Friday, November 18, 2011

The Monte Hellman Interview with Roundtable Pictures

Lars Trodson: There’s a moment in "Road To Nowhere" when Peter Bart from Variety asks the director Mitchell Haven “do you feel rusty?” and so, did you, after more than two decades away from making movies, feel rusty?

Monte Hellman: I always feel rusty in the sense that whenever I start a movie I don’t remember anything about the process. I have a panic attack several days before, but as soon as I get on the set - it’s kind of like you think you don’t know how to ride a bicycle, but when you get on it’s okay. That’s what happens. I get on the bicycle and sure enough I don’t fall off. That’s what happens everytime I make a movie.

LT: Technology has changed since you started making movies. I thought the way you shot this film was fascinating. (It was shot on the Canon 5D Mark II. The director of photography was Josep Civit.)

MH: The technology had been changing. It changes so fast you have to keep up with it everyday. But I had been into digital film photography for 20 years and so I had already decided in my mind that digital was better if only because you have more control. Every movie director is a control freak, and I’m no different. So when I saw that in still photography I could make much more precise adjustments and control the color much more accurately than you ever can when you’re dealing with chemical baths and the difference in temperature from one bath to another. It always drove me crazy when movies would shift color from one reel to another - so this way it’s consistent. I discovered that HDP is better. It’s almost like three dimensional when you see it.

LT: It also had a warm tone. Your scenes in Rome I thought had a really warm quality.

MH: And everything in the movie is not warm. When you go into his (Mitchell Haven's) little room where he’s being interviewed it’s neon light and everything has a greenish cast to it. So the movie changes it’s look from scene to scene but there is a lot of stuff that has a warmth to it.

LT: I was intrigued that you didn’t go out of your way to explain anything. The movie sort of unfolds before you.

MH: I’ve had a lot of pet peeves with movies in general over my entire viewing life and one of those is that - and I guess this is my nature, I’m a realist or a naturalist - I just object when characters on screen don’t talk the way that people do in real life. One of the things I noticed in my life anyway is that nobody ever uses names. If you’re with somebody constantly you don’t say, ‘Hey, Emma.’ You just talk. It’s a continuous conversation. You may only use a name when you’re calling somebody to get their attention in the room or something.

The same is true with exposition. We don’t have to expose to each other because we all know the story and so exposition in real life doesn’t exist. It only exists in an artificial environment, in a drama, and I hate that. So I just try to eliminate it whenever I can.

LT: We sort of have to figure out our own lives, why wouldn’t we have to do it with a movie?

MH: Exactly. We know - we know what’s going on. We don’t have to say, ‘Oh, remember last year when such and such ...‘ You don’t have to say that.

LT: I hate it when someone says, ‘I’m going to go see my sister Amy.’ Who says that?

MH: Roger Corman used to make us put lines like that in. Roger was sure no one would get it. And they still don’t, because people don’t look and listen at the same time. My movies are essentially visual experiences and so when your eye is busy your ear shuts down.

LT: I thought the screenplay had some of the best lines I’ve heard in a movie in I don’t know how long.

MH: The screenplay is very witty and the writer (Steve Gaydos) is an extremely funny guy and a bright guy and he makes me laugh ten times a day.

LT: Mitchell Haven, to me, he was the picture of Hollywood banality, in a way. The way he spoke. “All the gin joints in all the world ...” He speaks these Hollywood aphorisms. He speaks in that Hollywood way.

MH: I see him in that way, too, but he’s somewhere between Steve’s idea of what I might have been like a hundred years ago.

LT: What you might have been like?

MH: What all these terrific young guys are like. Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson and Rick Linklater - there’s a dozen great young directors who are so young and so kind of seemingly naive, but they’re not - seemingly naive and they come off as kind of too sincere. And so it’s not in any way putting me down or putting them down. It’s a kind of observation on how young the business has become.

LT: Banality exists everywhere. It’s not just indicative of the Hollywood scene.

MH: Right.

