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With a career that started early as Steve McQueenís screenwriter, Walter Hill has more than made his mark on American cinema.  The writer of THE GETAWAY and ALIEN, and director of HARD TIMES, THE WARRIORS, 48 HOURS, STREETS OF FIRE, WILD BILL, and so many iconic films spoke with me about his latest, the neo-noir crime thriller, THE ASSIGNMENT.

Walter Hill, come out to play-yay!



Walter Hill


The Lady Miz Diva:  THE ASSIGNMENT came under controversy practically from the moment it was announced.  Do you think there were misconceived notions about the film?  What was your take on the controversy?

Walter Hill:  Well, I certainly think that there are some misconceptions.  Where to begin?  The movie was attacked because the premise was felt to be in some ways disrespectful to the transgender movement, or exploiting the transgender movement, and was attacked really before we were beginning to shoot.  So, I obviously disagree with that on so many different fundamental levels.  But I have to also say within the framework of this, I think to attack things that you have not seen is a fairly weak intellectual position to start with, and makes dialogue and discourse rather difficult.  And by nature, as well as circumstances, I chose not to get into any kind of polemical situation; I was asked to make statements and I declined.  I thought, as I said, the film will be my defense, and as far as Iím concerned, the film is my defense, although I am speaking about this.  So, let that be the preamble about this.

Number one, it is not a movie about the transgender experience.  We live in the gender fluid age and society now, compared to the world that I grew up in, the country are grew up in.  I think thatís a good thing.  I have no particular attitudes about it.  Times change; itís a very different world and Iím glad that people are getting to express themselves and their way and their choices that theyíve been harboring within.  I think itís a good thing that they are now able to come and face the world directly, hopefully without problems and prejudice.  Iíd like to say this goes without saying, but I guess you have to say it; the idea that I would purposely set out to make peopleís lives more difficult that are on this journey, is rather dispiriting.  People come to watch movies to be entertained.  I certainly donít want to make anybodyís life - their journey through this voyage that weíre all on Ė more difficult. 

I do not think the movie has anything really to do with the transgender experience.  There is a very big difference between transgender and genital alteration.  Frank Kitchen goes through genital alteration.  Frank Kitchen is a guy.  Frank Kitchen starts out as a guy.  Frank Kitchen is a criminal.  He is double-crossed, he is knocked unconscious, he wakes up, he seems to have the body of a woman, but he is still a guy.  Heís a guy inside his head and he is a guy every scene in the movie.  This would seem to be perfectly consistent with transgender theory; that is to say we are who we are inside our head.  But Frankís experience is the opposite of the transgender experience, which one is, if you opt into the surgery:  Frank is a guy who, against his will, is genitally altered, and heís still a guy.  Transgenders, if they opt for the surgery, are guys who become fully guys, or women inside their heads then become women, physically.  So, I just donít see the critique about that. 

Itís a movie about revenge.  Itís double tracking.  We have a brilliant surgical doctor, who is also an intellectual, who is hell-bent on revenge for a very reasonable reason; Frank very cruelly murdered someone that she loves, a member of her family.  Frank is, as opposed to this bullying intellectual figure, he is the desperate product of the streets.  A Darwinian survivor of the criminal underclass.  He has a brutal, amoral sensibility at the beginning of the movie.  And both characters through the up-and-down of the drama, end up Ė how do we say this Ė I thought I had a double task, the two characters end up sadder but wiser about themselves, shall we say.  And the audience, hopefully, if Iíve done this right, has a degree of sympathy for both characters.  You should not approve of the characters; they do not become saints and they do not become wonderful people, but they are recognisably human in a better way than when we first began the journey.  And she is going to tend to her own garden now, and live with her own ideas in a very restricted way; he is going to take the tools that he has, and itís rather vague {in the film}, but heís going to try to be a vigilante for causes that he thinks are proper.  Heís no longer going to be in the murder for hire business.

So, to me, thatís what itís about.  I donít see that thereís much to do with what originally made some people angry.  We live in times that are, as I said, gender fluid, but there are also heightened identity politics.  I donít like identity politics.  I think itís a wiser thing that we discover weíre all in the same boat in our humanity, and we proceed trying to have a large tent that we can all function within, rather than magnifying the differences between us.


