[originally published August 11, 2011]
Road to Nowhere is Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years. The director of The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, a resolutely personal director who turned out drive-in pictures for Roger Corman and spent his career largely transforming work-for-hire productions into distinctive and mysterious films, spent years taking jobs as editor and second-unit director while one project after another failed to come together. Among his projects during that time was working with the Sundance institute, where he helped a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino workshop a film called Reservoir Dogs. Hellman signed on as executive producer and helped Tarantino get his film made. The role of educator and mentor eventually took him to CalArts, the private arts college where he has been teaching for the past six years.
Road to Nowhere is a welcome return by a master filmmaker. It’s a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. She may or may not in fact be the very woman she is portraying on film. The mystery may be real or a fiction within the film. This film’s director, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), shares the same initials as Monte Hellman, and the echoes don’t end there.
This is a film aware of its existence as a film, constantly pushing against the nature of representation and storytelling. It’s a mystery where part of the mystery is what the mystery is really about. It’s the best film about the nature of filmmaking since The Stunt Man but with a very different approach to the blurring of life and art. Its name could serve as the alternate title to Hellman’s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop and its play with doubles and characters in reflection recalls The Shooting, his starkly abstract 1968 western. It is a film with imagery as rich as paintings and characters roiling with anxiety even as they appear frozen in space. And it is a film in love with the mystery of cinema, a film about characters playing characters, about stories that shift as they are put on film, shift again as they are placed beside other stories in the editing, and once again shift as the audience pieces together the elements of the narrative. American filmmakers seem unable to stop and watch a character be. Hellman finds the most revealing moments between the beats of action, where characters at rest let their facades down. Or do they simply put on a different character for us to see?
Road to Nowhere opens Friday, August 19, for a week at Grand Illusion in Seattle’s U-District. I had the opportunity to speak with Monte Hellman by phone and discuss the film, his return to filmmaking and his unique take on cinematic storytelling.
Road to Nowhere opens with a character taking a DVD that has “Road to Nowhere” written across it in black marker, dropping it into a laptop DVD-ROM tray and watching a film called “Road to Nowhere” with its own credits sequence of fictional names. Why do you foreground the act of watching a movie at the beginning of us watching your movie?
Because it is a movie within a movie, or if you like, it’s all the movie within the movie. Maybe everything we’re watching is what he puts into that laptop.
I see a director making a film based on a “real life event” and getting father and farther from the event itself because he was finding the story that he wanted to tell, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the event. He is searching for a story true to him, not true to the foggy facts of the mystery that inspired the script.
I think this is not untypical of making all movies. I think we start out with an idea and the movie, certainly this one, took over and it let us know what it wanted to be. It was a very interesting process. It was a process for me of letting go, of giving up on some of my concepts of being a control freak.
You’ve know Steve Gaydos, who wrote the screenplay, for years. He worked on Cockfighter almost 40 years ago and wrote the scripts to a number of your films. Did he write this original script specifically for you?
He wrote it for me in the sense that he never thought of anyone else to direct it. He claims that this is first idea of his that I’ve ever liked. He’s worked on a lot of films of mine but they weren’t his films, they were project that I was hired to do and I brought him in to help me. But this was his first original idea that I took a liking to and he was very excited about that and very quickly wrote the screenplay once I indicated that I was interested.
What was it specifically about his story that you liked so much?
I think it was just the idea of dealing with something that was such familiar territory for me, the idea of making a movie about the process that we’ve been involved in for so many years.
There is a scene in the movie where Mitchell is talking to Peter Bart, who is in fact played by Peter Bart, and he asks, “Do you feel rusty in any way?” and Mitchell answers, “A little. I’m glad to be back on track.” Is that something screenwriter Steve Gaydos threw in for you?
I think there are a lot of little things like that. That interview with Peter Bart was kind of a duplication of an interview that Peter Bart did with me at Karlovy Vary four years ago. They were showing a small retrospective as part of the Hollywood New Wave or whatever it was supposed to be in the seventies.
It’s a film about making a film, but there’s also a mystery, and as the shooting progresses we see that Mitchell is less interested in replicating the real-life event and the unsolved mystery around it than discovering his story. In a way he’s recreating the story in his image, and he’s falling in love with his leading lady and remaking her character into the image he desires.
He does several versions, he shoots scenes in several ways and then we see all the different ways in our movie, or in his movie, because he hasn’t really decided which is the real story. So he gives you every version of the story.
But we also see the screenwriter getting anxious as Mitchell cuts out other pieces of the story and the actor played by Cliff de Young even says at one point, in a phone call to his agent, “They’re cutting me out. He’s turning it into her story.”
Right, exactly. He’s the movie star and was hired to supposedly be the star of the movie. And it ain’t his story anymore.
The story is so ambiguous, or at least so layered in possibility, that by the end the audience has to make it into their own story. It’s out of the director’s hands and it’s in our hands again and that had me thinking about how we, as the audience, take ownership of movies as we’re watching.
Oh, I love that. I’m so glad you said that because that’s exactly my intent. I feel that the audience is the final collaborator and I like the fact that it’s not just one movie, it’s hopefully several million movies.
The way Mitchell falls in love with his leading lady is not unlike the way we fall in love with characters in the movies that we watch.
Very much so.
Given that, almost every time I see a movie about someone shooting a movie, just from my limited experience on a film set, I know that they are almost always way, way off of the reality of it. They almost never show how the process really works. What did you want to communicate about the process, and is there anything that you were determined to get right on film?
