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.
Laurie Bird, The Girl; James...
Laurie Bird, The Girl; James Taylor, The Driver; and Dennis Wilson, The Mechanic, pose by the '55.
HPP: What did you see as the plot of the movie?
MH: I was hard-pressed to find one (laughs). My nature is to tell stories and I didn't really know what the story was, but I found it fascinating for some reason. I guess I'm a frustrated documentarian. As soon as I get into a film that's about a group of people-as this one was-I get caught up in just that reality. I found the street racers to be interesting people, so it became a cross between reality and fiction. In the case of Two-Lane Blacktop, I extrapolated the street racing into my experience, which was in movies. So I felt that these characters could be from any walk of life. It's about the passion for perfection, and that could apply to almost everybody. That's how I related to it.
HPP: Who or what did you see as the real star or driving force of the movie?
I don't know. I think it was more of a movie about all of the characters.
This scene was cut from the...
This scene was cut from the movie. In it, The Girl, The Driver and The Mechanic stop off by a river. The Girl takes a swim while the other two reminisce about cars they built and raced in the past.
HPP: Why were there no names for the characters?
MH: They had names, but we just never learned them. It's my experience that people don't call each other by name, unless they're trying to get somebody's attention across the road. Names are used more in screenplays and in movies than they are in real life. If you live with someone, you could go days without saying his or her name and just proceed with ongoing conversation.
HPP: You had a very established actor in Warren Oates, yet you cast two musicians and Laurie Bird, who did some modeling. Was it your plan to use nonactors in these other key roles?
MH: Well, I saw many actors in Hollywood and New York, and I even took it to San Francisco to meet actors up there. I never planned to use nonactors; I couldn't find actors that I liked enough to play the roles. The most important part of directing-in my opinion-is casting, because once you have the right people, the rest falls into place.
HPP: Was Warren Oates considered right from the beginning, or was he somebody who came in toward the end?
MH: He was part of my stock company, so he was my first choice.
Director Monte Hellman composes...
Director Monte Hellman composes the shot for setting the timing on the `55's big-block over the shoulder of Technical Advisor Jay Wheatley, for an early scene.
HPP: How did you come upon James Taylor and Laurie Bird?
MH: I saw a picture of James Taylor on a billboard on the Sunset Strip promoting his new album. I thought his look was right for the part of The Driver. Regarding Laurie Bird, I took a trip to New York to meet with Rudy Wurlitzer, and, while there, met with a number of modeling agencies just to explore that field. When you're looking for someone that age to play that role, it's impossible to find someone who is established, so I anticipated finding an unknown. I checked out modeling agencies and met with people in L.A. as well and she was recommended. Laurie was so inexperienced it never occurred to me that I would actually cast her. She seemed so typical of what we had in mind for the character, however, that we used her as a prototype. Rudy and I did a three-hour taped interview with her; she became the template for the character. I still thought I could cast an actress who could play the part, but I couldn't. Someone then had the bright idea of screen-testing Laurie.
HPP: Did Dennis Wilson come very late in the process?
Yes. He was the last one to come onboard, after I ran through every actor and some other musicians. As a matter of fact, we even met with Randy Newman. Fred Roos, the casting director, finally suggested Dennis.
HPP: Were there any other notable actors or other known people who were considered?
MH: If memory serves, I saw Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and James Caan; I think I saw every young actor in Hollywood.
HPP: How were these four principal actors to work with?
MH: They were terrific. Dennis was very easy going. The only problem was that he was having so much fun that it was hard to find him when we were ready to shoot because he was off somewhere playing all the time. James took it very seriously and was very professional.
The GTO was Orbit Orange and...
The GTO was Orbit Orange and had the eyebrow stripes and rear spoiler that were normally found on a Judge, yet it lacks Judge decals. It's also said to have a 455 engine, but doesn't have the engine callout decals on the fenders.
HPP: Was your approach to Warren different than with the others because of his experience, or that you knew him?
MH: I don't think so. The only problem was that typically when you have an experienced actor with some actors who are doing it for the first time, it's difficult to make it look like they're all in the same movie. With Warren in the role of G.T.O., the character was so much bigger than life, while the others were really just life. So there wasn't a big problem with trying to integrate them; they had that relationship to each other already.
HPP: You worked with Warren Oates before and after Two-Lane Blacktop. What did you like so much about him?
