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Festival Lumière 2016 : Masterclass de Walter Hill

Par Walter Hill, Yves Bongarçon, Marion Coste
Publié par Marion Coste le 21/05/2014
Créé le 12/01/2017, kjsp:331026, Page libre

Le 10 octobre 2016, à l'occasion du Festival Lumière, Walter Hill est venu donner une Masterclass à la Comédie Odéon à Lyon. L'entretien mené par Yves Bongarçon est l'occasion de revenir sur le parcours de ce géant du cinéma américain. Producteur, réalisateur et scénariste, il a notamment produit les trois premiers Aliens, et réalisé le film 48 heures, avec Nick Nolte et Eddie Murphy.
Ce texte est une transcription de l'entretien entre Walter Hill et Yves Bongarçon. Il a été par endroits modifié pour l'adapter au format écrit. Un enregistrement audio est disponible
sur la plateforme Souncloud

By Harald Bischoff [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsCher Walter Hill, vous êtes quelqu’un de très modeste, très humble et de très accessible. Faut-il être modeste, humble et accessible pour réussir à Hollywood ?

Well, I think it means that I have fooled you. I don’t know. I always resist answering questions about Hollywood, because people like to say ‘Hollywood this, Hollywood that’. It’s a complicated place, there are so many different opinions, styles, … I don’t know if [my personality] has helped or hurt, but I’ve been able to make a living for about forty years – actually, more than that, close to fifty. I guess my smile works.

On va essayer de commencer par le début. Vous êtes venu au cinéma relativement tard et un critique français a même dit que vous étiez le dernier « accident à Hollywood » [1], c’est-à-dire quelqu’un qui n’était pas prédestiné à devenir metteur en scène et qui l'est devenu. Pourquoi avez-vous commencé si tard et qu’avez-vous fait avant de devenir réalisateur ?

First, just to address a little more about my modesty : no director is modest. We are all engines of ego and ambition and we disguise it in different ways. […] I do think I am one of the last who never went to film school, I think that’s what the gentleman was probably talking about. I [was very young when] I drifted into the business, I was right out of school. I was meant to go in the army but I failed the physical. I had to find a job and through a series of accidents I got into movie work. And as soon as I was in, I loved it. I had always loved films. I just had never imagined that I could make a living. Life is a mystery and here we are.

Quand il s’est présenté devant la commission des activités anti-américaines, John Ford s’est présenté en disant : « Mon nom est John Ford et je fais des Westerns. » Je crois que l’on peut dire la même chose de vous, […] car tous vos films sont des Westerns.

That was actually in front of the Directors Guild, they were debating the communist issue. I have certainly made Westerns and I have probably, other than Mr Eastwood, done more work in Westerns than any of my contemporaries. So I have to plead guilty, yes indeed.

Vous êtes relativement évasif sur votre passage de la vie normale à la vie de quelqu’un de cinéma. Comment en arrivez-vous à rencontrer Sam Peckinpah, à écrire pour Sam Peckinpah - à écrire pour le cinéma, parce que vous avez un peu commencé par là ?

Well, partially through arrogance. I was going to go into the army, I had finished school. I failed the physical: I had asthma when I was a child and the army decided they didn’t want me, although I thought I was in splendid health. But the army has its reasons. I had vague notions about becoming a journalist because I knew that I was going to write in some way. And then I got a series of job connected to the business, doing research for some documentaries. I began to read screenplays that were being made and – I hesitate to say this – but I read them and I thought “Christ, I can do that, if this is what it takes…”. So there was a kind of arrogance and it took me years before I could even finish one but it taught me a lesson, I suppose. It took four or five years of writing at night, while I was working on my being around the business and working on my social life. But once I started finishing scripts, I began selling right away, and making a living of it, so I was very lucky. Most writers work for years before they begin to sell their screenplays.

Vous avez souvent dit dans le passé que l’asthme que vous venez d’évoquer, dont vous avez souffert pendant votre enfance, vous avait mis un peu à l’écart du reste de vos camarades. Vous avez donc dû rester à la maison et vous avez développé ce goût pour la lecture, pour les comics, pour les histoires…

I think you just said it, yes. It sounds rather melodramatic but I was a sickly child. I was incapable of going to school a great deal of the time and I was what we call “home schooled” to a great degree by my mother and my grandmother, which actually enabled me to learn how to read at a very early age. And I quickly became engrossed with comic books, radio, dramas, and children’s books. It allowed me to live in a kind of imaginary world, which I think is greatly connected to what became my profession.