LMD:  I had a bit of hesitation watching this and wondering if the worst thing that the doctor could do to Frank was turn him into a woman?

WH:  No, she addresses this in the deposition.  In the scene, she double tracks on the explanation.  She has given him a new opportunity in life.  She radically altered his conscious self in an attempt to give him a chance at a new life and improvement.  She says, ďThe most noble of all things is a woman; the most developed of all.Ē  He fails this test.  He is not better, as far as she is concerned.  He remains exactly who he was inside his head.  He, as she puts it, ďtakes up the gun.Ē  He goes right back to the gun. 

What she then points out is an exact reproduction of most cis-gender theory, which is, we are what we are inside our head, and thatís it.  One part of the experiment was a failure and the other was a success.  She is on a revenge trail at the beginning, but the deeper she thought about it, revenge was just the surface, and then the scientific took over; her need to experiment.  She is an intellectual, and she is a woman of great ideas and great intellect.


LMD:  Sheís very Frankenstein.

WH:  Well, thereís only a few stories and most of us only know a few.  The great Borges always said thereís only two stories; The Crucifixion and The Odyssey, and all stories finally came back there, which I guess if you make your categories broad enough, you can make anything fit.


LMD:  I did find it somewhat ironic that this whole brouhaha was based around the man who was responsible for turning the character of Ripley in ALIEN into a woman.  Ripley, of course, is one of the most beloved characters in cinema, as well as being the template for the ďbadass femaleĒ in film.

WH:  Well, Ripley is taken from Ripleyís Believe It Or Not; that was the overall story idea.  But her name was Ellen Ripley, and Ellen is my motherís middle name.  {Laughs} Usually people that are writers, directors all that tell you that they have these terrible childhoods, that they didnít get along with their parents, or something like that; I got along with my parents very well.  I miss them still both, very much, and I was very close with both my mother and my father.  Our second daughter is Miranda Ellen, and Iíve kept the name going the best I can many times.  Iím sorry, Iíve cut you off.


LMD:  No, not at all.  I wanted to discuss the fact that originally Ripley was a male character, and also the Miranda character from STREETS OF FIRE was originally written as male.  What is it that goes into your thinking when you transform the character that way?  Is it the character or the performer attached to the role that changes things?

WH:  I think a little of both.  Howard Hawks used to always say, any time you can turn them around, any time you can pull a reversal, itíll always add to your drama.  Rather than just have men chasing women, itís more interesting if the woman chases the guy.  Famously, in the MacArthur/Hecht play that he uses as the newspaper drama with Cary GrantÖ


LMD:  HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which was originally THE FRONT PAGE.

WH:  Very good, Diva.  My memory for titles is always weak.  The Rosalind Russell character was a guy.  So, I think I was open to the notion, because Hawks was certainly one of my favorite filmmakers.  And the combination of opportunityÖ I think in the case of Sigourneyís character in this movie, the more I thought about it, the conception of the doctorís personality as a guy seemed a very familiar idea;  When you made him really smart and very intellectual, it inevitably crept into the mad scientist kind of thing.  I thought with a woman, it wouldnít getÖ I mean, she is not a healthy person, however, I donít think she falls into the category of mad scientist.


LMD:  Please tell us about Michelle Rodriguez, who really has a difficult path in this film.

WH:  She does it so well.  Itís a wonderful performance, and itís a very brave performance.  And I think sheís absolutely credible in the movie.  She told me when we first met, *affects gravelly voice*ďI donít know who youíre going to cast in this, but youíll never find anybody thatís as good with the guns as me.Ē


LMD:  Just like that?

WH:  Absolutely.  If anything, tougher, and she was right, she was absolutely right.  At the same time, as I say, she does a wonderful job, but underneath, sheís a very sensitive person.  I liked her very much, I loved working with her very much.


LMD:  I felt like THE ASSIGNMENT was very much representative of your signature style.  I was reminded of your 80sí films like 48 HOURS and STREETS OF FIRE. The colour schemes have that trademark grainy, murky look punctuated with bright jewel tones, and the music themes are composed by the great Giorgio Moroder (Though I was expecting Ry Cooder). And the action in the film is relatively low tech with gunfights compared to many current action films.  Was this a look back for you?

