Walter Hill by Larry Gross

BOMB 42 Winter 1993
042 Winter 1993
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Left to right: Stoney Jackson, De’Voreaux White, Ice T, “Tiny” Lister Jr., and Ice Cube in Trespass. Courtesy Universal Studios.

Walter Hill’s Trespass follows two white guys’ search for ill-gotten loot stashed, in of all places, an East St. Louis tenement. While hacking the walls of the place to bits, they witness a gang of black drug dealers executing one of their own…

For 17 years, Walter Hill has been mastering the art of telling stories about men in dangerous situations, whether they be the boxers in Hard Times, the National Guardsmen in Southern Comfort, or the cops in the underrated Extreme Prejudice. Some of his fans, such as myself, consider him the foremost exemplar of the classic Hollywood action tradition embodied by Ford, Hawks, Fuller, and Aldrich. But I’m prejudiced. I co-wrote three of his films, and am soon to do the fourth: the upcoming Geronimo.

Larry Gross How did you get into Trespass?

Walter Hill Neil Canton brought me the script, actually, at a dinner party at my house, and I read it the next day. And I liked it enormously. I thought it was—

LG Who wrote it?

WH [Robert] Zemeckis and [Bob] Gale—it was a very old script of theirs—it went back to the ’70s. I was quite surprised because it’s certainly not the kind of story that Zemeckis and Gale identified with … but I thought it was enormously primal, elemental, brutal, and a great confrontation. It was totally dependent upon the narrative circumstances to reveal character and of course it took place in a time compression—both are things I’m very fond of.

LG You have a tendency to rework the scripts when they’re not your originals …

WH You know this from personal experience.

LG (laughter) Yeah. But the people who came to you had a much heavier track record this time—was that tricky?

WH I don’t think the script changed all that much, to tell you the truth. Although there’s certainly no scene in the movie that wasn’t rewritten many times. The script evolved because of certain location problems and we worked out a new ending. The only thing that is significantly different from the script is that the film gives a lot more screen time to King James and his gang and the ending is quite a bit different from the original.

LG There has been a small amount of controversy in the press, about the title change and the fact that the film was withdrawn from release at the time of the riots. Do you want to talk about that? I know for a fact that the riots had almost no impact on the content of the movie, really. But there is an impression that you had to change it.

WH No. No. But we can’t help the journalists, can we. (laughter) Well, I think really the whole thing was the title, The Looters.

LG Which pertains to white people …

WH Which in our story were the two white guys. I think that the studio did not feel they could sell a movie that had Ice T and Ice Cube in it called The Looters where the audience would assume that The Looters wouldn’t have anything to do with the Los Angeles riots and wouldn’t be black.

LG The title could have been perceived as a derogatory accusation by the black community.

WH Well, it might have been perceived that way, it might. So the studio wanted the title changed and they also felt that instead of coming out in July, we should be held back—we’re coming out at Christmas.

LG Let me ask you a dumb-point-blank question: Is this a political film?

WH Depends on your definition of politics, I suppose. I don’t perceive it to be, but you’re a political fellow, you tell me.

LG Well, to me, two whites and about 12 black guys in a tenement, scrambling over an ill-gotten object of value and getting involved in numerous entanglements of loyalty and code of conduct is an astonishing emblem of racial attitudes. Particularly the conditions of our cities and the way our cities are perceived by people who live in them and the people who live outside them. I don’t think there’s a coherent political argument in the film, and yet the film evokes or suggests enormous numbers of issues. The situation resonates with the implications of what’s fair, the level of understanding between blacks and whites … . The most fascinating thing in the script and the movie, from this point of view, is just how much time the black characters spend trying to guess what the white characters are thinking and vice versa. And the incredible atmosphere of mutual suspicion, incomprehension, and mistakes that both sides make when they characterize the other side. Did you look at it this way?

