The Making Of TWO LANE BLACKTOP
In 1971, Dennis Wilson co-starred with James Taylor, Lauri Bird, and Warren Oats in the existential road film TWO LANE BLACKTOP.
The following article presents selected exerpts from the feature piece on the film appearing in Show Magazine, March 1971. This article heralded TWO LANE BLACKTOP, which was still in production,
as a groundbreaking film-in-the-making, and Monte Hellman, the Film's director, as a noteworthy representative of "The New Hollywood".
In the interest of this website, text that is specifically Dennis-centric is highlighted in red.
by Shelly Benoit
Two Lane Blacktop is maybe the dark horse in this first batch of
new films by Universal. It reflects what will inevitably be referred to as its progenitor, Easy Rider, only insofar as it is of the on-the-road species. Unlike Easy Rider (which comes on as a full dress melodrama in comparison), and unlike your basic box office film, it is almost obsessively understated. It is nonviolent, nonpolitical, and all but nonsexual with a stark, more-low-key-than-thou script that happens to be so compelling you can't finish it fast enough. Like a fall from a skyscraper, you can't even get breath. Speed is what this film is about. Speed that overrides temporal sex, violence and politics. Speed that is sport to some, necessity to others.
Speed was even considered as the film's title but was eschewed because of the drug connotation (and that not out of squeamishness, but simply because it is misleading here) and because it is too descriptive". Speed, both abstract and real, is so much the star and raison d'etre of Two-Lane Blacktop that the characters don't even have names. They aren't necessary. It is part of the ruthless paring down, the elimination of distraction,
the ultimate streamlining. We are left with four persons --
the Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO (a man who drives one and
is defined by it); and two cars -- a primer-grey 55 Chevy with a 454
cubic inch high-performance engine and a stock GTO, the paralyzing orange of those inedible marshmallow peanuts from Woolworths. Plus Route 66. Plus the street racing subculture.
Street racers are night bloomers. They live outside the law. They drag race and bet with only their own sanction, making laconic deals for a yard or a deuce (one or two hundred dollars). They ignite for a quarter mile, with luck, before the cherry-tops descend. Big highways are too public; they prefer parking lots, or a two lane blacktop.
The blacktops in Two-Lane are those that lie between Los Angeles and the Smokies. The Driver and Mechanic ditch a bust in L.A. and head East. An Arizona food stop yields a young stow- away-the Girl-in the rear of their Chevy. She is allowed to stay. No questions. The fourth in this odd travelling menage is GTO, who is not a full-time street racer or a full-time anything, and who tends to be long gone before questions arise. He is teased into a cross-country race for pink slips. Who- ever makes Washington, D.C. first picks up the title to both cars at the P.O. What begins as a contest devolves into a strange symbiosis. The Driver and Mechanic help GTO when they could split on him; the Girl occasionally rides with him; and sometimes the men even swap cars and race each other for little sprints. We learn that the pink on the Car was never mailed, so the whole thing is phony. The race, that is. Only the relationship remains, as isolated and pure as a germ-free experiment. And the speed. The only reality.
The Mechanic was hardest to cast. Four days before shooting began, the part was still not settled. It had to be someone who really knew cars, who felt cars. Monte got desperate, tested people he met in garages. Finally, a friend of Fred Roos suggested Dennis Wilson, which meant, oops, another popstar. But he looked right. And he moved right. And he temporarily left his brothers, the Beach Boys, and his drums in L.A. He took his new wife Barbara (ex-Hamburger Hamlet waitress with the face of a Holbein portrait and the resilience of a hip saint) on an extended and frequently unglamorous cross-country honeymoon.
With this brood, a small crew (about35), three matching Chevys and two matching GTOs, and several massive vehicles, Two-Lane Blacktop went on the road. The fact is, most of the film could have been shot right in California, with few moviegoers any the wiser. But Monte had reasons for wanting everyone involved to virtually live the story-so they did. It was beginning to show by the time they hit Tucumcari.
I spent a week with the production during which only night shooting took place (i.e. people slept all day and worked from six at night until sun-rise). It was cosmically tiring, but it involved shooting what will emerge as a key sequence in the film-the point at which the relationship between the men changes from competition to mobile commune.
There is a break. Monte steals quietly through the camp like Henry V, discreetly building morale, wearing his director's finder like an amulet. Dinner is served at half-past midnight. It is leaden but abundant fare-pork chops, home fries, asparagus, bread pudding, baked apples, fruit cocktail, quarts of milk, killer coffee-a portable Thanks-giving.
