As I wrote in my piece about the best films of 2011, Steven Gaydos penned the year’s best screenplay in Road to Nowhere, director Monte Hellman’s (Two-Lane Blacktop) film-within-a-film-within-a-film story of intrigue, lust, obsession, and murder. Road to Nowhere combines the story of filmmaker Mitchell Haven’s (Tygh Runyan) creative crisis and film set torn asunder with the modern-day-noir-murder-mystery of femme fatale Velma Duran. Duran, the subject of Haven’s film, is played by actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), who bears an eerie resemblance to the actress she’s been hired to portray. As Road to Nowhere continues to open in theaters around the world and find a global audience on DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix Streaming, and iTunes, I’ve been lucky enough to continue to interview some of the folks behind this incredible film, including my recent conversation with Gaydos, who co-produced and wrote this remarkable film. Gaydos is a true Hollywood renaissance man, who in addition to his screenwriting, producing, and songwriting, is an Executive Editor at the legendary “Variety” newspaper. Hellman referred to my recent Road to Nowhere interview piece with him as being, “Everything you’ve always wanted to know but were afraid to ask.” Here’s everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask Gaydos about his career with Monte, working at “Variety,” and writing and producing Road to Nowhere.
Jackson Truax: What was your first experience with Monte Hellman’s work?
Steven Gaydos: I got the courage to write Monte Hellman a fan letter back in ’71, because I was on my way to go to school at CalArts the summer that Two-Lane Blacktop came out… I saw Monte on TV. He was with…Warren Oates…one of my cultural heroes at the time. He showed some clips from Two-Lane Blacktop. It was very clear to me that it was very different than the way movies looked and felt. It’s interesting, looking back on it, because Monte’s movies are different. It disturbs some people forty years later. But it is interesting how…since the indie film boom…of the nineties, what he does isn’t as unusual as it was in 1971. But in 1971, the only independent movies were really B movies, and there were no really American art films… So I saw clips from his movie and listened to him talk, had the crazy courage to send him a letter and say, “It looks really interesting…” I sent him a sample of some of my writing, which included poetry. That’s how completely delusional I was. He was really cool. He sent me a letter or called me…and said, “Hey, come by the house. We’ll talk. It looks like you have some interesting ideas.” I became friends with the brother of his girlfriend, Laurie Bird…We stayed in touch. Then a few years later, I was very determined to get onto the crew of Cockfighter, and pushed myself onto it. I was the only person who didn’t have a hotel room on that movie. I slept in the Winnebago that I drove. But that was really the beginning of my so-called career, or more my working interest, my working hobby of working on movies.
JT: What was your experience working on Cockfighter? What did you learn as a PA on set?
SG: The most valuable lesson was, “Don’t be an asshole.” Because the production manager on that, was a line producer guy named Peter Cornberg. And he saw me hanging out with Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton… Hanging out with the stars and playing chess, drinking wine, maybe… Hanging out with Monte and Laurie. I was doing some reading of the script. We were actually working on some writing and scenes… But I’d never worked on a movie. Cornberg, his main problem was, he didn’t understand that if he walked up to me and said to me quietly, “Here’s what’s expected of you,” I would have done it. At the end of the movie, he said, “Let me tell you something. When you work on a movie, you need to stay busy the whole time. Because every job has to justify itself.” He gave me a great lesson, after the movie was done. I was embarrassed. I’ve felt bad ever since. There are two lessons, don’t be an asshole who doesn’t tell someone what they should do. And don’t be an asshole and think that you can just hang out and not work as hard and everybody else. The lesson for the film business is, if you’re not working, you’re doing something wrong. Pick up a broom. Bother somebody until somebody tells you, “Just stay out of the way and don’t do anything.” But don’t hang out. I had a star attitude, I think. I just was clueless. So I’m still embarrassed forty years later that I didn’t work as hard as I should have on the movie. It was a lesson that I never forgot.
JT: One job you did was you ended up on-screen as a guy wearing a Nixon mask in a hold-up scene. How did that come to pass?