Vous êtes donc metteur en scène, vous êtes écrivain, vous êtes scénariste, vous êtes producteur, vous êtes intimement lié à l’univers des comics, … Est-ce que c’est le même Walter Hill dans toutes ces facettes ?

That’s a hard question. I would say no. I think the producing really just has to do with business and trying to protect things that one is fond of. I am not a good producer. My name is on many films as producer, but I either supervise the script or … I am not a good businessman the way really great producers are. I didn’t even like to make phone calls, that’s how hopeless I am. I certainly think that the scripts I have written and the movies I have directed express my personality. What’s interesting about all this is that it’s a way of expressing yourself through drama and through visuals. Otherwise it would be a terrible job if you weren’t involved personally with the stories. And I think it’s the worst aspect of Hollywood – how much of it is bland and it looks like was all shot by the same person, […] which I think is unfortunate.

C’est quand même le producteur des trois premiers Aliens qui vous dit qu’il n’est pas un bon producteur…

Well, I was the beneficiary of a very good deal.

Vous êtes nés à Long Beach, en Californie. Qu’est-ce que vous alliez voir au cinéma quand vous étiez enfant ?

Anything they would show, really. I would go down as a child with my brother and on Saturdays we saw first-run movies at the local theater and on Sundays we saw the B-Westerns that were shown. I liked Westerns very much – I liked everything, really. I liked good dramas. The thing I did not like was children’s movies: I never liked them, even as a child. Still don’t. I don’t know why. But I don’t know why any of us have the taste we do, it’s a mystery. I liked action movies very much, I liked good romances – with the right kind of guys and girls. I liked comedies. But I think I liked Westerns especially.

Sam Peckinpah passe pour quelqu’un de très particulier dans le cinéma américain, avec sa personnalité explosive, mais il a laissé une trace assez indélébile. J’aimerais que vous nous racontiez comment vous avez rencontré Sam Peckinpah et comment vous en êtes venu à écrire le scénario de The Getaway (Le Guet-apens, 1972).

It’s difficult to talk about Peckinpah in many ways… We had a good relationship. I had actually met him several times before I wrote The Getaway. I was actually hired to write The Getaway by Peter Bogdanovich who was going to direct it and that did not work out: Peter was doing What’s up, Doc at the time and it all got very complicated. He left The Getaway and I then finished the script in a kind of splendid isolation, and then Sam came on board. He came back from England where he had been doing post-production of Straw Dogs and I did a quick rewrite – it had been a period film but we decided that was too expensive so we made it contemporary.

He was very intelligent, he was better read than he’d like to pretend. He liked to cowboy-talk but he was actually very well-read and he knew the history of cinema very well too. I guess we can now say that he had medical problems – he was alcoholic. I don’t think that’s a secret I’m sharing. He was getting to the point of alcoholism that was becoming almost debilitating. I don’t think The Gateaway is his best film – I think it is a good film, it turned out to be commercially his best film, his biggest hit. But I would say it is probably the last film he made where he was in absolutely full control of his faculties as a film director.

Sam Peckinpah [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsSam Peckinpah (à gauche) et William Holden (à droite) sur le tournage de la Horde Sauvage en 1968.

Quel est votre film préféré de Sam Peckinpah?

Ride the High Country is probably my favorite. I like the heart in the film. We all admired The Wild Bunch enormously, but that one is my favorite… You know, when you work with alcoholics (I can speak about this because there were many alcoholics in my family – not my parents, but many of our relatives were alcoholics) you have to be very careful. He would be hungover and then he would be drinking and then he would be drunk. But at the same time, he was very much in control of his faculties and his art at the time I worked with him. He read the script, he liked the script, he came on board. McQueen was already in the movie and he really didn’t ask for many changes. There was a scene that troubled me; it was the Ben Johnson scene and I had tried to change it and he told me “Go right back to the book”, because he liked the way it was in the book and I didn’t. We of course did it his way. But I think that was the only slight difficulty we had. We got along quite well. He was very funny; he was very ironic. He wasn’t always easy to talk to – you were in a movie somehow, and you didn’t know the dialogue. He didn’t like to make people comfortable. He liked when there was an edge in the room and when you’re a young screenwriter and you’re working with an acknowledged great director, this makes things a little tricky.

