Monte Hellman, the most idiosyncratic of the talented filmmakers mentored by producer Roger Corman in the '60s and '70s, is drawing raves for his latest film, "Road to Nowhere," an intense, romantic movie-within-a movie.
Hellman and his longtime colleague, writer and Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos, have taken classic noir elements -- a stunning, seductive young beauty (Shannyn Sossamon), her rich and powerful middle-aged lover (Cliff De Young), a missing fortune and a suicide -- and blurred the line between fiction and reality.
When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, Hellman was honored for his contributions to world cinema, and it received rapturous reviews upon its release in Europe. It will premiere Saturday at the Egyptian as the final offering in the American Cinematheque's three-day Hellman retrospective and subsequently open June 17 in Los Angeles.
It's a lot of hoopla for a filmmaker who hadn't made a feature in 21 years. Hellman, however, is a prime example of quality rather than quantity, making such enigmatic, spare films as his two westerns with Jack Nicholson, "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind." They were made in the '60s but not released until 1972, the year after his "Two-Lane Blacktop," which Universal Studios more or less let escape rather than release. That didn't prevent this tale of two young guys, played by singers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, who get in a cross-country car race with Warren Oates, from becoming a revered cult film. Indeed, all three plus "Cockfighter," with Oates in the title role, have made Hellman a cult favorite.
Of his two-decades-plus absence from feature filmmaking, Hellman sums it up as being in "development hell." He was busy, he says, teaching two years at USC, six more at CalArts, executive producing "Reservoir Dogs" for Quentin Tarantino and struggling to get numerous projects of his own off the ground. He's currently working on his next project, called "Love or Die."
"This is going to sound terrible, but in a lot of ways I feel like 'Road to Nowhere' is my first movie -- everything else before it was a rehearsal," Hellman said in a recent interview. Asked if it was a matter of feeling at last in total control, he replied, "Just the opposite. This movie seemed to have a mind of its own -- it seemed to know better. I'd make a choice, fail and then wind up with something better. I have always tried to move the audience, to evoke an emotional response."
Sitting in the book-lined living room of his Laurel Canyon home of 30 years, Hellman remains as trim as ever. The black aureole of curly hair has thinned and grayed, but his dark eyes are as intense and penetrating as they've always been. A man of warmth and low-key intensity, he is young and vital at heart.
"I don't tell my age," he says amiably, "but others will, and they will tell you I turn 79 in July."
Sossamon was the first actor aboard "Road to Nowhere," Hellman recalled. "Steve Gaydos saw her in a restaurant rehearsing a scene with another person. He felt very reluctant, very embarrassed, to give her his card, but he did, saying, 'I don't do this often, but I wonder if you or your agent would contact Monte Hellman' -- and that was it. The way I learned how to release control in directing this film was in realizing how much was coming out of the unconscious of everyone else."
The director and the writer of the movie-within-the-movie have names similar to those of Hellman and Gaydos, and "Road to Nowhere" is indeed very personal: It is dedicated to Laurie Bird, with whom Hellman fell in love while directing her in "Two-Lane Blacktop." Hellman gives Gaydos full credit for the script; he says he would comment on it as it progressed, and he asked for input from such friends as screenwriter Dennis Bartok and producer Albert Gorson.
With locations in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, Verona, Rome, London and Hellman's living room and kitchen, the handsome film looks expensive. "It would have been expensive, had people gotten paid," Hellman said wryly.
"The mind-set for 'Road to Nowhere' was to get away from waiting for people to give us permission to do it -- that we would make it ourselves -- and my daughter Melissa said she would produce it," Hellman said. "After three weeks of shooting in North Carolina we ran out of money, but that didn't stop Melissa: We went right on to London anyway. One of the great things I learned from Roger Corman was that there is no such thing as a fixed budget."
Hellman acknowledges the indirect inspiration for "Road to Nowhere" from Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" and Hitchcock's "Vertigo." "Starting with 'Two-Lane Blacktop' -- I'd just seen 'Shoot the Piano Player' -- I went in a very male direction to show the conflict between a man's work and his need for love. For me 'Road to Nowhere" is a love poem to the movies."
An In-Person Tribute to Monte Hellman
Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, "Road to Nowhere"
Information: www.american cinematheque.com