LT: The choice of “Help Me Make It Throught The Night” - that’s a Kristofferson song, obviously a famous song - was that a kind of reference to your own experience with those guys, Warren Oates, and that kind of thing. You're obviously a (Sam) Peckinpah fan. Or did that song just fit the mood?

MH: I have to admit I love Kristofferson. We pretty much, except for that song, and the song in the bar, we used only Tom Russell’s music. But that rendition of “Help Me Make It Throught The Night” - one of my favorite songs - I was not aware of and it is the mother of our actor Waylon Payne who sings it. He brought it to my attention. He said he would help get the rights, and it turned out to still be a very expensive song because it’s such a seminal song in Kristofferson’s career. But he suggested it and besides being right for the mood it was also the right amount of time. It was a very short rendition of the song - even though some people think that scene takes forever.

LT: You do hold your shots a long time. I love that. You created your own aesthetic for that film by doing so.

MH: I felt at the beginning - well, there were two things. The script was far more complex than the movie is and with the help of my brilliant editor Celine Ameslon we simplified it enough so that we didn't lose the author's intent of making a complex movie. But we simplified it enough so people could kind of navigate their way through it.

LT: Right.

MH: I decided that at the beginning I was just going to tell the backstory in as simple a way possible. So that being said, I also decided we needed a way to kind of psychologically signal to the audience that they should just relax and they should not expect a movie that was in any way resembling a music video or a commercial or something. So I purposely elongated the time in that scene (the opening scene with Sossamon on the bed blowing her hair) just so that we could then speed up the movie afterwards.

LT: You can sit back and relax but you throw a couple of things at the audience.  The special effects are spectacular.

MH: The special effects are spectacular. They were created by Robert Skotack who basically learned everything he did working on our movie by working in 'Titanic.'

LT: I thought the use of the credits for the movie within the movie was interesting. It really made me sit and up and say, "I'm really going to have to pay attention to what is going on here."

MH: It's funny. I wasn't at the press screening in Venice, I had heard afterward that when those came on everybody lit up their iPhone to check to see if they were in the right movie.

LT: I did the same thing! I popped the movie out and looked at the label. I was wondering if I had done something wrong. One of the other things that the director says in the movie is about not casting famous people. Do you have that - is that an aesthetic choice or is a budget choice? I thought these actors were great, yet I didn't know some of them.

MH: I've had the good fortune to work with Jack Nicholson on five movies before he became Jack Nicholson and now my whole budget wouldn't pay for his driver, you know. The world changes. I do believe that a lot of movies get destroyed by the fact that they are made by agents packaging them and putting them together with names that sell but don't necessarily make for a good movie. I believe that. But would I, if offered any of those actors, turn them down? Probably not.

LT: You give a tiny little nod to Jack Nicholson in your film. (A TV interview with Leonardo DiCaprio with a photo of Jack Nicholson behind him.) I know that you won the major award at the Venice Film Festival, do I have that right?

MH: It wasn't the major award. I didn't get Golden Lion for Best Picture. I got Golden Lion for "Best Pictures" - in the sense that it was kind of like for my whole ouvre wrappred into one.

LT: How has the reception for "Road To Nowhere" been?

MH: The reception has been, in Europe at least, the warmer the country the warmer the reception. We have gotten an absolutely enthusiastic response from the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilians, Argentinians, and reasonably the same from France, but France is a little further north and not quite as warm a reception. But then you get up into the UK, and Austria and Germany and as the country gets colder our reception gets colder. In fact, we just got out first rave review out of the UK a couple of days ago.

LT: How did the script come to you?

MH: Steven is an old time friend and collaborator and he drafted part of the idea and it became kind of an way to I guess document our history of working on movies together. That's part of what appealed to me about it. There's just so much fun to see that process. To document that process of making movies.

LT: As you get older, the idea of what's real, and what you dreamt and what you might have done all gets blurred. I thought this was part of the experience for me watching this movie. What is real?

MH: You're a little older than me because I've been 39 for 40 years! It's not expected to be an accurate depiction. It's the way you would see it if you were looking through a mist or dreaming it.

