Bridging Ford and Antonioni with Jack Nicholson: Monte Hellman on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind
In July of 1964, director Monte Hellman and actor Jack Nicholson went to the Philippines to shoot two war movies back to back: Flight to Fury, which Nicholson also wrote, and Back Door to Hell. By June of 1965, Hellman and Nicholson had shot two more movies, the Westerns The Shooting (written by future Five Easy Pieces scribe Carole Eastman under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) and Ride in the Whirlwind (scripted by Nicholson). Four movies in twelve months, and not one of them shows any sense of a director straining against limitations of time and money. To the contrary, The Shooting is a flat-out masterpiece, a haunting meditation on vengeance and existentialism that manages to follow in the traditions of both Ford and Antonioni without slavishly imitating either. Just as Hellman’s later gem Two-Lane Blacktop would bridge European art cinema with American car culture, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are films that are simultaneously thoroughly engaged with the American character and the next step in the development of world cinema – the bridge between the French New Wave and the American “golden age” of the 1970s.
The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind have just been released as an exquisite double-feature from the Criterion Collection, the same label that released what in my opinion is one of the ten greatest home video releases of all time, the special edition of Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. Like that package, the Shooting/Whirlwind double bill contains hours of extras – interviews conducted by Hellman with his collaborators, indispensable commentary tracks, a visual essay by critic Kim Morgan – and gorgeous transfers of the films themselves. It’s essential viewing not only for Hellman aficionados and Western buffs but independent filmmakers in general, as the lessons Hellman learned while making these films are every bit as applicable today as they were in the mid-1960s.
The last few years have been very good to those of us who worship Hellman and his work; in addition to the Criterion editions, RaroVideo has released a superb Blu-ray of the barely released 1988 treasure Iguana. For the uninitiated, however, I can think of no better way than the Criterion Western set to start thinking about Monte Hellman – or about cinema in general. A couple days after the Blu-rays were released, I was lucky enough to sit down with Hellman in his Hollywood home and talk with him about the Westerns. I started by asking him how the Criterion restoration came about.
Hellman: I had been talking to Criterion for five or six years, and the kind of work we did was something I had been wanting to do since the minute I made the movies. At the time I was limited by both the budget and the technology, but basically what I wanted was the effect John Huston achieved when he made Moby Dick, where he desaturated the image by shooting in color, then making a duplicate black-and-white negative and sandwiching them together. It was very complicated back then, but with digital technology it’s much simpler – you can make it look however you want, and what I wanted was a sort of black-and-white-in-color, if that makes sense.
Criterion asked me what kind of shape the original negative was in, and I told them that 15 years ago when we prepared the VCI DVD versions, I felt that the negative was very fragile and not very usable. We used it to make a new interpositive, and that’s what was used for the old DVDs. But Criterion wanted to look at the negative, and they managed to use all four reels of the negative on The Shooting and about three-and-a-half of them on Ride in the Whirlwind. They had the patience and the skill to work with that kind of fragile material, so they scanned the negative in 4K and then I was able to go in and color correct it.
Filmmaker: One of the things I love about your Criterion editions is the way that you go back and interview your old collaborators to provide a sort of oral history of the making of the films. You first did that on Two-Lane Blacktop — do you remember what gave you the idea?
Hellman: I don’t remember where the idea came from — it probably came to me in my sleep, as most of my ideas do — but the first thing I wanted to do was retrace our steps and revisit all the shooting locations on a little road trip. That was a lot of fun on Two-Lane Blacktop, and we tried to do a similar thing with The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, but it didn’t work out as successfully because so many of the places where we shot are now underwater, under Lake Powell. Even those locations that aren’t have changed quite a bit; Kanab, Utah just doesn’t look the same as it did when we made our films there.
Filmmaker: How did you come to shoot in Kanab? Was it a frequent site for film productions at the time?
Hellman: Yes, it was known as Little Hollywood and people used it for all kinds of movies. We took a road trip to all the common locations, like Monument Valley and Lone Pine, and we were looking for something very specific because we were going to be shooting two separate movies with very different requirements. We needed a desert for The Shooting and a box canyon for the characters to be trapped in in Ride in the Whirlwind, and Kanab had both.
Filmmaker: That brings us to this idea of shooting two movies back to back in order to maximize your resources, which is something you did twice in one year — you shot four movies in twelve months by making Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell in the Philippines and then doing the two Westerns a few months later in Kanab. Where did you come up with that idea?
Hellman: I didn’t — in both cases, that’s just what I was hired to do. For the Philippines movies, it was probably [producers’] Robert Lippert’s idea, or maybe Fred Roos’. When Jack and I got back from the Philippines we were planning to make Epitaph, his autobiographical screenplay about a young actor trying to raise money for an abortion for his girlfriend. We went together to meet with Roger Corman about that movie. Jack and I had become friends when Roger asked me to stand by during the shooting of a picture Jack was starring in that was directed by one of my former associates from summer stock.
