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Interview: Walter Hill on The Assignment and Making Genre Movies

Hill ciscusses his new film and what he thinks about being called an “action director.”

Interview: Walter Hill on The Assignment and Making Genre Movies
Photo: Nicolas Auproux

Implausibility abounds in Walter Hill’s The Assignment, which stars Michelle Rodriguez as Frank Kitchen, a hitman who’s mysteriously kidnapped, drugged, and forcibly transitioned into a woman. The tale is told on two parallel tracks: Frank narrates in a retrofitted hard-boiled 1940s-style voiceover, while surgeon Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) explains to a prison psychologist how and why she masterminded the kidnapping-cum-operation to avenge her brother (one of Frank’s targets). Pulpy, facile, and not quite action-packed, the film probably won’t go down as the apex of Hill’s storied career.

But vis-a-vis Frank’s reenergized, newly queer relationship with his pre-kidnapping girlfriend, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), The Assignment toes a fascinating line between paperback exploitation and insinuating psychodrama. For that, and because 48 Hrs is my favorite movie, there was no passing up the chance to sit with the maestro to discuss his reupholstering of a script from the 1970s, how he feels about his own pigeonholing as an “action director,” and how to blow the dust off of a played-out genre framework.

This script was first written, what, 40 years ago?

Denis Hamill wrote a version of this script, his first draft, in 1977. I read it then, when my agent sent it to me, and I was quite taken with it. But I really couldn’t fit it into my schedule at the time, though I never forgot it. Then when I ran into it about 20 years later, I wanted to do something with it. I called Denis, it was still available, I optioned it, and I co-wrote a version which took several wrong turns. I completely screwed it up, abandoned it, allowed the option to lapse, went back to Denis, and then five years ago I ran into his original script while rooting around in the basement. [laughs] Literally true! And I reread it, was again struck by the power of the narrative situation, its breathtakingly lurid quality. Within a couple hours I had a new take on how to do it. It had to do with my experience directing three Tales from the Crypt episodes. I thought that putting the situation into that kind of world or format could make it a coherent drama. Because it’s an unbelievable story, of course, because surgery doesn’t work that way. You know that it’s a comic-noir fantasy, with some rather pointed ideas in it, hopefully.

It’s a relief to hear you use these phrases, just because I couldn’t help but wonder how seriously the material took itself.

It doesn’t take itself seriously on the one level, but on the other, The Assignment is a really serious film. It’s probably a legitimate criticism to say, well, you want both sides of the table here. But you know: Can a graphic novel be, at once, a presentation of a comic-book world and still make those kinds of points? I think so. Look, you can like it, not like it, whatever, but it’s different. I just think that things are so much the same nowadays in films—you’ve seen every film already two, five, 10 years ago.

Do you find that younger critics are trying to get you to talk more about your older work?

I usually don’t even like to talk about this stuff, but I’m softer in my old age. The foreign critics have always been kinder to me than the American ones, but for what’s usually referred to as an “action film director,” I’ve probably been better received than most. But I think that American critics tend to not like action movies because, one, they lack a certain high seriousness. Critics are looking for that, usually, and it’s understandable. I don’t have any particular fault with that. The other thing that’s been generally true, I would say, is that critics—again, more so the foreign than domestic ones—have been more interested in the first half of my career than the second. I don’t like to do deep introspection about my own stuff, as I prefer to think about the next one, but I think the idea that the first eight movies are a lot better than the next eight isn’t true. I think they’re different in subtle ways, but the critics are the ones with the newspapers or the magazines, so…

I was moved by the scene when Dr. Kay gives her legal deposition, which becomes a kind of bizarre manifesto, and Weaver’s delivery of the line “The true individual has always had to struggle with being overwhelmed by the tribe…and no price, even this imprisonment or indignity, is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Was that in the original script?

