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Face To Face With Sergio Donati

The Notes of the Interview at Rome by Cenk Kiral - January 23, 1999


One Sunday afternoon last year, I set down to browse through the internet with a cup of Sunday coffee and a bit of typical Sunday laziness. The first stop was, as usual, the Sergio Leone Web Page, probably the most hectic internet site dedicated to a film maker. Three years ago, I bumped into this page quite accidentally, while trying to find something on Leone on internet. Initially it was just few articles on Leone, but later on a discussion page was added, and few of us started to exchange our opinions, and tried to satisfy our voracious appetite on Leone films. In the course of time, more people were added. The frequency of my visits has reached upto almost on a daily basis, and one day I realised that I was almost became addicted to this page. I had to get in there just to see who wrote what. Then one day, on this particular Sunday last year, I saw a message posted by the name of SERGIO DONATI. I said, who??? Sergio Donati??? The fellow who wrote the script of "Once Upon A Time in The West" (OUITW), and "Duck You Sucker" (DYS) wrote me a message??? Is it real or am I dreaming?? No, it was him - the real Sergio Donati - responding to my interview notes on Prof.Christopher Frayling. I wrote him an e-mail, and he responded back. We agreed on a date for a telephone interview. I called him next Saturday, and we had a very long interview. He was very kind, and responded to all of my questions with genuine sincerity. It was the first time I have learned that he contributed to Leone films much more then he was actually credited. He told many interesting stories, and anecdotes. I am hoping to release the whole interview once I go through the killing process of transcribing words from tapes to paper. Donati also posted several messages on The Leone Web Page's Discussion Board. Not being accustomed to dealing with the real personalities of those films, the usual members of the page had a period of suspicion whether or not the messages came from "the real Donati". Yes, it was from the real man. He says he still checks out the page every now and then. He particularly found the in-depth discussion on Leone's real age very amusing.

Then came the day for me to travel to Rome. I started to prepare myself for some personal meetings. I wrote e-mails, faxes to people, who I thought important to meet, days ahead of my travel. He was again the first to respond. A kind and caring man, full of respect to the others with utmost professional functionality.

I arrived at Rome on January 18th, 1999. We agreed to meet at the last day of my visit, in the lobby of my hotel since his house was outside Rome. Meanwhile, I had an awfully difficult and frustrating experience for meeting with Andrea Leone. I wrote him two faxes more than a month ahead of my travel, and many telephone calls to his executive assistant, just to obtain a brief appointment. Everytime I called his office, his assistant created me extra difficulties, and absurd excuses. At some point in time, I wasn't even allowed to speak with his assistant. When I got to Rome, I tried to call him again, but got no response. An Italian friend of mine called them personally to express my purpose in their own language, just to make sure that I only want to meet him, or any of Leone's daughters, maximum for an hour or so. The funny part was that, Andrea Leone's assistant asked my friend to submit the appointment request in written form. It was getting ridiculous, but we did what they asked for, just to conform. Nothing came up, and the funnier part was that they replied my friend's fax, who clearly stated that I was currently in Rome, with an e-mail to my Istanbul account, saying that "I should apply for any appointment from Andrea Leone, with a more advanced notice, and express my questions in detail so that he may only come back in written" I guess, after all these, I concluded that Mr.Leone had to be a very important personality with a very hectic schedule so that he can not reserve even an hour of his time, at his office. My last word to him (as in a message through his secretary) was "if someone wants to write a book about my father, and wants to see me, I would at least meet him briefly". I tried my best to convince them that I wasn't a sort of Paparazzi or anything of that nature. Alas, nothing happened. There must probably be an interesting reason behind this solid reluctance. Meanwhile, I got very close to meeting Ennio Morricone, but he had to travel to London on the day I called him. Claudio Mancini was also outside the city. So, I only managed to meet Luciano Vincenzoni. As for Donati, we agreed that I called him to confirm our appointment a day before our meeting. Donati was so kind enough to call me, before I do, to confirm his appointment.