Filmmaker: What was your history with Corman at that time? I know you had directed at least one movie for him, but I also know people working for Roger back then would work in all kinds of capacities, sometimes with credit and sometimes without.
Hellman: At that time I had directed Beast from Haunted Cave as well as additional scenes for some of his films for television. These movies has been made as 60-minute programmers to fill out the second half of a double bill, but when Roger sold them to TV they needed to be seventy minutes. So he hired me to add ten minutes to Beast from Haunted Cave and three other movies after I edited and served as an associate producer on the film where I met Jack. Then I think I directed somewhere around thirty or forty percent of The Terror before I headed off to the Philippines to make Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury.
Before I made films for him, Roger was an investor in the theater company where I did Waiting for Godot and a few other plays. We got thrown out of our theater when, ironically, it was bought by Robert Lippert, who later hired me to make the movies in the Philippines. Roger said we should take that as a sign and that it was time for me to “get healthy,” meaning to make some money for a change by getting into movies. What a joke that was! That was when he offered me the job directing Beast from Haunted Cave. I had always wanted to make movies, but I never dreamed I could do it because I didn’t have any family connections or anything like that. So I sublimated that ambition to directing in theater until Roger came along.
Filmmaker: So back to 1964. You get back from the Philippines and meet with Corman about Jack’s abortion script.
Hellman: Roger decided he didn’t want to make that movie, but he hired us to make a Western. Then he decided pretty quickly that it should be two Westerns, because in Roger’s mind he could get two movies for the price of one.
Filmmaker: So it was a job for hire, but did you have an affinity for Westerns already? It was a really interesting time for the genre, in that the old guard like Ford and Boetticher was kind of slowing down and you had guys like Peckinpah and Leone, and a few years later Arthur Penn, taking the genre in different directions.
Hellman: Leone wanted me to direct Duck, You Sucker! He thought I had been influenced by him when I made The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind and was extremely honored, but I actually hadn’t even seen his movies at that point!
Filmmaker: And ironically, you ended up directing the prologue for the TV version of A Fistful of Dollars with Harry Dean Stanton.
Hellman: I did that with Leone’s blessing. The network wanted to soften Eastwood’s character a little, so we shot a new scene giving him a more heroic motivation.
Filmmaker: Getting back to your feelings about the genre, were you a fan of Westerns when you embarked on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind?
Hellman: I was. The first ones that really made an impression on me were episodes of The Lone Ranger, and I think those planted an unconscious seed in my mind about wanting to make that kind of movie. When I did The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, Jack and I watched The Virginian, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, One-Eyed Jacks, Shane, and…what’s the one with Gregory Peck?
Filmmaker: The Gunfighter?
Hellman: Yeah, The Gunfighter.
Filmmaker: Aside from having echoes of all of those Westerns, I think both movies have real resonances as reflections of the era in which they were made. The Shooting has a whiff of Oswald and the Kennedy assassination around it, and Ride in the Whirlwind seems evocative of the communist witch hunts and blacklists of a few years earlier, in that it’s a movie about how associating with the wrong person can be dangerous. Were you aware of these connections when you conceived the films, or was it just a case of the culture subconsciously seeping into the movies?
Hellman: I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of it, but we certainly made those kinds of associations after the fact. The ending of The Shooting was certainly influenced by the news footage of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot.
Filmmaker: Something that struck me about both movies when I watched them again recently was how realistic they both are. There are so many authentic details, from the rope corral to the guy using sand to wash his dishes. Did you and Carole and Jack actually have time to do a lot of historical research that informed these films?
Hellman: Jack basically wrote his whole script based on research that he did. It came out of a book called Bandits of the Plains, which consisted of diaries of the period. The whole story of a siege on a cabin was based on what Jack read in these diaries.
Filmmaker: Where did you find Carole Eastman? She would go on to become an extremely noteworthy writer, but I don’t think she had done much at this point.
Hellman: She was a friend of a close friend of mine, Luana Anders. I had known her as an actress and then hired her to write the title song for the extra scenes I was shooting for one of Roger’s movies, Creature from the Haunted Sea, which was a remake of Beast from Haunted Cave. So she wrote a song for the lead actress to sing while being shot at from all sides, and that was when I became aware that she might be a writer.
Filmmaker: I’m curious what Corman’s reaction was to these scripts, because they were a lot more deliberately paced and European in flavor than most of the films he produced. I actually think that along with Bogdanovich’s Targets they might be the most distinctive movies to come out of Corman’s factory.
Hellman: I think he was a little bit dismayed by the scripts, but he had the whole thing set up in a way that he knew that whatever happened he wouldn’t lose any money. He sold the pictures immediately to Walter Reed Sterling, and then I was unhappy when I learned that they didn’t have any intention to put them into theaters – they just went directly into packages of TV movies.
Filmmaker: They didn’t have a theatrical release at all in the US?
Hellman: No, the first time they saw the light of day was on American television. They played in theaters briefly later, but not when we made them.
