“Don’t Shoot Too Many Takes”: Walter Hill on Dead for a Dollar
The closing title card of the new Western Dead for a Dollar includes the dedication “In Memory of Budd Boetticher.” Had director Walter Hill worked during Boetticher’s era, he too may have churned out exceptional, modestly budgeted Westerns at a clip of roughly one a year, like Boetticher did for Columbia Pictures in the 1950s.
Instead, Hill has settled for being one of a handful of contemporary repeat practitioners of the Western, a disparate group ranging from Clint Eastwood to the Coen Brothers, Kevin Costner to Quentin Tarantino.
Hill’s first Western, The Long Riders—a retelling of the Jesse James story that cast real sets of brothers—was released in the summer of 1980 and did decent business. However, the financial disasters of Heaven’s Gate and The Legend of the Lone Ranger the following year rendered expensive studio Westerns nearly non-existent for the next half decade. Hill returned to the genre in the early 1990s with Geronimo and Wild Bill before turning to television with the pilot episode of HBO’s Deadwood and the AMC miniseries Broken Trail starring Robert Duvall.
Hill’s latest horse opera opens with a European bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) taking a job from a wealthy New Mexico businessman (Hamish Linklater) to retrieve his wife (Rachel Brosnahan), who he claims was kidnapped by a Black army deserter (Brandon Scott) and taken to Mexico. The truth proves more complicated, as does the mission itself as Waltz crosses paths with a dangerous Mexican land baron (Benjamin Bratt) and a recently paroled outlaw with a grudge (Willem Dafoe).
With the film now available on Video on Demand and physical media, Hill spoke to Filmmaker about the virtues and vices of shooting digitally, what he misses about the old studio system, and his 50-plus year relationship with Dead for a Dollar cinematographer Lloyd Ahern.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the genesis of this project. There’s a co-story credit and you’ve got sole credit on the screenplay. Is this something you originated, or did you come across a script you liked and retool it?
Hill: I guess the closest approximation is the latter of what you just said. I came onto the project when my agent suggested it might be worthwhile to make a deal with a set of producers who seemed to have money to make a Western. This story is a little convoluted. You’ll probably be sorry you asked. (laughs) I wanted to write something of my own and was reading about outlaws in the old Oklahoma territory, and I ran across a man named Chris Madsen. He was a bounty hunter and a lawman, but he had been born in Denmark. He fought in the Danish army in the war with Prussia. He joined the French Foreign Legion after leaving the Danish army and did a tour of duty in North Africa. He then took a boat to America, went west, joined the American Army and served as an Army scout. Then he left the Army and went into law enforcement and became a bounty man. Reading about Madsen reminded me how much of the west was populated by immigrants. I already wanted to do a story about a bounty man, and I thought that would be an interesting takeoff point to start with somebody with more of a European point of view rather than having the traditional kind of Anglo figure. But this is not an incident from Chris Madsen’s life, nor is it an attempt to make a character exactly like him. For all I know, Chris Madsen had a very different personality.
So, that was my way into the story. Then I wanted to build an antagonist that was as directly opposite of [Waltz’s] Max as possible, but at the same time I wanted there to be a plausible thread between them. So, I wanted a very American type. I wrote the role of Joe Cribbens for Willem Dafoe. He and I were old friends. We worked together on Streets of Fire many years ago. I sent him the script and he called me back and said, “I read it and I don’t want any other actor to play this part.”
Filmmaker: That’s a high compliment.
Hill: It was a nice way to accept the role. When I got the first draft done, I called Christoph, who I knew before this film. If you’re looking for a European bounty man, he would seem to be the first call. He called back like a day later and said he wanted to do it and when do we start.? Unfortunately, we then had to go find the money and starting took a while, but, anyway, that was the origin of the thing.
Filmmaker: Let’s dig into the difficulties of getting a Western made. The Long Riders (1980) came out a few months before the release of Heaven’s Gate and for the next five years there were almost no studio Westerns. Then you made Geronimo and Wild Bill in the early-to-mid-90s, when studios were presumably still flush with home video money. Now, you’re making Dead for a Dollar in the streaming era. Compare the process of getting a Western financed in those different periods.
