Return of the Frontiersman: Rudy Wurlitzer in Conversation

By Lee Hill

candy-mountain-robert-frank-2.jpgCandy Mountain, 1987

What can one say about Rudy Wurlitzer that doesn’t suggest multitudes of overlapping worlds. Like William Burroughs, he is the descendant of a once prosperous American business family. After several years in the New York literary and visual arts underground as a participant observer, he emerged with a series of one of a kind novels – Nog, Quake and Flats – and the screenplay for Two-Lane Blacktop in collaboration with Monte Hellman in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He has worked with Sam Peckinpah, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alex Cox, Bernardo Bertolucci and then some. The Drop of Edge of Yonder, his first novel since 1984’s Slow Fade, is Western and Road Movie and then some. I spoke to Wurlitzer in May of this year.


I was born in Cincinnati, but my mother and father moved to New York, and I spent my most of my early childhood in Manhattan. When I was quite young, I played the violin. My father at the time was a dealer in rare stringed instruments so I played the violin up until my late teens. Then I became more obsessed with literature, writing, poetry, jazz and drugs.

I started traveling at a very early age. When I was 17, I worked on an oil tanker and went to the Persian Gulf, and one of my first short stories came from that experience; that sense of adventure has become more complex as I have gotten older. I attended Columbia for four years, then I went to Paris and sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne, and then I went to Aix-en-Provence and attended a few classes at the university there. I also went to Harvard briefly for a couple of summers. My background is mostly English literature and philosophy.

I met the composer Philip Glass in Paris. He was there spending time working with Nadia Boulanger. We, Philip and I, were both pursuing the same girl which neither of us was successful at. [laughs] Then afterwards, later in New York, in the ’60s, I got to know him better. He was working as a plumber and I was just trying to survive. One summer we went up to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. By then he was married with kids, and we were so broke we shared a house. We ended up buying a place there that we divided, and we would go up there off and on through the years. I have been up there for a few winters for the last 35 years or so. That was where I also met Robert Frank, who lived about twenty miles from us.


Film has always been a big influence and I have always been obsessed with the great filmmakers, especially the Europeans like Godard and Truffaut, the Russians, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and all kinds of other people as well as filmmakers in the States like Billy Wilder and John Ford. I was a film addict. But I got into writing scripts because I was a friend of Jim McBride's.

Glen and Randa was the first script I did was with McBride, who I knew socially in New York along with Lorenzo Mans, a creative collaborator of Jim's. After David Holzman's Diary, Jim went out to California to do Glenn and Randa. I came out to California, excited to help Lorenzo and Jim with the screenplay, a form I had never written in before. Because the film was so independent and unencumbered by commerce, everything with Jim felt free and open-ended.


After Nog was published, Monte Hellman was looking for a writer to totally rewrite this script, Two-Lane Blacktop by Will Corry. Monte liked my book a lot and called me up and asked if I would work on Corry's script. I totally rewrote the whole script. Unfortunately I didn't take much from Corry’s script.

two-lane-blacktop-monte-hellman.jpgTwo-Lane Blacktop, 1971

The only things I took were the names of the characters – The Driver, The Girl and The Mechanic – and the idea of a cross-country race in a hot rod, but I couldn't use any of the other stuff because Corry's script was very conventional. When I told Monte I couldn't use any of Corry’s – I would have if I could, but it wasn't where I was at – he said, “Great, do what you want to do” which is pretty unusual. I think I was able to write in such a free way at the time because Monte Hellman gave me total permission.

There were no meetings about the script, and luckily I didn’t know much about writing screenplays. I was completely free to explore that form in an open-ended way. I wrote the script quite fast... thinking about the road and what it means to be on the road. It wasn't going to be about winning or losing. Or going from A to B. It became a very interesting exercise especially since I didn't know much about cars. [laughs]

So I hung out in San Fernando Valley with a lot of car freaks and read a lot of car magazines and sort of embedded myself in that world. It's funny because after the film came out, it showed in this little theatre in Cape Breton where I live part of the year, and these guys from the town would come out in these modified cars and lift up the hood and ask “What do you think?” and I didn't know what they were asking me. I lost a lot of face up there. [laughs]

It was amazing that the complete screenplay was published in Esquire. I was completely surprised. I am not sure how it got to Esquire... probably my agent sent it to them. The publication had its ironies because Esquire called the script the Film of The Year and then, when the film was released, they said it was the Flop of the Year. Two-Lane didn't exactly do well because the film was so existential and went against the genre of the racing movie. It didn't incorporate traditional ideas about car racing, as well as user-friendly character development that involved a beginning, middle and end.