SG: I think Monte was probably looking around for people to do things, as happens on a lot of independent movies. Somebody just said, “We need somebody in this scene. What about Steve?” The funny thing from wardrobe…is that, [cinematographer] Nestor Almendros had a green, crushed velvet suit. I don’t know how the hell he was that skinny. But I was that skinny. And it fit me. So I wore the crushed, green velvet suit of Nestor Almendros with a Nixon mask.
JT: You’ve already had some incredible careers, including all of your screenwriting, your work as an Executive Editor of “Variety,” and as a songwriter in Nashville. How did all of this come to pass?
SG: I have always been writing. I was writing when I was four-years-old… The first thing I ever got credit for doing in school was writing a poem, which they blew up into big letters and put up on the side of a wall… Cut to when I was eighteen or nineteen. I made a very conscious decision that I wanted to work in film or music, and which ever would happen would happen… That’s been the story of my life.
JT: Road to Nowhere feels like the height of cinematic subversion in this day and age. At the same time, “Variety” is about as mainstream of a Hollywood establishment as you’re likely to find. Do you really have a foot in both worlds? Or are you like a mole working on the inside?
SG: I think the two things work really together. Because “Variety” is about facts. It’s about verifiable information. It’s about timely information. And it is all about show business. So I’m immersed in the factual reality of a business I care dearly about. The screenwriting is absolutely not a business enterprise in any way, shape, or form. It is a hobby, like growing roses. I like to say that Road to Nowhere, it’s the equivalent of a wealthy person building a park for kids to play in… It’s a piece of art that we’ve created. So far, it’s seems like maybe hundreds of thousands of people have played in the park… Some of them fell off the jungle gym and broke their necks, unfortunately, and got hurt and are very angry. Others had the best day in the park they’ve ever had. It’s a public gift. It’s something we’ve created. It wasn’t our intention to create it as a park. The intention was to create it as a business… The history of Monte Hellman is that it takes about 20 years for people to figure his movies out, and then to say they’re really valid and important and valuable and maybe even brilliant and masterpieces… This isn’t about being celebrated. This is about doing the work. I thank God we were able to make this work.
JT: How did you initially become more seriously involved with Monte, working on screenplays together, and writing one of the drafts of the Iguana screenplay?
SG: After ’74 and Cockfighter, Monte and I became better and better friends and business associates. In the early ‘80s, my then writing partner, Rene Balcer, who’s gone on to have am extraordinary career in television…he and I wrote together and wrote some very good scripts. One of them was a project for Monte that didn’t get made. But it sort of launched Rene’s career and my career as it were… By the time we broke up our partnership, I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life. I had written Iguana in ’88. This was after Rene and [me] writing in ’81-’82. He was very focused on writing as a career. He went straight into TV… I bounced around, made a little film in Holland. I bought the rights to a novel by Simone de Beauvoir which became [All Men Are Mortal]. I have a credit on that. But it became very, very clear to me by around 1990-’91, that I was not set to make a life out of screenwriting. Because I didn’t want to be a screenwriter for hire. I wanted to be a screenwriter working for Fellini or Bergman or Ken Loach or Monte Hellman… I wanted to make really special movies. I felt I’d run out of time. I’d put about 15-20 years into being an independent artist. I started a recording studio in the ‘70s. I tried being a songwriter in Nashville in the early ‘70s. It was clear to me that if I was going to have any kind of a grown-up life, I better get a real job. I went into journalism full-time. And almost, for the most part, put screenwriting aside for awhile and got married and had a kid, and came back to it a few years ago.
JT: On Better Watch Out, aka Silent Night, Deadly Night III you were credited as “Creative Consultant.” Obviously, you had been working with Monte, but what did you contribute to that film, and how did you come to have that credit?
