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Few names are as closely linked to blaxploitation as Jack Hill.
With low-budget 70s action films like “The Big Doll House” and “Foxy Brown,” Hill helped raise that oft-mocked genre to the level of mainstream, making actresses like Pam Grier and Ellen Burstyn household names in the process.
His work found new life as cult classics beginning in the early 90s, when filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, a fan of Hill’s work, began paying homage to blaxploitation with his own movies.
Friday, Hill–who moved to Wilmington over a year ago–will be at UNC-Wilmington for a special screening of “Spider Baby” and “Coffy.” The free event is sponsored by the university’s film studies department and runs from 6:30 to 11 p.m. in King Hall Auditorium. A question-and-answer session with Hill will follow the films. More information is available here.
In an interview with Port City Daily Monday, Hill talked about his almost accidental entry into the world of cinema, his impressions of being labeled as a ‘B’ movie icon and his thoughts about the future of filmmaking.
The following is a condensed version of that interview.
I understand that you grew up around film. I just wanted to ask you first, to start out, how you ended up in film as a career.
Yeah, I grew up in Hollywood (chuckling). My father worked at Warner Bros. Studios, so I had a little bit more exposure. He’d bring home screenplays every once in awhile, and I had myself a little 8mm Bell and Howell Sportster that I made films with with friends.
But I was mostly brought up with music, and I did have a career in music, as such it was. I was a recording artist and a concert artist for a little while. But I went to school…I went back to UCLA to get my degree in music and I got into the motion picture department with the idea that I wanted to score films. In fact, I did write music for a student film and conduct an orchestra for it. But they encouraged me when I got into a writing class, and so I started directing student films and then I started getting work as a cameraman and as a recordist and started writing. And then, little by little, I just kind of fell into it. Ultimately, I got into making feature films.
And so they saw something in that writing? That was the encouragement – the writing skills that you had?
Oh, yes. We had a wonderful writing teacher, Dorothy Arzner, who was for many years in Hollywood the only woman ‘A’ director of ‘A’ films. She was kind of our mentor. Francis Coppola and I…she took us under her wing, so to speak, and she’s the one who really encouraged me and kind of inspired me.
Do you see any connection with music and filmmaking?
Absolutely. I think one of the key things that makes films, some films, work and others don’t work is pacing. And that is actually, I think, maybe my strongest point – when to go fast and when to go slow. And that is basically from music, that instinct. And, oh, Francis was…he grew up in music also. He was able to play. And I think that that’s a major help.
I was going to ask you about working with Francis Ford Coppola. You were students together?
Yeah, we worked at UCLA and actually we got working together on (laughing) what they used to call ‘nudie cuties’ at that time. It was the first, like, nudity that was breaking through the laws against it then. And that’s kind of…some of the people got started that way. That was kind of fun. But then we started working for Roger Corman, who was the exploitation master at that time, who would actually give you a chance to do things. He would let you go out and shoot scenes. Yeah, that was good.
So you learned a lot from him, I’m sure, especially being able to do more hands-on work.
Oh, yes. Both Francis and I did. But yeah, I learned a great deal from Roger. He basically knew how to make every nickel count on screen (laughing), which turned out to be very valuable later. And some of his principles, which I still remember today. He said something has to happen in every reel. That’s a very good way to put it.
Pam Grier has been in several of your films. I assume you took a liking to her and her style after you first cast her because you kept putting her in your films. Tell me about working with her.
The first time I met her was on a kind of a what they used to call a cattle call of actresses coming in, and I had actresses reading in groups because I had an ensemble film. It was called ‘The Big Dollhouse’ –a women in prison story, which kind of started that genre, such as it was. And she just came in, and the role was not specifically written for a black character but I was interviewing black actresses. And, yeah, this was before the actual blaxploitation movement started. But I just recognized something in her, even though she had never done anything in film at all, other than a walk on in a Russ Meyer film. And she just had what we used to call authority, in my opinion, and presence. So, I gave her a chance and she came through just great and then after that, I wrote scripts specifically for her as I got to know her abilities and made the most of them.
You mentioned ‘that genre, as it was.’ How do you feel about some of these labels? I know blaxploitation was not what your films were called at the time but how do you feel about your films being called that?
Well, blaxploitation and other labels like that were created by writers for the trade papers that liked to come up with clever things. And exploitation was a common word at the time. The name blaxploitation did not actually come up until later and it was the invention of some writer for ‘Variety’ (laughing) or something like that, I guess. I think it’s kind of demeaning because these films were…they played top of the bill. They were not like ‘B’ movies, you know, which were a totally different type of thing.
And what happened was that my films with Pam Grier, and a few others, attracted a much wider audience, which they used to call a crossover audience, meaning that white audiences were interested in black characters and lifestyles. And the result of that was that ultimately the mainstream films picked it up and incorporated those characters and lifestyles into their films and blaxploitation as a genre was no longer necessary.
