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“I’ve Just Made Two-Lane Blacktop as a Film about a Filmmaker — It’s the Same Story”: Director Monte Hellman on Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere (Monterey Media)

On the sad occasion of Monte Hellman’s passing, we’re republishing this interview of the director that originally ran here in March, 2011, by Nick Dawson. Focused on his “comeback” film, Road to Nowhere, the interview also deals with Hellman’s career in general, his philosophy towards filmmaking, and mentions a tantalizing unmade project based on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Maison de Rendezvous. — Editor

There’s little better at restoring one’s faith in cinema then when a great director returns from the  wilderness. Terrence Malick was MIA for 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but Monte Hellman’s time away from feature filmmaking has been even more prolonged. It was as far back as 1988 when Hellman made Iguana, his last “proper” film, but now the director of such cult classics as Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter has happily returned to filmmaking.

Last fall, Hellman unveiled Road to Nowhere at the Venice Film Festival – where he won a Jury Award Special Lion for Career Achievement –  and declared the movie his first truly personal work. It’s a deliriously enjoyable film about filmmaking, centering on a director, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and screenwriter, Steven Gates (Rob Kolar), who set out to make a movie based on a recent crime story involving murder, suicide and embezzlement. (The creative partnership is clearly based on Hellman and his longtime collaborator Steven Gaydos). Of course, it’s not that simple: Road to Nowhere is not just about the art and craft of making films, it’s also a movie-within-a-movie and, raising the stakes, actors Shannyn Sossamon and Cliff De Young not only play the femme fatale and the rich older man with whom she was involved, but also the actors who play those same characters in Haven’s production. As Hellman builds layer upon layer and takes meta to a new level, one can tell that this was as fun for him to make as it is for audiences to watch.

In advance of Road to Nowhere‘s screening at SXSW, Filmmaker sat down with Hellman to discuss his long-awaited return to directing.

Filmmaker: First off, I have to say that it’s so great that you are back making movies. Was it a self-imposed hiatus, or were you trying to get projects off the ground this whole time?

Hellman: I started getting into more of my own personal projects about that time, and that’s always harder. Literally every movie I made before Road to Nowhere has been work for hire, it’s been somebody else’s idea, not mine. So those calls started coming in less and less frequently. I’ve always been developing my own projects and I’ve never been able to get them on before, but we got close a number of times, and also I did get hired a number of times by Coppola, and by Tarantino to do Freaky Deaky. I was involved in a number of projects that, for various reasons, the other people involved just couldn’t let go of them and wouldn’t let us actually make the movie. With Francis, we literally had a go-ahead from Warner Bros., but he was never satisfied with the script, so it never got made. Pretty much the same thing happened with Freaky Deaky and a number of other projects like that, as well as things that came my way, and then disappeared. With Buffalo ’66, I actually raised the money and was ready to make the movie, and then Vincent Gallo decided that he was going to do it. So lots of almost-rans.

Filmmaker: It must be hugely satisfying to have made this movie, for it to have received such a great reception, and now to be getting ready for its release.

Hellman: Well, it’s the first of my own projects. God bless Steven Gaydos, because he had this idea and, as he said, it’s the first one of his ideas that I’ve liked in 40 years! [laughs] And so, we were off to a good start. Not only did I like it, but my daughter and son liked it, and my daughter just decided that we were going to do this whatever, and not wait for somebody to wait to give us permission. There’s a kind of sense of freedom about that – it was wonderful when she actually did it.

Filmmaker: When I was watching it, my feeling was that this was made by a filmmaker who wasn’t trying to prove anything, but was just enjoying himself. It seemed like you were ignoring any outside pressures and simply relishing the experience of making the movie.

Hellman: It was exactly that, and everybody there was family, including Steve. He was so generous in the creative process, and the actors in a sense became co-writers. He was just very generous about accepting everything and just enjoying the way that it grew and developed.

Filmmaker: There’s a line in the movie where his alter ego says, “It would be great if you used one of my lines…”

Hellman: [laughs] Right! Even though it applies to every writer, I think he actually stole that from the writer of… the Altman movie, the upstairs downstairs…

Filmmaker: Gosford Park.

Hellman: With Gosford Park, literally the whole script was rewritten on the set. [Julian Fellowes] won an Academy Award, and not one of his lines of dialogue remained in the movie. [laughs] And he actually made that statement.

Filmmaker: You just described this as your first personal film. Just watching it, there are so many details that seem to pertain to you and your life. The movies they watch are some of your favorite movies. There are characters called Steven Gates and Mitchell Haven, who are seemingly alter egos for Steven Gaydos and yourself.

Hellman: Initially, we actually wanted to put personal mannerisms and stuff in there, much the way Fellini did with and Marcello [Mastroianni], but it quickly became apparent that it would be more effective if we went along with my consistent philosophy of using the personal mannerisms of the actors and not trying to make them imitate somebody else. So [Mitchell Haven] really became Tygh Runyan, apart from the fact that he was saying things that I say sometimes. [laughs] But dialogue doesn’t create character, obviously, so it really is him and not me. And the same with Rob Kolar – he was Rob Kolar, not Steven Gaydos. But the idea was to try and have a little fun with recapturing some of the experiences we’ve had over the years making these super low budget movies, and show what it’s like to make that kind of movie.

Filmmaker: There’s a line near the end of the movie: “This is not just some crappy Hollywood movie, this is my crappy Hollywood movie.” Is this truly the first time you’ve felt like this is your crappy Hollywood movie?

