Deep Focus: An Interview with Walter Hill
Walter Hill’s The Assignment is in the great tradition of uninhibited storytelling from Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction to EC Comics. Hill doesn’t allow propriety to muffle the power of his narrative. With clarity and confidence, he relates the twisted tale of a brilliant plastic surgeon, Dr. Rachel Jane (an unsettling, baroque Sigourney Weaver), who exacts revenge for the execution of her debt-ridden brother by putting the hit man who killed him, Frank Kitchen, into a woman’s body. Michelle Rodriguez plays Kitchen with feral power, both as a hairy macho man and as a smooth-skinned, buxom creature who remains a guy inside. The movie is about dueling acts of vengeance: first Jane’s, for her brother’s murder, then Kitchen’s, for her forced alteration of his masculine body. By the end they catch up to each other in brutal and surprising ways.
Underneath the grotesquerie and gunfire, Hill focuses unabashedly both on the gratifications of revenge and its moral consequences. “An eye for an eye would make the world blind,” goes an epigraph on the screenplay. Hill and Denis Hamill share script and story credit. On and off, Hill has been thinking about the premise since he first read Hamill’s original screenplay in the late 1970s. Hill optioned it in 1990, abandoned it, then re-optioned it a few years ago and swiftly rewrote it. He found a bifurcated structure and a comic-book/graphic-novel format that allowed him to explore male and female physicality without pussyfooting around or getting in the way of a barreling series of betrayals and reprisals.
Over his 45-year career as a writer and then writer-director (not counting his time as an assistant director), Hill has often told interviewers that all his movies are Westerns. And certainly he’s directed some great ones, like The Long Riders (1980), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), and Wild Bill (1995), as well as the pilot for HBO’s Deadwood (2004) and the stirring AMC miniseries Broken Trail (2006). But some of his best movies are only loosely connected to the Western genre. Southern Comfort (1981) is the eeriest lost-patrol movie since John Ford’s The Lost Patrol. The Warriors (1979) is an indelible metropolitan spectacle, and 48 HRS. (1982) set the template for big-city action comedies featuring biracial partnerships.
In the brilliant, mournful Johnny Handsome (1989), the ferocious Trespass (1992), and a sardonic trio of episodes from HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (1989-91), Hill has pioneered his own subgenre of dynamic, mordant urban fables. The Assignment is a proud addition to their ranks. (A graphic novel of the film is also available, in Titan’s Hard Case Crime Series.)
Over lunch at De Pasquale Trattoria Italiana in Beverly Hills, I asked Hill, now 75, how he managed to get the film off the ground, financially, and keep it soaring, artistically.
How did you get started with the film?
When I finished my draft of the script, I sent it over to my agent. He said, “Christ, nobody’s going to finance this thing.” Then he said, “Maybe there’s a guy in France who’s going to do it.” I was going to Munich for a retrospective of some of my films at the festival there. So I stopped in Paris on my way back. I sold the script as a graphic novel, and also I got financing for the movie.
Saïd Ben Saïd, one of the film’s producers, has quite a record for working with “auteurs,” like André Téchiné, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg—
“Auteurs?” That’s one way of putting it. “Old directors” is another way of putting it! He’s the only guy that consistently hires 70-year-old directors. He hired Paul [Verhoeven], and Roman [Polanski]. Roman’s now in his eighties. So he’s offered a kind of a haven.
The movie has already roused some criticism and controversy over what some say is an insensitive depiction of a transgender character. Weaver’s Dr. Jane says at least twice, though, that putting Frank Kitchen into a female body doesn’t make him a woman. You make it clear that Frank Kitchen isn’t a transgender character at all.
It’s probably too clear. But I knew I was running before the wind with my craft. It’s a funny thing: whatever you think you’re trying to avoid, you never do. Somehow, it doesn’t work that way. People want to know, “Why did you want to do this?”
I did want to do something with women. I did want to do a neo-noir. I knew I had to work within a very restricted financial situation. And I thought working within a comic-book, graphic-novel format would give you a freedom you might not otherwise have for something like this. Look, you take a medical doctor who’s also an intellectual and has a revenge agenda against the lowest of human Darwinian type creatures—a fellow that can’t do anything except make a living bumping off other people and living in the most rudimentary circumstances. And you pin them against each other, develop that idea a bit, and see if you can leave the audience with a residue of sympathy for both characters. They’re both “sadder but wiser,” I guess is the old expression. I think the movie does it, but you’re the judge.
I certainly understand that in comparison to the world that I was raised in, lo, these many years ago, we live in a sexually fluid environment. That’s good, that’s a better thing than the way it used to be. It would seem to me that this movie in some ways celebrates that. That’s the thing: you want your movie to be judged for what it is rather than what it isn’t. I suppose there’s an argument that if it’s not clear what it is, then that’s my fault. But how many times do you have to show a comic-book cartoon picture of the city or Michelle to say that I meant this film to be a graphic novel?
