The title of Monte Hellman’s Road To Nowhere could double as a description of his last two decades as a filmmaker. For years, even as reissues of such ’70s landmarks as Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter brought Hellman’s name back into the public sphere, it seemed as if 1989’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! might be the last entry in his filmography, hardly a fitting last act. His contribution to the 2006 horror anthology Trapped Ashes, a darkly funny fable starring Tahmoh Penikett as the young Stanley Kubrick, showed the years hadn’t dulled Hellman’s chops, but that still left a long trail of unrealized projects with nothing at the end. Nothing, that is, until Road To Nowhere, which surfaced almost without warning last year. Written by Steven Gaydos, who also wrote Hellman’s Iguana and serves as Variety’s executive editor, the movie follows the efforts of a young director named Mitchell Haven and a screenwriter named Steve Gates to film the true story of Velma Durand (Shannyn Sossamon), a scandalous love triangle that ends in deaths real and faked and with $100 million missing from North Carolina’s treasury. As the lightly camouflaged name of his protagonist indicates, Hellman plays fast and loose with the boundary between his film and the one being made within it, which—much like the cross-country road race in Two-Lane Blacktop—quickly becomes more about the journey than the destination. From his home outside Los Angeles, Hellman talked to The A.V. Club about going digital, crossing Pauline Kael, and making a movie that made itself.
The A.V. Club: Nearly every article about you that’s been written over the last 20 years mentions some project that’s in the process of coming together, although obviously none of them did. What was different about Road To Nowhere?
Monte Hellman: All the other ones, I guess we were trying to find companies to back us, and this time my daughter [Melissa Hellman] decided that we would take our lives in our own hands and do it ourselves, and she did it.
AVC: You ran out of money a few weeks in, is that right? What happened there?
MH: I don’t know. [Laughs.] They kept it from me. I was oblivious to all this.
AVC: That’s a good producer’s job, right, to insulate the director?
MH: Right, she protected me and my emotional state.
AVC: Did you have to reconfigure things midway through?
MH: No. I think we were juggling credit cards, and ultimately we ended up being in the hole. We owed a lot of money, and had to raise a lot more money. That’s what happened.
AVC: Did it affect what you were trying to do in terms of shooting?
MH: No it didn’t. We had a very limited crew when we were shooting overseas, literally just our camera crew and our sound crew. Once we got back to L.A., we continued shooting at a few limited locations. Most of them were in my house. We had a full crew by then. I guess she was raising more money and able to pay for it.
AVC: Being able to do that, shooting with such a limited crew, was that due partly to the cameras you were using?
MH: Yes, absolutely. We could not have done any of those shoots with absolutely any other equipment.
AVC: The director in the film-within-a-film talks about using the Canon 5D, which is essentially a still camera. Is that what you used as well?
MH: Yes, it’s the camera seen in the film. We have actual scenes with shots of the crew. And they were shooting. So we were shooting them shooting. [Laughs.]
AVC: The movie is, to a certain extent, meant to confound the audience, arguably even at the end. Did you ever lose track of that, when you’re shooting them shooting and they’re shooting at the same time?
MH: To me it seems really clear. Shannyn Sossamon is the key to it. She’s playing an actress who’s playing a role. She’s playing two characters, but one character is really the actor playing another character. Whenever we see her in the making-of, so to speak, then she’s just the actress, and when we see her in the scenes within the movie, she’s a different character. It’s always obvious when they call her Laurel or when they call her Velma. It’s not very difficult to figure out what’s going on.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like you’re meant to put all the pieces together at the end.
MH: Really, the story is the film crew making a movie. The movie-within-the-movie is so simple; it’s essentially the same scene over and over again. You could describe it in three sentences, so it doesn’t matter that we see them shooting it out of sequence, as movies as are shot, because we see the whole set-up in the beginning. We see what there is to the story in the first eight minutes of the movie. After that, it’s just a repetition with different dialogue and preparing for what these events are.
AVC: After a brief framing sequence in which the camera zooms into the screen of your director’s laptop, you transition seamlessly to a long shot of Shannyn Sossamon drying her nails with a hair dryer in what seems like real time, which almost seems like a riff on the saying about watching paint dry. Is that up front to let the audience know what kind of movie they’re in for?
