Interview with Monte Hellman

Monte Hellman

Film is Nothing: That line Mitchell Haven says, ‘“90% of the director’s job is casting and I forget the other 10%”, what does it mean?

Monte Hellman: Most film schools teach directors to “direct” actors. This is exactly the opposite of the way most directors work, at least the ones I respect. Read what Clint Eastwood says on the subject. If you cast someone like Morgan Freeman, the last thing you want to do is get in his way or tell him how to do his job.

I find I’m more interested in the actors than any character on a page. I try to create an environment in which the actor can draw upon himself rather than any idea the writer may have had about character. All good movie actors know instinctively that the character must become the actor, not the other way around.

“When someone is on screen, at that moment they’re the most important thing in the movie.”

Film is Nothing: That’s interesting. It’s the reverse to the archetypal way a director is intended to work, reverse to that cliché: the actor is clay; the director’s job is to mould them. In the film, Mitchell Haven cooperates to a number of the actress’s requests, such as the shooting of additional takes; as well as denying the other actors a reverse shot, to the dismay of the rest of the cast and crew. At first this seems that the director is blindly falling under her spell, compromising his personal vision by pandering to hers, but taking what you just said into account, another way of looking at it is the director has such utmost confidence in his actress and her instinctive interpretation of the role (“She is Velma Duran”), that for the film everything and everyone outside her character is secondary; she is the film.

Monte Hellman: In general if an actor wants an additional take I’ll give it to them, always fearful of letting that big one get away. But RTN was unusual in that it was in a constant state of flux. It grew and expanded as the confidence of the cast and crew did, allowing them the freedom to make mistakes. The moment when Laurel asked for an additional take wasn’t scripted. It was actually Shannyn, without losing character, wanting another take. And Tygh, in character, giving it to her. Even though there was no reverse on him, I’m sure Mitchell would have given another take to Billings as well, since his overshoulder performance is so critical to the scene. But he wouldn’t give him the reverse angle (as Sam Peckinpah once asked me to do), because he knew he didn’t need that shot. And he certainly didn’t give Laurel the extra take because he thought everyone else was secondary. The movie revolves around her, but she’s not the whole movie. There are no small parts. When someone is on screen, at that moment they’re the most important thing in the movie.

Film is Nothing: Films about filmmaking tend to be more personal than others. Do you see this film as a very autobiographical one? Is Mitchell Haven, besides sharing your initials, like glancing into a mirror? And I guess this comes down to the casting of Tygh Runyan; is Mitchell Haven more a product of Tygh or Monte Hellman?

Monte Hellman: RTN was conceived as a way to document Steve Gaydos’ and my many years of making movies together. The characters originally had our names. Eventually I decided to give them fictitious names, thinking it would be less distracting. And I didn’t want Tygh to do an impression of me, though it was difficult to convince him not to. He thinks of himself as a character actor, and he did a perfect take on Stanley Kubrick in “Stanley’s Girlfriend.” But I wanted him to use as much of himself as possible, thinking this would open up levels of creativity he hadn’t yet explored. Tygh was so successful at letting Mitchell Haven become him, he resisted saying one line repeatedly that was based on an observation of one of my habits: Oh, God! He finally wound up saying it only once.

Of course the “ideas” of Mitchell Haven mirror many of mine. That’s different. The character an actor plays always says and does things he might not say or do. But it’s always Jimmy Stewart saying and doing those things, even though he might convince us it’s George Bailey we’re seeing and hearing.

“…perhaps the truth in fiction precedes the truth in life.”

Film is Nothing: For all the reflexivity within it, it’s to the effectiveness of it that the audience is never jarringly taken out of the film, although they are constantly aware that they are watching a film, as are the characters within the many films within the film. Even during the end credits there’s a final referential jab with “THIS FILM IS A TRUE STORY” framed centred and paused; a final filmic joke? I’m particularly interested in how do, to you, those classics of cinema (The Lady Eve, The Spirit of the Beehive and The Seventh Seal) comment on the narratives within Road to Nowhere?

Monte Hellman: First of all, I believe there is more truth in fiction than life. Or perhaps, the truth in fiction precedes the truth in life. Oedipus had to exist before Freud could “discover” the Oedipus complex. That being said, RTN is a true story, in the sense that the principal characters (we discovered after we made the movie) were based on people and their stories we knew. But just before we see “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” we see the standard disclaimer: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” It is a joke, based on a similar literary joke in a book by one of my reference points, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The three movies that Mitchell shows Laurel relate to RTN in much the same way that the “source” music in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP relates to the movie. THE LADY EVE is essentially the same story — “It’s the same dame!”

SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE was chosen because it may be my favorite movie, but the scenes turned out to unconsciously mirror RTN, or vice-versa. Anna ties the soldier’s shoelace. Laurel/Velma ties her shoe laces before meeting Mitchell. Anna does something dangerous, and discovers the consequences. Laurel the same.

The scene from THE SEVENTH SEAL was chosen for different reasons, as a foreshadowing device, but it too is mirrored in RTN, particularly in the reference to chess.