MH: He had mystery about him. He's someone who doesn't reveal everything the first minute you meet him. There was always something more than he was letting out. The character of G.T.O. is a lot like that and I think he was naturally able to give off those vibrations.
HPP: Was that the mystery of it for all the characters? Is that the reason why there is so little dialogue?
MH: No. I think he has mystery because you feel there is something deeper there, something more that you can discover. The others are what they appear to be. They're very simple characters; they're very simple people-particularly in the case of James' character. He wants certain things from life that he's unable to get because he wants other things that are interfering with it. That's his conflict.
HPP: For this movie, you filmed in sequence. That's not really common today is it?
MH: It's usually uncommon because it's inefficient. That's because the studio hires a really expensive actor so the director has to shoot all his scenes at once, or you shoot everything at one location at one time and everything at another location at another time. In this movie, we were obligated to shoot it in sequence because we were moving from one part of the country to the other, so we had to shoot the scenes as they came up.
HPP: How did location shooting affect the demeanor of the cast and crew?
MH: They felt like they were actually living the movie. We were doing the exact same things the characters were doing: traveling across country. James felt it stimulated his imagination and made him get into the character better.
HPP: The original edit was about three-and-a-half hours long. Were any great scenes cut from the movie that you wish weren't?
MH: Lots and lots. There was a terrific scene of a ferry crossing a river and there was a wonderful scene where the guys are chased by cops so they stop and pull into a driveway and look through the window of a house to see a family eating dinner. It evoked feelings of nostalgia for home. There were many terrific scenes. Ultimately, a movie has to have a certain rhythm in order for it to work, however. Even though there were some good scenes, I couldn't use them because they threw the rhythm off.
HPP: Is there any chance of a release of the three-and-a-half-hour cut?
MH: No. I think all that material is long gone.
HPP: Are there any funny anecdotes or strange stories from shooting the movie?
MH: Yes. James had to do a launch in the '55, which was shot from behind. What he didn't know was that the transmission was mistakenly put into Reverse by whoever was in charge of the car. He was told to pop the clutch [at 6,500 rpm] and when he did, the '55 started going backwards instead of forwards. Happily, he stopped it before running over the crew and the cameras.
HPP: How were the cars chosen?
MH: The '55 Chevy was written as a '55 Chevy in the original Will Corry screenplay, so we just kept that. The Pontiac GTO was selected by Rudy Wurlitzer, who wrote the second screenplay. The character of G.T.O. was also created by him.
HPP: You had two GTOs, right?
MH: Yeah, we had two GTOs and three Chevys.
HPP: How did Pontiac get involved?
MH: I don't know. I do know the GTOs were loaned to us. We kept them after filming and I actually drove one for about three months. I think I had more tickets in that three-month period than I did in my whole life outside of that time. The cops would explain to me, "Well, you know, it's because your car is orange. It just stands out more."
HPP: After you were finished with the GTO, do you know what happened to it?MH: It went back to the studio.
HPP: An interesting thing about the GTO is the fact that it's Orbit Orange and has all the characteristics of a Judge, but doesn't actually say that it's a Judge. Do you know of any specific reason for that?
MH: No. They were sent to us that way from Pontiac.
HPP: How were the GTOs modified, aside from the Keystone Klassic wheels? Did they need any special equipment for the movie?
MH: No. We just used them as they came from the factory.
HPP: How were the Chevys modified for the movie?
MH: One was an authentic race car and was too loud inside to record dialogue. The second had a smaller engine in it and was quieter. The last one was a stunt car, so it had a rollbar and equipment for the stunt shots.
HPP: Were any of the five cars lost during filming?
MH: No. James said he blew up the transmission and broke the driveshaft and rear when he popped the clutch and it went backwards, but that was the worst of it.
HPP: The final shot at McMinn County Airport in Athens, Tennesse, with the burning of the film-everyone likes to talk about it. What's your view of it and why did you do it the way you did?
MH: It came to me in a dream. I'm sure it was heavily influenced by my love of Ingmar Bergman and his film, Persona, where he has references to film within the movie, like it opens with a leader going through the projector and things like that. So I think it was a combination of being influenced by that movie and also just dreaming it. I used that ending even though I thought it was a bit too much. I had serious doubts about it. I just kind of liked it and decided to go ahead with it. The hell with it, you know?
