Interview: Legendary Director Walter Hill Talks The Assignment, Ry Cooder and A Career Of Memorable Movies

In terms of iconic directors with a rich filmography to die for, nobody is more notable than the legendary Walter Hill.  A seasoned filmmaker with a long list of bold flicks (his first flick right out of the gate was Hard Times with the equally cool Charles Bronson!), huge hits (48 Hrs. introduced an already talented Eddie Murphy to big screen success!) and hidden gems (Johnny Handsome is a cinematic diamond in the rough!) that certainly solidify his standing as one of the all time greats, Hill is a multi-talented writer/producer/director who shows no signs of stopping.

His latest outing is an action yarn with graphic novel roots entitled The Assignment (currently available on VOD and in select theaters on April 7 from Lionsgate and Saban Films) and stars Michelle Rodriguez in a daring dual role as a male skilled hitman who finds himself on the wrong end of a knife by being surgically changed into a woman via a revenge seeking plastic surgeon.  The film also stars Sigourney Weaver as the demented doctor with an axe to grind and Tony Shalhoub as Weaver’s own weary psychiatrist.  We’re celebrating Hill’s return to gritty gunplay territory by talking all about The Assignment – from the casting of Rodriquez to past picture influences on his current work.  But for fans of Hill’s fine filmography the chat doesn’t stop there, as we delve deep into memorable movie recesses to get some much desired info on some of our favorite flicks. From Ryan O’ Neal in The Driver to Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., from Streets of Fire to Supernova (plus a little Ry Cooder talk for those like us who adore his myriad of cinematic scores for Hill!), we finally nab a Walter Hill career interview that’s been on the bucket list for a long time and the surprisingly humble Hill does not disappoint.  So let’s get to it – here is the masterful…


With Michelle Rodriguez taking on both the male and female versions of leading hitman Frank Kitchen in The Assignment, what was it about her that made you feel that she could pull off the character no matter what the sex?

Walter Hill: I’d met Michelle and I’d seen her in Girlfight which was her first movie I think.  We sat down and met and toughed it out.  She has a rather explosive personality and I just loved her right away and I had great confidence she could pull it off. We’d been talking about whether or not we would cast a woman in the part or a guy and I felt if you could get the right woman it would make it not a movie about make-up then.  And also I thought it was a greater artistic challenge to play a guy inside your head all the way for a woman to pull off. Michelle just had the street credibility, she had the goods, she’s very physical and she’s tough.  First thing she told me was, ‘Look, I don’t know who you’re going to cast for this, but you’re never gonna find someone who can handle the guns better than me – guy or girl.’  And she was right – she gave a very brave performance.

I love the graphic novel aspects in the film that play out a bit like a storybook.  Having done some similar stuff in the Ultimate Director’s Cut for The Warriors what made the two films right for such comic book style visuals?

WH: I think it was just inherent in the narrative concerns – I wanted to be able to use the shorthand that becomes available if you make that kind of decision.  Also a couple of years ago I wrote a graphic novel which the French version is called Stray Bullets, now translated in English as Triggerman.  And I told the people that published it that I had a new script and that I thought would make an interesting graphic novel.  So I sold the rights for the graphic novel – which in those days was called Tomboy – and the fact that there was actually a graphic novel before it was a film had an influence on me.  Also Tales From The Crypt; this is very much in style with the Tales From The Crypt I did and they of course were based on E.C. Comics.  So all those factors played into it – I wanted to do a noir film, a comic book film and a movie with female leads.

I love the examination of the themes of ‘do people evolve’ and ‘does changing a person’s outside appearance make them different on the inside’ – it’s themes that were also a big part of your underrated 1989 gem Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke.  Do you feel like The Assignment is a natural progression and extension of those thoughtful themes you explored in Johnny Handsome?

WH: I’m happy to hear your choices there – and that it’s not a regression!  Yes, I certainly see that.  I’ll tell you a story.  There was a press screening in New York about two weeks ago and the screenwriter of Johnny Handsome Kenny Friedman, who is now a professor at NYU, was at the screening.  He immediately called me after the screening and said ‘Well, I can see Johnny Handsome still exists – it’s still in your head!’  He thought it was very much a continuation thematically.  I suppose all this proves that most of us only know one or two stories!  (Laughs)  But yeah, I do think it’s in a sense connected.  Johnny Handsome was a little more socially realistic than this movie, but the ‘you don’t get past who you really are’ idea, which ironically even though the movie was originally kind of attacked before it even got made, is one of the basis of transgender theory.  The movie totally supports that – you are who you are inside your head.

Past work – With a long and illustrious career of many notable films, I personally still feel Ryan O’Neal’s best work is in your 1978 film The Driver.  Casting somewhat against type at that time, what made you feel O’Neal was right for the part in The Driver and what work went into creating his ice cold low dialogue character?

