In­ter­view, the man be­hind this sum­mer’s Baby Driver talks to the man be­hind cult 1978 car-chase thriller The Driver. edgar wright and wal­ter hill, start your en­gines

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - words chris he­witt por­traits steve schofield

EDGAR WRIGHT: “I FIRST SAW Wal­ter Hill’s sec­ond film, The Driver, as a teenager, late at night on the BBC, quite pos­si­bly sit­ting too close to the telly. Given that this 1978 slice of neo-noir takes place almost en­tirely in the dark streets of a de­serted down­town LA, it’s re­ally a per­fect mid­night movie. I dis­cov­ered it through hav­ing en­joyed Wal­ter’s later suc­cesses,

48 Hrs. and The War­riors, and be­cause of a short Leonard Maltin re­view that stated it had ‘great car chases’. That was more than enough to con­vince me to stay up and watch it on a school night. But 91 min­utes later I was to­tally spell­bound by this di­a­mond-tight, min­i­mal­ist masterclass, which stars Ryan O’neal as a get­away driver (known only as The Driver) and Bruce Dern as the cop (known as The De­tec­tive) out to get him. Its in­flu­ence on video games is very clear and in movies its style has echoed through­out the work of Michael Mann, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Ni­co­las Refn and now me with my new film (ahem), Baby Driver. Yet it wasn’t un­til 2011, when I asked Wal­ter Hill to do a Q&A with me at the New Bev­erly Cin­ema in LA, that I re­alised I had to con­vince its own di­rec­tor of its sig­nif­i­cant legacy. When I told Wal­ter I was show­ing it, he replied, ‘I’m not sure any­one will show up.’ He was wrong and was fi­nally re­warded with his first full house for the ac­tion clas­sic. Six years later, at the in­vi­ta­tion of Em­pire, I headed to a key lo­ca­tion from the movie, the Westin Bon­aven­ture, to con­tinue re­mind­ing the leg­endary writer/di­rec­tor what a hard-boiled gem it is.”

Wright: Frank Mar­shall [who was as­so­ciate pro­ducer on The Driver] sends his love. He also sends this photo [the Mercedes door signed by mem­bers of the cast and crew (on page 105)]. I was amazed that he had this. I can’t be­lieve you don’t have this in your house. “Ask Wal­ter if he re­mem­bers this...”

Hill: [laughs] That’s from one of our big scenes, the ‘Ex­hi­bi­tion’ [where The Driver proves his met­tle to a gang by screech­ing around a park­ing garage at high speed]. That’s the Mercedes door. That scene al­ways got a re­ac­tion.

Wright: The Driver wasn’t com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful at the time, but when I was a teenager I had no knowl­edge of that. At no point un­til talk­ing to you was I even aware it was a flop.

Hill: The movie ac­tu­ally got a very good re­cep­tion in Europe, crit­i­cally. I don’t think you can say the movie did com­mer­cially well any­where, ex­cept Ja­pan, where I be­lieve it did rea­son­able busi­ness. It did not find an au­di­ence.

Wright: To me, es­pe­cially for your sec­ond movie, it’s in­cred­i­bly con­fi­dent in terms of state-of-theart ac­tion. Un­like a lot of con­tem­po­rary ac­tion films, it’s ge­o­graph­i­cally cor­rect and spa­tially aware. Were you proud of it at the time?

Hill: There’s no sim­ple an­swer to that. You’re a film­maker. You start out with a big vi­sion, a big ap­petite, a dream. At the end of the day they all fall short of the dream, in my opin­ion. But I cer­tainly thought I’d done a good, pro­fes­sional job in the straight­for­ward sense. I knew when I was get­ting ready to do the movie that I was tak­ing a chance. This was not meant to be an ev­ery­day ac­tion movie. I was try­ing to do some­thing a lit­tle more, or a lit­tle less, but I was try­ing to do some­thing else. When the movie came out, I was al­ready mak­ing an­other movie

[The War­riors], so I had a para­chute on. You never know. You know this very well, it’s an odd way to be mak­ing a liv­ing. If they de­cide they don’t like you any­more, the phone may not ring.

Wright: One of the things that is amaz­ing about your scripts is the way you write. There’s almost a beat-po­etry el­e­ment to the stage di­rec­tion. I ac­tu­ally read the Driver screen­play be­fore I started writ­ing my movie be­cause I wanted to know, how do you write a car chase? I have to write this thing in words which is only go­ing to be re­ally ex­cit­ing in ac­tion on screen. How­ever, you re­ally write ac­tion beau­ti­fully. It’s almost like lit­tle haiku of ac­tion.