When he showed up, he was a real gentleman with a nice casual outfit. We sat down at the caffee of the hotel. He has a very good English, one of the best I encountered among many Italians I met. He chose his words carefully. Although he is genuinely sincere to me, I can sense that I am dealing with a person, who has a deep respect for the others, and try not to hurt anyone with an unfair comment. Although he has been writing for many years, his story wasn't destined to be involved with the film industry from the beginning. "Between 1955 and 1956, being 22 years old, I wrote three thrillers that were published in Italy by Mondadori, the most important publishing house, and translated all around the world, also behind the Iron Curtain" says Donati about his early days of writing.

Then some of his works attracted some film makers. During those days, he met a young, enthusiastic assistant director. This guy also realised the talent of Donati, and wanted to work with him. The two immediately understood that 'they can do a lot of good things together'. He offered Donati to work on a special kind of thriller. A murder story in a snowy countryside. But, he insists that the events taking place in a hotel, a particular hotel. Donati asks "why in that hotel particularly?". The guy replies "because the guy who will finance the film is the owner of the hotel, and wants to meet nice women via this filming process". Donati laughs, and project was never realised, but he established a solid friendship with the man, who will not leave him alone for many many years. In years to come, the man called Leone will become one of the crucial factors in Donati's professional destiny. But, he still had some more years in the advertising business. "These first deluding approaches to the movie world pushed me to a more 'serious' kind of job: advertising. I moved to Milan, our Madison Avenue, and in a few years became creative supervisor of one of the biggest agencies."

The Leone-Donati relation began from those days. One day Donati receives a phone call from Leone, advising him to go and watch Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo', for a western adaptation. A western, though Donati, and passed the idea. As we all know, that passed over idea turned out to be "A Fistful of Dollars" (FOD). The interesting working experience started when Donati was commissioned to write over Vincenzoni's script in "For a Few Dollars More" (FDM). "At this time Leone convinced Grimaldi, his producer, to sign me an exclusive contract and I moved back to Rome. I also wrote La resa dei Conti and Faccia a Faccia for Grimaldi in that period" He names his efforts for FDM as "ghost writing" since he wasn't officially credited for it. He remembers Vincenzoni's amazement when he saw Leone saying him that "he" made some changes on the script. "He also knew that Leone was far from writing anything like this, but didn't know who exactly made the changes. But, as you also know, Vincenzoni is never proud of his work with Leone. So, he never cared that much ". Yes, we know that Vincenzoni isn't all that proud of his work, but "are you?" I ask. "Certainly I am" he replies. "There is a saying in Italian, which goes like 'there is very little when I look at myself, but quite a lot when I look at others'. Especially as the time passes by, I appreciate our work more and more , and I understand how great director Sergio was"

Then came GBU, for which he gave his full 8 months for the editing process, jeopardising the health of his family life. He worked almost day and night very closely with Leone and Nino Baragli, Leone's ever famous editor. He remembers one particular scene. The scene of Lee Van Cleef talking with a half soldier. Donati says they have changed the entire dialogue to fit into the latest status of the script. "We cut almost around 20 minutes of that film, and that particular scene had to be changed completely so that we summarise the audience the missing parts." "Did Leone make much changes on the scipt in the post-production?" "Every movie of Leone, until OUTIW, had some of those changes on the movieola, and than we had to change the dialogue. That was very typical of Leone until OUTIW, since that film was a big production with top stars ". The stress was at its climax towards the end of GBU's editing. "We had to release the film on Christmas of 1966". He realised how much Leone changed meanwhile. "It was during the post production of GBU when Leone stopped enjoying the fun of film making. He was so much under pressure, and afraid of a flop that he almost didn't want to come out with this film. That's why it took so long for us. He always invented problems, extended the process. He was so afraid to go out. It was a nightmare". Then the big day came, and the last reel was finished. Ennio Morricone had to record some of the soundtrack at 5 am. in the morning. That gorgeous soundtrack of "Triello", accompanying the three-way duel scene, was recorded early in the morning. Everybody was relaxed and it was a happy moment. "The owner of the mixing studio came with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the moment. Sergio stood up almost without any sign of feeling, said good morning, passed by everyone, and disappeared" He certainly wasn't aware of the fact that he was upto one of the biggest cinematic victories. Instead, a feeling of insecureness, a sort of fear has taken over him. His million making days has just began, but he didn't know about it. I asked why he wasn't credited at all. "In those days, Vincenzoni, Age & Scarpelli were prestigious writers, and prestigious writers wouldn't like to be credited with unknown people. So, probably that was the reason why they haven't credited me". Donati's observations about Leone points out a strange part of Leone: "He was very insecure. That insecureness became more apparent as he became more and more successful. During the editing of GBU, it was the most apparent, because it was the one with the biggest budget, and it had to be successful, and so on. I remember telling him many times 'Sergio, why do you always want bigger and bigger pictures? This is dangerous. Why don't we make small thrillers?' I think he would have been a very successful director for thrillers. His dream model was David Lean. He dreamed of making the re-make of 'Gone with the Wind' During the editing of GBU, he stopped having the fun part of film making, he started to suffer, and he stopped being creative. If you watch DYS, you can see very little parts of Leone's great creativity".