SG: A fellow named Rex Weiner had written the script. Arthur Gorson, who’s a friend of Monte’s and [mine], a producer and really smart guy, saw this opportunity that popped up to work on this little horror film and got Monte the gig to direct it. Rex wrote very quickly, a script that would have been the third [movie] in the Silent Night, Deadly Night series… Monte said to me, “Read this and let me know if you could help me fix it…” I read it, and I said, “I don’t know what you need. But I’ll tell you, the only thing I could possibly do to help is [that] I could make it funnier.” He said, “Perfect. Just do that.” Basically, I wrote all the laughs. I wrote specific scenes and bits. I worked on certain characters… I wrote a lot of…the funny stuff with Richard Beymer as the slightly dodgy scientist… I am really proud that I put in the joke that I had found… No one on the movie understood this joke. Monte even confessed to me he didn’t understand it. But he liked it so much he didn’t care that he didn’t understand it. So I put in the joke about, “What would you call if you get déjà vu twice?…” “Beymer says, “An extrasensory echo?” And Robert Culp says, “No. Stupid.” It’s one of those elliptical, funny, conceptual jokes. The cool thing was when [a critic] wrote about the movie…He said, “This joke is the embodiment of sequelitis. It’s a critique of making sequels like Silent Night, Deadly Night III. It’s Déjà vu twice.” So he saw it was a critique and indictment of sequels that nicely dove-tailed into his ideas… I didn’t really do anything structurally to the script… I think that I felt that because what I had done was so humble and quick…if the issue of a credit came up, I said, “Just put me on as a creative consultant.” I didn’t feel it justified a screenwriter credit. Although since then, in a lot of places it gives me a credit as a screenwriter.
JT: I would imagine being an Executive Editor at “Variety” is a very time and attention-consuming job. How do you balance your work there with writing your screenplays and then being on-set during filming?
SG: The truth is, right now I’m very frustrated because I’m trying to finish a script. My work at “Variety” is so time-consuming and intense that I’m finding very little time to finish it. Maybe that’s why I’ve turned to the songwriting again, putting together a demo of some songs for pitching to Nashville and places. It’s very difficult. You have to be more disciplined than I am, or more organized… When you spend everyday working at “Variety” as I do, the idea of finding some time in the morning or evening to write – in the past I was able to do it. I’m not sure even how I did it… I’ve worked at “Variety” almost twenty years… I’ve written [four] full, original screenplays during that time… But four or five scripts across twenty years is not exactly an intensity.
JT: How did you get the initial idea for Road to Nowhere, and come to combine a modern-day take on the film noir genre with a film about a group of young filmmakers?
SG: I had a dream about a movie that…seemed like it was set in New Orleans. I remember there were levies and canals and stuff. In the dream, a crime had been committed while making a film… People in the story were confused, and couldn’t figure out if the murder had happened on the set or in the movie. I wrote down some notes from that dream… That piece of paper floated around my study for maybe two or three years… I found it one day. I guess in some moment of desperation or inspiration, I banged out about a page of elaborating that into an idea for a story. I sent it to Monte; he just said, “Wow. This is really neat.” He sent it to Dennis Bartok who had just produced Trapped Ashes. Dennis said, “God, this is the funniest thing that I’ve ever read. This is really cool.” They were both so enthusiastic, and Monte has just done [the section of Trapped Ashes] Stanley’s Girlfriend… So that’s when I gave him my notes for this idea for a movie. They were really encouraging. I went off and wrote a movie. I don’t remember what I pitched, but it was developed into the idea of a murder happens on a location on a set… I got into it and I started making it more and more precise in this place that has this Road to Nowhere, which was not the title or the idea at the beginning. When I discovered Lake Fontana, I discovered the Road to Nowhere. Everything sort of took shape in terms of inventing the idea that there was this crime story that somebody was trying to make into a movie. Then there was this confusion about the crime and the movie and which was real and what wasn’t… Way after we made the film, maybe even a year after we made it, I was thinking about the movie. I’d watched it again for maybe the tenth time. I realized how, without ever telling Monte the feeling of the dream, how much Monte had made a movie that expressed the feeling of the dream. The feeling of the dream was anxiety over not understanding what had happened. It was very disquieting. When you finish, you don’t understand what’s happened… The people that like the movie are impressed that they’ve had a disordering experience. The people that hate the movie are very upset that they’ve had a disordering experience. But it’s a disordering movie.
JT: Fontana Lake is such a crucial element to the whole movie, and one that appears to have really shaped your writing process. How did you come across it?
