My one rule of director Q&As: always turn on a tape recorder. Most of the time these events are forgettable; the questions are boring and the guests aren’t all that interested in being there. But every once in a while you get the right combination of director and moderator and audience, and something special happens — and when it does you better be ready to capture it.
Luckily, I had my recorder on last night, when Walter Hill sat down with Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold after a rare screening of his 1981 film “Southern Comfort” at the 92YTribeca. Over the course of nearly an hour, Hill spoke about the making of this particular movie — a brilliantly gritty and atmospheric tale of a Louisiana National Guard troop lost in the bayou, hunted by crazed Cajuns — and a huge number of topics from his long and storied career. Hill was candid, funny, generous, and moving. As C. Mason Wells eloquently put it on Twitter after the event, he was “as great a storyteller in person as he is with his films.” He really was.
Here are a few of the highlights from the evening, transcribed from my recording. And before you ask: yes, I’m the one who asked about reviews and film criticism. Because, obviously.
Highlights From Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort” Q&A at 92YTribeca on January 28, 2013
“There are a few things I really believe in. I’m committed to brevity of statement. I think movies are generally too long and they say the same thing 26 times.”
On the motivation to make movies like “Southern Comfort:”
“You do not do a film like this because you think it’s going to be ‘Jaws.’ This is not what drives it. But I think these kind of movies ought to get made. Tough little stories. I like those.”
On why genre filmmakers always claim their movies are metaphors:
“Action people and horror people are always desperately looking for intellectual credibility.”
On how he would remake “Southern Comfort:”
“I always thought it’d be interesting to go back and remake the movie, except remake it from the Cajun point-of-view. These are good solid guys who had their lives and families dependent on these things; they overreact to something that happens. They assume they will be hunted down and tried for murder, and so their only alternative is to kill the witnesses. These are pretty tough guys, so they’re willing to take that kind of measure. And I think you could make a very interesting movie on the other side of it. I think that’s one of the strengths of the movie; there’s a kind of ambiguity.”
On screenwriting as a form of literature:
“[Producer and writer] David Giler, who figures so large in my life, always described it as ‘the only form of literature that was only read by the people that would destroy your work.’ And it’s so often true. One of the things I objected to [early in my career] was it seemed like in those days that every script had been written by the same person. There was this kind of format, and everyone wrote in it, and they over-described everything. They put you to sleep instantly, trying to read them. And I decided there should be a bit of mystery of character, mystery of description that pulled the reader in more. These details would be nuanced out when you shot it. And so I wanted a leaner blueprint.”
On working with Charles Bronson:
“He was a touchy guy. He was kind of professionally mean… He never said much. He was very quiet. He always seemed to be angry about something. He never fully stated what the problem was.
We got along. We didn’t get along in post. He felt that I had been too harsh in the editing of his wife, who he had felt should be in the movie. And that was tricky. I politely declined that invitation and then I was told “Did I want to be a director or not?” And, uh, she’s in the movie.”
On advice about making an action movie, from director Don Siegel:
“He said, ‘One of the rules: don’t ever rehearse the goddamn things.’ Usually you’re fighting for rehearsal time, trying to get the actors there and all that. ‘Nah nah,’ he said… ‘The only thing that happens when you rehearse the hell out of the movie is everyone ends up hating the script.'”
On the ongoing debate over authorship of the screenplay of “Alien:”
“It’s a complicated subject, and people do ask me about it. I’ve never understood a lot of it, in the sense that [Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett] wrote a script, the studio turned them down, I rewrote it a number of times, then David [Giler] and I rewrote it a number of times after that. And that became the script that was shot. All this who-really-wrote-the-movie and all that — I certainly thought that David and I deserved credit. I think that anybody who reads their script and then reads what it became; I think a reasonable person would probably agree. Dan didn’t like that the studio supported our position. And I think he felt like he didn’t get enough credit. I just think everybody ought to read both scripts and then figure it out for themselves.”
On what kinds of movies he likes to watch:
“If you’re an action director, people think you like action movies — and I like action movies. I only like what I think is good. It might be a comedy, it might be a musical. Most action movies stink. They’re the back porch of filmmaking, and a lot of them are not very well done at all.”
On contemporary directors he admires:
“I never talk about them if they’re alive. I know a lot of them, and they get mad if I don’t mention them.”
On how he prepares to shoot on location:
“You just go there, you look around and figure it out. It’s like the question: ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ Well, the answer is: ‘One bite at a time.’ That’s the way you make a movie. When you start a movie, you can’t do it. It’s too big, it’s too complicated… Even the little ones are big, and the big ones are unbelievable. So you eat the elephant.”
On Hill’s memories of late “Southern Comfort” co-star Franklyn Seales:
“He was a wonderful actor. He’s probably best remembered in ‘The Onion Field.’ He gave a wonderful performance. I met him, I told him it wasn’t such a great part and he said ‘No, I can do something with it.’ Franklyn — it’s very hard to describe his personality. He was an openly gay person, which was very rare, I think, back around 1979, 1980. And we were in with some pretty rough guys. I’m not talking about the cast; the crew, and this was the Deep South. And I said to Franklyn, “If someone gives you some problems, you come to me and I’ll deal with it. He said, “No. I can take care of myself. I’ve had a lot of problems in my life. Don’t worry about me.”
“And there were some problems. There were some incidents where someone ridiculed him or something — I wasn’t there, but I heard about it. And he was a fearless person. Franklyn was, I think, the second person that I knew that died of AIDS. He was a wonderful actor and a great guy. And I was very moved by his death scene, where he says ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ It was a nice moment. So anyway: R.I.P.”
On whether he reads reviews of his work:
“The fashionable answer is ‘I never read reviews and I never have and I couldn’t care less.’ And the real truth is I don’t read a lot of them anymore. I do read what are perceived to be the more important ones, or if someone calls to my attention ‘There’s something in here that maybe you ought to read.’ I don’t think the process, other than the public humiliation and all that, I don’t think the process keeps you humble. I don’t think the process particularly makes you make better movies. I think there’s an interior discipline that’s way past something you’re going to read in a newspaper or a magazine or now on the Internet. At the same time, I’d be the first to say that film criticism’s incredibly important. Not so much in the daily reviewing of things that come out, but the constant dialoguing about films of the past. We have so much a better understanding because of the sense of rediscovery — and all that happens because of critics.
I never like to get into what’s best. But certainly one of the most significant film noirs is ‘Out of the Past.’ There were years when no one even paid attention to ‘Out of the Past’ — from the time it came out until I would say about 1975. That’s a long time, thirty years. Now it’s usually one of the first three or four movies you think of when you talk about film noir. Two things happened: it was shown on television a lot, and people found it. But critics also wrote about it in academic journals and magazines. If people really love a film, they find new truths. And that’s very important.”
On the question “What do you drink?”:
“Well it depends on the time of day. [audience laughter] I find that I like to have a sharpener around 7 o’clock. I usually have a shot of whiskey, and it’s usually Johnnie Walker Black. I drink it neat, and then I’ll break the rules in the classic way and I’ll switch to wine. But occasionally I like martinis.”