January 10, 2023
You’re a filmmaker. You start out with a big vision, a big appetite, a dream. At the end of the day they all fall short of the dream, in my opinion. But I certainly thought I’d done a good, professional job in the straightforward sense. I knew when I was getting ready to do the movie that I was taking a chance. This was not meant to be an everyday action movie. I was trying to do something a little more, or a little less, but I was trying to do something else. When the movie came out, I was already making another movie [The Warriors], so I had a parachute on. You never know. You know this very well, it’s an odd way to be making a living. If they decide they don’t like you anymore, the phone may not ring. —Walter Hill
By Sven Mikulec
Having experienced his screenwriting debut with Hickey & Boggs in 1972, Walter Hill went on to pen several thematically diverse films—from the Ryan O’Neal and Jacqueline Bisset comedy The Thief Who Came to Dinner to John Huston’s neo-noir spy thriller The Mackintosh Man, the most prominent of which was definitely Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway. The Steve McQueen-powered action thriller made a substantial box office splash, and its success not only further strengthened Walter Hill’s screenwriting credentials, but it also came in handy regarding the scriptwriter’s ambition to step under the spotlight and start directing films. “I think in casual conversation I would have told anybody I wanted to direct,” he revisited this period in his interview for the Directors Guild of America. “At the same time I knew Hollywood was a closed-off place… It was much harder to get it. (…) If I was going to direct, I was going to write my way in. No TV, no play, I was simply somebody who said I have a sensibility, I think I can do this, based on nothing other than my scripts basically.”
When he met producer Lawrence Gordon back in 1973, a window of opportunity soon opened: Gordon agreed to give him a chance in the director’s chair if he wrote a screenplay for him. Knowing the possible consequences of blowing his first chance, Hill soon came up with Hard Times, a crime neo-noir film about a drifter in the Great Depression era who starts competing in illegal bare-knuckled boxing. After five or six rewrites the script was ready, and Charles Bronson seized the lead role: the stage was set for Hill’s career twist. The film was a hit, with the likes of Roger Ebert calling it “a powerful, brutal film containing a definitive Charles Bronson performance,” but this is actually not the time to delve deeper into the picture. The reason why Hard Times is so consequential in the context of this little write-up is the fact that it gave birth to another classic, initially much disputed. It was during the production of Hard Times that Lawrence Gordon suggested to Hill that they should maybe make a film about a getaway driver. “That started the wheels turning,” Hill recalled with a suitable pun. In the summer of 1975, in the hiatus between the finished production of Hard Times and its scheduled premiere, Hill wrote The Driver, a minimalistic action film about a professional getaway driver and his cat-and-mouse game with a determined detective eager to put him behind bars. One of the most iconic movies of the seventies was thus conceived under unusual circumstances and ended up in the hands of its directorially inexperienced author, but what’s unusual about Hill’s second directing job isn’t its timing—it’s the freshness and peculiarity of Hill’s idea and execution.
During that time, Britain-stationed production company EMI Films started to co-finance Hollywood films intended for international distribution and they gave The Driver the green light under the condition a film star with a resonant reputation comes on board. Since Hill wrote the screenplay with his The Getaway man, Steve McQueen, in mind, the American actor was naturally approached immediately, but declined to participate in another car-themed picture. The second choice was Charles Bronson, but it seems he held a grudge against his Hard Times director. “We had kind of a falling out over the film,” Hill explained. “He thought I’d been a little too… how do I put this? Too draconian in my editing of his wife’s (Jill Ireland) scenes.” Years later, Hill acknowledged the script failed to attract any big names for about a year and a half. Luckily enough, the Hail Mary play came from none other than Ryan O’Neal. Even though O’Neal built a name for himself within the specific fields of comedy and romance movies, he wanted a shot and urged Hill to a meeting. He felt he could do it and understood the minimalistic, stylistically specific approach Hill wanted to use, and the director agreed because they “got comfortable with each other.” Of course, the fact that O’Neal’s name on the cover was a one-way ticket to production certainly didn’t hurt. The Driver’s destiny was finally kickstarted.
