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On The Road With The New Hollywood   Print

by Shelly Benoit
SHOW
March 1971
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Filming "Two Lane Blacktop"


Two Lane Blacktop is maybe the dark horse in this first batch of new films by Universal. It reflects what will inevitably be referred to as its progenitor, Easy Rider, only insofar as it is of the on-the-road species. Unlike Easy Rider (which comes on as a full dress melodrama in comparison), and unlike your basic box office film, it is almost obsessively understated. It is nonviolent, nonpolitical, and all but nonsexual with a stark, more-low-key-than-thou script that happens to be so compelling you can't finish it fast enough. Like a fall from a skyscraper, you can't even get breath. Speed is what this film is about. Speed that overrides temporal sex, violence and politics. Speed that is sport to some, necessity to others.

Speed was even considered as the film's title but was eschewed because of the drug connotation (and that not out of squeamishness, but simply because it is misleading here) and because it is "too descriptive". Speed, both abstract and real, is so much the star and raison d'etre of Two-Lane Blacktop that the characters don't even have names. They aren't necessary. It is part of the ruthless paring down, the elimination of distraction, the ultimate streamlining. We are left with four persons—the Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO (a man who drives one and is defined by it); and two cars —a primer-grey 55 Chevy with a 454 cubic inch high-performance engine and a stock GTO, the paralyzing orange of those inedible marshmallow peanuts from Woolworths. Plus Route 66. Plus the street racing subculture.

Street racers are night bloomers. They live outside the law. They drag race and bet with only their own sanction, making laconic deals for a yard or a deuce (one or two hundred dollars). They ignite for a quarter mile, with luck, before the cherry-tops descend. Big highways are too public; they prefer parking lots, or a two lane blacktop.

The blacktops in Two-Lane are those that lie between Los Angeles and the Smokies. The Driver and Mechanic ditch a bust in L.A. and head East. An Arizona food stop yields a young stow-away—the Girl—in the rear of their Chevy. She is allowed to stay. No questions. The fourth in this odd travelling menage is GTO, who is not a full-time street racer or a full-time anything, and who tends to be long gone before questions arise. He is teased into a cross-country race for pink slips. Whoever makes Washington, D.C. first picks up the title to both cars at the P.O. What begins as a contest devolves into a strange symbiosis. The Driver and Mechanic help GTO when they could split on him; the Girl occasionally rides with him; and sometimes the men even swap cars and race each other for little sprints. We learn that the pink on the Car was never mailed, so the whole thing is phony. The race, that is. Only the relationship remains, as isolated and pure as a germ-free experiment. And the speed. The only reality.

Two-Lane Blacktop began with a writer named Will Corey. He sold a script, upon which this final one is based, to Cinema Center for $100,000. Cinema Center producer Michael Laughlin (The Whisperers, Joanna) called in Monte Hellman to direct. He had seen Hellman's films The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, a pair of what might be called existential westerns. (Both films were standout successes in Europe, where Hellman's name is better known than it is here. They have yet to be released in the U.S., although some distributor with an eye to the main chance may seize on the fact that both starred and were produced by Jack Nicholson.) Hellman liked the idea of the script but would not tackle it without a rewrite. He had read a book called Nog by Rudolph Wurlitzer (a staggering, spinning novel that does no less than take your brain apart and leave you to reassemble it, if you have the strength), and decided Rudy was the man for the job. Rudy, who ricochets between New York and Nova Scotia, alighting occasionally in L.A., was hard to get. Hellman finally cornered him in San Francisco. Rudy resented the assignment, was not really into cars, but agreed to do it because he was broke. In four weeks he turned out a whole new script and subsequently did a small bit in the film.