SG: It started by looking for a big dam. I had a scene in mind of this guy crashing his plane into a lake. I think because of the noir and wherever I was in the writing of the movie, I was thinking of the South. So I started Googling major dams and lakes. When I came to Fontana, I flipped out completely… My hometown, it’s called Fontana. So when I found this location that was perfect for the movie I was writing, and it had the same name as the town I grew up in, I just went, “This is fucking cool.” Then the more and more specific we got into the idea of North Carolina and the dam and the towns, it became a real place, and a real place for a movie. The Road to Nowhere, when I saw that I said, “If you’re going to make a Monte Hellman film, Road to Nowhere is a hell of a good title.” Just the idea of a road that doesn’t go anywhere, that was built for a purpose, but there was corruption and chicanery… Everything meshed very nicely.
JT: You were working with Monte, who’s done everything from have new drafts of scripts written by different writers on several occasions, to throwing out or rewriting entire sections of movies. As a writer, and knowing that going in, do you enjoy that process? What about it makes you excited to give your scripts to Monte?
SG: I think I was mentally prepared for virtually anything to happen, because it had in the past. The nice thing is, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now has a copy of my script, which they asked for… It’s there for people to read. When you read my script, you’ll see that actually…the script is really well-adhered to. It’s almost all there. What changed was the order of things, and there were some really nice improvisations, based upon the scenes that I’d written, that really deepened the scenes. [And] cutting some things out that I was enthusiastically into cutting out. Because as a producer on the movie, I could see as we were in North Carolina, we were talking about shooting some scenes about Velma Duran in Cuba. We discover that she’s a spy. And she’s working against Castro. She’s killed by the secret police… We cut all that out. Because the movie was running long… We felt we didn’t need to explain everything about her. I felt that if we went to Florida, we’d never finish the movie. I’m sure I’m right about that… When we shot the movie, we shot it as it was. As we were going along we were cutting things out. There were certain lines that the actors were just thrown off by and couldn’t duplicate… I had the movie ending on a camera going into a photograph that becomes pixilated. It was a photograph where…we couldn’t achieve the photoshop effect we were trying to do. It gave Monte the opportunity to ask me, “What if the picture were this thing? It’s much more simple…” He deepened what was in the script… The last thing in the script was, “A photograph of Velma Duran.” But the genius of Monte in one experience is, instead of it being Velma Duran with other people, and there being almost a satirical, comic spin to it…it was more like the end of The Shining, where there was a story element to it that…had several layers of meaning and questioned the whole script… To me, that’s very characteristic of the changes. So quite contrary to Iguana, where Monte took my script, he took David Zehr’s script, he took what he wrote, [and] cut all these things together… This was an original screenplay that Monte really honored much more than he realizes… Monte likes to talk about the fact that we all went off and we made this movie and we let our imaginations run wild. And it was wildly improvised. And it just took on a life of it’s own. I think that’s absolutely true, metaphorically speaking. But I think his daughter [producer Melissa Hellman] and I both have a view of the script and the movie that says, “Actually, he didn’t change it that much.”
JT: The beginning of the film sets up a lot of information very quickly. Part of that is a thirteen-minute section with music and sounds, but no dialogue. Long sections with no dialogue is normal for a Monte Hellman, but was that how you initially approached the screenplay?
SG: I think so… In the editing, that’s where it really became very disordered. In other words, [Monte and editor Celine Ameslon] changed the script dramatically in terms of how things are cut together, but the things that are cut together are all in the script… One of the things that it does adhere to, is that the first time we see the so-called “crime” and what happens in North Carolina. It’s played as if it were the news account of it… There is a difference in the sense that we had some stuff early on in the Capitol where Velma, maybe Velma and Bruno [Waylon Payne], run into each other and know each other. There were some scenes cut in there of some dialogue and stuff. Again, the things we cut out were things…that just would have made the movie longer and longer. Monte is an editor. He’s an editor not just doing pieces of cinema. But he’s an editor of ideas. So he edited out ideas that were extemporaneous to the script. The shooting script…was probably about 124 pages. We probably cut out about twenty.
JT: There’s that line in the film when Mitchell Haven screams, “We cut the script down to 95 pages and the movie is running over four hours.” Monte told me that’s what actually was happening on-set. As you were on-set, was that something you tried to rein in or resolve?
