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Interview: Monte Hellman on Two Lane Blacktop and the Road Movie

May 02, 2011

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.

How do you feel about being lumped into the Easy Rider road movie genre? How was your film was different than the others? I question the whole idea of categorizing movies. I mean, nobody used the term "road movie" at the time we made them. But you know, if you go back to Sigfried Krakauer, his theory of film is that all movies are road movies. I mean La Strada is a road movie—it's about the road. They've been making movies forever, I mean Storm Over Asia is a road movie. But yes, Easy Rider was a phenomenon that made it easier for us to get Two Lane Blacktop made. Not because they saw them both as road movies but because they saw them both as movies made by young independent filmmakers who maybe know something that big studios don't know.

What about independent movies today?  Why are they so boring? Well it depends on which movies. I don't go to see a lot of popular type movies, just because the subject doesn't interest me. It doesn't mean that the movies aren't good, but there are a lot of terrific movies being made today. I was at a festival where we gave the first prize, it was a unique thing because I was on a jury of six people and we took one vote, and it came out at the end of one vote this picture got chosen, and I had never seen that before. But the picture we picked was Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill, which is a terrific little movie made locally, just outside of Washington D.C.

I was wondering where the decision came from to burn the film at the end of Two-Lane. Was that in the original script? I had a dream just before we started shooting, and I kind of wrestled with the idea. I was apprehensive because it seemed to me such an intellectual idea, and I'm kind of an anti-intellectual, and I resisted it at first but was just like I'm gonna go with it, because even though I'd thought of it as an intellectual idea, it had an emotional impact on me.

It's funny that you consider yourself an anti-intellectual. Well I consider myself an anti-intellectual intellectual. Strange, but it's just that as an artist I resist the intellectual side of me. I try to bring everything out of the other side.

You were a pretty young director when you shot this. I was wondering what the vibe was like on set—was it ideal for you as a filmmaker? Having more experience now, would you go back and change anything? It was my one and only studio picture, so we had a much bigger production than I would normally work with. We had these huge grip trucks and electric trucks and all that stuff, and it was a caravan. We literally drove from Los Angeles to North Carolina, shooting along the way. Sometimes we would take a day to drive to the next location and then shoot a day or two on that location, or we would drive for three hours and stop and shoot for three hours. It was a very happy shoot, actually, you know when you have James Taylor and sometimes Joni Mitchell visiting him sitting around and singing songs all night. It was pretty great.

And how did you feel when it wasn't a huge success at the box office, despite the critical acclaim? I don't even know if I thought about those things, I mean I don't know if I anticipated anything for it. I don't think I had any expectations. But beyond that, it was deliberately sabotaged by the studio. Lew Wasserman, who was the head of the studio, was trying to prove to Ned Tannin, who was the executive in charge of this picture and four others who were part of a special program to take advantage of this new wave in cinema—he was trying to prove that it didn't work and trying to get Ned to go back to reality. So literally we opened in New York without one single newspaper ad. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Does it make you happy that a bunch of people are going to go see it tonight? Sure! I'm just amazed that any movie is still living after forty years.

What are you working on right now? Well I have one pet project that we're trying to get, but it's relatively expensive. Not expensive by Hollywood's standards, but it's a movie that would require real financing. So it's hard. And I've got another thing I'm looking at this weekend that would be something that could be done super-cheaply. I'm eager to do something that doesn't have great expectations, because Road to Nowhere has gotten such extravagant praise and condemnation. It's really polarized critics, and there's nothing in the middle. And so I'd like to do something where nobody expects too much, not a very ambitious project.  Kind of a cooling off time, you know.

Posted: May 02, 2011
Interview: Monte Hellman on Two Lane Blacktop and the Road Movie