“Don’t Ever Ask Me For A Shot List”: Walter Hill on The Assignment
America’s greatest living action filmmaker returns in top form in The Assignment, the deliriously entertaining new film from director Walter Hill. The premise, from a screenplay co-written by Hill and Denis Hamill, is pure lurid pulp: male assassin Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) runs afoul of a brilliant but deranged surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) who has him abducted and knocked unconscious. When Frank comes to, he discovers that he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman – a revelation that only briefly slows down his obsessive quest for revenge.
It’s a provocative conceit that might be offensive in other hands, and indeed Hill has already been hit with criticism that the movie’s premise is transphobic. Yet the director isn’t just being self-serving or disingenuous when he says that the film is its own defense, for The Assignment’s narrative – its actual narrative, not the one imagined by people who haven’t actually seen the film – splinters off in a number of progressive directions, both sociologically and aesthetically. The only way in which The Assignment looks backward is in its sublime sense of action moviemaking craft, which has more in common with the classically composed perfection of Kurosawa and Peckinpah than the frantically cut hand-held style of most recent thrillers. Like Hill’s best work (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, Johnny Handsome), the film strikes a unique and effective balance between serious moral inquiry and the giddy pop pleasures of comic books, crime fiction, and disreputable genre flicks, and it has a propulsive structure that strips everything down to what’s essential, fulfilling Hill’s ideal of elegant simplicity. I spoke with Hill about the movie, which is currently available on multiple VOD platforms and will receive a limited theatrical release on April 7, on the eve of an American Cinematheque tribute to his work. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can see Hill in person at that tribute along with screenings of The Assignment and several Hill masterpieces, including a 70mm presentation of Geronimo: An American Legend.
Filmmaker: I was surprised to read that the origins of The Assignment go back something like forty years. Why did it take so long to get it made?
Walter Hill: It was entirely my fault, I’ll give you that. Denis Hamill wrote the script back in the late 1970s. It was quite different from what we ended up with, but it had the central idea of a doctor getting revenge on a criminal who damaged his family. I was quite struck by the story; I thought was properly bold and outrageous, and subject to a certain kind of irony. But I was busy doing a lot of things back then, and I did nothing with it. About twenty years later, I ran into the script again and started thinking more seriously about it. I called Denis and asked if the rights were available, and went to work on a new script based on his story. It went off on a very different tangent, and when I was done I didn’t like the script – I thought I messed it up. So I set it aside and allowed the option to lapse, and then…I guess it must have been ten or twelve years later, I found Denis’s original script while I was literally rooting around in the basement. I always had this affection for it, and suddenly I read it again and figured out how to do it.
Filmmaker: What was the key to finally making it work?
Hill: I think it was really based on my experience directing episodes of Tales From the Crypt; I realized that I could work in that mode, with a sort of comic book framework. A couple years ago I wrote a graphic novel that was published in France, and I saw a way to do The Assignment in that kind of style. [The Assignment is also now available as a graphic novel.] It kind of came to me in a flash and I wrote the script really quickly, in about two weeks. Then I gave it to my agent and he said it was hopeless. [laughs]
Filmmaker: How did you get it financed?
Hill: I was on my way to a retrospective thing in Europe where they were showing some of my stuff, and my agent said, “Stop in Paris on the way back. There’s a producer there that might go for this.” That was Saïd Ben Saïd, and he did go for it, as long as it was going to be made with some name actors.
Filmmaker: So now you’ve got to get it cast. Who did you go to first?
Hill: There were a number of false starts. In the first place, there was a lot of fiddling around just trying to decide if Frank Kitchen should be played by a guy or a woman. It took me a while to figure that out, and then we had a trial run with an actress I won’t name who got scared and backed out of it. At around that time I decided that the doctor character, who had been written as a man in previous versions of the script, would play better if it was a woman – it would seem like less of a mad scientist trope. Sigourney was the first person I sent it to, though I wasn’t sure how she would react – the part is, in my opinion, a rather sizable chunk to bite into. We had talked about working together for years and it never quite happened, but after she read the script she called me right away and said she’d love to do it. Right after she agreed I had lunch with Michelle Rodriguez. Michelle loved Sigourney and loved the idea of doing it with her, though Michelle and I had a…I don’t know how to describe it, other than as a rather explosive lunch. We went back and forth, sharing ideas, and at the end of it she jumped up and said “I don’t know who the fuck you’re gonna cast, but let me tell you one thing: you’re never gonna find a guy or a girl who can handle guns better than me.” And then she went off, and I thought, “I really like her.” I don’t think she thought I did.
Filmmaker: She’s great in the movie, so you must have ultimately had a pretty strong meeting of the minds.
