While filming the cult 1979 masterpiece The Warriors, in which a Coney Island gang busts through city barricades after being falsely implicated in an assassination, director Walter Hill found himself dealing with the real thing. “We were in Brooklyn most of the time during filming,” Hill says, “and we were bothered a lot by other real gangs, who, like hyenas, would be circling our sets. And of course our guys, who were a pretty active physical force themselves, took on their own kind of gang sensibility. One night, one of these real gangs was up on a train platform while we were running by below, and they pissed down on us. James Remar and about five other actors took off after them, and went up the stairs to have it out. We were, of course, wondering if we were ever going to get our cast back. Those kinds of things, in a way, happened almost every night.”
The anxieties and camaraderie of Brooklyn street life are evident throughout The Warriors, which, between various escapes from rivals wielding bats and billy clubs, is marked by pauses in the dark as the gang members catch their breaths and gird for the next showdown.
“Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence,” Robert Bresson urged fellow filmmakers. Through dozens of directorial efforts, including Southern Comfort, both 48 Hrs. films, and the Emmy-winning pilot for Deadwood, Walter Hill has honored this balance.
Before a moment of downtime in his office on the Warner Bros. lot, Hill gives instructions to his editing team, ensuring that the recipient of a stomach punch in his latest film, Bullet to the Head, due out April 2012 and starring Sylvester Stallone, is pinned to the ground long enough to match the impact of the blow. At 69, Hill is still shooting on film, refining action sequences down to the crumple and questioning the nature of confrontation.
“I was always very aware that I was getting away with something,” Hill says of his first few films, including his 1975 debut, Hard Times, in which a laconic street fighter played by Charles Bronson ambles through New Orleans and knocks his opponents onto piles of oyster shells along the way. “Somehow in the belly of the great commercial engine of Hollywood, I had managed to get some things through that were not going to be conventional product. Whether they’re good, bad, or indifferent, I have to leave to someone else.”
New Yorkers can decide for themselves as a pair of his early works, each wildly imaginative representations of their respective cities, screen just days apart. First is a Brooklyn shout-out to The Warriors at BAM on Halloween, kicking off the “Brooklyn Close-Up” series, followed by a rare screening of The Driver, starring Ryan O’Neal as the most-wanted getaway driver in Los Angeles, at MOMA on November 5, with a scheduled appearance by Hill. His most underappreciated and airtight film, The Driver (1978) takes the top spot among West Coast car-chase standards like the original Gone in 60 Seconds and Bullitt (for which Hill served as second assistant director). “I’m told there’s also a similarity in the new movie Drive,” he says, succinctly.
The Driver, above all, stands as a testament to meticulous location scouting, as the viewer is guided through unidentified parking garages, wood-paneled pool halls, and glass towers rising above the ghosts of Bunker Hill. “Back then, when you went downtown, there was this kind of other,” Hill, a Long Beach, California, native who lives in Beverly Hills, explains. “Nowadays it’s repopulated, and there’s a vibrancy down there. I was interested in the hollow, lonely city.” Whereas the atmospheric detail in contemporary noirs like Collateral and Drive slices through the screen in high-definition video, Hill’s shabbier, rain-slicked roadways blend into the haze, further obscuring all signage and blotting the streetlights as the getaway cars streak past.
Aggressively pursued by Bruce Dern, a detective whose presence is like a rope burn, the Driver, as he’s identified (just as Ryan Gosling is in Drive), calmly sidesteps every trap. A relentless pursuit is also central to The Warriors, but whereas the Driver has mastered every square inch of the city, the Warriors have tunnel vision. Heading to the Bronx for a nighttime summit in Van Cortlandt Park, they endlessly speculate about the mysteries awaiting them just a few miles north. Subway maps baffle them. In one revealing line, Vermin, normally the jester, tenses up: “Fucking Coney Island must be 50 to 100 miles from here!” Misdirection is understandable. Hill presents a New York City stripped of landmarks, skyline trimmed to townhouse height. It’s the city we rarely see—millions tucked out of sight, train doors yawning.
In Dead Cities, author Mike Davis critiques Charles Dickens’s tour of all that was “loathsome, drooping, and decayed” in Lower Manhattan, collected in his 1842 travelogue, American Notes. “Dickens was hardly aiming at documentary realism,” Davis writes. “If anything, he was trying to take his readers somewhere already subliminally familiar to them, a city visited in dreams.”
I ask Hill if he identifies with this passage. “Yes, I plead guilty,” he answers. “The Warriors is about as nonrealistic as a movie could possibly be. It’s amazing, though—this vaguely futuristic, science-fiction movie—why was it so audience-friendly? I don’t exactly have the answer. I wish I did.
“Jorge Luis Borges started with the premise that nothing was original,” Hill continues, “and went one step further, saying there are only two stories: The Odyssey and the Crucifixion. Everything finally falls into one or the other, and it’s pretty hard, once you start seeing that premise, to dispute it. But he also contends that it’s not the sense of discovery for the audience, but the rediscovery—that they become your partners in the telling of the story they all know.”
That familiarity made theaters a staging ground for rival gangs when The Warriors hit New York screens, a development Hill hadn’t anticipated, though he understood the story’s potential for unrest. Before Warriors, “anything that had to do with gangs was perceived to be a negative, cancerous kind of growth on society,” he says. “The Warriors presented the idea that a gang was a defensive organization that gave people a sense of identity and a sense of protection. The idea that a street gang served a positive purpose for those members, and they weren’t simply a pack of wolves, disturbed a lot of people.”
Disturbing to admirers of the film is the specter of a remake, which was at one time attached to director Tony Scott, who planned to move the action to contemporary L.A. Its future remains unclear. “I have no idea what the studio plans are,” Hill says. “They don’t call me. The producer tells me they’ve spent five times as much in developing a sequel as we did to make the movie. I made my version. Somebody else wants to take a shot at it, good luck.”