WH No, not really. It’s been suggested to me that the two white guys represent the Reagan years with their attitudes of greed. That’s pretty crude and what you’re suggesting is pretty sophisticated. Very early on, before we ever started shooting, a lot of the debate was how the ending was going to be worked out … an ongoing thing. A lot of these problems seem to be endemic to three hundred years of American history and groups not being able to talk to each other in a reasonable, rational way. What I’m really trying to say is that this movie is rooted in an action story. It is an adventure story that harkens back to a Jack London tradition. And what makes that striking, is that it is so much more real than what we presume action adventure movies to be—what they have evolved to be in the last 20 years. When I was a kid, they were all about very real people in tough circumstances, now the action movie is half science fiction movie. This movie is very much a throwback in that sense—with the permanently strained relations between blacks and whites and browns and orientals in our ghettos, our inner cities … . But you and I have had this conversation many times, just because the films intentions are not political, doesn’t mean it’s not political. Movies take on their own life. This is not a movie about racial confrontation in the sense that the confrontation had nothing to do with race.

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Ice Cube and Ice T in Trespass. Photo by Sam Emerson, courtesy Universal Pictures

LG And nobody sees themselves consciously in ideological terms. No one is running around articulating their positions in terms of white and black relations.

WH But, inevitably, white and black attitudes spill into the movie because of the attempt to create some kind of social reality out of the situation.

LG Well, white and black attitudes have spilled into your movies consistently—at least as far back as The Warriors. Without making ideologically assertive political films, you put more about black and white attitudes into your films than most American filmmakers.

WH My memory of The Warriors is that the movie was this terrible failure, because the two things I most wanted, I was denied by the studio. I wanted an all black cast and I wanted to put a thing in the legend that said, “Sometime in the future …” The studio didn’t want an all black cast for what they perceived to be commercial reasons. And the legend, they thought, would make the movie appear like we were trying to initiate Star Wars—how’s that for logic?

LG Going back to the Jack London principle … When I think of the basic character of a Jack London text, I think of an almost old fashioned, pre-historic view of human nature grafted onto an oddly Marxist sense of “class.” “Class” as a determining factor in the way human events play out. An extreme, harsh, Darwinian violence …

WH I’m glad you don’t have the modern interpretation of Jack London, which is the author of dog stories.

LG (laughter) The point is, what’s really cool about Trespass is that you feel a primitive nature operating in the characters and then these class or ethnic issues overlay on top of that. Is that Jack London?

WH That is absolutely a correct analysis. The paradigm of this kind of story-telling really is London, and this was a very modern version. The saddest thing that you can say about this story in terms of it’s—you’re pressing hard about the social realities and issues surrounding it—the saddest thing about this is that it could have been made in 1955,’65, ’75, ’85, and unless there is some incredible reversal …

LG It’ll be made in 2005 …

WH Yeah. Certainly it will be able to be made in 1995.

LG I was very fascinated on seeing The Warriors a second time. Trespass is almost an auto-critique of The Warriors in that it is a 180 degree aesthetic reversal. One of the great recurring jokes in Trespass —there is a piece of daring-do one of the characters begins and then his ass almost gets shot to pieces. The kinesthetic glory which made The Warriors famous, the characters’ ability to jive, jump, run, escape, hit, do incredible physical feats—is drastically circumscribed in Trespass, where people can’t get more than a couple of inches without being forced back into their hiding place. Is this the flip-side of The Warriors aesthetically?

WH Never really occurred to me. I thought that this was much closer to Southern Comfort.

LG But can you imagine somebody running the two films together and saying, “This is the mythic version and here is the realistic version.”

WH I suppose.

LG Anything? Does that lead you anywhere?

WH No.

LG You were working with two of the most popular performers in rap music—Ice T and Ice Cube. What was it like?

WH Well, I, as usual, came into the film in a kind of blissful ignorance. I know very little about rap and I’m not a rap fan, so I met them and hired them as actors. I had seen them in a couple of movies and in talking to them, I felt that they were both very drawn to the story, both thought of the story as being an extension of their own personalities; they felt they knew the guys. And I thought they could bring a kind of reality to the characters.

LG How did Ice T and Ice Cube get along?

WH Fine. Good friends—very funny guys. Both have a very good sense of humor. Cube’s not quite as outgoing as T—but it’s hard to imagine anyone as outgoing as Ice T.

