Walter Hill (director)
Hill in 2014
January 10, 1942 |
Long Beach, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Film director, screenwriter, film producer|
Walter Hill (born January 10, 1942) is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer. He is widely known for his action films and revival of the Western genre. He has directed such films as The Warriors, Hard Times, The Driver, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs. and its sequel Another 48 Hrs., Red Heat, Last Man Standing, Undisputed, and Bullet to the Head, as well as writing the Steve McQueen crime drama The Getaway. He has also directed several episodes of television series such as Tales from the Crypt and Deadwood and produced the Alien films.
Hill said in an interview that "every film I've done has been a Western", and elaborated in another that "the Western is ultimately a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories".
Hill was born in Long Beach, California, the younger of two sons. His paternal grandfather was a wildcat oil driller; his father worked at Douglas Aircraft as a supervisor on the assembly line. Hill has said that his father and grandfather were "smart, physical men who worked with their heads and their hands" and had "great mechanical ability". Hill's family had originally come from Tennessee and Mississippi, "one of those fallen Southern families, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations".
What it did for me, despite the discomfort, it made you comfortable being alone with yourself. You weren't as surrounded by your peers as everybody else your age was. You learn to amuse yourself. In my case it meant tremendous amount of reading at an early age... I read, listened to radio... I became utterly besotted with daytime serials. In the later afternoon, when kids were meant to be home, there were more adventures... it enabled me to live in an imaginary world where one is comfortable with abstract ideas, dominated by stories, narrative, and characters.
Hill became a film fan at an early age, and the first film he remembers seeing was Song of the South. He later described his taste as "juvenile", stating: "I liked adventure, westerns, but I liked everything. Musicals. But the general, I remember not liking kid movies... still don't, I think that's hung on." His asthma receded when he was 15 and he began to think about becoming a writer. He worked in the oil fields as a roustabout on Signal Hill, California during high school and several more years while in college. During one summer, he ran an asbestos pipe-cutting machine and worked as a spray painter.
As a teenager, Hill contemplated being a comic book illustrator and studied art at the Universidad de las Américas, Mexico City. He then transferred and majored in history at Michigan State University. He said that, during this period, he was a particular fan of Ernest Hemingway's writing and came to believe that "the hardest thing to do is write clearly and simply, and make your point in an elegant way". Upon graduation, Hill was called up for the army in 1964 but childhood asthma saw him ruled ineligible. This forced him to think about what he wanted to do for a career. "When you are that age, you think you are going to be in the army two years, it's a huge amount of time. You don't bother worrying about what you are doing. Suddenly, this whole thing was upon me."
Through a friend Hill got a job in Los Angeles researching historical documentaries made by a company that was associated with Encyclopædia Britannica. He began writing scripts and developed the urge to direct. Hill:
The other thing that had been happening had been my film going and appreciation, it had risen and risen. Seeing so many of the European films, Japanese films, I was part of this isolated community in east Hollywood. I remembered thinking just a little further west they are making the films I want to see. I'm going to do this. Sink or swim... I wanted to be a writer on my way to being a director. Directors were already my heroes. Kurosawa, number of Italian directors... Movies from England, France, Sweden, Italy. Poland... One wanted a chance to tell stories in an open, loose, not constricted Hollywood kind of way. At the same time you wanted to work in Hollywood... I was tremendously interested in genre films. Wanted to work within genre films.
After this contract to make historical documentaries finished, Hill worked for a time in the mail room at Universal ("Somebody told me that was a good way to meet people"). He then got into in the training program of the Directors Guild of America, which enabled him to work in television as an apprentice. He observed and worked for over a year on such shows as Gunsmoke, Wild Wild West, Bonanza and Warning Shot. "I did a lot of shows for a couple of weeks, they would rotate you through," he says.
Hill wound up as second assistant director on The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968. He then went on to work as the uncredited second assistant director on Bullitt. In 1969, he was the second assistant director on a Woody Allen film, Take the Money and Run, but said he remembers doing very little except passing out the call sheets and filling out time cards. He also worked as a first assistant director on some TV commercials. "I didn't have a shred of desire in those areas," says Hill of assistant directing. "I wanted to work and be around films. I certainly took my duties fairly seriously and all that. I didn't see it as a long term kind of commitment."
During this time Hill was writing screenplays at night and on the weekend. He says one of his earlier works "was intensely personal about a love affair I had. It was terrible, I knew it. It was not until he started writing in a more "structured narrative environment" that he "began to find my voice." Hill:
I had a hard time finishing scripts. My problem was finding certain character narrative concerns. Once I finished scripts, I almost instantly made a living. Not only made a living, but got them made. From the time I finished them to the time they were getting made, making progress on the trail, that all happened pretty quickly.
