January sees the release of Monte Hellman’s extraordinary Two-Lane Blacktop for the first time anywhere on Blu Ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. Not only the best film that followed in the wake of the success of Easy Rider, it’s also one of the very best American films of the 1970s. Earlier this year I had the chance to talk to the legendary director about his career, and what follows is a new interview conducted this week specifically about Two-Lane’s production, with a piece to follow on the outstanding new disc early next week.
What was Will Corry’s original script like? How did it differ from Rudy Wurlitzer’s re-write?
Well there was nothing similar at all, Rudy never actually read the first script. The only thing we actually kept was the title and the idea of a cross-country race. In the original, there was no GTO character, just four college kids in a convertible. The Mechanic falls in love with a girl, but not the same girl at all; she’s driving a VW Bug and he keeps dropping his mechanic’s rags out the window so she can follow his trail. It was kind of a Disney movie.
I basically let him run free, but the script he wrote turned out to be very long in terms of shooting time and we wound up with a three and a half hour first cut which we cut down to an hour and three quarters. We really had to throw half of his movie away.
How did the finished screenplay come to be published in Esquire magazine?
Beverley Walker, our publicist, pitched it to them. They published it, then regretted it when they saw the movie.
This was your first (and only) studio movie. What was the experience like, making a film that’s so committedly anti-establishment within the studio system?
The deal we had was terrific, in the sense that we had final cut provided we delivered a picture that was under two hours, so they completely left us alone. But Lew Wasserman, who was head of the studio, didn’t see the movie until it was finished, had never read the script and he was offended by it. He felt it was too anti-establishment, so he withdrew any support for the picture.
Do you think it was a personal or commercially minded decision?
I think it was personal.
So you think the film’s lack of initial success was down to the studio not getting behind it?
It was a unique situation. It was before the days of Seagram and whoever else ultimately owned Universal, it was a one-man show; Lew Wasserman was the head of the studio and he controlled everything.
How did you come to cast James Taylor and Dennis Wilson?
I literally met with every actor under the age of thirty in Hollywood and didn’t really find what I was looking for. Then I saw James’ picture on a billboard and I was intrigued by his face, so I talked to Fred Roos, our casting director, about the possibility of meeting him and Fred brought him in. Dennis was about the last one we cast. I went through a lot of non-traditional roads on that role, I think Randy Newman was the last one I met before I found Dennis.
Has James Taylor seen the film now?
He still hasn’t seen it. He’s said that he feels that he could see it now, that he’d like to see it, but he still hasn’t (laughs).
Can you talk a little about how you found Laurie Bird?
I met her in New York when I went to have my first meeting with Rudy to discuss the screenplay. We had an idea about who the characters would be, and when I met Laurie I felt that she was a terrific prototype for the character, not thinking that she would ever play the role because she had no acting experience or particular interest. We taped a three hour audio interview with Laurie that we used kind of as a guide to the creation of the character, and when I struck out with trying to find someone to play the part in Hollywood, I forget who it was but someone had the bright idea “what about using the girl you used as your prototype?”. So we brought her out and did a screen test.
She was a photographer as well, right? Wasn’t she responsible for the publicity stills on Cockfighter?
She was an amateur photographer. I think that was the first professional work she did, she doubled as an actress and set photographer on Cockfighter.
You worked with the brilliant Warren Oates numerous times. What were the qualities that made him such a great fit with the types of stories you tell?
He was a very unusual personality in that he was apparently outgoing, extroverted, gregarious, but that was only one side of him. The other side was very mysterious and secretive, nothing that was overt but you felt that there was always something that you didn’t know about him. That’s what he projected, and that mystery made him such an interesting actor.
Did you find you had to adapt your working methods much when dealing with three newcomers and an experienced actor such as Warren?
There are always minor things that you adjust to. For example, you learn that some actors are generally better on the first take and don’t necessarily improve, whilst others will get better as they go along. So you have to learn, when doing opposing close shots, to shoot the actor who’s better on the first take before you do the other actor. As far as any particular differences between the so-called ‘non-professionals’ and the ‘professionals’, I didn’t find there was any difference between them, and I didn’t treat them any differently.
What was Jack Deerson’s involvement on the film?
Jack Deerson didn’t shoot a frame of the film. He would stay in the hotel in every place we went, he was never on the set. He was imposed by the union because they refused to take (cinematographer) Gregory Sandor into the union.
What was your working relationship like with Gregory Sandor? You’d worked with him on The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and I’m curious as to how much you influenced each other in creating Two-Lane’s particular visual style, the depth of focus, the composition…
The deep focus came from Gregory because he was a master of knowing where that line was between one actor and another to ensure that both would be in focus. I’ve never seen any other car movie where you have so many scenes with two actors in the front seat of a car, both being in focus. I can’t think of any other movie where that’s the case. Either it's a lost art, or it was possible because Techniscope used flat (as opposed to anamorphic) lenses, where the equivalent to a 40mm Panavision lens was 18mm in Techniscope. It still required knowing the exact distance at each diaphragm setting where both would be in focus, and it definitely wasn't half-way between them. Gregory was a master of that. As far as everything else went; he wasn’t excitable, he just did his work. After every take I’d always ask, “How was it?”, and his constant retort was “It was OK”. Then we did one shot on The Shooting, the one where Warren takes the saddle and the bridle off of Coley’s horse and gets on his own, then Coley’s horse follows them as they go off into the sunset; we literally had one chance to get it because it was the last shot at the end of the day, and I said “How was it, Greg?”, to which he replied “It’s probably the best shot I’ve ever taken!” (laughs).
