Meditations On The Human Beast: An Interview With Walter Hill

This last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with acclaimed producer, writer, and director Walter Hill. He’s been involved with a lot of movies, such as The Warriors, Alien, and the Tales From the Crypt TV series. In the following interview, we got to discuss the soon to be released The Assignment, which he wrote and directed.

Photo by Nicolas Auproux

PopHorror: Hi, Walter! Let’s just jump right into it – your latest movie is The Assignment. You had said in earlier interviews that you were considering yourself sort of “semi-retired,” but with this new movie were you thinking about going back into writing and directing. Did you have any plans to do more of that in the future?

Walter Hill: Well, there’s always the confluence of opportunity and finance… you know, the creative components coming together. I don’t feel an incredible, “I’ve got to do this or perish,” but at the same time, I like to stay active. Directing is one of those things where you wonder when you’re doing it why the hell you ever got involved. You know there must be something else…

PopHorror: [laughs]

Walter Hill: And then as soon as you’re done, you miss it. But that’s the human condition, isn’t it? On the whole, I’ve had a good time working with the crews and the casts – not so much the studios, but that’s a different story. I think, you know, as long as I feel good… but I don’t think it’s gonna be like the seventies or eighties again.

PopHorror: Yeah, that’s true – the same is similar with music in that the scene is evolving and changing, and that things are different now than they were before.

Walter Hill: Well, the other thing is, the systems that I generally worked in don’t really exist anymore. It’s a new ballgame. It’s usually the account of the veterans that the old days were better, but I don’t see that. I think there was a greater opportunity to make larger-scale dramas than there is now. The independent cinema is certainly freed in terms of its subject matter, which is terrific. But you’re largely confined to pretty minimal budgets… if you want to make Lawrence of Arabia, it’s tough to use independent cinema as a springboard.

PopHorror: Right.

Walter Hill: But still, makers find a way, storytellers find a way. I say we’re going through this transitional time, but it’s largely in terms of what the delivery system is. Films are, by their nature, more expensive than other forms of expression and other forms of storytelling, so that has to be kind of worked out… nobody wants to invest in them to lose money, so they’ve got to figure out how to monetize the internet, and they will.

I mean, look – I think you should always be positive about these things. One thing I absolutely believe – I know the old neighborhood theater is gone, the kind of movie theaters my brother and I used to go to as kids have largely vanished – I can be nostalgic about that as anybody else, but that is the way of things. I do have great faith that in the long run, the human beast definitely needs stories – I think it’s as old as when we were in the caves, and it’s just as true now as it was then. We need stories to inspire us in different ways. The stories don’t have to be positive, but they have to want to entertain us and to make you think a little. And the human beast needs that.

On the set of The Assignment

PopHorror: Absolutely! That actually leads into my next question. You have a pretty long history of working with westerns. When you were writing and working on The Assignment did you view it as a sort of western? It definitely had that kind of vibe to it.

Walter Hill: Well, you know, I can’t really say that. I’m sure other people say that, “Everything this guy ever thinks about is a western!”

PopHorror: [laughs]

Walter Hill: But [for The Assignment] I thought several things: I wanted to do something with a budget that I could probably go out and find; I wanted to work with some female leads, because I hadn’t really done that very much in my career; I wanted to do something very neo-noir. I think I was probably, in the end, most inspired by the Tales From The Crypt [episodes] that I had done back in the eighties. I did three of those and had a lot of fun doing them and I thought they came out pretty well. So I think that was really the touchstone.

PopHorror: That’s great! Of course, us at PopHorror, we love Tales From The Crypt… It was definitely cool to see that you had been working on films that were not only neo-noir and western, but also that you had a hand in a lot of sci-fi and horror – like the Alien franchise, for example. On that note, you were talking about wanting to work with female leads – how was it working with Sigourney Weaver and seeing her again? I wasn’t sure how much you worked with her during the production of the Alien films, but was that cool to reconnect with her again?

Sigourney Weaver, Walter Hill, Michelle Rodriguez

Walter Hill: Oh, very much so. Sigourney and I have stayed in touch over the years – I mean, more years than she’d probably like me to admit – but we’ve been good friends since Alien. Beyond working with her as a producer, we’d always said how much we had wanted to work together with me directing and her playing a juicy part. So when I sent her this one, I told her, “This one is a little different, but at the same time, you need a lot of chops for this.” And she called right back and said that she wanted to do it and that was it! We finally got a chance to work together. I thought she did a wonderful job in it – the implicit irony in much of her dialogue she did very well.

But deeper than that, I mean that’s about technical things… The role is kind of odd in the sense that it matches a medical doctor who has been de-frocked and de-licensed, and also she, being intellectual, she has this kind of – oh, I don’t know what you wanna call it – this kind of uber-menche personality. And she is matched against someone who is from the dregs of society, who is very much a Darwinian survivor at the most basic level, the criminal underclass. Neither of them, we find, are particularly admirable, and by the time the movie is over it doesn’t try and make saints out of them… I think the film ultimately shows sympathy and a kind of melancholy for both of the characters. They’re both chastened but wiser.

PopHorror: Yeah, definitely. There was certainly some grey morality with both of their characters, which I thought was really interesting. On that note, I wanted to go into the Frank Kitchen character. When you were writing The Assignment, was there anything that drew you to his character in the revenge story narrative? I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding his character, which we don’t have to go into because it’s pretty well documented, but was there anything that drew him out or made you want to talk about his story?

Walter Hill: Well, the movie had been attacked originally – it was actually still in the act of being made when it was first attacked – as somehow making a negative comment on the transgender situation, which is just ridiculous. The movie doesn’t deal with transgender – it does deal with genital alteration, which is a very different thing. You know, we live in a world now that is very gender-fluid, and I certainly wouldn’t go out and make a movie that would purposefully make the lives of transgender people more difficult – they already have a tricky journey as it is, so I wouldn’t want to add to the difficulties that they experience.

But we also live in an age where the Internet has changed things. Everybody has to state an opinion, and a lot of times people write things or declare things without giving them much thought, I think. I’ll just leave it at that. I said at the time when the movie first came under attack that my defense would be the film, so that’s what I have to say about it.

It’s a movie about revenge! If you have to boil it down to one thing. [But] I’m always against that. I think if you can really reduce things to one or two sentences, there wouldn’t be any point in making the movie. It’s more complicated than that.

The Assignment hits theaters April 7th.

About Seth Hansen

Seth is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. When not explaining to strangers why John Carpenter's The Thing is the greatest horror movie ever made (trust me, it is), he's usually playing violin or hanging out in record store clearance sections. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook!

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