The legendary Walter Hill has made a career off characters of few words – which is somewhat ironic considering that the loquacious Hill, while also a terrific filmmaker, is among the best Hollywood screenwriters ever. The Getaway, The Warriors & The Driver – all master class examples in the art of screenwriting. Hill has a way of distilling the most labyrinthine of plots and character into their base essentials, turning less into far more.
Case in point: his latest film, the controversial The Assignment. The film’s filled with double crosses, time jumps, and perspective shifts – yet Hill boils all these complexities down into a simple revenge story: a laconic hitman (Michelle Rodriguez), genitally altered into a woman, seeks revenge against the doctor (Sigourney Weaver) who mutilated him. Have I mentioned controversial yet?
The Assignment, originally a script from all the way back in the late 1970s, still definitely feels of that period – lurid, pulpy, and, well, a little offensive (but with its head in the right place). It’s a film less concerned with transgender theory than with universal identity issues – in particular whether a person can ever truly change, a theme Hill previously explored in the underrated Johnny Handsome.
In the following interview with Hill, he discusses the long writing process on The Assignment, the controversy surrounding the film and working with Sam Peckinpah as a young screenwriter on The Getaway. For the full interview, read below.
Starting off – I know the [original draft of The Assignment] was written in the 1970s. What did that original screenplay [then called Tomboy] look like compared to what’s out right now?
Walter Hill: Well – it’s gone through a few wars. Denis [Hamill]’s original story was a male plastic surgeon married a young, beautiful woman. A teenage delinquent type then rapes the woman and murders her. He’s instantly caught and sent to jail. And when [the teenage delinquent] gets out of jail, serving a rather short sentence because of his youth, the plastic surgeon subjects him to genital alteration. But it mainly was a police story about who’s committing crimes out there in the street. The [delinquent] reverts to criminal behavior even though he’s now in the body of a female. The police are rather flummoxed. They think it’s the old criminal but they can’t find him and everybody identifies the culprit as a woman. That was the essence of the story. And it’s gone through a lot of bumps since then.
What made you change the main character from a rapist to a hitman?
Hill: You work at an instinctive level on a lot of this stuff; but I wasn’t too interested in doing a cop story. I wanted it to be more focused, something very noir, very comic-book’y’… But I think the real answer to your question is that I wanted to end up with a feeling of melancholy – where you felt sympathy to both characters. I thought that was impossible to achieve with the original plotline. It’s important that the story is beyond something that straightforward. So you have doctor who’s lost her license, who’s faced all kinds of problems in her career. She’s also an intellectual of a rather twisted bend – narcissistic, a reader of Nietzsche, very much the ‘ubermensch’. She’s pitted against this guy who’s sort of the Darwinian survivor from the lowest ranks of the underclass, no conscience whatsoever, utterly amoral, who then has his agenda of revenge with the genital alteration that he’s gone through. So you have these two figures bumping against each other and I wanted to get them both into a position where they show some character change and growth without making them saints or anything. She’s reached a point of understanding about herself and she’s going to tend her own garden from now on – no matter how bitter her circumstances. And Frank is now in a different position. He’s resolved to use [his] underworld skills to launch a career of trying to do some good and the implication is that he’ll become a vigilante of some description. So I wanted to get it into a more positive and ambiguous mode. But at the same time it harkens back – I did a movie a number of years ago called Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke… And there’s a lot of Johnny Handsome in this thing. Not plot but there’s the notion that character in some sense is irreducible and you are who you are.
So much of the film does seem to be about identity – in particular no matter how much you ‘change’, underneath you’re still the exact same person. Do you feel that identity is set and un-malleable?
Hill: I think that identity can be muted and bent to different directions. But yeah – the answer to the question is: yeah, I do think that. Once again: Johnny Handsome. Which is why I thought so much of the controversy when the film was being made was ridiculous. The movie reinforces transgender theory, which is we are who we are inside our head. We live in a gender fluid world and I think that’s a good thing, challenging the assumptions of the past is good.