Once the biggest staple of Hollywood filmmaking, the Western has seen ebbs and flows through the history of cinema. In recent decades you’d be hard-pressed to find many examples in multiplexes near you—especially ones that fit the traditional mold of the genre, rather than tongue-in-cheek revisionist takes. It’s fitting, then, that it would be Walter Hill who would deliver a new gift onto audiences eager for a journey into that gunslinging world.
Hill has said that all his films are Westerns, which can certainly be seen for anyone familiar with his oeuvre—from his directorial debut in 1975’s Hard Times through 1987’s neo-Western Extreme Prejudice, his own revisionist streak of Westerns in the early ‘90s with Geronimo: An American Legend and Wild Bill, and even into 21st century actioners like Bullet to the Head. Whether he’s in the traditional milieu of the genre or not, those motifs of good versus evil and streamlined narratives with a myriad of colorful, well-drawn characters battling it out for territorial claims and moral codes are defining templates of a Walter Hill picture.
The 80-year-old director has transformed cinema in more ways than one, with massively influential films like The Driver, The Warriors, and 48 Hrs. to his name, along with a litany of underrated classics, but he’s not ready to rest on his laurels yet. “Directors don’t retire,” Hill tells me over Zoom as we discuss his latest film, Dead for a Dollar, his first in six years. “Every old director I’ve ever known, and I’ve known a lot of them, was always looking to do another movie.”
It’s encouraging to think Hill has plenty of films left in him, as Dead for a Dollar shows he’s still got the goods in spades. Taking place in 1897, the action kicks off when bounty hunter Max Borlund (Christoph Waltz) is hired alongside soldier Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to locate Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan), the wife of a wealthy businessman (Hamish Linklater), who has allegedly been abducted by Buffalo Soldier Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott). At the same time, an old nemesis of Borlund’s named Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) has been released from prison, and the paths of the two seemed fated to intertwine.
It’s a classic Western with just the right amount of contemporary flavor in personality, Hill meshing his subversive streak with reverence to the films that made him fall in love with cinema—paying particular tribute to the work of director Budd Boetticher, whom Hill dedicates the film to in its cut to credits. That’s where we begin our discussion, which eventually leads us into physical courage, his reunion with Willem Dafoe after nearly 40 years, his desire to avoid making a “dog-bomb” of a movie at all costs, and an incredible story about Samuel Fuller visiting the set of The Long Riders.
The Film Stage: I wanted to begin our discussion of Dead for a Dollar with the ending—the dedication you give to Budd Boetticher, a Western director who has never quite gotten his due. You’ve said you felt he would have liked this film because it plays like one of his. What draws that point of comparison for you?
Walter Hill: Well, I really just wanted to salute his films. I finished the movie and was editing it, and once we got it together we did our first complete screening in our editing room—which is above the garage in my house—and I turned to my editor and said “Budd would have loved this movie.” My editor said—well, first we had to establish who Budd was—and he said, “Why would he like it?” I said “Well, it’s kind of like one of his. It’s low-budget, it’s out in the middle of nowhere, it’s people dealing with ethical, moral situations and codes and what’s proper conduct.” It’s a debate on that subject punctuated by acts of courage, and acts of cowardice in a couple of cases.
I don’t know—Budd may have hated it. But he and I were friendly. I liked him very much. Towards the end of his life I saw him a number of times. He was kind enough to give me his autobiography, which had very flowing penmanship, and he did a dedication to me. It’s beautiful. I keep it in the next room in my personal library. He was a good guy. He was very straightforward, very forceful in his presentation of ideas. Which is probably no surprise, directors being who they are.
[Dead for a Dollar] is really a salute to a kind of filmmaking of the past, more than a celebration of my friendship with him. I don’t want to overstate it, by the way. We weren’t close friends, but we were friendly and we saw each other a number of times. I admired him, and he very much liked the idea that I liked his films. That’s not unremarkable, I suppose, but it’s a good feeling. When another director likes your work it’s a special thing.
You consider all of your films to be Westerns, which I think there’s a lot of truth in. But is there a distinctive feeling for you when you’re in the specific time and place of a Western like this or Wild Bill or The Long Riders? Or does it still feel similar to making your other films?
When you make a movie you’re not comparing it to other movies you’ve done. They’re very particular unto themselves and they demand an enormous amount of attention, down to the last detail. So I never really think of them as connected to the films I’ve done in the past, so much as I just think of them in that I’m trying to tell a story in the best way. I think that, so often with filmmakers, if you get the opportunity to have a real career your personality seeps through and becomes part of the world and the situation. So yeah: there are similarities, but that’s inevitable because the filmmaker and the personality are the same person. [Laughs] Hopefully he’s grown a little and might possibly have a little more depth to him. Maybe not. Some grow, some stay the same, some shrink. It’s all tricky.