What’s fun about the movie is that it absolutely deals with sexual issues in the most unexpected ways. There’s nothing more revolutionary than seeing Michelle Rodriguez, playing Frank Kitchen as a woman, still walking like a man. It does make you deal with your responses to movie clichés and to movies as a stylized reflection of life.
I don’t think the movie has anything at all to do with the transgender situations. At the same time, I’d be the first one to say that Frank’s character is altered by suddenly being thrust into a woman’s body. It doesn’t change what’s in his head. But it does modify certain positions: he becomes a more reflective individual about other people’s positions, inevitably. Old Frank is a hard case, but we leave him in a different place than where we found him.
And we do grapple with concepts of what’s “masculine” and “feminine,” because that’s built into the plot.
Oh, yeah. I think that’s one of the things I wanted to do—you want to challenge certain subjects. For instance, the idea that people enjoy revenge is never on the table in movies. It’s usually “hard lessons will be learned” and “revenge is terrible.” Well, it seems to me a lot of people do take a certain pleasure in revenge and do not see that it’s always best as “a dish served cold,” whatever those clichés are. But at the same time, revenge is not without effect.
I’m not going to say there’s nothing titillating about the movie—titillation is part of its tradition—but the sureness and concentration of the filmmaking take it beyond titillation. Sure, you see a woman in the nude, but you see her in the nude feeling herself as a man. It does bring you to a second level.
In the end, it’s why I wanted a woman to play the part. I thought on that first level, if a guy played Frank, it would become a movie about makeup and prosthetics and that kind of thing. And I also thought it was a greater challenge for an actor if we cast a woman, because you have to be a guy in your head.
Beyond the issues and the controversies of the movie, I just think Michelle gives such a great performance. When I first met her, we did not have a total meeting of the minds. She’s very smart, very tough, and she’s right off the street. She said to me, as our first meeting was breaking up, “I don’t know who the fuck you’re going to hire for this part, but let me tell you something. You’re never going to find anybody who can handle the guns better than me. That goes for guys as well! But you’ll never find a chick who can handle the guns like me.” And I have to say, she did handle the guns as well as any guy I ever worked with. But that attitude is really the point—I thought with that attitude, she could really pull it off. I told her I really liked her in her first film [Girlfight, 2000]. I thought since then she’d been under-challenged. And she said, “Well, yeah, all they ever want me to do is wear a tank top and drive a car.”
But she hasn’t lost any of the power she had in Girlfight.
No, she’s got it. And she is tough. She’s physically strong and she’s mentally a tough girl. She’s also sweet. She grew up in a hard environment, and it took a while to get there, but I like her very much. She gives a very brave performance. She never flinched from it. She understood that it was in some ways a movie about the human body—and changes within the human body, and to her body.
She’s really imaginative in the opening scenes, when she hasn’t even thought of how to behave as a woman, and she walks around with her white post-op clinic robe half-undone.
That comes from the desperation of the circumstance, the mental condition she was in, and trying to adjust to the new situation. Also, other than buying a bottle of liquor, her first real experience in coming out of the hotel room is being sexually assaulted by the hotel manager. Now she was stealing from the manager’s cash register—but at the same time that does not justify what he felt was the remedy for that. I guess that’s the kind of thing that interests me. You can construct a scene where she’d go out and walk down an alley and somebody would jump out at her and try to rape her. But to me it’s more interesting if the person who tries to rape her is someone she’s stealing from, because I think it’s a more ambiguous situation, and it makes it more interesting on many different levels. This is the kind of thinking, of course, that does me no good in Hollywood. They’d much prefer for me to do the scene where the rapist jumps out at her in an alley.
Caitlin Gerard is very good as Frankie’s lover.
A couple of weeks ago I saw her in the Gus Van Sant thing [When We Rise, a miniseries executive-produced by Van Sant and created by his Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black] and she was very good. Caitlin just came in and read. I told her it was going to be a tough thing and she said, “I’m game for it,” and she did an excellent job.
In an earlier draft of the script, Frankie ends up as a brutal but righteous avenger of abused or exploited women. That didn’t survive.
I thought that was too easy. I always say a movie is a voyage of discovery. You’re always working on it. When you cast it, you’re adapting to the actors. But mostly it’s what you’re figuring out about yourself. And I think where I ended up is a more abstract place, a more complicated moral environment. I like the comic-book/graphic-novel format because of the shorthand you can get away with and the stylization it allows the audience to accept. For instance, we have this crime story where there’s absolutely no police whatsoever. We create an artificial little world, and the audience goes with it. At the same time, the framework of the comic book/graphic novel is simply that—a framework for what you’re trying to do at a different level.