Was there a long pre-production period on Two-Lane? Did you spend a long time seeking out the locations?
We did one rehearsal trip, where we travelled the same ground we would cover when we came to actually making the film, in which we picked the locations and the people who would participate. The main time in pre-production, as it always is, was spent on casting.
To what degree was the film art directed? Did you change many of the locations to suit the film’s requirements or were you shooting what you found as they were?
I don’t think we changed anything. We shot what we found. There aren’t many interiors anyway, but we just kept them as they were. I don’t even remember if we had a credited art director.
What did you find were the benefits and the challenges of shooting the film sequentially?
Well, you don’t normally get to do that. It was certainly helpful for the newcomers, to those who were less experienced. I didn’t give them the script, just their pages every day, so they were living it as they went along, their experience from previous days and previous scenes would determine who they were on any later day of the shoot.
I understand that was something that James Taylor wasn’t too happy about?
He said he wouldn’t work any longer if I didn’t give him the script, but then of course he didn’t read it when I did (laughs).
Can you talk about the cars? The ’55 Chevy and the GTO have since become icons of the American road movie. What made you settle on them specifically?
The ’55 Chevy was the prototype street-racing car that was admired probably more than any other, so that was easy. The GTO was dependent on which deal we made with who was going to provide us with the cars. I knew nothing about the whole sub-culture, so part of the excitement for me was meeting those people and seeing what that was all about. Our first scenes were with the LA street racers, which was pretty amazing.
The film has a very specific rhythm to it, can you talk about how you went about assembling the film? Did it go through many versions? Does any of the extra footage still exist?
All the footage is long gone, Universal destroyed it many years ago. The process of whittling it down had to do with the first rule of editing, of cinematurgy, which is to get to the major question as soon as possible. Of course, that’s the point in Two-Lane Blacktop where they decide to race, so there were a lot of scenes in the early parts of the script that were thrown out, not because they weren’t good, but because they delayed the real start of the movie. I really regretted losing some of those wonderful scenes; there was one where they are chased by the cops, they pull off the road into a driveway and look through the windows of a house to see a normal family, it was kind of poignant, but for the good of the movie we had to lose it.
Were there any specific influences for you when making the film?
The inspiration for my take on the movie came from Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist. I see a real similarity; the tragic flaw in each of the heroes is very similar. That was my reference when making the movie.
The Driver and The Mechanic are polar opposites to GTO, they’re entirely insulated by their own hermetic world of engines and carburettors, whilst GTO’s identity is seemingly a shifting construct of his own devising, as though he’s hiding out in a persona that he’s not entirely comfortable with. You just mentioned a cut scene about a ‘normal family’ they come across, so I’m curious about what you think the film says about notions of identity and society, about the ways we try to fit in or rebel against them?
One of the things I remember saying after we made the film was that for me it could have just as easily have been about a filmmaker, that car racing was just really the background, it’s really about the artist, I guess. In a sense, Road to Nowhere is a really a continuation of those themes.
It’s a theme that seems to run through all of your pictures to some degree, the personas we create for ourselves, twinned images and characters are found throughout your films. Warren Oates in Cockfighter refusing to speak, the twinned characters of Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson in The Shooting, GTO in Two-Lane. It seems to reach an apex in the meta levels of performance versus reality in Road To Nowhere…
I don’t know at which point I saw it in relation to any of my movies, but I was very taken by Bergman’s Persona. The idea of Persona fascinated me and I began reading psychological, philosophical books on the subject. It is something that kind of goes with the territory, something that actors have to deal with. I love actors and when I make a movie I try to make them accept this point of view which I have, that they should not try to become the character, that the character has to become the actor. I’m always looking to find what’s interesting in these people who are playing these roles, they’re always much more interesting than any character on a page.
It's a film that seems to reject the self-mythologising tendencies of many westerns, those of the likes of Easy Rider too, it's not a nihilistic film the way that film ultimately is, but the ending does suggest the fragility of the sense of freedom the film evokes; the film burning up, combusting, as though the American Dream and these self-constructed mythologies are purely cinematic constructs. What does the ending say to you?
Even after we shot it I was uncertain, but the reason I ultimately decided to use it was because I’d had an emotional response to it, and that was what convinced me that I should leave it in. The initial idea was purely intellectual, it was the idea of speed, the speed of film going through the gate of a projector relating to the speed of a car. That wasn’t enough though, I felt that if all I could do was draw attention to that, that wasn’t a good enough reason to use the shot. Once I’d had an emotional response though, I went with it, hoping that if it worked for me, it would work for everyone else.
Do you think it says anything about the way cinema tends to romanticise the idea of say, the freedom of the road, that in drawing attention to the fact that it’s a film by stopping it as you do, rather than ending it in a more traditional sense, it rejects that kind of romanticism?
Yeah, it’s the idea that movies usually end with a kiss, or a marriage or something. But that’s not the end of anything; life ends with death, that’s the only true ending. Everything else goes on. So a film shouldn’t end, it should just stop. That’s what we do, we force it to stop, but just because the film ends, these people still go on, doing what they’re doing.
Two-Lane Blacktop will be released on Blu Ray by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label on January 23rd and is available here
Road to Nowhere is currently without UK distribution, but is available here on Region A Blu Ray and Region 1 DVD