Monte Hellman on Road to Nowhere and How He Spent 22 Years Between Features

monte_hellman_rtn630.jpgNot so unlike the two-decade hiatus that took him away from feature filmmaking, legendary director Monte Hellman's new film Road to Nowhere is a fascinating, frustrating, languorous journey through the movies' heart of darkness. The noir-within-a-noir places director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) back behind the camera after an extended absence, where he plans to make a true-crime film based on the illicit relationship between -- and supposed deaths of -- femme fatale Velma Duran (Shannyn Sossamon) and corrupt politico Rafe Taschen (Cliff De Young). But when Mitchell casts Velma doppelganger Laurel Graham (also Sossamon), the line between the filmmaker's life and art soon blurs beyond recognition.

The result is a globetrotting blend of intrigue that vexes and intoxicates in the tradition of Vertigo and Mullholland Drive. It's not perfect, nor does one get the sense Hellman -- best known for indelible cult hits like _Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and The Shooting (not to mention shepherding Quentin Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs to the screen) -- would even want it that way. The director spoke with Movieline about his 22 years away, how Road to Nowhere both imitates and defies his own life, and why cult-legend status isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Welcome back!

Well, I haven't been away.

Gotcha. What's been happening?

I'm not complaining, but the only vacations I ever have are when I'm invited to a film festival and I get to take a few days off. But it's a constant process. A lot of times you'll get to the starting gate, and they won't let you run the race.

It's been two decades, though. How many times are we talking about?

I think in Brad Stevens' book, it's been 56 times over my career. So...

Does that just stop being frustrating after a while? Just part of the business you become accustomed to?

It's not unique, and I wish it weren't the case. But I was inspired by guys like Jean Renoir, who complained about the same thing, you know?

So, for the record, how did Road to Nowhere come about?

It was an idea of [screenwriter] Steve Gaydos. He kind of complained jokingly that this was the first time in 40 years that I ever liked one of his ideas. And because I did like it, he was so excited that he went off and wrote the script. We brainstormed it with a couple other people, he did a rewrite, and that's what we made the movie with.

But you two have collaborated a few times in the past, right?

Right, but usually on adaptations of other material. This was the first one of his.

How did you two get to know each other?

I guess he sent me a letter 40 years ago. He'd just finished some studies at California Institute of the Arts, and he sent me some samples of his writings -- some poems and other things. I responded, and he came over and we chatted. We've been friends ever since.

What appealed to you about Road to Nowhere?

I think it was the idea of just kind of showing the process -- kind of chronicling a lot of the adventures we've had making movies. It seemed like an obvious thing because it's what I know best: Dealing with the materials that we have at hand. It was exciting.

Yet for this movie's filmmaker, Mitchell Haven, the process is so easy. Everything just happens for him and his film.

Yeah, that's not typical of my movies. But when it does happen, it happens like that.

To what extent did you want to reflect your career, then, and to what extent was this just a story you wanted to tell?

I was more interested not so much in telling the story of my life, but in demonstrating just how it's done. And it's easy; we just used the materials that were at hand. We shot the stuff the stuff that we had. We shot our crew. We shot our grip truck, our trailers. It was one camera shooting the other camera, back and forth. It was the infinite mirror effect.

You've said you ultimately realized this was a story that "came from two wonderful friends who led tragic lives." Can you elaborate?

We didn't know that when we made the movie. It's just something we realized after the fact. But every work of fiction has to come out of something in the writer's life. These experiences are there; we live through them, and then we forget about them, and then they come back in the form of an artistic endeavor like this. One friend tragically got drunk and shot his wife. Another friend died tragically in a similar situation. We kind of put the two together. But we didn't know about this while we doing it. This all came up after the fact.

That's another, more general discovery you've cited: That you didn't know "where this story came from until after it was in the can." What kind of exploration did you find yourself doing in post-production?

It was exploratory during every part of the process. Any kind of collaboration is a matter of mutual trust. I always have to find new ways of doing things; that's part of my creative process. In Two-Lane Blacktop, I had an idea that I wouldn't let anybody read the script. I wanted to see what would happen. In this one, what I wanted to try was to see what would happen because so much of the training to act -- or to do whatever we do in this kind of work -- is based on analysis. All kinds of intellectual processes lead to a very intellectual approach to creating. I wanted to see what would happen if we just cut that stuff out and just let the subconscious take over. And this involves a kind of mutual trust -- not just with the actors, but all the other creative people -- to not only trust me, but, most importantly, to trust themselves. I said, "Let's just see what happens -- if we can put ourselves in touch with this kind of community subconscious."

I don't know how successful we were, but I know that strange things happened. Things that I've never experienced before on a movie set, where we'd do six takes, and somebody would say, "Do you mind if I try something different?" And I'd say, "OK, go." And it would be mind-boggling. It would be so exciting and so powerful and change the whole course of the movie.

As viewers of Road to Nowhere, we're on the set ourselves. I'm watching these characters -- and in turn, these actors -- and I did wonder how much they even knew what's happening in both movies. Obviously there is a story and characters and arcs, but to what extent did they really know the plot as it went along?

The only who did, because it was part of her creative process, was Shannyn. She understood everything. She did a lot of her own wardrobe, and she had to know what the chronology was and how to develop that aspect of her character -- so she would know where she was in the timeline. The other people got confused by that part of it. They didn't know where any given scene was in the timeline, and it was frustrating. And then they said, "I'm just not going to worry about that." Because it doesn't matter. Any given scene is the present tense at that moment.

Did you encourage that?

I encouraged that.

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