At the very least, Two-Lane Blacktop is considered a "cult classic" and at most, the "greatest road movie ever made." Most car nuts probably place it closer to the latter than the former on their all-time favorites list. On the surface, it's about a cross-country race between a "homegrown" '55 Chevy and a '70 GTO for pink slips, with the '55 picking up street races along the way to earn cash. Underneath, it's about "the passion for perfection" in winning a race, and four lonely people seemingly ever in search of companionship on the road.
What began with a $100,000 script from Will Corry and a deal from CBS Cinema Center became a completely rewritten screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer, at the behest of Director Monte Hellman, and a quest to get the movie green-lighted after CBS dropped the project in the 11th hour. Many studios later, Universal bit on the contention that the movie be completed for the paltry sum of $950,000.
As Hellman explains, if there's one thing that he learned from director Roger Corman-with whom he had worked in years prior-it's how to bring a movie in on a shoestring budget. The final tally to make Two-Lane Blacktop was $875,000.
With the deal set and the budget low, the easiest out was to film Two-Lane on the backroads of the San Fernando Valley, but Hellman refused. This was a road film, and as such had to be filmed on location in order to instill both the visual expanse and the gritty feel of living on the road.
As a result, much of the movie was filmed on legendary Route 66 at a time when the highway was well past its prime. Having been usurped by Interstate 40's faster means of transportation, 66 was in decay at the dawn of the "Me Decade" and had yet to be embraced by a new generation of nostalgia seekers who provided tourist dollars to fortify the restoration and preservation of its more famous sites.
Here's the camera rig that...
Here's the camera rig that was set up to shoot the actors inside the '55. While pitching the movie to MGM, Hellman was told it would be boring because it was all shot in a car, so he provided a diagram that showed how he could shoot 24 different angles inside the car.
Shooting took place in L.A.; Needles, California; Flagstaff, Arizona; Santa Fe, Tucumcari, and Gary, New Mexico; Texas; Boswell, Oklahoma; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Maryville, Tennessee, in an eight-week thrash from August through October of 1970.
The schedule was hectic and the conditions were less than ideal, all of which added to the realism, as the actors lived the movie as well as performed in it. They drove across country like their characters and faced similar situations and hardships on and off camera. To ensure the honesty and spontaneity of the actors' reactions on film, Hellman only gave them the script pages the night before the next day's scenes.
Realism even extended to the sounds of the cars. Both the GTO and Chevy used their actual engine and exhaust sounds. In the '55, you can even hear what sounds like the whine of the straight-cut gears in an M22 transmission.
Though not written by Hellman, once it was in the director's hands, the film became his. What follows is his first-hand account of making Two-Lane Blacktop.
High Performance Pontiac: You were once quoted as saying, "I believe the best movies are road movies. The road is very enigmatic, the road is life." Where did your passion for road movies come from?
Monte Hellman: When I was studying film as a graduate student at UCLA, many things influenced me. One of them was a book by Siegfried Kracauer-Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. He talks a lot about the streets and being on the road. Basically, if you don't have a window onto the real world, it's a play, not a film. That's movement, that's life, that's vital. It influenced me to be much more interested in making films on location, instead of on a sound stage.
HPP: About Two-Lane Blacktop, you had said that it was a movie about "inner life rather than outer life. It's not a film about other films." Can you elaborate on that?
MH: I am much more interested in emulating life, than emulating other movies. I draw my inspiration from my experience, not by watching other films.