It was a film that pushed a lot of buttons, and in fact was panned wildly by many critics. It is only recently that it has been re-released on DVD through Criterion, that it has been given another life and become a cult film of sorts.

In the end the journey in Two-Lane was more about process, being in the present, the road for its own sake inside an existential and alienated cultural envelope with essentially no past and no future – frustrating stuff for a film audience used to who wins and who loses. These days, now that Two-Lane has become part of the 'Seventies', one is aware that the whole nature of aimless travel and being on the 'road' has changed. Given the current state of things, with fuel, cars, travel, freedom, exploration, film is a more philosophical and melancholy experience. It's also a funnier film now, given its obsession with the unconscious, somewhat adolescent attachment to the myths of freedom and journeys and relationships that lead nowhere in particular.

As a director and collaborator, Monte Hellman is a gentle gifted purist who has managed to survive outside the commercial grid of Hollywood. Monte enters scenes first through his eyes, then finds a way to deal with whatever a character might be demanding. In this way, he sticks to a script, which is always satisfying for a humble scribbler. He's strangely innocent and unpretentious, which often leads him into uncharted and surprisingly original waters.


While I was out in LA, this producer, Gordon Carroll, asked me if I would like to do a Western and I said sure... so I got involved with this script, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and they asked Peckinpah to direct it.

pat-garrett-and-billy-the-kid-sam-peckinpah-2.jpgPat Gareth and Billy the Kid, 1974

That production was... crazier even than what you read. [laughs] There were lots of moments. At one point, someone from the studio came down to view a screening of dailies. Sam was completely confrontational with him. It was a ferocious evening, and from then on it was very polarized between the studio and Sam, but Sam fed on confrontation. That tension fuelled and united everybody in terms of the cast and crew.

One thing that stands out is that there was an actor who was supposed to play the little part that I played, who went back to LA suddenly so I got to play the part. When it came time for me to run out of this shack and get shot, Sam did about thirty takes and he kept saying over and over, “I just love to shoot writers!” [laughs]

I got burnt out and left before the very end of filming, but I remember the production very fondly because of that old outlaw-all-the-way-to-the-end point of view that Peckinpah had, and which would never be allowed now. Sam was one of a kind: ornery, charming, perverse, dangerously defiant, and skillful. Working with him was an unforgettable experience.


After my stints in LA, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I bought my place in Cape Breton with Philip Glass and his wife... I had a house and he had a house and it was sort of like a very off-the-grid place where I could go to recover. Robert Frank lived up there too, as he still does, and we became very close friends and started working together in a spontaneous way; that was another rhythm, so to speak, of working on films. And one way of working helped the other, personally; so that after working on a Hollywood script I’d find myself drawn into this other domain... and it became another kind of exploration in terms of language and finding out what I was really thinking about.

candy-mountain-robert-frank.jpgCandy Mountain, 1987

Most of what I have done is about exploring various kinds of frontiers. I am a very nomadic character. I travel a lot and have lived in different places, but it is not just geographical and historical frontiers that I have been involved in, but spiritual, psychological and internal frontiers as well. I would say frontiers are on a certain level my broad overall subject.

I did three films with Frank, two shorts: Keep Busy and Energy and How to Get It, besides Candy Mountain. He helped me recover from the mono-cultural toxicity of Hollywood, and he offered a free-floating process of discovery and adventure for its own sake. We never knew where the script was going, everything was completely spontaneous almost to a fault. Robert was like an action painter, improvising, always in the present, sometimes dangerous, often difficult, defiant about preserving his integrity, often stubborn, no prisoners, always unforgettable, even nourishing. In our short films I placed myself in the middle of the action, writing and conducting a through-line as we went along, and in that sense those were a true collaboration.

Even though Candy Mountain was a low-road independent film it was the largest one Robert had ever been involved with, and for me it was a good experience only up to a point. I felt very free in terms of the script. The mistake is that I co-directed; it rarely works to have a co-director.

Ultimately the only way we could direct together was for me to let Robert do it his way. So I fell back and just tried to survive. He always respected and followed the script, so that part worked well, and I did do a lot of things on the film. But it was sort of psychologically complicated, and our relationship suffered and, sadly, was never the same. I don't have bad feelings about the film or him, but it was difficult and I would never co-direct with anyone again. I just don't think it works. It is like having two prime ministers.

