Three Great Things: Walter Hill

The legendary director, whose new Western, Dead for a Dollar, hits theaters this Friday, shares some of his favorite stuff in life.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the September 30 theatrical release of Walter Hill’s new feature, Dead for a Dollar, an old-school Western starring Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe and Rachel Brosnahan, the legendary director shared some of the things he loves most in life. — N.D.

Reading the Sports Pages
I’m a big sports fan and my first act in the morning, after going downstairs and feeding the dog, is to read the sports page. I’ve probably been doing that since I was six or seven years old. I used to wrestle with my father for who got the sports pages first and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t the primary reading on my list. My father was a big sports fan and his father was an athlete. My father was a considerable high school athlete too, but I was a highly mediocre high school athlete. My brother and I have often asked, “What the hell happened to us? Our dad was a much better athlete and much better looking!”

I like to read the box scores in baseball and check the statistics in football games. I’m both a college and a professional football fan. I like baseball, football and boxing. I’m a devoted fan of the USC football team; I have no connection to the university and never really had any particular desire to go there, but growing up in Long Beach, you rooted for the Trojans, and they were somehow designated to be our team, unless you were at one of the Catholic schools, in which case you supported Notre Dame.

I discovered later in life that the sports pages were the only place where you could really figure out who was winning and who was losing. The world was clarified by the sports page. It’s an island, the only place I have where winning and losing are clear. There is an ambiguous condition that weaves its way through my work and the characters I come up with or try to dramatize, so the clarity I get every morning is a break from that. I understand it’s an illusion, but it’s a pleasant illusion.

I’m just back from the Venice Film Festival, where my new film, Dead for a Dollar, had its world premiere. One of the journalists who interviewed me said something about how motion pictures have been my life, but I said, “No, I don’t look at it that way.” I’ve certainly worked in this business since I was 23 years old – I always say I never had an honest job since then – but my life is my family, and my professional life is motion pictures.

In my life, I go out and make a movie, finish it up and come back and try to write another one, which is a pretty quiet and private experience. I have many friends in the industry, but at the same time I’ve basically stayed away from a big showbusiness existence. In the end, it’s my family that’s closest to me. Family time is a little thinner on the ground now that both our daughters are married, but they live close by. And, of course, when they were growing up, it was a more constant thing.

It’s strange, because family is almost non-existent in most of my work. The kind of relationships that seem to most interest me are friendship, living by codes, and what is proper conduct, what is not. But the bonds of family have not often entered into the narratives. I have no reason I can think of for that – I just do my own work. A lot of it is a mystery how I got there and how I work things out. And it probably is better not to look too closely at the process!

Rewatching Old Movies
In my adult life, the continuing pleasures are literature and watching old films. Since I go to very few contemporary movies, I see only the ones that people seem to get the most excited about. But I am a great fan of rewatching films from the past or films I liked when I was a young person. I think seeing films again is such a good process: sometimes your love deepens, sometimes you wonder, “What the hell did I ever see in that?” I like to read, mostly history. I used to read a lot of novels, but when you get older, I think you are drawn more to history books.

I don’t need to watch movies on the big screen. One of the things my wife said about me during the pandemic is that I barely noticed, because I didn’t change my habits very much other than not going out to have dinner with friends. The modern big-screen TVs with excellent sound systems are good enough to watch films on, unless the movie is an extraordinary spectacle. I am not a purist about celluloid; I accept the digital revolution.

I’m very fond of almost all the classic genres; I like musicals very much and I love comedies (although who doesn’t?), but I seem to go back to Westerns more than anything. Lately, the film I revisit more than any other is Howard Hawks’ Red River. It is not a perfect movie, and it’s arguably one that the filmmaker damaged with its ending. (There is another point of view that says it’s perfectly Hawksian and better that way, but I won’t bore you with the debate.) It’s a film that holds up very well and it’s just very compelling to me. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift’s performances are so good. I don’t think Clift was ever better; even though it was his first film, he obviously was already a consummate actor. Wayne’s performance is unbelievably good and also set the template for his persona and the whole extension of his career. His later work is not quite as dark as Red River, but so much of his attitudes and the manner of delivery are in this film. You can see how he discovers his power as an actor – his voice, his posture, his demeanor. He really finds himself in the movie and it’s impossible to imagine anybody else playing the part.

During the course of his notable career, Walter Hill has been a writer, director and producer on projects ranging from classic Westerns to action-packed thrillers and noir dramas, all marked with his unique visceral style. He most recently wrote and directed the Western Dead For a Dollar, starring Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan and Benjamin Bratt, which is in theaters and on digital on September 30. Hill directed the smash hits 48 Hrs. and Another 48 Hrs. and is best-known for such acclaimed films as The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and The Long Riders. He also directed the pilot of HBO’s hit show Deadwood and the Emmy-winning miniseries Broken Trail. In addition to his work in the cinema and television, Hill has also written three graphic novels which have been published in France (Balles Perdues, Corps et Âme and Le Specimen), the second of which served as the basis for his 2016 film, The Assignment. (Photo by François Bouchon.)