NEW ORLEANS. It’s late August, 2011. The Big Easy. Outside, it’s hot. Inside, things are heating up.
A gangster played by Jason Momoa walks into a grungy brown office, highlighted by peeling wallpaper and mold stains. He steps back out. He steps in again. He raises a gun and points it at the camera, raising and lowering the firearm, trying to get the proper eye-line. The gun is fitted with a silencer, but it’s all for show. hitmen require silence to escape detection, but movie sets require noise for proper audio synching. As a result, a PA is walking around passing out earplugs and assuring a small group of reporters that things are about to get loud.
Unflappable, Momoa’s character reenters the room and demands that a safe be opened. It’s Day 40 of 43 on the set of a film the clap-boards call “Headshot,” but which will be released as “Bullet to the Head.” The titles, temp and future, mean the same thing and Momoa, wearing a suit and a ponytail, much more dapper than in his role on “Game of Thrones” or the recently released “Conan,” lives up to the title by opening fire on the reticent hoodlums. He’s vicious, efficient and deadly. And the PA was not wrong about the noise.
Moments later, extras exit the stage clutching blood-drenched paper towels.
Walter Hill is back.
One of the true fathers of the testosterone-drenched cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, Hill’s resume includes “Hard Times,” “The Driver,” “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs” among genre classics. Lest we forget, he also won an Emmy for directing the pilot for “Deadwood.” But Hill hasn’t directed a feature since 2002’s “Undisputed,” which was preceded by 1996’s “Supernova,” a movie that ended up being credited to “Thomas Lee.”
The reverence for Hill is manifest largely in how frequently other filmmakers discuss the prospect of remaking one of his films.
“My thoughts are very simple: good luck,” Hill says when asked about the oft-threatened remakes of films like “Warriors.” “I had mine and if they want to remake something that usually means you did something right when you did it. I don’t get too excited, I probably seem slightly affected in my answer, but I really don’t. When people say like, ‘They’re taking this from you,” or something. First of all, I don’t think it’s ever ours, it’s out there. What’s the old Oscar Wilde… The sincerest form of flattery is imitation? I mean the big thing is don’t look back. You’re a director and you’re doing this one and hopefully you’re going to do another one. What happened a long time ago or what somebody is trying to make out of it, that’s fine, but that shouldn’t be the consuming thing in your own life.”
For the moment, what’s consuming Hill’s life is “Bullet to the Head,” a gritty revenge drama very loosely based on a graphic novel and starring Sylvester Stallone, in addition to Momoa, Sarah Shahi and Sung Kang.
“Walter has been, I would say, a godsend,” raves Kang. “At first, you look at his resume, and he merits my respect just based on his body of work. But then you work with the man, and you think – at first, to be totally frank, I thought ‘Is this guy going to phone this job in? Is this just a paycheck?’ Who knows? You never know. But then you meet him, and first of all – I’ve learned so much as a man. He’s been kind of a father figure, and Sly being that cool uncle you always want to hang out with all these great stories. Both of them, being able to work with both of them, they redefine what right and wrong is.”
Given his background, it’s no surprise that the stars praise Hill’s old school approach to action and effects.
Kang notes, “I think he doesn’t depend on technology to come in and save his ass. I think he goes back to things that I was taught when I first learned how to act. You come in, you have a good time with what you’re doing, you’re on time, you come prepared. You prepare, you prepare, and then you show up, and hopefully some movie magic will happen. It’s very black and white. Very pragmatic. There’s no secret recipe. With Sly and Walter, I realize that, it’s very simple, you just work your ass off at it. And hopefully, you make a good movie.”
Most recently spotted dealing out bloody injustice, Momoa also has kind words for the director who has gotten impressive performances out of stars as different as Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, Ryan O’Neal, Powers Boothe and Ian McShane.
“Walter’s really an actor’s director. I was really shocked at how he just built this beautiful space. Even on the smallest of scenes, we had a little corner set up where we would just rehearse and go over it and he writes a lot of the scenes and changes them on the spot. He wants it to be the best product. I have only the greatest things to say about him. I’d work with him again if he’d hire me.”
Reflecting on Hill’s approach with actors, Shahi notes that the director doesn’t like excess, whether in production or in emoting, which can earn the warning “Too much prosciutto!”
“Walter, aside from the obvious, which is what a f***ing legend he is, I bow to him almost every morning,” Shahi says. “He knows exactly what he wants. He doesn’t overshoot. He’s not one of those insecure directors who shoots 80 different ways. We’re done every day within ten hours. If we do have a 12 hour day, the crew is just wiped. The hours, for the most part, have been so human. I come from the world of TV where you work 16 or 17 hour days. This has been a walk in the park compared to that. He’s just wonderful. He’s got great stories. He’s so open. There are things that I didn’t like that he was open to collaborating on and changing. To sit next to Walter Hill and to be able to exchange ideas back and forth and for him to be able to tell you that he likes what you’re doing — I don’t know. I kind of pinch myself.”
