This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The History of Cinema According to Monte Hellman
Trajet de Monte Hellman, par Brad Stevens
"They've kept me out for 10 years. Just because I didn't buy into their dream. But nobody's going to stop this one. While the Gods slept..." - Mitchell Haven in the ROAD TO NOWHERE screenplay (draft dated 13 August 2007).
To begin with a proposition: Monte Hellman and Abel Ferrara are the most important working American directors. And if anything could be said to link these two otherwise very different artists, it is surely their lack of neuroticism, their ability, in a culture dominated by the life-denying obsessions of consumerism, to unblinkingly confront the beast in its lair without being captivated by its insidious charm. The result has, of course, been predictable, with Ferrara turning to Europe for financing, and Hellman, like Michael Cimino (now apparently retired from filmmaking), sentenced to increasingly lengthy periods of inactivity. As capitalism enters its crisis stage, it seems that the only position America currently deems permissible in its artists is that of fiddling while Rome burns, the most we can legitimately expect being the work of Friedkin or De Palma, who at least insist on fiddling with (to quote George Orwell's remark about Henry Miller) their faces to the flames.
Which is why it a cause for celebration that Monte Hellman is currently shooting Road to Nowhere, his first feature film since 1989's Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!. Hellman has certainly not been inactive during the last two decades, serving as mentor/inspiration/producer to Quentin Tarantino, developing a string of unrealized projects, shooting some charming documentaries for Criterion's Two-Lane Blacktop DVD, and directing one small gem, Stanley's Girlfriend, a contribution to the portmanteau film Trapped Ashes. In several respects, this sublime short is a sequel to Two-Lane Blacktop: like that masterpiece, it focuses on two men, united by a single passion, who deny (whilst confirming) the homoerotic nature of their friendship by sharing a woman who nonetheless insists on her autonomous existence, and who eventually decides to simply walk away from the whole sorry mess, leaving the men two 'free' to pursue their obsessions. To judge from the screenplay by Steve Gaydos, as well as from Hellman's comments, it would seem that Road to Nowhere is going to serve as a continuation of both Two-Lane Blacktop (which, Hellman once insisted, could just as easily have been about filmmakers as car racers) and Stanley's Girlfriend. Tygh Runyan, who played a young director in the latter film, has again been cast as a director. But whereas his earlier character was clearly based on Stanley Kubrick, his latest collaboration with Hellman finds him playing an auteur named Mitchell Haven (initials M. H.), who is described in the screenplay as "a stick-thin whippet of a man with wild wiry hair...a handsome Hollywood pro of many
cinematic wars" whose home in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon is decorated with posters for films entitled Two-Lane Highway, The Shouting, Ride in the Hurricane, Rooster Fighter and Reptile. It seems unlikely that anyone motivated to read the following interview will have difficulty identifying the real-life sources of these non-existent films, constituting as they do a fictionalized version of Monte Hellman's career: his early years making existential westerns for Roger Corman (The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind), his still controversial Cockfighter (which starred his favourite actor, Warren Oates, as a cockfighter who has taken a vow of silence), and his remarkable, if seldom-seen, Iguana.
Unusually for an American filmmaker of his (or, indeed, any) generation, Hellman has a wide knowledge of world cinema. Visit him in his Laurel Canyon home, and you are likely to find yourself (as I did in 2003) watching a rare VHS recording of Nikita Mikhalkov's Slave of Love (another investigation into the nature of filmmaking), which he insists is one of the finest films ever made. This passionate cinephilia is expressed throughout Hellman's oeuvre not merely in the form of specific references (though these certainly exist), but in an affinity for directors who explore similar areas of experience. He has acknowledged the influence of Ingmar Bergman's Persona on the final shot of Two-Lane Blacktop, but claims to have been unconscious of the similarities between The Shooting and The Seventh Seal. Yet it is clear enough how closely Bergman's Knight and Squire resemble Hellman's Gashade and Coley, and the films share an emphasis on journeys of questionable purpose, game-playing, and mortality. His all-time favourite, however, remains Victor Erice's L¶esprit de la ruche, which he has written about for Positif, and which is mentioned in the Road to Nowhere screenplay:
"On the hotel room's large screen TV, the last scene of Victor Erice's Spanish masterpiece L¶esprit de la ruche is finishing. Mitchell is sitting on his black leather couch, with Laurel lying on the couch, her head on his lap. She's crying.
