A 50-year filmmaking veteran with a career that dates back to ’60s TV, Walter Hill has had a lasting influence on the world of film and TV. He’s credited with creating the buddy-cop genre with 48 Hours, helped bring the xenomorph to life by producing the Alien movies, and been involved in classic TV shows including Deadwood and Tales From The Crypt. At the 24th annual Austin Film Festival, Hill was awarded the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award, focusing on his efforts as a screenwriter across his career. After his awards luncheon, we got the chance to talk to Hill about his work, how he considers himself a writer first, and the enduring legacy of The Warriors.
First off, congratulations on the accolades.
Well, thank you. This started with a phone call, and I supposed I’m not supposed to say this, but I was very pleased to, one, been told I was getting the award, and two, that it was writer-oriented. I’m usually thought of as a director. And I really was a writer before I was anything, and I’ve been a writer all these years now. So I’m pleased that was the point of emphasis.
I always thought of you as the writer/director/producer triumvirate, myself.
Well, I have produced as well. I’ve got lots of producer credits. It’s just part of the woodwork, really. I’m not a producer in the sense that other people are that work very hard at producing, and it’s more of a function that’s been with me. It’s more of a function of working with both director and script rather than the entrepreneurial aspects.
Like in regards to, say, the Alien movies?
Well, my producing credits on the Alien franchise are a bit hard to understand. I really only worked on the first three Aliens. At that time the studio and my partner and I got a divorce. Part of the settlement [was] David [Giler, co-producer] and I retained ownership in what they wanted to do. We disagreed before with where they wanted to take the series, and they insisted that our names remain on the subsequent efforts. That was part of the settlement. So good, bad, or indifferent, however you judge them, everything past the third one, really, I’ve had no input at all. I haven’t even read the scripts, much less worked on them.
Have you seen any of them, or have any interest at all?
Not all of them. It was a fairly acrimonious divorce.
Is it interesting to you at all that the franchise is still going after all these years?
Well, it’s pleasing at one level and financially. We still get paid every time they make one of these things. So putting my children through school, which is no small task as you probably know. It’s very helpful. As to the larger cultural aspects of the implications of your question, I have to say that when we were doing the first one, on the Alien series, the idea that in the year 2017 I would be doing interviews about the ongoing series certainly was unanticipated.
And, yeah, the whole thing is unexpected in continuing interest. It’s a tribute to really the first couple, I’d have to say. Like I said, I worked on the screenplays of the first one and the third one, and I functioned as a producer on the first one. Well, on all of them, really, but of the three, but mainly in the first and third. I really didn’t do too much on the second one.
When you introduced a screening of The Warriors earlier this week, you called the film a “trial by fire.” I’m curious what you meant by that.
We just pushed into production so quickly. There was another film that was going to be made and was made. Phil Kaufman, a very fine film director, was doing a movie called The Wanderers, which was also about gangs. It’s from a novel, from a well-known novel. Our movie had been set up, but Paramount suddenly said they didn’t want to come out second. And so they pushed us very hard to get into production rather quickly. And it turned out that Phil’s movie didn’t come out for I think a year or so after ours and was made months after ours. But there was this push to get it into production. So I’m sure that’s what I meant.
And almost every movie is in one way or another trial by fire, I suppose. We were outdoors a lot. It was outdoor nights in New York in some pretty tough neighborhoods.
Being the low-budget production it was I assume those run-down sets weren’t created in a studio.
No. No. We had to go out and find them. It was kind of down and dirty.
The picture’s had a real life of its own, and it hangs onto two main audiences it seems. Three, I guess. There are those that saw it then and have a nostalgia for it, there are young people that it still just plays to, and then there is the hip-hop crowd that picked up on the film. I think as you probably know, the Golden State Warriors use a line from our movie before every game when they come out. “The Warriors come out and play,” and there they go. And Shaq, when the Lakers were triumphant, he used to do the “Can you dig it” in his victory speeches.
So it kind of lives on in that world a bit. Again, a great surprise to me, but I don’t know. If you work in all this [business], as I always say, you always feel like you’re the stranger in the room. But at the same time, you never know where it’s all going, and you’re certainly part of it. So nothing should surprise you in the end about show business and all that. I never thought I was in show business. To me, I was always… I just liked movies. A movie guy.
And I wasn’t particularly a show business guy. But from the outside, I think a statement like that looks ridiculous because I made living at it for 50-some years.
You managed to carve out a pretty good legacy in that time, including the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award.
Well, yeah, something like this is certainly a shot in the arm. And I mean all this, I always think, the best thing about it is it makes your kids… Makes them rethink their opinion of you a bit. And your stock goes up.
But I would say this, a prize like this is very nice because it’s not competitive. I always say I don’t particularly like a competitive award. I’ve won a few. But the real competition in all of this is with yourself. I mean, your career is your responsibility, and it’s not fair to be judged up against others. I think we have different budgets, different stories, different opportunities. But it’s the race you run with yourself — or so it seems to me. I always say, “It’s not so much you see the movies. The movies see you.”