Hill's first completed screenplay, a Western called Lloyd Williams and His Brother, was optioned by Joe Wizan, but it was never made. However the script was admired at Warner Bros who then asked Hill to pitch some projects. He came up with a detective story, Hickey & Boggs and the studio agreed to finance a draft. "Detective films were very old hat, not the kind of thing a young screenwriter was going to pitch," recalls Hill. "I think they were intrigued, maybe fresh air could be blown into a venerable genre." Warners liked the Hickey & Boggs script and hired Hill to rewrite the script for The Thief Who Came to Dinner, for which he ended up getting sole credit. (Hickey & Boggs was later sold to United Artists and rewritten by other people.)
Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich's ex-wife Polly Platt, a film editor, had read Hill's script for Hickey & Boggs and recommended him to co-write The Getaway with Bogdanovich. They worked on the script together in San Francisco while Bogdanovich was directing What's Up, Doc? They had completed 25 pages when they went back to L.A., whereupon Steve McQueen fired Bogdanovich without reading any of their work. Hill started from scratch and wrote his own script in six weeks. The resulting movie was a big hit which Hill later described "of the films I wrote, I thought it was far and away the best one, and most interesting."
Hill went on to write a pair of Paul Newman films, The Mackintosh Man and The Drowning Pool. By Hill's own admission, his work on The Mackintosh Man "wasn't much" and he did it to settle a lawsuit with Warner Bros, with whom he was angry for selling Hickey & Boggs. In addition, he and director John Huston disagreed on how closely to stick to the book on which it was based.
Producers Larry Turman and David Foster asked Hill to adapt Ross Macdonald's novel The Drowning Pool for Robert Mulligan to direct as a sequel to a previous Newman film, Harper. The producers did not like the direction Hill took with his script, so he left the project to write Hard Times for Larry Gordon at Columbia Pictures.
First films as director
By the early 1970s, Hill wanted to direct.
I think in casual conversation I would have told anybody I wanted to direct. At the same time I knew Hollywood was a closed off place... It was much harder to get in. To be an older director was a very positive thing. It meant you had survived, knew your way, could make things and make them meet your economic responsibilities. It was always paramount in studio minds, especially in those days... If I was going to direct I was going to write my way in. No TV, no play, I was simply somebody who said I have a sensibility. I think I can do this. based on nothing other than my scripts basically.
Hill met producer Lawrence Gordon in 1973. He agreed to let Hill direct a film if he wrote a screenplay for him. Hill made a deal to write and direct for scale and in turn got a shot at directing. The result was Hill's 1975 breakthrough film, Hard Times, made on location in New Orleans for just $2.7 million in 38 days. James Coburn played a fast-talking promoter of illegal street fights in 1930s New Orleans and Charles Bronson played the boxer protagonist.
The film was also a turning point for Hill as a screenwriter. He read Alexander Jacobs' screenplay for the John Boorman film Point Blank and considered it a "revelation" in terms of style and format. He decided to tailor his own scripts in that manner, as he described it, "extremely spare, almost Haiku style. Both stage directions and dialogue." He was also influenced by Sam Peckinpah. Hill wrote Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, and an uncredited rewrite of Alien in this style.
Hill's second film as a director was The Driver starring Ryan O'Neal as a laconic getaway driver for hire and Bruce Dern as a driven cop pursuing him. No character in the film has a name; they are merely The Driver, The Detective, and so forth. Hill originally had wanted to cast McQueen, but he turned down the role because he did not want to do another car film.
In 1979, Hill directed The Warriors – a story of violent street gangs which arguably became his most popular film due to its ongoing cult following. It spawned a spin-off television show that aired in the mid-1980s on ABC called The Renegades, as well as a video game, action figures, and talk of a Tony Scott remake for six years until Scott died in 2012.
In 1980, Hill directed his first official Western, The Long Riders, which cast real-life acting brothers (the Keaches, Carradines, Quaids and Guests) as historical outlaw siblings (the James, Younger, Miller and Ford brothers).
A year later, Hill took a Western approach to Southern Comfort, an intense Deliverance-style thriller about a group of U.S. Army National Guardsmen (including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe and Fred Ward) on weekend maneuvers in the Louisiana bayou who find themselves fighting for survival in the swamps after offending some local Cajuns. The film was seen by many as an allegory for America's involvement in Vietnam.