Look, it’s hard to talk about your movies! If you could really explain them you probably would never make them.
Even when it’s stylized, there’s always an element of reality. Like when in voiceover Frankie describes planning her hits: if shooting a whole group, do it without a silencer, because the gun’s noise helps freak them out. If she wants to recapture an element of surprise, she does it where a victim works, in the middle of the business day, in broad daylight.
She’s dealing at the craft level, not using the silencer, and so on. There are certainly elements of reality to that. Not that I know many hit men.
You flipped two other key characters’ sexuality in the final script.
Sigourney Weaver’s character was a man, Tony Shalhoub’s was a woman, and I reversed them. I was trying to avoid the doctor becoming the maniac in a mental institution who is dribbling saliva—the old Donald Pleasance character. Not that I didn’t love Donald Pleasance, but I didn’t want that to be the paradigm. So I thought if you made the surgeon a woman, and gave her a lot of the more understandable problems of a career woman, it would be a more humanizing element for what is science gone mad. And I also thought it would be more interesting for the kind of Übermensch personality that she has developed as an intellectual. She is a rather superior person and proud of her superiority. We’ve seen that many times in a man. I thought it would be more interesting to see it in a woman. And then I thought it would be really interesting if you took somebody whose basic persona is very sympathetic, and whom we’ve always seen in a sympathetic light—Sigourney Weaver—and put her in that kind of position. And there’d be great tension within the part that way, which makes for better drama.
Dr. Jane considers herself an artist who believes in art for art’s sake. She paraphrases Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” and says that proper art is indifferent to moral and political considerations, while real art should be able to stand on style alone.
I thought it was a good extension of the doctor’s character. She thinks she’s above contemporary morality. Her superior intellect has put her above that. And she would cite the great Edgar Allan—that would be completely in character.
Some of your peers and contemporaries seem to think I’m using Poe to lecture critics. Of course a movie reflects the personality of the one who did it—the person who committed the crime [laughs]—but so often people think you’re speaking as yourself rather than as your conception of a character. The idea that a certain line or attitude is directly reflective of a filmmaker seems pretty primitive.
If you think of Dr. Jane as an artist, a lot of her complaints sound similar to what we’ve heard from grieving film artists over the years. She talks about the humiliation of kowtowing to committees and bureaucrats, and so on. But she also dismisses an entire swath of humanity—marginal people without families or attachments—as mere fodder for her surgical experiments. Writing her scenes must have been fun for you.
I did have a good time. And Sigourney, she’s so smart, she catches every reference. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Poe or Goodnight Moon.
What about having her dress in men’s suits?
I don’t think I had any idea about how to dress the character outside of her hospital garb. And when Sigourney came to town—I had delayed thinking about it, as directors will, until it became necessary—and she immediately came in and said she thought she should dress like a man. And I liked the idea instantly, and we just went from there. The way the doctor looks at it, she’s competitive in a man’s world—actually, not just competitive, but superior! And the great irony is that, in allowing herself this one great blast of emotion for her family and then demanding revenge, she finds herself “emasculated,” in a way, in a mental institution, incarcerated by people with half the intelligence that she has, or some small portion of it.
You and Weaver go way back, correct?
As I usually say, more years than either one of us probably wants to remember—since 1977, something like that. We’ve always been friends.
When you were producing and rewriting Alien , were you involved with casting her as Ripley?
Sure. Her persona was everything in the first one. We needed someone unknown, but someone who could carry a movie, and we needed a woman. And that was so much harder to see in those days, in the heroic physical mode. Nowadays it’s rather commonplace. But back then she struck into that void and everything spun from that. The three heroes of that film were Sigourney, Ridley [Scott], and Alan Ladd, who let us make the movie. Especially after we said we wanted a woman to play the lead, it was a long time coming to get the approval. But we got it.
As opposed to Alien, where she’s bringing reality to a fantastical situation, here she’s elevating the fantasy, in a way. She’s not quite Hannibal Lecter, but—
She brings a basic decency and intelligence to The Assignment, not only from Alien but also from so many other films. You always think Sigourney is a good person, somehow, which she is, by the way. So I thought it would be interesting to push against that and let it inform the villainy. Actually, villainy is not right. I never saw her as a villain. She had taken the wrong path. She suffers the faults of arrogance and pride. She has been discriminated against, under-appreciated. She has led a life in which justice has not been served, her proper role has not been fulfilled. Unfortunately, she has allowed that to cloud the reality of her perceptions, conduct, and good judgment. But she feels she can defend everything she has done—like setting up her own clinic after she lost her license. As she points out, she is giving very difficult medical care to people who can’t afford it. She’s part of the health crisis, doing her part, on the side of the proletarian, sort of.
I love the idea that what makes her blow her cool is her interrogator’s suggestion that her entire story about Frank Kitchen is a projection of her frustrated sex life. Tony Shalhoub is brilliant, by the way, peddling this dime-store Freudianism.
