Action Movie Poet: Walter Hill on his EIFF Retrospective
Today's cinema owes a great debt to the stylish action pictures of Walter Hill. He talks about the trials of being a genre director and his influence on filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn ahead of an Edinburgh International Film Festival retrospective
Walter Hill is speaking to The Skinny from a cupboard in his LA home. “My wife’s given me this little broom closet to do my work in. Only a director when you leave the house, you know.”
If you think it strange that America’s greatest living action filmmaker writes his pictures from a spartan office, then you’ve clearly never seen his films. They are pure cinema, unadulterated and pared down to the bone. Not only can you fit their plots on the back of a fag packet, you’ll get most of his laconic protagonist’s dialogue on there as well. Hill doesn’t waste time on concerns like backstory or exposition: he favours forward momentum. Running time rarely crosses the 100 minute mark.
In interview, Hill is as straightforward and as unpretentious as his movies. When we ask if he was aware at the time of being part of a golden age of American cinema in the 1970s, he says “Oh, Christ no. We were just a bunch of people out there trying to make a living.” And when we suggest his movies were overlooked by critics on their release he fires back, “Look, I’m not complaining: if you think you’re going to be an action director and also be a critical darling, you’re crazy.” At one point he catches himself referencing an old interview of his: “Not to quote myself,” he chuckles. “I realise that’s an ego beyond ego.”
The Warriors (1979)
We’re speaking to him ahead of a mini-retrospective of his work at Edinburgh International Film Festival, which will take in his first seven films, from 1975 Charles Bronson-starring bare-knuckle boxing saga Hard Times through to 1984’s gloriously pulpy rock’n’roll odyssey Streets of Fire. In between these pictures there are four masterpieces: the effortlessly cool existential getaway driver thriller The Driver; The Warriors, a neon-lit New York street gang movie by way of Homer; western The Long Riders, the finest telling of the Jessie James story; and thinly-veiled Vietnam allegory Southern Comfort, in which a band of National Guardsman get their asses handed to them by some back-water bayou trappers. There’s also 48 Hrs, from 1982, the movie that launched Eddie Murphy’s acting career and invented the 80s love-hate buddy movie. Thank it for Lethal Weapon and condemn it for Turner & Hooch – or vice versa.
How does Hill feel about EIFF’s upcoming tribute? “It kind of depends on the time of day that you ask,” he says. “One response is, ‘Christ, I’m not dead yet!’” He should be getting used to these types of accolades. Time has been kind to the sinewy, existential pictures he created three decades ago. They feel as fresh as ever and they’re steadily being reissued and reexamined. “I will say this,” says Hill, joking aside, “it’s not the worst feeling in the world to see that someone wants to take a look at something you did 35 to 40 years ago. It might still bring some pleasure to an audience, and that’s a nice feeling.”
There was little fanfare for the films on their original release, however. While the movie brats (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg et al.) were soaking up the plaudits throughout the 70s, Hill and fellow genre specialists like John Carpenter toiled in relative critical obscurity, in America at least. They were seen as New Hollywood footnotes at best. “We make genre movies,” he says of himself and Carpenter. “I’m an action director, John was always doing horror, and these are back porch stuff. Movies are judged a great deal by their subject matter. I’m not speaking out of regret or anything – I love the kind of films I make – but the kind of high and low art assumptions, as they are in literature and various other creative forms are very extant in Hollywood, then and now. It took Elmore Leonard I don’t know how many years before it was understood that he was a very fine artist. But he didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize or anything.”
Genre labels are merely matters of the moment. In the same way that the French critics of the 1950s turned the world on to the artistry of Hitchcock’s thrillers and Ford’s Westerns, so too today’s critics (most vociferous among them those who subscribe to notions of “vulgar auteurism”) have turned the tide on Hill and Carpenter's artistic legacies. The festival retrospectives and lifetime achievement awards have begun to roll in.
Despite this retroactive praise for Hill’s extraordinary early run of films, his less consistent output from the mid-80s onwards has yet to be fully appreciated. If there’s one disappointing note about Edinburgh’s Hill retrospective, it's that it didn’t take the opportunity to go digging in this more erratic latter phase of his career. From Reagan-era shoot-’em-up Extreme Prejudice to his fat-free underground boxing pic Undisputed from 2002, via drum-tight thriller Trespass, noir fairytale Johnny Handsome and two more excellent Westerns from the mid-90s, Geronimo and Wild Bill, there are gems to be discovered. Heck, even a chance to see his pilot episode for HBO series Deadwood, his other take on the Wild Bill Hickok legend, on the big screen would have been welcome.
“If you think you’re going to be an action director and also be a critical darling, you’re crazy” – Walter Hill
Hill, in a rare moment of blowing his own trumpet, is in agreement. “Those early movies caught the wave with the time they were made and with critics more so than other periods of my life, but if you ask me, ‘Do I think they were the best?’ I would say no,” he explains. “I thought I became a better story teller in the late 80s and 90s.” Like his films, Hill is incapable of being didactic, however. “That doesn’t mean I’m right. There are many texts in the end. A film may mean one thing to his maker and may mean a nuanced but different thing to its audience. That’s the way of it.”
Does he have a favourite of his own films? “Well, I never say. They’re all your children. And it wouldn’t be very fair of me to say that one of my children is my favourite.”
We put it another way: is there one of his “children” that he thinks was particularly under-appreciated by audiences and critics? “All of them,” he laughs. “I think it was Truffaut who said that even when the films are appreciated, they never appreciate the right things and they never appreciate it enough.”
What makes Hill's work so appealing in today’s action movie climate is their stylish economy. The convoluted Marvel universe or the bloated Fast & Furious pictures overstuff their plots but undercook their characters. Hill’s films are their inverse.“I was once quoted as saying all my movies were Westerns, but they never really mention the other part of the quote,” he explains. “I think of them as Westerns because the narratives tend to be simple but the dilemmas tend to be rather complicated and the character reactions to the dilemmas tend to be at one level rather stoical, but at the same time there’s a difficult moral choice.”
Hill’s influence is all over modern cinema. You’ll find his DNA in Michael Mann’s urban crime dramas, which trade in the same neon-lit streets and fluid action, and whose heroes carry around the same existential anguish. Nicolas Winding Refn’s arthouse smash Drive, meanwhile, pays slavish homage to The Driver. Both concern taciturn getaway drivers, both are set in near mythic versions of LA, and both star blonde pretty-boys named Ryan (Gosling and O’Neil) whose characters have no back story and are simply named Driver. Hill has no beef with his imitators, though. In fact, he and Refn are fast friends. “I know Nic. He’s been over here to the house. Bill Friedkin [The Exorcist] introduced us and we both immediately said, ‘Well, we both know that we’ve stolen from Jean-Pierre Melville.’ And Jean-Pierre Melville stole it from This Gun for Hire. Everybody’s connected. There’s a great connected collective out there and we all do variations on one another.”
You can join these dots yourself during Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Walter Hill: The Early Years retrospective.