Bachelor, Stanford University, 1951. Postgraduate studies, University of California at Los Angeles, 1952.
Heilman was an operator in fringe cinema who in one film—The Shooting—turned the uncompromising bones of a quickie Western into a movie about mythic identity' and violent fate, without too much strain or pretentiousness. The Shooting, within moments, makes clear deeper meanings beneath its legitimate Western observation of figures in a landscape. But it is onlv gradually that one realizes how far the pessimism of the film is expressed in an elementary and withdrawn camera style. Both the sound and the visuals are rough—the film does not conceal its limited funds—but the imaginative conception is pure, philosophical, and esoteric. Although its tone is existentialist, its images of Millie Perkins, Warren Oates, and Jack Nicholson, increasinglv worn down by the desert, seem more authentically Western than, say, The Wild Bunch.
It is characteristic of Heilman’s fringe career that The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were made simultaneously, in the Utah desert, with a minimal crew, hvo cameras, and screen¬plays by Adrien Joyce and Jack Nicholson. Hellman has chosen to sax of them that, “We thought they would be a couple more Roger Corman movies that would play on the second half of a double bill somewhere. So any thoughts about doing something different were for our own personal satisfaction. We never thought that anybody would ever notice.” In fact, their stark originality prevented either film from haring a wide release in America, and contributed to making Heilman a cult figure.
Heilman studied drama at Stanford University and then moved to film at UCLA. Like so many young cinema talents, he fell in with Roger Gorman, who produced his first film. Thereafter, Heilman directed a lot of The Terror (62, Corman) and did some editing. His next two films were quickies made in the Philippines; tin* two Utah Westerns were again made at Corman’s behest, costing $150,000 for the pair. After that he had many lost projects—including MaeBird— edited The Wild Angels (66. Corman), and worked as dialogue director on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (67, Corman).
Two-Lane Blacktop was by far his largest assignment, an $850,000 project for Universal. It starred Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, James Taylor, and Laurie Bird, and was filmed nomadically in a tight unit, made uneasy by Heilman’s sparse communications with his actors on the script. Blacktop is another transformation of contemporary America into existential parable. The surface story of a wager auto race across America is casu-ally denied narrative tension to emphasize the resonance of character and situation. Again. Heilman seems to have gone out of his way to neutralize the potential of his subject. Blacktop could have been made as gripping as Duel, or as atmospheric as American Graffiti. Instead, it is elliptical, oblique, and equivocal, marred by its own lofty intransigence toward audiences. It would seem that Hellman needs to be embattled, turning big projects into arbitrary, near-underground movies. Such fierceness may keep him out of work; he has been abandoned by several commercial projects. But no system could digest the willful arbitrariness of his best films. Cockfghter was once more dark, cryptic, and mythic—as well as hard to track down—but its use of Warren Oates as a silent pursuer of fate has few equals.
He worked as an editor on Peckinpahs Killer Elite (75). China .9, Liberty 37 was an uneasy mixture of commercial anxiety and mythic stereotypes perched uncomfortably between satire and conviction. It has become increasingly difficult for Heilman to keep working as a director: Iguana had little or no release, and it was as obscure as it was violent in its story of power on a remote island. But it was more interesting than Silent Night, a chore of no resort or hope.
Heilman has worked as a kind of doctoring editor—he served on Mark Robsons Avalanche Express (79) after Robson died. He was also an executive producer on Reservoir Dogs (92, Quentin Tarantino).
Member Directors Guild of America, Film Editors Guild.
Married Jacqueline Ebeier, April 18, 1962 (divorced, 1972). Children: Melissa, Jared.