As L.A. became more and more problematic, to work in the 80s I chose more of an independent route, which was difficult. I began to work much more in Europe, with people like Volcker and Alex Cox, [Michelangelo] Antonioni and [Bernardo] Bertolucci and Jacques Dorfmann, a French director. I was much more comfortable working in that way even though there were lean times. The few times that I went back to L.A., when I was really broke and had to take a job for the money, they were always a disaster and I usually regretted it.


I had a wonderful time working with Alex Cox on Walker. He left me to my own ends on the script, as well as infusing the process with a rare degree of equality, which made it even more important to find out what he wanted. It was a real collaboration in the sense that we were constantly excited by each other's ideas. We did a couple of other scripts together afterwards which we never got produced, but we had a fun and crazy time making Walker.

walker-alex-cox.jpgWalker, 1987

I usually start with a rough outline which I give myself total permission to change as I go along. I like to write a really quick first draft and set it aside and go ponder, before heading into another draft. I don’t show the first draft to anyone except for a few friends for a few comments and to get a general sense of how it plays... but each script and each film is different.

We made Walker for very little money in Nicaragua so the studio left us alone during the shooting. Once we were in Nicaragua, we were in our own world. The Sandinista government was supportive... they were fairly open and generous... there was an innocence about how a film got made. But it was a very good experience. Anyone who was working on the film was very impassioned, and we all went a little crazy in the good sense of the word.

Universal was shocked when they saw the film. They were very frightened by the film, partly because it was shot in Nicaragua at a time when that country wasn’t very popular with the Reagan administration. They put it on the shelf for a long time. Partly they didn’t understand the deliberate use of anachronisms to suggest the timelessness of imperialism. Not very many critics did either. Alex says that concept was mine, but I say it was his idea. I didn't really want to do that, but now, today, when I watch the re-release from Criterion, it works so much better than it did then. I was nervous that once you break a certain taboo you are asking for critical rejection, which certainly happened. That concept really makes sense, but it also really alienated a lot of people... certainly the more conservative element of the audience. Traditional liberals were very uneasy about the whole film also. Walker had a little too much anarchy and it imposed a certain conceptual view and it really risked a lot. The risk-taking is to Alex's credit. He is a ferocious filmmaker. And the score, itself, by Joe Strummer is probably one of the best film scores I have ever been involved with, apart from the Dylan score for Pat Garrett.


My relationship with Antonioni was amazing. He first asked me to do a script based on a short piece he wrote called ‘Two Telegrams’ [see his collection The Bowling Alley On The Tiber]. I worked with him in Rome. I was in love with Antonioni's work and felt that it was a great privilege to be around him and to witness and observe him. But then halfway through the process he had a massive stroke [year of stroke] and then it became very difficult to work, because he couldn't speak or walk; but he was still tremendously determined to get the film made. We spent time in L.A. because it was supposed to be shot there, and we had endless meetings with actors and stuff; and the title kept changing. But it was sort of like The Emperor's New Clothes... no one could say no to the maestro. While at the same time there was a sense that he could never get (insurance) bonded and there had to be another director as a backup – I think it was going to be Atom Egoyan.

michelangelo-antonioni.jpgMichelangelo Antonioni

At some point it became clear that we were just working to keep him going. The writing of the script was in a sense meant to keep him alive. I was really happy to continue working with him, though, because he was an extraordinary person, difficult at times, but really great and a real artist. I spent many years working on and off on ‘Two Telegrams’.


Bernardo is a wonderful director, and he has done some great work. He is really talented and smart. But I think he was intimidated by the subject at the heart of Little Buddha, a little bit afraid of it, and ultimately he didn’t understand the essence of the Buddha’s spiritual journey. He hid behind a magic children’s tale. Having lived and studied in India and Nepal, I think I knew too much about the subject to be objective and to feel comfortable with that approach. So it was an interesting project at times, but it was frustrating because I felt it could have been a much tougher film and a much more rigorous film, rather than a film that was hiding behind Keanu Reeves. I don't know how to say this in a gentle way because I respect Bertolucci a lot, but I just felt he took too reductive an approach to the subject and made too much of a Hollywood film.

bernado-bertolucci-little-buddha.jpgBernardo Bertolucci and Keanu Reeves on the set of  Little Buddha

Mark Peploe, his brother-in-law, came in at the end to finish the writing. It was a complicated time for me because my step-son had just been killed in a car crash and I was a more than a little bit out of it. But it was not a good experience because I had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I wasn't prepared for Peploe’s involvement. But I am still glad to have worked for Bernardo, and I shifted to a different state of mind. That is when I wrote my book, Hard Travel To Sacred Places, about my step-son's death, and about traveling to Southeast Asia – Cambodia, Burma and Thailand – with my wife, Lynn Davis.