Monte spent six weeks location scouting during which time Cinema Center went through personnel changes that resulted in the cancellation of this and other projects. Hellman, who had not made a film in five years, and who had had several other deals fall through, was not about to give up. He took the property to Warner Brothers, Columbia and United Artists, all of whom displayed interest but had their own ideas of how the film should be done. For one thing, they all wanted to cast it with their own young people, and all were skeptical of Hellman's mini-budget and shooting schedule (although both were lavish compared to his previous projects). MGM came close, but when that collapsed, Hellman took the thing to Ned Tanen at Universal. He grabbed it. The well-under-a-million-dollar budget was creased severely by having to pay off Cinema Center to release the property. Laughlin and Hellman took a percentage of the film rather than salaries, and it was on the road.

The Driver and Girl were cast first—back during the location hunt before the film was cancelled. Laurie Bird was a good but disconsolate ('You get shit on") model who, at 17, was looking for something else to get into. She did a four-hour interview with Monte and Rudy before the final script was written. Someone had recommended her as the kind of girl in spirit as well as presence, that they were looking for. Of course they needed an actress, which she wasn't but after passing on some 500 girls in hollywood, none with her quality, they decided to take a chance with the original. The independence they sought is inbred in Laurie (nee Laurene) Bird, who has seen plenty in a short time. Her mother died when she was three; her father decided when she was 15 that she could earn her own keep and effectively threw her out. She was once jailed in the company of some swell black lesbian prostitutes when she ran away. She was panhandling in Manhattan when one of her benefactors turned her onto modelling—no spare change, but a steak dinner and some good contacts for the sidewalk Cinderella. Presumably, what she already knows about survival will come across on screen.

James Taylor (the Driver) is, as you well know, a full-fledged popstar—certainly one of the finest American composer-performers now working. He has never acted before. Monte had never met him but flashed on a picture of him and got a script to James' producer/protector Peter Asher. Asher liked it, recommended it to James, and he was cast immediately. Hellman had turned down dozens before him. (Casting director Fred Roos, who previously worked on Zabriskie Point, observed that Monte was tougher to please than Antonioni.) James does not sing in the film. Monte does not want him identified that way ("detrimental empathy"). But it is James the Musician that makes James the Driver even possible. The script describes this character as "twenty-three years old. His face is lean and angular. There is a perplexed and detached look to this eyes. His movements are graceful and yet tense, nervous. When he is driving, he is at one with the Car; when out of the Car he seems slightly lost, as if away from the center of himself." If you traded the word guitar for Car, you'd have a fair image of the real James. Throughout production, his guitar was rarely beyond arm's reach—just past the camera's eye. Weariness and frustration were assuaged with the songs that are his primary identity.

Warren Oates, the only professional actor in the lot, was cast as GTO—the manic, haunted playboy who is by turns irritating and ingratiating. Oates, readily recognizable from some 20 films and quantities of TV, is a regular in Peckinpah's stable and a really solid performer. (The crew, generally less than enchanted at working with a bunch of newcomers, was reported to have said, "If it weren't for Warren, we'd wonder it we were really making a movie.") Warren squeezed in a role in Hired Hand before shooting on Two-Lane began. A co-star in The Shooting, he is a known quantity and longtime friend to Monte.

The Mechanic was hardest to cast. Four days before shooting began, the part was still not settled. It had to be someone who really knew cars, who felt cars. Monte got desperate, tested people he met in garages. Finally, a friend of Fred Roos suggested Dennis Wilson, which meant, oops, another popstar. But he looked right. And he moved right. And he temporarily left his brothers, the Beach Boys, and his drums in L.A. He took his new wife Barbara (ex-Hamburger Hamlet waitress with the face of a Holbein portrait and the resilience of a hip saint) on an extended and frequently unglamorous cross-country honeymoon.

With this brood, a small crew (about 35), three matching Chevys and two matching GTOs, and several massive vehicles, Two-Lane Blacktop went on the road. The fact is, most of the film could have been shot right in California, with few moviegoers any the wiser. But Monte had reasons for wanting everyone involved to virtually live the story—so they did. It was beginning to show by the time they hit Tucumcari.

