A disciple of Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher—the latter of whom he dedicates Dead For A Dollar to—Walter Hill has been a fixture of American filmmaking for more than five decades. The 48 Hrs. films, starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, rank among his biggest commercial hits, but many others in his career have gone on to be classics or otherwise heavily influential: The Getaway, which Peckinpah directed from Hill’s screenplay; The Driver, which paved the way for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; The Warriors, a street gang showdown that has been sampled or referenced by everything from Bob’s Burgers to Notorious B.I.G.; and then, of course, Alien, which he helped rewrite, uncredited, into one of the most enduring science-fiction franchises of all time.
Hill’s latest film is Dead For A Dollar, a Western with a unique social conscience, exploring race and gender politics across the backdrop of a corrupt border town. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Hill, now 80, about his new film; in addition to talking about the ideas that prompted him to take a more progressive approach to race relations—at least, more progressive than in 48 Hrs.—he discusses his own influences and inspirations, some of which reach back 2,700 years, and he reflects on the great and small lessons he’s learned after decades as a moviemaker.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said all of your films are Westerns, and you dedicate this to Budd Boetticher. Do you consider this to be a revisionist Western, or one that’s just meant to be faithful to the heyday of Boetticher?
Walter Hill: The Budd Boetticher connection, when I finished the movie and had pretty much gotten it in shape editorially, I thought, this movie is to me reminiscent of some of Budd’s westerns. And I’m sure—well, I’m not sure, but I really think that Budd would have liked it. We had some interesting talks about Westerns, and he gave me his autobiography, a beautiful and a very interesting book, by the way. But I just thought the movie was reminiscent of some of Budd’s thematic [ideas] and the physical nature of the movie, that is to say, a small movie made for a limited budget, mainly about ethical standards. It was kind of reminiscent of Budd’s films in the late ’50s and early ’60s. So that’s why I put the dedication up.
AVC: Why was now the right time to make this exploration of ethical standards?
WH: Was I trying to valorize the tradition of the Western? I certainly was, but at the same time in a rather contradictory move, I suppose, I wanted to put in some contemporary issues. I didn’t want to just do something that’s preserved in amber—just the dance of the Western. I’ve always been entranced by really good Westerns. Usually, they have an elegant simplicity that artistically I find very compelling. So I wanted this movie to work within that tradition, but at the same time I wanted it to be able to speak to some modern issues and a modern audience—in this case, race and the proto-feminist movement. But at the same time, I didn’t want to do a contemporary dialog about those issues. I wanted to bring those issues up within the context of what the dialog was in 1897. I didn’t want it to get ahistorical and pedantic.
AVC: The film does take a more progressive attitude with its black characters, which is a choice you might not have made in your 48 Hrs. days, which to me addresses race in a more aggressive way. What prompted you to navigate that theme in this film in the way that you do?
WH: Well, the historical situation of black men in the Army in the 1890s was such that they had very limited social mobility. In this case, one becomes a deserter and the other is a good Army man, for positive reasons—loyalty, the Army has given him a home, all that. And then there’s this dynamic between the two. I always say that Warren Burke probably has the hardest part to play in the movie, because the character of Poe is [strategically but cheerfully deferential] to the Army, and that was the standard. And then he’s got a respect but holds his own ground in his relationship with Max. And then he has another facet of his personality that he displays when he’s alone with his peer and basically a friend, although they’re estranged. The Elijah character, Brandon Scott plays him beautifully in my opinion. And Brandon has broken out—he just can’t take it anymore. And as he articulates, he’s looking for a new horizon. He’s found his life in the Army, and in the United States at that moment, unacceptable. And he runs off trying to get to Cuba.
AVC: When did you conceive the story?
WH: I wrote it about a year and a half ago, maybe two years. But you can certainly take the position since the story is basically borrowed from Homer—a corrupt man hires a mercenary to bring back a presumably abducted wife, which then turns out to be a very different story. This is borrowed from The Iliad, so you can say the story’s been around 2,700 years.
AVC: There have often been connections between your films and classical literature, samurai traditions, and other films. Do you typically work backward to integrate those elements? Or do you look for a way to contemporize those classic archetypes?
WH: Well, my process almost always begins with the characters, and then I try to figure out a narrative to involve the characters—and then you hope you discover the thematic underpinnings as you are making it all flow together. This screenplay began with me reading about a man named Chris Madsen. Chris Madsen was a real person in the history of the West. He was actually born in Denmark. He fought for the Danish army in the Prussian War. He then joined the French Foreign Legion. He then immigrated to America. He scouted in the West for the Army. He became a lawman and a bounty man. And I thought, that’s an interesting kind of character. We do think of the bounty hunter as the kind of classic, Anglo-American type. And I thought, the real truth is that the West was heavily populated by immigrants. And I thought it would be interesting and kind of contemporarily relevant to have your protagonist be an immigrant figure playing a traditional, heroic role. Christoph immediately spotted the classical overtones that we were talking about, or, shall we say, Homeric origins. And I said, “Yeah, but you’re playing Odysseus, not Achilles.” And he understood that perfectly. So you spin it out, and you’re so involved in the process when you’re writing that the overview that you described of what your plan is gets lost, because you’re immersed in it and then hopefully you arrive someplace with it.
