On Meeting Monte Hellman

Caveh Zahedi recalls his encounters with the legendary director of Two Lane Blacktop, who passed away last week at the age of 91.

I first met Monte Hellman in the mid ’90s. He was on the jury of a second-tier European film festival and my film I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore was in competition. I had been a huge fan of The Shooting, his 1966 Jack Nicholson-starring minimalist existentialist Western masterpiece. I was thrilled that he was there and even more thrilled that he was one of the jurors. The other juror whose work I knew and admired was Marco Bellocchio, whose 1965 film Fists in the Pocket had meant a lot to me.

The jurors had dinner together every night, but the filmmakers always sat at a separate table. I assumed that it would be ethically inappropriate to go over and tell Monte how much I loved his work. So I didn’t. For an entire week, I assiduously avoided talking to one of my filmmaking idols.

I was there with my second wife (who was also my co-editor on I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore). But I was so star-struck by Monte that I was always distractedly staring in his direction during dinner instead of paying attention to the conversation at the filmmakers’ table. Monte was there with his girlfriend, Emma Webster, a beautiful British woman whom he later married and who was clearly much younger than him.

Over the course of the festival, I would occasionally notice one of the other filmmakers talking to Monte Hellman or to Marco Bellocchio or to one of the other jurors, but I always thought of this as too morally dubious to avail myself of the same opportunity. There was one Romanian filmmaker in particular who seemed to be socializing with the jurors a little too much. And then he started joining the jurors at their dinner table, while the other filmmakers and I looked on with a mixture of judgment and envy. But I didn’t feel particularly threatened by it, because his film struck me as one of the least interesting at the festival and I didn’t think his fraternizing with the jurors could cause them to override their own aesthetic standards to the point of overlooking the (to me) blindingly evident mediocrity of his film.

And then it was the night of the awards ceremony and the winner was announced. I couldn’t believe my ears. The Romanian director had won. So I guess socializing is the key ingredient, I thought to myself, bitterly and hopelessly, given that my own social skills are remedial at best.

Following the awards ceremony, there was an afterparty and Monte and his girlfriend approached my wife and me. They told us that they had loved our film and that it was their favorite film at the festival. They explained that Monte had lobbied for it, but that Marco Bellocchio had hated it so intensely that he essentially refused to allow it to be given an award. I was shocked. Why did he hate it so much?

They told me that Bellocchio thought it was all fake and refused to believe Monte’s insistence that it was a documentary and that everything in it was true. It occurred to me at that moment that if I had overridden my conscience and joined the jurors’ table at any point, Bellocchio probably would have revised his opinion of the film and seen it for what it was, as opposed to the nihilistic mockumentary he was imagining it to be.

Monte and Emma also told me that although no one had loved the Romanian film, no one had hated it either. Since it was the one film that no one had strenuously objected to, it had won.

It was disheartening to get this inside peek into film festival jury politics, but I mostly felt thrilled that Monte Hellman had loved my film! I spent the rest of the evening talking excitedly with him and Emma. They both lived in L.A. (as did my wife and I) and we made plans to get together after the festival.

A few weeks later, they invited us to dinner at their home. I remember Monte telling me that he was older than Emma’s parents and how awkward it had been meeting them. He also told me about his various film projects and his decades-long frustrations with the Hollywood studio system. I remember he spent a lot of time watching the movements of ants in his backyard. He was entranced and was momentarily unavailable for conversation.

There was something aristocratic about Monte. He was gracious and kind, but also somehow far away – in his own world. He was a unique person, completely unlike anyone else I have ever met. It still astonishes me that there was a brief period in American cinema history when a filmmaker as uncompromising as Monte could get his films financed and distributed through the studio system. That period is long gone.

But Monte’s death is not just the death of one of the most original filmmakers of a certain era. It is also the sudden and irrevocable extinction of all the stories he could have told us about that era and what it was like to be a certain kind of filmmaker in that particular time and place. He told some of these stories to me and he told many more to others. We will remember and repeat some (but not all) of them, and keep his memory alive until the day when no one remembers us.

Caveh Zahedi is an autobiographical filmmaker whose body of work attempts to tell the story of his life as it unfolds. His latest project is the daily podcast 365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die. He is also working on the third season of The Show About the Show, a BRIC TV series in which every episode is about the making of the previous episode. His feature-length films include The Sheik and I (2012), I Am A Sex Addict (2005), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), and A Little Stiff (1991). His short films and other series include Getting Stoned with Caveh, Bob Dylan Hates Me, Tripping with Caveh, and I Was Possessed by God. A box set of his films is available from Factory 25.