MH: It’s not a joke, but it is an attempt to get people to slow down, because it’s not a music video. Once that is established, the movie goes at a normal pace, but it’s just saying, “Relax. This is going to happen as it happens.”
AVC: You’ve been teaching at both USC and Cal Arts in recent years. Do you find that it’s hard to sell that kind of deliberate tempo to your students?
MH: To some. It really depends on how well educated they are, because if they’ve gone back earlier than 2001 to look at movies from the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, that’s the pace that we’re making it at. I like classic movies, and we’re just making a normal movie of that era. It’s not just cut every three seconds.
AVC: Has your experience with teaching changed your own approach?
MH: My students don’t have any problems because I teach them simple things, like the human eye doesn’t zoom so we don’t zoom when we make movies. You can dolly and walk with the camera, but you don’t zoom because that changes the perspective of the movie, and the human eye doesn’t work that way. That’s something detrimental that takes the audience out of the movie. My students are steeped in that, so they’re not bothered by a movie like Road To Nowhere. But students from other schools tell me that they don’t think people can take it. They’re basing it off their perceptions, and the way that they look at movies, and they think it’s too hard to take for today’s modern audience. I don’t believe that.
AVC: Where did the idea of using the human eye as a benchmark for what you do and don’t do with the camera come from?
MH: I don’t know. Even though I have used the zoom in some cases for comic effect, I knew we were taking the audience out of the movie. It just occurred to me that that was the reason why zooms were not an effective tool.
AVC: Robert Bresson said he only shot with a 50mm lens, because that approximates the eye’s natural depth of field.
MH: It’s closer to 42mm, I think. I learned it in film school umpteen-million years ago, but no, I believe that as well. I teach the effective lenses, and that if you’re going to use a wider lens or a longer lens, it should at least be consistent. There are people who would do a close-up on one person with a 75mm, and then do the alternate close-up with a 50mm or a 100mm, and those shots don’t match. The room would keep expanding or contracting from one angle to another. You just can’t do that.
AVC: In some cases that’s just because maybe the director wants certain actors’ faces to look different.
MH: It’s usually just because it’s easier. They say, “Okay, instead of using that lens, let’s just move a little closer with a wider lens,” and it’s not the same effect, even though the shot is the same shot.
AVC: In an interview around the time of Iguana, you used the word “documentary” to describe your shooting style. Does that sound right?
MH: I don’t recall saying that, but if I did I must have meant something by it. [Laughs.] My guide is really the great painters, particularly the Romantic painters. It’s about light being the way nature provides it, and not necessarily the way… I forgot who shot The Professionals [Conrad Hall —ed.] where there were two suns in the sky. I get disturbed if I see two suns in the sky.
AVC: You’ve worked with Steven Gaydos before, on Iguana. How did this script come together, and what about it spoke to you?
MH: I don’t know where it started in his mind, but I know he dreamt a major part of it, the movie-within-the-movie. The idea was to make a movie about making movies, and particularly about the way we make movies, and then it just built from there. The film noir elements were added to it and a lot of other stuff. He wrote the script, and then he told me about the idea, and we tossed around reactions to the script between he and I and a couple of other people. He rewrote it based on that, and that was it, I fell in love with it. As he says, he’s submitted over half a dozen or more screenplays or ideas to me before, and I’d never bought any of them before this one.
AVC: There’s a danger in making a film about filmmaking, in that it’s easy to make something that doesn’t translate to a general audience, that’s only about itself. Was that a concern?
MH: I’ve always thought that the way to have universal appeal and get close to a large audience is to be as specific as possible. Whether it’s about moviemaking or street racing or about cockfighting, if you’re very specific it becomes universal because everyone has something that they’re passionate about and that they can then relate to the specificity of the film.
AVC: There are three instances in the film where you overtly reference other movies. Were those written specifically into the script? Did you clear those in advance?