SG: It wasn’t a thing to rein in, or even be concerned about… Maybe I’m so stupid about the filmmaking process. We had all kinds of stuff. I think Monte was feeling, “The movie’s running way too long. I’ve got hours of stuff and we keep cutting the script down.” Again, I think it seems more metaphorical than actual reality.
JT: One of the things the film sets up right immediately is Sossamon’s performance. In an interview on the DVD, you talked about running into her by accident, and how she struck you as a “Monte Hellman heroine.” What about her brought to mind the women who have been in Monte’ previous movies?
SG: Is she slightly passive and oblique like Laurie Bird in Two-Lane Blacktop? A little bit. Is she very impassive and dark and mysterious like Millie Perkins in The Shooting? Very much so. Is she very physically similar to [Annabelle Huggins] in Back Door to Hell? She’s really close to that. Also, she’s not that distant from Maru [Valdivielso] in Iguana… Physically, she very much matches the dark hair and facial characteristics of an almost European, elegant woman… Then I’ve known Monte for forty years, and known him through various relationships and girls he’s had crushes on and gone out with… When I saw Shannyn, I just looked at her and thought of [Huggins]… I thought, “She looks like that girl.” I know Monte so well. I thought she looked like a Monte Hellman actress. So I sent her to Monte on that basis. And, the rest is history.
JT: Another thing the film sets up immediately in the music of Tom Russell, which is important throughout the film in a number of ways. What was your knowledge of Tom Russell when you were writing the script, did you know that his new and old music would come to be the main score?
SG:I had never heard of Tom Russell… I was aware outside of this movie experience that Monte had become fond of some of Tom’s stuff. But I had barely listened to him… My taste in country music, Monte has known. I think I’ve introduced Monte to people like Johnny Cash and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Some of that country I think Monte has come to appreciate. We both love Dylan. So we have a musical meeting of minds… Monte decided that he wanted one voice musically for the film. I said, “Cool.” He used the comparison to The Graduate and Simon and Garfunkel… It’s very much like Cat Stevens in Harold and Maude…I had written some songs that I hoped would get in the movie… But knowing Monte, I totally respected that they didn’t light his fire… I’ve come to believe if Monte is the most underappreciated director in America, Tom Russell may be the most underappreciated singer/songwriter in America. I’ve seen him live two or three times now. I think “Road to Nowhere” is an amazing song, blows me away. I think “Roll the Credits” is an amazing song that blows me away. He’s got a bunch more that aren’t in the movie, obviously. He is just so beautiful. He’s a meta-cinema-music guy. “Roll the Credits” is a meta-song or a meta-cinematic song. So Monte’s instinct for the guy who wrote “Touch of Evil” and all these other songs about movies, [“Farewell Never Never Land”] and all this stuff. Who on Earth could be better than Tom Russell who is an authentic, American country artist, who has this intellect and these layers of meaning in his songs that are like a European art movie? That’s Monte. Monte’s an American artist, with a layer of intellectual conceit, which is Tom. They’re soul brothers completely.
JT: With the opening credits of the film-within-a-film, one of the things that immediately revealed is Mitchell Haven as a stand-in for Monte Hellman. I know the character was originally named Monte Hellman, where did that idea come from? Were you writing the script as being a documentary about Monte Hellman?
SG: When I wrote the script in early ’07, Monte was invited to Cannes with Trapped Ashes… Dennis went with him… Dennis and I spent a lot of time together just meeting and talking, drinking and laughing. As we drank and talked and laughed, his compass that he gave me, that I think really helped the movie a lot was that, the lead character should be Monte… I’d based it on some characteristics of Monte. He said, “Don’t go halfway. Go all the way. It should really be Monte. It should be all the funny things that he says and does. Because that’s your compass point.” I’d already been there. I was at least halfway there. I went even further. I made the writer named Steve Gaydos… I think we can thank Charlie Kaufman [Adaptation] for making everybody feel like they can indulge themselves in this kind of metaphysical thing, or meta-cinematic thing. But Monte felt, correctly, that it was a bit too much. It was confusing people. Because people kept saying, “Nobody knows who Monte Hellman is.” I would say, “It’s not important. He’s an indie filmmaker. His name could be Marty Hellman. Or Barney Hellman. It’s not important who he is. It’s the character…” I think the nineteenth time we heard it was confusing people; Monte didn’t like it anyway, so we just changed it all. Then we came up with our doppelgangers.