The two other central pieces of the casting puzzle were soon solved with the inclusion of Isabelle Adjani and Bruce Dern. Adjani gained international fame with The Story of Adele H and was immediately bombarded with offers from the States, but turned all of them down. The reason she agreed to finally make her transition to Hollywood was Hill himself, as she turned out to be a fan of Hard Times. “I think he is wonderful, very much in the tradition of Howard Hawks, lean and spare,” she explained at the time what attracted her to Hill. “The story is contemporary but also very stylized, and the roles that Ryan and I play are like Bogart and Bacall.” After Robert Mitchum passed on the offer to play The Driver’s main antagonist, Hill landed on Bruce Dern, and it was by no accident. “I wanted Bruce’s personality. Audiences get nervous about movies that don’t have a lot of dialogue. (…) They like a balance. I wanted Bruce to very much offset the distance of The Driver.” The budget was approved, the cast was assembled and the time has come for Hill to direct his sophomore film.
A quiet, blonde man with a determined look steals a car and at the arranged time arrives in front of a casino. A couple of moments later, two armed men wearing masks jump into his car and they drive off, soon followed by a bunch of police vehicles. Without saying a single word or basically changing his facial expression, the driver swirls the car around the streets of Los Angeles, elegantly avoiding traffic at high speed and disregarding every possible driving regulation. One by one he gets rid of the police escort, usually by making them crash into a wall or a container. He seems emotionless, driving not so much by instinct but by routine, leaving the impression he knows every corner of the city by heart. He’s a coldblooded professional. During the narrow escape from the law, however, the two criminals in the back seat are representing us in the audience: excited, kind of scared and in awe of the driver’s undeniable skill.
The first words from The Driver’s mouth hit us somewhere at the 16th minute. Luckily for us, we’re introduced to a detective squad who quickly give us a wider context and we get some expositional information that the driver’s not that generous with: he’s done it again, the “cowboy” successfully pulled another job and got away with it, further cementing his reputation as the uncatchable fantom. But The Detective doesn’t even think about giving up; utterly determined to catch The Driver, he doesn’t mind bending and breaking the law to finish his mission. This stubborn, relentless Art Garfunkel keen on holding a grudge wants his trophy: he’ll be the man who takes the cowboy’s hat and he’s willing to bet everything on it, risking his badge in the process. He comes up with a risky plan of pulling a bank job to catch The Driver in the act and starts a thrilling game of cat and mouse, with The Player, a young woman willing to help out The Driver for financial purposes, stuck in between as the heat rises and the stakes become higher by the minute.
Staged on the gorgeously lit streets of Los Angeles through the lens of Point Blank and Hard Times director of photography Philip H. Lathrop, The Driver is a gripping thriller with nail-biting car chases and absorbing characters plucked from an Edward Hopper painting who capture our attention despite the fact very little to nothing is learned of their background. Acta, non verba might be Walter Hill’s favorite Latin saying, as he allows the action, the images and the characters’ decisions to tell us all we need to know. At the time of its release, the critics weren’t too kind to Hill’s movie. The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, said that the “characters—primarily Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani—are so laconic they could well be played by mutes. Or catatonics. As director, Hill permits them some of the longest unpregnant pauses in movie history.” It’s not far from the truth. Sometimes the characters display a habit of posing questions to one another and then, greeted by silence, answering them themselves. Even in more recent times, many found Hill’s approach problematic. “Sadly, while the automobile action is as good as it gets, O’Neal appears to have mistaken silence and sunglasses for characterization,” stated Empire.
But what these reviews tell us is something we might have easily gathered by ourselves just from the short plot printed on the back of a DVD. The main characters are called The Driver, The Detective and The Player; they are defined by what they do. To call them one-dimensional would mean to miss the point. “I knew when I was getting ready to do the movie that I was taking a chance,” Hill told Edgar Wright, the filmmaker who paid tribute to The Driver with his Baby Driver (and is far from the only one). “This was not meant to be an everyday action movie. I was trying to do something a little more, or a little less, but I was trying to do something else.” What Hill was interested in doing was to make a “pure” genre film unwilling to conform to standard Hollywood practices. He wrote the screenplay in a minimalist style because he “thought that approach made people read with greater intention.” And this transfers quite nicely to the big screen: the fewer the words, the more powerful the impact.