Hill: Well, the studio system as we understood it has ceased to exist. It only exists for very special ventures or the Marvel kind of films. Period dramas are not on their list. They’re not saying, “Boy, can we get one of those!” (laughs) So, you’re now in the independent finance world, and that is difficult to swim in because there’s just so many small companies. God knows the studio system had vast flaws—it was not a perfect environment for the art of the cinema—but at least there were only six or seven studios and you could get answers much quicker. Now, you go to meetings and talk, and the script goes out to various companies and, even when you get somebody to say yes, it’s almost always not a single financier [for the entire movie]. So, you then have to repeat and repeat the process. The money comes in parcels. So, that’s much different. It’s much more tedious than the old system and the movies tend to get made for far less money than the old system. However, given the digital revolution both in cameras and editing, you can make movies faster now than you could 30 years ago.
Filmmaker: You only had 25 days to shoot Dead for a Dollar. You had almost 40 days for your first film, Hard Times, back in the mid-70s. Your working style has tended to be to design your shots on the day during blocking rehearsal. You don’t do extraneous coverage, and you don’t do a lot of takes. Did shooting this movie in such a narrow window make you adjust the way you work at all?
Hill: If you’re going to shoot a short schedule, my process—as you rather accurately just described it—is a pretty good process to have. Don’t shoot too many takes and don’t plan an overly elaborate approach. It was really the conditions of the work on the film, rather than my process, that was different. We didn’t have any money to really build sets. The sets were all standing and from other productions, and that’s, of course, a big difference. That’s the constraints of lower budget filmmaking, but I don’t want to complain. I think we had enough—barely enough, but enough to tell the story. Every director that does a movie wishes he or she had another week. They all want more time. Time is everything. So, I wish I’d have had another week, but I’m really not complaining. I think we told the complete story in the time we had. It’s a tribute to the actors that it went smoothly. I’m very indebted to the cast. Nobody was ever late, they always knew the lines, there were no disputes about the way I wanted to stage things. It went very smoothly in front of the camera. Behind the camera, with the financial elements, there was, shall we say, some excitement, but it worked out.
Filmmaker: You said in an interview for the film that because of scheduling you had to shoot the final Dafoe and Waltz showdown midway through production, but you hate to do that because once you’ve shot the ending it’s easier for the financiers to pull the funding.
Hill: Exactly. (laughs) That is all part of the trade. They don’t usually put that in the book, you know, when they say how to direct.
Filmmaker: One of my favorite scenes in the film is a oner in an extreme long shot where Max and his Army-provided cohort Poe (Warren Burke) ride across a static frame while Poe tries to pry some personal info out of Max. I don’t know if that dialogue is ADR, or if that’s even the actors in that long shot or their doubles, but it’s an effective and economical way to cover that scene when you’re working on such a short schedule.
Hill: That dialogue was actually lifted from another scene that did not survive into the film, and I put it over that shot. That’s one of my favorite scenes too. To me, that’s what filmmaking can be, you know? You don’t want to get into this thing where [characters] just walk up to each other and stand close and you shoot some closeups. There are times where that is appropriate and that’s the proper way to shoot a scene, but when you get a chance to open it up, it really helps. Westerns are good for that. Hopefully, in that shot you’re kind of mesmerized by these tiny figures against the great landscape of the Mexican desert. The punchline of that scene is delivered just as they go off [the edge of the frame], which I think is what sells it as well as anything else.
Filmmaker: You talked in an interview about how you initially planned to shoot the movie largely handheld, but ultimately you weren’t able to. What prevented you from taking that approach?
Hill: The cameras were too heavy. We couldn’t get the cameras that we first wanted. We didn’t have the money. Making dolly shots was very, very difficult for us, too. We didn’t have a crane. Well, we did have a kind of crane, but it was close to nonfunctioning. So, to bring movement as much as I could, I did a lot of panning in the opening of scenes to give it a sense of motion and size.
Filmmaker: A quote of yours that I love is, “Your cinematographer is your brother. Your editor is your priest.” On Dead for a Dollar, you’re back working with your longtime collaborator Lloyd Ahern II behind the camera.
Hill: I’ve known Lloyd since we worked on Gunsmoke together in 1966.