Filmmaker: They had a good reputation in Europe though, right? I know Jean-Luc Godard was a fan.
Hellman: Jack took both films to the Cannes Film Festival when we finished making them and sold the French rights after a screening that I guess Godard and some other critics and filmmakers were at. Then that company went bankrupt and the pictures were put under bond and locked away for three years! I don’t know how it came about, but finally they were sold to another company that released them in France to what was pretty amazing success given the size of the pictures and the fact that everyone was pretty much unknown at the time. The Shooting played for a year and Ride in the Whirlwind stayed on screen for six months and became quite well known to a general audience.
Filmmaker: Do you think news of that European success traveled back to America? Is it why you got Western jobs like directing that TV prologue for A Fistful of Dollars?
Hellman: No, that came about because the studio boss was my former agent, Mike Medavoy.
Filmmaker: Fair enough. Getting back to The Shooting, I wanted to ask about the casting of Warren Oates. I’ve always felt like he’s Richard Dreyfuss to your Spielberg, or De Niro to your Scorsese — not only your favorite actor, but the one who kind of stands in for you on screen. In a visual essay on the Criterion disc, Kim Morgan points out that you were the first person to see Oates as a leading man rather than a character actor. How did you first become aware of him?
Hellman: I saw him do One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on stage and he popped into my mind for The Shooting. We had a lot of common interests in terms of literature and so forth, and became really close friends.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard that Nicholson was the kind of actor who didn’t like to do a lot of rehearsal or takes, and that Warren was the opposite in that he liked to build up to his performance with a lot of preparation both off and on camera. How do you reconcile those two approaches?
Hellman: I don’t remember if that was the case in the scenes between Warren and Jack, but when that happens hopefully you figure it out early and you shoot the coverage on the actor who doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal first.
Filmmaker: Did your relationship with Nicholson change at all when he went from being an actor to being an actor-producer on the two Westerns?
Hellman: He felt a real responsibility to the money part of it. We made the movies for $75,000 a piece and couldn’t go over. If we did the money would come out of our own pocket, because Roger didn’t mess around. So the only difference Jack and I ever had was over one scene that I was determined to shoot and he felt was too expensive because it required a long walk to the location — you couldn’t drive there. It would have added an hour each way, so Jack and I argued about it as we walked, and by the time we were done arguing we had walked to the location, so I got to shoot the scene.
Filmmaker: That raises another issue, which is that both of these films, as well as Iguana, were shot in kind of remote locations on difficult terrain. How did you get your cameras and equipment in and out?
Hellman: Our head wrangler, Calvin Johnson, figured out a way to tie the camera onto a horse. We didn’t have a lot of equipment – I’m not even sure if we had a dolly. There’s a dolly shot in Ride in the Whirlwind, but I don’t remember if it was a dolly or a wheelchair or a bicycle — in the Philippines I used both wheelchairs and bicycles for dollies.
Filmmaker: Well, you came up with a kind of poor man’s dolly for some shots of the characters riding, right?
Hellman: Yeah, you have the actors ride around the camera and pan with them. By using a lens that throws the background out of focus it gives the illusion that you’re dollying with them, but actually they’re just going around in a circle.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of exquisite shots in both movies that look a lot more precise and crafted than one might expect in low-budget films shot on the fly. I’m thinking about something like the shot of Warren Oates in the foreground as the camera moves in one direction while Will Hutchins runs behind him in the other. It’s quite striking. Do you plan shots like that ahead of time, or do you come up with them more intuitively on set?
Hellman: It comes out of the blocking that takes place on the spot. Where the planning comes in is in putting as much work as possible into choosing the locations. We picked the locations for The Shooting first, then when we had a week off — we shot each film in three weeks, with a week off in between — we scouted the locations for Ride in the Whirlwind.
Filmmaker: It’s incredible that you made these beautiful films with so little time and money. Do you have any tips or tricks when it comes to making the most of a low budget?
Hellman: One thing I remember has to do with lighting the cabin interiors in Ride in the Whirlwind. We shot everything we could from one particular angle regardless of where it took place in the script. So instead of shooting one scene, then another scene, then another, we would shoot five scenes from one angle, five scenes from another angle, etc. It was difficult for the actors to bounce around like that, but we saved a lot of time.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the actors, how did they adjust to the low-budget sensibility? Obviously Nicholson was well trained in the Corman style, but you also had people like Millie Perkins, who came from big Hollywood productions like The Diary of Anne Frank, and Cameron Mitchell, who was a seasoned pro. Were they on board with the less luxurious circumstances?
Hellman: I don’t remember anyone having attitude problems, but I do remember an incident with Cameron Mitchell’s wardrobe. We borrowed these beautiful brand new chaps from a TV series that had to be returned when we were finished with them, and the first thing Cameron did on his own was take scissors and cut holes in them! That was a little horrifying.
Filmmaker: He gives a great performance though. Then again, everybody in these movies does.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a monthly podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.