If you've ever clinked bottles on your fingers while chanting "War-ri-orssss, come and out and pla-ayyyy," dressed as a member of the Baseball Furies for Halloween, watched a Xenomorph scurry around darkened spaceship hallways or enjoyed that foul-mouthed poetry of Deadwood's pilot, then you owe Walter Hill a serious debt. The 74-year-old writer, director and producer has had a hand in some of the more memorable tough-guy films and genre flicks of the past 40 years. He's the man who gave us the colorful New York gang movie The Warriors, worked on a script for the original Alien movie, kickstarted Eddie Murphy's big-screen career with 48 Hrs, and has helped keep the Western alive every few years with a handful of terse, tense horse operas (The Long Riders, Wild Bill, the TV miniseries Broken Trail). You can see the DNA of his work in everything from the sleeper neo-oater Hell or High Water to the stylized, pomo pulp of Drive (it's practically an unofficial remake of his much-maligned, Euro-inflected 1978 crime movie The Driver), as well as every male-buddy movie made after 1982.
Now, after years of self-admitted "semi-retirement" from filmmaking, Hill is back with his first movie since his 2012 Sylvester Stallone-fights-Jason-Mamoa-with-an-axe project Bullet to the Head — and it's a doozy. The Assignment (formerly known as (Re)Assignment) follows an assassin-for-hire name Frank Kitchen who takes out a gambler; the victim happens to have a sister (Sigourney Weaver) who's a surgeon, however, and she captures Frank with some specific payback in mind. When the killer awakes, he finds that a forced gender-reassignment surgery has taken place. Our hitman is now a hitwoman. Yes, you read that correctly. And if you've ever been curious as to what Furious 7's Michelle Rodriguez, who plays both versions of Frank, looks like in a beard, this is most certainly the movie for you.
To say that this has been one of the the more divisive things to screen at this year's Toronto Film Festival would be putting it mildly: Hill, Weaver and Rodriguez were forced to defend the movie at its premiere Wednesday night ("It's not Disney, it's noir," Weaver says), and opinions have ranged from calling it an incredible, subversive grindhouse/body-horror thriller to the most offensive movie of 2016 bar none. Regardless of whether you find this Skinemax-on-psilocybin potboiler good, bad or straight-up ugly, you can tell it's a Walter Hill film, down to its pulpy-as-hell dialogue and inside-out take on crime-cinema conventions. Talking about the movie a few hours before its first public screening, he was keen to explain why he doesn't feel the movie is insensitive to the LGBTQ community; Hill was also happy to talk about why he thinks The Warriors is still so beloved, why you sometimes have to wait for a hated movie to find its audience and why he never did another episode of Deadwood.
Where the hell did this come from?
About 1978, Denis Hamill wrote a first draft of a screenplay for something called Tomboy, which had the basic idea. I liked its audacity, and its potential to be … this always sounds patronizing, but a kind of really terrific B movie. You know, the kind of movie that doesn't get much love when it comes out, but you love watching it on TV years later, much more than you do the "big" movies of the day.
Was the surgery an element in the original script?
It was — except Denis had it a little differently. His story was about a juvenile delinquent who brutally rapes and murders a woman whose husband happens to be a plastic surgeon. He's arrested and goes to prison for about seven, eight years with the idea that he's been rehabilitated. But the surgeon captures him and performs a genital-alteration operation … he feminizes him and then releases him into the world. In Denis' script, the character then reverts back to his pathological behavior and goes on to commit a series of murders. It becomes a detective story: The cops are seeing the fingerprints of the guy they sent to jail all over the crime scenes, but no one is looking for a woman.
Anyway, I bought the story 10, 12 years after I'd read it — I'd optioned it with my own money, because look, you knew this wasn't going to be a studio movie — and started co-writing it with a friend. I changed a bunch of things, moved some stuff around, but I couldn't get the damned thing to work. So I abandoned it. Then, shit, 15 years after that, I'm literally rummaging around in my cellar, and I run across Denis' old first draft. "Oh, right, Tomboy … I remember this." So I re-read it and goddamn if there still wasn't something to this thing; I'd just fucked it up when I'd tried to redo it. I was mulling it over for a couple of days, and then suddenly, within a minute or two, I could see how it could work. It had a lot to do with the fact that I'd written a graphic novel, this gangster piece that had been published in France. I'd always been a big fan of comics …
"I wouldn't make a movie that hurt transgender people. Some of them have had a tough time of it, and the last thing I want to do is make anyone's road harder."
You were originally going to be a comics illustrator, right?
That was the plan, yeah — the only thing is you have to be good at it to do it, and well, that’s where I fell a little short [laughs]. Anyway, I'd stopped in Paris to see the folks who’d published it, and they said, is there anything else you might want to do? A matter of fact, yes — and I gave them the Tomboy script. So I called Denis and said, "Hey, remember me? I’m the one who screwed it up last time. Is it still available?" They were, so I got them back, just in case.
At that point, I was pretty much dome with filmmaking, but then my agent introduced me to a producer — Said Ben Said — who was ready to put in some money and make it. The only rules he laid down was that it’d have to be made for very cheap, and there had to be some name value in the cast. Suddenly, it was back to being a film again. You know, they hand you that license to catch the white gorilla …
… And now you have to go out and catch the fucking gorilla.
And now you have to go out and catch the fucking gorilla. [Laughs] But it wasn't an unreasonable list of demands, you know. It’s not like they said, "You have to get George Clooney for this, or else." [Pause] Now I can't stop picturing George Clooney in the role. Originally, the idea was that Frank Kitchen was going to be played by a man; the surgeon character was a man as well. At some point in the process, I said, this isn't going to work right. Here's this guy who’s been changed, but he's still a guy. He's not transgender — people keep saying that he is, but he's not a woman who feels like he's trapped in a man's body. He's not looking to have gender-reassignment surgery, stick with the training period and then transition. He's a guy, he feels like a guy, he wakes up a woman — and he's not fucking happy about it.