Does Hill consider himself a throwback?
“I consider myself to still be here,” he laughs. “I’m still doing my best. I don’t know, I read in the paper that I’m an action director. They always say that, “Action director Walter Hill,” if they bother writing about me at all. I think that’s fine. I’m happy to do the work. Most fellas, the race is already run by now and I’m lucky enough that I’m here, I’m working and I’m having a pretty good time doing it.”
Check out the next page for highlights from the small set visit interview with Hill, who discusses his experiences shooting in New Orleans, his relationship with producer Joel Silver and his experiences working with Stallone on “Bullet to the Head,” which opens on Friday, February 1.
Q: You shot “Hard Times” here, you shot “Southern Comfort” out on the bayou. What’s it like being back?
Walter Hill: And “Johnny Handsome” with Mickey Rourke! It’s nice to be able to come back.
Q: How has it changed?
Walter Hill: They’ve gone through terrible things and rebuilding. It’s always been this interesting place, very different than any other American city. My social commentary on the changes within the city are best left to others. I’m happy to feel that the city is doing so well and it has made and continues to make a terrific comeback from the tragedy that happened. The other vibe you get from this is not only rebuilding, but a lot of young people are coming here. It’s almost becoming what San Francisco was in the ’60s. It’s perceived as a place where young cats can come and do their thing. It’s a low-rent city, still a bargain by most American standards, and it’s an interesting place. There’s a lot of street activity and there’s a music scene.
Q: How much does the character of the city bleed into the movie?
Walter Hill: You try to use it. These things are narrative, they’re character, they’re thematic, but they’re also atmosphere. You can use that to your advantage when you get a chance. One of the things I like about New Orleans is it feels like you’re in a western with the architecture. All the balconies, the old buildings, it feels like you’re in the 1880s. Some of it spills into the movie. I don’t know how much of it creeps into the edges and helps you or how much of it is just by design. Usually you’re trying to tell a narrative through your characters and have all this stuff bleed in around the edges.
Q: Talk about directing Sly, who’s directed himself so much. This is one of the first times in a while where he’s had a director that has not been himself, so can you talk about working with him?
Walter Hill: I’d kinda surrendered. I’ve been trying to get him to do a movie for about 30 years and never could make it work out. He and I bumped into each other over the years, we had several meetings trying to work things out, and he and I both have the same lawyer so would see each other at various social events. He’s directed about 10 movies, but anybody who’s been a great star as long as he has is gonna be very knowledgable about the picture business, but I only know one way to direct. You direct him and hope for the best. He and I get along very well, I like him a lot. He’s two things, [he’s] a writer, producer, director, but setting all that aside he’s two things: he’s a very good actor and he’s a star. Both those are very considerable. I think everybody understands about him being a star, but I don’t think people totally appreciate how good an actor he is. Actors often get judged by material as well as their abilities, and I think he’s giving a very good performance in this film. This one’s a little more character-driven than some of his other dramas, but that’s for you to judge, really.
Q: What drew you into doing this film? What about the material excites you and made you step up and tackle it?
Walter Hill: I think the biggest thing that drew me in was probably unemployment. I had just had a movie fall apart about six weeks before that I’d been trying to do for a year. It was sent to me. It wasn’t the only thing that was sent to me, but it was the kind of story I thought I knew something about and thought maybe I could make a contribution to. Don’t do things you can’t do something with. I see wonderful movies where I’d be the first to say I couldn’t have done it. I see other movies where I think, “They should have sent that one to me!”
Q: Sarah [Shahi] was saying you had a directing expression “too much prosciutto” that she was an offender of. Was she the worst offender on the film?
Walter Hill: She’s a very fine actress. Sometimes when people have anxiety in their desire to please you and do good have a tendency to overdo it. That’s one of our jobs is to pull it back into the range that you think is appropriate to the film. She likes to act her heart out. She’s a strong actress, she pairs very well, she brings a lot to it. Sometimes the very best acting is just people talking to each other. It’s the old joke about don’t get caught acting, if you get caught acting you’re not acting very well.
Q: Is there a director today who you think is making “Walter Hill movies” like the kind you were making in the ’70s and ’80s?
Walter Hill: Well, if I thought so I wouldn’t tell ya. I can’t think of anybody that comes immediately to mind. I never talk about any director that’s alive, because the other directors I know get mad. If you praise another director, those that you don’t praise say, “Why didn’t you mention me?” I certainly think directors have better things to do than knock each other. There’s plenty of people that get paid to knock, there’s no shortage of criticism.
Q: Often on movies things change. Dialogue gets rescripted, scenes altered. How’s it been on this particular film and how has Sly, who’s known as a writer, possibly influenced the way things have gone?