Larry Gross later recalled meeting Hill in the early 80s:
He’d had some success, but then he had a series of setbacks. And there was also the scandal around The Warriors; any success had been eclipsed by the killings in the theaters. So there was that, as well as the noncommercial success of Southern Comfort and Long Riders and the fact that there was a writer’s strike. All of that meant that Walter hadn’t worked in a while. Meaning a year or so. And what happened was the strike ended and the studios didn’t have a lot of ready scripts. So this clever colleague, Larry Gordon, dusted off a script that had been shuttling around development and got it greenlit at Paramount with his friend Michael Eisner. And that script was 48 Hrs.
In 1982, Hill enjoyed a major box office success by teaming a young Eddie Murphy with Nick Nolte for the film 48 Hrs. It was Murphy's first film. Clint Eastwood was originally lined up to play the cop and Richard Pryor the convict, but Eastwood wanted to play the criminal instead and dropped out of the project with Pryor following suit soon afterward.
Hill was one of the three originating producers of the blockbuster Alien series of films. He rewrote the script for the first production (with David Giler), co-wrote the story for Aliens, the second film in the series, and co-wrote (again with Giler and also Larry Ferguson) the screenplay for Alien 3.
In 1984, he directed a stylish "rock 'n' roll fable", Streets of Fire. While initially a box office failure, it gained a greater following in subsequent years (as many of Hill's films have). He directed Pryor along with John Candy in the much more mainstream 1985 comedy Brewster's Millions, following this with Crossroads. In 1987, he returned to hard-edged action with Extreme Prejudice, a contemporary Western based on a story by John Milius and Fred Rexer, which starred Nolte, Boothe, Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown. A tale of childhood friends who are on both sides of the law, it includes a showdown that lovingly pays homage to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
Hill returned to the buddy-cop genre with Red Heat (1988), a sort of Glasnost-era reworking of 48 Hrs. with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a stoic Soviet cop who travels to Chicago to catch a Russian drug-dealer (Ed O'Ross). Schwarzenegger is partnered with a wisecracking American cop (James Belushi), who is as laid-back and mouthy as his Soviet counterpart is taciturn and humorless.
Hill ended the 1980s with Johnny Handsome (1989). An unusual crime story starring Mickey Rourke, Morgan Freeman and Lance Henriksen, it was a cynical, downbeat tale that the director saw as a re-examination of the film noir genre.
Hill began the 1990s with the only sequel he has directed to date, Another 48 Hrs., with Murphy this time top-billed over Nolte. The sequel to his biggest commercial success was thought by many critics to be merely a retread of the original, but became the highest grossing film that Hill has directed.
In 1992, Hill directed a film originally called Looters about two firemen who cross paths with criminals while searching for stolen loot in an abandoned East St. Louis tenement building. However, the L.A. Riots broke out shortly before the film's release and the studio delayed its opening, eventually changing the title to Trespass.
Hill began to focus his energies on Western-themed tales. His film biography of Geronimo, entitled, Geronimo: An American Legend, with a screenplay written by John Milius, was well received by the critics, but fared poorly at the box office. A second biopic – this time of the titular Wild Bill – had little critical or commercial success, although Hill would return to the same themes and same characters, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, the next decade with the TV series Deadwood.
His 1996 effort Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, a Prohibition-era Western update of Yojimbo (and thus reminiscent of that film's inspiration, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, and its western incarnation, A Fistful of Dollars) saw him return to his earlier style to some extent: a gruff antihero and a heavy focus on stylized action. It was seen as a return to form for the director probably because of the mix of genres (including gun plays inspired by Hong Kong director John Woo).
The 1990s also saw him retain a writing and producer credit for Alien 3. He and David Giler were responsible for the final and controversial rewrite of the story which killed off the Bishop, Hicks and Newt characters from Aliens. He continued as one of the three original producers on Alien: Resurrection, although he has stated in several interviews he has had nothing to do with the franchise since Alien 3.
Hill then directed the 2000 film Supernova. When the studio did not agree with his vision, they brought in Francis Ford Coppola to re-cut the film. This caused Hill to withdraw from the project and credit himself with the pseudonym "Thomas Lee" (a variation of Alan Smithee), and chose not to be associated with the finished product. Hill called his original version a much darker take than the final product. In 2002, Hill directed the prison boxing film Undisputed starring Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames and Peter Falk.
Hill served as a director and consulting producer for the pilot episode of the HBO Western drama TV series Deadwood in 2004. The series was created by David Milch and focused on a growing town in the American West. Hill's work on Deadwood has seen him return to favour in critical circles to some extent, earning him an Emmy in 2004 and a DGA award in 2005.
He continued his work with westerns by directing the mini series Broken Trail, which became the highest-rated film made by a cable network when it premiered on AMC. It also earned him yet another Emmy when it was awarded for Best Mini-Series. Hill also won a second DGA award for his efforts on Broken Trail.
