Interview: Walter Hill Talks The Assignment and Making Genre Movies His Way

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Cult director Walter Hill’s new transgendered sci-fi thriller The Assignment hits theaters this Friday

Anyone with even a casual interest in cult cinema knows the name Walter Hill. From his work co-steering the Alien franchise, to his beloved action flick The Warriors, trailblazing buddy cop flick 48 Hours, dystopian rock musical Streets of Fire, slick thriller Trespass, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt…the list is long and awesome and eccentric.

Fans love Hill because the writer/producer/director takes chances and refuses to behave, combining horror, action, comedy, drama and every other genre he adores, sometimes jamming them into a single film. His latest movie is no exception. The Assignment (filmed as Tomboy before playing festivals controversially as (Re) Assignment) is a crazed revenge thriller that Hill first adapted as a graphic novel. It blends noir tropes, action trappings, violent horror motifs and Frankenstein-mad science horror with fiery aplomb.

In it, a hitman named Frank Kitchen is given a lethal assignment, but after being double-crossed, he discovers he’s not the man he thought he was—he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman (and that woman is played with swagger by the awesome Michelle Rodriguez). Seeking vengeance, Frank heads for a showdown with the visionary doctor (Sigourney Weaver – this marks Hill’s 5th film with his Alien star) who transformed him, a brilliant surgeon with a chilling agenda of her own.

The Assignment (co-written by Hill and Denis Hamill) has been quietly streaming on Ultra VOD all month and will finally hit theaters on April 7th courtesy of Saban Films and Lionsgate. We had the chance to speak with Hill last week about the film and his thoughts on the invisible lines that define genres…

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ComingSoon.net: Was the screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival the first screening of The Assignment?

Walter Hill: Yes, that was my preview. The movie wasn’t quite finished but we did show a version of it there. I’ve made a few trims and changes. Subtle changes. And some music changes, because the music wasn’t quite finished.

CS: And am I right in assuming this is an all-new, original Giorgio Moroder score?

Hill: Yes indeed.

CS: Have you ever worked with Moroder before?

Hill: No. But he and I have known each other — not terribly well — for many years. For 30 years or so we’ve had the same lawyer, so at various social things we would run into each other and have had lunch together twice, I believe. We had always talked about potentially working together and it seemed as if this was the propitious moment to do so. Although, it was a bit on the tricky side, because right when the music was to be done, Giorgio had a back injury and had to go for some kind of procedure in Switzerland. So we had to do most of the work by the internet, giving Giorgio sections of the movie while he was recovering in Italy and then he would send his compositions to his collaborator Raney (Shockne) who would fill it out and orchestrate it. Raney was eight blocks from my house so it was unusual procedure. But I think the score is quite good .

CS: I love the original title, Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale. Very pulp. Have you made peace with title change?

Hill: I still prefer the original title. But in the first place, it’s hard for me to have an attachment to any title because, well, you pick the country or the vineyard and there’s a different title. The graphic novel in France has one title, the film has another. In England it’s still Tomboy. It was (Re) Assignment in Toronto and then it became The Assignment. So I made the movie as Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale. I thought that was a fair description. But it didn’t translate to other cultures and the thinking was that Tomboy was not a politically-correct phrase. As I’m sure you know, as it was being shot it was under attack by certain people who objected to what they perceived was the subject matter. The whole damned thing was messy, really.

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CS: I’ve seen an interview with Michelle addressing that controversy and insisting that the film is not political, that’s it’s strictly a romp. But I always see commentary lurking on the peripheral of your work. Is there no subtext in The Assignment at all?

Hill: My daughter accused the movie of being just another of my essays (laughs). Listen, I’m always against trying to reduce movies to a single genre or formula. I think it’s a lot of things. Do I agree that it’s just a straight-forward genre piece? No, I don’t. What is this film? It’s a noir, comic book revenge story. But it pits a highly-evolved, scientific genius against a Darwinian survivor of the lowest part of the underclass and the underworld and they’re both on twin tracks of revenge. The movie ends up with sympathy for both characters. They’re not saints, but they’re in a better place then when we find them at the beginning. Sadder but wiser, as the cliche goes. There are a few homilies in the movie, a few elbows in the ribs. But you know what? I was actually most influenced by EC comics. I feel like this is close to an episode of Tales from the Crypt I did 25 years ago. It’s very much part of that Tales from the Crypt universe. And I think I wandered all over the place trying to answer your question…

CS: Yeah, but I’m listening to Walter Hill wander so that’s okay! Your contemporary, Paul Schrader, has recently made a movie called Dog Eat Dog and seemingly has embraced lower budgets and digital technology. Have you? You already touched on this with the way you and Moroder made the music…

Hill: Embracing it is one way to put it. At some point you have to embrace your fate. The options are not enormous. Look, it’s not 1985 anymore and I have fewer options in my life. If I’m going to continue to work it will likely be at the kind of budget level and technical level that this movie was made under and that’s fine. You play the cards you’re dealt. And I think finding avenues to tell the stories you want to tell, that are avenues of personal expression is all the same. And I don’t question the gift.

CROSSROADS, director Walter Hill, 1986, ©Columbia /

CS: You mentioned your Tales from the Crypt series, you are one of the minds responsible for the Alien franchise. And yet you’ve never actually directed a horror feature film. Why?

Hill: I don’t know. Some of it is opportunity. Some of it is that I just haven’t found the right thing. I got in trouble some years ago, I was in London and I was asked about what the difference in making action movies and horror movies was and I said, I thought pretty obviously in jest,  that “in action movies they beat the sh*t out of guys and in horror movies they beat the sh*t out of women”.

CS: Uh oh,

Hill: Yeah. This didn’t go over very well. You better not repeat this (Sorry Walter! – ed). But hey, there was an element of truth to what I was saying. Horror tends to exploit the feminine mystique more than the action pictures do. But as far as directing, I’m certainly a genre filmmaker and when I’m referred to as an action director I rejoice in that, because it sounds so good. But at the same time I don’t think I’ve ever made a straight-ahead genre film. It’s always been cross-pollinated. Always a hybrid of many things. I always seem to make things a bit more complicated than I start them out to be.

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