MITCHELL: Fuck everybody. That's a masterpiece.
LAUREL: How many movies have you seen?
Mitchell looks at her with wonder and incredulity.
MITCHELL: Don't ask that question to any filmmaker over 40.
LAUREL: Why Not?
MITCHELL: You'll figure out how much time we spend watching other people's dreams."
As this dialogue (as well as some comments made in the following interview) suggests, Road to Nowhere will likely serve as both a tribute to a life lived in cinema, and an interrogation of the obsessiveness such a life entails.
Le tournage de Road to Nowhere, par Milenko Skoknic
The Road to Nowhere must start somewhere. I realized what kind of an experience it would be when Monte, while shooting in a bathroom interior scene, called out from a window down to his son Jared, who at that moment could not see where his voice was coming from (the hotel had many windows, all darkened by mosquito screens, making it hard to see the interior.) Jared, looking around, asked him where he was. Monte answered, ³if you don¶t know where I am, how will I know?´ These playful pauses throughout the shoot resumed both the set atmosphere and Monte¶s particular filmmaking process: we can discover where we are and our role in the film by virtue of our relationships with everyone else. As the days went by, I realized this process is akin to bird flying in swarms: they are able to gracefully fly in packs because all they do is fly and not block the other bird¶s way. At the root of something that looks complicated, lies a very simple thing.
Most of the filming took place at the Balsam Mountain Inn in Balsam, North Carolina. It¶s a three-story hotel, more than 100 years old where cast and crew would have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. The back porch faced the mountains and served as the official lounge area. Road to Nowhere is a film about a film, but in retrospect, I feel the way Monte set up the production was by mirroring the reality presented by the film which resulted in everyone literally living inside the film. By working and living in the same place, the scenes would take place in the same rooms the actors were staying. After a few weeks, the separation between living and creating an alternate reality for a film became undistinguishable. Most of the actors would walk around in their character¶s wardrobes, and yet most of the clothes were their own.
Monte¶s directions to actors on set are at once very fine yet concrete: at the end of each scene shot, there was a clear notion of where this scene related to the previous one, but it was a result that cannot be anticipated or planned in advance. Monte¶s directions always address the actor¶s humanity rather than the characters they¶re playing. This approach, within the structure of a genre film, forces the genre become porous, less rigid and allows for the underlying themes in RTN that Monte is exploring, like the mysteries of human desire and the actions that are a result of these forces, to arise and become more prominent: I feel this vision lies at the heart of many of Monte¶s films, and it is fascinating to witness the process. There was always a relaxed set and Monte would always encourage the actors to be themselves, the opposite of the more selfconscious acting that is becoming a staple in today¶s screens. I think is one of Monte¶s most interesting techniques, because it suggests that the best acting comes from revealing yourself in front of the camera instead of drawing from abstract ideas and emotions deduced from the outside. And the result is always a performance that appears compressed in gestures, only to be magnified once projected on a screen. Monte would often say on set ³take your time´ and ³when you¶re ready´, all directions that guide the actor¶s towards finding his or her ³decisive´ moment. All of the actors entered this game with pleasure, unraveling their character¶s mysteries, discovering something new about their onscreen personas, day by day.
My job as a script supervisor would be to keep track of the concrete diegetic reality presented by the Road to Nowhere script, but as the shooting kept going, it became a question of maintaining the consistency of the world that Monte was creating, unfolding it as we went along. I was amazed to see how the shifts in continuity would not pose problems to the presentation of the story: on the contrary, it would enrich the layers unfolded by Monte¶s direction, furthering the opposing-mirrors effect created by the narrative. In RTN, the real events on which Mitchell Haven¶s film are based begin to alter in their veracity, the realities presented are subject to question, and yet cannot be dismissed as fiction or recreation. During the shoot, Monte maintained this poetic consistency precisely because he allows the precarious fibers of memory and the subjective re-telling of events to be the structure of Road to Nowhere¶s structure. And the film¶s structure is a faithful reflection of how it was actually filmed. Beyond the tired divisions between fact and fiction, the shooting of RTN was an exercise of ³viewing life through the optic of art.´
The History of Cinema According to Monte Hellman
1- Can you tell us something about Stanley's Girlfriend, which hasn't been seen in France yet? This short film is, like Road to Nowhere, about the world of filmmaking. What do you see as the connection between these two projects?
