Monte Hellman: The Actor’s Director

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In spite of his work in the 1960s and ’70s with actors like Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates and Kris Kristofferson, and his association with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah and Roger Corman, not many people know the name Monte Hellman. The 78-year-old filmmaker had a dozen movies to his credit between 1959 and 1989 before going more than two decades without a feature. He’s back with a brand new film Road To Nowhere.

But if it wasn’t for a chance encounter back in the ’50s, he might have never found his way into the director’s chair to begin with. “I never dreamed that I could break into doing movies,” he says. “I started directing in theater.”

But he jumped at an offer to work at ABC, where he cleaned out film vaults at the studios where Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks once worked. After driving a studio delivery truck, he eventually worked his way into an assistant-editor position, while also directing the first Los Angeles production of Waiting for Godot. It was there that he met Roger Corman, an influential and prolific director known for his B-movies with titles like Attack of the Crab Monsters and Teenage Cave Man.

“The theater got sold out from under us,” Hellman remembers. But Corman offered him his first directing job on Beast of the Haunted Cave. It may have had a Corman title, but there were faint signs of what would become the Hellman style.

“It was hard because Roger kept making the same movie over and over,” he says. “”Every movie he did was a variation on Key Largo. We wouldn’t have the cinema we have today without Roger Corman. He couldn’t work for a studio. He had to do it on his own.”

Corman would even use Hellman to communicate with his cast, a skill Corman never developed. “For St. Valentine Day’s Massacre, he just hired me to talk to the actors, just to be his connection.” That was the beginning of Hellman’s reputation for being an actor’s director.

After Beast, Hellman got close with a young Jack Nicholson. The two decided to collaborate on a script that was the polar opposite to Beast, a film Corman eventually considered to be too “European” about an actor who was trying to raise money for his girlfriend’s abortion. But to assuage his young writers, Corman said he would be willing to finance a Western, and by the end of their lunch meeting he had contracted them to make two Westerns because, he said, “it doesn’t cost that much more.” The films were Ride with the Whirlwind and The Shooting, both starring Nicholson. “When we got the assignment,” says Hellman, “the first thing we did was check out the movies that we remembered that we liked a lot”—films like John Ford’s Stagecoach, which inspired Hellman, just as his have gone on to influence later Westerns like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

In 1971, Hellman released the film that he’s probably best known for—Two-Lane Blacktop. The central character of the film is a street-racing vagabond played by musician James Taylor. “James Taylor was fascinating, such a natural,” Hellman recalls. “I don’t think he even knows where it comes from. Some of the scenes…you can’t believe it. No experience at all. He was just so perfect.”

Another musician, Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, played Taylor’s sidekick. “Dennis Wilson was unconscious. He was totally unaware that there was a camera going. He would just be in a scene, and he would forget he was doing a movie. I’ve never seen that kind of un-self-consciousness in anybody.”

Over the years, the film has grown in stature, as have the reputations of some of its actors, like Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. Oates, playing a self-deluded braggart, became one of Hellman’s favorite talents. He still refers to him as “the great Warren Oates.” “I had seen him in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ on stage,” he says. “He had a kind of largeness in how he related to life.”

“Harry Dean,” Hellman adds, “is a complete enigma. I’ll run into him and he’ll look at me and say, ‘I know you. Take your glasses off. Monte!’”

During the course of our conversation, Hellman continues to rattle off names of his favorite collaborators through the years: Francis Ford Coppola (“He’s almost like P.T. Barnum. He can charm a roomful of business types and talk them into anything. I think he’s the closest thing we have to Orson Welles.”), Kris Kristofferson (“If you feel you’re lacking soul, spend half an hour with Kris. He’s such a loving person. He just knows how to live life.”), Sam Peckinpah (“Sam was a tragic, kind of lost soul, in a way. He was embarrassed about being a poet. So he had to put on this mask of macho. It’s this gentle soul pretending to be macho and shooting guns all over the place. Sam was scary.”) and Muhammed Ali (“A sweet person. Really sweet. A gentle soul. I loved him.”).

And for his latest movie, Road To Nowhere, he’s found a new muse in its star Shannyn Sossamon. A film within a film, there’s an unsolved mystery of missing people—both real and psychological, and Hellman confirms that it’s not a simple watch. But he compares Sossamon to Oates: “They have this something. The camera is turned on them and they give up light. At the same time, they hide something. You feel there are secrets there. You keep trying to get into those secrets. To get inside and find what’s really going on.”

He says that with Sossamon every day on the set was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning. “She’s able to hit so many notes that are so far from where you think she’s going to be, and she just surprises you all the time.” An actor’s director, indeed.

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