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Tag Archives: Road to Nowhere

Filmmaker Interview: Monte Hellman

2011 has already seen an intriguing share of idiosyncratic and highly personal American movies coming from all directions – from the made-for-television (Mildred Pierce) to the animated (Rango) to the experimental (Shoals) to the works of high profile Hollywood auteurs on scales both both large (The Tree of Life) and small (Midnight in Paris). However, no American film has impressed me as much as Road to Nowhere, the new mind-bending neo-noir from legendary director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter).

Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s welcome return to feature filmmaking after a 21-year hiatus. It tells the story of the making of a movie, a true crime thriller also called Road to Nowhere, in which multiple planes of reality continually intersect – an intellectually provocative “meta” conceit that is always perfectly balanced by Hellman’s overall mood of romantic longing and a cast of terrific, highly charged performers led by the soulful, exquisitely nuanced Shannyn Sossamon.

Road to Nowhere recently ended its theatrical run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago but will be released next week on DVD and blu-ray. In many ways it is a film ideally suited for home video, where individual scenes and shots can be paused, studied and endlessly re-watched. And besides, it also cheekily begins with a character watching the movie-within-the-movie on a laptop computer, an image guaranteed to blow the mind of anyone who also first views it that way. For those who have not yet seen it, I can heartily recommend a “blind buy.”

I recently interviewed Hellman about his new film:

MGS: As someone born and raised in North Carolina, I’d like to start by saying I’ve never seen my home state look so beautiful in a movie. It was breathtaking to see the backdrops of those green mountains and low-hanging clouds on the big screen. How did you find the locations and how did you manage to capture them with such painterly beauty?

MH: We had a great local location manager, Michael Bigham, who led us to some amazing places, as well as secured permissions to shoot. The capturing was the work of our brilliant DP, Josep Civit.

MGS: Road to Nowhere has all of the elements that we associate with film noir – the archetypal characters, the mystery plot, the nocturnal settings, etc. – and yet I think the real pleasures of the film lie outside the realm of following a “story” in the traditional sense. Do you think it is possible to make a conventional movie mystery in the manner of, say, an Alfred Hitchcock or a Howard Hawks today?

MH: The only thing preventing it is the lack of a Cary Grant or James Stewart. (In Road to Nowhere Cliff De Young plays a movie star named “Cary Stewart”. – MGS)

MGS: When Mitch Haven, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, says that he won’t cast stars just in order to raise the budget, he seems very idealistic. How much do you identify with this point of view?

MH: I’ve said the same thing many times, but I’ve never had the chance to test my resolve.

MGS: Shannyn Sossamon’s dual performance as the actress in the movie and the woman her character is based on is phenomenal. I think she deserves to be a big star (and probably would already have been had she been born in an earlier era). How did you find her?

MH: Steve Gaydos saw her reading lines with another actor in a restaurant. He thought they were students, but that she looked the part. He asked her to call me, and was surprised when the call came from her manager. He had no idea she’d starred in so many movies.

MGS: I’ve read that the actors were responsible for coming up with a lot of their own dialogue in the film. How exactly did this process work?

MH: It wasn’t a lot of dialogue, but the few lines they did come up with were, to quote Jimmy Durante, “cherce.” They would sometimes vary a line or two after multiple takes, just to keep it fresh.

MGS: You shot this movie on the Canon 5D, an incredibly small and lightweight digital camera. How different would the film have been if you had shot it on 35mm?

MH: I don’t know that the finished product would have been different, just more difficult to obtain. The camera made it possible to shoot in tight quarters that would normally have involved shooting on a set, or knocking out a wall.

MGS: Thanks and best of luck with the film.

Road to Nowhere Rating: 8.4

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CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


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