HPP: Two-Lane Blacktop received critical acclaim seemingly across the board, but the box office returns were poor. What do you attribute to that?
MH: Well, Universal did little to promote it. Two-Lane did well in a few key cities where the theaters threw away what sparse advertising was provided by Universal, and created their own. I think we had a few other ads, but I'm not sure they were able to use them. Universal was in charge of the advertising for the opening in New York. We opened on July 4th weekend without a single newspaper ad. We had a few radio ads, but that's about it.
HPP: Do you know why Universal didn't back it as much as they should have?
MH: Well, I know they didn't like it, but beyond that, their explanation for no newspapers ads on July 4th weekend was that nobody would be in town to read them. So my answer was, "Why open it then?" They didn't show it to any critics, so by the time the reviews came out, the picture was gone.
HPP: History repeated itself when you wanted to get it released on laser disc and DVD, didn't it? Universal was reluctant again to release it.
MH: Yes. I think it was because they didn't have the music rights, so it would've been a task to reacquire them. They dragged their feet for a long time until there was a tremendous popular clamoring for it. Scarecrow Video in Seattle gathered signatures on a petition and Universal finally reacquired the music rights so the movie could be released.
Not even the rain halted shooting....
Not even the rain halted shooting. In fact, Hellman credits the rain for adding excitement to an otherwise slow-paced scene when the characters arrive in Boswell, Oklahoma, early in the morning to find the town asleep.
HPP: With all the re-releases, do you view the movie again and critique yourself? Is there any second guessing now, all these years later?
MH: Well, I regret some of the scenes we left out, even though I'm sure that the decision was right at the time. I do that a lot with other movies, but not so much with Two-Lane because it's so different from other movies, and certainly the bulk of my other work. I'm not used to working without a story and it's just kind of a thing of it's own. I just accept it for what it is. It has success and makes me satisfied. It had big success in London, to the point where my agent went to see it again and the theater was sold out. That was a lot of fun. Now the DVD is doing so well, it's the first time I can really say it's a hit. On some of the Web sites that are selling it, it's in the Number 1 or Number 2 position.
HPP: Do you have any other favorite road movies?
MH: My favorite would probably be the movie that inspired Kris Kristofferson to write "Me and Bobby McGee," La Strada.
HPP: With all the press surrounding Two-Lane Blacktop now, do you envision a modern-day remake?
MH: No I don't. I never see the point in remaking anything, unless it was done badly. That's the only reason you'd remake something.
HPP: Do you think a road movie could be made today in the same style that you did it in 1970?
MH: Looking back, I don't even see how we had a chance to make it then. I think it's a very difficult type of movie to do, regardless of the year. Today, anything's possible, but I think it would be improbable.
The New Release
The Criterion Collection's (Criterion.com) new two-disc release of Two-Lane Blacktop features:
• Newly restored, high-definition digital transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, supervised and approved by Hellman
• Two audio commentaries from Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders, and from Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer
• New interviews with Hellman, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, Producer Michael S. Laughlin and Production Manager Walter Coblenz
• Never-before-seen screen test outtakes
• A look at the restoration of one of the '55s
• Some of the film's shooting locations today
• Photos and publicity for Two-Lane Blacktop
• Original theatrical trailer
• Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay reprinted
• Appreciations by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits
• A reprint of the '70 Rolling Stone article "On Route 66 Filming Two-Lane Blacktop," by Michael Goodwin
Monte Hellman, circa 2007...
Monte Hellman, circa 2007.
About Monte Hellman
"They're all road movies: China 9 Liberty 37 was a road movie, The Shooting was a road movie, and Ride the Whirlwind was a road movie. I only make road movies," explains the famed director. Let's learn more about the man behind Two-Lane Blacktop.
High Performance Pontiac: Why did you want to become a director? Was it a childhood dream?
Monte Hellman: Actually, it was. The first time I directed, I was 10 years old. I wrote and directed something at a Y camp. I think I was always in love with the movies. I never thought I had a chance to become a director in films because at the time I thought, like everyone else, that you had to be born into it and have family in the business. My original goal was to become a theater director, and that's what I started with. I studied theater at Stanford University. I began working in summer stock after I did some graduate work at UCLA. I had a chance to work in the editing side of the business, as a film editor, then I did some film work in Los Angeles.
HPP: And then you went to work for Director Roger Corman?