I've rarely had a chance to make my own projects, but I've always in some ways managed to make others' projects at least partially mine. It's somewhat analogous to my feeling about acting, which I adopted from a Norwegian novel I never read, but merely read about: an actor should not try to become the character, the character has to become the actor. Likewise, in many ways all my films are autobiographical. This is partly because I believe that the only way to be universal is to be specific and personal, and partly because it's the only story I know and thus can tell. I was initially asked to direct all five segments of TRAPPED ASHES, but when the producers decided it would be more commercial to have five directors, I was given first choice. I chose the segment that had attracted me to the project, and thus escaped a fate worse than death -- directing without passion. I felt a kinship with Stanley Kubrick for at least three reasons: photography, jazz and chess. And I took great pains to make the chess in the movie authentic. As to the connection between STANLEY'S GIRLFRIEND and ROAD TO NOWHERE, perhaps the strongest is my discovery of Tygh Runyan, and my decision to cast him as both Stanley and Mitchell Haven.
2- What was the background to the Road to Nowhere screenplay? How involved were you with the writing?
My long-time friend and collaborator Steven Gaydos had the idea for the story, and wrote a draft of the screenplay. Numerous brainstorming sessions between several friends, Steven and myself led to the draft we're shooting. I didn't participate in the actual writing, as I had on one of our previous collaborations, IGUANA, I functioned, as I more often do, as editor. But again, as is my habit, I rewrote a line or two of dialogue here and there, which Steven grudgingly accepted. The original idea came out of our many collaborations, and was and is an attempt to document our particular experience in the making of mostly independent movies. Like these experiences, much of it is funny. Like most people's lives, some of it is painful. And like everyone's life, it ends badly.
3- In Road to Nowhere's early drafts, the filmmaker is actually named 'Monte Hellman', whereas in later drafts he has become 'Mitchell
Haven'. Also, Steven Gaydos has become 'Steve Gates'. What was the reason for these changes?
We felt that since we weren't celebrities, as was the case with John Malkovich for example, it would have created detrimental empathy, i.e., distracted the audience from involvement with the characters and story, to use our names. Despite its basis in our personalities and experiences, it is after all a work of fiction. And there's a strong literary tradition in authors choosing pseudonyms for their alter egos.
4- Mitchell Haven's house, as described in the screenplay, is obviously supposed to be your house. ("The front room is a massive open floor plan, combo living room and open kitchen. The walls without posters are covered floor to ceiling with books."). Are you going to be filming there? And which books are the most precious to you?
We will be filming there, but more out of economy and convenience than anything else. I gave Tygh copies of Arthur Hopkins' Reference Point and Camus' The Myth of Sysiphus, two books dear to me. I might also have given him Ernest Becker's Denial of Death. If not, I should have.
5- Among the classical features about filmmaking and, more precisely, directing actors - such as (among many) Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris, John Cassavetes's Opening Night or Ingmar Bergman's After the Rehearsal - which have most influenced you?
The only one of these I remember seeing is the Minnelli, and doubt it entered my consciousness during this process. We frequently mention THE PLAYER and DAY FOR NIGHT as similar essays, but again, I don't think they've had an effect on the work. I suspect, though, that the work of some current directors I admire, like Tsai and Ceylan, may be unconsciously influencing me, but in no way displacing my adherence to my long-held affinity with the professed methods of Hopkins, and as I've recently discovered, Kieslowski.
6- In an e-mail to Fergus Daly (dated January 14 2009), you wrote "I work quite differently from, say, someone like Hitchcock, who apparently imagined his films in their entirety, and then almost directed them by rote. I work by stimulating and encouraging the unconscious in myself and others, and then let it guide me and enlighten me. I don't even begin to have an idea what the films will be like until I at least
complete the casting process." Have you been surprised by the ways in which Road to Nowhere has evolved during the shoot?
Many things I've said over the years to this person or that have come back to haunt me. But this is a relatively recent quote, and it has proved accurate in predicting my current work methods. ROAD TO NOWHERE seems to have taken on a life of its own. The road takes new twists and turns every day, sometimes for reasons as mundane as budgetary considerations. And, as always, each actor cast leads to surprises and discoveries never imagined.
7- A lot of new technological tools figure in the Road to Nowhere screenplay: computer culture, technological socialization, informatic working tools, etc. How are these tools affecting creation? And human relationships?