Tucumcari is in eastern New Mexico on Route 66. It has a museum full of nondescript rocks and a garrulous manager; an art gallery with some abysmal painting but some nice Indian handicrafts; a loafish mountain complete with gory legend; and roads leading in and out that could define "nowhere." I spent a week with the production during which only night shooting took place (i.e. people slept all day and worked from six at night until sun-rise). It was cosmically tiring, but it involved shooting what will emerge as a key sequence in the film—the point at which the relationship between the men changes from competition to mobile commune.

Monday. It is a clear night, the heavens are showy with shooting stars. The moon sets too early. The crew is setting up a few miles from its present home, the Pow Wow Inn (Tucumcari's leading motel that all but averts the curse of plastic). The prairie stillness is startled with the generator's roar and the rude crackle of walkie-talkies. The scene they are setting up for is a sinker. It is Laurie's monologue, a kind of environment-induced speed rap that she gives lying swaddled in old blankets in the rear of the Chevy. Sometimes she looks mummified, or as though she's in a straightjacket. She looks as though she's been in there for weeks. She doesn't even move between takes. her completely round, blue, poker-chip eyes open and shut like a doll's. Adequate takes are spoiled by cattle bawling in the distance. Dennis is slating the takes in the front seat next to James who is pretending to drive a car that is stone still. Time is seeping away. Monte goes around and crouches at the far door of the car, talking privately to Laurie. She gets it right when she is too tired to get it wrong. Twenty-five takes, the most of any scene thus far.

There is a break. Monte steals quietly through the camp like Henry V, discreetly building morale, wearing his director's finder like an amulet. Dinner is served at half-past midnight. It is leaden but abundant fare—pork chops, home fries, asparagus, bread pudding, baked apples, fruit cocktail, quarts of milk, killer coffee—a portable Thanksgiving. Before work starts again Dennis conducts an impromptu, strolling oldies-but-goodies hour, trying quite hard to make people sing harmony, and indicating pitch to Laurie (who is virtually tone-deaf) by raising and lowering his hand. Elsewhere, James and Joni Mitchell sit in canvas chairs singing together. She joins him on location as much as her schedule permits. They become a line from his song ". . . and I feel fine anytime she's around me now, she's around me now nearly all the time." Until the call to work again. James carefully shuts the guitar case and rests it across the chair. A fine dew settles in the darkness and later a constellation of five ladybugs forms on the neck-end of the abandoned case.

Monte Hellman is staying pretty patient against stiff odds. Laurie, already weary, is floundering over the lyrics of an old Chuck Berry song she is supposed to have memorized. Monte snarls that he won't do these scenes if Universal doesn't get the tapes she learns from out more than one day ahead. But he keeps on. His tact borders on the insidious. If a take doesn't make it, he says, barely audibly, "Once more," implying that that will be the end. It rarely is. He says the word action—"ack-shin"—in two long syllables, like pulling off the sheet that unveils the statue. He is never gaudy. He stands in the clouds of red dirt in a dark windbreaker and jodhpur boots, his eyes watching now but thinking ahead, looking too much like a director to be anything else, and consistently as restrained as the story he is telling. Others take breaks, bent in crippling postures, crashing in the big bus. Not Monte. And he does not complain. He is the good example, and his brood is instinctively obedient. As a reward, the sun rises.

Tuesday. The location is a gas-and-food place on 66—the kind that services those trucks that look too big to be real. The diner is lit like an operating theatre; in retrospect, it is completely colorless. The Tucumcari firemen wet down the front so it will look as though it has been raining. A minister comes through the door who has just consoled the parents of two six-year-olds run down by a truck driver. James labors over a slab of your basic truck-stop chocolate cream pie. Laurie, who has taken a proprietary interest in the film's budget, orders the waitress not to serve the extras free food. The regular crew has been noshing at will. The jukebox in this forlorn spot affords one Beatles, no Stones and a whole lot of Merle Haggard. Monte is using the waitresses who work there in the scene. They are older ladies in white uniforms who walk on tiptoe when silence is called for and turn their heads like birds.

