Walter Hill Returns to Pulp with The Assignment
A comic book-style revenge tale starring Michelle Rodriguez as a hit man who undergoes gender reassignment against his will, The Assignment is iconic director, Walter Hill’s latest genre film and accompanying graphic novel.
The script preceded the book by a number of years. A gangster piece that Hill wrote had been published as a graphic novel by a company in Paris, so while he was in France obtaining funding for the new film, he showed the screenplay to that publisher, who thought it would also make a good graphic novel.
The film and book were not completely the same. Due to the constraints of budget and a roughly twenty-day shooting schedule, a number of scenes in the novel were simplified in the film, or as Hill put it, “I had to write a couple of things down.”
Hill’s visual concept for the film drew upon film noir conventions, starting in black and white and moving into atmospheric, high contrast color. “I wanted a kind of neo noir film set within a special world of comic book, graphic novel kind of setting, but at the same time not to be so extreme it would take the audience out of the film.”
Because the film was a Canadian production shot in Vancouver, he was unable to use Lloyd Ahern, his director of photography, for years. He met with a number of cameramen and ultimately tapped James Liston to shoot the film.
“He did a great job. I was very pleased,” said Hill. “I was very impressed with James. Number one, he really wanted the job. Two, he had familiarized himself with a lot of my work. We just clicked. Right from the first day, I thought he really nailed it.”
To define his ideas, Hill gave Liston a couple of books to look at. They discussed the images within those books. With their “precise schedule,” there was no room for error or reshoots. The production had to move along and according to Hill, “went very well.” Nothing slowed the company down.
“We had taken a vow ahead of time. If it rained, we just kept shooting,” revealed Hill. “A lot of the rain you see in the movie, it was raining. It helped the atmosphere. We proceeded with no self-indulgence.”
Due to the tight budget, production designer Renee Read was not allowed to build much. She had to find and decorate most of the locations. The production couldn’t afford to travel much either, so the company had to find unified sets and buildings and do various sets within each location. Hill wanted the look to be now, but with a timeless quality that would harken back to the films of the forties and fifties, “the apex of noir cinema.”
Matt Haley created the comic art and title sequence for the film. Hill incorporated the graphic elements into scene transitions. He wanted the audience to understand they were dealing with a comic book, graphic novel world and that the film was not attempting to reproduce reality. Also because the picture was structured in a non-linear fashion, combining flashbacks and voice over narration in the storytelling, the graphic panels served to inform the audience as to where they were in the narrative. They allowed Hill to stay in tighter shots than he might have been able to use if the audience had needed a wider shot in order to recognize a change of scene.
“Once I decided I wanted to incorporate the graphic representations, the arguments were always about frequency. It was never about whether we were going to use it. To me it works and I’m very pleased with the choices and pleased with the graphic work,” commented Hill.
Since the mid-nineties, the director has worked with editor Phil Norden, who first was an assistant on a number of his movies. Hill had developed a comfort level with Norden and thought it was time for him to step up. Although they tried many different combinations for the non-linear storyline, in the end they more or less came back to the original structure of the script.
“At one point we had a lot more narration, but I stripped a lot of that out,” shared Hill. “That was probably the biggest change. Also a lot of scenes, what you see now is about half the scene. We made it a little more elliptical. It seems to me that it plays full even though it moves along at 95 minutes.”
Adding to the atmospheric quality suggested by the noir look of the film, was the music by Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne, who had worked a lot with Moroder. Hill knew Moroder for about thirty years. They would run into each other at social events and had wanted to work together, but never had the chance.
“This time the chance presented itself,” stated Hill. “Giorgio is a very busy guy. He was in Italy and we worked together via the internet. We would send him sections of the film. He would then play to that and send back his approach. Raney Shockne would orchestrate and fill it out in Los Angeles. I loved the song that Raney came up with.”
Hill credited the Vancouver crew for making the film possible, “The whole crew worked very hard to give me what I wanted. I felt like a privileged guest. I am in their debt.”