The brilliantly directed action sequences aside, what makes this movie a great one is the intense relationship that lies in its center, perfectly summed up when The Detective tells The Driver how he “really likes chasing him.” In another scene, when his colleague rightfully objects to his methods and the shady plan of capturing The Driver, The Detective remains as determined as ever. “It wouldn’t be any fun if the cowboy walked right into it, would it?” he asks with a smile on his face. He enjoys the hunt, wants it to last, lives for the thrill of it, and rushes onward as stubbornly as Ahab, seeing all of it as nothing more than a game in which he must prevail over his opponent.
The Driver, to no surprise, may not say it explicitly, but finds just as much satisfaction as his hunter. He sees it as a new challenge, an additional test of his abilities. He doesn’t even care about the money. “I might even send it to him,” he tells the concerned Player. It’s a wonderfully crafted, adrenaline-pumped clash of two insurmountable egos. “Had I not been shooting The Warriors at the time, I don’t think my career would have survived,” the filmmaker commented much later when asked to look back at the film. The American audience wasn’t ready for Hill’s experiment, but as much of a failure as it was perceived back then, The Driver still successfully navigates the lists of the most important and influential films of the period.
Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »
“I tried to write in an extremely spare, almost haiku style, both stage directions and dialogue. Some of it was a bit pretentious—but at other times I thought it worked pretty well. Hard Times was the first, and I think maybe the best. Alien (1979)—the first draft, then when David [Giler] and I rewrote it, we left it in that style. The Driver, which I think was the purest script that I ever wrote, and The Warriors. The clean narrative drive of the material and the splash-panel approach to the characters perfectly fit the design I was trying to make work. My scripts have always been a bit terse, both in stage directions and dialogue. I think I’ve loosened up in the dialogue department, but I still try to keep the descriptions fairly minimal, and in some cases purposefully minimalist.” —Walter Hill
Walter Hill’s screenplay for The Driver is the best screenwriting school you can get [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). Hill’s 70s classic is newly restored in 4K (UHD, Blu-Ray, Steelbook and Digital). Order your copy now. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Walter Hill’s first produced script was in 1972, but his films are a throwback to the Golden Age and to storytelling traditions that seem increasingly endangered in today’s Hollywood. He brings a modern swagger to old-fashioned genres. He relishes stories that center on male heroics, with cinematic action. But he is always reaching for intelligent themes. He prides himself on craft and literacy. He was lucky to have worked closely with Sam Peckinpah and John Huston, learning disparate lessons from the experiences. He is at once the consummate pro, and a personal, at times poetic filmmaker; it helps, as he explains in this interview, that he has taught himself to write in ‘one voice’ (like Peckinpah), or ‘many voices’ (like Huston). —Walter Hill: Last Man Standing by Patrick McGilligan
Backstory 4, the fourth book in a wonderful series featuring interviews with screenwriters from the 1930s to the 1990s, features a lengthy interview with Walter Hill, who provides some fantastic insights into Hollywood and screenwriting as a craft.
On where his film sensibilities came from
“I have no idea. There are the mysteries of the head and heart. I admit to a somewhat juvenile sensibility, with an emphasis on physical heroics. I was asthmatic as a kid, several years of school interrupted. This left me with a lot of time alone—daydreaming, reading, listening to radio serials; I was devoted to comic books. I never liked kid fiction much, read adult novels at a very early age, never much liked kid movies either. I’ve always been a good reader. My father and his father were my great heroes, smart, physical men who worked with their heads and their hands. Both had great mechanical ability, I had none. Being a sick child means that you are fantastically spoiled—which of course I love—and was excellent preparation for Hollywood.”
On how he learned screenwriting
“The usual story—read a lot of scripts, saw every possible movie. Wrote a lot at night. My big problem was finishing—I must’ve written twenty-five first acts—abandon and move on, abandon and move on. This went on about three years. Funny thing, once I was able to finish a script. I was able to make a living at it right away.”