JT: In looking at the film through the lens of Monte’s life, to what extent was Laurel Graham a stand-in for or inspired by Laurie Bird?
SG: It’s completely based on Laurie Bird. Because somehow Graham and Bird in my mind…I remember it kind of being of Scottish derivation. So I wanted a name that matched in my head for Laurie’s ethnic background… It really was Laurie Bird. What I didn’t understand until after the movie was made, was how much it was the story of what happened to Laurie in metaphorical terms. That she went into a business situation that killed her. I think Monte feels this way to some degree. I feel it very strongly… Laurie Bird got into show business, and she was not emotionally equipped to be in with the big kids. She started running around in New York, after she and Monte split up, with a pretty fast crowd. A lot of drugs and a lot of hard people, very hard people, she was a very soft person… She was a kid. I think that she pretended to be hard. Her pretense of pretending to be hard killed her in a killer business… She was somebody that I think is truly honored by the movie. Because her confusion or her complexity is a riddle that can’t be solved. But it’s not a kind world for people who are maybe lost in their own artifice, their own art. I think that Laurie didn’t get a chance to sort out what was driving her and where she was trying to drive to. Laurel Graham is compelled to hide in plain sight… She’s compelled to take on challenges. Monte said early on, “She’s a spy. It’s a spy movie.” I agree. She’s a spy. [It’s as] if in Notorious, Ingrid Bergman actually gets killed by the Nazis, because she took on something that was bigger than what her ability was as a spy. Because I think Ingrid Bergman is not an actual spy in the movie. They use her in Notorious for a spy caper. But she’s not a professional. I think that’s Laurel Graham. She’s a would-be actress. She gets into being an actress. She gets into a world of danger. She gets deeper and deeper into it. She’s not really ready for the fact that things could go wrong.
JT: Everything we see on-screen, about trying to get the movie financed, cast, etc., then the film falling apart on-set, how much of that was influenced by things you’ve covered in your time at “Variety”, and how much was influenced by decades you’ve spent, either in development hell or on hard-fraught film sets?
SG: I like to think that Monte and I have a very overdeveloped sense of humor about show business. I think they are a lot of jokes in the movie that, whether they’re hysterically funny or not, they’re ruefully true. Whether it be Peter Bart…improving his line, “It’s not just show.” Or… When Mitchell says “All we can do now is fuck it up.” That’s a Monte Hellman line. I believe that’s in the script. Then Rob Kolar improvises the line, “Oh, and we will.” “It’s my piece-of-shit Hollywood movie.” I think all of that is based upon on a hyperawareness of our own egotism and our own place in a funny business that’s fueled by a lot of self-awareness and hubris and foolishness. “This is going to be Mitch Haven’s masterpiece.” The whole idea of Mitch wanting to make something special, I don’t think Mitch has to be Tarantino. But I think Mitch is maybe the next Tarantino or the second Tarantino or he’s James Gray. He’s an acclaimed indie filmmaker. But he’s still a 34-year-old guy. A lot of people have said, “Tygh does not play Mitch as if he were a genius, masterpiece filmmaker.” [Mitch] never says, “I’m making a masterpiece…” People say that about him. Mitch says that about other people’s movies. But he never says, “I’m going to make this my masterpiece.” It’s the guy from Tiger’s Den who says, “We all think this is going to be Mitch Haven’s masterpiece.” So I think he plays him as a 34-year-old filmmaker who’s gotten a lot of acclaim, maybe has had a bit of a writer’s block or creative block. Maybe his big success, his Reservoir Dogs, was seven years ago. So he’s not…Scorsese after making Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. He’s the 34-year-old indie guy who’s gotten a bunch of acclaim. But he doesn’t have to be a genius.