Hill: Sure, we got along fine. And I have to tell you, I’m really indebted to her. The greatest compliment you can pay an actor is to say that you can’t imagine anyone else playing the part, and that’s the way I feel about Michelle in this movie. It’s not only a really good performance, it’s a brave performance. The film is partially an essay about the changes in the human body and what happens in your head when things change, or if they change in a certain way. She didn’t flinch from that in the least. She stood right up to it.
Filmmaker: Well, there’s been a certain amount of hue and cry about the character from a sociological or political perspective. People – many of whom haven’t seen the movie, of course – have accused you of a negative portrayal of transgender issues. How do you respond to that?
Hill: First of all, I think the argument is the movie itself, which is about genital alteration but has nothing to do with being transgender. I would never set out to make a movie that would make the lives of transgender people more difficult; we live in gender fluid times compared to the country I grew up in, and I think that’s good. I don’t really want to get into debating anybody, but if I run into somebody in the street who wants to accuse me of ill intent, I can say, “Hey, this movie is not what you seem to think” and defend it.
Filmmaker: Getting back to casting, in several cases in this movie – Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub – you’re using stars that bring with them certain expectations and associations for the audience. Is that something you’re conscious of and try to use to your advantage?
Hill: This is a kind of, shall we say, point of contention between directors and actors. Directors have to be very conscious of what the actors are bringing to something in terms of their previous persona, and actors want a clean slate. They want to be able to give a performance as a new character and not be judged by something else that they’ve done. In this case, I was certainly aware of it, but I thought the envelope was so unique and different that we’d all be moving on to some new ground. You’re a better judge of how that succeeded or didn’t, though. It’s impossible to ask directors about their movies.
Filmmaker: Well, in my opinion the movie is very successful when it comes to showcasing Rodriguez in a kind of classic, iconic way; it’s something I’ve always responded to in your films, whether it’s Charles Bronson in Hard Times or Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing or Michael Pare in Streets of Fire…the list goes on and on. All of these actors take on a larger than life, slightly heightened quality in your movies that recalls the way classical directors like Ford and Raoul Walsh used to shoot their performers. Is that quality something that’s done in the writing of the characters, or is it how you frame and light the actors, or simply how you cast?
Hill: Oh, I think it’s all of the above. One of the most important things is to remember not to ask actors to do things they can’t do. Emphasize what they do well and show it off within the text or construct of your narrative. You want to show them in a way that will advertise their virtues.
Filmmaker: Something else you have in common with those old Hollywood guys like Ford and Walsh is a real sense of clarity and force in your action sequences. The viewer is always totally acclimated to the space, so that even when something is chaotic and kinetic it’s never confusing. What’s your overall philosophy when it comes to directing action?
Hill: Jim, I hate to fail you, but I don’t know that I have a philosophy. A lot of it is simple common sense and instinct. Some of it comes from having worked on sets long before I had a chance to be a director, and a great deal of it is seeing what’s possible via the wonderful efforts in other people’s films.
Filmmaker: Let me put it another way. Are you the kind of director who plans the action out very precisely,via storyboards like Hitchcock, or are you closer to someone like Blake Edwards, who used to just show up on set and look at what the actors were doing and then come up with a plan?
Hill: Well, I’d sure like to put myself up there with Blake Edwards! Of course, Hitchcock’s great too – there’s no one way to do it. But I remember years ago that Kurosawa said he didn’t understand a certain kind of preparation. He said, “Until I’m on the set and see the actors and rehearse it and get the scene right, it’s very difficult to say how I’m going to shoot it.” That’s more or less the way I feel. I always tell my assistant director, “Don’t ever ask me for a shot list. If you ask me for a shot list you’re fired, because you’re not gonna get one, you’ll just piss me off.” But I also always tell them, “You’ll never wait for me.” We rehearse, we get it where we like it, and then I can tell you what the shots are at that point. I will say this about action though – while the shooting is obviously important, an awful lot of it is editing.
Filmmaker: That leads me to another question, which is how The Assignment evolved in the editing process.
Hill: The biggest thing was an ongoing debate about how comic book-y we wanted to make it. I had a couple versions where we had a lot of fancy transitions with many more comic book frames, but ultimately I pulled back. I felt that I was overstating it – it may be overstated even now, that’s for other people to say. I was also concerned with getting the balance right in terms of the reality of the world, because this is a graphic novel kind of fantasy in a sense, and you don’t want people to just be swimming in chocolate syrup, if you know what I mean. You need to establish some familiar touchstones to anchor it. So we used title cards for places, what time of day it was, things like that, and had to play around with how much was too much or too little. The rest was mostly clarifying and trimming down. As you know, I like movies to move along and be brisk. I think there’s nothing better than a kind of elegant simplicity, if you can pull that off. Somebody long before me said that it’s the hardest thing in the world, to be simple. There’s a lot of truth in that.