- Nicolas Aproux
Walter Hill is responsible for some of the most thrilling and funny movies Hollywood has ever produced, and he’s still going.
He started directing in the late 1970s and right out of the gate delivered two movies that went on to become cult classics: “The Driver” and “The Warriors.” Then in the ’80s he seamlessly moved to comedies with “Brewster’s Millions” (starring Richard Pryor and John Candy) and “48 Hrs.,” which launched the movie career of Eddie Murphy and jumpstarted the buddy-cop genre.
Hill’s latest, “The Assignment” (available on VOD, in theaters on Friday), stars Michelle Rodriguez (of “Fast and Furious” and “Resident Evil” fame) as a male assassin who wakes to find he’s had gender-reassignment surgery and goes on the hunt for the doctor (Sigourney Weaver) who is responsible.
Clearly, Hill is still bringing provocative work to the screen that pushes the boundaries of the medium.
Hill sat down with Business Insider and looked back on his latest movie, which was first developed in 1978, and some of his other classics:
How the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ TV show finally inspired Hill to make ‘The Assignment’
- Saban Films
Hill told us the initial idea for “The Assignment” came in 1978 when screenwriter Denis Hamill wrote the story, then titled “Tomboy,” and sent it to him.
“I was fascinated by it, it was very different,” Hill said. “I instantly thought it could make a movie, but I was very busy at the time.”
In the midst of developing “The Warriors” and then jumping on back-to-back projects, Hill quickly forgot about Hamill’s script. But 20 years later, he went back and optioned the script from Hamill. He hired another screenwriter and the two went at developing the story.
“It didn’t come out very well and I abandoned it and let the option return to Denis,” Hill said.
Then another 15 years passed and Hill came across Hamill’s original script in his basement. Flipping through it, he finally figured out how he thought he should make it.
“That moment of insight had to do with making an episode of ‘Tales from the Crypt’ that I had done in the 1980s,” he said. “I decided if I do it like a longer version of an episode from that show, it would work, as the story had to be set it in a special world.”
To add to the “Tales from the Crypt” vibe of the movie, Hill was able to get a publisher to make a graphic-novel version of “The Assignment,” which he said helped in finally landing the financing to make the movie.
Why ‘The Driver’ car chases still hold up in the era of ‘Fast and Furious’
- 20th Century Fox
In just his second feature film, Hill created something that still inspires genre filmmakers to this day. “The Driver” (1978), starring Ryan O’Neal as a nameless getaway driver who becomes the obsession of a detective (Bruce Dern), pushed the car-chase trend of the time (“Bullitt,” “The French Connection”) and dazzled audiences with incredible stunts and extremely clever tricks.
“It’s a different field now,” Hill said when asked to compare “The Driver” to newer chase movies, like the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. “I was trying to tell the tale of these chases through the character and through his mental process. We’re now in an age where the stunts become a kind of waterfall of events. One topping the other. And technically there are other things that are available now – the use of CGI and various photographers. A very different thing.”
Hill also sees another glaring difference between making a car-chase movie in the 1970s and doing so now.
“We went out and shot a movie,” he said. “When you look at ‘Bullitt’ or ‘The French Connection’ or my movie, they were all done as part of the movie and there was no second unit. We have a story to tell and here it is. Nowadays these big action movies are broken into action units with separate directors. It’s a very different kind of filmmaking. It is probably, given what they are trying to do, the most efficient way to approach it, but it diminishes in a sense the old idea of what a director did. The movie was your movie.”
What’s still most memorable about making ‘The Warriors’
- Paramount Pictures
Hill followed “The Driver” with the movie that would make him a legend in his own right, 1979’s “The Warriors.”
The movie follows the New York City gang The Warriors, who must battle their way through the city back to their home turf of Coney Island after being framed for the murder of the leader of the city’s most powerful gang.
When asked what first comes to mind when he thinks of making “The Warriors,” Hill blurted out, “Night shoots.”
Not because of any danger but because that’s all the movie consisted of.
“I had a wonderful camera man, Andy Laszlo, who accepted all the difficulties of going out into the streets night after night after night,” Hill said. “And I had a cast that never complained. They were delighted to just be in a movie. It was an odd movie. We knew it was going to be a far-out thing.”
That far-out thing has since become a staple in pop culture, referenced in everything from video games to “The Simpsons.”
Convincing Nick Nolte to work with Eddie Murphy
But Hill isn’t just known for his out-there action movies. He’s also responsible for the popularity of the buddy-cop movie.
“48 Hrs.” (1982) was an instant critical and box-office hit, in large part because of the chemistry between its two stars, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.
Hill had written a draft of the movie before making 1981’s “Southern Comfort,” and at the time suggested to Paramount that Richard Pryor should play the wise-cracking criminal who helps out the cop. But by the time the studio was ready to make the movie, Pryor had become a huge star. The studio asked Hill to come on to direct with Nolte attached to play the cop. Soon after, Hill was sent tapes of Murphy on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I thought he was sensational and I thought it might work,” Hill said. “I sent it up to the powers that be at the studio saying I would go with Eddie if they would go.”
The project was quickly put on the fast track.
Looking back now, Hill said by the end of making “48 Hrs.” he knew Murphy would be a huge star. But before filming, Hill only saw Murphy as a gifted performer who had never acted in a film before. And that led to him leaning on Nolte.
“I came back from New York, I had met Eddie, he couldn’t come to LA because he was so busy on the show, and I said to Nick, ‘Look, he’s a great talent but he’s not a trained actor so Nick buddy this is the way it’s going to be, it’s going to be like working with a little kid or a dog – the one take that’s good we’re going to have to print it. So that means you have to be good every take,'” Hill said with a laugh.
“Oh, that’s not fair, Walt, goddammit,” Nolte responded, according to Hill.
“And I said, ‘I know you shouldn’t have to but that’s the way it’s going to be,'” Hill said.
“He and Eddie got along great,” the director added. “They loved each other. In fact, they would attack me on set every day complaining about the script, but it was fun.”