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Walter Hill on Returning to the Genre He Loves Most

Toolkit Ep. 172: Writer and director Walter Hill tells IndieWire about returning to the Western with "Dead for a Dollar."

Portrait du producteur de cinéma américain Walter Hill à l'occasion d'un entretien avec le Figaro.

Photo by François Bouchon

If you were an action fan in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s, one of the great pleasures of filmgoing was the experience, every year or two, of a new Walter Hill movie. No one else was really making movies like him, and no one had before; although his morally and philosophically oriented genre pictures owed something to the Westerns of Howard Hawks and the existential crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville, they weren’t really the same. Films like “The Driver,” “The Warriors,” and “48 Hours” were somehow both more heightened in their mythological resonances and more realistic in their behavior than the works of the American and European stylists on whose shoulders Hill stood.

Starting with “Hard Times” in 1975 and continuing on through masterpieces like “Southern Comfort,” “Streets of Fire,” “Johnny Handsome” and “Trespass,” Hill created a body of work that spoke to American culture both past and present, subtly commenting on the intersection between race and class and how it informed everything from the Vietnam War to the Rodney King beating — yet he did so through ostensibly escapist action films in which these subjects were addressed obliquely, and often with comedy.

As Hill points out in the new episode of IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, the jokes are funny but the bullets are real — a key to understanding not only the aforementioned classics but his latest film, “Dead for a Dollar.” “Dead for a Dollar” marks Hill’s return to the genre he loves most, the Western, and it delivers the usual satisfactions of a Hill picture — rich characterizations, expressive use of American landscapes, kinetic action direction — but takes an even more reflective and contemplative approach to the West than is typical of Hill. It’s a different kind of Western when compared with Hill’s earlier trilogy of “The Long Riders,” “Geronimo,” and “Wild Bill,” movies based on historical figures that placed certain restrictions and requirements on the director.

With “Dead for a Dollar” he’s dealing in pure fiction (even if the hero played by Christoph Waltz is loosely based on Danish bounty hunter Chris Madsen), and that factor liberated him to create one of his most unpredictable, emotionally resonant takes on the genre. “I very much enjoyed the freedom,” he told IndieWire. “With Jesse James, Cole Younger, Wild Bill Hickok, and Geronimo one feels very bound by history. Jesse must die hanging a picture and Bill’s going to go back to the Number 10 saloon and be murdered. You have a much greater latitude and freedom on something like ‘Broken Trail’ or this one.”

You can listen to the entire discussion with Hill below. Keep reading for excerpts from the podcast.

Like many of Hill’s best films, “Dead for a Dollar” honors the past while looking at the present and future, and this was by design. “The movie wants to valorize the Western, there’s no question about that,” Hill said. “But at the same time I tried to interject issues of race and also issues concerning feminism.” Hill tried to be honest to the period while also bringing a contemporary perspective to the material, but he pointed out that “the first thing that anybody should always think about in a Western is that it’s not the way it was. They are already a cocoon of mythology — any Western that you contemplate, it’s not the way life really was in the West. And it’s one of the attractions of the Western, that so much of the mythology has already been built.”

Yet while Hill is happy to dramatize or mythologize certain components of his story, he also wants it to have a moral seriousness that comes from acknowledging that even in the bleak landscape of “Dead for a Dollar,” life matters — and choices matter. “[The film] deals with codes of honor, ethics, and morality in a bleak, isolated social condition.”

That philosophy leads to one of the most suspenseful and moving sequences in Hill’s career: Toward the end of “Dead for a Dollar,” the various plot strands that have been unfurling throughout the film are suddenly pulled together in a compact, dynamic climax of thrilling but realistic action filmmaking. “I’m a firm believer that action sequences start with character,” Hill said. “You don’t let the movie get beyond what is valid for the characters that have been created and are part of this story. If I had Christoph leaping from building to building, the mood of the movie would have been broken. The movie stays within what seem to be his legitimate physical capabilities.”

Back before Marvel Studios reinvented the meaning of the term “comic-book movie,” Hill’s films often used to be accused of having a comic-book sensibility, which he surprisingly does not deny. “If you want to accuse my films of being comic books, you’re probably onto something, but it’s a different kind of comic book. I grew up in the golden age of comic books and people forget how serious many of them were.”

In recent years several of Hill’s films have found a new life on the festival and repertory circuit — including those, like “Streets of Fire,” that went largely unappreciated at the time of their release. Hill said that the way to keep going in the midst of critical and commercial disappointments is to keep “an unshakeable belief that you can do it. You can’t take the discouragement of lack of business or poor reviews in a way that’s going to paralyze your storytelling in the future. I was disappointed in the reaction to ‘Streets of Fire’ in North America. It did pretty well in Europe and it did very well in Japan; it did not do well in the UK. Any place they spoke English, the movie didn’t work. But, you know, it’s a profound mystery. The movie I made before ‘Streets of Fire’ was a huge hit. I didn’t do anything any different in my approach to the work. Sometimes you catch the wave and sometimes you don’t.” That mystery is part of what keeps Hill excited by filmmaking, along with the idea that there’s no one right approach. “Everybody’s got their own way and everybody’s own way is correct. Films are basically 125 years old — if there was a right way and a wrong way to do it, these things would now be known. But part of the glory of it all is that it’s very individual. Every film has its own sense of truth to it, hopefully, and the effect of the personality of the director and cast make them all profoundly different.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher.

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