As befits the most idiosyncratic director to emerge from Roger Corman's low-budget tutelage (an illustrious group that also includes Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jonathan Demme), Monte Hellman has led a long cinematic career that could mirror the winding journeys of the characters in his films. Whether envisioning the western anew with Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, or tracing indelible American landscapes of back roads and restless dreamers in Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, he's consistently invested drive-in genres with a sensibility both pitilessly existential and achingly romantic. Ending an almost two decade-long absence from the big screen, Hellman's new film, Road to Nowhere, finds the auteur in austerely stimulating form, fashioning a moody neo-noir mystery that also functions as a hall-of–mirrors portrait of image-making in the digital era. Supernatural romantic thrillers, Laurie Bird's posthumous contributions, and an unexpected affinity with Hitchcock were some of the topics that came up during my recent interview with Hellman on the occasion of Road to Nowhere's DVD release.
Slant: First, the title. It's immensely evocative of the mood of your films.
Monte Hellman: The title was the basis for our shooting in North Carolina. There actually is a "road to nowhere" that was began by the federal government in the late '40s, first as a dam which displaced a lot of people and cut off access to their cemeteries. As a result, the government agreed to build a road to give these people access, and it was under construction for 20 years, and it ends in the tunnel which we see in the picture.
Slant: How did the idea for the story come together?
MH: [Screenwriter] Steven Gaydos literally dreamed some of the elements of it. He told me about it and I responded, which he says is the first time I've responded to an idea of his in 40 years. He came up with a draft of the screenplay and we tossed it around between ourselves and a couple of friends. That became a blueprint for the movie, which like many other movies went through a lot of changes during the filming.
Slant: What kind of changes?
MH: Some things came out of the process of shooting. We'd do a number of takes, and then one of the actors would ask to try something different which would turn out to be revolutionary not just to that scene, but to the entire movie. And at other times actors would do little improvisations to keep things fresh, and they'd be so extraordinary that we'd include them in spots that weren't in the original screenplay. We had a very creative group to work with.
Slant: I noticed many dreamlike elements throughout: repetitions, reflections, doubles…
MH: Oh, good. That's what we were going for.
Slant: It brings back many of your old collaborators. There's Gaydos, plus [cinematographer] Josep Civit, and Fabio Testi, who was in China 9, Liberty 37 and Iguana.
MH: Well, it's much easier to work with people you already know and are in synch with. I originally spent two or three days at the Cinematheque of Madrid tracking down Josep. And then there's casting, of course, which to me is 90 percent of the job in a movie, and certainly the most time-consuming.
Slant: And not just collaborators, but also family members. It has the feeling of a very personal project.
MH: Yes, it was. My daughter Melissa produced the film and raised the money, and my son Jared also helped in the production. It was very much a family atmosphere, which included friends as well as my students.
Slant: There's a dedication to Laurie Bird at the end, which I saw as one of many links between Road and Two-Lane Blacktop. Shannyn Sossamon strikes me as a similarly slippery muse figure.
MH: There's certainly a bit of Laurie in her. In fact, I'd consider Laurie one of the major contributors to the story. A lot of Shannyn's dialogue comes from things I'd remember from Laurie during the making of those films.
Slant: The triangular relationship between the main characters reminded me of your short Stanley's Girlfriend, which I liked a lot and also starred Tygh Runyan.
MH: He came aboard when problems led the original actor to leave the project. Tygh was somebody I knew and trusted, and I think he did a terrific job.
Slant: I've always marveled at how naturalistic performances are in your films. They feel more like just being rather than acting, a matter of glances, gestures, and the way characters hold themselves and each other, as opposed to dialogue.
MH: Well, I certainly discourage overreliance on dialogue, as you may have guessed. [laughs] What I try to do is get the actors to trust me and try to reveal a bit of their own subconscious. It's the kind of thing that you can't consciously create, it really something that has to naturally come out of the performer, even if as an accident. It's important for the character to become the actor, not just the other way around.
Slant: I see it as a movie about its own making, with screens within screens and actors playing actors.
MH: We'd have one camera shooting some action, and another camera shooting the camera itself. You see the actual filmmaking paraphernalia, which of course we didn't have to create as we were already surrounded by it. I like that near-documentary aspect.