Hill: You’re prob­a­bly too kind in your as­sess­ment. When I was be­gin­ning as a writer, there was a bland Hol­ly­wood style that ev­ery­body seemed to ap­pro­pri­ate for their scripts. I had the temer­ity to try to do a lit­tle more. I wasn’t first, I don’t think. Maybe I pushed it a lit­tle fur­ther than some of the oth­ers.

Hill: It was my job to set back­ground and also to set it up with the po­lice. We had to or­gan­ise ev­ery shot so peo­ple wouldn’t wan­der out into the mid­dle of the street and be hit.

Wright: Mown down by a Mus­tang!

Wright: [pro­duc­ing the screen­play for The Driver from his bag] This is one I got from the li­brary at CAA. What’s amaz­ing is you have an en­tire page of stage di­rec­tions, which is usu­ally a no-no, but the way you laid it out is thrilling. It’s un­usual to see a page like that in con­tem­po­rary screen­writ­ing.

Hill: I thought that ap­proach made peo­ple read with greater in­ten­tion. It’s spare in de­tail but writ­ten to dra­matic ef­fect. You could maybe cap­ture the mind of the reader a lit­tle bet­ter.

Wright: It’s in­ter­est­ing to me that you were the sec­ond AD on Bul­litt, and that’s ob­vi­ously a ma­jor car-chase film. Hill: I wasn’t in charge of any­thing cre­ative on

Bul­litt, but I was scared to death! I was there for ev­ery shot. Wright: Scared to death in what sense? Hill: Right. So ev­ery time we did a shot I was scared to death. I can’t tell you how many times I’d need to grab peo­ple that were in­no­cently try­ing to cross the street or got tired of wait­ing. I was afraid some­thing would go trag­i­cally wrong, which gave me a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive when I got to di­rect a car chase my­self. Wright: What, if any­thing, did you learn from see­ing Peter Yates do that movie? Hill: In the sim­ple tech­ni­cal sense, I was amazed at how much time and ef­fort was com­mit­ted to shoot­ing from in­side the cars. The chase took, if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly, a lit­tle over two weeks. Wright: I can say with cer­tainty that set­ting car mounts is no quicker to­day. I stood there at the side of a road go­ing, “How long’s it go­ing to be, guys? An hour? Re­ally? I’m ready!” Hill: Then I would go to dailies and quickly re­alise how wrong I was. What made the Bul­litt chase re­mark­able was not just stunts. It was the tech­nique of shoot­ing from in­side. You re­ally felt it was a rollercoaster ride as well as some­thing you were ob­serv­ing. I made damn sure that

when I was do­ing The Driver I filmed an enor­mous amount of in­side shots.

Wright: The open­ing chase, shot right out­side this ho­tel, is all rear-mounted, locked cam­eras, or the front-point-of-view cam­era, locked to the rear-view mir­ror. It’s al­ways go­ing with the car and his point of view of the po­lice, see­ing it from the get­away car. Hill: Mir­ror shots. Wright: Very tricky things to do. It was a rough un­der­tak­ing. The chases were all done at the end of the film. We shot the drama, then we shot the chases.

Wright: So you could build up to it? Hill: We wanted to get the day stuff out of the way and then kick over to nights. I thought do­ing them at night would be very much more in the spirit of what the sto­ry­telling wanted to be. It’s not meant to be a re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion of what real crim­i­nals are like, or what real life in the city was like. I was not in­ter­ested in any of that. By the way, the first chase was, in my opin­ion, kind of a fail­ure. It was meant to lead up to a much more spec­tac­u­lar fin­ish.

Wright: With him driv­ing against the cops. Hill: The night we were to shoot the end of that was the last night of the movie. An elec­tri­cian sadly fell off a roof and was ter­ri­bly hurt. Went to the hos­pi­tal. Be­cause that hap­pened, we just cob­bled a lit­tle thing to­gether and I never re­ally got the chance to come back and shoot it again. It was meant to be a much big­ger ver­sion of that. It was a sad thing. Whereas I think what we called the Ex­hi­bi­tion, the thing with the Mercedes in the garage, and the end chase with the pick-up truck, they’re as fully re­alised as I could get them to be.

Wright: Be­fore you started di­rect­ing, the other credit that has some bear­ing on this movie is writ­ing The Get­away for Sam Peck­in­pah. How did you come to do that?

Wal­ter: Polly Platt read one of my scripts and rec­om­mended me to Peter Bog­danovich. Peter had been hired to di­rect The Get­away and he hired me to co-write with him on the script. When I was hired, he was in the last month of prep on What’s Up, Doc?. He started shoot­ing that and then I was up in San Fran­cisco again.

Wright: All these movies have ac­tion scenes on hills in San Fran­cisco!

