In Road to Nowhere (2010), his feature comeback after 20-odd years, Monte Hellman deftly blurs the line between cinema and reality: the film depicts a young director shooting a crime drama based on a true story, using the actual locations as a source of inspiration. During the shoot, he falls in love with his lead actress, who uncannily resembles the real-life crime’s femme fatale, and soon things get alarmingly tangled up, especially in the mind of one imaginative member of the crew. Although there is no denying that its decidedly artificial touch and wooden dialogue make this a flawed film, the director’s approach is complex, intriguing and worthy of attention. Ultimately, Road to Nowhere amounts to little more than a series of bravura noir scenes in which the tension and emotion sometimes build up too slowly, but a great meta-B-movie feel and fitting cinematography make it an enjoyable watch.
Monte Hellman talked to Pamela Jahn at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July 2011 about how it feels to be back on set, what it takes to let things go and other things you don’t usually learn in film school.
Pamela Jahn: Road to Nowhere is your first feature film in over 20 years but in the meantime you had been working on various other projects that didn’t come to fruition. What was different this time?
Monte Hellman: My daughter decided that we would stop waiting for other people to give us permission to make movies and instead do it ourselves. So she went out and raised the money. She fell in love with the script and that was something that fascinated me because it’s a movie about my life in the sense that it’s about the process of making movies – it’s a film about the making of a film.
How important is the process of making a film to you as compared to the final outcome on screen?
Both things are important to me. In this case, the process was exciting because we tried something different. Filmmakers are control freaks, but we tried to give up this whole idea of controlling every aspect of it. I guess I got tired of it. Instead we tried to pursue something that was less intellectual and more emotional. I tried to get everybody to turn off their brains and let the subconscious take over. It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly for people who like to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Actors are trained to examine themselves like, ‘what was I doing 10 minutes ago’ and ‘where am I going with this’. And all this is very much about control. But we tried to find a way to forget about all that and just let this thing happen. It requires an awful lot of trust, of course, and faith. Both their faith in me and also their faith in themselves. But it worked. It was amazing.
How did it feel to be back on set after so many years?
It’s always the same for me. Before starting any movie I feel like I don’t remember what to do and how to do it and I am always terrified until the moment I get on the set. And it was the same this time. It’s been over 20 years… well, not really, because I directed a segment in a film called Trapped Ashes in 2006. But I get on the set and think, ‘This is where I belong to’, and I feel comfortable, and suddenly all the fear is disappearing.
Is there a relation between Mitchell Haven, the director in the movie, and yourself? How much of the young Monte Hellman do you see in him?
It started out that way. When we were sitting together working on the script, people would just shout out certain eccentricities that I have and put them into the script. But as soon as I hired an actor I realised that this was a mistake, particularly since he’s an actor who loves that kind of thing and I didn’t want to give him that comfort. And so, fortunately, he agreed not to do that and he even rejected some of the things that remained in the script.
Road to Nowhere is actually based on quite a simple story if you look at it a certain way, but on first viewing it can be a rather baffling experience.
I never thought of it as difficult or delusive or anything. We’re seeing this movie within the movie out of sequence but there is so little to that story, and actually we see the same scene over and over again. I didn’t expect it to be as hard to unravel as it turned out to be for some audiences.
It’s very film noir in its look and spirit.
Yes, and this is something that does attract me. The fact that no one can ever figure out the most difficult movies of the genre, like The Big Sleep for example. Even Howard Hawks said he could never figure it out. But that never bothers me, because I’m not really interested in figuring things out. I’m interested in entering into a dream world, it is partly my own dream and partly the movie’s dream, and I’m just letting things go and I’m going with it. That’s the way I relate to Road to Nowhere, and I unconsciously expect the audience to do the same thing.
Was it easier for you to have your daughter producing the film than, for example, Roger Corman?
Roger Corman was a good producer for me because he left me alone. My daughter was much better though because she not only left me alone, but she kept me unaware of the financial crisis and anything that would not be part of my creative process. She kept me really isolated so I could do my work. And she did her work, she was great.
Do you need complete isolation in order to work?
I don’t want to be worrying about things that are unnecessary for me to worry about.
Roger Corman produced several of your early films. How did the collaboration come about?
My wife at the time was an actress working with Roger, so I met him socially and he invested a small amount of money in a theatre company that we had. And when this theatre was disbanded because we lost our venue after it was sold and converted into a movie theatre he said that we should take that as sign and I should start making movies. He asked me to do one and there was no looking back after that.
Your most critically acclaimed film to date, Two-Lane Blacktop, failed at the box office in America at the time of its initial release but has long reached cult status. Where you disappointed that it didn’t become the breakthrough film for you that it was meant to be?
I don’t remember it as such. I was angry that they did such a bad job of distributing the film. Especially because it was a big thrill for me to see the success of Two-Lane Blacktop in London at the Islington Screen on the Green. So much so that I invited my London agent to come to the screening and then he couldn’t get in because it was totally sold out. That was fun. But in the end, I just went on to my next project which, I think, never got made. Well, most of my projects didn’t get made [laughs], but I just kept plunging on.
When you did Cockfighter, it also failed commercially on release, but then Corman tried re-editing it. Where you aware of it at the time?
Yes, Corman did recut the film in a version called Born to Kill, which is weird because chickens are not born, they are hatched. I knew he was doing it. But luckily the original was restored afterwards, when they put it out on video they asked for the original version. So there’s now a good DVD version available in the States.
Of all the projects that never got made in the end, is there a particular one that you are hoping to still be able to do at some point?
I am currently working on an old script but, yes, there is another one that I was hired for by Bert Schneider and Paramount in the early 80s, which is one of my favourites.
What’s the story?
It’s a film noir as well. It was written by Lionel White in protest at the fact that Stanley Kubrick wouldn’t hire him to do the screenplay of Lolita, so he wrote his version of it as a film noir. I have the script, though first of all I need to persuade Paramount to sell me the rights. But I really hope to do it some time.
You’ve also been teaching film for several years now. What’s the main advice you give to your young directing students?
To be honest, I think teaching film is pretty much a sham. It’s something that can’t be taught. So one of the first things I tell my students is the same advice the director gives in Road to Nowhere, which is, if an actor asks, ‘How do you want me to act?’, you say, ‘Don’t’. Students are trained by the system and by other teachers to direct, and I always say to them, ‘Don’t’. Most great directors don’t direct, you don’t direct actors. Like Clint Eastwood said, ‘How can I tell Morgan Freeman how to act?’
What was the first thing you have learned in your career?
Fortunately, I learned very early on not to expect that pre-planning would lead to anything, which was very interesting. And so instead of staying up all night and doing little storyboards, I get a good night sleep and I trust that I’m going to be inspired once I get on the set. And most the time that works!
Interview by Pamela Jahn