MH: We did clear them, and we decided to use those movies. First of all, I had about a half a dozen movies that were really important movies for me. As we discovered certain ones like The Lady Eve that were kind of the same story that we were making, that became an obvious choice. With The Spirit Of The Beehive, I didn’t realize that we would have parallels there, but it’s just my favorite movie of all time. Then we wound up having a scene of someone tying shoelaces, and then in our movie someone ties her shoelaces, but those were accidental things that took place. With The Seventh Seal, again it’s kind of a basic movie of a lot of people’s lives who lived through that era, and I discovered that that particular scene worked as a foreshadowing device, much like the scene of the courtroom in A Place In The Sun that you see early on, and then becomes such an important part of the movie.
AVC: Your doppelganger, Mitchell Haven, describes what he’s making as “my piece of crap Hollywood movie,” and he’s shooting in what seems to be a fairly stylized, film noir fashion, which isn’t something you’ve gone for in the past—at least, until Road To Nowhere.
MH: I’ve always been attracted to film noir, and I think you could easily say that Flight To Fury is a film noir, but that’s about as close as I’ve come with movies I’ve made. I’ve had a lot of projects that didn’t get made that were definitely in that genre. It’s the movies I like the best. If I have a choice between watching Ordinary People, which I love, or Double Indemnity, I’ll pick Double Indemnity, you know?
AVC: There’s confusion in Road To Nowhere as to who the protagonist of the film within the film is. It’s conceived as a star vehicle for Cliff De Young, but Sossamon’s character basically takes over the story. Is that an experience you’ve had, where you think you’re making a film about something and then it becomes about something else?
MH: I can’t think of any instance of it. In my movie, in my Road To Nowhere, not Mitchell Haven’s movie of Road To Nowhere, Cary Stewart [De Young] or Rafe Taschen [the character Cary Stewart plays], neither is the protagonist of the film. I was never confused by that, but obviously Mitchell Haven was. [Laughs.] His movie became something else, as his writer keeps reminding him.
AVC: When you look back at your old films, do they seem to be about what you intended them to be about?
MH: Starting with Two-Lane Blacktop, I think all of my movies have essentially been the same story. I was very moved by Shoot The Piano Player. Two-Lane Blacktop was to me Shoot The Piano Player, and Cockfighter is Shoot The Piano Player, and China 9 [, Liberty 37] is Shoot The Piano Player, and Road To Nowhere is Shoot The Piano Player. [Laughs.]
AVC: If you’re going to say Silent Night, Deadly Night III is Shoot The Piano Player…
MH: Oh no. That is not. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you remember what the first experience of seeing Shoot The Piano Player was like? What about it spoke so much to you so deeply?
MH: It’s interesting, because it was the only time in my life where I switched sides and became a critic. I felt very uncomfortable about that because a critic was always a nasty word. You could kill somebody with the word in Waiting For Godot. The picture I was selected to review was Shoot The Piano Player.
AVC: Review for where?
MH: For KPFK [radio]. I actually replaced Pauline Kael one week on KPFK, and I believe she never forgave me for it because she kept taking pot shots at me during the rest of my career, and not even just for my movies. She would say things like, when she saw Badlands, she said, “It’s almost as bad as a Monte Hellman movie.” Now there’s no reason to do that, you know, other than she didn’t like me. [Laughs.] Terry [Malick] and I have shared a lot of things in the past, including the wrath of Pauline Kael.
AVC: That’s right, and now you both have new movies coming out a few weeks away from each other.
MH: It’s kind of interesting because his movie’s about God and they call me the Devil. This [interview] book came out in France called Sympathy For The Devil.
AVC: Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! is an incredibly strange film. How did you end up doing that in the first place?
MH: Well, I was not inclined to do it at all. A very close friend of mine, Arthur Gorson, was producing it, and he wanted me to direct it. I got the flu, and I was in bed for two weeks, and I kept on saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” but in my weakened state he convinced me, and then in a week we managed to write a new script. It just came together so fast. We started shooting on April 1 and July 1 we were in a festival in Spain.
AVC: Did you ever do anything that fast, even in the Roger Corman days?
