Controversy surrounded early film-festival screenings of The Assignment, the new hyperpulpy action film co-written and directed by American filmmaker Walter Hill. Based on a decades-old script by Denis Hamill, the film follows a male assassin named Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) who unknowingly undergoes a sex-change operation by the Doctor (Sigourney Weaver), which has led to complaints that the film is transphobic. The Assignment is certainly lurid and dated in its understanding of gender identity, but the film also very much feels like a movie from the director of early classics like The Driver, The Warriors, and Hard Times, movies about male-dominated subcultures that ultimately confirm, as Hill puts it, “macho ethics do not work.” Vulture spoke with Hill about the controversy surrounding The Assignment, his characters’ relationship to queerness and femininity, and how he feels about Feud’s depiction of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich.
You initially struggled with the concept for The Assignment because you felt like it was a little too much like a dated melodrama. What changed your mind?
Denis Hamill had written an original screenplay in the late 1970s. I first read it then. I didn’t do anything with it because I was busy doing a lot of things in those days. I never forgot it, and was quite taken with it. Twenty years later, I ran across some reference to it. I called Denis, and I optioned it. I did a script of it, but abandoned it because I felt we had made it overly complicated and difficult. We just didn’t do a good job, really. Then I ran into it ten or so years later. At that time, I read it again, and had an idea about how to do it. It came to me rather suddenly. My idea was tempered by the notion that we would do it like one of the Tales from the Crypt episodes that I had done. So a moral tale, which sounds rather grandiloquent, I know. But it would be about wicked people who do wicked things, but in doing them, receive a punishment from fate. Also, assuming they survive the experience — my characters don’t always survive — they are sadder but wiser, I guess is the old phrase.
I also like contrast. I like to pair off two people to slug it out. I liked the contrast between [the Doctor], a bullying intellectual overachiever that had been legitimately hindered by her societal attitudes. And her opponent [Frank] being this fellow who was the kind of Darwinian survivor of the lowest underworld kind of experience: an abandoned child, state-raised, involved in criminal activity since teenage years, etc. Pairing those two against each other was kind of interesting to me.
The Assignment feels like a response in some ways to earlier films like Hard Times in that it suggests that characters can change. This is kind of a major shift since characters’ identities in your films are usually tragically immutable. Without spoiling anything for readers, the way that Frank in The Assignment becomes attached to his dog feels like a deliberate response to the way that Chaney, Charles Bronson’s character in Hard Times, gives away his cat. Does that speak to a change in outlook between then and now?
I think we’re pretty much hardwired from the time we’re 6 or 7 years old. I’ve always believed the Jesuits and Freud were right about that attitude. At the same time, I think time tempers our many attitudes. As I said, the characters wind up sadder but wiser. Frank is certainly a more positive fellow at the end of the drama than he was that the beginning. The ending’s a little vague, purposefully. But he’s now determined to use his street talents — criminal talents — in a positive way in the vigilante spirit, to do things that the police can’t do, or are restricted from doing. Properly so. But that’s Frank. We don’t make them saints, either character. The Doctor — as I put it, the “bullying intellectual” — is left very much to her own principles. She’s going to tend to her own garden. She will pursue her library of interests, and take up a contemplative life. Not the worst fate, although it’s not exactly the way she would have chosen it. But she lives in the mind, and is again, sadder but wiser.
The Assignment has been criticized because you have a character who goes through a gender reassignment against his will. You have, however, said that you sympathize with anyone going through such a transition since they have it bad enough without negative representations in film. You’ve also defended the plot of the film as a pulpy conceit, like the plastic surgery in Johnny Handsome. Still, what would you say to a critic who finds the entire premise insensitive?
I’d tell ’em to find another way to make a living … Well, in the first place, he does not go through gender reassignment, he undergoes genital alteration. That is a very different thing. Frank is a guy. Frank is a guy when he shows up, Frank goes through gender alteration against his will, and Frank remains in a woman’s body. And Frank, until the very last line, remains a guy. This is entirely consistent with transgender theory, the idea that we are what we think we are. Frank undergoes a reversal of the transgender process, which is the idea that if you believe yourself to be one thing, and your body is different, you may choose to alter your body. Frank remains consistent with what’s inside his head. He did not choose to alter his body, but it was done.
We live in a gender-fluid society compared to the world I grew up in. I’m an old fella. It’s very different now. Gender fluidity is a good thing. People express themselves in more positive ways, but there’s always going to be people who try to politicize certain social situations, and want to make things an aggressive attack, thinking that they’re making a defense of their moral position. I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. Look, I think this: When you are intellectually attacking something you have not seen, you are on pretty weak ground. I don’t know what to say beyond that. I don’t think that until one has shared the experience of seeing the film that a very productive dialogue can be had.
In your movies, there’s no insult more cutting for women than “whore” and no insult more barbed for men than “faggot.” There are several strong women in your films, some of whom are prostitutes, but almost no gay characters. But it feels like homosexuality is just another perceived weakness that men talk about, but rarely bring themselves to confront. Is queerness in that sense harder for men to talk about in your films? Would a male character find a harder time relating to another male gay character?
I don’t know. It seems to me that I’ve consistently presented gay characters in a positive way, whether it’s Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors. It’s not explicit in these movies, but it’s not exactly deeply disguised: The Connection, Ronee Blakley’s character in The Driver; Rembrandt, Marcelino Sanchez’s character in The Warriors; Poe, Strother Martin’s character in Hard Times … I think I gave people a break in The Long Riders. I don’t think it’s productive to list this stuff out movie after movie. But … restate your question?
Queerness is something that many of your male characters are afraid of.