Donati shows me a small booklet, prepared by Cinema Mediterranean Montpellier for the last November session. The booklet was dedicated to Carlo Simi's work on Leone films. It also includes several interviews and articles, including Alberto Grimaldi, Luciano Vincenzoni, Tonino Delli Colli, and Sergio Donati. It contains the sketches of Simi's architectural designs for Leone's westerns, as well as the first couple pages from the original script of OUTIW, which came from Donati's own archive. He makes clear that the final script definitely belongs to him, not to Dario Argento. I ask him about Vincenzoni, and the way he lives now. His face turns into a sort of sad expression. It is obvious he feels sorry for him. "I like Luciano a lot. We worked together many years. In fact, when Sergio asked him to write FDM, he was a very successful and famous writer. That's why Leone went to him. We met a year after FDM. At that time Luciano knew many important people, like the European President of UA. And, he made millions from these films. Everytime I call him nowadays, he always takes things from the most extreme, and talks very bitter about what Leone, Grimaldi and others did to him. Actually, at certain times Sergio was so mean and greedy. If you ask to Morricone, Delli Colli, everyone was hurt by him in a way. He was, in the end, the director. May be, he was like what a director had to be. I mean, Sergio was a great friend on a table, a charming, fascinating man. But, when it comes to work, he could be one of the worst son of a bitch on the world. " As I shall explain in my article on Vincenzoni, he is currently having a legal case against Grimaldi for not including his share on the renewed copyright contract with MGM. That surely has affected Vincenzoni's financial conditions. Donati claims Vincenzoni could not keep up with today's conditions, in which a writer has to deal with television in order earn a decent life. Times has changed, and television now plays an important role on the show business. "There are more projects with the tv than cinema, and you get paid better than cinema" says Donati. "We met after 'FDM' and worked together for many years until the Italian cinema started to decline and tv became more popular". He helped his friend to work on some tv projects, but "it is not the best for him, because he has a different style. In the television world, you have to be very patient. He is incapable of having stable relations. Sometimes the producers are afraid to work with him because he gets angry easily. That's the way he is" Donati says Vincenzoni still works with some projects on an editorial range rather than a full script writing process as in the good old days. Donati thinks Vincenzoni had his own unique style in the way he lived, particularly when he made big sums of money.

I return to the 60s with Leone. He remembers the day when he was called by Leone from Spain asking for a desperate help. He was at Almeria shooting OUTIW. "I knew from the very beginning that it was a too long script for a movie. Too long, but Leone said he can handle it during the shooting". Donati had to go down to the set, and work to shorten the script. "Being at the film set is a horrible thing if you don't have anything to do with the shooting process".