MH: I don’t recall ever doing anything that fast. I was a pretty fast editor on my upright Moviola. We did this in, not a digital system, but a video system with a whole stack of videocassettes. There was this giant machine, called Touch Vision or something like that, and we did it fast. I think we edited the picture itself in 10 days.
AVC: There’s a lot of weird stuff in that movie. Did you just have to roll with it, given how little time you had?
MH: I decided what I was going to make was a comedy, with obvious pastiches including Star Wars. We just took potshots at anything we could because we thought it was funny.
AVC: Did you tell them that?
MH: Oh sure, sure. I mean, I didn’t tell the studio that. Arthur knew that, sure. We just had fun with it.
AVC: You’ve spoken of it pretty fondly, which if people only know it as an entry in your filmography is not an assumption they would make.
MH: I actually thought at the time that it was my best work. Not that it was my best movie, because of the subject matter, but I knew more about making a movie, making that movie, than I had ever before. I think it showed. I enjoyed that part of it, the skill factor.
AVC: Is that true of Road To Nowhere, or was there a learning curve in terms of getting up to speed with the new technology?
MH: Road To Nowhere is strange, because I don’t even feel like I made it. I really feel like there was something kind of supernatural about the process, that the picture made itself. It decided what to do and what it wanted to be. It took control, and it was a very strange experience. At a certain point I just let it happen. I had never made a movie before that I didn’t personally edit, and I intended to do that here. I brought an editor [Céline Ameslon], someone who was a protégé of mine who I encouraged to become an editor. I thought she would be my assistant, and my hands on the computer, but within four or five days, I just let her take over.
AVC: That was because you sort of needed an outside viewpoint?
MH: No, because I saw that she was as good as she is, and probably better than I had ever been. I said, “Wow. This is going to be an interesting experience.”
AVC: Did it come back different than you expected because you weren’t editing it yourself?
MH: It did, because it gave me the benefit of someone able to see it in a fresh way, and be able to solve the problems without being steeped in the concept that I shot it in.
AVC: Did it go in one direction or another? Did it resonate in a different way?
MH: It just changed in a lot of little ways that added up in a big way. The movie itself, during the shooting of it, became something different than the screenplay. That was more conscious. That was something that I decided that I wanted to try, is to turn off the head and open up the heart, and let people work more with their subconscious than they are used to doing. Actors like to figure out what they’re doing and control the process, and I wanted everybody to let go of control. A lot of scenes came out of that that were not imagined in the screenplay. It doesn’t mean that they were different, but that they were expanded to be bigger and more powerful than I would have ever envisioned on my own.
AVC: How do you get actors to give up control like that? It seems like telling people not to think of pink elephants.
MH: It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. We just gave up all the usual “What was I doing before this and what am I going to….” It was a little easier because of the kind of script it was. What would happen was I would have five takes, and someone would say, “Can I try something different?” and I would say, “Sure,” and then it would kind of astound us. Just so brilliant, and would take the movie in a whole new dimension, a whole new path, whatever.
AVC: You have the scene where Mitchell Haven is shooting Shannyn Sossamon over John Diehl’s shoulder. She asks for another take, the set goes quiet, and then she launches into it without the director saying, “Action!” Is that reflective of how you work, or is that just how Mitchell Haven works?
MH: I don’t remember ever, ever starting a scene without “action,” and I’m not sure how that came about. [Laughs.] Like I say, this movie made itself. The other thing, her actually saying, “Can I have another take?” that was real. She says that she was fidgeting, and you look at her, and she was fidgeting.
AVC: But she asked for another take as the character?
AVC: You created a context where that could happen. Did that mean that the crew had to think as if they’re part of the story as well, and know that they need to take direction from Mitchell Haven as well as you, if he says, “Do another take”?
MH: Well, Mitchell, you know… I didn’t say cut. I think that it was that we did plan to do another take that goes into something else at the end, but right now I can’t remember what’s in the script and what isn’t anymore. We changed so many different things all the way through.
AVC: While we’re talking about deviating from the script, when you signed onto Two-Lane Blacktop, it was a script by Gunsmoke actor Will Corry that you had no intention of directing. How did you pick Rudy Wurlitzer to write a new one?
