TARANTINO ON MILIUS 1982
This interview with writer-director John Milius was conducted when I was twenty years old (and boy does it show). The last film he had done at the time was Conan the Barbarian. I just called up his assistant and told her I was writing a book, and she set me up with an interview with him. I met with him twice for the interview. The first time was in his office on the Paramount lot. The second time was on the set of the film Uncommon Valor, which he was producing. He told me he didn’t want Gene Hackman for the lead, he wanted James Arness! Later I was to become friends with Big John. At the beginning of ‘95, before the Academy Awards, I was taken duck hunting by John Milius, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. John and I sat in a duck blind all day, sipping whiskey out of a flask, talking about movies and shooting the tail feathers off of ducks. This is only part of it. Later I’ll transcribe more.
QT: Starting off I’d like you to know, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is my favorite screenplay.
JM: Gee, thank you. I really like that too. I hope you read my screenplay. The screenplay is much much better than the movie.
QT: Now you received sole credit on the screenplay, but I heard you say in interviews that John Huston ruined your screenplay?
JM: Well, he made me do all the writing (the director of Judge Roy Bean, John Huston). But he’d say I want you to do this’ an’ that’, mostly out of inattention.
QT: If you would of directed it, as you intended, how would it have been different?
JM: It would have been a lot different! The movie now is kinda’ a poor man’s Butch Cassidy or something. I think it has a lack of commitment – totally. It doesn’t really look like one thing or another. All the people – I adore Paul Newman, I think he’s a wonderful actor, but, I don’t think, he would ever be the best choice for Judge Roy Bean. And on and on. All the characters, the people who play little parts in the movie, little cameos and things. The look of the movie was never quite right to me. There’s a tone to the movie, it’s a very kind of fritzy, almost I hate to say it, a Beverly Hills western. There’s a feeling to it now that wasn’t there originally. It’s a much stronger movie in the screenplay.
QT: In the script, it’s a very down and dirty blood and guts type of western.
JM: It was a very harsh movie.
QT: But now they have all these cameos, this star comes walking in –
JM: – Yeah, all that stuff was in the screenplay, that these characters narrated. There was a terrific amount of humor in the original screenplay. More humor than was in this one (the movie). But it still had a feel that was closer to say a Sergio Leone movie.
QT: Sorta like Once Upon a Time in the West?
JM: Yeah, closer to that than what it is. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would probably be a good example.
QT: When most people think of you they think, Mr. Macho.
JM: (laughing) Now isn’t that a terrible thing?
QT: It seems like anytime a critic reviews one of your films, before they say word one about the movie, they refer to you as Mr. Macho –
JM: – Bloodthirsty or something like that.
QT: When Time Magazine reviewed Conan the Barbarian, it was either Time or Newsweek, they referred to you as The Peck’s Bad Boy of the USC Mob.
Milius lets out an uproarious laugh.
JM: I don’t mind being The Peck’s Bad Boy! I’ll take that. I like that a lot better than Mr.Macho. I was called by Andrew Sarris a gifted barbarian. But I don’t suppose I can have that title anymore since I made Conan the Barbarian.
QT: Well an offset to that in Judge Roy Bean is that the Judge is extremely romantic. First there’s the way he feels and speaks about Lily Langtry (the famous stage actress he loves from afar), then there’s the scene in the desert with Maria Elena (Victoria Principal). And he asks her what she wants? And she says, I’d like a box you open it and it makes song. He says, Ya’ mean a music box? Why I’d get ya’ a pipe organ! Then he sings The Yellow Rose of Texas to her. He’s old and crusty, but in his own way romantic and eloquent.
JM: I’m a hopeless romantic! That’s the one thing I am above everything else! All my movies are filled with rapid romanticism.
QT: The last scene when Lily Langtry reads the letter the Judge wrote is just beautiful.
JM: That was much better in the script. Because in the script he comes back, and there’s this big gunfight. He wasn’t a ghost like he was in the movie. He comes back this old beaten man. And his daughter’s in trouble with all the new elements in the town, which were much better portrayed in the script. Much more realistic and detailed. There is a bad element in the town. Unlike the movie, she’s not this tough girl who’s gonna shoot it out with everybody. But he comes back and she never knows it’s him. And singlehandedly, this drunken old man, goes down and wipes all these guys out, and gets killed. And only Tector –
QT: – The Ned Beatty character?
JM: Yes. Is left alive and knows it was him. And he puts him in a pine box and the next day or two is when Lily Langtry comes to town. The coffin is being put on the train as she reads the letter. (laughing to himself) I remember there’s a whole thing I love about she’s reading the letter and there’s a couple of guys arguing about whether or not to put the box on the train in the heat because it’s going to stink. Whether or not to put it in the back of the train or the front. (laughing) It’s the hero of the movie, and they’re complaining about how he’ll stink when he decomposes and they’ll have to worry about his smell. She’s reading the letter about how we’ll be together and you see the reflection in the window of them shoving the coffin on the train. Then they go off together. He never meets her, but when he finally leaves the town he created, he leaves with Lily Langtry. It’s a very powerful scene, with a tear coming off her eye. But the thing that was nice was the daughter never knows her father came back.