He remembers working with Charles Bronson on the script. "Bronson came to me to work on the script. He wanted to change some of the dialogue. He said 'can't I say these in this way'? I noticed that he had some problems with the "S", a little too lispy... and he tried to get out of the script all the words with an "s" in it. I found it very funny and was so candid to tell : "God, is THAT the problem ? That made him angry... (laughters) he said 'you think I can not say them?'. I said no, but it is best if you keep the dialogue as they are. He was probably under the pressure of his first experience for playing the lead character among such big actors like Henry Fonda and Jason Robards. Speaking of Bronson, I throw one of my frequent questions "was he offered 'The Man with Noname' character for the first film?". "Absolutely not!!" he replies confidently. "For his first movie, Sergio had a ridiculous budget, 100 million lire, at the time equivalent to less than $150,000. His first choice was Cliff Robertson, but when he got to Hollywood he discovered Robertson would cost almost the whole budget. So for a little more than $6,500, he hired a young guy called Eastwood playing a limping deputy sheriff in the tv serial "Rawhide". "Didn't Leone try some other actors until he decides on Eastwood? For example, I remember reading that he even had sent the script to Henry Fonda, but his agent didn't even bother to talk about it to Fonda. Have you also heard about the similar things?" I ask. "Please remember at that time FOD was just a B-movie with a B-movie budget. I'm sure Leone DREAMED about Fonda and others, but the money was just enough for a young Eastwood. The only alternative I heard of was Cliff Robertson, but remember at that period I was completely out of that I refused to write !!!!"

We return to Leone-Eastwood debate, and he continues: "The for FDM, Clint asked and had more than a few dollars more, I think around $50.000. At the time of GBU he was more or less a spaghetti western star, so he asked for ten times that sum. He never refused the role, he just played it high. Sergio shouted 'Never! I created him, I destroy him!' and that was the moment he proposed Bronson. But the Majors said no way, Clint was too important for the team. And Sergio knew that. But the lack of love between them started in that moment - and showed later in the dubbing room... When we went to New York for dubbing, Clint was called and given the day and he time, that he has to be at the studio. Clint said 'no, I have another schedule, and I can only come two weeks later earliest. The UA executives gave him some rough advises, and he came to the studio, saying anything to anybody, with almost no expression at his face. He came with his script, which was no longer valid because we made some big changes since the shooting. When he was told about it, he said 'no, I will read exactly what I said in the film' Then Vice President of UA Chris Manciowitcz stepped in, and really threaten him badly. So, Clint had to go with our version, and he did. I guess a part of their dispute was also coming from the way Sergio let Eli Wallach stealing a lot of scenes from Clint Eastwood. The word stealing isn't in that criminal sense, but Eli was a wonderful stage actor, and know his work very well. While Clint was standing like a monument, Eli made various expressions, changed his face and so on, and all those things, peculiar to Eli attracted the audience more towards Eli " I remind him one of Leone's well known statements on Eastwood, saying that 'he is like a dry martini at Harry's bar in Venice'. "I know one more of such Leone expressions" he says "Clint had two exposures, one with the hat, and the other without a hat" (laughters)

Donati also noted the American's inexperience with the dubbing process, unlike Italians, who used dubbing in almost all the films of Fellini, DeSica, Visconti. "So, nobody (in Italian film industry) cared about the sound in that time. But, Americans made all of their films with real sound, and the only films they had to dub was the cheap porno films. So, they were accustomed to dub 10 meters of a film, and each character at a time. That made Sergio crazy. He wanted all the characters of that scene on stage while dubbing"

He also remembers Clint Eastwood's reaction to smoking. "For a man like him, vegetarian, always keeping his fit, it was like a torture to keep those stinky cigars on his mouth. And sometimes Leone was a bit sadistic. Some scenes required half lit cigar to be smoked by Clint. So they had to light it, smoke it and then give the wet cigar to Clint. After the scene is over, Clint was almost sick. Clint was exactly like how he looks on the screen. You never understand what he thinks really, but he was always very attentive to the shooting process, tyring to understand how things were done and so on"

About the other things he remembered from the shooting of OUTIW, he says "working with Henry Fonda was a great experience. He was the monument of cinema. Such a big character." I asked him the relation between Leone and Fonda, he says "it worked out very good, because actors always loved Leone for his way of filming them. Big close ups, dramatic sense, and so on"

Another Donati-Leone collaboration was at DYS. I ask "how come a revolution idea came into a Leone film?". "Leone wanted to be the producer. Tucci and Mancini, owned a treatment called 'Mexico'. It was really bad, but had a beautiful idea in it - the Irish bomber and the Mexican bandit involved into the revolution. I rewrote the story completely keeping just these two characters." He had in his mind Eli Wallach while writing for DYS. "I brought the treatment to Almeria during the shooing of OUTIW. When Jason Robards saw the script, loved the role of Mallory, the Irishman, and said 'I've got to play this role, it is the role of my life', but it never went to Robards".

