Walter Hill on long genre career and ‘Dead for a Dollar’

With films like The Warriors, 48 ​​Hrs., The Driver, Hard Times and Streets of Fire, Walter Hill established a legacy as a master mechanic of genre storytelling, effortlessly blending elements from different styles around to create fresh, fascinating hybrids.

He has also returned to westerns many times, with The Long Riders, Wild Bill, Geronimo: An American Legend, and Emmy-winning work on Broken Trail and Deadwood.

Written and directed by Hill, Dead for a Dollar, now available in select theaters and on video-on-demand, exemplifies the stripped down efficiency of Hill’s classic work, in which no gesture or moment is overdone or wasted works. Set in 1897, the film follows Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter hired to bring back Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) and Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott), a black deserter from the US Army. Rachel’s husband (Hamish Linklater) had told Borlund that Jones had kidnapped her, but the truth is different. The cast also includes Willem Dafoe, Benjamin Bratt and Warren Burke.

Hill’s ability to fertilize genre elements also includes his work on the “Alien” franchise, where he served as an active producer on the first three installments (and his name stuck with other films in the series), a hybrid of sci-fi , horror and suspense.

In a recent conversation at his longtime Beverly Hills home, Hill, now 80, is the old-school gentleman filmmaker through and through, referencing literature and the visual arts while casually skipping decades respectfully of his Role as an eyewitness to moments in Hollywood history.

He recalled solving story problems while working on a screenplay with John Huston. And when Steve McQueen threw a magnum of champagne at Sam Peckinpah’s head. (He missed.) And as his friend, French filmmaker Jacques Demy, said that too often Americans forget their own lesson — that the perfect length for a movie is 90 minutes. Discussing his long friendship with production designer and producer Polly Platt, Hill got emotional, saying, “For the tough action director, you can see tears in my eyes.”

Hill recently received a special award at the Venice Film Festival where “Dead for a Dollar” premiered. And above all, he doesn’t feel finished yet. As he said: “I am very aware that there is less going on through the windscreen than in the rearview mirror. But I’m not ready to sit at home and read magazines just yet, so I’d love to do a few more.”

People always refer to you as a genre filmmaker. Does that feel right to you?

Most of them seem to indicate that I’ve done something with the genres and bent them, and I think that’s very accurate. You see, many years ago, when among many of the more intellectual people in show business – there are very few – there was a serious debate about whether genres were dead and that the wave of the future would be a kind of personal filmmaking that transcended genre considerations . I didn’t believe that. I accepted the idea that you couldn’t do the same thing, you couldn’t just repeat from the past, but you could mix genres – The Warriors is a great example, a dystopian, almost futuristic film. It’s almost half a musical in itself. It’s an adventure story.

Which I absolutely believed and still do, if you don’t have genre elements, the audience won’t be with you. And genre elements aren’t necessarily as tired as everyone wants to proclaim. But even now it’s complicated. [The Argentine writer Jorge Luis] Borges always said that the most satisfying stories for an audience are when the ending is predicted, they know how it’s going to end, and they want that ending. Well, the other side of that coin is that you have to give them something predicted that completes the dance, but at the same time you have to present it in a way that’s novel enough that it doesn’t repeat itself endlessly. That’s a bit of the trick.

What did you want to achieve with “Dead for a Dollar”?

It is obviously an attempt to valorize Western tradition; but at the same time, in contradictory ways, there’s a genuine effort to bring contemporary themes of race and feminism above traditional genre tropes. But you don’t want to lead with this stuff, it’s not quite as theoretical, you want to tell the story that flows and maybe later the audience will say, “Oh yeah.”

You’ve been quoted as saying that all your films are western in a way. What’s so special about doing a true western?

What is a western? The really good ones have an apparently elegant simplicity that usually masks very deep emotions and attitudes that have to do with ethics, morality, individual behavior. How do you shape your life? And there is no recourse to higher authority. There is no effective police, we are in a semi-civilized state.

My mother was religious and I was sent to Sunday school and church until I was 15 years old. I didn’t really think about it much then, but now I think it’s a wonderful thing because when you do westerns, you have to be out there with the horses, the cowboys, the hats. It’s fun to be here. They’re more fun than a city movie where you always have to fight traffic noise and parking. But I always thought that, at the deepest level, westerns are like walking around in the Old Testament. These are stories like that. I think I picked up a lot of these stories when I was a kid.