LT: You teach the craft of film. What are you telling your students about the industry today? The whole idea of movies is changing. They remake movies almost annually now - one movie gets made and it doesn't do well and they remake it. It seems to strange to me. What are you telling your students about the industry itself?

MH: That's not a course that I teach. I teach a Master Class and it's a philosophical approach to movies and what we can learn from different contributions from different directors and producers. Sometimes a producer is more important, as was the case with the Darryl Zanuck movies.

But the other thing I teach is basic technique. I'm teaching my students the basics of blocking and how you shoot a two character scene as opposed to a three character scene, or four people sitting around a table. That kind of thing.

LT: I'm glad you said that because some of the blocking, I wrote this in my notes, reminded me of "The Maltese Falcon."

MH: Not consciously, but I take that as a high compliment.

LT: The industry is certainly different than when you started out in the early 70s -

MH: When I started out in the 60s -

LT: Yes, right.

MH: As much as it was maligned, the studio system, when each studio was run by one guy, and whose taste literally - Louis B. Mayer said his taste was in the seat of pants and if his ass started to hurt he knew there was something wrong with the picture. I think those days were a lot better than what we have today when movies are made by a liquor company or by DVD hardware companies. This is not the best thing that has happened to us.

LT: Do you ascribe to the idea of the auteur, or -? I really look at films as a very collaborative thing. What's your vision of that?

MH: Obviously, somebody has to make the decisions. I could not have made this movie the way it turned out without consciously attempting to make it even more collaborative than it had been for me in the past. I really opened up the idea of letting people tap into their subconscious, letting creativity flow without fear, if it doesn't work we won't use it. I welcomed creative ideas from everybody and I got them. I got them in spades. It was fantastic.

A friend of mine who is a minor studio executive saw the movie before we ever played in a theater or before it came out on DVD and his first comment was 'This movie has really ruined me from watching other movies because the performances are so real. If I see a movie now, it seems fake to me.' It's part of this process of opening up the actors to their feelings of the moment, and some of the greatest things in the movie came out of just that. What they would do would be so astounding it would literally change the movie.  

I'll give you an example and this won't spoil it. I hate spoilers. The first time we see Shannyn in the tunnel the script literally said, 'She walks into the tunnel, stays a few moments, turns around and walks out.' We shot that six times. It's still mysterious because it's dark and the water's dripping, and after the six takes she said 'Do you mind if I try something?" and what her trying something was her trying to tap into what she was feeling at the moment, which was a panic attack, and she let it happen. It literally became the opening bookend of the movie, which sends you off on this course of mystery which would not have existed if she had not done that.

LT: That seems really from the gut.

MH: It was. She was actually experiencing it. She knew what she was doing, but she let her feelings happen. That tunnel, by the way, is the end of the real 'road to nowhere' in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The road to nowhere was, in the the late 40s, the federal government built a dam and in so doing they cut off access to some of the cemeteries and native American burial grounds of the people living there and so they agreed to build a road that would give these people access to their own cemeteries and they began the road in 1948 or something and stopped somewhere around 1960, or maybe even later, and they never finished it. I don't know if they ran out of money or if they didn't allocate any more, whatever it was, and so it was a huge political issue to this day in North Carolina and lots of unhappy people about it. But that tunnel is where the road to nowhere ends and that's the reason we went there to shoot. That became one of the key sets of the movie.

LT: I read that Shannyn said you guys were planning something else? Is that still on track?

MH: It absolutely is. We're still in the throes of raising money and you never know where that is going to lead or how long it's going to take, but we hope to start early next year.

LT: What would you say to people when they sit down to watch "Road To Nowhere" - what do you want them to take away?

MH: I've said this to some people, and some people have gotten pissed off because they thought I was telling them how to watch the movie. That was the furthest thing from my mind. What I said was that audiences get so intellectual about it, and wrapped up in their perceptions of what a mystery is, that they can't watch the movie. If you just kind of sit back and look at it as if you're watching a dream, when you wake up you'll have plenty of time to figure it out.