Brad Stevens’ “Monte Hellman: His Life and Films,” made me itch to sit down with my collection of Hellman’s films, from cult classic “Two Lane Blacktop” to his two celebrated “existential westerns” “The Shooting” and “Ride in the Whirlwind,” and look at each of them with a new and brighter understanding, given by Stevens’ exhaustive and illuminating analysis of Hellman’s movies and his life. Stevens does not just look at Hellman’s films intricately, but he also looks at Hellman’s life and the world around him at the time each of his films were made.
It’s risky proposition for a writer to include the personal in a critical look at an artist’s work, because it removes the control a writer has when working from an abstract hypothesis. When you add an artist’s life to the mix, what presents itself is a much more complex view. Stevens succeeds in bringing the same rich humanity to Hellman’s work that Hellman brings to his each and every one of his characters.
Perhaps most significant is the inclusion of chapters devoted to the “In Between Years” in which Hellman was developing projects, attaching stars, trying to get projects made, all of which is the life of an independent filmmaker. These years, seldom documented on any filmmaker, are often significant times of growth.
Stevens details how Hellman, found the financing for “Reservoir Dogs” and helped shepherd first-time filmmaker Quentin Tarantino through the production and post-production process, a project that not only raised Hellman’s profile among a new generation of filmmakers, but may yet bear additional fruits: one of Tarantino’s pet projects has been a proposed remake of Hellman’s “Whirlwind,” taken out of the Old West and updated to Capone-era Chicago.
There are also gigs done to keep the mortgage paid and even the smallest of assignments in Hellman’s career are included. For example, Stevens recounts Hellman’s work shooting a dialogue scene as second unit for Roger Corman’s “Beach Ball” while waiting for his two western scripts to be written and delivered, while also editing the psychedelic music sequences in the Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson Monkees film “Head.” These smallest details in a career serve as a window to really understanding the lifestyle and workstyle of a filmmaker.
The book also serves nicely as filmmaking primer. Stevens delves deep into Hellman’s filmmaking process whether recapping the unconventional casting of rock stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson and model Laurie Bird in “Two Lane Blacktop,” with the guidance of casting guru Fred Roos. Roger Corman’s recollections of scouting locations with Hellman and legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros in Georgia for “Cockfighter” also yield new insights into one of Hellman’s key films.
It would make sense that a book on the work of Monte Hellman would inspire and inform any would-be filmmaker, as Hellman worked not only as director, but also as writer, producer, editor, photographer, and actor. And in each exploration of every film by Hellman, there is illumination on what went into the making of the film in very concrete and practical terms as well as the emotional. Stevens brilliantly conveys the deeper rewards of what making the film meant to the filmmaker.