Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Full Monte, or Naked Under Feathers?

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. . . .


  1. Beverly: We can't wait for you to see ROAD TO NOWHERE! Cheers, Steven Gaydos

  2. Steve, I don't think we've ever actually met, but reading your rave review of my Corman book back in 2000 made for one of the great moments of my life. I've got several more terrific Monte Hellman stories -- one I think you'd particularly enjoy. I too can't wait to see Road to Nowhere. Please keep me posted as to where and when.

  3. Thanks! ROAD TO NOWHERE opens in NYC at the prestigious Lincoln Center tribute to Monte Hellman on June 8, then our theatrical run begins June 10th at the Village East. We open LA at the Laemmle Sunset 5 June 17. There's about 20 other cities booked. Updates are on and on monte hellman road to nowhere on facebook.

  4. I'll check it out when I get back to L.A.

  5. Another great post, Beverly! When I was a kid, it wasn't long after we'd moved to NC from Newport News, my grandfather took me to some out of the way restaurant. We ate then proceeded to go into some back room and down what looked like a closet that descended into a basement. There was this huge (to my eyes, anyway) arena beneath this restaurant where cockfights took place. There were guys everywhere money in hand and all that sort of thing. Needless to say, we didn't stay very long and I'm not sure if my grandfather had sat in on one of those "events" before.

  6. I love hearing about your movie (and other) memories, Brian. I hope some other readers will join the conversation too! Jump on in -- the water's fine!

  7. I finally got to see this movie a few years ago - it's really a very interesting picture. I love Warren Oates in it - and another brave choice by the filmmakers - he barely speaks in it! I love Mr. Dante's story - those are the kinds of stories that make Mr. Corman the King!

    I was never near any cockfighting - but I know my father saw some in his younger wilder days in Illinois. He didn't enjoy it, and avoided it after a couple of times seeing it out of curiosity. My father hunts and fishes, but that kind of animal cruelty had no place in his life.

    1. Monte Hellman used Warren Oates brilliantly in other films too, like "The Shooting." And Oates had a small but vivid role as a deputy in "In the Heat of the Night." Too bad he died so young.