JT: How did the concept of a film-within-a-film-within-a-film evolve as you were developing the screenplay? When you’re dealing with varying realities in a script that’s non-linear, how did you figure out how to reveal everything, and where everything would fall in the screenplay?
SG: The script has three [sections] in the movie. Production, pre-production, post. So it’s very ordered. We see the crime committed. And the suicide. So we see the supposed real-life thing that it’s based on. Then we see the production of the movie. In the making of the movie, we start to see other bits of information… When you see the real Velma Duran, with her real father, Nestor Duran and you see their relationship. There was stuff at the Palm Beach Polo Club. She’s a polo-playing beautiful girl. He buys her a saddle. You see what death he’s trying to cover up. You see her in Cuba. You see the secret police grabbing her and taking her to a barn. She’s tortured. She jumps on a horse and rides off and they shoot her. When you see everything in the original script, that tells you that Velma Duran was working to bring down Castro and the dictatorship in Cuba, and was part of an ex-pat family of Cuban dissonance, it’s really a hell of a lot less mysterious. When you take that out, and you never once ever see the real Velma Duran in the movie, you only see Laurel Graham playing her in the movie, it makes it probably exponentially more mysterious.
JT: One of the things that the film reveals out of the gate that’s maintained throughout is this brand of Steven Gaydos dialogue. Every line in the film is memorable and poetic, yet they run the gamut from the stylized to the insightful, the tragic to the hilarious. How did you find the feel of the dialogue in the film, and execute it throughout the screenplay?
SG: I’ve written about thirty scripts. I think I was always very good with character and dialogue. I was always pretty crap at structure. The funniest thing about this movie is that if [you] came to me and said, “Here’s $150,000, I’ve got an outline for a story. It’s a little complicated. It’s a movie about a movie about a movie about a true story that isn’t true. So there are four levels of reality happening in the script. And you have to work in all this stuff.” I would have handed you your money back and said, “I can’t write that.” Because my brain does not work the way the script works. But once I got into this, I just plunged on…and started piecing it together and it started working. But I would have been intimated to write something with these different layers of complexity. I think the easiest thing for me, is [that] I’ve been immersed as a child in Film Noir. I think I’m fairly immersed in movies like The Stunt Man, Day for Night, In a Lonely Place and 8½. And working at “Variety,” I think I have a sense of who these people are… The short answer to your question is, somebody once said, “Write what you know.” Well I sure as hell know indie filmmakers. I sure as hell know writers. I sure as hell know directors. I kind of know actresses. I sure as hell know producers. I sure as hell have my own sense of cop movies from writing them and watching them. So I think that was the way that worked.
JT: The film is a very different experience for everyone that watches it, and is even a very different experience over multiple viewings. Was that something you were conscious of trying to achieve as you were writing?
SG: There were a lot of things that I wrote that were meant to have multiple meanings and to achieve a lot of different stuff… The level of intentionally is about ninety-seven percent… Some of the names really surprise me when I look at Film Noir, and I realize that I’ve absorbed these things. Like Laurel Graham, I watched In a Lonely Place after [making Road to Nowhere], then I realized, there’s Gloria Graham, and her character’s name is Laurel… There are a lot of things where there’s a synchronicity, and there are a lot of things that are extremely intentional. Bruno is named after the character in Strangers on a Train that Robert Walker plays… Then Waylon Payne ends up playing that role. In his own way, he’s kind of Robert Walker in this movie… I tried to put things in, some writers call them Easter Eggs. You find them and you say, “Did he really put that in?” But most of them I really did.
JT: Natalie Post feels like the character most-steeped in this film noir mythology, a modern-day take on the investigative journalist. Her character very easily could have been very stylized, but always feels very modern and fresh. How did you find that fine line?
SG: She started as a reporter. Then I realized that a reporter today is not a reporter… It was clear to me that a woman writing about local politics today wouldn’t write about local politics. There are no local papers. So she became a blogger. My mother was a newspaperwoman named Natalie. Post is Laurie Post who worked on the movie with us. But it’s also got a double meaning, because she’s posting on her blog… I marvel at everybody in the movie. I love all the actors in the movie… Originally, Bruno was a big, imposing, brawny guy. Waylon is not. But Waylon is spectacularly good as Bruno. Natalie Post and Dominique [Swan]… I love her interpretation. I think she has the spirit of Natalie Post. I always saw Natalie as… the bright girl in the class who’s jealous of the cute girl… Dominique plays it [as] a little bit of the horny…girl with the glasses… She doesn’t get enough notice or credit in this movie. She didn’t do as much publicity and go out with us as much. But I think, for me personally as the writer, Dominique brought Natalie Post exactly as I imagined Natalie Post.
