Not Over the Hill as Veteran Director Walter Delivers Knockout Punch
Walter Hill has made some of Hollywood's most seminal films, from The Warriors, to 48 Hours, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort and Streets of Fire. The son of a ship's riveter, director/writer Hill studied art in Mexico City, hoping to become a cartoonist; he later transferred to the journalism department at the University of Michigan. Following several years in various jobs, Hill wrote a few documentary films and gained work as an assistant director on such major productions as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Bullitt (1968). Establishing himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter (The Getaway , The Drowning Pool  and others), Hill received his first directing opportunity with Hard Times (1975), a virile tale about bare-knuckles boxing starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Hill's The Warriors (1979), was a powerful but controversial story of gang violence that was banned from several theaters for allegedly inciting real-life gang wars. The director's biggest moneymaker of the early 1980s was 48 Hours (1982), which made a star of Eddie Murphy. Streets of Fire (1984), didn't do as well as expected, and Hill found himself settling for lesser directing projects for the next few years. Recently, his Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) was somewhat lost amidst a sea of competing "revisionist" westerns. Though his R-rated style is not altogether suited for TV, Hill has nonetheless had his name on the credits of two series since 1989: since he owns the rights to several horror stories from the days of the classic E.C. comic books, Hill is listed as one of the producers of Tales from the Crypt (for which he directed several segments) and its cartoon spin-off Tales from the Cryptkeeper.
Amongst the seminal films that he made, Hill has had his misfires as well: Red Heat, Brewster's Millions, Last Man Standing and of course Supernova, come to mind. Hill is now back on track with his ferocious boxing drama Undisputed, which is pure Hill, ready to hit theatres this week. The film tells of James "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames), the world's heavyweight boxing champ, convicted of rape and sentenced to prison. Here, an old-time gangster (Peter Falk) arranges a bout between Chambers and the undisputed prison champ, Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes). It was a candid Hill who talked one on one with Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Did you and David [Giler] write this at a reaction against the whole Mike Tyson thing or is it purely coincidental that this story bears parallels to Tyson's?
Walter Hill: I think neither. The idea to do the film really was a conversation with David, during which I was saying I wonder why nobody's done anything with the Tyson story and the Tyson set of circumstances, and then when we decided that, rather than anybody, might apply to us and we were wondering why WE hadn't done it. Now even for those with a LIMITED knowledge of boxing, Tyson is simply the most spectacular example of afflictions that happen to many fighters. There are two very highly ranked heavyweight fighters currently in the Las Vegas penitentiary over there, they're locked up. One's in Las Vegas Jail, and the other's down below High Desert, in that work camp down there. So that we wanted to bend it a certain way, knowing that people would always be making Tyson comparisons.
P.F: Which of course has happened?
W.H: Yeah but at the same, we were not trying to do the Tyson story, nor the guy's personality, other than he's rather irritable based on Tyson. If you talk to Ving [Rhames] I think will tell you he's not trying to do Mike Tyson.
P.F: Yet in Undisputed, there's an intense arrogance and smugness about this guy and neither character is 100% sympathetic. It's not Rocky where you're rooting for a kind of underdog.
W.H: It is not. But at the same time, neither character is entirely UNsympathetic.
W.H: I think that to be accurate in my assessment, Wesley's character is vastly more sympathetic. But there's a difference between dramatic predictability and dramatic inevitability, if you examine the outcome of the final fight.
P.F: So many boxing movies are always seen as boxing as a metaphor for something. Now in the case of Undisputed, do you think that boxing is merely a metaphor for boxing?
W.H: I think the movie is about boxing. Look it has a narrative, it has characters, I think if you have a literary equivalent to what this movie is attempting, and it would be a short story. But I do not think that boxing is used as a metaphor. I think it's a story about boxing, and if there's a metaphor in there, it eludes ME.
P.F: Having been in the movie business now for some decades, how are you able to make a film like this which manages to be both a Walter Hill movie and yet hip enough for a younger audience, which obviously is going to see this film?
W.H: Well, I mean, I don't just hang out at the old people's home.... I've got two young daughters, I guess that's part of it.
P.F: To continue to grow as audiences change? I mean it must be interesting to do that.
W.H: Well, we're in show business, and I have been making a living in this business a long time and inevitably it means taking what it is that you've done and hopefully you're showing it to a lot of people who like it. Okay, that's kind of a given. And at the same time, it is amazing how few decisions are really made about: Oh boy, THEY will really like this. It's really about, oh come on, this guy wouldn't say that or he wouldn't do that, you know, it's about the characters, about the story, about the situation. And then I think we find that when we are sufficiently amused, and think that we have not betrayed the central idea, that we're ready to test it with an audience, you know, and hope that the audience likes the stuff as well as we do.
