We’ve discussed writer-director Walter Hill previously here and here. Noted for his distinctive approach to writing — he describes it as “haiku style” — Hill has written or directed numerous movies including The Getaway (1972), The Warriors (1979), Alien (1979), uncredited, 48 Hours (1982), and Aliens (1986).
In the book, “Backstory 4, the fourth in a wonderful series featuring interviews with screenwriters from the 1930s through the 1990s, Hill has a lengthy interview with some fantastic insights into Hollywood and screenwriting as a craft. I strongly recommend the Backstory book series, interviews conducted and edited by Patrick McGilligan. Here are some excerpts from the interview with Walter Hill.
ON WHERE HIS FILM SENSIBILITIES CAME FROM
“I have no idea. There are the mysteries of the head and heart. I admit to a somewhat juvenile sensibility, with an emphasis on physical heroics. I was asthmatic as a kid, several years of school interrupted. This left me with a lot of time alone — daydreaming, reading, listening to radio serials; I was devoted to comic books. I never liked kid fiction much, read adult novels at a very early age, never much liked kid movies either. I’ve always been a good reader. My father and his father were my great heroes, smart, physical men who worked with their heads and their hands. Both had great mechanical ability, I had none. Being a sick child means that you are fantastically spoiled — which of course I love — and was excellent preparation for Hollywood.”
ON HOW HE LEARNED SCREENWRITING
“The usual story — read a lot of scripts, saw every possible movie. Wrote a lot at night. My big problem was finishing — I must’ve written twenty-five first acts — abandon and move on, abandon and move on. This went on about three years. Funny thing, once I was able to finish a script. I was able to make a living at it right away.”
ON WHERE HE DEVELOPED HIS UNIQUE SCREENWRITING STYLE
“Alex Jacob’s script of Point Blank (1967) was a revelation. He was a friend (wonderful guy, looked like a pirate, funny and crazy). This revelation came about despite a character flaw of mine. I have always had difficulty being complimentary to people whose work I admire, when face-to-face with them. This is not the norm in Hollywood where effusiveness is generally a given. Anyway, a mutual friend told Alex how much I admired Point Blank and John Boorman. Alex then very graciously gave me a copy of the script. This was about the time he was doing The Seven-Ups (1973).
“Anyway, by now I’d been making a living as a screenwriter for maybe two or three years and had gotten to the point where I was dissatisfied with the standard form scripts were written in — they just all seemed to be a kind of subliterary blueprint for shooting a picture and generally had no personal voice. Mine were tighter and terser than the average, but I was still working with the industry template and not too happy about it. Alex’s script just knocked me out (not easy to do); it was both playable and literary. Written in a whole different way than standard format (laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style), I thought Alex’s script was a perfect compliment to the material, hard, tough, and smart — my absolute ideals then. So much of the writing that was generally praised inside the business seemed to me soft and vastly overrated — vastly oversentimental. Then and now, I haven’t changed my opinions about that. But I have changed them about the presentational style.
“Anyway I resolved to try to go in that direction (that Alex had shown), and I worked out my own approach in the next few years. I tried to write in an extremely spare, almost haiku style, both stage directions and dialogue. Some of it was a bit pretentious — but at other times I thought it worked pretty well. I now realize a lot of this was being a young guy who wanted to throw rocks at windows.
“Hard Times was the first, and I think maybe the best. Alien (1979) — the first draft, then when David [Giler] and I rewrote it, we left it in that style. The Driver, which I think was the purest script that I ever wrote, and The Warriors. The clean narrative drive of the material and the splash-panel approach to the characters perfectly fit the design I was trying to make work. Of course all this depend on the nature of the material; I don’t think the style would’ve worked at all had I been writing romantic comedies.”
“My scripts have always been a bit terse, both in stage directions and dialogue. I think I’ve loosened up in the dialogue department, but I still try to keep the descriptions fairly minimal, and in some cases purposefully minimalist. I still punctuate to effect, rather than to the proper rules of grammar. I occasionally use onomatopoeias now, a luxury I would certainly never have allowed myself when I was younger. My favorite description of the dilemma of screenwriting comes from David Giler, “Your work is only read by the people who will destroy it.”
ON HIS WRITING PROCESS
“When I’m working alone, the old hard way. Longhand. Fountain pen. Legal pad. Thesaurus at my side. This last item, I’m not ashamed to say, is quite helpful — when you write screenplays, you don’t have a lot of room, and the stage directions can become onerously repetitive if you don’t work at fresh descriptions. Try to show a reader a new way to see it. Unless, of course, you are using repetition as a rhythm device in creating mood — which I guess is a perfect illustration of one of the things I like best about screenwriting : whatever is true, the opposite can also be true. Both at the technical level and at a much larger one — I think it’s best approached as an enigmatic way to make a living.”
ON ACTION MOVIES
“I love comedies, musicals, and thrillers like everybody else, but I confess to believing action pictures are what movies are most essentially all about. It’s the work they do best and uniquely best. I don’t mean action movies are better; in fact, most of them are actually a lot worse than the norm. But the few that really work are sublime. Films like Colorado Territory (1949), White Heat (1949), Ride the High Country, the Seven Samurai (1954), Scarface (1932), Heat (1995), Dirty Harry (1972), (1956), Attack! (1956), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), or a hundred others I can name… The real power of movies lies in their connection to our unconscious or semiconscious dream life, and action movies are about heroism and death. Will he live or will he die is the ultimate drama, isn’t it?
“Purity is important. Because it’s the essence of what the creative person is most trying to achieve — the ideal. This is where I think screenplays and movies cause terrible frustration; the dramatic form itself is so messy. so much of what we are trying to do is simply to put things in proper order. And this ordering of things is complicated; it’s absolutely not simple. Now, if you’re going to do action films, a certain amount of repetition, which certainly is a kind of straitjacket, is inevitable. You are going to have to deal with gunfights and chases. And usually there are certain other limitations that are a given. If you’re doing Dirty Harry, Eastwood is not going to be shot dead at the end, right? So it becomes a kind of game. The audience knows what the conclusion will be, but you still have to entertain them. So you are always walking on the edge of a precipice — trying to juggle the genre expectations, which can slip into clichés, and your personal need to dance with the idea of taking the familiar and getting a little off-center, getting it to play — putting your fingerprints on it. We have our areas of skill, and we want to continue to explore them, because we feel there’s probably something left to say — the need to, maybe this time, get it right. Lukas Heller always told me that [Robert] Aldrich used to say that the manipulation of idiots [the studio] was part of the job. But you manipulate them to get the opportunity to chase a kind of limited perfection.
“The main thing is to use whatever means are at hand to tell stories that mean something to you on a personal level. And often, again especially in the action field, what is personally interesting to you may be invisible to others. In the end, of course, when reviewing the result, the person you have outsmarted is very often yourself.”
[Originally posted July 25, 2008]