I confess to being a thinker, but Sociology and Contemporary Culture don't occupy much of my thought. I am interested in new creative tools, and have enjoyed digital advances in still photography, and now motion picture photography.
8- What equipment are you using? Why? Since your first films, have you noticed any significant changes in cinematic technology? Have things become better or worse? Or both?
We're shooting with three Canon 5D Mark IIs, which are essentially still cameras that also shoot 1080P hi def. The technology is cutting edge, but also in its primitive stage. It's not ready for prime time, but we felt the advantages in terms of picture quality far out-weighed the disadvantages of all the hoops we've had to jump through to make it work. We'd originally intended to use the Red camera, but felt the low-light capability of the Canon, along with its size, allowed us to shoot in conditions and places impossible with other cameras. The final, and perhaps most important, factor was the size of the chip -- much larger than the Red chip or even the 35mm motion picture film frame -- which gives the images a pictorial quality somewhat comparable to large-format movie film. This seemed to us much more important than the greater resolution of the Red or film. We're using nearly a dozen Nikon still-camera lenses, most of which I've had for thirty years or more. Although not intended for movie use, and therefore more difficult to focus, the quality of the images they produce is impossible to distinguish from the best movie lenses, especially in the hands of DP Josep M. Civit and his focus-puller Alfredo Suarez. There's one hand-held shot in particular, made with a Nikon 85mm f/.4 lens -- generally regarded as the best lens Nikon ever made -- which has a depth of field of less than an inch when used wide open, that runs for several minutes and which no one thought possible to make. It's probably the best shot in the
movie, and is consistently sharp as a tack. We're editing with Final Cut Pro. It doesn't seem to be better or worse than other computer editing programs, but it's compatible with the Mark II files, and comfortable for my editor/collaborator and protegee Celine Ameslon. I've physically edited most of my films on an upright moviola. Beginning with BETTER WATCH OUT! I've used computer systems, and relied on a collaborator to operate the software and share in the decision-making. I initially felt that the moviola had the advantage of precision. When you hit the brake, the film stopped instantly. With the computer, there's a lag of a few frames after you press the key, plus a few more between the time I tap the editor on the shoulder and he/she taps the key. But the computer is non-linear, and the moviola is non-linear. The work-flow between them is much closer than either to the flat-bed editing systems that were used for so long, and which were linear systems. I think they were one of the worst things that happened to our art, and that we've come back to a much more organic way of working.
9- Many of your films include in-jokes and references to your body of work. To judge from the screenplay, it seems that Road to Nowhere will contain a large number of these references. What is their purpose?
As I implied above, I feel the purpose of the artist is to connect with the audience. Some think this can best be achieved by being generic, I believe the opposite, that the best way to move an audience is by being as specific and personal as possible. We see ourselves as unique, and we relate to the uniqueness of others. Through this uniqueness we can recognize ourselves in others, and share a bond with everyone traveling this road with us.
10- What does Road to Nowhere add to our understanding of cinema?
ROAD TO NOWHERE is a work in progress. I don't know what it will become, so haven't a clue as to how to answer this question.
11- Why do human beings need more and more images of themselves?
ROAD TO NOWHERE is a contemporary story, and as such, mirrors our world in many ways, including various recent means of communication: cell phones, blogs, web sites for self-expression, display, exposure, etc.
This raises many questions. People post pictures of themselves and friends on Facebook for the same reason I make movies and a dog licks his balls -- because they can. But why do I want to make movies or show the world my snapshots?
Your question has suddenly fascinated me, and I'm not sure I know the answer. Authors write books essentially for one reader -- 1 times x, and I feel the same about my pictures -one viewer in an audience of x. It comes from a perhaps misdirected desire for intimacy. Facebook and its cousins may very well be appealing to a desire for exhibitionism. I don't want to appear a snob, even if I am. If artistic self-expression comes from a desire for intimacy, I don't feel it's an acceptable alternative to true intimacy with another human being. Internet exhibitionism, on the other hand, may come from a fear and denial of true intimacy. As a viewer I applaud all images of human beings. I feel every work of art -- painting, poem, novel, sonata, country-western or blues song -- shines a light on and helps us recognize what we already know. Through the human image we see better into ourselves. I feel the human face is the strongest possible image in a still or motion picture. I don't have a page on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter.