Monte and his wife Jackie coach Laurie in a booth down by the jukebox. She has to sing again. She falters through When You're Strange with a key change every phrase (when you're strained?), her face flushed with heat and exhaustion. At this moment, her clothes—an outsize fatigue jacket, long and very faded red sweatshirt and jeans—suit her perfectly.

On a break, she is able to find something of value even in this wasteland; she catches a tarantula.

Wednesday. We drive just short of forever to a location five miles west of Texas. Monte wants Texas cops. Not actors in Texas cop uniforms. Or even New Mexico cops in Texas cop uniforms. Texas cops. He gets a pair of beauties. In Texas they go by the name Department of Public Safety. One of them has a cast on the hand he broke enforcing the law. They regard James' ability to hand-roll cigarettes suspiciously. (James rolls and smokes Old Holburn throughout his waking hours; he has for several years.)

Setting up is slow. The night wind hurls dirt around fitfully. Dennis has found an old beebee gun propped up in the corner of the one-room general store we are parked near. In no time, he has arranged competitions with the crew—moving targets, everything. His energy is continuous, astonishing. He will not tolerate a void. His force is physical. James' is cerebral. James' eyes flash, his hands shake. He appears casual, but he is on. He launches into a wildly funny rap on how he wants to be buried at 80 miles an hour. It has nothing to do with the script, or does it?

They are shooting out on the dark highway. In this scene, GTO (Warren) has been pulled over by the cops for speeding. The Driver stops to mess with GTO's mind, not acknowledging to the cops that he knows GTO, but rather inventing a story of GTO passing him earlier on the right, weaving like crazy. The Driver then gets back in his car and burns off at 90. The cops ad lib a line about getting the wrong guy with such deadpan precision that James can be overheard muttering, "The extras are gonna make this picture."

It is getting later and colder. They are shooting run-bys which, as you might surmise, are shots of the cars moving down the road. Laurie has locked herself in the back of the bus, putting the bathroom off limits. At nearly five in the pitch dark, James, bent gingerly in his bus seat, takes out his guitar and sings Blossom too perfectly even for tears. Each breath, each note a tiny triumph while the wind thrashes outside and Monte skips invisible rope to stay warm.

Thursday. We are back to the outskirts of Tucumcari, across the road from a farm that was once that town's leading whore house. There are problems with sound—water rushing in an irrigation ditch and, much later, a cock crowing. All four principles are in the scene. GTO has pulled the other three over after the cop incident. It is here that the chemistry changes; they convert form adversaries to mutually beset friends. They share food and drink. They trade cars and companions—whatever combinations can be thrown with three obsessed men and one supremely vague girl.

Monte wants it dead right. It's coming harder than it should. The normally reliable Warren is blowing it from agitation; James repeatedly breaks up laughing; Dennis is nodding out. Like the first night, it eats up 25 takes. In a gesture touchingly and unconsciously parallel to the script, Laurie offers Warren a cup of tea. At a distance, an eerie floodlit silo rises from the flat field forming a dramatic backdrop, its smooth concrete curves like a Magritte structure—or Tommy's Holiday Camp. In the back of an equipment truck, several wives are squatted on trunks playing cards for pennies. It is a small enough crew that most have brought their families with them.

Friday. Back to the same spot, and more trouble. The GTO has died and the spare GTO has no plates, so it would be a mismatch. A light is blown over and breaks. A window falls out of the Chevy. Monte, in a brief and rare display of temperament, stamps one boot and says, "Shit!" It is so late. (Hallucination: the ruby sand is hissing through the hourglass. Laurie is really Dorothy with James and Dennis the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman; Warren the Cowardly Lion.) Lines from the script are creeping into people's natural conversation—"This night will never end." Laurie and I walk down a dirt road. She is faintly miserable about all the singing she must do. ("I don't sing, you know.") James and Dennis wince and cringe whenever she tunes up. They never even get to whistle—except off camera.