WH: Well, I’m pleased you think that. I will say this – I thought Ryan was everything that I hoped the character would be and I thought he played it beautifully.  The film embodiment of his character into the film I thought just worked with everything that the writer/director hoped it would be.  Why did I pick him?  I just thought he could pull it off.  We’d talked, met him a couple of times and I thought he understood what I was trying to do with the film very, very well.  He’s a bright guy and I remember he said, ‘I guess you wrote it for Steve McQueen, but I’ll do my best.’  (Laughs)  He was a delightful guy to work with and the kind of public image that he has I’ve always found to be very different than my work experience with him.  I think there was also audience resistance.  People wanted Ryan to be the guy in Love Story, so I think there was a resistance to his performance, but I thought it was marvelous.  In the end he made it a very unique character based on his own personality – but it was an aspect of his personality we had never seen before.

Was there a moment on-set during the making of 48 Hrs. when you knew that Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte were going to be the perfect match for that film?

WH: I always thought we had it every time we walked away from a scene and I thought I could put it together in a credible and entertaining way.  I do remember this – it’s not quite the same thing that you’re asking – when we shot the big scene where Eddie does his bravado performance in the redneck bar, the screenwriter Larry Gross was standing next to me when we were shooting that and after Eddie did it a couple of times I remember I turned to Larry and I said, ‘We’re rich!’  (Laughs)  Of course what I should have said was…Eddie’s rich!  (Laughs)  Or the studio’s rich or something – somehow the wealth didn’t transfer to Larry or myself.  But I knew that you had to be pretty goddamn stupid to not see that there was something happening there that was awfully entertaining.

Streets of Fire, again a huge favorite of mine, was a bold movie to make especially back in 1984.  Combining action, drama, musical numbers, and even an eclectic cast like Rick Moranis and an ass kicking Amy Madigan all made for one huge gamble – what made you decide to ultimately make that film?

WH: Well, I just thought it was a good idea and I like the idea of mixing genres.  People would ask me about it and I would say I wanted to make a musical.  It’s a very hard movie to…it is amongst other things very musical and I wanted to mix it up.  I’m often described as a genre director I note, though I always like it when they say action director because it sounds so cool.  But genre director is certainly accurate in the sense that I’ve tried to work within genres and at the same time bend them and I think Streets of Fire represents my most pointed effort to mix genre elements, so there was an experimental quality to it.  In fact I was having lunch with Larry Gross yesterday and he was saying, ‘Ahead of our time!’  So I never know about that kind of thing, but you hope for the best and they go out, some of them find a home right away, some of them take a while and some of them never do.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Ry Cooder’s soulful music work in your films – particularly Crossroads, Johnny Handsome and even Trespass.  What was it about Ry’s slide guitar sound that kept the two of you collaborating for so many years and which of his scores from your films was your personal favorite?

WH: That’s very hard to say because I like them all.  But I think probably the score that Ry did that gave me the most immediate pleasure – again I admire intensely ALL the work we did together and he’s probably the most talented guy I ever worked with and not just music but he’s an amazing guy and he’s quite reclusive – would be The Long Riders score because it was the first.  It had the freshness of discovery with Ry of maybe where we were going to go together and what we were going to do together.  So it was like a great first date (laughs) – that kind of feeling.  But I also thought the Last Man Standing score was a hell of an effort, I think the Johnny Handsome score’s terrific too, obviously Crossroads – they’ve all got their merit.  He’s definitely put me over many times and he’s made my films probably a lot better than they would have been.

I know you frown upon Director’s Cuts or Special Edition’s, but if someone gave you back your footage and cut from Supernova before it got tinkered with, would you consider doing your darker cut of the film?

WH: Well, nobody has ever tempted me with that.  I don’t know.  But there were also inherent other problems – about halfway through the shooting they came in and said we have to cut the budget by…I can’t remember…something like twenty-five percent.  So there were very important sequences, and they cut the effects budget even more than that, that never got shot or even attempted.  There were so many hard feelings and it wasn’t like we went over budget or anything while making the movie, it was just an arbitrary ‘we’ve decided we don’t want to spend’ kind of thing.  And then once we got it onto the post situation things just seemed to go from bad to worse.  So I just don’t know – I don’t even know what’s available.  Obviously that which we did not shoot is not available.  I will say this – I would have made a f@ck of a lot better movie than they released.

I have no doubt!  I don’t usually cover TV stuff, but your first episode of Tales From The Crypt entitled The Man Who Was Death is literally perfect in every way – great visuals, Ry’s music and especially William Sadler’s excellent executioner.  Any thoughts looking back on making that fantastic five-star episode?

WH: I’m pleased that you bring it up!  I thought Bill Sadler’s performance is great in it.  I liked working on the script and I loved shooting it – we shot it in like three days or some thing. And it was one of Ry’s I think really finest moments, the kind of crazy circus music he came up with.  I remember going in there and I said I don’t know what the hell we should do – I don’t want it to sound just like a normal horror thing.  And he said let’s try something and he had a little experimental thing and I listened and we went with that.  And it really helped it, but it was a good piece, pointed and had something to say.



I'm a passionate and opinionated film critic/movie journalist with over 20 years of experience in writing about film - now exclusively for WhySoBlu.com. Previous sites include nine years at Starpulse.com where I created Forgotten Friday Flick back in 2011, before that as Senior Entertainment Editor for The213.net and 213 Magazine, as well as a staff writer for JoBlo.com. My other love is doing cool events for the regular guy with my company Flicks For Fans alongside my friend, partner and Joblo.com writer James "Jimmy O" Oster. Check us out at www.Facebook.com/FlicksForFans.

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