WRITERS in Hollywood soon learn three major rules," says Walter Hill, a slightly Satanic smile playing around the edges of his mouth. "One is that people often don't pay writers. Two is that people often lie to writers. And three is that the director has his boot on your throat.
"My object," he concludes, "was to remove that boot from my throat and get my boot on someone else's."
Walter Hill, who has succeeded so spectacularly in that area, as in films like "Hard Times," "The Warriors," and the just-released "The Long Riders," proved himself to be such an intuitively visual and cinematic director that it is difficult to remember he started behind a typewriter. David Denby sees him as "one of the rare American directors with a choreographic sense," Pauline Kael called the "The Warriors" "a real moviemakers' movie, mesmerizing in its intensity," and the feeling around the industry is that few if any directors handle sheer kinetic energy better than he does.
At age 40, with touches of gray around his full beard, Walter Hill seems at once articulate and reserved, a man who can talk sharply and to the point but only if the spirit moves him. He admits to a fascination with a facility for action sequences, saying, "If I'm going to have a pigeon hole, that's an honorable one." But he adds that many people have a "misperception" about what makes action work on the screen.
"Audiences have seen every stunt, every kind of explosion, leap, punch or gunshot you can think of," he says. "So the effect of any action scene depends on character development, on making the audience respond. That involvement may be unconscious -- it's not like "Kramer vs. Kramer," where you know characterization is important going in -- but even in movies where guns go off, if the characters aren't working, the action doesn't work."
So even in "The Long Riders," which Hill has graced with a magnificent action sequence, a re-action of the ill-fated Northfield, Minn., raid by the combined James-Younger outlaw gang, it is the people, not the pyrotechnics that the director prefers to talk about.
And the people are unique, for "The Long Riders" features no fewer than four sets of actor-brothers -- David, Keith and Robert Carridine, James and Stacy Keach, Dennis and Randy Quaid, Christopher and Nicholas Guest -- playing the Youngers, the Jameses, the Millers and the Fords, fierce outlays every one.
"The first time I heard about the casting I thought, 'Oh, God, what a terribly gimmicky idea.' But the more I thought about it, the only problem seemed how it would finally be perceived by the audience," Hill says. "I decided if we made a movie that didn't emphasize the gimmicky aspects, we'd be better off."
A native of Southern California, Hill has been doing the slightly unexpected every since he decided to study art at a college in Mexico City. He first thought seriously of a career in film while hanging around Los Angeles waiting for an army induction that never came. "I met a couple of people, I read a couple of scripts, and with the arrogance of youth I thought, 'Well, hey, if that's all there is to it.'" He started writing and in 1972 after "The Getaway" starring Steve McQueen became a success, Hill had enough clout to direct as well as write his next screenplay, "Hard Times," the story of a New Orleans street fighter.
"Like most of these things, it was a happy series of coincidences," he explains. "Columbia was close to bankruptcy at the time and they were anxious to make a deal with anybody. We sent the script to Charles Bronson and I'll be . . . if his agent didn't call back two days later and say he wanted to do it. And when Bronson came into it, Columbia was very happy to let me direct."
Though he had made the transition to writer-director, Hill is suspicious of the motives of some of the people who've done the same thing in recent years. "I have a rather strong feeling that there is an unfortunate tendency in that," he explains. "People are almost starting to perceive that if a writer doesn't become a director, there is something wrong with his career. People are switching not to follow their natural inclinations, but to ease career problems. I understand that, but I don't think it's a very good reason."
After "Hard Times," Hill did "The Driver," starring Ryan O'Neal as an emotionless professional criminal. Then came "The Warriors," Hill's gang-oriented opus that ran into a good deal of flak when movie theaters that showed it became scenes of real-life violence.
"It was frustrating," Hill says, still frustrated at the memory. "I especially resent the feeling that that kind of publicity is what turns your movie into a hit. In fact, 'The Warriors' made four-fifths of what it was going to make in its first five days: People were afraid to go to the theaters after that."
Though he conceded that "none of the people making gang movies realized what a volatile situation gangs in America were," he adds that "it just seems to me that so much of that chat about the movie was rather stupid, a manufactured issue by a lot of the media that had nothing to do that week."
He also feels little sympathy for what he calls "middlebrow reviews, the critical assumption that the world is a nasty place, shouldn't it be a better place, and can't pictures help."
Hill had a film fall through after "The Warriors,"; and when the chance to do "The Long Riders" came up, he jumped at it. "I'd been dying to do a Western for years. I just like 'em," he explains. "There's a kind of an idyllic quality that surrounds the shooting of them, it seems like a more fundamental film process, more to me what movies are about than clearing crowds off a city street."
The high point of "The Long Riders" is that sequence showing the outlaws attacking a bank in Northfield and then being boxed in and just about massacred by the locals. It runs for 4 1/2 minutes on the screen and took nearly an entire week to shoot, the most trouble coming with the segment where the gang finally breaks free by jumping their horses through two sets of plate-glass shop windows.
"Anything you do with horses is very trickly and the hardest thing was to get the horses to go through that glass," Hill says. "We trained them for three weeks, making them do the jump without the glass.Once we conditioned them to that, we put the glass in. It's a big surprise to the horses, and they'll only do it once. We had to use a different set of horses for the second jump."
Hill used four cameras, each set at a different speed, to film the sequence; and though he knows comparison to Sam Peckinpah's use of slow motion in "The Wild Bunch" is inevitable, he feels "the way Sam used slow motion was almost directly opposite to mine. What Sam was doing was making individual moments more real by extending them, kind of underlining the horrible moment of being shot. 'The Long Riders' is meant to be almost dream-like to have the reality of a nightmare, where everything is going wrong but there's no focus to it, you don't know where you are or how you got there." b
Hill's next film is "The Last Good Kiss," a detective story that he described by saying, "If you can imagine a Raymond Chandler story about someone with a 'Laura' fixation set in a contemporary Western background, you'll have it." After that comes a dream assignment for an action director: Dashiell Hammett's classic "Red Harvest."
One thing that is not in Hill's future as yet, though critics have commented on his choreographic skills, is a musical. "I've always loved to do a remake of 'Pal Joey,'" he says smiling. "But nobody ever calls me."