Tony, in his very sympathetic way, is playing the aggressive middle mind of the bland bureaucrat. He is calmly and assuredly wrong about everything, but he plays it with great conviction. He’s a great actor. Everything he believes, which makes perfect sense, is wrong.
It’s been a different kind of filmmaking. I must say, I had a good time making this thing, much as you ever have a good time. I liked the cast, I like the crew, I liked working in Vancouver.
Was it all done on sets up there?
We used a former hospital. A big old hospital, and we would dress various rooms. We hardly built anything—that costs money. They do have a Chinatown in Vancouver—we used a little section of that.
And where did your cameraman come from?
Up there. James Liston. No relation to Sonny. He mainly works as a camera operator, but I liked his attitude and thought he understood what I was trying to do. I said, “We’re really going to be moving fast, and you’ll never be waiting for me,” and he was game for it. I threw a lot at him, and he got the noirish attitude. I gave him a copy of the Alain Silver book [American Neo-Noir: The Movie Never Ends, co-written by James Ursini] that I had written the intro to. That probably scared the shit out of him. He’s a young guy. I used to think of cameramen as father figures, then they were kind of brother figures, now they’re like my children or something.
The graphic novel of The Assignment has a more deluxe aesthetic. Dr. Jane’s brother, for example, is a star designer during New York’s fashion week rather than a collector with a thing for pinball machines.
Well, in the graphic novel you get the big-budget version! We didn’t have enough money to do the fashion show.
I actually like the Spartan aesthetic of the movie.
Look, everybody who makes movies of every size always wish they had a little more time. I think that’s universal among film directors in every culture, every country. I make jokes about the budget. But I don’t think the size of the budget hurt what I was going to do. Do I wish I had a little more time? Sure. I had a couple of other sequences I might have wanted to pull off. But for the main part, I think it’s fine.
In a way, the visual spareness and verbal terseness work together.
When I think of films I saw when I was a young fellow, so many of them that I really responded to were small, spare, European movies—from Bresson, for example, or Ermanno Olmi [Il Posto]. The size never interfered with one’s appreciation of the aesthetic values. In a way, it even reinforced one’s notions about the purity of the effort, as opposed to the Hollywood size and bulk.
As part of the comic book/graphic novel playfulness of this movie, you scrawl “Nevermore Nevermore” on paper and pin it to old pictures of Frankie as a man. You refer to movies like Eyes Without a Face and to some other literary classics. Frankie opens a gift box and finds the pills she must take to stabilize; the bit has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it. At one point you even show cartoon images of Shakespeare and Poe twirling on the screen like the fruits in a one-armed bandit.
Yes, the slot machine approach. Chunk, chunk, chunk.
But The Assignment also strikes me as a follow-up to Johnny Handsome.
That’s what Kenny Friedman [Johnny Handsome’s screenwriter] said to me. He immediately called me. He liked the movie, I’m happy to say, but he said, “Well, you just kept Johnny Handsome going on this one, you just kept all those issues going.”
You again have a doctor testing theories about whether changing a character’s face or body can change their identities, and the outcome being mixed.
Just another moral tale.
And then there’s Tales from the Crypt: the temptation is to see those as exercises in style for the director, but especially in your episodes, they’re real showcases for the actors—all of them, Bill Sadler in “The Man Who Was Death,” Lance Henriksen and Kevin Tighe in “Cutting Cards,” Richard Jordan in “Deadline”—
Wasn’t Jordan good? Someone gave me an award for that episode, and I called Richard up and told him that other than the fact that it’s got my name on it, they should have given the goddamn thing to him. This movie totally comes out of the same animus as my Tales From the Crypt shows. I mean, these are nasty people, caught in a nasty situation, that out of the experience are somewhat chastened and wiser for it. Assuming they survive—not all survive! Which was certainly out of the old EC Comics. So it’s a very small movie, but it’s a king-size Tales from the Crypt.
It seems to me you go back and forth between more expansive, even lyrical modes, and more tight, Don Siegel–Sam Fuller sorts of things.
I don’t know what to say about that, really. You can be expressive in various different ways and still essentially be you. I’m a great reader of Borges, and he does that incredibly imaginative short fiction, almost science fiction, and he also writes stories about bar fights with knives. Not that I’m comparing myself with Borges, but we all find a canvas that we’re comfortable in. I knew I wasn’t going to get a job making a $75 million movie. I never did! And I don’t really have any ambitions in the current comic-book movies. They’re different kinds of comic books from the ones I’m comfortable with.
You know me, I’m still kind of restless. The deal’s not set, but now that I’m a “woman’s director,” I’ve optioned a play with a female lead that could be a very good low-budget movie. As has been pointed out to me many times, hey, I’m still in the game.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.