I remember I came in one morning and he was very angry, slamming doors […] and I said to the secretary: “What’s wrong?”. And she said “Oh, someone wrote something”. I think it was in Newsweek – that Peckinpah’s slow-motion style was stolen from Arthur Penn. He was furious. He, by the way, did not think that Bonnie & Clyde was such a wonderful movie, and he really did not like comparisons to Arthur Penn (who is also a great director).

Anyway, I saw him that afternoon and I said something about this Arthur Penn thing. I said: “Pay no attention to it, everybody knows you stole it from Kurosawa”. My joke did not go over very well. He made it difficult for me for a day or two. I’m always fascinated by this “directors about directors” and they’re usually very polite. Howard Hawks had attacked Peckinpah, had made some comments that he could shoot, kill and bury five guys faster than Peckinpah could kill one, because of the slow motion. Howard didn’t think much of that slow motion stuff. In retaliation [when] Sam found out about this – he hated Hawks for the unprovoked attack by the way – and he’d say: “Tell me again why you think The Thing is good movie”. The Thing is a B-movie which Hawks produced. It was a test of auteur theory, I guess.

Avant de réaliser votre premier film, Le Bagarreur en 1975, vous avez été assistant sur des films notables – Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, … Est-ce que c’est là que vous avez vraiment appris votre métier ?

When I was given the opportunity to direct my first movie, I was totally unqualified. […] It was a major motion picture with two big stars. I had never directed a play, a commercial, a television show, anything – I had never directed anything. But I had been around a bit. I had been a screenwriter, I had gotten things made, and I had also worked as a second assistant director (I was not a first). I had worked on some big movies and some TV shows, some few commercials, I worked on Gunsmoke for a season… But that was all just trying to make a living.

But I think it did give me one advantage, which was when I went to work on the set as a director, I was comfortable about what happens on the set. Who the grips were, who the electricians were, what people did. So there was no mystery about all that. And that was useful.

Finally, there is no way to prepare yourself as a director. You somehow can do it or you can’t. You get lots of help but it’s again your ability to get your way and expressing the way the tale will be told and expressing the personality within the drama. There isn’t any training for that. There you are. Naked and alone.

Justement, en continuant sur l’idée de “tout nu, tout seul”, vous arrivez dans la profession au moment où explose le Nouvel Hollywood […]. On a le sentiment que vous n’en faites pas partie et que vous êtes à contre-courant. Quel est votre point de vue là-dessus ?

Oh no, I think I disagree with that. I was very sympathetic and identified with the New Hollywood. I mean, intellectually. I was much in favor of it. I thought, like young people do: "Let’s sweep away everybody that’s in our way".

I think my movies, though, were of that time, rather retro. I wanted to do genre films, I wanted to do them in a way that I thought made them alive for the then contemporary audience. I had certainly been influenced by the Japanese films, I had been influenced by certain European films [and] that was a bit new to the Hollywood sensibility.

Directors have stories, they want to tell stories; but it’s all a question about getting finance. […] My whole life has basically been trying to get people to finance my movies. Every director. That’s what we do for a living. It’s to try to go and find people to finance our films.

So that was a transitional period that was difficult: the Old Hollywood with money didn’t trust us, they had a different value system. But at the same time, they thought they were losing touch with the audience – and they were. Originally, it was a disadvantage to be young at that time, but then it became an advantage, I would say.

Now I would say though that the New Hollywood is too cold. Most of them I thought were frauds, fools and posers and I did not hang out [with them] – I was never really a part of the clubs. I preferred to keep my own company – I mean I’ve always had friends. A bunch of directors got together all the time, talked things out, but that was not me. Still isn’t.

Affiche Le bagarreur, 1975Comment fait-on quand on n’a pas dirigé de pièces de théâtre, pas dirigé d’émissions de télévision, pas dirigé de publicités pour diriger James Coburn et Charles Branson dans un film qui coûte beaucoup d’argent [2] ?