In the 2010s Hill described his status as "semi retired" and said he had a number of projects fall over.
The desirability of hiring directors over 60 is fairly diminished in this marketplace. At the same time, I hadn't had a good-sized hit in quite a while. And, frankly, I went through a couple of experiences that left me pretty disgusted with it all, and I was thinking the time had passed. I was just sitting at home reading magazines and looking out the window — a couple of projects I had had just fallen apart — when I got a call from Sly, who had sent me a script.
- Lloyd Williams and His Brother aka The Drifters - a Western written by Hill circa 1971 - Hill says Sam Peckinpah was considering making it after The Getaway but decided to do Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid instead so Hill used material from the script in Hard Times
- The Last Gun - a Western written by Hill with Roger Spottiswoode (circa 1977)
- Lone Star from the play by James McClure to star Powers Boothe and Sigourney Weaver (1981)
- The Last Good Kiss based on a novel by James Crumley (early 1980s)
- adaptation of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (early 1980s)
- adaptation of Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 (1980s)
- Dick Tracy (1983) with Warren Beatty - Hill replaced John Landis but eventually left the project himself
- a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1984)
- American Iron (1989/1990) - a film set in the world of bikers written by Hill, Mark Brunet, Daniel Pyne, and John Mankiewicz.
- Revenge – written by Hill with David Giler – a version of the Jim Harrison novella that was not used when turned into a film in 1990.
- The Killer (1992) – written by Hill with David Giler – a remake of the 1989 film.
- Red, White, Black and Blue (1997) – rewrite by Hill of an Andrew Kevin Walker script.
- Vengeance of Mine - a contemporary thriller set in Las Vegas
- Axmaker, Sean (October 3, 2005). "Walter Hill: "Operate on your instincts"". GreenCine Daily. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
- Interview with Walter Hill Part 1, Directors Guild of America 2007; accessed June 11, 2014.
- McGilligan, Patrick (June 2004). "Walter Hill: Last Man Standing". Film International. Retrieved November 28, 2007.
- The storyteller French, Philip. The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 01 Nov 1981: 30.
- "Interview with Walter Hill Part 2" Directors Guild of America 2007 accessed 11 June 2014
- Movies: A 95-Pound Inspiration for Film Beginners Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, California], May 19, 1968: D14.
- 'Kill' Role Next for Mason Lundy, Dori. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] April 10, 1971, p. C-11.
- "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 3" Directors Guild of America; accessed July 12, 2014.
- A Funny Girl in the 'Sandbox': Barbra in the 'Sandbox' By A. H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 July 1971: D11.
- "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 4" Directors Guild of America accessed 12 July 2014
- Stanley, John (May 27, 2007). "Walter Hill's Dark visions". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
- Markowitz, Robert. "Visual History with Walter Hill". DGA. Retrieved March 11, 2013.
- Oral history of Streets of Fire at Slash Film
- "Movie Looters release postponed till after summer". Toronto Star. May 6, 1992.
- Fischer, Paul (August 22, 2002). "Not Over the Hill as Veteran Director Walter Delivers Knockout Punch". Film Monthly. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
- Walter Hill (director), David Milch (writer) (March 21, 2004). "Deadwood". Deadwood. Season 1. Episode 1. HBO.
- "The Great Action Director Walter Hill Attempts a Comeback (and Brings Along Sylvester Stallone)" By Nick Pinkerton LA WeeklyJanuary 31, 2013 accessed 26 April 2015
- "Hildy Gottlieb Is the Bride of Walter Hill, a Director". New York Times. September 8, 1986.
- FILM CLIPS: 'The Body Snatchers' Moves Up Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles] 22 Oct 1977: c11.
- FILM CLIPS: A SKELETON IN CLOSET OF 'BODIES' FILM CLIPS Boyer, Peter J. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles] 12 Aug 1981: g1.
- MOVIES: Director Walter Hill: Ruggedly keeping the heroic tradition alive Kart, Larry. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago] 11 Oct 1981: d11.
- Director Hill puts extra dimension in Hollywood themes Thompson, Anne. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago] 17 June 1988: GL.
- 'DICK TRACY' DIRECTOR ON THE CASE Caulfield, Deborah. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles] 08 July 1983: g6.
- FILM CLIPS: 'TESTAMENT': ONE DEAL TOO MANY? FILM CLIPS: THE DEALS FOR 'TESTAMENT' London, Michael. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Oct 1983: g1.
- Saddled with an obsession Hill, Walter. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 23 Aug 1984: 11.
- Clint Morris, "Undisputed: Interview with Walter Hill", Webwombat accessed 25 May 2014