JT: Monte said that came into your own as producer during post-production. How did that come about? What was your ultimate contribution in that capacity?
SG: I think what Monte means is that I rescued the movie financially… We made this movie as amateur producers. We had professional filmmakers and amateur producers… Monte and [director of photography] Josep [M Civit] and the whole crew were one-hundred percent professional. But those of us tasked with being producers on this film were complete fucking idiots. So we made the movie incredibly inexpensively. It’s an incredibly beautiful film. But nothing was ever done in a way that was proper… Monte’s daughter [Melissa] got us into the movie by finding a backer… We never could have made the movie for the amount of money we raised for the movie. The shortfall did not need to be as pronounced as it was, if we [had been] better at what we were doing. But that said, ninety percent of the people that would try to make this movie would never make it as inexpensively. So I’m being a bit brutal when I say we were idiots. But I’m also not being brutal when I say that we didn’t know what we were doing as producers… I think I came into my own on the casting of the movie…suggesting Monte look at Waylon and Shannyn… I think maybe also [Monte’s] referring to the fact that other [producers] might have said to him, “What are you doing here, Monte?” If you don’t like the movie, you may feel that he indulged himself in the kind of pacing that he chose and his decisions to take a scene like Laurel dressing for her meeting, prepping to meet Mitch downstairs in Rome. Some people may be driven crazy by the amount of time and detail Monte spends on it. I thought it was odd. I thought it was slightly eccentric. I may have even felt it was slightly indulgent. But it was Monte’s passion to make the movie in a way he was excited about. I trusted that… I think the key to the whole movie is her tying her shoes in that scene… The resonance and the echo of the little girl tying her shoes in The Spirit of the Beehive…Shannyn Sossamon looks like her grown-up. This is where the magic of an artist at work, a poet like Monte… Monte took what I consider a really fucking good script, and Monte turned it into a poem. Some people would want their script turned into a hit movie. Some people would want their script turned into a more commercial movie. Some people might want their script turned into a more entertaining movie. For me, to have my script turned into a poem by a great poet is as good as it fucking gets.
JT: Monte told me about a couple of projects you two were developing and/or raising money for. What is the current status of those?
SG: We have someone helping us package Rattlesnake Shakedown right now. So there’s a lot of road between here and Dodge, as they say, but we do have some allies coming aboard… It’s never easy. We’re trying very hard… I’m trying to finish the script of the brilliant Herbert Gold novel, “The Man Who Was Not With It.” I think Monte will turn that into a masterpiece. I don’t think it will be that difficult to set-up once I finish writing it. It’s an Academy Award role… It’s very much like a Midnight Cowboy movie.
JT: You said in an interview on the DVD that Road to Nowhere would spend years explaining itself to you. Now you’re further along the journey of the film getting out into the world and some time has passed, how has the film explained itself to you since shooting?
SG: It [has] explained itself to me in ways that I can’t even articulate right now, in a sense of the porousness of reality and what we experience… Some reviews have taught me things about the movie. One critic, I don’t even remember who it was, a couple of years ago said, “Bergman’s radical contribution to cinema was he demonstrated that dreams have their own reality, that is an important as our waking reality. But Monte Hellman has made a film that proposes that there is no reality. It’s so dark. This is so bleak. That there is only darkness. There is only a void. This movie is ultimately about us and a void…” When you work with a real poet, you work with someone whose end product is a place that you go into and see different things. It is the highest achievement of art… When [Quentin] Tarantino gave him the award in Venice, the award read…“Minimalist poet.” The idea that Monte is a minimalist poet, and that I had the blessed good fortune to work with a real poet, all this other shit fades away.
Filed under: LiC Interview