James whistles some Mungo Jerry to stay awake. He has happily retrieved Joni who was off taping a Johnny Cash show in Nashville. She sits quietly on the hood of a white car, or perches on the tailgate playing with a new dobro. She says that James love-hates this work. He is used to having control. With his music, his control is total. He was vexed when Monte did not let him have the script in advance. (Monte gave none of the new kids the script, but shot largely in sequence, doling out their lines day by day—an unorthodox but not unprecedented method of working ). When scripts finally were distributed, mid-way through shooting, Joni says James never really read his. But he could tell you exactly where Sweet Baby James was in Cashbox, Record World and Billboard. Music is always with him, and with Dennis, who had the Pow Wow's cocktail lounge piano moved into his room so he could compose.

Dennis is slouched in one of the big vans reading Rolling Stone and making disparaging comments about a story on his brother Brian, about how wrong it is. Any disgruntlement on the part of the crew makes him paranoid; since he is intimate with big money, he wants to be reassured that this is a first-class production, despite the budget. He overheard them knocking Techniscope (a process that approximates Cinemascope, but is cheaper), which is what the film is being shot in.

On a break, James rejoins Joni, describing Warren as "a real endearing cat." Next to Monte, Warren has been a continuing source of strength to the new ones—a touchstone and a friend. Monte has the basic shots, but would like to cover some different angles. It seems he can will the sun from rising, but near six, the horizon streaks pink. A wrap.

Saturday. The final night out in Tucumcari before pressing on to Durant, Oklahoma. The crew, somewhat testy the night before from cumulative exhaustion, has bounced back now that the end is in sight—and knowing they'll knock off by midnight, before running into Sunday "golden time."

They are doing a rain sequence 35 miles out of town—a local fire truck providing special effects. Laurie must jump out of the Car and dance around in the "rain." Her head is soaked and no-one has thought to bring a drier. She huddles for two hours in a car with the heater running. James temporarily refuses to move without his sweater but finally overcomes physical anguish. Dennis is outright freezing; there is no dry T-shirt for him. Pure energy keeps him alive and well.

Out on the windy highway there is, get this, chateaubriand for dinner—maintaining its own dignity amidst the long bare tables and folding chairs and harsh naked lights. All at once, real rain and thunder happen. The crew packs and moves closer to town in search of a dry spot. (Rain in these parts cuts off as abruptly as light and shadow; you can stand with one foot in and one foot out.)

There is a surprise satisfaction—a very good drag scene has been shot. The sense of speed has been recaptured after this week of toil, desolation and darkness. And suddenly it is over. Something is over. A week. A week in which Monte Hellman, who began with the exact faces he wanted, tried very hard to get the feelings to match. His work will continue into the cutting room, he is his own editor. ("I can't look over someone's shoulder. I need my hand on the brake.") He is not working from the standard rough cut; shooting the film pretty much in sequence has allowed him to piece together a semi-fine cut as he goes.

At breakfast Sunday morning he is beat but confident. He likes each set of dailies better than the last. The night scene with all four characters has pleased him. "I had dreaded it before. Long. Difficult. The middle of the night. The middle of nowhere. Ten minutes of blackness. Everyone will go buy popcorn...." He is frankly awed by the way they have managed to stay on schedule—this despite a month trimmed off the original 12 weeks, plus Laurie's mysterious fever that had her hospitalized briefly. He attributed the efficiency to associate producer Gary Kurtz ("a genius") who worked on Monte's two westerns. Monte generalizes about filmmaking. "There are no vacations really in the movie busines. You can't relax when you're out of work, and if you do know what you'll be doing, you're working even if production hasn't started." For the first time in his life, he knows what his next project will be—Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (another Rudy Wurlitzer Screenplay). Both Dennis and James are intrigued with film but want to be boss next time. Laurie is staying loose. Warren is probably working.

And sometime this spring you can see them all in this movie that will be their past, but, if Monte's will prevails, your future. A cinematic Rorschach." I hope it will turn audiences into themselves." Working on a subconscious level. He leaves breakfast to contemplate tomorrow and Durant. I get on the Greyhound that takes big 66 to Albuquerque, and leaves the two-lane blacktops to themselves.

 

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