Sure, but you must have known you were stepping into territory that might make some folks a little wary, if not outright angry?
I mean … the answer to that is "yes," but I think when people see the movie, they'll realize that I'm not trying to make a statement about trans- or cis-male behavior. There's nothing in the movie that doesn't agree with transgender politics or rights, at least in my admittedly limited understanding of them. I also, possibly naively, think things should be judged only after they've been seen. There were a few attacks after an announcement came out last year, one that was unfortunate in its wording — it was at this film festival, in fact — and made it sound like it was something along those lines. Suddenly, the film was being blasted. They asked me what my response was, and I just said well, the movie will be the response. I wouldn't make a movie that hurt transgender people. Some of them have had a tough time of it, and the last thing I want to do is make anyone's road harder.
But look, I understand the concern. Is it lurid? Yes. Is it lowbrow? Well, maybe. Is it offensive? No. I'm just trying to honor the B movies that we grew up with.
You've been doing that for years, though, right? Even something like The Driver, which has a European vibe in it, is really just a postmodern American pulp movie. That's why you see its influence a lot in movies now.
It always cracks up me and my producer when we hear this, because that movie … to say it did not do well would be kind. Had I not been shooting The Warriors at the time, I don’t think my career would have survived. They loved it overseas, but in those days, that didn’t matter that much. It made exactly zero dollars in the United States. I remember the studio had this huge sheaf of Xeroxed reviews they’d handed me — you could stop a fucking .45 slug with this stack, it was so thick. And of all the reviews in this six-inch thick pile, there was only one good one. And now, whenever they show retrospectives of my stuff, it’s usually the first thing they show. Sometimes you just have to wait it out. That may be how it is for this new one, too.
What do you remember about making The Warriors, and does it surprise you that the cult around it seems to grow bigger every year?
It had a turbulent reception, if you remember — but it was popular as hell. Hollywood forgives a lot when you have a hit. I don't know what to say about it, other than the fact that it was just a gift in terms of getting it. The studio hated it, and didn't even want to release it. There was a lot of friction with management at the time. Some of it might have been my fault. [Smiles]
How do I feel about the cult around it? I love the fact that people still enjoy something I did what, 37 years ago? It makes an old man happy. I'm surprised by it. But I loved working with my cameraman Andy Laszlo in shooting it, and I loved working with my cast, who were incredibly trusting of this crazy old fucker that was making the movie. They didn't get it, I don't think — costumed gangs running around New York? — but they just went with it.
It's a classic story – Homer's The Odyssey, only with guys in bandannas and baseball uniforms.
The audience understood that, yeah. Maybe that's why it's still so popular. It did get me out of the showbiz doghouse for a while, though I managed to get back in there quick enough [laughs]. Michael Mann once said to me, "Walter, this entertainment thing, it's just ups and downs." Michael knows it, I know it …
Peckinpah knew it.
Oh, Sam … it was all downs if you'd have asked him. We now see his body of work as a series of interesting and wonderful films — which is correct. But he had a very hard road of getting films made, getting them seen. I mean, you’re a hero one week and a bum the next. That's how it works. The only guy who doesn't go through that is Steven [Spielberg].
He may have a hard time with that last one, actually …
He'll do fine. I have such admiration for that guy … he works a very different end of the street then I do, but I've known the guy for 40 years. We practically lived next to each other on the beach way back in the day; whenever my girlfriend would throw hot dogs on the grill, he’d smell 'em and come running over. "Here comes Steven again, hopping the fence for some hot dogs." [Laughs]
Has your style of writing and directing changed between those Seventies movies and now?
You ever see Southern Comfort (1981)?
A number of times, yeah.
When I was doing the read-through with the cast, I told them, the way this is written, people are naturally going to see a lot of Vietnam in it — it takes place in the Bayou, but it's the soldiers and the locals. But let's not shoot a metaphor; let's make a movie instead. How about we do characters and story, and we’ll let the metaphor take care of itself? That hasn't changed. That pretty much describes it all.
Do you feel like you’re part of a long tradition of "tough-guy movie" directors? Is that an unfair description?
I actually feel like a lot of my movies suggest that tough-guy politics simply don't work. They say that we're condemned to it, to a certain degree, but it’s not an ideal way to build a society. It's not a kind of salvation. But that sounds highfalutin'. I was taught this a long time ago: You're meant to have a story, you're meant to have characters of interest, you're meant to have matters of a thematic concern. You take any one of those out, it’s less than the ideal movie. If you wanna get along with actors, keep talking character; if you wanna get along with your friends, keep talking themes. But the directors I love: They keep the goddamn story going. I try to keep my movies around 100 minutes; I don't like to make them longer than that. I like crisp storytelling. But good luck trying to do that now. Movies now are filled with too much helium and sent up to float.
So this book just came out about the greatest TV shows of all time, and it named Deadwood as one of the top 10 shows of all time.
Did it now?
Yes. What do you remember about shooting that pilot?
I mean, it was a great script, and I brought along a lot of people I knew. David [Milch] and I got along really well when we were prepping it. The shoot was great — there was a joke later that the only episode of Deadwood that was ever shot on time was the pilot, which is the exact opposite of what usually happens. Then … there was a falling out in post, and I left the show. Their cut ended up being very, very close to what I’d done, but in the end, it's David’s thing.
You don't get the series without that pilot, though. And you don't get that pilot without you.
Write that down [laughs].