Monte Hellman’s got a new movie. Actually, his Road to Nowhere premiered at the Venice (Italy) Film Festival last September, and will open in L.A. and New York City in June. Hellman’s filmography is not long, but he’s been making his spare, enigmatic, but powerful little dramas since 1959, when (who else?) Roger Corman gave him his start. I interviewed Monte for my Roger Corman bio and found him to be reserved and pensive. He has, though, some terrific stories to tell. He filled me in on what it was like to shoot Beast from Haunted Cave back-to-back with Corman’s Ski Troop Attack in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the dead of winter, and Roger was aiming to keep the budgets at $50,000 or less. As a result, said Monte, “He told everyone in town that we were UCLA film students doing a student film, so we got hotel rooms for, I think, a dollar a night, but we had two people in a room so it was fifty cents a night per person, and we were shooting in ten below zero and he served salami sandwiches on plain white bread for lunch. I think if we’d just had a cup of soup. . . . Those kind of economies don’t pay off in the long run. You get a lot of bad will that’s generated.”
Having somehow survived Beast from Haunted Cave, Hellman went on to join forces with future Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson. With Corman’s backing the duo turned out two provocative westerns, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (Nicholson wrote the screenplay for the latter). Then came the film most admired by Hellman fans, a 1971 cross-country drag-race odyssey called Two-Lane Blacktop. Three years later, Hellman was once again directing for Corman, who had optioned a Southern novel called Cockfighter. Roger, as I can attest, liked the thought of bringing to the screen the raw vigor of an outlaw sport. And he was convinced that the faint lewdness of the title would give Cockfighter added allure.
Despite impressively gritty work by Hellman and by veteran character actor Warren Oates, Cockfighter was one of Roger Corman’s rare miscalculations. He planned a world premiere screening in Atlanta, then discovered that most Georgians view cockfighting as an embarrassment. The public was staying away, so something drastic had to be done. Joe Dante, who was then a Corman editor, told me how Roger phoned him with a concrete plan of action: “We’re going to take the sex scenes from Private Duty Nurses, and we’re going to take the dynamite truck chase from Night Call Nurses, and we’re gonna cut ‘em all together in a one-minute montage. And I want you to cut it into the movie right when Warren Oates goes to bed and turns the lights out. And that will be a dream sequence. . . . Put all this stuff in the trailer, and now we’re going call it Born to Kill.” Later, we tried other titles, including Wild Drifter and Gamblin’ Man. But a rose (or a chicken) by any other name. . . .
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