A woman and two men on horseback in the film "Dead for a dollar."

Rachel Brosnahan, from left, Christoph Waltz and Warren Burke in Dead for a Dollar.

(quiver distribution)

There is a fantastic scene in Dead for a Dollar where two men, one black and one white, fight each other with whips. Where did the idea come from and what was it like staging this sequence?

Well, I had bullwhips on Wild Bill – Calamity Jane uses one just to show off. And then we did it again when I did the Deadwood pilot, I had the Calamity Jane character that whipped away. That’s what came to my mind because when you’re close, the rift is so enormous. And the thought of getting hit by one of those goddamn things is absolutely terrifying.

So I always thought it would be great if I could stage a fight between two guys with bullwhips and see what could happen. And we didn’t have much time. I think I shot it in about two hours. But the deeper implications of the character, the Anglo character trying to whip a black man and the black man resisting in the same way, I found a very interesting idea. And it worked well, I think, because you have an important dialogue scene in between. The film doesn’t stop for just one scene of dialogue. You can keep the flow going without spoiling your dialogue

They shot this film pretty quickly, it’s pretty cheap and it’s from a relatively small distributor. If you had made this movie in 1990 or 1980, it would have taken a lot longer to shoot and produce a lot longer. What was it like surviving changes in the industry?

Well, I always say everyone wishes they could live 25 again. And I’m no different than everyone else, but I’d much rather be 25 if I were [25] Then now. I always say I’ve never had an honest job. I got into the circus when I was about 23 and wanted to see if I could do it. I often quote Samuel Johnson: “We come uncalled to the arena to seek our fortunes and risk shame.” And I think the underscoring is “untitled”. No one said, “Hey, we really want your entry here, Walter, come over.” You have to earn it.

Now the old system was very unfair in many ways. It was obviously unfair to women and minorities, there’s no question about that. It was still stiff competition, but it was a closed shop. There were the studios and that was it. There was no independent cinema. When I started, the studios were run by people who were mostly show people, and they had a real flair and connection to movies and show business. Now it’s run by people with business models.

I certainly don’t want to present the old system as an ideal way of being. There has always been an attempt by the financial element to both homogenize and pasteurize the product, the theory being that the more you homogenize and pasteurize, the broader the potential audience will be, no matter how many times we have niche breakthroughs because people are taking risks and somehow came out with a film that was different.

Walter Hill holds a banister at his home in Beverly Hills.

Walter Hill’s long Hollywood career includes the Alien franchise and the HBO pilot Deadwood.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

How does it feel when older films of yours like “The Driver” or “Streets of Fire” find a new audience?

I had a series of films that turned out to be better thought out a few years later. “The Driver” is certainly the best example. Every festival I’ve been to features The Driver, it’s one of my flagship cards. The Driver was a complete critical and commercial failure in the United States. I didn’t get a good rating. They were all bad except one: Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader, who got everything I tried to do. I will also say if you are a young filmmaker you might deny it but they all read the reviews. When you get older, you don’t. Someone says, “Oh, you should read that.” Sometimes they do. And that’s not knocking on the critics. They chose a rough path to earn a living. And a good critic is also an artist. God knows we need good criticism.

For some reason it seems like people are really into “Streets of Fire” right now. It has been shown in 70mm in both New York City and Los Angeles in recent months.

I’m not smart enough to understand how these things work. I think it’s much better understood now. As I always said, even then it was my attempt to do a musical, even though it contained action stuff. I knew it was close because I would ever do a musical. And I like musicals, but I didn’t want that [be] Vincent Minelli. I wasn’t able to. But I thought I could do something with pop music and mix genres, and it was very experimental in its own way.

But why does a film not find an audience? You always want to say, “Well, they didn’t sell it right.” And that can be true. It’s possible not to sell a film properly. But the audience chooses what they want. All we know about an audience is that it has a purpose of its own.

At the end of “Dead for a Dollar” is a title card that tells Christoph Waltz’ character that he left no family or personal fortune, just his good name. I can’t help but wonder how you feel about this yourself. What do you hope to achieve from your legacy as a filmmaker?

I have no idea. It would be nice if at some point someone would watch your films and be interested and happy – that would be good. When I go to the next world, I think these things won’t matter too much to me. But you hope for the best. You make them for yourself, you hope someone else is interested. Walter Hill on long genre career and ‘Dead for a Dollar’

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