Filmmaker: He was an assistant camera then and you were an assistant director?
Hill: That’s right. Well, actually, I wasn’t even that yet. I was a production assistant. Lloyd and I became friends then and we’ve been friends since, long before I was a director. Lloyd, I’ll never forget, did the kindest thing that one human being can probably do for another, which is when I was moving apartments once, he came over and helped me move. (laughs) Our friendship goes back a long way. That doesn’t prevent us from badgering each other on the set. I question why it’s taking so long, and he questions why we have to do it in such a complicated way.
Filmmaker: Lloyd has shot pretty much all your features since the early ’90s, with the exception of your last film, The Assignment. He hasn’t shot a feature in a few years. Is he semi-retired? Did you have to talk him into doing Dead for a Dollar?
Hill: I believe he is sort of retired, although I don’t know that he exactly puts it that way. He’s had trouble with his health, and he’s developed some bad knees and bad hips over the years. I mean, he’s not a young fellow. If I recall correctly, he’s a year younger than I am, which means he’s old. But I didn’t really have to talk him into it. He likes working with me. I don’t mean this in a self-flattering sense, but at this point he’ll work with me as a matter of friendship and probably wouldn’t work for almost anybody else. You need to have a good relationship with your cameraman. You have to trust each other. If a director has chosen badly for the sets, the cameraman is going to look bad. If the director insists on shooting in front light on an exterior scene just because he likes the background in that direction, the photography is going to look bad. Lloyd and I have our routine pretty well worked out, and I try to put him and the film into situations that I know are going to look good.
Filmmaker: Is this your second film shot digitally, after The Assignment?
Hill: Yes. The Assignment was shot in Vancouver, and we couldn’t have an American cameraman on that, so James Liston did the work and I think did a good job under the circumstances. It was another film with [a low budget].
Filmmaker: How was your experience with digital the second time around? I know you’re a “sit on an apple box next to the camera” kind of director rather than being back at video village, but what do you see as the positives of digital?
Hill: I must say you seem to have an enormous personal knowledge of my habits.
Filmmaker: If I get the privilege of talking to Walter Hill, I’m going to do my research.
Hill: Well, you’re right, I’m not a video village guy. It’s a useful tool at times, especially when you’re checking a stunt with playback to make sure you’ve got it properly. For that, video playback is a wonderful thing. I don’t particularly like it for performance and I’m confident about the sizing of my images, so I don’t need to go to a little video screen to check on that.
Filmmaker: One way it’s changed directorial working habits is that, rather than cutting after every take and re-slating, some directors will just run a series of takes, because you’re not limited by the ten minutes you get on a roll of film.
Hill: Yeah, that’s a good part. There is a profit and loss [to working with digital]. There are things that we have left behind with film that it’s sad that we’ve lost. There’s a quality of film, a quality of the warmth to it. It’s just a different kind of beauty. It’s not quite so harsh and sharp-edged, though they do have some amazing processes now to make digital look more like film.
For me, the biggest thing in the digital revolution was editorial. My first movie was cut on a Moviola. I remember when we went to a flatbed, which was on my second movie, it was like, “Hosanna! Hallelujah!” We had moved into modern times. Then after 10 or 12 more movies or something like that we went into editing digitally.
There are enormous advantages [to shooting digitally as well]. As you said, you can shoot without having to reload every 900 feet and can just keep things going. I think that’s probably a greater advantage for directors who like to do lots of takes, but it is still a good thing. You can also be more forgiving when you shoot digital, because some things that are not quite right [on set] can be fixed in post and one knows that. So, if you think maybe you’re a little overlit, rather than take another 20 minutes to straighten that out, you can just shoot and fix it later, whereas on film you were much more locked in both in terms of color and density.
Filmmaker: At the end of the film there’s a tribute to director Budd Boetticher. If you were making films in Boetticher’s era, who would you have cast in the Dafoe and Waltz roles? It’s 1958, you’re at Columbia, who is the dream cast?
Hill: For Christoph’s part it’s hard to say. In that period, maybe Oskar Werner. I would say for Willem’s part probably Dan Duryea, who most people don’t remember. He’s wonderful in several Fritz Lang movies. When he used to play the villain, he had this great smile that flashed evil.