LG Do they have their own entourages?

WH Not much. Cube’s got a couple of guys that seem to be with him—most fall into the category of old friends. And Ice T seems to—you know, your cannon rides alone. He doesn’t seem to have an entourage at all.

LG And did they have input into the script?

WH Yes and no. Not in terms of narrative events or anything like that. But they certainly had a lot of input in terms of, “What my guy would say is this. He wouldn’t say it that way; he’d say it this way.” And I gave them a very free reign on all that.

LG It’s good to pick actors who make a contribution—who understand the part.

WH Yeah, it’s part of their own persona in some way or their own dream life and they can extend the attitudes and bring a greater kind of truth to the attitude.

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William Sadler and Bill Paxton in Trespass. Photo by Sam Emerson. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

LG What was the budget on The Looters?

WH It was 14 million dollars.

LG That’s about half or a third of the budgets of the last couple of films that you’ve done. Is that right?

WH It’s not a third, but it’s certainly half of some of them.

LG Was that painful, liberating? Good? Bad?

WH Good. No, it was fine. That was one of the reasons I did the movie. I wanted to make a down-and-dirty thriller. I wanted to shoot it in a fast, hard style. I wanted to work off the cuff, making it all happen right there. You make those big things and it weighs you down in some ways—I had a lot of fun making this movie despite the subject matter …

LG Maybe because of the subject matter. I mean, aside from being liberated by the smaller budget and the need to do things quickly, I thought you went away liberated by being able to make a film that was more pessimistic. I felt that you were happier doing that in some way and that happiness spilled over into the intensity of the film.

WH That’s entirely true. With a film like this, you can let the narrative play and the characters play and there was no incredible constraint to have the lollapalooza Hollywood happy ending. I would say that I was quite pleased with the option of working that way.

LG The film’s outcome has a kind of geometrical, logical destructive quality. It’s a realistic, characterization of the probable outcome of the elements in the story. That is—almost none of the principal characters are going to get out alive and particularly, that the gang world feeds on itself. Of course, each movie takes place within its own theatrical conceit.

WH And there are all levels. Every movie’s a fantasy but this movie obviously posits a certain kind of social reality—it is a fantasy within a certain framework of social reality. It would have been very dishonest to these characters, not to have seen—given their backgrounds—what greed would have done, what the gold would have done to their psyches.

LG One of the intriguing conceits in the movie is that a lot of the action is recorded on a video tape by a member of Ice T’s gang—who goes by the name, Video. What was behind that?

WH That was something we put in the script as we were getting ready to shoot. It came out of a story we read in the Washington Post about some street guys in Washington D.C. who videotaped a lot of their own activities. I simply saw it as a visual opportunity to play a lot of the movie through a viewfinder. I thought it might get you inside the gang better. I mean, you don’t just want a visual trick but at the same time, you do want a visual trick—you know, that’s part of the game. You’re supposed to pull a few rabbits out of the hat if you get the job. I wanted everything to be rough around the edge. We shot most of the movie hand held.

LG Hand held? Literally hand held or Panaglide?

WH No. Hand held. There’s no Panaglide in the movie. I wanted it to be herky-jerky. We Dutched a lot of the angles, especially as the story unfolds because the story gets crazier and crazier. We went from a less elegant—the early parts of the movie, there are no hand helds at all—but as the story gets more nervous and crazy, we go more and more to a hand held thing until, finally, the end of the movie is all entirely hand held.

LG Do you have any perception of the audience for this movie? Black films are doing better than they ever have, historically, which obviously helped get this film made in the first place. Is it a good moment for this movie to be coming out?

WH Well, I don’t know. It seems to me to be a very odd Christmas present to America. But it is certainly not an average adventure film. It’s not a black movie. I think the studio perceives the core of the movie to be black. Who the audience for the film is, I mean, your guess is really as good as mine. I think you just make these things as best you can and go onto the next one.

LG A couple of months after you really began editing Trespass, Ice T became the object of this enormous controversy over his song, “Cop Killer.” Will that controversy impact your film?

