TWO-LANE BLACKTOP | UNDER THE HOOD OF THE EPIC 1971 ROAD FLICK

 

“The whole idea of the road, of going from one place to another, is essentially American.”

Two-Lane Blacktop Screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer

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Esquire magazine printed the entire screenplay in its April ’71 issue before the movie was even released and boldly declared Two-Lane Blacktop as, “The Film of the Year.”  Set largely on old Route 66, which had seen better days, filming locations stretched from California to Tennessee, and the project was wrapped up in two months for mere pocket change– $950,000.  And while it wouldn’t quite live up to Universal’s expectations (who did little to promote it) and become a commercial success by anyone’s standards– it would survive the test of time to become a cultural icon, and one of the most loved road films ever made.

There still a lot of love for Two-Lane Blacktop even after all these ears.  Sadly, there aren’t a lot of great studio stills that have survived– finding decent pics on the internet was slim pickings.  I’ve had a few squirreled away for a spell (courtesy of Performance Pontiac Magazine, go figure) and so out they now shall come– along with a few tidbits from behind the camera.

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“I saw a picture of James Taylor on a billboard on the Sunset Strip promoting his new album.  I thought his look was right for the part of The Driver.  Regarding Laurie Bird, I took a trip to New York to meet with Rudy Wurlitzer, and, while there, met with a number of modeling agencies just to explore that field.  When you’re looking for someone that age to play that role, it’s impossible to find someone who is established, so I anticipated finding an unknown.  I checked out modeling agencies and met with people in L.A. as well and she was recommended.  Laurie was so inexperienced it never occurred to me that I would actually cast her.  She seemed so typical of what we had in mind for the character, however, that we used her as a prototype.  Rudy and I did a three-hour taped interview with her; she became the template for the character.  I still thought I could cast an actress who could play the part, but I couldn’t.  Someone then had the bright idea of screen-testing Laurie.”   –Director Monte Hellman

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“Dennis Wilson (of Beach Boys fame) was the last one to come onboard, after I ran through every actor and some other musicians.  As a matter of fact, we even met with Randy Newman.  Fred Roos, the casting director, finally suggested Dennis.  If memory serves, I saw Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and James Caan; I think I saw every young actor in Hollywood.  Dennis was very easy going. The only problem was that he was having so much fun that it was hard to find him when we were ready to shoot because he was off somewhere playing all the time.”   –Director Monte Hellman

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“With Warren Oates in the role of G.T.O., the character was so much bigger than life, while the others were really just life.  He had mystery about him. He’s someone who doesn’t reveal everything the first minute you meet him. There was always something more than he was letting out. The character of G.T.O. is a lot like that and I think he was naturally able to give off those vibrations.  I think he has mystery because you feel there is something deeper there, something more that you can discover.  The others are what they appear to be.  They’re very simple characters; they’re very simple people-particularly in the case of James’ character.  He wants certain things from life that he’s unable to get because he wants other things that are interfering with it.  That’s his conflict.”  –Director Monte Hellman

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The Pontiac GTO in the film was Orbit Orange, had the eyebrow stripes and spoiler that were normally found on a Judge, but there are no Judge decals.  It’s also said to have a 455ci engine, but there are no engine callout decals on the fenders. –via Performance Pontiac Magazine

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To further the yarn-spinning quality of the character G.T.O., he deftly describes the GTO’s engine incorrectly a few times in the movie, referring to it as a 455 with Mark IV Ram Air, a Carter high-rise set up and 390 horsepower. A “Mark IV” is a big-block Chevy, the Pontiac engine didn’t come with a “Carter high-rise” but rather a Quadrajet on a cast-iron intake and no Pontiac engine at the time was rated at 390 hp. (via Performance Pontiac Magazine)But, let’s not get hung-up on the nerdy details though, it’s a movie for cryin’ out loud– and G.T.O. (Warren Oates) is clearly a little off in the head anyway.

 

There were two GTOs used for filming.  “…the GTOs were loaned to us. We kept them after filming and I actually drove one for about three months.  I think I had more tickets in that three-month period than I did in my whole life outside of that time.  The cops would explain to me, “Well, you know, it’s because your car is orange.  It just stands out more.”  –Director Monte Hellman

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Regarding the choices for the cars, screenplay writer Rudy Wurlitzer explains, “The GTO is the consumer car par excellence, a metaphor for the consumer culture. It’s absurd, but in a great way. The Chevy is the artist’s car, made and created by people who are in love with the process of building a car.”