What were some of the challenges of working within that genre? I know it’s controversial–there are some that say your movies were feminist, some that say they were the opposite. Some that say they were supporting the African American cause, some that say it did more damage than good. Of course, a lot of that commentary came later. What was it like, in that time, making those movies?
I can only tell you that at the time I started doing that the studios were very, very conscious of criticism. I think ‘Time’ magazine even made the major criticism that these studios were making profits off the black audience and not putting black technicians behind the camera. And that was true. The fact was there were none; there just were absolutely no behind-the-camera black technicians. And we tried our best to find them and…it worked out in the long run and before too long, black technicians were there, were accepted and were learning. And I can say this – the actors were so happy to be able to work. They just loved it no matter what the roles were.
What do you think about the resurgence of this genre, thanks to people like Quentin Tarantino, who obviously is a huge fan of your work? What do you think of Tarantino’s movies and that sort of throwback to some of the films that you made?
Yeah, well, I am just totally astonished, amazed. That’s all I can say. I am very happy that his influence has helped. Although, my films have had a long life that doesn’t ever seem to end. New generations discover them, which makes me very pleased, of course, because so many films in that area, not just black films, particularly, have just been forgotten and don’t even exist anymore. Whereas, mine just keep going and finding new audiences all over the world…It’s been really quite gratifying to see, to know that your work lasts. In fact, the screening coming up here (at UNCW) of my ‘Spider Baby’ is a Blu-ray, which it has never been on before. And there’s also now a Blu-ray of ‘Foxy Brown.’ This company in England likes these pictures so much that they’re creating BluRay releases of them, which makes me really happy.
How did you end up in Wilmington?
My daughter, Dorian, has been living here for about 13 years, and, so, we visited her a few times. And we got to the point in L.A. where it’s just…the traffic is so bad and the air has gotten so bad and it’s just craziness. And I just said, look, right now I just want to have a quiet place where I can write with good, fresh air (laughing) and not have to spend half an hour to go around the corner.
What changes have you seen or do you see in the film industry? I mean, obviously technology is making it easier, especially when it comes to independent filmmakers. But the problem with that sometimes is there is so much out there, it’s hard to get noticed. So what have you seen over your career–over the years–and, I guess, where do you see the industry going in the future?
Yeah, well, where I see it going in the future is up with technology and down with the qualities that make movies last. I mean, a movie like ‘Casablanca’ that has all these wonderful, quotable lines in it and can go on and on and on…I don’t think anything I’ve seen in the last several years is going to have that kind of lasting quality. But the advantage of the technology today is, for one thing, when you put your film (out) electronically, exhibitors are not free to mess with it…A couple of my films, when I have, like, acquired an old print from many years back that was shown in theaters, there’s pieces that are cut out of it. Exhibitors, the people who owned the theaters, if there was something that they found offensive or didn’t like in the movie, they would just cut it out and throw it away. And that print would go to other theaters and be incomplete and mutilated. Well, that cannot happen anymore and I’m very happy to see that.
On the other hand, technology is such that anybody can go out and make a film, edit it on their laptop, you know, and make a movie. Which the problem before was that it used to take a lot of money to make a film. Now, anybody can do it and, of course, everybody is trying to do it. So the competition is tough.
I understand that you and your wife wrote a romantic comedy together?
Yeah, we have collaborated on scripts for the last ten years, the few scripts that I have done. And, yeah, romantic comedy…it’s very tough, you see. You get very stereotyped. To think of a Jack Hill romantic comedy is almost an oxymoron.
Are there any other projects you’re currently working on?
Well, one reason that I wanted to move here to Wilmington was to have a quiet place just to write, and I am converting some of my scripts into novels so I can have a written word that will be there permanently and nobody else will be able to meddle with it. So, that’s very edifying for me. And besides that, I didn’t want to make movies any more of the kind that I was making because I am really only interested in doing something that has something to say, that gives people something to feel that they’ve gained something from, you know? Not too many movies do that anymore.
What advice would you have for independent filmmakers just starting out today in the climate that we talked about?
Well, I can’t give any advice that everybody wouldn’t automatically think of. I mean, study films. If you want to learn the technique of staging, you watch films with the sound turned off so that you’re not distracted from seeing where the camera goes and how the editing is done. And the main thing is…my best piece of advice is you have to really give it 100 percent or more because there are thousands of other people out there trying to do the same thing. So, you have to really give it your all. I read a quote the other day (from) Quentin Tarantino. Somebody asked him what is his religion. He said, ‘movies are my religion.’ He’s an amazing guy. He studied films to the point where he can quote pages of dialogue from films. That is just amazing. And he even quoted pages from my own scripts that I couldn’t remember myself…Well, that’s what it takes – that kind of dedication – if you’re prepared to do that.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.