WH I have no idea. I would think it’s got to have some impact in that Ice T is now much more of a controversial personality and he’s a principal player in the movie, so it would in some way alter the perception of the movie. My only comment, really, about the whole thing is that the denial—that somehow race is not part of the equation in the condemnation of Ice T—is utterly ridiculous. Where were these people when Eric Clapton was singing, “I Shot the Sheriff”? I mean, it’s the idea that the black man with the gun is …

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Walter Hill. Photo by Sam Emerson. Courtesy Universal Studios.

LG … more incendiary than the white man with a gun.

WH Yeah, to these people … It’s ludicrous.

LG In other words, there are many white role models that do antisocial things in music and in movies and they do not get an enormous amount of wrath from the powers that be.

WH Exactly. But I think that the whole “Cop Killer” flap would not have happened had the riots not happened. I may be wrong, but I believe this to be true. The record was out quite a few weeks before the riots. It was only after the riots that everybody started …

LG … ripping and roaring.

WH Yeah.

LG Are you under the impression that Ice T is a racist—vis-a-vis whites?

WH No, definitely not. As a member of a different race from Ice T, I think I would have noticed this. He is a very articulate spokesman for a lot of ghetto attitudes and there is a lot of ghetto paranoia—but that’s all quite understandable. At the same time, I have a feeling that this conversation is beginning to sound a bit conventionally liberal and certainly I don’t think that Trespass falls into that category of conventional Hollywood liberal sentiment.

LG What is the difference between Trespass and conventional Hollywood liberal sentiment?

WH You’ve identified it before. It has a much more corrosive attitude about human nature. It is much more pessimistic than … I am very skeptical of what I call the John Steinbeck approach to poverty. I think his works are great reads, but truth is, if poverty did that to human character, we should all be poor—I mean, if it made us all that good and noble, then we should inject poverty into all classes and all races and all men, all women, all children because it obviously is so ennobling. I don’t think that’s true. I think poverty …

LG … brings out the capacity to be worse.

WH Yes, brings out the capacity. And what Trespass deals with, in addition to quite simply, physical poverty, is a kind of spiritual poverty—which is equally devastating.

LG It’s interesting. I’m in a quarrel with your characterization of liberal and conservative …

WH I didn’t say conservative. I just said not liberal.

LG You said not liberal.

WH I said liberal not.

LG What I was going to say is, the right wing rarely, rarely—and there are some exceptions to this—but rarely does it permit itself to be pessimistic, though philosophically the underpinnings of the right wing are pessimistic.

WH Dubious assumptions about the basics of human nature.

LG And yet, how many people who have a conservative temperament, when they come to make films, allow themselves to be pessimistic?

WH Well, I think you’re confusing philosophical conservatives and politicians here, and that’s a different thing.

LG By your definition, the Lindsay Andersons and Luis Buñuels of the cinema are the most authentic conservatives.

WH Oh, without question.

LG Because they have the darkest view of human nature.

WH Well, we’ve discussed this before, a lot of what is interesting are the mixes. Kurasowa is a liberal humanist …

LG … in his policy views …

WH … in his policy views and he’s utterly conservative in his view of human nature. And his temperament. And the conflict between the two produces a lot of the splendid energy and results that are extraordinary.

Is that it?

LG That’s it.

Larry Gross is a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.

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Lawrence Chua and Neil Jordan discuss the sexual dynamics and undercurrents of Jordan’s film, The Crying Game, an “unruly narrative of colliding identities and troubling resonance set in contemporary London.”

Two Poems by Xandria Phillips

we consummated our marriage / on a bed littered with sour faces / of dead presidents, liberated livestock / sweating through the dollars.

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The author discusses Black feminist breathing, academia as access point, and writing three books that came from the same decision.

Originally published in

BOMB 42, Winter 1993

Featuring interviews with Richard Serra, Steve Buscemi, Neil Jordan, Tom Zé by David Byrne & Arto Lindsay, Sue Williams, Sarah Schulman, Ralph Lee, Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gómez, Don Scardino, Jeff Perrone, and Walter Hill.

Read the issue
042 Winter 1993