QT: I don’t know. That was such a good scene in the movie, their conversation together.
JM: They meet, but he doesn’t say he’s her father. He just says, I was one of your father’s marshals.
QT: So the marshals don’t come back?
JM: No. The marshals are long gone. He alone wipes them out. And he says to his daughter, I just rode with him. Your father was a great man. Not like me. I never measured up to your father. Very, very, very, powerful scene.
QT: You describe yourself as a hopeless romantic. But to me the section in Dillinger that doesn’t work are the scenes in the middle when Dillinger (Warren Oates) and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) go off together. The whole sort of romantic montage of them in the rowboat, walking in the woods, it looked like you didn’t really have your heart in it. However, later in the movie, during the big shoot out, Billie Frechette grabs a Tommy Gun and starts blasting G-Men giving Dillinger the cover he needs yelling, run Johnny run! Now that was romantic!
JM: Well loyalty is always a quality that I admire in people. If people are loyal to each other that’s very meaningful. (NOTE: Years later I use that exact line in Pulp Fiction) It’s very easy to be in love with one another. It’s very easy to be enraptured with ideas. But whether or not you can remain loyal is a test of who you are. When you’ve given your word it’s very important – it’s a moral test of one’s self whether or not you can maintain loyalty.
QT: Warren Oates really represented as Dillinger a real man of the thirties brought to his circumstances through the climate of the times. However I wonder if a more man of action type would have better suited your purposes. An actor like William Smith. You can believe Michelle Phillips would kill anybody to save William Smith. Not Warren Oates.
JM: Warren was always one of my favorite actors. I wanted Warren to be the Judge.
QT: I thought you wanted Lee Marvin?
JM: Yeah I did. But originally I wanted to make it very cheap. I wanted it to be my first movie and make it for less than we spent on Dillinger actually. Shoot in Spain. In some crummy little town, a Sergio Leone leftover and have Warren be the Judge. I think Warren would have been wonderful in that role. Something absolutely terrific. As Dillinger he was very good. But maybe William Smith would of been a more dynamic Dillinger. Warren really filled out that part as well.
QT: Since I brought him up, let me just say your casting of William Smith as Conan’s father is brilliant. When I was living in Tennessee with my grandmother, I was in the fifth grade, I loved to go to the movies, but there weren’t any theatres in our town. We just had one drive-in, The South Clinton Drive-In. Except for southern movies like White Lightning and Walking Tall they never had current movies. It was usually exploitation movies. But exploitation movies from a few years earlier. So a lot of biker movies. Which mostly starred William Smith. Chrome and Hot Leather, Angels Hard as They Come, The Losers.
JM: I love The Losers. The one where they go to Vietnam?
JM: Big inspiration for Apocalypse Now.
QT: Really? The Losers?
JM: Yeah, bikers in Vietnam, surfers in Vietnam, same idea. I wrote a whole piece in Film Comment about how bikers are misunderstood. I wrote in Easy Rider Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper died for the sins of William Smith.
QT: William Smith is my favorite actor. He usually plays bad guys. But I’d like to see him play more heroic parts. I think he’s like Charles Bronson was in the sixties. Like Bronson, I think he could make the transition from villain to hero.
JM: There’s no doubt about that.
QT: That’s why I was excited to see him play a heroic part in Conan, and not just some bad guy barbarian that Conan kills.
JM: Yeah I love his scene in the movie. I love when he gives his big speech at the beginning. The riddle of steel. It’s not much, but I love it. And the fact he fought valiantly for the village against the horde. And was done in by a pack of Rottweilers!
(laughing) They had to be Rottweilers to bring down William Smith!
QT: You produced Hardcore for Paul Schrader?
JM: Yes. A wonderful script that turned out to be a lousy movie. I blame Paul’s direction for that.
QT: I heard at one point it was going to be Warren Beatty in the George C. Scott role. And absurdly going to be Beatty’s wife who runs off to do porno films and not his daughter?
JM: That was just embarrassing. (Beatty) Seducing Paul like a girl, talking him into it.
QT: Schrader said they made him change the ending from what he’d originally written?
JM: (Milius snorts) Nobody made him change anything, he did exactly what he wanted.
QT: I love his film Rolling Thunder.
JM: He wrote that for me to direct.
QT: (surprised) He did?
JM: He wrote the script and gave it to me, and said, this is your movie.
QT: Why didn’t you do it?
JM: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t think I wanted to do something that dark at the time.
QT: I interviewed the director John Flynn, and he said Schrader’s script was un-filmable?
JM: No…it was terrific. (lost in thought, remembering it) Boy it was a good script, with wonderful stuff in it. Paul at his best.