On where he developed his unique screenwriting style
“Alex Jacob’s script of Point Blank (1967) was a revelation. He was a friend (wonderful guy, looked like a pirate, funny and crazy). This revelation came about despite a character flaw of mine. I have always had difficulty being complimentary to people whose work I admire, when face-to-face with them. This is not the norm in Hollywood where effusiveness is generally a given. Anyway, a mutual friend told Alex how much I admired Point Blank and John Boorman. Alex then very graciously gave me a copy of the script. This was about the time he was doing The Seven-Ups (1973).”
“Anyway, by now I’d been making a living as a screenwriter for maybe two or three years and had gotten to the point where I was dissatisfied with the standard form scripts were written in—they just all seemed to be a kind of subliterary blueprint for shooting a picture and generally had no personal voice. Mine were tighter and terser than the average, but I was still working with the industry template and not too happy about it. Alex’s script just knocked me out (not easy to do); it was both playable and literary. Written in a whole different way than standard format (laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style), I thought Alex’s script was a perfect compliment to the material, hard, tough, and smart—my absolute ideals then. So much of the writing that was generally praised inside the business seemed to me soft and vastly overrated—vastly oversentimental. Then and now, I haven’t changed my opinions about that. But I have changed them about the presentational style.”
“Anyway I resolved to try to go in that direction (that Alex had shown), and I worked out my own approach in the next few years. I tried to write in an extremely spare, almost haiku style, both stage directions and dialogue. Some of it was a bit pretentious—but at other times I thought it worked pretty well. I now realize a lot of this was being a young guy who wanted to throw rocks at windows.”
“Hard Times was the first, and I think maybe the best. Alien (1979)—the first draft, then when David [Giler] and I rewrote it, we left it in that style. The Driver, which I think was the purest script that I ever wrote, and The Warriors. The clean narrative drive of the material and the splash-panel approach to the characters perfectly fit the design I was trying to make work. Of course all this depend on the nature of the material; I don’t think the style would’ve worked at all had I been writing romantic comedies.”
“My scripts have always been a bit terse, both in stage directions and dialogue. I think I’ve loosened up in the dialogue department, but I still try to keep the descriptions fairly minimal, and in some cases purposefully minimalist. I still punctuate to effect, rather than to the proper rules of grammar. I occasionally use onomatopoeias now, a luxury I would certainly never have allowed myself when I was younger. My favorite description of the dilemma of screenwriting comes from David Giler, ‘Your work is only read by the people who will destroy it.’”
On his writing process
“When I’m working alone, the old hard way. Longhand. Fountain pen. Legal pad. Thesaurus at my side. This last item, I’m not ashamed to say, is quite helpful—when you write screenplays, you don’t have a lot of room, and the stage directions can become onerously repetitive if you don’t work at fresh descriptions. Try to show a reader a new way to see it. Unless, of course, you are using repetition as a rhythm device in creating mood—which I guess is a perfect illustration of one of the things I like best about screenwriting: whatever is true, the opposite can also be true. Both at the technical level and at a much larger one—I think it’s best approached as an enigmatic way to make a living.”
On action movies
“I love comedies, musicals, and thrillers like everybody else, but I confess to believing action pictures are what movies are most essentially all about. It’s the work they do best and uniquely best. I don’t mean action movies are better; in fact, most of them are actually a lot worse than the norm. But the few that really work are sublime. Films like Colorado Territory (1949), White Heat (1949), Ride the High Country, the Seven Samurai (1954), Scarface (1932), Heat (1995), Dirty Harry (1972), Attack! (1956), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), or a hundred others I can name… The real power of movies lies in their connection to our unconscious or semiconscious dream life, and action movies are about heroism and death. Will he live or will he die is the ultimate drama, isn’t it?”
