• On It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow
    by Reading Books

    By Monte Hellman

    Fifteen years ago I received a letter from a young film director in Texas, who enclosed a tape of his first film, with the unlikely title It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. It might as well have been called It’s Impossible to Learn to Make Movies by Reading Books. Given some natural talent or aptitude, the best way to learn to plow or make movies is by doing, and I was enormously impressed by this director’s first effort. His name was Richard Linklater.

    Let me backtrack for a moment by saying I get a lot of letters from young filmmakers, usually accompanied by a script they want me to read. I rarely answer the letters or read the scripts. For some reason, I watched Rick’s movie from start to finish, and I answered his letter with enthusiastic encouragement. I don’t have a copy of my letter (it predated my love/hate relationship with the computer), but Rick told me he used it to help raise money for his first 35mm feature, Slacker. To whatever extent this may be true, it makes me proud.

    With some reluctance and embarrassment, for the past seven months I’ve been teaching film directing to graduate students at the University of Southern California. I don’t really believe film directing can be taught, and I feel it’s immoral to encourage young people to enter a field where the odds are so stacked against them. I don’t encourage them unless I feel they have the talent to justify the risk. I had no hesitation about encouraging Rick Linklater.

    With Learn to Plow, Rick created a film that was both extremely realistic and painfully poetic. There wasn’t a false note, and I never felt as if I were watching acting or actors. These were real people and this was real life, and I cared deeply about them and it.

    I tell my students that movies are about motion and emotion, and Rick’s film fits these criteria completely. Of course, time and history have borne out my first judgment, and Rick has gone on to make some wonderful movies. The seeds for these films were sown in It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books.

    Monte Hellman, a protégé of legendary producer/director Roger Corman, is best known for a pair of Jack Nicholson Westerns, as well as the cult film favorites Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and China 9 Liberty 37. He has also worked as a theater director, film editor, and executive producer (Reservoir Dogs).

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