Monte Hellman, the maverick cult film director at his best in the 1960s and 1970s, passed away recently at the ripe old age of 91. A well written obituary concerning his life and work can be seen here.
Monte Hellman may not seem a likely choice for a blog entry dedicated to the life, career, and legacy of Lee Marvin but there is actually good reason for his inclusion here. Most people do not know that Monte Hellman took over the reigns of the ill-fated Lee Marvin cold war spy triller, Avalanche Express (1979).
Consequently, I interviewed Monte Hellman in his home in 1996 and he could not have been nicer, even going so far as making us dinner while we spoke. Most of what he told me went into the book of course but sometimes not everything can fit the narrative. With that in mind, and in tribute to his unsung talent, here exclusively is part of the unused portion of our interview….
Dwayne: I guess the best way to start is to ask you how you got involved in Avalanche Express.
Monte: (Long pause) I had sold a picture to Lorimar. My former attorney, Jack Schwartzman was an executive at Lorimar and they had a problem with the movie in that Mark Robson died before finishing the picture. So, they asked me if I would come in and do the kind of thankless job of finishing the movie.
D: At what point did that take place? Was the film completely done and in post-production or was there a little bit of filming left?
M: No, they had shot 90% of the film.
D: So, it was almost done but not quite.
M: Almost but not quite. Then, what happened was we looked at the footage and decided that there was probably, there were other problems so we actually planned to do quite extensive re-shoot..not re-shoot but shooting of additional material, in addition to what had not been shot. That was eventually cut back from. But I would say we wound up shooting maybe 15% of the picture, as opposed to 10. But the post-production was a major part of the movie as well because there was a lot of special effects.
D: Yeah, with the train going through the mountain passes…
M: Yeah, all the train stuff was..miniature, essentially.
D: You said that there was more problems than you had not anticipated in terms of what was shot..
M: Just that after..we did a kind of a rough assembly and some of the story just didn’t work so well. Some changes were made. One of the things that I did was loop the entire opening sequence that took place in Russia.. All subtitles, thank you. It was actually shot in English and we looped it in Russian with subtitles. It was just because we thought it added a kind of..in reality that’s what they would be speaking. Then they would all speak English when they were out in the middle of the spy world
D:How much of what the original idea of what the film was in production, how much of that was changed by the time the film was done?
M: Oh, I think the basic premise was all, none of that was changed. It was still the same basic movie. We just tried to, I guess add a little bit more tension and..Originally, we had actually planned to go Europe and do some re-shooting there. I went and scouted but didn’t actually re-shoot. Everything we did was shot in Hollywood.
D: Where was the film originally shot? In Switzerland or something?
M: Yeah, I think they shot in Switzerland, Germany, whatever. All over Europe.
D: That’s what it appears to be in the film.
M: Robert Shaw died actually before I got on board, as well.
D: That was my next point.
M: So, we had to..obviously we couldn’t shoot any additionally footage of him but I had to loop his entire performance. Because there were things that we needed from him and we wanted the voice to be consistent. So, we found an actor who was able to do his voice. D: Do you remember who the actor was?
M: I could look it up after we’re finished, if you want [Robert Rietty]. It’s a terrible thing to say but in some ways it actually helped because Shaw had a very strong Irish or whatever his accent was. And not, he never sounded Russian. It’s better to at least lose the accent that he did have, which this guy was able to do.
D: When you got involved on a post-production level, what was the sense of the people who had worked on the film from the very beginning in terms of what took place?
M: Well, [director Mark] Robson was very sick during the shooting of the film. So, I don’t think it was a happy experience for anybody. It was just really arduous and he wasn’t able to give his full power as a director. When I started working with the actors, everybody was cheerful. Nobody seemed to be..the morale was not bad when I took over.
D: What work with the actors did you actually do?
M: Well, we shot the 10% or 15% of the footage that was principle photography and then, besides all the special effects and the miniature work, we did.
D: When Robson died, I don’t know how much of a time span there was between his and Robert Shaw’s’ death but when..
M: I think it was very close.
D: Was it?
D: When they both passed away, was it assumed that the film was done and then you had to bring everybody back together again or was it…
M: No, everybody knew that we still had things to shoot.
D: You said that you worked with Lee Marvin for awhile. I didn’t know that.
M: I shot, there were several scenes on a plane I remember.
D: Wasn’t that a sequence towards the end of the film?
M: No, there was one sequence early on..
D: Oh yeah, with Mike Connors.
M: That’s right, that’s right. I shot that scene.
D: What was Lee Marvin like to work with as an actor?
M: Well, I had been warned that he was problematic. That he had a drinking problem. That is was best to get him finished by noon and so forth and so on. I didn’t have any problems with him at all.
D: Do you know if he had been drinking during the shooting at all?
M: I assume that he had been drinking during the other shooting [with Robson]. I didn’t have any problems, though. I didn’t notice that he was under the influence in any way.
D: From the people I’ve spoken too, I get the impression that he couldn’t have reached the level he did in the industry and been drunk all the time.
M: That was my experience, that he was not, that he was a very conscientious actor. He was fun to work with.
D: What kind of things would he bring to a scene as an actor?
M: Just as his star power. I think he was a movie star and he had tremendous ease with what he did. He was just really easy and fun to work with.
D: How did he get along with the other actors?
M: Seemed to be fine. The scene I did, I think he was with Linda Evans and the others, Connors and so forth.
D: It was a pretty eclectic cast. Not a typical Hollywood cast. (Joe Namath, Linda Evans Mike Connors, etc.) What was it like working with this diverse group?
M: I don’t recall that Joe was in that scene. If he was, I don’t remember him. I did work with Maximilian Schell only on his looping. We re-looped his whole performance as well. D: Really? Why was that necessary?
M: Just for consistency. Because he was in a lot of scenes with Shaw I guess where we didn’t want to have one sound…
D: A sound pop or something?
M: Yeah, yeah. So we looped everything of his and also it enabled me to help him with his accent, as well.
D: I know you mentioned a moment ago that it was thankless, but what for you was the working experience like?
M: How did you know that I even worked on it? I don’t take a credit as the director.
D: You don’t take credit but you got screen credit. I’m one of those poor schmucks that watches the entire movie. At the very end, when the credits are done, “The producers wish to thank Monte Hellman,” and I think they also mention Gene Corman.
M: That’s right.
D: Yours and Gene Corman’s name are the very last one mentioned.
M: Yeah, but it’s hard to know what we did, though (Laughs).
D: That’s another reason I wanted to talk to you. I need to know exactly what your input was. Knowing what the project would entail, what made you decide to do it? Was it because of the deal you had made with Lorimar?
M: Well, it was more or less that I had a very friendly relationship with them. It was a chance I had to repay them for something nice they had done for me.
D: It seems, although I’m not familiar with a lot of the films you’ve done, except the westerns you did with Jack Nicholson, it seems a lit bit out of the genre you are used to working with. Was it hard to acclimate your self?
M: Well, to me it wasn’t really that different. I cut my teeth on melodramas and war movies, action/adventure. It was like doing Flight To Fury (1964) again.
D: That makes sense. Had you had a previous working relationship with Gene Corman? M: Yes. He had actually produced the first movie that I directed…
D: I’m trying to remember.
M: (Smiles) You’ll never guess it..
D: I want to say something like Monster Beneath The Sea..
M: That’s almost exactly right; Beast From Haunted Cave (1959).
D: I was close.
It’s a cliche to say it but cliche’s are borne of truth: Rest in peace Mr. Hellman as we shall not see your like again.