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“One (of the ’55 Chevy used for the movie) was an authentic race car and was too loud inside to record dialogue. The second had a smaller engine in it and was quieter. The last one was a stunt car, so it had a rollbar and equipment for the stunt shots.  James had to do a launch in the ’55, which was shot from behind. What he didn’t know was that the transmission was mistakenly put into Reverse by whoever was in charge of the car. He was told to pop the clutch [at 6,500 rpm] and when he did, the ’55 started going backwards instead of forwards. Happily, he stopped it before running over the crew and the cameras.  James said he blew up the transmission and broke the driveshaft and rear when he popped the clutch and it went backwards…”  –Director Monte Hellman

 

Two-Lane Blacktop Director, Monte Hellman, composes the shot for setting the timing on the `55′s big-block over the shoulder of Technical Advisor Jay Wheatley, for an early scene. –via Performance Pontiac Magazine

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Here’s the camera rig that was set up to shoot the actors inside the ’55. While pitching the movie to MGM, Director Monte Hellman was told by execs it would be boring because it was all shot in a car, so he provided them with a diagram that showed how he could shoot 24 different angles inside the car.  –via Performance Pontiac Magazine

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Not even the rain halted shooting of Two-Lane Blacktop. In fact, Monte Hellman credits the rain for adding excitement to an otherwise slow-paced scene when the characters arrive in Boswell, Oklahoma, early in the morning to find the town asleep.  Things were so organic on the set that there was no makeup artist.  The actors were simply instructed to “get a tan” before shooting began.  –via Performance Pontiac Magazine

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Great shot of the epic cars behind the classic flick– “Two-Lane Blacktop”

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I hope they never attempt to remake Two-Lane Blacktop, and neither does the man behind the masterpiece–

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“I never see the point in remaking anything, unless it was done badly.

That’s the only reason you’d remake something.”

–Monte Hellman

18 thoughts on “TWO-LANE BLACKTOP | UNDER THE HOOD OF THE EPIC 1971 ROAD FLICK

  1. Good stuff. What makes this even better is the rarity of the photos. Nothing super technical. I like it. As for the remake, let’s hope you are right. Who wants to see another Vin Diesel GTO flick? Not me.

  2. Its an iconic movie although getting old, as a true gearhead I have seen the movie many times and as along with movies such as Easyrider will be a classic forever.If you haven’t seen this movie, get some grease in your veins and go Hire it.

    Thanks for sharing

  3. Love this movie. The best car movie of all time. Found out about this gem on Speedvision when Bruce Dern did the Lost Drive-In. Heard they used the car from this movie to make Harrison Ford’s 55 in American Grafitti.

  4. As boring as it is EPIC. Don’t get mad! I get it, I do. I love this film too and had to buy the Criterion edition when it came out on DVD, but dammit it’s boring. James Taylor is the illest. I love that he has never seen it because he says he can’t stand to listen to his own music let alone watch himself act in the only thing he’s ever been in.

    Make it three yards, motherfucker and you got yourself an automobile race.

  5. Wes, you’re correct. The ’55 was the same car was used in American Graffiti.

    Just some clarification: If the car was a Ram Air IV (which he calls a Mark IV ram air) car, or they were simply referring to it as one, it would have in fact had an aluminum intake. You are correct in saying it would have had had a Q-Jet instead of a Carter, and should have been rated at 375HP.

    Love this article. I saw the last ten minutes of this movie on AMC or some classic movie channel when I was a kid, and BEGGED my mom to buy it for me. After weeks of searching and coming up empty handed, we ordered the movie from Suncoast, and I waited two long weeks to get it. The movie had a huge impact on me to say the least, as I own one ’55 now, and working on buying a second!

  6. ’70s = grunge — ugh, but I’ll rent the movie. This is the James Taylor? Don’t care about muscle cars or anything, but like to surprise my husband with movies like this. I wonder if there’s a Blue-ray version…

  7. Even better than this and it is a great movie, is Vanishing Point from 1971. Try it you won’t regret it.

  8. Absolutely my favourite film of all time. Glad to hear Monte Hellman recently made a new film, albeit his first in twenty years. The Criterion relase of this is just beautiful. If you have time check out my blog, got a few things on Two-Lane and Warren Oates also. As much as I love Vanishing Point I don’t think Two-Lane can be topped as far as the existential road movies of the 70s go.

  9. Well, it’s been on my list for years, but until a while ago it was just unavailable (or so very expensive). Especially in the UK.

    For years I had been extolling the wonderments of Vanishing Point (and its related soundtrack) when somebody mentioned three words I’m ashamed to have never heard in that combination. Two Lane Blacktop? Whassat then?

    I read up, searched and left my details with various people. Then stupidly forgot until now. It’s ordered, and thankfully for a price that I won’t have to hide from anybody (or lose drinks over)…

  10. “The whole idea of the road, of going from one place to another, is essentially American.”

    Tell that to Geoffrey Chaucer.
    (Nitpicking aside,love this blog)

  11. Had to dig this one out of my old VHS tapes in the garage and watch it again. Fabulous! Now it’s going to remain inside with my faves.
    I loved the way Hellman used more imagery and far less dialog – except for his scenes with Oates, the aging hipster with a few screws loose.
    Laurie Bird is still talked about in the classic car blogs. Far from “sexy” in this movie, every guy was in love with her after watching it. (R.I.P. Laurie)

    Thanks for blogging this wonderful piece of American culture.
    Long live “TLB”!!

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