I didn’t think about the others being wrong and I didn’t think about how we were going to set it right. I just knew that we had the materials at hand, in the sense that we were in the process in making a movie, and in a sense, while telling this story, we were simultaneously making a documentary about the process, because as it was going on, all we had to do was turn the camera around on itself and see what was happening. So there was no trick to showing the process, we were actually in the process and just documented it by photographing it.
I am intrigued by your choice to shoot the film on a camera that was designed to be a still camera.
Almost everything is designed to make movies now. You can shoot a movie on a cell phone, and people are doing it, but this particular camera is a full frame still camera. Most of them aren’t, now. Most of them are smaller sensors that don’t really give you the detail that you get in a full frame sensor. A full frame, in 35mm still photography, is about 2 ½ times the size of a full frame in 35mm motion picture photography, only because one is going through the camera horizontally and one is going through the camera vertically. Essentially what that does is it gives you an image not the size of 35mm motion picture film but the size of, say, probably 65mm motion picture film. So you’re getting VistaVision or IMAX size image that gives you an incredible amount of detail, not only in terms of color but in resolution. It’s not just about resolution, it’s about color depth and about the number of pixels and that’s what you get with shooting with this camera.
Was there anything you had to adapt to make the still camera work as a motion camera, or did you have to adapt production methods to the needs of the camera?
The camera was not designed to make movies so we had to adapt to a lot of things, and it was only because we loved this image so much. You had to do your preparation and your camera rehearsals through one process and then you had to pull out one chord and put in another chord and replug the whole thing to actually shoot. It was not a simple process. But we decided it was worth it. We wanted to get these images and we went through these, and I think it just gets easier and easier, I don’t know what all the changes are with the newest refinements to the software, or firmware, I think they call it. But it’s a camera designed for still pictures, not designed for movies. Newer cameras are being developed all the time and the wave of the future and there will be other things coming that replace these.
You said that in a way making the film was a documentary of making the film, I remember a scene from the film where the director had a still camera mounted on a piece of equipment that he’s using to shoot his own film. Is that what it looked like when you shot?
That’s exactly what it looked like. That is the camera.
I watched the film on DVD and I saw an incredible depth of image and clarity that goes back through the frame.
Well, yes and no. Because the other aspect to shooting with this camera is that you get that limited depth of field when you want it, that is much more apparent in full-frame 35mm still photography than it is in motion picture photography. So there are many scenes where, as you say, you can see all the way from the front of the image all the way into infinity and there are other scenes where you have about three inches of depth and everything else is these beautiful out-of-frame stars, or whatever you want to call them.
Like in those close-ups of the interview scene that opens the film.
I think they call it “bouquet,” this is all these little star effects that you get. In fact, they’re actually hexagonals, I think. Whatever the shape of the shutter is.
The colors don’t look like traditional movie colors to me. It’s a very cool, earthy palette, very even, but rich and saturated.
This is an artistic choice. You can do anything you want with these images. You can make them look like Kodachrome. What our images look like to me is the IB Technicolor, which is a dye-transfer process as opposed to a chemical process, and so I think this is the closest thing I’ve seen to IB Technicolor in any movies lately.
Most American films don’t appreciate stillness. They don’t want a screen where no physical action occurs. Your films, including Road to Nowhere, feature long scenes where you simply stop and watch a character be. Right at the beginning, we watch Shannyn Sossamon listen to the song “Help Me Make It Through the Night” through headphones, and we simply take in the way she steps out of herself for the moment.
I think people are confused about the idea what movement—motion—in motion pictures is, and what I love about that shot is little tiny movements. One of my favorite films is Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There?, and there is a scene where the leading lady has gone on a trip to Paris and she’s in her hotel room and she is listening to the sound of people on the floor above her just making a lot of noise. She’s just lying still on her bed and at one point her eyes, her face doesn’t move but her eyes just move up to look at the ceiling. For me, it’s a giant movement. That’s what motion pictures are. The same thing with Shannyn. When she’s doing her nails with the hair dryer, there’s just one point where she makes this little movement with her toes and because of the fact nothing else is moving, it’s a big move.
Shannyn Sossamon, she offers an evocative presence in the film. There’s a quality of anxiety in her presence even in scenes where she’s supposed to be at peace.
What I love about what she does, other than the fact that she is absolutely 100% real all the time, there’s never a feeling that she’s acting, is the fact that in every scene she’s a different person. She is so many different characters. She is truly an amateur, completely naïve, when she meets Mitchell for the first time and says that she is not an actress, and then you see her later, absolutely professional, telling the director what she needs to do the scene right. There’s just so many different people that appear all the way through. She’s vulnerable, she’s strong, she’s weak, she’s everything.
The scenes where she’s in bed, curled up with Mitchell watching old movies with him, is another instance where she’s a completely different character. In those scenes, it’s like she’s looking for clues in the actresses on screen for the person she needs to be for him.
Yeah, absolutely. In just the way she relates to him and her needs and the fact that they’re not being fulfilled. I can’t think of anybody who could have given all those colors to that particular role. And we never even realized how complicated the role was until she started playing it.
The film encourages a reflexive reading. You have actors playing characters within characters in your film and in Mitchell’s film, who may in fact be other people altogether, or may simply be playing a role in a film. In one scene, ostensibly outside of Mitchell’s film, a character pulls a gun and Mitchell says to him, “You shouldn’t have brought a gun into this scene,” as if they were in a movie.
(laughs) That is an amazingly ambiguous line. I didn’t write that line, Steve Gaydos did, but I think it’s wonderful because of all the questions it raises.
It is beautiful line, and chilling in some ways, too. It is loaded with so many interpretations, and what I take from it is that the director looks at every experience as if it’s part of his movie. His life is a movie.
That’s certainly valid, I can see that very clearly, but like you say, people are going to come up with a lot of different interpretations.