Ask Me a Question: The Driver & Hard Times w/ Walter Hill
Saturday night we headed to Estate on Wilshire for Happy Hour with some nice Kentucky Mules, chicken sammich, hummus and pad thai (what a menu, huh?) before our second night at the Aero Theatre's Walter Hill retrospective with The Driver and Hard Times. I've owned The Driver on DVD for years but never actually watched it so what better way to do so than on a big screen with the man himself in attendance? It wasn't quite as large or lively a crowd as The Warriors but still a large and engaged turnout. If you've seen 2011's Drive, then you've kind of seen 1978's The Driver only without the shiny veneer and synth soundtrack. Ryan O'Neal plays a mysterious getaway driver who charges $10 grand up front and is the target of a relentless detective played by an unlikable yet memorable Bruce Dern ("maybe you're a fruiter", what?!). With practical car stunts and chases on the streets and in the parking structures of Los Angeles along with some interesting character bits, The Driver is a very effective crime thriller and you can see where Ryan Gosling got part of his character from Ryan O'Neal.
Another standing ovation and Walter Hill hit the stage for a more structured Q&A than the night before, joking how more people that night saw the film than upon original release. The beautiful Isabelle Adjani was cast due to a European co-financing deal and while the film tanked in America, it was a modest hit in Europe and did very well in Japan. Talk then turned to Hard Times, Hill's first directorial effort from 1975 starring Charles Bronson as a street fighter with a manager played by James Coburn. I first saw this film in college when I discovered John Sturges and his forever influential The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. While I watched The Warriors constantly through high school, I haven't watched it much since while Hard Times is a flick I routinely toss in. The southern soundtrack mixed with New Orleans location charms, Bronson always looking like he's on the verge of violence when he smiles and in great shape in his 50's, Coburn's fast and shit talking lovable loser manager and some fight scenes that still pack a punch all these years later, are just an easy watch.
Hill recalled how Lawrence Gordon had just signed a deal with Columbia and invited the young filmmaker to make his directorial debut on a low budget B movie since the studio was not flush with cash. An existing script was tweaked to become a period piece inspired by a story from Hill's great grandfather who worked on remote oil fields where sporting events and fights filled their Sundays. One day, a hobo showed up and asking for food, lodging and a few bucks in exchange to fight for their camp and won for six weeks before disappearing. While Hill wanted a young actor like Jan-Michael Vincent as brawler Chaney, it was sent to Bronson much to his dismay. But Hill admitted he was wrong when Bronson gave one of the best performances of his career and was pitch perfect. At the time, Charlie was a big deal and responded favorably to the script a day after reading it. Bronson took home nearly a million bucks and former Seven and Escape co-star Coburn was brought in as manager Speed because as Hill put it, the actor was broke. Coburn was not happy to be in a Bronson film and knew that Hill wanted Warren Oates for the role.
Bronson's wife and frequent co-star Jill Ireland was discussed as potential love interest Lucy but then became an ultimatum if he wanted to direct the film. Hill discussed meeting Bronson for the first time with the actor showing up in a muscle revealing tight shirt and asking why Hill thought he could direct the film. While the two got along during filming, Bronson took offense to several of Ireland's scenes being cut in post-production but Hill chalked it up to having the film's best interests in mind and how Bronson would be hot or cold to him in the years following. On writing, Hill said he would start scripts but never finish. Later when he would figure out the ending, only then would he begin writing as most action films end the same way so it's up to the writer to craft an interesting journey.