Walter Hill, Hollywood maverick: for the love of the letter

Irish author Wayne Byrne on the first comprehensive literary work on film legend Walter Hill

The instigation of my writing career was the fact that there was no book available on one of my favourite filmmakers. I got sick of asking shop assistants if there was “any sign of a book on Tom DiCillo coming out?” and receiving an answer in the negative. So, I wrote the book myself. Five years and five books later, I approach all my projects with the same passion for wanting to put on my shelf the book that I truly crave but cannot purchase. Which leads me to my new release, Walter Hill: The Cinema of a Hollywood Maverick.

To me, Walter is up there with Tom DiCillo as not only one of my favourite filmmakers but one of the great unsung American film artists, though the context of their entry into and place within the industry is wildly different. DiCillo comes from a left-field independent milieu, having emerged from the New York City underground no wave scene of the early ’80s, having collaborated with the likes of Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch and Eric Mitchell before going on to become a vital film director in his own right throughout the ‘90s indie boom.

Hill, however, comes from the Old Hollywood tradition via the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s. He worked on Peter Yates’s Bullitt and Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run as the second assistant director, before breaking away to carve out a successful career as a screenwriter, writing Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man, and Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs, among other things.

Even though Hill emerged from the countercultural American New Wave period, he stood out and apart from the rest of that moment’s “Movie Brat” alumni as an anachronistic man made of Golden Age moviemaking mentality. His 1975 directorial debut, Hard Times, starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn, feels as though it could have been made in the 1940s by John Ford. He would utilise the workmanlike resolve of the old masters throughout a prolific career which is devoid of ego and pretentiousness.

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But despite being one of most acclaimed and respected writer-directors of last 50 years of American cinema, there have been no books published in the English language to consider his entire filmography. So, my publisher was most receptive to the idea of a Walter Hill book for their catalogue, and I duly went into it armed only with my enthusiasm for the Hill oeuvre.

I couldn’t have harboured any other expectations, because I knew going into it that Walter was immersed in making his new film, Dead for a Dollar – what time would he have to talk with me? I also knew that Walter wasn’t keen on this kind of thing, and perhaps that is another reason why there has been little literary work on him to date. He has admitted to a dislike of looking back on his work and of overtly commentating on them. So, I went into this project assuming I would never talk to Walter. As well as that, many of his collaborators were “off-the-grid” which is to say hard to reach because they’re not on social media. Therefore, I expected this would be a purely theoretical piece consisting solely of my own contemplative critical ramblings.

However, I was lucky to have made friends with some wonderful Hollywood veterans over the years on my previous books and one of those said, “I’ll get you Walter’s email address. You should send him a message!” “Really? Okay…” And he did. Then I did. Another generous friend also put me in contact with several of Walter’s cinematographers. So now this project began to look like something different, something more official.

A few months went by and as expected I didn’t hear from Walter; the man was making a movie! But in the meantime, I did get to speak with his cameramen collaborators: Mike O’Shea, Lloyd Ahern, Bobby LaBonge. Buoyed by this, I reached out to more people, including some of Walter’s composers – the legendary Van Dyke Parks and the great David Mansfield. It was starting to come together; it was turning into a serious book on the making of all these great films and a unique portrait of the man and the moviemaker that is Walter Hill.

Then I got the word. Walter wants to talk. This felt entirely surreal. Walter is truly one of the last of the legends, a man that the eminent Van Dyke Parks said to me is, “terrifying because he is capable of such mutual trust and empowerment…and now, dear Wayne, you are holding the bag.” No pressure, so! But the first time I met Walter was an experience that I will never forget. I knew he was a man of fierce intellect and encyclopaedic knowledge of film history, and as Van Dyke warned, someone who puts his trust in you to do your work well. I thought, “how the hell am I going to impress Walter?”

But when we finally got to speak, he was warm, witty and engaging, alleviating any nerves I brought to the meeting. “You finally caught me, Wayne!” he greeted, “I hear you spoke to all my friends, but have you spoken to my enemies?” It’s hard to imagine Walter having any of the latter, but indeed, several of his collaborators that I interviewed had gone to Walter and heartily recommended me. Some of them knew my previous literary works, and some, having just met me, knew that I would approach this project with absolute respect for Walter and his work.

Over the course of several discussions, Walter and I delved into all his films, some in more depth than others, but what really stood out for me, and which is something I will remember always, is when we spoke of our shared love of Old Hollywood – DW Griffith, Howard Hawks and, in particular, Raoul Walsh. We broke away from the chronological trajectory of his career for about 20 minutes after I inquired about his dedication to Walsh on the opening page of his script for the 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie The Getaway.

I already partly knew the answer to this, because it is rather obvious that The Getaway is inspired by Walsh’s classic Humphrey Bogart film noir, High Sierra, and his own western remake of it, Colorado Territory. I expected, and it was affirmed, that those films were indeed the inspiration behind elements of the narrative and structure of The Getaway. But what I wasn’t expecting was for Walter to begin telling me of a visit to the Walsh residence after the old master heard of said script’s inscription; Walsh was in the twilight of his life and offered young Hill advice on becoming a director – “1) save your money. 2) let your actors pick their own hats.” The third bit of advice will remain between me and Mr. Hill.

But after recounting the story of their meeting, Walter told me hold on for a moment while he went in search of something he wanted to show me. A minute later he arrives back with a letter that looked in pristine condition though which he told me had been lost for decades. It was a letter written to Walter by Walsh after that meeting, a missive of further support of his filmmaking aspirations. The delight on Walter’s face as he showed me this broke down all barriers of me being in the presence of my own hero; in that moment we were both just two gushing fans of Raoul Walsh, marvelling at this beautiful piece of hand-written history, a letter from a legend.

After a few minutes of adoration, wherein I was visibly in awe of this piece of paper and its contents, Walter, with a big grin, said, “I’m very glad that I was able to impress an Irishman with my 50-year-old letter.” And with that he carefully slid the document back into its envelope. “I will never lose sight of that letter again, Wayne.” If anybody ever asks me why I write these books (and they do!), I can say it is because of minor though meaningful moments like this.