I've always tried to sign on to a project with a director that I respected, who offered a sense of sharing common ground. It's a director's medium and after thirty or so years of writing scripts I find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to sublimate myself to someone else's vision unless I respect him, particularly if there's no sense of collaboration. Each film is different, and each has its own dilemmas and solutions, but the writer is in a sublimated position – especially sublimated to the director's authority and I have to respect the director. It’s is a complicated process, and for me, the process is as much about my own explorations and finding out what I really think, rather than about what somebody else thinks. Sometimes you get lucky and you can meet in the middle, where there is genuine give and take. You are both helping the other to find out about themselves.


A novel offers total creative freedom and autonomy, compared to the restrictions and frustrations of mining the celluloid trail. Film, for a writer, is often a two dimensional medium limited to a ninety or hundred minute time frame. The novel, on the other hand, is open ended, and involves four or more dimensions as well as a chance to explore hidden layers and internal complexities.

I always have felt the need to express myself in a more interior way. I always intended to move back and forth between film and books, with those two careers kind of coexisting. They did for a while, and particularly in the Seventies you could be much freer with scripts and you could be more autonomous in your film work. When you were dealing with Hellman, Peckinpah, or Hal Ashby, it was freer, there was more equality in the collaboration, and more enjoyment in writing the scripts. Then it became a longer and longer process, and more difficult because you had more people to relate and more commercial elements, so the time between scripts and books became longer.

With The Drop Edge Edge of Yonder I found I was able to include much of what I learned from writing scripts, particularly as that novel originated in several old scripts. One was a script I had written in the Seventies about a mountain man: Zebulon, which several directors, including Peckinpah, Ashby, Roger Spottiswode, Alex Cox and others, were enthusiastic about and tried to get funded, but due to Peckinpah and then Ashby's death, as well as the fashions of the L.A. film business, the script drifted for years, almost but never quite being realized. I also wrote a script for Mike Medavoy about the Gold Rush, which also never got on. These and other similar projects involved enormous research, which I continued on my own, as I had become somewhat obsessed with the origins and eccentricities of the American frontier in all its themes of exploration, greed, violence, freedom, etc.

The Drop Edge of Yonder is, at least on the surface, an old- fashioned yarn, like an 18th century novel about the 19th century, with 21st century chords and complexities. Because the origins came from a few old scripts, the rhythm of the book is very cinematic; many of the paragraphs that open chapters are like silent master shots, exploring and establishing space and movement, then continuing with dialogue, action and character exploration, which, in turn, finally dissolves into the next chapter and another master shot. And so on. There are still elements of Samuel Beckett’s influence... the internal throughline is very circular rather than linear and there are residues of my early novels... but because of the cinematic style people have found The Drop Edge of Yonder more accessible and certainly less solipsistic and more entertaining. I wasn't trying to do that, that is just how it evolved.


That one word ‘industry’ says it all. When you have this plan about what the process should be and how you should think about it, you are three-fourths dead before you even start. There's a certain amount of solitude that is involved with writing and discovery, and when you try to map it out conceptually as to what the form is – beginning, middle and end, and this and that – to me, that's a disaster. Film schools have been a disaster for writing... and then you go into some producer's room, and there are four or five people there, and three or four of them are sales or marketing and development people, and you have to pitch what you want to do and then they give you your notes…

By the time you are finished with all that you no longer want to write the script. You are sort of dead in the water. Then the writing of the script becomes really heavy lifting, not a generous or nourishing process. One of the great things about working with Monte Hellman so early in my career is that all he said to me was, “I want to read something from you that I haven't read before.” That was great; then I could surprise myself. When you try to eliminate that element of surprise or discovery, then why do it?

Honestly, I am not really working on any screenplay right now. Every time I think of sitting down and writing a screenplay, I wait until the thought passes. [laughs] “Let’s get that cloud out of the sky.” I would write another screenplay if the situation was right... but at this stage of life, it becomes a question of how free you can be. You have to feel a certain intensity about things. You just don't want to waste time. Unless you are protected, unless you feel comfortable with people, for me it's not worth doing. Who knows what will fly up and hit your windshield?

Lee Hill is a writer on film. He is the author of a biography of Terry Southern and he lives in London. Many thanks to him.