Born in 1932, the future Two-Lane Blacktop director had studied film at UCLA, worked as a TV editor, and founded a theatre company before, in 1959, he started making monster movies for Corman. For Corman, as well as working as editor and assistant on various films, he directed The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), parts of The Terror, and Cockfighter (1974). In 1966, with a little of Corman’s money, he went into the desert with Jack Nicholson, and emerged with the world’s first existential westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.
How did you first encounter Corman?
MONTE HELLMAN: I had a theatre company in Los Angeles in the 1950s. And Roger was one of the backers of my theatre company. He invested in four of our productions, including the first production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in LA. And when the theatre company was disbanded because we lost our theatre, he suggested that I start working as a director in film. The theatre was sold, and we were leasing it, and we were evicted because they had decided to turn the theatre into a movie theatre. And Corman said, y’know, “Take that as a sign. Move on!”
Corman, famously, made movies for hardly any money and in hardly any time. Did that training stand you in good stead?
Yes, I think that I continue to appreciate that. Because every so often we go through a stage where making movies inexpensively proves to be a tremendous advantage — I think we’re going through one of those periods now. They either want to make very, very expensive movies or they want to make them so cheaply it’s almost impossible. When you work with Corman, you learn that anything is possible. If someone tells you “Well, a picture can’t be made for such and such a price,” you learn that that’s not true, that you can make any picture for any amount of money. It was prophetic then, and now it’s absolutely true because of the digital revolution.
The other famous thing about that period, of course, is the people who passed through the doors of Corman University. I think your time working with him coincided with the time Francis Ford Coppola was there.
Yes. I worked alongside Francis, and actually, I think I contributed to one of his films. He made a film in Ireland for Roger, a horror film, and I was doing some added scenes for The Terror, and we finished our last day of shooting on The Terror, and it was a long day, and I got back, to bring the equipment back, and Roger asked me to go and shoot a prologue to Francis’ movie, Dementia 13. What I had to do was shoot a prologue with a hypnotist who basically warned the audience of the dangers of watching this movie if they had a weak heart!
One of the first things you worked on with Roger Corman was The Last Woman on Earth, wasn’t that Robert Towne’s acting debut?
Yes, I worked with Robert, but I’d known Robert quite a bit before that actually. In fact, the first script that I tried to — I’d already made a film for Roger, but there was a script that Robert Towne had written called Fraternity Hell Week, which I was trying to get on and direct. So I knew Robert even before I worked with him on The Last Woman on Earth and The Creature from the Haunted Sea.
Your own directorial debut, The Beast from Haunted Cave, was in the same kind of area. You’re quite a long way from Samuel Beckett here.
Ha. Well, Samuel Beckett, at least in Waiting for Godot, is a kind of a slapstick comedian. And that’s the kind of thing that I was dong in these little pieces for Corman. Not so much in The Beast from Haunted Cave but in The Creature from the Haunted Sea, it’s total slapstick. So I just continued with the kind of comic creativity that I’d used in Waiting for Godot.
Does it strike you odd that people go and dig up these obscure, almost throwaway films that people made in two weeks and have since tried to forget about, and almost fetishise them?
Ah, well, I’ve gotten used to it. It may have struck me odd at one time, but now I just accept it as one of the idiosyncrasies of this film world. But going back to the previous question, I will say that doing the added scenes — well, in actual fact, they weren’t added scenes, but helping to finish The Terror, the work that I did on that, I have to say that that was the first time that I really created my own unit. I hired the crew, I wrote the scenes with Jack Hill, and I had that feeling of freedom, that really for the first time I was really directing on The Terror.
I have to confess an affection for The Terror; partly because of the conditions of its making. It looks so striking, visually, haunting in some areas, but it’s almost like freeform, tag-team filmmaking.
Well, yeah. It was an amazing thing, and it’s just amazing that we got a film out of it. Particularly shooting the sequence where the hawk comes down and claws the man’s eyes out, and he stumbles and falls over the cliff, and Jack goes racing down to hear his dying words. It was so difficult to achieve those things in the time that we had, and with all the lack of production facilities. It was really thrilling, just as an experience.
Corman was also instrumental in you making The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind — I understand those films came about as a result of your not making another film for him, Epitaph.
That’s correct. Jack Nicholson and I had written this film Epitaph together, about an actor in Los Angeles, and Corman had agreed to finance it for us. And then, well, we had lunch with Corman, and he said that he’d changed his mind about Epitaph and he no longer wanted to finance it. He felt it was “too European” a film, but he said that he didn’t want to disappoint us completely, so he offered to back us to make a western. And by the time we had finished lunch, that had become two westerns.
Well, you might as well make two, while you’re out there.
When you did Cockfighter, it failed commercially on release, and so Corman tried reediting it — in fact he got Joe Dante in to cut in some exploding cars and naked nurses. Did you ever see that version?
I did and I was … appalled by it! Archetypal Roger. But, all’s well that ends well, and the film is now preserved as we intended it, there’s a good DVD version available in the States. That’s all I can ask for, happy endings.