O: What was behind the decision to cast James Taylor and Dennis Wilson?
MH: Well, first of all, they were individual decisions. I had pretty much seen every actor in that age range in America, and I just didn't think anybody was what I had in mind. I saw James' picture on a billboard on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and was intrigued by his face. So I asked Fred Roos, our casting director, if it'd be possible to meet him, and he came in. He was interested and I was interested, so we screen-tested him and then everybody was interested.
O: You weren't consciously trying to cast musicians?
MH: No, not at all.
O: They both have a really good screen presence. Why do you think neither went on to do much acting?
MH: I think James was really kind of traumatized by the experience, and I think Dennis probably just didn't know how to pursue it, or had other things he wanted to do. James, I think, really shied away from it.
O: Why was he traumatized by the experience?
MH: I think he was used to being in control. He produced his own music, and I think giving up that power to somebody else was very difficult for him. He did it gracefully, but I could see that he was suffering from it.
O: How much improvising did Warren Oates do in his role. My impression was it was a lot.
MH: I don't think one word. I think the only improvised scene—and that was also a written scene, but we shot it both ways—was the fence scene with James and Laurie.
O: When it was released, it drew a lot of comparisons to Easy Rider. Did you have that film in mind?
MH: Only to the extent that we kind of used it as leverage to make a deal, because there was a feeling that the people who were making independent movies at that time knew something the studios didn't. They were trying to cash in on that.
O: Do you agree with the current reassessment of the early '70s as sort of a golden age of studio filmmaking, when a lot of independent-minded directors were able to get interesting projects through studios?
MH: It was certainly a terrific opportunity for us, because it was a way to make a film that, prior to that and probably after that, studios shied away from. I think Two-Lane Blacktop is a film that would be… not impossible to get made, but difficult to get made today, and certainly difficult to get made with a major studio.
O: It had been five years since you'd directed a movie when you did Two-Lane Blacktop. Was that the film you wanted to make during all that time?
MH: No, no, not at all. It was a project that was offered to me with a completely different script. I agreed to do it on the condition that I could get the script rewritten, and so it came about. It was just a job that came out of the blue.
O: Did you have other road movies in mind when you made Two-Lane Blacktop? Did you want to comment on that genre?
MH: I don't think I thought of it as being part of a genre. If anything, I thought of it as a gambling movie. I think what attracted me to it was the fact that the subject was gambling, and I come from a long line of gamblers. But in general, I like the idea of movies that take place on the street and not the road. I like location movies, so… I guess that's kind of a subtext that's going on, but that wasn't what I was thinking about, no.
O: Was that gambling background your research? Did you hang out with drag-racers at all?
MH: No, I just had a father who was a gambler. We did talk to drag-racers, however.
O: Did you shoot the film on location?
O: That makes sense, because looking at the movie, I can't imagine some of those locations being faked in California.
MH: There certainly were a lot of people urging us to shoot in California.
O: Some of your films, particularly The Shooting and Two-Lane, have been labeled existential. Do you think that's a fair label?
MH: I think people started using that because… I think maybe in some interview years before, I said that Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were at least philosophical influences. I think the first existential movie I'm going to make is the next one, because it's really existential in the classic sense of the meaning of the philosophical term. I think the others are maybe existential in the way that any movie is existential. Any story of a group of characters who have to make decisions can be classified as existential, but I don't think the decisions in those particular movies are necessarily conforming to Sartre's philosophy.
O: The Shooting strikes me as one of the first movies, along with Peckinpah's and Anthony Mann's, to break with the mythology of the western. Was that your intention, or was that incidental?
MH: We consciously decided to at least break with some of the tradition in the sense that you take the character that Harry Carey Jr. plays in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon: Early on in the movie, he takes out his wallet and passes around a picture of his mom and talks about how she always made apple pie for him. And we decided consciously not to use any of those techniques to make the audience like a character who was possibly going to get killed later on so they would care more deeply about him. We decided that just being human and having human foibles and maybe being a nice guy but also being a bastard were enough, so we didn't do anything to exaggerate the character's likablity. Other than that, I think that Warren Oates in The Shooting is not really an anti-hero. He behaves in a pretty classic hero-like way.
O: How did you come to be the second-unit director on Robocop, and what was that experience like?
MH: I actually was put up to direct the movie by the studio, and the producer, who was a friend of mine, said he didn't see me as an action director. Then they hired me to direct the action. [Laughs.] You tell me what that means.