Hill: It didn’t work out with Peter. I never re­ally un­der­stood it. The of­fi­cial ver­sion was avail­abil­ity. I think Steve [Mcqueen] wasn’t happy Peter was do­ing an­other film ahead of his film. I don’t know.

Wright: How did you get to work with Sam Peck­in­pah?

Hill: I was told, “Just keep writ­ing, let’s get a draft.” Frankly I was in no po­si­tion to walk away in a huff. I worked in splen­did iso­la­tion for an­other five weeks, did a first draft. Steve wanted to do it and, of course, Steve want­ing to do it meant the movie was go­ing to get made. Steve had just been work­ing with Sam… Wright: On Ju­nior Bon­ner. Wal­ter: Yep. They had got­ten along. Sam was also in post on Straw Dogs, so he was very busy. But I thought he did a won­der­ful job on The

Get­away. And Steve was ter­rific in it. The pic­ture came out and crit­i­cally it was not well re­ceived, but it was a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess. It was re­ally how I got to be a di­rec­tor; the fact it had done so well put me in line to get a shot.

Wright: Had you writ­ten The Driver at this point? Hill: Oh, no. Wright: Hard Times was writ­ten first? Hill: I got a job with Larry Gor­don, who I’d known a bit. He made a deal over at Columbia. He wanted to do some­thing about these guys

Hill: What no­body had re­ally done at that time, or I was un­aware of it if they had, was a big chase at night. You have to light the streets as well as do all the maps and that busi­ness.

Wright: How close did Steve Mcqueen come?

Hill: I sent it to him and he said, “Nah, I don’t want to do an­other car thing.”

who did this un­of­fi­cial fight­ing in back al­leys and ware­houses. I found that sub­ject ap­peal­ing, of course, given my na­ture. I rewrote that script rather ex­ten­sively and liked work­ing with Larry very much. The idea that [The Driver] would be set around a guy who was a pro­fes­sional driver, that was Larry’s. That started the wheels turn­ing.

Wright: I guess there had been films about boot­leg­gers be­fore, but noth­ing specif­i­cally about a get­away driver.

Hill: Right. So I sat down and it seems like I wrote it over the sum­mer of 1975. We had fin­ished Hard

Times, but there was a long lag time be­fore the stu­dio put the movie out. They wanted to hold it be­cause [Charles] Bron­son had made sev­eral other films, and they were in the pipe­line ahead of ours. So I started writ­ing The Driver. Wright: The movie — and you’ll think I’m over­prais­ing it again, but I’ve got you cap­tive here so I’m go­ing to do it — is as pre­cise as if the main char­ac­ter were mak­ing it. When I think of the ‘Wal­ter Hill style’, I think of The Driver. Maybe be­cause it’s so clean and sim­ple and pure. Hill: I would say I never tried to screw any­thing that tight again. I now like ev­ery­thing to be a lit­tle looser around the edges, as we say.

Wright: It was writ­ten for Steve Mcqueen. Or you cer­tainly had Mcqueen in mind.

Hill: I thought he could play it tremen­dously well, ab­so­lutely.

Wright: Ryan O’neal is a very dif­fer­ent pres­ence from Steve Mcqueen. Even though I know it wasn’t your in­ten­tion, one of the things that is so enig­matic about the movie and to me re­ally makes it, is O’neal. Ob­vi­ously Steve Mcqueen would have been great, but you know what that movie would have been. It be­comes a much more be­guil­ing movie with Ryan O’neal in the lead. Hill: I re­mem­ber I was so pleased with Ryan in the movie and I was very dis­ap­pointed that peo­ple didn’t par­tic­u­larly give him any credit for what he did. To me, he’s the best he’s ever been. I can­not imag­ine an­other ac­tor. When you don’t get who you want, some­times you re­ally do get lucky.

Hill: There was a list. There’s al­ways a list. Be­cause he was a big star and I had done a suc­cess­ful film with him, we had to go to Char­lie [Bron­son]. Char­lie was quite mad at me, so it didn’t get very far. He thought I had edited Hard

Times in a way that had not favoured Jill Ire­land [Bron­son’s co-star, and wife]. In a sense he was cor­rect, so this was an area of ten­sion, shall I say.

Wright: He seems like too much of a bruiser to be a get­away driver.

Hill: I never thought it was a good idea. And I never thought he’d do it. Ryan was an in­ter­est­ing idea and I was de­lighted when he said he’d do it. I thought we pulled it off, but I’m sorry to say peo­ple didn’t see that, par­tic­u­larly at the time. Au­di­ences get ner­vous about movies that don’t have a lot of di­a­logue. They like di­a­logue. These long, vis­ual se­quences that are the de­light of film di­rec­tors are not al­ways au­di­ence-friendly.

Wright: You’re mak­ing me ner­vous, Wal­ter. Hill: They like a bal­ance. I wanted Bruce to very much off­set the dis­tance of The Driver.

