Walter Hill’s “BULLET” Ballet
Veteran action director Walter Hill has been staging mayhem
in Louisiana for several decades now. His debut at the helm, 1975’s HARD TIMES,
was shot in New Orleans; he ventured into the bayou for the 1981 action/horror
hybrid SOUTHERN COMFORT; and went back to the Big Easy for 1989’s JOHNNY
HANDSOME. Now he’s making the city’s streets run red again with the Sylvester
Stallone-starring revenge thriller BULLET TO THE HEAD, his first feature in 10
years, which he talks about in this exclusive Fango interview.
In BULLET TO THE HEAD, opening today from Warner Bros.,
Stallone plays James Bonomo, a hired killer who teams up with Washington D.C.
cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to track down and take out the men responsible for
killing their respective partners. Along the way, as the title suggests, many
guns are fired and much blood is thus shed, though the highlight is a climactic
ax battle between Bonomo and towering mercenary Keegan (the new CONAN THE
BARBARIAN’s Jason Momoa). In a cinematic era when a lot of Hollywood action is
CGI-slick, Hill is keeping the down-and-dirty spirit of ’70s/’80s action alive…
FANGORIA: Was the opportunity to do a back-to-basics action
film part of the appeal of BULLET TO THE HEAD?
WALTER HILL: Yeah, it was. Sly sent the script [by
Alessandro Camon] to me; he’d been part of it for about a year, and there was a
previous director, but somehow it didn’t work out. They wanted to get into
production fairly quickly, so Sly and I met and talked about it. I thought it
might work as kind of a homage to action films of the ’70s and ’80s. I didn’t
want to do a satire or anything, but I very much wanted to include some humor.
I’ve always lived by this idea: You try to make a movie where the jokes are funny,
but the bullets are real. That is to say, there’s a bit of room for humor, as
long as it comes out of the characters rather than jokes. The jeopardy has to
really play to the audience; you can’t have them not think that the heroes are
truly in danger. So keeping with those rules, we set out to fashion it
together, and I told him to get a haircut and that we were going to play things
at a little calmer level than maybe some of his other films. He was very
willing, and terrific about the whole thing.
FANG: When you work with an actor who has such a big
personality as Stallone, or RED HEAT’s Arnold Schwarzenegger or 48 HRS.’ Eddie
Murphy, how much do you tailor the script to that person, and how much do you
get them to adapt to the role on paper?
HILL: I’m a great believer that you constantly tailor your
script, as you make the film, to the personality of not just the stars, but all
the actors. I believe the worst mistake directors can make is to ask actors to
do what they can’t do very well. They all have their comfort zones, just like
directors—we’re not any different—or journalists; you might not do so well with
the cooking column or the sports column. We all have our areas, and so you’re
constantly fashioning the piece to match the talent. Now, you start out by
casting people you think can handle the basic idea of the characters, but you
always wind up messing with two or three percent of the thing, just trying to
make it a little better.
FANG: Your films have generally been pretty hardcore in
their violence. On this film or any others, have there been any discussions
with the studio about how explicit to go, or about ratings concerns?
HILL: Oh, sure [laughs], there’s always a discussion about
it. You know, one tries to discipline oneself. I want to make, on the whole,
tough action movies, but I don’t want to drive people out of the theater. I
think that most of the problems kind of begin and end with filmmakers being so
familiar with their content that they become somewhat inured to what they’ve
created on screen. The 150th time you look at something, it doesn’t quite have
the same power that a fresh audience has, and sometimes we tend to forget that.
You’re in there and you say, “Jesus Christ, the stuntman is off his mark or the
focus is not quite right or the blood bag was a fraction of a second slow in
going off,” whatever. And you know, audiences don’t see things that way. So
sometimes you can mislead yourself about the power of your images, or the
artificiality of them.
FANG: Despite the title, there are a few key scenes in
BULLET TO THE HEAD where the characters really go at it mano a mano instead of
using guns, particularly at the end, when Bonomo and Keegan choose to go at it
with the axes instead.
