By Iain Blair
Over the course of a long and storied career, writer, director and producer Walter Hill has done it all. His career began in the early 1970s with screenplay credits for The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, and The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 1975, he made his directorial debut with Hard Times, a Depression-era street fighting drama starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.
Since then, his projects have ranged from classic sci-fi (Alien) to classic westerns (The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill) and from action-packed thrillers (Extreme Prejudice) to buddy comedies (48 Hours, Another 48 Hours).
With his unique visceral style, Hill also made a successful foray into television, receiving both the Emmy and DGA Awards in 2005 for the pilot of the neo-western Deadwood. He also directed AMC’s acclaimed Emmy Award-winning debut television movie, Broken Trail, and was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards — he won an Emmy for producing and a DGA award for directing. Hill was also executive producer of the Emmy-nominated series Tales from the Crypt.
He has also written two graphic novels, which have been published in France, the second of which served as the basis for his provocative new film, The Assignment. The neo-noir, pulpy thriller, which he co-wrote with Denis Hamill, stars Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia. It tells the story of hitman Frank Kitchen, who is given a lethal assignment, and after being double-crossed discovers he’s not the man he thought he was — he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman (Rodriguez). Seeking vengeance, Frank heads for a showdown with the surgeon (Weaver) who transformed him.
I talked with Hill, whose eclectic credits also include Brewster’s Millions and Bullet to the Head, about making the film.
Many movies take years to get made, but this must be some kind of record — it’s been nearly 40 years since you first read a script for it. Why the long wait?
Denis wrote it back in ’76, and I was very taken with it. I thought it was an amazing and very unusual revenge story with some great twists, but I was very busy with other projects, and time went by before I called Denis and optioned the material. I then co-wrote a script, which I didn’t like, and so I let it go. About 20 years went by, and some five years ago I came across Denis’ original script in my basement, read it, still loved it and called Denis to find out if the rights were available. So I re-optioned it and this time figured out how to do it.
You did this as a graphic novel first. How did that help in terms of realizing the film version?
I think having done Tales from the Crypt and my first graphic novel in the meantime, all that really helped with my visual approach this time around. I did a draft in just two weeks and it worked. So the script became the graphic novel and then the film.
What sort of film did you want to make?
A neo-noir thriller in the graphic novel vein, with the freedom of a low-budget project. My agent and I knew it wasn’t a studio film, and he suggested I meet with producer Said Ben Said, who’s worked with Polanski, Verhoeven on Elle and Cronenberg, so I met him in Paris and made the deal.
This is your first film with female leads. How early on did you decide to have the male lead, Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle?
It took about six months to figure it out, and one big problem about casting for me was that I felt that if we cast a male actor as Frank, the movie would then become too much about the make up and VFX — and you also have a big challenge for the actor, playing this low-class, underworld Darwinian survivor who’s very macho. I felt that casting a woman would be far more interesting, so I changed that to a woman and I also changed the doctor from a man to a woman. That’s when it all fell into place.
What did Michelle bring to the role?
We had lunch, and she told me, “You’ll never find anyone better for this role,” and she was right. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. It takes a brave actor to play the part, and Michelle’s very brave. I admire her performance a lot.
The whole outrageous, forced sex change angle has pushed a lot of buttons. Was that intentional?
No. Look, we live in an age of gender fluidity, which is a good thing. We also live in the age of the Internet, where opinions are instantaneous and everywhere. The movie’s not a comment on transgender issues and was never going to be about transgender issues. For the record, there’s nothing that disputes or ridicules the current transgender theory.
Frank Kitchen is not a villain, and he’s not a hero. He’s simply a protagonist, and he doesn’t become a transgender woman. He stays what he is inside his head, a macho and heterosexual male. Genital surgery and feminization aren’t the same thing as being transgender. Frank didn’t want the surgery.
But the film and story are obviously and intentionally lurid.
Yes, which is why I used the comic book panels every so often as devices to let the audience know it’s not your everyday reality in the storytelling. I wanted that freedom you have with the comic book or the graphic novel.
Where did you shoot and how tough was it?
We shot it on location in Vancouver, in just over 20 days, which is the shortest shoot I’ve ever had for a movie. Of course, that presents problems, and every director always needs more time and money. We just didn’t have it, so we were very inventive.
Where did you post?
We cut in LA, but did the rest of it — sound, color correction, VFX — all in Vancouver.
Do you like post, and why?
I’ve always loved post. After the madness of shooting, it gets you back to a civilized life. Some directors make their movies in prep, some during the shoot, and others during post. It’s probably a bit of all three for me, but with the emphasis on post. I follow the lead of greats like Sam Peckinpah and Kurosawa, and Sam always said, “Directing is 75 percent casting.” I think he’s right. You get that right and the shoot’s relatively straightforward and you just let the actors do their work.
There’s definitely a big misunderstanding about what a director does — that he’s basically an acting coach on the set. But that’s often the least of his skills. It’s finding the right tone and all the stuff you add in post that’s so important to the job.
Tell us about editing it with Phil Norden, who worked with you on Broken Trail.
He was up in Vancouver with us but rarely came to the set. That way he stuck close to me and cut almost as fast as I shot. As this was so low budget, there wasn’t much room for error. We had to get it right the first time (laughs). Happily, I love the editing part.
Talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker.
They’re both so important, and without either any footage, however wonderful, just looks flat. We did all the sound work at Sharpe and some ADR at Wildfire in LA.
What about the VFX?
Stargate did the VFX, and we had some greenscreen work, especially in the assassination scene, and some clean-up.
Where was the DI done?
At Encore Vancouver, with colorist Claudio Sepulveda (working on Blackmagic Resolve). He really captured a great look.
I’m co-writing a script, I co-wrote another graphic novel, a sci-fi story, and I hope to direct something this summer. So I’m very busy.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.