Wright: He’s an in­cred­i­bly talk­a­tive foil. He has prob­a­bly 80 per cent of the di­a­logue in the movie.

Hill: The stu­dio rec­om­mended Robert Mitchum and I thought Mitchum would be a great idea. I went over to Tal­bot Pro­duc­tions, his com­pany. He was in an of­fice on Sun­set, right where it bends into Bev­erly Hills. He had two so­fas and in­be­tween there was a lit­tle re­frig­er­a­tor. He would reach in and pull out a bot­tle of vodka. And this was noon. So I had a long ses­sion with him and the vodka. Then he called about a day later and said, “Nah.”

Wright: I love Robert Mitchum, but I can­not imag­ine any­one play­ing that part ex­cept for Bruce Dern. Hill: I can’t ei­ther.

Wright: I love the end­ing. The cop doesn’t ar­rest him even though he has enough ev­i­dence to. The De­tec­tive lost the game and The Driver gets to walk away.

Hill: Couldn’t say it bet­ter my­self.

Wright: One of my favourite things in the movie is the mag­i­cal jump-cut at the end, where the cops are all sud­denly stand­ing there in the train sta­tion and The Driver doesn’t hear them come in. That’s a lit­tle bit of mag­i­cal re­al­ism.

Hill: My pro­ducer and I had some in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions about that.

Wright: Did Larry think it was too com­i­cal? Hill: He thought it was too weird.

Wright: “How the fuck did 20 cops get in here with­out mak­ing a sound?”

Hill: He said, “Can’t we have a lot of rustling of feet and things like that?” I said, “Well, he’d look up, then.” Wright: What are your mem­o­ries of the ac­tual shoot? Some­thing mag­i­cal starts to hap­pen when you’re do­ing a film that’s all nights. Hill: You get into a weird zone. Wright: Where were you liv­ing at the time? Hill: I had a small house up in the hills. I re­mem­ber peo­ple al­ways be­ing wor­ried that I’d fall asleep driv­ing home and crash and die.

Wright: It’s tough af­ter night shoots. Hill: It is. It’s like you’re swim­ming un­der­wa­ter or hyp­no­tised. And I’m a per­son that stays up late and wakes up early. But stay­ing up night af­ter night af­ter night re­ally threw me out. You make de­ci­sions you can­not ex­plain. You just in­tuit. Wright: It makes sense to you at four in the morn­ing. Hill: It’s prob­a­bly hell for any­one around you. But it’s a ques­tion that any­body who gets a chance to di­rect a movie prob­a­bly comes to, I think, which is: is it all choice and ra­tio­nal thought? Or at what point do you let your in­stincts take over? Which is bet­ter? There isn’t any an­swer.

Wright: There’s that quote about the Vel­vet Un­der­ground Andy Warhol al­bum — no­body bought it at the time, but the peo­ple who did buy it went on to form a band. I feel the same way about The Driver. The peo­ple who were watch­ing are di­rec­tors — we watched that movie and were ex­cited and in­spired. And I had to make a movie called Baby Driver just to prove to you that The Driver is in­flu­en­tial.

Hill: [laughs] That’s all too kind. Wright: You can’t out­run it for­ever!

WITH THAT, THE two di­rec­tors are called away to be snapped by Em­pire’s pho­tog­ra­pher. While they pose, they chat about — among other things — Hill’s re­turn to the Westin Bon­aven­ture (re­cently bought by the Mar­riott Group) for the first time in nearly 40 years, and the 16mm print of a TV ver­sion that Quentin Tarantino owns. There’s a def­i­nite sense that Wright’s cam­paign of at­tri­tion is work­ing, that at last Hill is learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the hidden clas­sic on his CV. “That some­body can re­mem­ber some­thing you did 35 years ago and still see some value in it?” says Hill. “It makes an old man happy.”


Wright: Did you change the script for Ryan?

Hill: To the best of my mem­ory it re­mained the same. I changed some di­a­logue for Bruce. I wanted Bruce’s per­son­al­ity.

Clock­wise from

here: Wal­ter Hill (right) with Frank Mar­shall on set; Ryan O’neal makes stand­ing next to a car with a gun look cool; Hill chat­ting with Edgar Wright.

Clock­wise from top

left: The Driver pre­pares for the open­ing get­away in flashy style; O’neal in the iconic Mercedesbenz 280S (W108); The Mercedes door signed (and il­lus­trated) by the cast and crew; The cops give chase to The Driver; O’neal be­hind the wheel. Wright: Too many lines! What is it The Driver says, 350 words to­tal? Hill: I’ve no idea. Not many, I’ll say that. Wright: How did you go from Mcqueen to Ryan O’neal? 

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