Walter Hill: His basic approach and mine are not terribly different in the sense that we’ve got something to shoot, he’s playing a character. What seemed best at somebody’s desk 6 months ago doesn’t necessarily apply given the scenes we’ve already shot and the nuances of the characters. If we find a better way to say it we change the dialogue. I make those suggestions, he makes those suggestions. He’s very good at it. I don’t think any of the other actors don’t bring that spirit to it. I’m not one of those directors that says you’ve got a comma here, hit a full stop there. I don’t care if I’ve written the dialogue I don’t change the meaning, but if we find a more appropriate way to say it we do that.
Q: How much of a template was the graphic novel?
Walter Hill: I would say probably the general proposition of the movie is very much the graphic novel. Had there not been a graphic novel none of us would be here. A lot of the narrative concerns and approaches to character… the graphic novel is probably a little tougher and a little colder than what you’re doing.
Question: What’s the dynamic like between you and Joel Silver after all these years?
Walter Walter Hill: [Laughs] Well, there’s a question; very good. He and I are old friends, I’m very happy, I knew him a long time ago and you get into this business it’s kind of like being in the army or the service or something, you’re very close and you’re friendly with people even though some movie pulls you this way and they go that way, and you may not see them for ten years or something, not much, we’d run into each other. But I’m very pleased that Joel has become a great producer. He’s a huge success and he is, I assume you’ve all met him or interviewed him, he is a larger than life character. He is a real throwback to the old days of show business. He’s a lot of fun. He can drive you crazy. I think I probably drive him crazy. I don’t know. I’m very pleased about his success and I think he’s a lot of fun to be around. He has great energy. Somebody said once, “There’s something about Joel, when he comes into the room, you can just feel the whole vibe pick up. It’s more exciting to be around.” He just makes things more exciting. I get along very well with him, but maybe you should ask me after three or four months.
Q: A lot of us are film nerds and I’m sure you meet a lot of people who are film nerds, what are the one or two films off your resume that people always want to talk to you about and that you enjoy talking about?
Walter Hill: Conversations about films are always funny. I would say a majority of people want to talk about what were the more obvious successes; the big box office films. Other people wanting to be more sensitive to you want to talk about the ones that maybe didn’t make a lot of money, but they think you might have a special feeling about. And then other people sometimes want to help you by suggesting that you should have done this or that in the movie, that that would have helped you a great deal in whatever capacity. So I just kind of role with the punches, I guess. I’m always happy to talk to somebody. It’s flattering that people remember your movies. Especially some movie that you did, for Christ’s sake, almost 35 years ago, or what’s especially pleasant is if you’re talking about some movie that you did 35 years ago and they’re 20 years old. That means that they had to find the movie somehow.
Q: Jumping back into Bullet to the Head, it’s obviously rated R, we can tell by what we just saw in language, some films go really far in R rating, there’s just toeing the line and there’s really pushing it. How are you writing the R in this film? Some of Sly’s recent films have been really gory, some of them have been less so.
Walter Hill: I don’t know, I think the answer to that really lies with the people that make the ratings. It’s a very subjective process. I got threatened with an X on a movie that I didn’t think was as tough as some of the other films I’ve done, this was years ago. I just think the process is very subjective, I don’t think there’s any question this is an R movie, and I don’t think there’s anything in it to a degree that’s going to threaten it beyond an R.
Q: You mentioned that this movie clicked for you because it felt like the movie that you could make. Action movies have evolved over time and I’m curious how you stylistically approached the movie and how it might fit in with these other action movies that exist in the world?
Walter Hill: This is not a big spectacle movie. I think action movies on the whole have moved more and more into large spectacle, even leaving out super hero movies that seem to me to be more a fantastic science fiction than they are action movies. Action movies to me are dramas with recognizable human beings that are in extraordinary situations. Now there’s a lot of elasticism within that definition and there are certainly not very realistic and they never were; the Steve McQueen movies, or Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, whatever you want from the old days. This movie is not a big spectacle movie and although these kinds of films don’t usually get reviewed this way, or usually approached this way, it’s largely a movie that is presented through the characters. The drama is character driven. This is what I meant by maybe it’s my kind of thing, there’s a tricky tone where you try to get some humor into a movie that’s also a tough tale of murder and revenge. You have to ice skate rather carefully between the humor and the action tension part of the drama.
Q: You described Joel Silver as being kind of a throwback producer, do you think of yourself as a throwback?
Walter Hill: Actually, Joel’s a throwback personality to the great ’30s and ’40s grand personalities in the Hollywood sense. I think he’s very much a modern producer. I don’t know, maybe it’s better, write down that I said he’s old fashioned. Let him call me.
Do you consider yourself to be a throwback yourself?
Walter Hill: I consider myself to still be here. I’m still doing my best. I don’t know, I read in the paper that I’m an action director. They always say that, “Action director Walter Hill,” if they bother writing about me at all. I think that’s fine. I’m happy to do the work. Most fellas, the race is already run by now and I’m lucky enough that I’m here, I’m working and I’m having a pretty good time doing it.