HILL: That was tricky to pull off, because it defies the
logic of the characters a bit. Keegan is committed and professional to an
insufferable degree, and has standards, and he wouldn’t challenge Bonomo to go mano
a mano if he didn’t totally believe he would be triumphant, without question.
It’s kind of a vanity thing. I think as long as you understand that, the way
the characters are played, it then becomes plausible. It’s also leavened with a
couple of remarks that show that the film itself is aware of the
FANG: How did Stallone take to performing all that rough
stuff, given his age?
HILL: Well, Sly’s not easy to talk about, because he tends
to make you gush a bit, which is never in character for me. But he’s the only
66-year-old actor I can think of who can still take his shirt off. He’s physically
very adept, though he has suffered the blows of an action career—he’s got a bad
back, and you have to make allowances for that—but he’s a very brave, tough
guy, and he likes to be physical. These action stars, they’re all guys who like
it. They enjoy going out there and getting physical. It’s like football
players; they like to knock each other down and see who’s the best and who’s
really into it, and there’s a kind of fun to have with that.
But Sly is also a real actor. I think people forget that.
He’s become such a world personality, and has been a star for 35 years. He’s
lasted—that tells you a lot right there. And stars are rare. Acting is a skill,
and to be a really good actor is a yet more refined skill, but to transcend
into stardom, and to last at it, is a gift. Sly is one of those rare guys who
can really pick up a movie and carry it. We were utterly dependent upon this
guy, in this movie. He takes you from scene to scene to scene; he doesn’t wear
you out. It’s hard. It’s a rare quality.
FANG: It’s a bit surprising that Stallone is one of the only
tough-guy actors you hadn’t worked with before now. Had you and he ever talked
about collaborating before?
HILL: Yes, quite a few times. Sly and I have actually known
each other a long time. I first met him in the mid-’70s; we have the same
lawyer. So I’d see him once in a while; I sent him a number of scripts over the
years, and he sent me scripts, and they didn’t work out for one reason or
another. It was almost always because of availability, and also, sometimes
people see you in a different light than you see yourself, and actors don’t
want to do a script that’s perfectly reasonable because they feel they’d be
repeating themselves, or they feel it’s just not them, or whatever. There are a
lot of good reasons, and it’s the same with directors. And I think Sly and I
both kind of felt that if we were ever gonna do something together, maybe the
time had come.
Now, I think there was some nervousness about it too. He’s a
strong actor, a strong personality; he’s got a lot of opinions. He hasn’t
always gotten along with every director. I have my opinions, and I haven’t
always gotten along with every actor. But we got along great.
FANG: You came full circle with BULLET TO THE HEAD, in the
sense that you staged the final action in the same location where you shot HARD
HILL: Yes, I did. It was really not so much by design. I
kept saying, “Now, we need a place like…” “There used to be this place…” “I
remember we shot this scene…” Then we went over and saw it, and I said, “Yeah!
This still works.”
FANG: Was it kind of a special feeling coming back to that
place after so many years?
HILL: It was the first day. After that, there was so much to
do, and I was thinking about the day’s work rather than that. But when I first
went in there and scouted it, and then the first day I shot there, I had—unlike
me, usually—several waves of nostalgia. You know, what really kind of moves you
is not so much the time that has passed, because it seems like a flash, really.
It seems like it was five years ago rather than 40 years ago. It’s the feeling
you have about so many of the people you worked with in that circumstance, and
are no longer with us. That’s what really gets you—Charlie Bronson’s gone,
Jimmy Coburn’s gone, [cinematographer] Phil Lathrop’s gone. So many
others—Strother Martin’s gone. To various degrees, I was very attached to those
Also, your first movie is kind of a special part of you, and
out of that film, I got a career. Not everybody gets asked back to the dance,
and the truth is, I always liked that movie. You’re not supposed to
differentiate between your films, and directors don’t tell the truth very
often, but I quite like HARD TIMES, for various reasons. I always thought it
came out better than it probably deserved to, given that I didn’t know much
about directing at the time. But I had a good cast, a good script, a wonderful
cameraman, a wonderful film editor and a great producer, Larry Gordon. So I had
a lot of help.