P.F: Have those audiences changed?
W.H: Well, in some ways. They've been pandered to for so long now, that it seems, but it may not be true, that the, that more has to be explained to them.
W.H: There are always arguments about the collapse in popular culture and collapse of public education, and that hasn't diminished, that's assuming that Hollywood has no responsibility... and that we merely reflect, that our readers merely want to reflect what's going on out there and channel the money into product that reflects that. That is a somewhat meretricious argument, but it, I don't think it's entirely without merit, but it, I think at the same time there's a very conscious effort to make films that, you know, the serious drama category is now not, just not explored the way it used to be. What's not perceived to be an A movie anymore, is often subject matter that would have been thought of as a B movie many years ago. Now we are, I think, two people that may be more responsible than most for this tendency, that's exactly what we said when we were putting Alien together, is let's take, you know a monster on a spaceship is a kind of classic formula B movie, but with modern photographic technique, modern sound technique, and some real first-class actors, and if we don't write dialogue that says, gad zooks and things like that, and look what's in the closet here, as long as we can avoid that and really treat it like it was encasted in a way that we don't end up with, you know, B picture types or retreads from TV or something like that, that the movie will probably work, and now that's, I think, it sounds so commonplace at the moment cause that's almost the way they all are, but at the time, this was kind of new.
P.F: What do you feel is your most underrated film?
W.H: Well, it's hard to say, because you always run into pockets of appreciation. You know, I thought Johnny Hansom, Tresspass and I thought Wild Bill were good films. They didn't find an audience, and they were, I think in each case, very well reviewed foreign, but were not particularly well reviewed in this country. But, I don't know, I really don't spend a lot of time, I think what you've got to do is you think about what you're going to do next.
P.F: But when someone does a Walter Hill retrospective, do you look back at your old films?
W.H: I never do, I don't even go to the retrospectives.
W.H: No. I think that's when you're done.
P.F: How do you go then when you are interviewed in depth for this book that is currently being written about you and you obviously have to re-analyze your work?
W.H: Well, I think if you talk to Greg [Soloman, author] I'm very elusive... I don't much like looking back. I'll talk about these things, but it's just, you know, you only get so much time and I'm much more interested in what I'm going to be doing next year than in something I did 10 years ago. Also, I really have this, as soon as you're explaining your intentions...So many movies are reviewed off their intentions, and noble intentions are fine, but I think that's an easy version. think criticism is not without the overtones of what we now call political correctness. But I think in the end that's, it's probably irritating for the moment, but at the same time, I don't think it has any lasting impact. Somebody once said, you have to wait 20 years before you can tell if a movie's any good or not so that's probably true.
P.F: I know that this is not your favourite topic of conversation, but what do you think you've learned the most by the whole Supernova experience?
W.H: Ah, what did I learn the most? Oh, I think there was a desperate political situation with a failing administration, and I foolishly got into helping a movie that I thought could turn into something, but I then discovered I didn't have as free a hand as I had been led to believe, and when I was taking the movie along the lines that I thought would make it a credible movie, they did not share that vision, so we had a rather angry breach, and the movie was re-cut by two or three directors. I won't say there's no recognition of what I did, but the ending's much different, and much of the setup is different. Mine was a much darker vision. I can honestly tell you that I have yet to have seen it, but it's on cable a lot and sometimes I'll be surfing about and I'll sit there and watch about 4 minutes just to see what they've fucked up, but James Spader's performance is still, I can see is quite interesting in it, I thought Jimmy did a good job.
P.F: So does that make you more wary when you're about to work with the studios or do you go in with eyes wider open?
W.H: Well, I think probably, its controlled material going in, the idea you're going to go in and help them with their thing, I think was probably naïve, despite the promises. But again, I think it was the administration that was going into a black hole and their failures were legendary and numerous.
P.F: You've worked in a number of genres from westerns, to thrillers and comedies. Is there any particular genre that you're dying to either re-visit or do for the first time.
W.H: Well, I'm about to do another western, a pilot for HBO this fall. And then right after that, I'm going into the gangster-thriller mode...
P.F: Is it a period piece?
W.H: No. You might say it's an update of certain nourish themes. It's a contemporary crime drama that takes place in Vegas.
P.F: Do you already have a studio behind it?
W.H: Ah, Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek and I believe at 12 noon tomorrow we're going into our first casting. They've just budgeted.
Undisputed opens on Friday, August 23rd.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.