Well, certainly the Ajax character in The Warriors is bothered by the idea that that’s something people might see him as. So, because he’s bothered by it, he uses low street language about gayness. But he is presented as an insensitive fellow. I always think that it’s so easy to create a character that’s one thing. Ajax is also heroic in his physical courage. He’s a limited character. He perceives the world through the wrong end of the telescope a lot. But I don’t present him to be an admirable fellow in many ways. I think it’s also wrong to say that people who have a wrong take on things are incapable of heroic acts as well.
When you make action or genre films, people assume a kind of simplicity that is not necessarily there. But what can I tell you? I still like being an action director.
In Hard Times, The Driver, and The Warriors there’s always a moment where women asserts themselves in a way that makes it harder for men to pigeonhole them. In Hard Times, it’s the scene where Jill Ireland’s character tells Bronson’s character that she’s “got a better offer.” In The Driver, it’s the scene where Isabelle Adjani tells Ryan O’Neal there’s “no guarantees” about her not selling him out. And in The Warriors, it’s the bit where Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s character says, “I’ll tell you what I want: I want something now.” Your scripts for these three films are famously spartan, so these dialogue exchanges, which revolve around declarative statements, stand out. Can you talk a little about writing these three scenes?
Well, I guess I have to plead guilty to the charge. It’s a wonderful thing about motion pictures: A character can be revealed very simply at times. They can be mysterious up to a point, and then you give them a moment, and it can be simply stated, and that changes everything. I’m very pleased you found those examples. After a while, you start to think nobody notices. [Laughs.] And as far as writing those scenes … I don’t know, I can’t remember. [I] just wrote it because I thought it was right.
You worked on oil rigs and at a construction company prior to writing screenplays. Your dad and granddad also worked with their hands and were role models for you. Is it fair to say that your movies’ depictions of women are a reaction to the way women behaved and were treated in the male-dominated world you came from?
I’m not sure, I’d have to think about it. Thinking back — which is something I try never to do — I had a very good relationship with my father. Probably distressingly so for my writing and directing. It always seems that if you have a terribly neurotic childhood, that’s a great advantage. My childhood was marked by the fact that I got sick a lot of the time. But other than that, I got along with both my parents very well. I admired them enormously. My father was a real smart guy, but he was also a very physical fellow. As my grandfather, who was a wildcat oil driller when he was a younger man, he was kind of a tramp athlete for a while. This was around the time of the First World War. Then he made a living as an oilman. Both my father and grandfather were very respectful of their women, and their wives. I was never really exposed to any kind of crude behavior by either one of them; such a thing was unthinkable. I was certainly exposed to a million incidents of crude behavior when I went to school. [Laughs.] And various crass attitudes people had about social situations that everybody found themselves in.
You once said about Sam Peckinpah, with whom you worked on The Getaway, that “he was good at finding short catchphrases for characters that described their inner workings, but I always thought he was way too explicit in having characters baldly state thematic ideas.” How do you avoid having your characters overstate the obvious?
I would temper what I said about Sam a bit. Look, I admired his movies enormously, and think he’s one of the real masters. However, I don’t think he was a masterful director of dialogue. But few are. It’s the thing about what we call foreign films. It’s pretty hard to judge since I don’t speak any foreign language. But how good a Japanese director, or Italian director is has got to be tempered by the fact that we don’t speak the language and it’s being translated.
The look of The Driver, Streets of Fire, and a number of your other films are indebted to the paintings of Edward Hopper. If you had to describe the style of an Edward Hopper painting to someone who’s never seen one, how would you describe something like, say, “Nighthawks”?
I feel like I’ve been busted. [Laughs.] Although it’s probably pretty obvious. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s useful to try to really describe it. What’s useful is the fact that the paintings are so evocative in what they do to you. You’re quite right, the paintings did have a big effect on me. It’s kind of a cliche now. But to be Hopper-esque in 1977 was a very different thing than it is today. I was quite taken with the nighttime setting, the isolation, and the deracinated characterization of the people in Hopper’s paintings. At the same time, you feel a tremendous strength and passion within, a commitment to a certain aesthetic idea and ideal. I find all that very inspirational.
In a recent interview, with regard to your upcoming Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remake, you said that recent movies “tolerate” “self-pity” more than before . You’ve said that you want to de-emphasize that Jane is crazy, and play up her alcoholism. You’re also making her and Blanche have active sex lives, if what I’ve read recently is still true. In this way, are you making these characters less pitiable?
[Baby Jane] is no longer an active project, I’m sorry to say. But since you brought this up, I would like to say this: There’s this thing that’s on television now …
Feud. I find it absolutely reprehensible what they’re doing to the reputation of Robert Aldrich.
I knew Bob. He was absolutely nothing like the character that’s being depicted. They’ve got the physical facts entirely wrong. Part of the problem is that [Feud actor] Alfred Molina is such a good actor that he’ll make you believe anything. He’s a wonderful actor. But I don’t know why they’re so intent on turning on a very positive, powerful filmmaker. He gave much of his life to not only making motion pictures, but also made things better for directors everywhere. He was the president of [the Directors Guild of America]. He fought for some of the most significant contractual breakthroughs in our history. There’s no director in the guild who’s not indebted to Robert Aldrich.
I don’t think [what the creators of Feud are doing] is illegal. I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment. But I think it’s shameful. I guess I could go out and write a novel that posits that Abraham Lincoln was a child molester. But I think it would be shameful. Aldrich’s films will endure and Aldrich is Robert Aldrich. But millions of people watch this thing. The idea that this will be their impression of Robert Aldrich is enormously unfortunate.
What’s next for you?
Oh … [Laughs, points to his manager.] He just shook his head and said “No!” Peckinpah used to have a line: “I just go where I’m kicked.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.