Classic 'Two-Lane Blacktop' Takes the Long Road to Video

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Two-Lane Blacktop" fans: Start your engines. Monte Hellman's legendary 1971 road movie is available for the first time on videocassette and DVD.

It has been a long road for the film that before its release was hailed by Esquire magazine as "movie of the year." A subsequent box office disappointment, "Two-Lane Blacktop" languished in the Universal Studios vaults, its video release stymied in part by entanglements over music rights.

Michigan-based Anchor Bay Entertainment, a producer and distributor of definitive editions of pop culture favorites and cult classics, licensed the long-sought film from Universal. Jay Douglas, Anchor Bay vice president of acquisitions, whose stated company objective is "to put out really cool movies," enthused in a phone interview: "This has given me the biggest thrill."

"Two-Lane Blacktop" retails for a suggested list price of $15 on VHS and $30 on DVD. Both present the film in the wide-screen format. The DVD includes audio commentary by Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz, and a documentary segment, "Monte Hellman: American Auteur," directed by George Hickenlooper.

"Two-Lane Blacktop" stars (in their lone leading roles) James Taylor and former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as, respectively, the Driver and the Mechanic. Warren Oates, in a performance that Leonard Maltin's "Movie & Video Guide" calls "as good as you'll ever see and should have had the Oscar," co-stars as the loquacious G.T.O., who challenges the laconic duo to a race between New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

The late Laurie Bird also stars as the Girl, a drifter who one day climbs into the Driver's back seat and comes along for the ride ("East? That's cool, I've never been east"), changing bed partners the way the Driver changes lanes. Appearing briefly, but memorably, is Harry Dean (billed as H.D.) Stanton as a hitchhiker who propositions G.T.O.

Like the film's '55 Chevy and '70 Pontiac GTO, "Two-Lane Blacktop" is a fully restored vintage model. It is a relic of the so-called "New Hollywood," when studios, wanting to duplicate the phenomenal success of "Easy Rider," flirted briefly with allowing filmmakers total creative freedom.

"It was a little pocket of time," screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer recalled in a phone interview, "a bubble of time when the movies weren't executive-driven. It didn't last long. There were four or five years when it was relatively free. Then the gates closed."

"Two-Lane Blacktop" was one of several films made at Universal in a then-new youth division overseen by Ned Tanen.

"Here was a major studio trying to figure out what it was that made independent films, particularly 'Easy Rider,' successful," Hellman recalled in a phone interview. "They thought, rightfully so, that one of the things was that the filmmakers had freedom.

"Contractually, they said they would not touch a frame of the film as long as it was under two hours. We didn't have any of the usual problems of a studio coming in and saying to cut out this or add that. We were left completely alone during the shooting and editing. Even producer Michael Laughlin, who was very supportive, did not come on location."

Character actor Will Corry wrote the original script for "Two-Lane Blacktop" and gets a story credit on the film. It was inspired, he said, by his own cross-country trek in 1968.

This was to be Hellman's first studio A-picture--albeit with a budget of less than $1 million. His previous credits included "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind," two critically acclaimed westerns that starred Jack Nicholson and that, anticipating "Two-Lane Blacktop," were better received in Europe than in the United States.

Hellman was introduced to Laughlin by his then-agent, Mike Medavoy, after returning to Hollywood from Italy, where a film project had fallen through. "Two-Lane Blacktop" was one of two films Laughlin presented to him.

"I told him I was very interested in the subject of 'Two-Lane' but not particularly in the script he had at that time," Hellman said. "Fortunately, he agreed to let me bring in another writer."

Enter Wurlitzer. Hellman had "flipped out" over his book "Nog," which Wurlitzer described as "a strange '60s road novel." The director recruited him to rewrite the script. It was Wurlitzer's first screenplay.

Anyone hitching a ride with "Two-Lane Blacktop" for the first time should not expect "Cannonball Run." This is a more meditative film.

The road, Wurlitzer said, "is a central myth to the American experience, if you really want to be pretentious about it. It's the kind of innately American restlessness, this sort of insatiable necessity to continually reinvent yourself [as G.T.O., whom Wurlitzer created, does throughout the film]. The road is a great metaphor for that. Also the fact that there is no real road anymore. It's the horror of the interstate. You go from A to B, but what's really interesting is to just roll the dice and go left to right on a whim and not have the security of a particular destination. Then it becomes a more profound journey."

The film has the feel of dream as well as documentary, which Hellman achieved by shooting, for example, interactions between the cast and ordinary people with a hidden camera. He also withheld the script from nonactors Taylor (who was brought in to audition after Hellman saw his picture on a Sunset Boulevard billboard), Wilson and Bird.

"I told them I didn't want them to know any more than what was happening day by day," Hellman said. "We had the good fortune to be able to shoot in continuity because we were driving cross-country. I thought if they took one day at a time, as they would in real life, it would give the film an element of reality. Halfway through, James got very uncomfortable with this and finally said he wouldn't continue unless I gave him the script. So I did, and he never read it."

"Two-Lane Blacktop" achieved pre-release buzz after Esquire magazine featured the film on its cover and printed the entire screenplay. But, according to Hellman, the arrangement backfired.

"We thought it was good publicity," he said. "In hindsight, we wouldn't have done it. I think it raised people's expectations. They couldn't accept the movie for what it was."

The film quickly ran out of gas at the box office, but car buffs, of course, took the film to heart, as did European audiences and critics.

"Two-Lane Blacktop" has long been one of home video's most wanted. Hellman credits the Scarecrow Video in Seattle with fueling interest in finally getting the film released on video. In 1994, the store collected 2,000 signatures, among them Werner Herzog's, for a petition. People magazine and Film Comment did stories about the store's efforts and the film.

For several years, Universal had been looking for a partner to give the film the special handling its cult status warranted.

"This particular title had a lot of interest," noted Kimberly Johnson, executive director of catalog brand management for Universal Studios Home Video. "We worked on it for several years, trying to figure out what to do with it, to see if it fit anything we were doing. It is so unique that we did not want to lump it in with [other releases] and risk that it would get lost.

"We have a vault full of unreleased product to work on as time and opportunity [arise]. We can only do so much, and that's why we look for opportunities to partner up with companies that have the resources and the focus for a single title, to launch it as something special and unique."

The title was a priority for Douglas and Anchor Bay, which already had licensed other niche Universal titles, including "FM" and "Where the Buffalo Roam."

But efforts to release the film had always stalled, mainly over what the Girl calls the "groovy tunes" on the soundtrack.

Among the biggest stumbling blocks was the Doors' "Moonlight Drive," which is prominently featured in one scene. Director William Lustig, who also serves as "technical advisor" for Anchor Bay, recruited Hellman to approach the surviving members of the Doors. "Without the moral support from the artists who made the film," Douglas said, "they would have turned us down."

As for Corry, now 69 and living in Jacksonville, Fla., where he is constructing a 43-foot steel scow, he is ambivalent about the video release. "It's not my story," he said. "I don't care one way or the other. I've never seen the movie all the way through.

"I wrote a film in 1969 that was very simple and straightforward and entertaining. The kids would have torn the theater apart if filmed as I wrote it. Then they changed the two 17-year-olds--one black and one white--into two rock 'n' roll stars. But it was a magical experience. The magic was in the writing of it."

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