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Walter Hill: ‘Don’t Feel Sorry for Film Directors’

At the Lumière Festival, about Sam Peckinpah, Nick Nolte, New Hollywood, Richard Pryor, and why you shouldn’t feel sorry for directors

LYON, France — Walter Hill’s films are not renowned for sentimentality. In “Driver,” “The Long Riders,” and “Southern Comfort,” men fight, win or lose, live or die. And that’s the way it goes.

The same could be said about Hill himself. At a Lyon Lumière Festival masterclass, he fielded questions for an hour-and-a-half on Monday, talking frankly in his deep voice  – much more frankly than most giving masterclasses – about how he got started, his influences, and his big hit “48 Hrs.” On occasion, especially when he recalled people rather than films, a sense of big-heartedness, and some pain, shone through.

Here are 10 things Hill said at Lyon.

1. SAM PECKINPAH

By 1972, when Hill wrote “The Getaway,” Peckinpah was “an alcoholic, and I don’t think that is a secret I’m sharing.” For Hill, “The Getaway” was probably “the last film Peckinpah made where he was absolutely in full control of his faculties as a filmmaker….He was very intelligent. He liked to kind of cowboy talk” but “was better-read than he would like to pretend.” At the same time, Peckinpah didn’t like to make people comfortable. “He liked there always to be an edge in the room. He wasn’t always easy to talk to. It was like being in a movie without knowing the dialogue.”

2. NEW HOLLYWOOD

“I was very sympathetic and identified with the New Hollywood.” But his films “are, or were, rather retro. That is to say, I didn’t tackle subjects. I wanted to do genre films.” Hill said he thought some New Hollywood directors were “frauds and fools.”

3. ISSUE FILMMAKING

“I feel very strongly” – and it was about as vehement as Hill got at Lyon – “that a lot of filmmakers seem to want credit for throwing themselves on the side of good intentions. Then when the films don’t work, they kind of ask for a kind of pity. I totally reject this.” His visceral dislike of issue film-making may explain many things about Hill, one of them being his distance from New Hollywood.

4. ‘SOUTHERN COMFORT’

Another, his rejection of one common interpretation of “Southern Comfort,” now thought unjustly overlooked. In it, a National Guard squad, representing multiple iterations of dysfunctional manhood, slosh around the Louisiana bayou. Only the city slicker (Keith Carradine) and university grad (Powers Booth) opt out of the squad’s pillage, arson, abduction and trigger-happy mockery of the locals. Shot in 1980, the movie is “usually perceived to be a metaphor for Vietnam,” Hill said. He has always denied this, and still did at Lyon. That said, he admitted to it being “certainly one of my favorite films” of those he has made.

5. RICHARD PRYOR

Pryor starred for Hill in “Brewster’s Millions.” Hill said Pryor “didn’t believe that he was funny unless he took drugs, and he believed that if he took drugs he would die. Also, he had money problems, of course, so he had to work and take jobs and make lots of money. So it was difficult, but I liked Richard very much.”

6. INFLUENCE

Was Hill influenced by Kurosawa when he made “Driver”? “Guilty,” said Hill. He had seen “Samurai” by that time. But “influence is everywhere” Hill argued. “Early in my career, people said I was influenced by Peckinpah; Peckinpah was always critiqued as influenced by Kurosawa; when you watched Kurosawa’s films, you understand how deeply influenced he was by John Ford.” And so on: “You cannot study John Ford’s movies without really feeling the deep influence of D.W. Griffith: Ford never got over Griffith. You cannot look at Griffith’s movies without seeing the ghost of Charles Dickens.”

7. IT’S IMPORTANT WHOM YOU’RE SLEEPING WITH IN HOLLYWOOD

Hill spent much of his masterclass talking about “48 Hrs,”made in 1982 and his biggest hit. One key to that was the chemistry between Nick Nolte, as the seen-it-all cop, and Eddie Murphy, as a motor-mouth con, making his big-screen debut. But to achieve that buddy movie bromance, Hill had to land Murphy. “My girlfriend at the time was and is a talent agent – she is now my wife – [who] represented Eddy Murphy. I barely knew who he was because I was usually asleep by midnight on Saturday when he was doing ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Anyway, I looked at the tapes she sent over and I thought: ‘Boy, this guy is really talented.’ I flew to New York, met with Eddie. I remember that he wanted a nice suit. I said: ‘Well, you know, he’s a guy in prison,’ and he said, ‘Well, I could have the suit I wore into prison.’ I guess it shows, as we all know, it’s very important who you are sleeping with. So she was smarter than I am.”

8. A MODEST GUY

Rarely is a director so self-effacing as Hill, whom the masterclass moderator introduced as “a modest man.” Hill disagreed. “No director is modest,” he said. “We are engines of ego and ambition, and we disguise it in different ways.” Hill claims he got into movies out of “arrogance.” “I got a series of jobs in the film industry working on a series of documentaries,” he recalled about his beginnings in the movie business. “I began to read screenplays that were being made, and I hesitate to say this, but I guess I read them and said: ‘Christ, I could do that.'” It took him “four to five years to write my first screenplay writing at night, while I still had another day job.”

9. NICK NOLTE IN ’48 HRS’

“He’s a big lug of a guy and very lovable and very passionate about his work, and he was so good in the movie and he helped Eddie so much,” Hill said of Nolte. “Every day I would drive in, and the first thing I would hear is: ‘Nick needs to see you.’ I would say, ‘OK, send him over.’ They would say: ‘He’s in makeup. Can you go over there?’ I would say: ‘Well, when he’s done, send him over here.'”

So Nolte would come over. “‘Goddammit, I read this scene,’ Nolte would say,” Hill recalled. “‘This scene doesn’t work at all.’ ‘Of course, it works, I wrote it, what are you talking about?’ ‘I was talking to Ed about it and Ed agrees with me.’ And you know he’s the only guy in the world that calls Eddie Murphy ‘Ed.’ ‘Ed agrees with me it doesn’t work, but he’s afraid of you so he won’t come over.’ I would say: ‘We better rehearse.’ Nick: ‘There is no point in rehearsing because Ed can’t say the dialogue.’ I would ask him to show me the lines he can’t say and we would reverse the line and cut it or something and it would be fine. It would be like that every day but it was fine.”

Hill may be erring on the side of modesty. Murphy’s line, “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Reggie Hammond! And I’m your worst f—– nightmare: a nigga with a badge!”, was nominated as one of the 100 Most Memorable Movie Lines by the American Film Institute.

10. DON’T FEEL SORRY FOR DIRECTORS

Hill is well due for reappraisal. He’s always been praised for the technical virtuosity of his action scenes. “By the end of ‘The Driver ‘you can almost smell rubber burning, there are so many screeching tires. This may be the first film where the star of the show isn’t an actor or even a machine but a sound effect,” Variety proclaimed in its 1978 review. Yet Hill’s action virtuosity has distracted from a wider appreciation of style and psychological focus. Few directors know better than Hill how awful, limited and wary with emotion men can be, and in so many ways.

When a film doesn’t connect with an audience, “there is a real pain there, though, because you feel you’ve let so many people down: the cast, the crew, financiers, the whatever,” Hill said. But directors don’t deserve much pity, he argued. “In the first place, you are very privileged to be a director. There is a great quote I’ll get wrong of Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist, that: ‘We come to the arena uncalled, to seek our fortune and hazard disgrace. That’s the game, those are the rules.’ So I say to you as an audience, if you wanna feel sorry, feel sorry for the people in Syria, but don’t feel sorry for film directors.”

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