WH:  I donít know, you make a lot of decisions that are just kind of instinctive; ĎLet me try this,í Ďlet me do that,í Ďletís do this.í  I think that whenever you make a movie thatís by intention noir-ish, or neo-noir-ish, you are in a sense, making something retro.  Thatís just inevitably part of what youíre up to here.  And the kind of shorthand, comic, graphic novel style is another bit that probably is a bit on the retro side, because it doesnít emphasize certain kinds of psychological reality.  Although, you donít ask actors to play comic book characters; you tell them to be as real as they can.  Iíll supply the world that theyíre operating in, but you guys play human beings; play them as best you can play them, and with as much nuance and subtlety as we can muster here.  I guess Iím just rambling along, but Iím struggling with your questionÖ


LMD:  Iím sorry.

WH:  No, itís a good question.  And I said yesterday I thought this movie was very much an extension of my work on the Tales From the Crypt.  Denis Hamill wrote the original story and screenplay back in the late 1970s, and I read it then and it was very lurid and very interesting and God knows it was different.  It was audacious and I always like that kind of thing; not that that kind of thing was very common in this instance {Laughs}.  I just didnít know how to do it.  I couldnít get it right in my head.  I optioned the material a couple of times, I allowed the options to expire.  I wrote the script, which I abandoned because I could see later it was too real; I was trying to put it too much in the real world. 

And then after my Tales From the Crypt experience - I did three of them - I really felt that I had suddenly had this revelation Ė thatís how to do it, do it like itís Tales From the Crypt.  That immediately connects it in some ways, certainly not in every way, but in some ways, to films Iíve done like Streets of Fire, Johnny Handsome.  So, I guess once again, I plead guilty.


LMD:  Regarding 48 HOURS, you said ďI never claim it's the best movie or anything like that, but it did turn out to be a very imitated film.Ē How do you feel when you see some of your innovations imitated, or some of your films even being considered for reboot {THE WARRIORS}?

WH:  Well, Iíve seen two or three versions of Hard Times, already.  How do I feel about it, I think thereís two ways you can go: You can take the Oscar Wilde position that ďImitation is the sincerest form of flatteryÖĒ and let it go at that, or you can say, ĎJesus, Iíve been robbed!Ē

Maybe this is left over from the 60s, but I just think itís better to think positive and move on.  If someone wants to borrow something, fine.  I hope they use it well and I hope it brings them the effect they want.  I wouldnít say that I have never borrowed an idea, or a shot, or something; all directors kind of borrow a bit, Iíve always said. 

When I first started working, people said that I was very much in the school of, or that you could see direct connections to Sam Peckinpah.  Thatís what other people said, they donít say it much anymore.  But what Iím trying to say Ė and take me out of all this, this chain Ė Peckinpah was very much beholden and indebted to the films of Kurosawa, and Kurosawa was very much influenced obviously by John Ford, and John Ford was tremendously influenced Ė itís there all the time Ė by D.W. Griffith, and D.W. Griffith was a child of Dickens.  All Iím really trying to say is that we are all connected; we all, to some degree, borrow a bit or are influenced by.  The real question isnít that.  The real question is do you develop your own voice and your own artistic personality?  Thatís whatís critical and important.  And that we have to leave for others to judge.


LMD:  Thinking back to what you said to about Ms. Rodriguez, she definitely has a quality that seems common to your actors.  Whether it is Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, Ices T and Cube, your actors have a presence and gravity that leaps off the screen, which seems very rare these days. I feel like Michelle Rodriguez is a straight line in that connection to those stars.  Is there a commonality or a specific quality you seek in your actors?

WH:  Well, I would just say I agree with you, but how I would define it is I think itís more instinct than it is intellect.  And you say to yourself, ĎYeah, thatís what Iím looking for. This person has it. This personís got that quality thatís almost indefinable.í


LMD:  And youíre able to see that through their auditions and previous work?

WH:  Yeah, we meet, we talk.  And not even so much through... Iím not the worldís greatest believer in auditions and line readings, and all that, because the condition is, somebody comes in with a script in their hand and stands there in your office, and they may be skillful, or whatever, but itís so different than what it will be under photographic conditions on the set, knowing you already have the part, knowing you are the character. 