Before work starts again Dennis conducts an impromptu, strolling oldies-but-goodies hour, trying quite hard to make people sing harmony, and indicating pitch to Laurie (who is virtually tone-deaf) by raising and lowering his hand. Elsewhere, James and Joni Mitchell sit in canvas chairs singing together. She joins him on location as much as her schedule permits. They become a line from his song ". . . and I feel fine anytime she's around me now, she's around me now nearly all the time." Until the call to work again. James carefully shuts the guitar case and
rests it across the chair. A fine dew settles in the darkness and later a constellation of five ladybugs forms on the neck-end of the abandoned case.
We drive just short of forever to a location five miles west of Texas. Monte wants Texas cops. Not actors in Texas cop uniforms. Or even New Mexico cops in Texas cop uniforms. Texas cops. He gets a pair of beauties. In Texas they go by the name Department of Public Safety. One of them has a cast on the hand he broke enforcing the law. They regard James' ability to hand-roll cigarettes suspiciously. (James rolls and smokes Old Holburn throughout his waking hours; he has for several years.) Setting up is slow. The night wind hurls dirt around fitfully.
Dennis has found an old beebee gun propped up in the corner of the one-room general store we are parked near. In no time, he has arranged competitions with the crew -- moving targets, everything. His energy is continuous, astonishing. He will not tolerate a void. His force is physical. James' is cerebral. James' eyes flash, his hands shake. He appears casual, but he is on. He launches into a wildly funny rap on how he wants to be buried at 80 miles an hour. It has nothing to do with the script, or does it?
It is getting later and colder. They are shooting run-bys which, as you might surmise, are shots of the cars moving down the road. Laurie has locked herself in the back of the bus, putting the bathroom off limits. At nearly five in the pitch dark, James, bent gingerly in his bus seat, takes out his guitar and sings "Blossom" too perfectly even for tears. Each breath, each note a tiny triumph while the wind thrashes outside and Monte skips invisible rope to stay warm.
Lines from the script are creeping into people's natural conversation-"This night will never end." Laurie and I walk down a dirt road. She is faintly miserable about all the singing she must do. ("I don't sing, you know.")
James and Dennis wince and cringe whenever she tunes up. They never even get to whistle-except off camera. James whistles some Mungo Jerry to stay awake. He has happily retrieved Joni who was off taping a Johnny Cash show in Nashville. She sits quietly on the hood of a white car, or perches on the tailgate playing with a new dobro. She says that James love-hates this work. He is used to having control. With his music, his control is total. He was vexed when Monte did not let him have the script in advance. (Monte gave none of the new kids the script, but shot largely in sequence, doling out their lines day by day-an unorthodox but not unprecedented method of working ).
When scripts finally were distributed, mid-way through shooting, Joni says James never really read his. But he could tell you exactly where Sweet Baby, James was in Cashbox, Record World and Billboard.
Music is always with him, and with Dennis, who had the Pow Wow's cocktail lounge piano moved into his room so he could compose. Dennis is slouched in one of the big vans reading Rolling Stone and making disparaging comments about a story on his brother Brian, about how wrong it is. Any disgruntlement on the part of the crew makes him paranoid; since he is intimate with big money, he wants to be reassured that this is a first-class production, despite the budget. He overheard them knocking Techniscope ( a process that approximates Cinemascope, but is cheaper), which is what the film is being shot in.
Saturday. The final night out in Tucumcari before pressing on to Durant, Oklahoma. The crew, somewhat testy the night before from cumulative exhaustion, has bounced back now that the end is in sight-and knowing they'll knock off by midnight, before running into Sunday "golden time." They are doing a rain sequence 35 miles out of town-a local fire truck providing special effects. Laurie must jump out of the Car and dance around in the "rain." Her head is soaked and no-one has thought to bring a drier. She huddles for two hours in a car with the heater running. James temporarily refuses to move without his sweater but finally
overcomes physical anguish. Dennis is outright freezing; there is no dry T-shirt for him. Pure energy keeps him alive and well.
There is a surprise satisfaction -- a
very good drag scene has been shot. The sense of speed has been recaptured after this week of toil, desolation and darkness. And suddenly it is over.
Something is over. A week. A week in which Monte Hellman, who began with the exact faces he wanted, tried very hard to get the feelings to match. His work will continue into the cutting room, he is his own editor. ("I can't look over someone's shoulder. I need my hand on the brake.") He is not working from the standard rough cut; shooting the film pretty much in sequence
has allowed him to piece together a semi-fine cut as he goes.
For the first time in his life, he knows what his next project will be -- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (another Rudy Wurlitzer Screenplay). Both Dennis and James are intrigued with film but want to be boss next time. Laurie is staying loose. Warren is probably working.
And sometime this spring you can see them all in this movie that will be their past, but, if Monte's will prevails, your future. A cinematic Rorschach." I hope it will turn audiences into themselves." Working on a subconscious level. He leaves breakfast to contemplate tomorrow and Durant. I get on the Greyhound that takes big 66 to Albuquerque, and leaves the two-lane blacktops to themselves.
Thanks to George Heon for the use of his archives.