80-year-old American director Walter Hill can lay claim to have invented at least two movie genres: the street gang film — with the seminal 1979 action thriller The Warriors — and the buddy cop movie with the 1982 Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte hit 48 Hours. As a producer, Hill was behind Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking sci-fi horror blockbuster Alien and its franchise’s spin-offs, including the three Aliens sequels and the Scott-directed Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).
But Hill’s first love is the Western. He’s explored the lives of Wild West legends Jesse James (in 1980s The Long Riders), Wild Bill Hickok (1995’s Wild Bill) and Geronimo (1993’s Geronimo: An American Legend) and turned Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western classic A Fistful of Dollars, into 1995 Prohibition era oater Last Man Standing.
So it’s fitting that in Venice this year, where he will be honored with the festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Cartier Glory to the Filmmaker Award, Hill is presenting his latest horse opera.
Dead for a Dollar stars Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan and Benjamin Bratt in a classic Wild West tale of two rivals, bounty hunter Max Borlund (Waltz) and outlaw Joe Cribbens (Dafoe) who find themselves on the opposite site of a mission to find and return Rachel Kidd (Brosnahan), the wife of a wealthy Santa Fe businessman (Bratt) who has fled an abusive marriage to find a new life in Mexico.
Dead for a Dollar premieres out of competition in Venice on Sept. 6. Quiver Distribution will release the film in North America with Universal Pictures rolling it out in multiple international territories, including the U.K., Australia, Italy and Japan. Myriad Pictures is handling world sales.
Hill spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Venice about his film legacy, the “biblical” appeal of the Western genre and what all those 48 Hour-style buddy comedies get wrong.
Dead for a Dollar is your first film in six years [since 2016’s The Assignment], and it’s another Western. What is it about the Western that you can’t seem to let go of?
Well, that’s a hard question, really, in the sense that, do any of us really know why we like what we like? I can say this. When I was a kid, my brother and I used to go to the movies every weekend. I appreciated musicals and comedies and all that. But Westerns were my favorites. I’ve always admired their elegant simplicity. I’m very interested in people that live in primal conditions, that are faced with complicated problems that they have to solve on personal terms, without recourse to the government or a higher authority.
And also, when I was a kid, my mother, who was the complete definition of the good Christian woman, sent me to Sunday school and church, which I attended until I was about 15. I didn’t like it then, but now I think it was a very good idea to send me. Because even then, I knew the biblical stories were wonderful. And the thing about Westerns, about being out there with the wranglers and the horses and the open country, it’s like walking around in the Old Testament. They’re kind of Old Testament stories. You have the feeling that these are stories that could be comprehensible in the Old Testament. I guess it shows what Freud and the Jesuits used to say: give me a child until he’s five and he’s mine forever. They got me they got me early, the Westerns did.
There are still Westerns being made, but they are not nearly as dominant a genre as they once were.
When I was a kid, Westerns were enormously popular on television, and in film, although they were beginning to decline even then. It’s interesting to speculate about the decline of the Western. I think basically, the decline has to do with the modern audiences no longer really feeling in touch with that kind of classic American agrarian background. I grew up a city boy, but my parents were very much in touch with their agrarian backgrounds, and certainly, my grandparents were. But I think that feels like a foreign country now to the modern audience.
Also, the genre of Western, I think, got overdone. They were just played out. The third thing is that the Western, of all film genres, is the most easy to parody. Mel Brooks changed things for us [with Blazing Saddles]. I don’t mean to say he ruined it. But it’s just we now look at them in a different way. Don’t let the financiers of this film hear this, but I think there is a distance between the Western and the modern audience. There’s still room for them, and a few get made. There are people interested in them, and I think there’s an audience there. But you’re not going to get the Top Gun crowd.
Although Top Gun is sort of a Western itself, a Western with jets.
You even have your main character called Maverick! Yes, exactly.
Venice is giving you a lifetime achievement award, which is a chance to look back on your body of work. Is there a film of yours you’re most proud of?
Well, you’re not supposed to say, because it kind of offends all the people you worked with on the others. My old stock answer used to be my favorite film was the next one. But you know there’s obviously a lot more in the rearview mirror than there is through the windshield up ahead and that does alter your perspective. I’ve really tried not to think about the films of the past because I’d like to do another couple. I still feel good, I’m not ready to sit around the house and read magazines, I’d like to get out there and make another movie or two. But, you know, there are not a lot of directors that are 80 years old that are out there working.