So, I think whatís really interesting to me when I meet people is the assessing.  Youíve usually seen them in some form or another on film, but itís the assessing of their character and ways you think you can reach down for, reach inside them for.  Itís that assessment that becomes the critical thing.  And again, I think the answers are more instinctive than intellectual.


LMD:  Iíve read that THE ASSIGNMENT is your first independent film.

WH:  Well, technically, I donít think thatís true.  Undisputed was an independent film.  Southern Comfort was made as a negative pickup deal.  Seems like there was some other one in there that I canít remember, but anyway, technically, I donít think thatís quite true.


LMD:  Youíve said that every film youíve made is essentially a western.  What are the western elements in THE ASSIGNMENT? 

WH:  Well, itís people who find themselves in a moral dilemma and moral attitudes, and they must work their way through the problems themselves, beyond the scope of normal, civilized social behaviour or organisation.  In other words, they donít turn to the government for solutions.  I mean, look, this is a crime story, where the cops are not even a part of the story.  You see some flashing red lights after some of the goddamnedest mayhem, but thatís it for police organisation.  

The tale plays out with the conflict between the characters in a very primalÖ Itís the primacy is what Iím trying to say.  I always say that when you make a western, thereís all this stuff about youíre in beautiful country, usually, around the horses, which are very inspiring to be around.  Somehow, I think the horses make everybody behave better.  Iím not sure why, but it just seems to work that way.  And the costumes, and itís all fun, and of course youíre part of one of the great traditions of American movie storytelling, the Western.  Itís fun to be part of all that.  But in a deeper way, Iíve said this several times to people, itís really like youíre walking around in the Old Testament.  Youíre telling Old Testament stories, which can be seemingly simple but very complicated.  And in a way, I think you can say The Assignment is an Old Testament story.


LMD:  You co-wrote {with David Giler} the story for ALIENS, which made a star of the late, great Bill Paxton, who you directed in STREETS OF FIRE and TRESPASS.  Would you please share a memory of Mr. Paxton?

WH:  Oh, gosh, I think Iím gonnaÖ  I loved him as an actor, I loved him as a friend.  Bill, I canít believe that heís passed.  I was at his memorial service.  Two weeks ago today, they had a beautiful service for him out at Warners, where they showed clips from his movies and people spoke.  Sigourney spoke. 

I last saw Bill - it turned out to be in a sense prophetic - I didnít know he and I had the same doctor.  I was in the doctorís office getting final clearance; I had a flu and it had gone to my lungs Ė I have Irish lungs - when the cart me away for the final time, thatíll be what it is.  Anyway, I was clearing up the cough and Bill stuck his head in the little room I was in, and it was ďHey buddy, how are ya?Ē  And I hadnít seen Bill and a couple of years.  You know, one of the qualities that Bill had, you might not see him for year and a half, and Iím telling you, 15 seconds after you started talking to him, it was like you had seen him every day for months.  He had a way of picking up a relationship and just carrying on. 

He had an extraordinarily positive personality; he was very smart.  A lot of people donít know this, he was very expert about contemporary American art.  He had quite an art collection, himself.  He bought sold and traded within that world.  He got that from his father, who I also had the good fortune to know.  Actually, his father worked for me on Last Man Standing, he played a small part, and Bill used to come out to the set so many times to see his dad.  Bill and his dad were very close.  I always thought it was funny, this lumberman in Fort Worth, Texas had this deep appreciation of American art, and Bill got it from his father.  When Bill came out and really started working as an actor, his father retired not too much after that and moved to LAÖ

I donít know what to say, really.  He left behind a beautiful family.  He left behind a body of work that I think is going to last in the mind of the audience that experienced it.  He left behind an awful lot of friends.  We were all the better for having known and worked with him.


LMD:  What might our readers have to look for from Walter Hill after THE ASSIGNMENT?

WH:  I think I do know what Iím doing next.  Itís going to be announced in about a week, but Iím not supposed to say.  But I am optioning a play that was done here in New York, and Iím going to be working on the screenplay with the playwright, so that will be announced shortly, as well.

Iím not quite ready to hang it up.  {Laughs}


~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 3rd & 4th, 2017


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