I will say this: I think the biggest trick is to still be here. I’m not talking about my personal health. People ask you sometimes—obviously because I’m an old director—“When are you gonna retire?” I generally say directors don’t retire. I’ve never known one that retired. Every old director I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a lot of them—was always looking to do another movie. It’s part of that obsession. That thing that makes a person do it for a living, I think, or as a calling. It’s not just a way to make a living—you have to take care of your family, obviously, but it’s a calling. It’s kind of like being a ballplayer. It’s not that you retire, usually. It’s that they usually come in and take your uniform away and send you home. You’ve done your time and they don’t think you have value anymore. And they may be right. I’d be the first to say it’s a young person’s game. It takes a lot of energy and focus to do these things.
You’ve got a history of building these relationships with actors you work with several times—Wes Studi, Powers Boothe, Nick Nolte, David Patrick Kelly, etc.—and one of the big thrills of Dead for a Dollar is seeing you reunite with Willem Dafoe, who you last worked with nearly 40 years ago on Streets of Fire, a big personal favorite. How was it working with him again after all this time?
Oh, it was very good! I spent the evening with Willem last night. We were at a dinner together after the screening and we had a few drinks and a few laughs. He said that his favorite line in the film was in the scene with English Bill, where they’re playing cards, and he goes “You’re just another bullshit Englishman, the kind we whipped in two wars already.” [Laughs] And I told him, “You know, when I wrote that line, I actually stopped and laughed like hell for about two minutes.” It was great.
Willem and I, as you pointed out, worked together many years ago and that was his first Hollywood film. And he sees it as a real turning point in his life. And he’s, as I like to point out, he’s worked like a field hand ever since. I mean, he does movie after movie after movie incredibly. He’s a wonderful actor. Willem and I got along very well and we’ve stayed friendly over the years. We always wanted to work together again, but due to time, circumstance, availability, we never could quite pull it off.
Finally, though, everything came together, and I wrote this part for him. Christoph was in, and I was still writing and I changed [Willem’s] character a bit because I wanted to have what I felt was a proper antagonist. I wanted a very American sensibility because Christoph brought the European sensibility to the film—which was an interesting point of departure, I thought. Not what you usually see in a Western. For Willem I wanted something that was very American. It’s not that he’s such a terrible man as an antagonist. He’s a scoundrel, but he’s quite likable. He has his principles. He has his theories, like he doesn’t cheat at cards. He did steal horses, and he probably robbed a few banks. But as he says: he never killed anybody that wasn’t trying to kill him.
You mentioned before with Budd’s films, this idea that everyone has their own moral code. Particularly for a Western, which is a genre that can lean heavily into the blackhat-versus-whitehat mentality, it’s admirable how well you bleed the lines of what these characters can justify and what they can’t. In Dead for a Dollar, we see everybody trying to adhere to their codes, but then also having to push back against them and maybe cross some of those lines they haven’t before. It feels rare these days to have a film where we understand every character’s specific moral code, and then spend two hours watching them navigate those.
Yeah, you just said it. Everything you said, write that down and say I said it. That’s exactly right. It’s certainly what makes storytelling interesting to me. I like those kinds of stories, whether they’re Homeric or whether they’re Jack London, or any number of excellent writers. I think the Western is such a great landscape for ethical, moral codes. Debates, shall we say, about proper conduct. And what I sometimes describe as the old religion of physical courage, which has always, I think, separated me from the critical community. I don’t think the critical community is usually very interested in physical courage. Indeed, most of the movies that deal with it are second-rate. I’d be the first to go along with that idea. But I always enjoyed being called an action director. Still do. It’s a lot better than being called a bad director. [Laughs]
The depiction of violence in the film is wonderfully drawn—there’s not a ton of it, but when it comes it’s always a shock, which is appropriate. It’s quick and catches you off guard, and then just as suddenly it’s over and the dust is settled. How do you ensure the impact of violence remains potent in a film?
I think it’s moved in direction in my films. I had some pretty elaborate gunfights in my earlier movies. Now, I like it to be short and very decisive. But I’ve always had a rule—I used to say it on the set when talking to the cast or people connected to the film—the jokes are funny, but the bullets are real. It’s why I’m not in demand to direct a Marvel film or something. I’ve always wanted the bullets to be real and for you to see the consequences of the real thing. There’s a new kind of action movie—well, not so new now, but for the last 10-15 years. They always like to say “comic book,” but there’s all kinds of comic books. I’m fond of comic books. But, you know, the kinds of films where nobody really gets hurt. They get zapped and then they get up to fight again and there’s no real consequence to the endless action. I don’t want to say it’s irresponsible or anything like that. I don’t believe that at all. I think it reflects audience taste. And there’s nothing wrong with being a good entertainer. I’ll just say that it’s not for me.
There’s this amazing action sequence in Dead for a Dollar where two characters are fighting with bullwhips. It reminded me of the fight scene in the bar in The Long Riders where David Carradine and James Remar are dueling with two big Bowie knives and that cloth between their mouths. It was something I had never seen before in a film. While you pay tribute to certain gold standards, like the shootout in the middle of town, do you also look for ways to add in these bits of creative ingenuity in the action?