12- Between your first two feature films, you expanded various Roger Corman productions (Ski Troop Attack, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Last Woman on Earth and your own Beast from Haunted Cave) for television by shooting additional scenes. You also shot some material for Corman's The Terror. Do you feel that this experience in expanding already existing works may have influenced the approach of your subsequent films, many of which (primarily The Shooting, but also to a large extent Flight to Fury and Two-Lane Blacktop) give the impression of telling only one small part of a much larger story?
I think shooting these fragments taught me not to take what I was doing too seriously. I had a lot of fun doing them, and I also learned to work quickly, and rely more and more on my instincts. It was the best possible school for me. Working with great editors like Bob Seiter and Folmar Blangstead taught me that scenes sometimes worked best by starting in the middle, and ending before the end. Death and marriage aren't the only, or even the best, ways to end a movie.
13- In his book Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Garnham observed that the films of Fuller and Jean-Luc Godard were full of "quests and meaningless journeys...during which the protagonists find out as much about themselves as they do about their ostensible goal". This could easily be a description of your own films. Do you feel an affinity with
these directors? Did you see some of Jean-Luc Godard's last works, notably the Histoire(s) du Cinéma?
To paraphrase Boris Karloff in THE BLACK CAT, "journeys, perhaps -- meaningless , perhaps not." ROAD TO NOWHERE is certainly a journey for Mitchell Haven, leading hopefully to a kind of self-discovery. I'll leave it to the audience to decide. Haven't seen late Godard.
14- In a piece for Libération in June 2005, "Mes dates clés", you said: "Actors are always at the centre of my filmmaking. And when these actors become friends, the film has a better chance of being good". Charles Eastman, who died a few weeks ago, had small roles in your two westerns of 1966, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and went on to write several of your unmade films. How would you describe him as a collaborator?
Since I believe the character must become the actor, I always become much more interested in discovering and revealing who the actor really is than I am in any fictional character, no matter how gifted the author. God's a better writer, and I don't even believe in God. This is not to say I don't value the contribution of the writer. On the contrary, I believe the better the road map provided by the writer, the better chance there is that the journey will prove enjoyable and fruitful. But the road is fraught with hazards impossible to anticipate, and the detours thus necessitated can lead to a destination unimaginable. This is the challenge that keeps me traveling. As for Charles, he was a genius. I miss him terribly as a friend, and he's left me with one very good screenplay, CODY AND FAROL, and two great ones, DARK PASSION and DESPERADOES. Hopefully for future chapters.
15- Who are the great actors of the present time?
As you'll soon discover, the ones I have the great good fortune, the casting gods having smiled, with whom now to be working: Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, Tygh Runyan, Waylon Payne, Cliff De Young, John Diehl, Rob Kolar, Nic Paul and Fabio Testi. Every day I come on the set and say only one thing -- tell me a story. And they do.
16- Since Reservoir Dogs, which you were supposed to direct, your name is often linked with that of Quentin Tarantino. What is your opinion of Tarantino's recent work?
I think Quentin is a genius who may have had the bad luck to ripen too soon. I think his encyclopedic knowledge of reel life makes his pictures a lot of fun to watch. Somehow I feel the time taken in gathering this catalog has limited his exposure to real life. But he's still only just beginning what I hope will be a long and great career.
17- You've spoken several times of your admiration for Tsai Ming-liang. What is it that appeals to you about his work? Are you familiar with other Taiwanese directors, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and the late Edward Yang?
What I like best about Tsai is his resurrection of the silent movie in a sound world. He's also taught me how limiting action makes small moves seem big. And of course his actors are amazing. I have too limited a knowledge of the others to comment.
18- What other contemporary filmmakers interest you?
Victor Erice, of course. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fatih Akin, and my friends P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson and Rick Linklater.
19- Discussing a film in which he was supposed to play Pier Paolo Pasolini, Abel Ferrara, who also made several films about filmmaking and directing (Snake Eyes, The Blackout, Mary«), declared, "For a film, one must be ready to die". Are there for you such "fatal movies", as we say "femme fatale" in French?
I wouldn't even sacrifice my dog for a movie, which after all is only a movie.
20- Is cinema going somewhere?
I don't know where either cinema or I am going, but I'm sure we're both going to be traveling together on the road to nowhere.
 Brad Stevens est critique, il a publié Monte Hellman : His Life and Films (McFarland, 2003).  Milenko Skoknic est producteur et assistant réalisateur.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.