But your comment on the reflexivity of the movie, and the fact that the audience, if they are taken out by it, quickly become caught up again is one of the most interesting things I’ve discovered by making the movie. In this movie I’ve done everything I was taught not to do: create detrimental empathy, not once but continuously. “Don’t do anything that will disrupt the audience’s fragile ‘willing suspension of disbelief.'” We constantly disrupt the flow, tell the audience over and over, “It’s only a movie.” And yet, as you say, the audience immediately starts to believe again. For me it’s proof that in these dark rooms where we mix our dreams with those of some faraway stranger, the suspension of disbelief is much more powerful than any detrimental empathy we can throw at it.

“We decided to […] become the first movie to be shot entirely with it [Canon DSLR].”

Film is Nothing: Ah, and chess is also prominent as an image of downfall (although that originates with the Kubrick connection) in “Stanley’s Girlfriend” too.

Road to Nowhere is a very contemporary production; scarily up to date with the exploit of the DSLRs as a filmmaking avenue (twelve months ago most film students and filmmakers wouldn’t have anticipated a DSLR wave), and Road to Nowhere was filmed many months prior that too. It’s remarkable how timely- no- how ahead of the time the film is, and it’s even more so now than ever. What was your reaction to these cameras initially? Was the time between conception and pre-production to principle photography a lengthy one?

Monte Hellman: We had been developing the movie for a couple of years, and felt we were on the verge of having the money at the beginning of 2009. The Canon had come out the previous October.

I’m both a photographer and an early adopter — I switched to digital still photography, along with scanning and digitally processing my old negatives, years ago — so I had been following the progress of digital motion pictures. Our first thought was to shoot with the Red Camera, and I was involved with tests on an early one that one of my students waited patiently for. And I followed the blogs on the Canon with excitement.

I hadn’t been overly impressed with the Red, despite the hype. So we decided to buy a 5D and test it. Josep, my DP, flew to L.A. from Spain.

We shot some scenes in my living room, which later became one of our sets on the movie. Then we did a film out. Although there were problems with the material we shot — blocked blacks for one — we were impressed that there was no loss when going to film. So we decided to use the Canon along with the Red. And I continued to read the blogs.

Then Josep shot a movie with both the Red and the Canon. He was amazed at how the Canon outperformed the Red in every department except ease of use on a movie set. The difference, he felt, was the larger sensor on the Canon that gave the images a more pictorial quality.

I discovered ways seemingly to overcome most of the problems with the Canon, including the problem of converting 30p to 24p. We found software to import the scenes into Final Cut Pro Res without blocking the blacks. And we didn’t know how much of a problem the conversion would turn out to be. So we decided to buy two more Canons and become the first movie to be shot entirely with it, utilizing my comprehensive collection of Nikon prime manual lenses. So we also became the first movie to be shot with a hybrid.

“For me it’s proof that in these dark rooms where we mix our dreams with those of some faraway stranger, the suspension of disbelief is much more powerful than any detrimental empathy we can throw at it.”

Film is Nothing: In a way, shooting on the DSLR as opposed to a Red gives it a very elusive quality in the production itself, as it’s seems a uncinematic camera for a film that is about cinema, especially for all the reflexivity, but at the same time it adds a peculiar, almost surreal distinctness, and as we’ve seen, the images look beautiful in the same way a still photo can be beautiful. Would you say there’s a considerable difference in the overall look between the film out and the Digital Cinema Package, which screened at the film festival here?

Monte Hellman: We haven’t done a film out on the final color corrected picture yet, but from our previous experience it should be identical. That being said, film projection is never as good as digital projection. A 4K image on a film negative is reduced to 2K by the time it becomes a print. Then when it’s projected through an analog projector, the loss is another 60%. These figures are approximate, based on the limited knowledge of a technophile, but not a technician.

Film is Nothing: You’ve mentioned that Spirit of the Beehive may be your favourite film, but have there been any recent films you’ve liked a great deal? Do you see a lot of films?

Monte Hellman: SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE is the movie I usually mention when asked to name my favorite or favorites. But in reality, there are many movies I love, and I’d be hard pressed to give them a numeric preference. There are some relatively recent movies that could be included: LA SENTINELLE by Arnaud Desplechin, THE EDGE OF HEAVEN by Fatih Akin, CLIMATES by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and THE DEATHMAKER by Romuald Karmaker, to name just a few.

But going back to older movies, I never get tired of STAVISKY by Alain Resnais, or STORM OVER ASIA by Pudovkin, again the first that come to mind.

And of course there are my “protégés”, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Rick Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson. Since these are my friends, my objectivity may be questioned. But they’re all admired and respected by professionals and public alike, so hopefully no one will object to my passion for them as artists, nor the pleasure I derive from their movies.

Film is Nothing: I asked because there’s something fascinating about viewing films filmmakers you admire love. In a way it’s almost like that line from Road to Nowhere about dreams.

Do you think you could give those of us anticipating your next film a hint as with the type of project you want to tackle next? There’s no shortage of variety in your filmography, so it could really be anything.

Monte Hellman: I was preparing another movie when ROAD took precedence. I expect to go back to it now, but I’m always prepared for surprises.

The movie is called GHOST OF A CHANCE. It’s seems to be a much more traditional picture, a ticking clock thriller about two people who have 24 hours to prove their love — or die.

And there are also some other dream projects that somehow never made it to the starting gate: DARK PASSION, SECRET WARRIORS, DESPERADOES, IN A DREAM OF PASSION, as well as another Steve Gaydos script, JUSTIFIED. Plus Moxie wants me to find another vehicle for her. I could go on and on.

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