But to answer your question. I would say my favorite work experiences have certainly been on the Westerns. The working conditions are so much better. You’re out in the middle of nowhere in beautiful country, you’re around the horses. In the city films, you’re fighting the city all the time, fighting to find parking for the equipment, fighting the traffic and the noise. With Westerns, you’re usually out someplace where you own the place, and you can do what you want pretty much on your own steam. So I guess my answer is the Westerns. And if you ask what my favorite Western is, I’d say I think Jeff Bridges and Wild Bill, where he gave a really remarkable performance. Bill Hickok was not an easy man to play. And I thought he did a wonderful job. I’m very, very pleased to hear Jeff has regained his health and is back working.
The first film I saw of yours was The Warriors. It was on TV, and I must have been 10 or 11. It terrified and fascinated me to an equal degree.
A couple of months ago, I was asked to go to Bologna, to their film festival, and they showed The Warriors in the Piazza Maggiore on one of those big giant football stadium screens outdoors. They had 7,000 people there. And they showed The Warriors. I did that movie some 40 years ago, and I hadn’t really seen it since. I wondered how the hell this was gonna play? And it played great! The audience had a good time, they yelled and screamed. In the right way. I couldn’t believe it. 42, 43 years ago we made that movie for a nickel and a dime, it wasn’t exactly a big budget. We just scraped it together in New York. And it still plays. So I don’t know, the more you do all this stuff, sometimes the less you know.
Another film of yours that sticks out for me is 48 Hours, not just because it was a great film but because you essentially created a new genre: the buddy cop movie. Is it true the original cast was supposed to be Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor?
Every movie has those shifting casting discussions. When we were just starting, I went up and saw Clint and he was interested in it, in playing the convict character. But before we finished the script, he’d committed to Don Siegel’s movie The Escape From Alcatraz, so he was already going to do a prisoner. And if he played the cop, well he was already Dirty Harry in a different franchise. So that didn’t work out. Then (we) wrote the prisoner as a man of color. I told the studio we should go after Richard Pryor.
This was a few years before the movie got made. The studio didn’t respond, so I went and did a couple more movies. Then I got a call: would I do the film with Nick Nolte? Sure, I said. I didn’t know Nick, but I liked his work very much and I thought he could play the cop. Eddie came in at the last minute. We wanted somebody that was funny but could play tough, too. We all knew Eddie was funny, from Saturday Night Live, but we didn’t know if could he handle the acting part. It turned out it wasn’t a problem at all.
Did you know at the time you were making a film that would be so influential?
No, we didn’t. Obviously, I was pleased that turned out to be such a hit. A hit to a director means you’re going to keep working. It is a very imitated movie. I recognize that. And, I take the old Oscar Wilde thing, that imitation is flattery. I do think, though, that so many of what are perceived to be imitations, kind of miss the point of 48 Hours. The real secret of the film was that these guys were not buddies. They really didn’t like each other and said so constantly. Finally, only after a trial by fire and a trial of character on both sides, do they grow towards a mutual, weary, but mutual, respect. I thought that’s what gave the movie its dignity, if you will. But a lot of people thought it was a formula: get two guys talking back and forth a lot. One’s Black and one’s white. Or variations on that.
48 Hours was the only film of yours you ever directed a sequel to, but you produced all the Aliens films, one of the most important sci-fi franchises of all time. Sigourney Weaver is going to be in Venice this year too [with Paul Schrader film Master Gardener]. Any chance of you two getting together and planning a return of Ripley for Aliens 5?
We took a shot at that a couple of years back with Sigourney. But that was back when Aliens was still at Fox. The people at Disney, who now control Aliens, have expressed no interest in going down that road. I had an idea for a good story with the Ripley character and Sigourney. But I do hope to see her in Venice.
Are there any young directors working now that you admire?
Well, I can’t say that, because then I’ll offend all the ones I don’t name. I only really talk about dead directors.
Who were the most influential directors for you? You knew and worked with Sam Peckinpah, one of the greatest Western directors of all time.
Yes, Sam and I were good friends. And you see at the end of Dead for a Dollar, we have a dedication to [1950s Western director] Budd Boetticher, who made some wonderful Westerns. Budd and I were friendly, I didn’t know him as well as I knew Sam, but we were friendly towards the end of his life. But my influences are very diverse. Everyone always mentions John Ford. Well, yes, absolutely, but I’ve got a picture over my desk here [he turns the camera to show a large black and white photo of a director with a small insert of two more]. The larger picture is of Luis Buñuel, one of my favorites. The smaller insert is of Wim Wenders and Sam Fuller, both favorites of mine. Wim is still alive, so I guess I broke my rule there.
You know, when I got here, I didn’t know anybody in Hollywood. I arrived with a battered suitcase and a cardboard box. Like so many who come to Hollywood, I was young, dumb and broke. But there was always this kind of idea that there were people that could, within this really tough system, tell stories that were worthwhile, and tell them in a unique way that expressed their personality. And I never stopped believing that. But what do I know? I’m just an old guy who makes Westerns.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.