Monte Hellman, the director behind 1970s cult classics Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, as well as being instrumental in getting Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs off the ground, has died aged 91. His daughter Melissa, who produced his 2010 film Road to Nowhere, confirmed the news to the Hollywood Reporter, saying Hellman had died in hospital after a fall at his home.
Hellman was born Monte Himmelman in 1929, and after studying theatre at Stanford University set up a theatre company in Los Angeles. Like many directors of his generation, Hellman gained early experience working for Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation-movie factory. Corman hired him to make Beast from Haunted Cave, shot simultaneously with the same cast and crew as another Corman film, Ski Troop Attack. (“It wasn’t fun to make at all,” he said.) Along with contemporaries such as Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson, Hellman became a regular Corman collaborator, at first helping to rework and reshoot material. According to Hellman: “Corman was great because he really gave you a lot of freedom. All he cared about was that you came in on budget and that he had a product he could sell.”
After directing Nicholson in two Corman-produced films in the Philippines – Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell – Hellman persuaded Corman to back a pair of US-set westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both featuring Nicholson. Neither film was released in the US, but attracted cult and critical followings: the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema named Ride in the Whirlwind in its Top 10 films of 1968.
Hellman then completed arguably his best-known film as a director: Two-Lane Blacktop, which was released in 1971. It featured musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as drag racers in a cross-country road movie in which they pick up a hitchhiker (played by Laurie Bird) and encounter a rival driver (played by Warren Oates). Part of the Hollywood new wave that spawned Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop was funded by Hollywood studio Universal but greeted with bafflement by the studio on its completion, and given little support.
After being replaced on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid by Sam Peckinpah, Hellman returned to the Corman stable with Cockfighter, which starred Oates and was adapted by Charles Willeford from his own novel. Corman famously described it as the only film he ever made that lost money, even after it was re-edited and given a new title: Born to Kill. It is still illegal to show the film in the UK due to scenes of animal cruelty.
Thereafter Hellman found it increasingly difficult to get films off the ground, though he was brought in to finish two films, the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest and the cold war thriller Avalanche Express, after the directors of both films (Tom Gries and Mark Robson respectively) died during production. Hellman did manage to make one film in this period: the 1978 spaghetti western China 9, Liberty 37, which featured Oates alongside Jenny Agutter. He also acted as editor on a number of films, including Corman’s influential 1966 biker film The Wild Angels, the Monkees’ Head (which Nicholson co-wrote) in 1968 and Sam Peckinpah’s Killer Elite (1975), as well as acting as second unit director on Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) and RoboCop (1987)
Hellman returned to directing with Iguana, released in 1988, which was adapted from a novel by Alberto Vázquez Figueroa, and subsequently agreed to direct a third instalment of the Silent Night Deadly Night slasher series the following year. The latter film turned out to be a fortuitous connection as Hellman and its executive producer, Richard N Gladstein, discovered the Tarantino’s script of Reservoir Dogs, then an unknown writer. Hellman initially wanted to direct the film, but after Tarantino made it clear he wanted to direct it himself, Hellman mentored the project and acted as executive producer, helping to raise money for it.
Despite the success of Reservoir Dogs, Hellman found himself little in demand, and his only subsequent feature was Road to Nowhere, released in 2010 and scripted by Steven Gaydos (currently executive vice-president of content of Variety magazine). The same year Hellman was presented with a Special Lion for Overall Work at the Venice film festival.