When I shot that scene in The Long Riders, Sam Fuller came to visit the set that day. He came for lunch and the morning of work had gone very poorly. I remember I got really furious about the way things were going and I lined everyone up and I said “Look, one of the great action directors is coming here for lunch, and this is a fucking embarrassment. If you guys wanna look like this it’s one thing to do it here, but you’re gonna look like shit in front of a really great man. If that’s what you want to live with, go ahead.” Something like that.
So: Sam arrives and we go to lunch and we come back and I said we’re doing this knife fight. And he said he’d never seen it done like that before, with the handkerchief between the mouths. I can’t remember how I thought it up when we were all choreographing. So anyway, I yelled action and Carradine and Remar almost fucking kill each other. I mean, they are trying to so hard, and they’re perfect. They’re absolutely perfect. It was a long take. We cut it up later into some pieces, but they did a fabulous job. And I always thought of Sam. The presence of Sam Fuller changed everything for that scene. Anyway, sorry to digress.
No, please. That’s a fantastic story.
What was the question again?
It was about coming up with those inventive action scenes, like that one in The Long Riders or the bullwhip fight in Dead for a Dollar, to go along with the gold standards.
I always say that action scenes, the good ones, begin with character. You don’t ask the characters to do things they wouldn’t do just because it might be spectacular or something. You have to keep it within the boundaries of who they are. In other words: if I had Christoph jumping from building to building right at the end, that would be a stylistic break that would take you out of the picture. That fight, though, that was in and out of the script a couple of times, but I was very much looking for a scene that, as I occasionally say, wakes the audience up and gets some of them back on track here. We’ve had a lot of dialogue before that—let’s wake people up.
The first scene where these characters meet out by the water hole, this guy is obviously racially very insulting towards Poe. So, I thought it might be interesting to see this vicious bastard take out a bullwhip and say, “I’m sick of these smartmouth fuckheads,” or whatever he says. And then, because what he says resonates with terrible things in the American past, I thought it would be great if instead of just being a victim, Poe reaches over and pulls out a bullwhip of his own. Probably a little stretch there, but he announces that he’s been a teamster for his first few years in the Army and he knows how to handle one of these. So the guys are fighting back on equal terms. I’m not usually in this mode, but I thought that might say something about the American past and hopefully the American future. That was the idea behind it. And also, less pretentiously, I wanted to wake the audience up. There’s nothing like the crack of a bullwhip to do that. [Laughs] It’s an awesome and frightening sound.
I’ve got to wrap in a minute, but I wanted to mention that I’m a huge admirer of your work. And in anticipation for your new film coming out, I’ve spent the last couple months going back and revisiting all of your previous films. You’ve got plenty that have earned these iconic positions in the culture—The Warriors, The Driver, 48 Hrs.—while there are so many that deserve that same status but haven’t quite got there yet. Extreme Prejudice is, frankly, a masterpiece. Southern Comfort is one of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen. Wild Bill examines the Western and the idea of fame in such a potent way. For yourself, is there a film in your career that you have a deep personal affection for that maybe hasn’t quite reached that Warriors status in the iconography? One you’d love more people to seek out?
Bless you for the kind words and lovely sentiments. You know, I’m an old guy and it’s nice to think that somebody might look back and like some of these things that you’ve done a long time ago, or even a short time ago. It’s very hard to separate for me. It’s an old cliche, but there’s a truth to it—they’re all your children. You work very, very hard on all of them. I mean, it’s not hard work like working out in a field or something, but it demands enormous concentration.
You get into projects and try to pull them off, to tell a story, but when you finish you just have to let ‘em go. Some of them go out and catch a wave, and they’re perceived to be very successful. Others sink like a stone and they’re perceived to be failures. But when you make them you don’t look at it like that. I don’t love the ones that succeeded with an audience more than I do some that did not find an audience.
I used to have a saying with my old writing and producing partner, David Giler, who was a very clever man. He had this definition of a bomb and a dog. A bomb was a movie that commercially did not work. A dog was a movie that was just no fucking good. The thing, of course, to be avoided at all times was a dog-bomb. If you did that, you were really finished. A bomb—you can make a good movie and nobody comes to see it. They’re just not interested in what it’s about or something. And we’ve all seen films that we think are absolute stinkers that have made a lot of money.
There’s always this inherent contradiction within the terms themselves, but the thing to be avoided was a dog-bomb, and I don’t think any of mine are dog-bombs. I actually don’t think of any of them as dogs. I do think that some succeeded on their own terms better than others, but I wouldn’t identify those because you don’t want to make people that worked on ‘em feel bad. Because they gave you a lot and you don’t want to devalue their contribution.
Well, I’ll say that I certainly wouldn’t call any of your films dogs or dog-bombs. And certainly not Dead for a Dollar, which it’s been great to talk with you about.
Oh, thank you. It’s been fun. I hope the film finds an audience. I don’t know if it’s gonna find an immediate audience. I always say it takes 20 years to figure out if something’s a good movie. But I must say I like this one. I thought it came together very nicely in so many ways. A wonderful cast, and they gave great performances.
Dead for a Dollar is playing in theaters and on demand now.