Set Visit: Walter Hill is back with 'Bullet to the Head'
'Warriors' director discusses his return to filmmaking
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NEW ORLEANS. It's late August, 2011. The Big Easy. Outside, it's hot. Inside, things are heating up.
A gangster played by Jason Momoa walks into a grungy brown office, highlighted by peeling wallpaper and mold stains. He steps back out. He steps in again. He raises a gun and points it at the camera, raising and lowering the firearm, trying to get the proper eye-line. The gun is fitted with a silencer, but it's all for show. hitmen require silence to escape detection, but movie sets require noise for proper audio synching. As a result, a PA is walking around passing out earplugs and assuring a small group of reporters that things are about to get loud.
Unflappable, Momoa's character reenters the room and demands that a safe be opened. It's Day 40 of 43 on the set of a film the clap-boards call "Headshot," but which will be released as "Bullet to the Head." The titles, temp and future, mean the same thing and Momoa, wearing a suit and a ponytail, much more dapper than in his role on "Game of Thrones" or the recently released "Conan," lives up to the title by opening fire on the reticent hoodlums. He's vicious, efficient and deadly. And the PA was not wrong about the noise.
Moments later, extras exit the stage clutching blood-drenched paper towels.
Walter Hill is back.
One of the true fathers of the testosterone-drenched cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, Hill's resume includes "Hard Times," "The Driver," "The Warriors," "Southern Comfort" and "48 Hrs" among genre classics. Lest we forget, he also won an Emmy for directing the pilot for "Deadwood." But Hill hasn't directed a feature since 2002's "Undisputed," which was preceded by 1996's "Supernova," a movie that ended up being credited to "Thomas Lee."
The reverence for Hill is manifest largely in how frequently other filmmakers discuss the prospect of remaking one of his films.
"My thoughts are very simple: good luck," Hill says when asked about the oft-threatened remakes of films like "Warriors." "I had mine and if they want to remake something that usually means you did something right when you did it. I don't get too excited, I probably seem slightly affected in my answer, but I really don't. When people say like, 'They're taking this from you,” or something. First of all, I don't think it's ever ours, it's out there. What's the old Oscar Wilde... The sincerest form of flattery is imitation? I mean the big thing is don't look back. You're a director and you're doing this one and hopefully you're going to do another one. What happened a long time ago or what somebody is trying to make out of it, that's fine, but that shouldn't be the consuming thing in your own life."
For the moment, what's consuming Hill's life is "Bullet to the Head," a gritty revenge drama very loosely based on a graphic novel and starring Sylvester Stallone, in addition to Momoa, Sarah Shahi and Sung Kang.
"Walter has been, I would say, a godsend," raves Kang. "At first, you look at his resume, and he merits my respect just based on his body of work. But then you work with the man, and you think – at first, to be totally frank, I thought 'Is this guy going to phone this job in? Is this just a paycheck?' Who knows? You never know. But then you meet him, and first of all – I've learned so much as a man. He's been kind of a father figure, and Sly being that cool uncle you always want to hang out with all these great stories. Both of them, being able to work with both of them, they redefine what right and wrong is."
Given his background, it's no surprise that the stars praise Hill's old school approach to action and effects.
Kang notes, "I think he doesn't depend on technology to come in and save his ass. I think he goes back to things that I was taught when I first learned how to act. You come in, you have a good time with what you're doing, you're on time, you come prepared. You prepare, you prepare, and then you show up, and hopefully some movie magic will happen. It's very black and white. Very pragmatic. There's no secret recipe. With Sly and Walter, I realize that, it's very simple, you just work your ass off at it. And hopefully, you make a good movie."
Most recently spotted dealing out bloody injustice, Momoa also has kind words for the director who has gotten impressive performances out of stars as different as Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, Ryan O'Neal, Powers Boothe and Ian McShane.
"Walter's really an actor's director. I was really shocked at how he just built this beautiful space. Even on the smallest of scenes, we had a little corner set up where we would just rehearse and go over it and he writes a lot of the scenes and changes them on the spot. He wants it to be the best product. I have only the greatest things to say about him. I'd work with him again if he'd hire me."
Reflecting on Hill's approach with actors, Shahi notes that the director doesn't like excess, whether in production or in emoting, which can earn the warning "Too much prosciutto!"
"Walter, aside from the obvious, which is what a f***ing legend he is, I bow to him almost every morning," Shahi says. "He knows exactly what he wants. He doesn't overshoot. He's not one of those insecure directors who shoots 80 different ways. We're done every day within ten hours. If we do have a 12 hour day, the crew is just wiped. The hours, for the most part, have been so human. I come from the world of TV where you work 16 or 17 hour days. This has been a walk in the park compared to that. He's just wonderful. He's got great stories. He's so open. There are things that I didn't like that he was open to collaborating on and changing. To sit next to Walter Hill and to be able to exchange ideas back and forth and for him to be able to tell you that he likes what you're doing -- I don't know. I kind of pinch myself."
Does Hill consider himself a throwback?
"I consider myself to still be here," he laughs. "I'm still doing my best. I don't know, I read in the paper that I'm an action director. They always say that, "Action director Walter Hill," if they bother writing about me at all. I think that's fine. I'm happy to do the work. Most fellas, the race is already run by now and I'm lucky enough that I'm here, I'm working and I'm having a pretty good time doing it."
Check out the next page for highlights from the small set visit interview with Hill, who discusses his experiences shooting in New Orleans, his relationship with producer Joel Silver and his experiences working with Stallone on "Bullet to the Head," which opens on Friday, February 1.