That was new. I wrote that scene around the time Sigourney came aboard. Remember, the doctor character was originally written for a man. By the time Michelle came on, I thought the male doctor was going to get into the mad-scientist trope, and I wanted to bend away from that as much as possible. I thought it’d be more interesting to have this kind of bullying intellectual be a woman, who had this great talent, who obviously has this great mental acuity, who has very legitimate gripes about barriers to her own achievements that had been thrown up in a male-dominated world. At the same time, she’s a real bully, an intellectual powerhouse—at least, that’s her public persona. Someone said to me, “I see you’ve modeled the character on Gore Vidal.”

Is that true?

Oh, no. I knew Gore, but no, I deny it. I was amused by that though. I wanted to take this brilliant medical doctor who now finds herself in a mental institution, who’s made a series of rational choices and has been completely screwed over by the world, in her estimation, and focus on how she doesn’t recognize her culpability. I wanted to pit this person against Frank Kitchen, the kind of lowest Darwinian survivor of an underworld, an underclass, somebody absolutely amoral, who kills because they don’t know how else to get by, and watch them kind of move along their separate tracks, against each other toward an inevitable collision, and then to try and get the characters into a kind of melancholy self-appraisal. I also wanted the audience to feel a degree of sympathy for them, to see that they’ve both improved. It’s in the fact that Frank doesn’t kill his girlfriend after discovering her betrayal. The original character would’ve killed her [snapping fingers] just like that. I know it’s comic-book corny, but at the same time, look at how Frank accepts the dog. A lot of us feel enormously about dogs. Intentions are a jumble of ideas that need clarifying at some point. The audience will tell you, finally, if you’ve succeeded. But that’s not true either, because a film’s reputation changes over the years. I’ve had movies utterly dismissed when they came out that are now thought of in a more positive light, and vice versa, probably.

Back to your point about high seriousness.

It’s to be avoided!

Well, if you’re self-identified “action director,” was there ever a time you tried to shoot for that kind of seriousness? Walter Hill’s Howards End?

It’s a hard question. All of these films have their principles. I find action films to be wonderful vehicles for putting certain ideas within a familiar framework, wherein you can challenge some of the assumptions therein. Genres supply a framework: You say, okay, we’re gonna tell our little story here tonight, we’ll be together for an hour and a half and that’s it. One wants to be comfortable, but at the same time, everybody wants something new. Out of that tension, you may not internalize it the way the director intended, but that is the process. The cliché is always that I see my films as all about characters. Plot isn’t that romantic. Plot doesn’t carry you very far with actors either, and you gotta work with these people. You can’t tell an actor, “Don’t worry about character, you’re just up against the odds here.” But I think my films are, to fall back now on a cliché, both conceived and perceived within the genre framework as character studies. I just try to give them a degree of complexity.

Can I ask you a question about 48 Hrs?

You can ask me about anything—anything but my bank account.

Since we’re talking about genre: 48 Hrs set the mold for the biracial buddy action comedy, but I find it to be so much nastier and more misanthropic, specifically on the topic of race, than its genre successors. And I think those successors made more money too.

I always thought the film was a bit misunderstood. It was often described as a buddy movie, but I thought it was an anti buddy movie. The line of dialogue goes, “We ain’t partners. We ain’t brothers. And we ain’t friends. I’m puttin’ you down and keepin’ you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away, you’re gonna be sorry you ever met me!” They didn’t like each other, but through shared experiences and dangers, they tested one another’s characters and achieved a mutual respect. Guarded, and no more than that. They’re on separate roads in life. They both understand that.

I thought there was a wistfulness to the end of the film and I give the actors the real credit for that. I don’t read everything about my work, but I read this and that, and I really wish somebody would write something about how good the performances are in my films. I don’t have the reputation of being a performance director, because people think of me as an action director, which is a phrase I like, by the way. “Oh, he’s very good with the camera.” But I believe Michelle, Sigourney, and Tony are all superb in The Assignment.

But back to 48 Hrs. Jack and Reggie achieve a moment of grace together in the end, and that last scene where they say goodbye to each other is one of my absolute favorites that I’ve ever done. I always say every good story ends with a tear—even a comedy. Jack and Reggie know they’re on separate trails, that the experience will never happen again. They’re not meant to be buddies. The next question should be, “Why the hell did you do a sequel?” [laughs]

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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