All directors yell “Action!” Walter Hill knows how to orchestrate it.
Over the course of four decades, the American auteur has employed familiar male archetypes — bare-knuckle brawlers, contract killers, crooked cops — in a series of hard-hitting, sneakily poetic B-movies that harness the elementary power of cause and effect.
“It’s easy to get blinded by technical possibilities,” noted Hill, 75. “There’s a lot to be said for aesthetic simplicity.”
A consummate craftsman in the Robert Aldrich/Don Siegel tradition, Hill introduced Eddie Murphy to movie screens in “48 Hrs.” and gave the world an enduring cult classic (and a set of evergreen Halloween costumes) with “The Warriors.” He directed the pilot episode of “Deadwood” and the Emmy-winning miniseries “Broken Trail,” doing as much as any working filmmaker to ensure that the western remains a going concern.
“The Assignment,” which opens Friday, is perhaps his most audacious production yet. A pulpy comic-book thriller about a rogue surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) who performs a vengeful gender reassignment operation on a hit man named Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), it’s somehow also Hill’s first film with women in the lead roles.
An identity-politics powder keg that sharply divided audiences at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “The Assignment”’ also betrays its creator’s predilection for the lurid and the low, to which Hill always offers the same response: “Guilty.”
Hill, a brawny gentleman with a deep, resonant voice, spoke about his new movie and his career — which is getting a mini-retrospective at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica — from his Beverly Hills home.
Why do you love working with the rules and codes of established genres?
I think they generally have the best stories and work the best for film. I see movies all the time where I question why the hell they even made them, because the animus is so clearly nonfilmic. I don’t mean that you need to have thundering herds or raging gunfights as opposed to ideas, but I think certain things are more filmic than others. Genre filmmaking does supply a kind of structure that allows the filmmaker and the audience some common ground to then say, “Let’s see what we’re going to do on our little journey here.”
“The Assignment” has been percolating in one form or another for a long time. Why make it now?
The idea that [the movie tackles] this hotly contested social issue is … not without humor, shall we say. That we live in a gender-fluid society seems to me to be so obvious, and … if you’re looking for me to do one of those Fred Feelgood, Heartbreak Harry kind of movies, that’s not my gift. When in good form, I like to challenge attitudes.
If you’re looking for me to do one of those Fred Feelgood, Heartbreak Harry kind of movies, that’s not my gift. I like to challenge attitudes.
The movie is about a disturbed maestro pursuing a violent, manipulative craft, who’s also trying to argue that she’s an artist.
Very good! I’m with ya!
So is this a personal film, a reflection on your own place in the movie universe?
Oh, I can’t say that. That’s too much.
But you are sympathetic to a character that could easily have been drawn as a villain.
Yes, I’m very sympathetic to her character. And I’m very sympathetic to Frank in the end. He dedicates himself to a higher path. By being given the body of a woman, he becomes a better man.
The movie has a kind of heightened artifice that’s unusual for you. And, of course, the premise is fairly outrageous.
If you were entertained, then one has accomplished one’s first task. There aren’t any rules except don’t be boring. We’re all guilty, by the way, at some point in our career of having made a boring movie. If you’re lucky enough to last.
You have this incredible vantage point, where you’ve seen Nicolas Winding Refn with “Drive” and Edgar Wright with the upcoming “Baby Driver” make movies that are directly indebted to your film “The Driver,” which was ignored when it was released. That must affect the way you handle the reception of your newer films.
Oh, definitely… Look, nobody likes to pick up the newspaper and read that you’re a bum. But at the same time, so many films that I’ve done that now seem to be generally spoken well about, at the time they can came out were — Boom! — backhanded across the room. I always say this: Nobody knows anything about a movie till 20 years later. It takes a while to see if they’re any good.
You’re interested in characters who do evil things, but operate at a slight remove from their actions. They have a reason that justifies it.
They have a different moral code, and they test themselves through certain kinds of confrontations. I don’t do movies about kidnappers, hostage-takers, where you cross into the middle-class world and make them the victims. It’s usually rotten people taking on rotten people.
Quoting Edgar Allan Poe at length, the surgeon in “The Assignment” says that art should be indifferent to moral considerations. Do you think films and politics belong in different arenas?
We live in passionate times at the moment, political and otherwise, and as usual, the art world is being encouraged to take sides and be part of the polemic. I think this is very dangerous… there’s a higher calling for those of us that tell stories — there are character truths, and the idiosyncrasies are more true than general truths.
When directors become successful, they often become pillars of society. Or they become spokesmen for the arts. I am neither. I’m just trying to catch up on my reading.