AVC: There’s a spartan quality to your writing and your storytelling that I love so much. You put it all on screen, but let the audience uncover and question it. How difficult was it to develop that sense of what needs to go in and what doesn’t?
WH: Well, I’ve always been very attracted to the concept of mystery of character. I think this idea that we understand ourselves because we understand how we grew up or something like that, it would be nice if it were so. But it just doesn’t work that way. And I think dramatically, mystery of character can be much more compelling than filling in every possible blank. And it also gives the actor room to interpret in a broader way, I believe. I mean, you have to have certain fundamental information about the character, but I don’t like to be overly specific. I kind of was, for reasons that I suppose are obvious, in the scene with the big speech with Rachel. She was trying to seduce Max to her side of the situation. She understood that she needed an ally and that he was a very serious opponent. And for her to get her way, she needed to get him on her side. And indeed he was moved by her story—he’s very stoic, but it was part of the process of breaking his own code and not fulfilling his own contract with her husband.
AVC: I see you very much as emblematic of a generation of filmmakers who dealt with tough stories in tough, really complex, nuanced ways. Is that something you feel is missing now from films?
WH: Well, I have been around a while, and things certainly change and one understands that—that audience tastes change. New generations come in with different attitudes and different backgrounds. That’s just the way of life, really. At the same time, I always had the rule that the jokes are funny, but the bullets are real. And I think that idea is now not acceptable in the action world. I mean, I’ve certainly dealt with comic book presentations, but it’s a different kind of comic book that is now very popular. I don’t like to critique films that other people do. I mean, these things are hard to make, and hard to get right. But most of what is really popular these days, especially in the action field, I will admit, is not to my taste. But that doesn’t mean that some aren’t a lot better than others, and well-crafted and all those things. But again, for me it’s much easier to valorize the work of the past, and some of the past masters. I’m a hell of a lot more interested in the films of Kurosawa than I am in the Marvel series.
AVC: I remember reading a quote from you about how you held back the comedy in 48 Hrs. as long as possible, and you credited the film’s success to that—which maybe speaks to what you said about the jokes being funny and the bullets being real. Are there other lessons like that, that contemporary storytellers would do well to remember or learn?
WH: Well, I think the lessons are there in the past. You can study the films of Howard Hawks to greater understanding of storytelling and presentation of story. Hawks always felt if you wanted to make people laugh, don’t try to be too funny at the beginning—you know, set up the premise of your story and then after they understand the characters let it get funny. But don’t try to start with some big joke, because you’re then always trying to top yourself. And that’s a difficult road. Your description of 48 Hrs. I think is accurate, both in my intentions and why it worked. I always thought if you went to see an action movie, [my movie] was very funny. And if you went to see a comedy, there was an awful lot of action. So it was a mix of genres a bit, and obviously we had some gifted performances from Nick [Nolte] and Eddie [Murphy].
AVC: When I interviewed Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t until after he had made that movie that he saw The Driver, because they are so similar in so many ways. Are there films of yours whose DNA you see in modern movies that you think deserve a reappraisal, or you see as the 1.0 version of something newer?
WH: People have asked me this in the past about what do I think when I see things that are remarkably similar to some things in my own work, and I just take the Oscar Wilde position that it’s the ultimate form of flattery and, and let it go with that. I think that we all have to find our own voice. Nic Refn definitely has his own voice, by the way. I’m a fan of his. But we are all connected and I think sometimes people try to make too much of originality, in the sense that we all are influenced by other artists. It’s just inevitable. And early in my career, it was suggested that I was very influenced by [Sam] Peckinpah, which is probably true. There was always persistently within me a dialog about Peckinpah’s films, how influenced he was by Kurosawa. That was undeniably true. People that commented often on Kurosawa’s films noted how influenced he was by John Ford. And John Ford, if you look at his films, was clearly very, very influenced by D.W. Griffith. And Griffith was obviously very influenced by Charles Dickens. So I don’t mean to be too reductive, but I think it’s undeniable that we’re all just joined in a way, and the big thing is, does the filmmaker, the artist, the novelist, the painter, do they have their own voice? It’s not so much the influence. It’s the nuance and difference of the voice that’s being used, in our case, to tell the tale.
AVC: As we’re wrapping here, The Getaway is one of my all-time favorite films. And I love The Driver.
WH: Don Siegel used to say this: where were you when I needed you?
AVC: Looking at the body of work that you’ve created that has created such an enduring legacy, do you still feel the same creative passion that you always did?
WH: Well, you get to be my age, and very few directors my age are working anymore. It’s a funny way to make a living. When people ask you, “do you think about retirement?” Directors never retire. But at some point, you’re kind of like a ballplayer. They come in and take your uniform away and send you home. That hasn’t happened to me yet. Do I approach it with the same energy and passion? I think I do. Physically, I couldn’t make Southern Comfort again. That would have been physically too hard for me at this point in my life, and maybe a couple others that I did. But I still think I can tell a story and the stories are at least of interest to me. And you hope that they’re of interest to somebody else who might buy a ticket. So, there you go.