“Purity is important. Because it’s the essence of what the creative person is most trying to achieve—the ideal. This is where I think screenplays and movies cause terrible frustration; the dramatic form itself is so messy. So much of what we are trying to do is simply to put things in proper order. And this ordering of things is complicated; it’s absolutely not simple. Now, if you’re going to do action films, a certain amount of repetition, which certainly is a kind of straitjacket, is inevitable. You are going to have to deal with gunfights and chases. And usually there are certain other limitations that are a given. If you’re doing Dirty Harry, Eastwood is not going to be shot dead at the end, right? So it becomes a kind of game. The audience knows what the conclusion will be, but you still have to entertain them. So you are always walking on the edge of a precipice—trying to juggle the genre expectations, which can slip into clichés, and your personal need to dance with the idea of taking the familiar and getting a little off-center, getting it to play—putting your fingerprints on it. We have our areas of skill, and we want to continue to explore them, because we feel there’s probably something left to say—the need to, maybe this time, get it right. Lukas Heller always told me that [Robert] Aldrich used to say that the manipulation of idiots [the studio] was part of the job. But you manipulate them to get the opportunity to chase a kind of limited perfection.”
“The main thing is to use whatever means are at hand to tell stories that mean something to you on a personal level. And often, again especially in the action field, what is personally interesting to you may be invisible to others. In the end, of course, when reviewing the result, the person you have outsmarted is very often yourself.”
PHILIP H. LATHROP, ASC
Philip H. Lathrop began his career as camera operator on the Irving Reis film All My Sons, working with cinematographer Russell Metty as he did ten years later on Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil. The two pictures, in particular the film which marked Welles’ return to Hollywood in 1957, proved a valuable training ground for Lathrop, whose own career as a director of photography took off in the same year. In his long career, Lathrop developed a reputation for his detailed approach to lighting and camera placement, and for his skill with widescreen technology in beautifully photographed films such as Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther (1963). Lathrop worked several times with Edwards, and the reliable, though not always very inspiring films on which they collaborated are notable for the quality of their photography.
Lathrop’s most impressive work as a cinematographer came in the 1960s. His particular visual style seemed to epitomize the times, giving a glossy, dense feel to tough films like John Boorman’s excellent thriller, Point Blank, and a dreamy atmosphere to strange comic offerings like The Americanization of Emily, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Cincinnati Kid, which stars Edward G. Robinson and Steve McQueen as opposing poker players ‘The Man’ and ‘The Kid’, displays Lathrop’s skills at their best, creating a shiny, disconcerting surface to the images that is not unlike the ‘Photorealist’ paintings that became popular at the same time.
Ten years later, Lathrop’s style gave an air of quality to films at the end of their era, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. Lathrop went on to be involved in several well-regarded projects, yet in the 1970s most of his work was on films that have since come to embody Hollywood’s shortcomings in that period. Commercial movies such as the Airport series of films, and disaster movies such as Earthquake (for which Lathrop received his second Oscar nomination) almost became parodies of themselves with their ever more improbable story lines and predictable dramatic twists.
Lathrop’s talent was largely stifled by the demands of the studios in the 1970s, and opportunities for outstanding photography became increasingly limited. Yet despite the overall weakness of the commercial projects he was involved with later in his career, Lathrop’s work remained of a high standard, often rescuing films with little else to recommend them. Although he ended his career with a series of limp TV movies, Lathrop will be remembered for his contribution to the ‘look’ of Hollywood cinema in the 1960s. —IEC
A vintage making-of featurette, Making of The Driver.
Watch the brand new trailer below:
The neo-noir action thriller takes place in the dark streets of a deserted downtown LA and features a number of breath-taking car chase sequences, celebrated as some of the greatest in movie history, including The Driver hot-wiring a Ford to make good an escape from a casino heist, before being pursued by a succession of police cars; a thrilling set piece where The Driver demonstrates his abilities during the infamous destruction of a Mercedes in an underground car park; and the end chase which is an exhilarating, superbly shot sequence from the freeway to an abandoned warehouse for a tense final showdown.
A Walter Hill Film is the first critical biography of Walter Hill, the legendary writer-director producer whose filmography includes 48 HRS. films, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, Geronimo, Streets of Fire, Wild Bill, Broken Trail, the Alien films, and the pilot for Deadwood. The author is Walter Chaw, film critic for Film Freak Central and a contributor to The New York Times, Vulture, NPR and many other publications. A new paperback edition created and printed by MZS Press, this book is scheduled for release end of January 17, 2023.
Here are several photos and movie stills taken during the production of Walter Hill’s The Driver @ EMI Films, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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