Director: Monte Hellman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Jesus, I love to shoot film.”
“Look out, Haskell, it’s real!”
Although Monte Hellman did not cite it has an influence, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) was the film that came to mind as I watched Hellman’s first feature film in more than 20 years. Road to Nowhere is a film about filmmaking, and the love Hellman has for the form permeates this film. So, too, does Hellman employ a documentary style to expose the bones of the filmmaking process for his film within a film. However, neither the film Hellman stand-in Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) makes, nor the fact-based story on which it is based is at all real. The fun for audiences is not just in trying to make sense of the reflexive storytelling, but also in recognizing how we, like the directors, love to lose ourselves in making the unreal real.
In this particular film, the “real” story collides with the film Haven is making (also called Road to Nowhere) in the form of Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown actress he casts to play Velma Duran, a woman mixed up with corrupt politician Rafe Taschen, to be played by A-list actor Cary Stewart (Cliff de Young). Political blogger and scriptwriter Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) says the pair faked their own deaths to perpetrate an insurance fraud, and flashbacks of Laurel confirm that she was hired to play Velma in “real” life in the North Carolina town where the suicides were staged to preserve the lives of Nestor Duran’s (Fabio Testi, also in Hellman’s Iguana) family in Cuba, though why they would be in danger, and from whom, is never made clear. It appears that North Carolina insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne) posed as a construction worker at Haven’s home with the express purpose of slipping a DVD of Laurel, whom he thinks is Velma, to Haven during the casting process and ingratiating himself as a location adviser to keep an eye on her; he doesn’t have to talk Laurel up to Haven, who is bewitched by her and turns down an offer by Scarlett Johansson to play Velma for scale to pursue his obsession.
Hellman has crafted two intriguing and very different films. Haven’s Road to Nowhere is slow and contemplative, making stunning use of the Smoky Mountains location and Sossamon’s enigmatic face to create a mournful atmosphere that is as enveloping as the low-hung clouds that roll off the mountains and across the water where Taschen’s plane goes down. A scene whose portent we won’t discover until nearly the end of the film shows Sossamon drive to a tunnel, walk in, and double over in an agonizing gut-wrench of emotion; carefully shot so we don’t see the other opening of the tunnel, this is indeed the titular road to nowhere.
Hellman’s outer shell of Road to Nowhere is caught up almost completely in the mechanics of filmmaking. We witness Haven’s arguments with his screenwriter Steve Gates (Robert Kolar) over casting, the endless ad libbing on set, the build-up of Laurel’s role, and the accompanying requests by increasingly marginalized cast members for more lines. Such is Haven’s obsession that Gates and the rest of the company are reduced to being his yes men and women. Cary Stewart is shown on the phone with his agent complaining about how the movie has shifted him into a supporting role; when asked if anything can be done contractually, he responds to what he hears on the phone with “Yes, we should have asked for more money.” Haven does a preproduction interview with real Variety reporter Peter Bart, implying that he doesn’t get romantically involved with the people on his shoots, and then sharing a room with Laurel on location.
What really put me in the same place as Haven was his evening occupation with Laurel—watching DVDs in their barebones hotel room using equipment he brought for that purpose. His film choices—The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive, and The Seventh Seal—are as different from each other as Hellman’s two Road to Nowhere films, yet Haven proclaims each of them masterpieces. When Laurel asks how many films he has seen, Haven scolds her for the question: “Never ask a director how much time he spends watching other directors’ dreams.” “Then, am I your dream?” asks Laurel. Indeed she is, and other writers have suggested that Hellman’s one-time paramour Laurie Bird, his star in Two-Lane Blacktop, has uncomfortable parallels to Laurel.
Certainly, Hellman’s film is chockablock with references to his life and movies in general. Writing in an insurance investigator (and possibly cuing our memories with a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle) certainly calls to mind Double Indemnity. Several of his characters and the production team for the Haven film share the same first initials as he and other members of the production team. In fact, his fondness for cutesy names, like the matinee idol mash-up Cary Stewart and the destined-to-blog Nathalie Post, is a quirk meant to suggest types more than people, I imagine, but one I find more cheesy than effective. The extremely literal lyrics of the songs contributed to the film by alt-country singer-songwriter Tom Russell also seem to slam us over the head with the film’s theme. Perhaps this is Hellman’s sly trick on the Hollywood dumb-down most films must get before they can be marketed to the widest possible audience internationally. However, Hollywood isn’t the only target to get blown a raspberry—the lingering cheesecake shot of Swain’s curvaceous butt and one of Laurel taking a phone call while sitting on the toilet seemed like they escaped from a recipe book for audacious indie filmmaking.
A friend I spoke with after the screening couldn’t believe how appallingly bad Sussamon was, but Laurel insisted to Haven that she wasn’t really an actress. Her performance in the scenes we see in Haven’s film certainly are quite wonderful, and if she was trying to play an actress who couldn’t act, as I believe she was, she did a very fine job. In fact, I would say that generally speaking, the other performances don’t quite measure up to hers.
The climax of the film is the part that evoked Medium Cool most strongly for me. “Look out, Haskell, it’s real,” is a famous line from Wexler’s film, a reference to tear gas police shot into the crowd of protesters of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In fact, there was no tear gas where Wexler was shooting, and the line was dubbed into the film. In the same way, Haven shoots Bruno in a rage with the line, “You brought a gun into the scene,” a suggestion that the murder was an unplanned part of Hellman’s film. Wexler’s film ends with a camera pointing at the audience, whereas we get to see the murder scene and the police stand-off through Haven’s HD camera viewer—and a shot of Hellman’s crew filming it all.
Road to Nowhere is an intriguing film that will appeal most strongly to the serious cinephile who has wrestled with the implications of cinema as a voyeuristic and reflexive art form. In the final analysis, however, Hellman’s film has a valedictory feel to me, a summation of a life in the movies by one of its most staunchly independent elder statesmen.