Everybody remembers the game changers—the first piece of literature discovered outside of grade-school curriculum or hidden track at the end of an already-cherished album—that thrust us through the threshold of adolescence. Two-Lane Blacktop, a film starring James Taylor, Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, and Laurie Bird in a terse, atmospheric cross-country car race, was one of mine. Watching it was kind of like taking drugs for the first time, super-trippy. The elements are simple. Two fast cars, a highway, a girl and almost no dialogue. But in spite of long silences and slow pacing, Two-Lane Blacktop could never be pegged as boring, or even as a “drug movie” like its predecessor Easy Rider. We talked to director Monte Hellman about his experience making the film some forty years ago and how it feels to have made a film that wasn’t well appreciated until now, really. Commissioned by Universal Studios along with several others, the film was part of an indie-outreach program that ended poorly, and thus never saw the light of day after it’s premiere. Luckily there are now places like the Anthology Film Archives. They’re showing the cult classic at 7pm tonight for a lusting, road-hungry audience.
I saw Two-Lane Blacktop when I was seventeen, and it had a pretty profound impact on me. What did you see when you were seventeen that impacted you in that way? Seventeen was, I think the age—it was a crisis age for me. I think it’s the closest I ever came to thinking about suicide and all the things that people go through at some point, and that was the period for me. I don’t know what triggered that. I’m trying to think of which films I saw at about that time. The Big Sleep, which I slept through, became influential to me later in life. I don’t know, Portrait of Jenny maybe. I don’t know, I was always very romantic and I think I was going through that German romanticism at the time.
I was more of the lonely, wandering Laurie Bird character-type. But I think it speaks volumes about a film when you can relate to characters from thirty years prior, even when the world is so different. Has the way the world’s modernized changed the way that you make film? Not just technically, but in terms of the themes? Well the theme that interests me the most is the one that began with Two-Lane Blacktop—and I’ve kind of been hooked on that ever since—which is the conflict between a guy’s work and his need for love. It’s kind of stayed with me from then on. I think I became interested in that upon seeing Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. That theme is pretty much all the way through—including my newest film, Road to Nowhere. And it’s funny because I don’t write the scripts, but somehow I manage to see that, and I think that’s what I bring out of them.