Hellman: Every work for hire, I’ve managed to get some freedom – to totally rewrite the script, as we did on Two-Lane Blacktop, or create scripts from scratch, as we did on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind – even though the initial impetus, the initial idea, came from other people. So there were a lot of personal elements in those movies, but nothing as complete as this.

Filmmaker: So you made them your own, rather than them beginning as your own.

Hellman: That’s right.

Filmmaker: Watching Road to Nowhere, it set me wondering what it means – if anything – when a director makes a film about filmmaking. In this particular instance, what did it mean for you?

Hellman: I used to say that people put too much on the canvas of a film. Two Lane Blacktop is not about street racing, it’s about a character who has a conflict between his need for personal best and his need for some kind of intimate relationship. I said it could easily could have been a film about a filmmaker – it didn’t have to be street racing. Well, I’ve just made Two-Lane Blacktop as a film about a filmmaker. [laughs] It’s the same story.

Filmmaker: When you were making the film, did you think about seminal films about filmmaking, movies like and Day for Night?

Hellman: No, we were really thinking about our own experiences, and it was very easy because we were doing it again. So we turned the camera around and shot the crew and shot the service vehicles and the grip truck and the electric truck – that was all real, that was all there. Somebody recently said in a review that it’s also a terrific documentary about the process.

Filmmaker: It’s also very current. I watched Road to Nowhere on my laptop, and the movie starts with someone watching a DVD of a film called Road to Nowhere on their laptop. And that perfectly sets things up for the movie, which is not just meta but goes way beyond that, creating layers upon layers and movies within movies. It makes the process of watching the film more challenging, but also more enjoyable. Did you have fun creating those layers and blurring the lines?

Hellman: This goes back to an old project of mine that I still hope to do which was called In a Dream of Passion but was based on Robbe-Grillet’s La Maison de Rendez-vous. What fascinated me about that particular project was that you would come in on a photograph on the front page of an old, dirty Hong Kong newspaper, and then the photograph would come to life. I just love this kind of magic of taking one reality and blending it into another.

Filmmaker: The viewer reaches a stage in the movie where they are saying with every scene, “Is this the movie? Or is this real life?” And then, at a certain point, it ceases to matter so much, because it’s all part of one broader reality.

Hellman: Yeah, it’s all part of Mitchell Haven’s vision. It doesn’t really matter. All those layers are just part of his creative process.

Filmmaker: At the end of the credits for any movie, it usually states that all characters and incidents depicted in the film are purely fictional. However, Road to Nowhere ends with a message in caps that reads, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.”

Hellman: Right! [laughs] Again, that was a nod to Robbe-Grillet, because he starts La Maison de Rendez-vous by saying, “This work is entirely fictitious – it bears no resemblance to reality,” and then on the next page he says, “This is absolutely the way it is in Hong Kong, and if it doesn’t look that way to you then just remember, things change fast.”

Filmmaker: Cliff De Young and Shannyn Sossamon both play double roles in the film. What was it like helping them through the demands of that?

Hellman: Well, I’m a minimalist director. All I do is as little as I can get away with because I want everything to come from the actors, so Shannyn and Cliff were almost diametrically opposed. She understood – or thought she understood – everything, and literally created her characters, created her own wardrobe, created her own chronology so that she knew where she was at all times. Cliff didn’t have a clue, and he kept asking me, “What am I doing here?” I said, “It doesn’t matter!” Of course, he’s never been more pleased with a performance of his.

Filmmaker: You’ve been teaching film for quite a while. How has that affected your perception of and approach to filmmaking?

Hellman: Well, my philosophy on teaching is that it’s pretty much a sham and that it’s something that can’t be taught. The first thing I tell my students is that they’re wasting their money going to film school! [laughs] Which they are. But, beyond that, I’ve learned so much from them and I’ve utilized it in the work. Also, I took advantage of them as collaborators on the movie: I had a number of my students working in assistant jobs to heads of department. Again, it was a two-way street: they learned so much, but the various technicians learned a lot from them.

Filmmaker: Looking ahead, are you hoping to use this a springboard to make more features in the near future?

Hellman: We’d like to do more in the same manner, although not necessarily quite as cheaply as this one. It was a tremendous sacrifice for everybody – we lived without income for several years. People have asked, “How did you live all these years without making a movie?” But I live much better when I’m not making a movie! Beyond that, we’d like to utilize the same methods with maybe a little bigger budgets so people can maybe be paid a little but of money and live during the process.

Filmmaker: Beyond nobody getting paid, did you have to cut corners on this film?

Hellman: My daughter’s philosophy was, “You’re not going to want for anything.” We’d originally planned to do it in a much tighter way without a big grip truck and an electric truck, but she just said, “We need it,” and found a way to do it.

Filmmaker: And what was it like mixing family with filmmaking?

Hellman: It was wonderful. There are all kinds of rules that are meant to be broken, and in this case we broke the rule and it just worked out. It was a joy throughout. She just protected me from all the stress. She was going through a nightmare most of the time, but she didn’t break into my creativity with all the money problems and all of that.

Filmmaker: Tell me about what it was like premiering the movie at Venice, where you won a prize.

Hellman: That was like a delayed thrill of a lifetime. We were invited to Venice with Two Lane Blacktop [in 1971]. I was literally halfway out the door on the way to the airport when Universal called and said that they had withdrawn the film because they didn’t want to have two films in competition and they decided to go with Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.

Filmmaker: It must have been heartbreaking to miss out on that.

Hellman: It was terrible. And I’d bought this wonderful gown for my girlfriend, and that was going to be the thrill of a lifetime. Well, maybe I’m better able to enjoy it now because I can’t imagine anything being better than Road to Nowhere at Venice. It was amazing.

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