Well, very carefully, I guess is the answer. I don’t know, you just do it. There’s a scene to be done, you stage it and you shoot it. I have a very good relationship with my cameraman, Phil Lathrop, who is a real gentleman. I think whatever I learned about being a director and the technical aspects... I really had those kinds of things worked out. I knew how films were shot, but I worked very well with Phil. The staging and the general shooting of a film came very naturally to me. I know for some people it’s hard, but it wasn’t for me. But Phil taught me certain shortcuts and tricks and he showed me the difference between good photography and just flashy photography. I always say I am very indebted to Phil Lathrop. He did my first two films. So, you just have to pull yourself together, go out there and do it. There’s no other way.

I think the real question is what did you learn? And what mistakes did you make that you learned from? The biggest mistake that I made on the first film was that I didn’t shoot enough footage – I should have shot more. I was probably a little too careful – I think I only shot 75000 feet of film, which is very little for a Hollywood movie. The ratio was unbelievably low. That was because I was quite inexperienced. I never got caught short again. I worked with Billy Weber, the very good film editor, who works with Terry [Terence] Malick all the time (and I knew Terry back when we were writers for Warner Brothers in the early seventies). And I hadn’t seen Terry in years: Billy would work for Terry and then worked for me, etc. So we would send messages to each other, and we would always send the same message, which was: “Less takes, more angles”. Because it’s what you face in the editing room. All this about shooting movie is all very fine, but you end up in the editing room and that’s where you make your movie, and you always wish you had another shot […].

Dans la rétrospective qui vous est consacrée ici au Festival Lumière, on aura l’occasion de revoir The Driver, avec Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern et Isabelle Adjani. On a dit à l’époque que ce film était très marqué par le cinéma de Melville, mais aussi le cinéma japonais. J’aimerais connaître vos liens avec le cinéma asiatique, notamment japonais, et ce qui vous lie à certains cinémas minimalistes européens, tel que celui de Jean-Pierre Melville.

Well, the Melville question has come up other times – especially when I’m in France – which I always plead guilty. I had seen The Samurai. Melville was, I think, a great filmmaker, but he was very much influenced by American movies. […] The Samurai is very much taken from This Gun for Hire with Alan Ladd. There’s a certain kind of tropes that exist within the cinema which are taken from a kind of Pulp Fiction, so there’s a rough similarity. Early in my career, it was said that I was influenced by Peckinpah (but people don’t usually connect our films like that anymore). But Peckinpah was always critiqued that he was so influenced by Kurosawa. When you watch Kurosawa’s films, you understand how deeply influenced he is by John Ford. You cannot study John Ford’s movies without really feeling the deep influence of D.W. Griffith (Ford never got over Griffith). You cannot look at Griffith’s movies without seeing the ghost of Charles Dickens. And I don’t mean to put myself in this line-up. That’s not the point. The point is we are all connected, we are all connected in various ways, as directors, as artists. Influence is everywhere, but the intrinsic personality, that is, if you have one as an artist, will come through […]. Critics like to find these connections. And we’re all looking to do our next movie.

48 Hrs PosterQuand on regarde votre filmographie, il y a quelque chose qui saute aux yeux, c’est 48 Heures. Je voudrais connaître un peu la genèse de ce film et surtout les liens d’amitié qui vous lient à Nick Nolte.

Larry Gordon, a wonderful producer, had actually come up with a story – it was a very, very different story. It was [about] the daughter of the governor of the State of Louisiana who was kidnapped, and it was a terrible criminal that had done this. The cop was told that he had to find this terrible criminal. The only person that might know where the criminal would be hiding was a prisoner, so he had to go to that jail and get the prisoner, and they had 48 hours. It became a rather different movie, but that was the original story. Larry had several scripts written and I came in at some point and wrote a version that was meant to be for Eastwood and Richard Pryor. For various reasons, that did not happen. I went off and did a couple other movies and I got a phone call from Larry two years later saying would I still be interested in doing the movie. Nick Nolte owed Paramount a movie and they wanted to make it with Nick and wanted to make it right away.

So I met with Nick – he didn’t want to do the movie, but he had a contract. [He kept saying] “I don’t want to be a cop”. Richard Pryor – Richard, of course, didn’t play second leads by this time. And the actor we wanted, a very fine actor, a musical star, wanted to do the movie but was not available. My girlfriend at the time was a talent agent (and she’s now my wife) and represented Eddie Murphy and she recommended to me her client. I barely knew who he was because I was usually asleep by midnight on Saturday, when he was doing Saturday Night Live. Anyway, I looked at the tapes she sent over and I thought that this guy was really talented. I flew to New York, met with him. I think he would have been very happy to do any kind of movie. The only I remember is that he wanted a nice suit [in the film]. And I said “Well, you know, the guy's in prison…”. He said “I can wear the suit that I wore in the prison”, and I said “Well, we’ll figure this out”. [...] He didn’t want to wear rotten old prison clothes.