MH: I did. Somebody gave me his novel Nog and I was blown away by it. I thought he was the writer that I wanted to work with.
AVC: Is what he turned in to you essentially the movie that got made?
MH: He was not able to read the Will Corry script, and I told him he didn’t have to. He read five pages, and said, “I can’t read this.” I just told him what we wanted to keep, which was the idea of a cross-country race. He changed all the characters. He created the characters. I met with him in New York, and was also trying to cast someone to play who we knew would be the girl character. And I don’t think he had fully developed the character or had gotten very far in the script at that time. We interviewed Laurie Bird for about four hours on audiotape and decided she was a good prototype for the kind of character that we wanted, never thinking that she would play the part [of The Girl]. That’s about the only kind of input I ever remember suggesting, that we use that as a prototype for that character. Normally, I work with writers where they give me pages every day or every few days or whatever, but he just wrote the script and then sent it to me.
AVC: Did casting Laurie Bird start you down the road of using inexperienced or nonprofessional actors?
MH: I didn’t intend to use musicians in those roles. It just happened. That’s how we wound up with it. I cast James [Taylor] fairly early and Dennis [Wilson] fairly late.
AVC: There’s a way in which James Taylor almost seems to shrink from the camera, as if he doesn’t want to be discovered, which fits his character perfectly.
MH: I didn’t think of it in that way, but he certainly was very natural-seeming, which is a way that he describes himself, even, in giving his concerts. He admits to being uncomfortable, even when he seems comfortable, but I felt that we really distorted his personality by making him so serious. James was really a much lighter person at the time and probably still is, you know. But we only showed that one kind of aspect of his persona.
AVC: Cockfighter is regarded as one of your best movies, but it’s not a favorite of yours because of how the production went.
MH: Yeah, I wasn’t able to do with the script what I would have liked. I enjoy the documentary aspects of it, but the other very straightforward Rocky aspect to it is something that didn’t appeal to me as much as some of my other movies.
AVC: There’s a huge technical challenge inherent in Cockfighter because the protagonist, played by Warren Oates, doesn’t speak. Was that part of the attraction for you, to diverge from the way movies are normally made?
MH: I don’t remember any attraction other than the fact that I had just come back from a bad experience and wanted to get back on the horse. That was my first chance to do that after that picture I was doing in Hong Kong. Shatter.
AVC: There are quite a few movies that you worked on in part. How did Shatter transpire?
MH: Shatter I was hired to direct but we went over schedule for reasons that were not my fault, but incompetency in the production and the fact that we were working with the Shaw Brothers. They were working the same crews 24 hours a day on three different productions, so they chose to sleep on our production. Anyway, I got some blame for that. I was fired halfway through, after I had shot all the scenes with the European stars. It was supposed to be, I guess, a three-week production, and three weeks in we were only halfway through. I think that was it. Anyway, it took another seven weeks for the producer to shoot the other half of the picture, so he was going at an even slower pace than I was.
AVC: So Cockfighter seemed like a more manageable production, with a lead actor you were close to?
MH: I got back from Hong Kong and Roger called me and offered the picture and I started work right away. That was the appeal of it, just to get going again. I didn’t know how I would feel about making a movie about killing animals and it turned out to be disturbing to me.
AVC: Did you have Warren Oates in mind from the start?
MH: Yeah. As soon as I got assigned to the picture, I just knew that he was going to be playing it. At one point, I kind of stupidly asked him, “Are you worried about playing a part where you aren’t able to have any dialogue? Should I take you through it?” He said, “Are you kidding? This is the best part I’ve ever had! I don’t have to learn any lines!” I don’t think it bothered him at all. He was just so comfortable in his own skin. I don’t think he ever worried about being able to convey a character.
AVC: The movie’s quite disturbing, too, as it’s meant to be and should be. It’s a tough one to recommend to people in the same way as Two-Lane Blacktop: How would you like to watch a car race that never finishes and you never find out who wins? Plot summary will not get you very far.
MH: [Laughs.] Well, to me, it’s a love story, just like Road To Nowhere.