MH: I knew Roger Corman because my wife was an actress and she was working for him. I knew him socially and he invested in one of my theater projects. I didn't mean to become a film director.
HPP: How much of an influence was he?
MH: His main influence was showing me that you could make a movie for any price.
Dennis was 25; Laurie just...
Dennis was 25; Laurie just 17; and James was 22 years old when Two-Lane Blacktop was made.
HPP: You also worked with Jack Nicholson a few times. What did you learn from him? Or from each other?
MH: I worked with Jack five times, actually. Mainly what I learned from him was how to pick the right actor for the part. He had some breakthroughs as well, just by the process that we went through.
HPP: How did your directing style differ from the Hollywood norm at the time?
Well actually, I didn't think that it did. I was in love with Hollywood movies and was trying to emulate them, but in terms of story telling or creating characters, I don't use other movies as source material.
HPP: How did Two-Lane Blacktop affect your career?
MH: It was actually a double-edged sword. It helped a lot at the beginning; I was hot for about 15 minutes until the movie came out. Then all bets were off.
This gas station in Boswell,...
This gas station in Boswell, Oklahoma, no longer exists.
What to look for on-screen:
• In the opening scene, the L.A. Street Racers Association was featured. The group was actually quite worried about backlash from local law enforcement for being in the movie.
• Though the car looks like a '70 Judge, there are no Judge decals. In the original Wurlitzer screenplay, The Driver even refers to it as a Judge at one point, but it's not in the movie.
• Though the engine is referred to as a 455 throughout the movie, the engine callouts on the fenders, like the Judge decals, are absent. If this was a '70 Judge with a 455, it would be just 1 of 17.
• To further the yarn-spinning quality of the character G.T.O., he deftly describes the GTO's engine incorrectly a few times in the movie, referring to it as a 455 with Mark IV Ram Air, a Carter high-rise set up and 390 horsepower. A "Mark IV" is a big-block Chevy, the Pontiac engine didn't come with a "Carter high-rise" but rather a Quadrajet on a cast-iron intake and no Pontiac engine at the time was rated at 390 hp.
• Curiously, in the original screenplay the engine was to be described with a "Holley high-rise" and "tunnel-port" heads.
• Rudy Wurlitzer, the writer of the screen-play, was the driver of the green hot rod that lost in a race to the '55.
• Monte's wife, Jaclyn, played the wife of the hot rod driver for the argument in the bar scene.
• Singer Joni Mitchell was James Taylor's girlfriend at the time and joined him on set. According to the moviemakers, she can be seen out in the field during that gas station scene that prompted the race. (I couldn't see her, but perhaps you can.)
• Actor Alan Vint, who played a local in the restaurant who challenges main characters to come out to the track, was considered for the part of The Mechanic.
• Jay Wheatley, a technical advisor responsible for maintaining the cars in the movie, has a cameo with a Mopar at the opening of the Lakeland International Raceway (near Memphis) scene.
• A.J. Solari, the last hitchhiker that G.T.O. picks up, was a runner up for the part of The Mechanic.
• Most of the actors you see in the gas stations and diners are locals who live in those towns.
• Monte's son, Jared Hellman, was the last child to exit the station wagon at the accident scene.
• The little girl hitchhiker with her grandmother in the cemetery scene is Monte's daughter, Melissa.
Behind the scenes:
• Rudy Wurlitzer opines, "The whole idea of the road, of going from one place to another, is essentially American."
• Regarding the choices for the cars, Wurlitzer explains, "The GTO is the consumer car par excellence, a metaphor for the consumer culture. It's absurd, but in a great way. The Chevy is the artist's car, made and created by people who are in love with the process of building a car."
• Custom auto design and construction of the cars is credited to Richard Ruth, William Kincheloe and H. Alan Deglin.
• Esquire magazine printed the entire screenplay in its April '71 issue before the movie was released and dubbed Two-Lane Blacktop, "The Film of the Year."
• While most movies have a proper wardrobe department, the wardrobe for "The Driver," "The Mechanic," and "The Girl" was chosen by each actor from a used clothes store. This served two purposes; it cut costs, but more importantly added to the realism by having the actors pick their own clothes.
• There was no makeup artist on Two-Lane. The actors were instructed to "get a tan" before shooting began.
• Up until his 2007 interview, James Taylor had never seen Two-Lane Blacktop; he doesn't like to watch himself on film. But he did say that he would like to see it now.