So it all kind of happened and this shows, as we all know, this is important, who you’re sleeping with. She was smarter than I am.

We had a good shoot, I hired Jimmy Remar that I used in the movie The Warrior as the bad guy. Nick and I got along quite well. He calmed down about the fact he didn’t want to play a cop. You know, actors get very excited about this stuff. Also, he was forced into a movie and he didn’t like that, I don’t blame him.

We had a good shoot and we thought, “Maybe this might work”, and it did. It did turn out to be the biggest hit that I had as a director. And it certainly made more noise than The Warrior and any of my films.

Every day, I’d drive in and the first thing I would hear was “Nick needs to see you.” I’d say: “Alright, send him over”. [The person] would come back saying: “He’s in make-up, can you go over there?” and I would reply “When he’s done with make-up, tell him to come over here”. And then he’d show up and say: “Goddammit. I’ve read the scene, the scene doesn’t work at all, Goddammit.” I would say: “Of course it works, I wrote it. What are you talking about?”. He'd [reply]: “No, it doesn’t make any sense. I was just talking to Ed” – he’s the only guy in the world who calls Eddie Murphy “Ed” – “and Ed agrees with me, the scene doesn’t work. But he’s afraid of you so he won’t come over.” I would say: “Well, we’d better rehearse.” And there’s no point in rehearsing because we have to shoot something else because he just can’t say the dialogue. I would say: “Well, show me the lines you can’t say.” And then I’d reverse some lines or do something [and Nick would be ok].

It would be like that every day. But he’s a big lug of a guy and he’s very loveable and he’s very passionate about his work. I’m making fun of it now, obviously. But he was so good in the movie and he helped Eddie so much. I told him before the movie started: “Look, this kid’s very talented. But he’s not an actor, he’s not a trained actor. So he’s going to be all over the place. What that means is you have to be good every take. Because the one take he is good in, I’m going to print it and that’s it.” [And he complained that it was unfair]. I said: “Look, it’s like being with a dog or a small child. This is the way it’s gonna be. You must reconcile yourself to this.” [He complained some more.] But it worked out.

And it was true. Eddie was all over the place but the take he was wonderful in we put in. And Nick was good every take. Whenever we’d have a problem, we’d always say the same thing, we’d always cut to Nick because he would be doing something ok. He saved us. Many times.

En dehors de tout succès commercial, quel est votre film préféré dans votre filmographie ? Celui pour lequel vous avez le plus de tendresse ?

Oh, I can’t answer that, really. You like them all in some ways. I think the ones you love the most in the end are the ones that didn’t do well. They are special children – they’re all children. But some kids need more help. Almost every director would answer that question [by referring to] some obscure movie nobody ever heard of, that didn’t work with the audience. When movies don’t work with an audience, it’s very disappointing. You make them for yourself I think, I don’t think you can go past that. There’s only three things you can make a movie for: you can make them for the audience, you can make them for yourself or you can make them for critics. I have no respect for people who make them for critics. To make them only for the audience is a trap. To make them only for yourself is another kind of trap. But you have to kind of make them for yourself and hope that somebody else is interested. That’s the only way you’re going to survive. But those that don’t find an audience – you know, you don’t say much, you go on to your next movie. But there’s a real pain there, because you feel you let so many people down: the cast, the crew, the financiers, whatever… You are the one most held responsible, so you have to kind of bear up. And there’s this feeling of injustice, because you’ve worked just as hard that you did on the ones that worked and you don’t know what choices you made that were so different. It’s a business of ups and downs, highs and lows. If you’re gonna last, you must have some hits and if you stay at it, you’ll have some that don’t work.


[1] Il s'agit d'une expression employée par Olivier Père (http://www.cinematheque.fr/cycle/walter-hill-322.html).

[2] Walter Hill a réalisé Le bagarreur (Hard Times) en 1975.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Walter Hill, Yves Bongarçon, Marion Coste, "Festival Lumière 2016 : Masterclass de Walter Hill", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2014. Consulté le 18/03/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/cinema/festival-lumiere-2016-masterclass-de-walter-hill