I asked him why Eli Wallach wasn't offered the role? "Because UA asked for a big star for that film, and Wallach wasn't perceived as a big star in those days. Rod Steiger was a big star. I remember the first meeting with them. Sergio didn't want to direct the film. He said to Steiger 'look, Giancarlo Santi is like my brother. He is like me, and he works like me. Don't worry'. Steiger said 'ok Sergio, tomorrow I will send my cousin to the set. He is just like me, you'll love him' Then Sergio realised he had to direct the film." Was Sam Peckinpah offered to direct the film?, I asked. He paused, and said "I don't think so. Originally, it was offered to Peter Bogdanovich, who came to Rome, but had a terrible clash with Sergio. Sergio described him how to shoot the film frame by frame. In some cases Sergio said 'you use close up, and then cut', Peter said 'I hate close ups'. They never make it together, and Peter had to leave. Then, Leone even thought Vincenzoni to direct it. Later on, Giancarlo Santi was to direct it, then Sergio had to take over after Steiger came along this way. Actually, the firs day of the movie was directed by Santi, when Steiger didn't come yet. Actually, Sergio hated Steiger. He didn't want him until the end, but the studio executives insisted on Steiger".

About Leone's other projects, Donati has some bitter comments: "Sergio had many projects in is mind. He promised many people many things, but almost none were realised." "How about the project with Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke" I ask. "The idea on which we were working just before Sergio died was for me to write and for him to produce six tv-movies in the style of Leone westerns, six different stories linked by the same gun who passes from hand to hand. The title was 'Colt', and I know that Andrea Leone keeps trying to produce the series, but without Sergio is not so easy... Gere and Rourke were just around in Rome at the period, we had lunches together and the 'project' was just one of the stories for the serial" says Donati. While I continue digging into Donati's memories on Leone's unrealised projects, I remembered another one of his planned projects, which was about the current versions of 'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote?' I ask him about it. "Sergio was a fascinating liar who loved talking to journalists and biographers. The last thing he read or heard talked about, he announced as his next project. I remember him 'toying' with the idea of making a movie version of Lee Falk's 'The Phantom'. It would probably have been the first cartoon made in movie anyway..., 'The 40 days of Mussa Dagh' and so on and so on... He loved to TALK about projects. The first time he announced officially the Stalingrad Siege project was in 1967, when we were working on GBU edition ! And many years later when he died, there was not even a real treatment of that movie.

Donati says he is a bit of tired of speaking on Leone. Just a day before our meeting he was on RAI radio, commenting on Leone again. It seems obvious that his professional career is surrounded with the reminiscences of his work with Leone. May be, in real professional term, we should refer those days as 'Great Old Leone Days', since there is no way of reviving them. 'What would be your last comments on Leone", I ask. He replies without any hesitation "Leone is for sure a great director, or may be I'd rather call 'filmaker' and I learned working with him at least 90% of what I know on writing a screenplay. As a human being, he was questionable, but right now I forgot every little wound, and like Clint did, I could sincerely write at the end of a movie : 'To Sergio' ".

We had a very nice two hours together, and at end of it he said he had to leave. When I offered to take some photos, he became very shy. "I really don't like having my photos taken. That's why I don't have any photos of me from those days". Having the rare chance of meeting such an important personality, I insist like one of Indio's men, and forcefully convince him to take few pictures. After couple of shots inside the hotel, I offer him to take some outdoor shots. A friend of mine helps, and starts taking pictures of us. We are on the narrow street of 'Via Del Corso'. I say "should we call it 'The Duel on Via Del Corso' ?" He replies "call it 'Face to Face' ". Photos are taken, he kindly shakes my hand, and heads for his house. It seemed obvious that Donati kept very well pace with the changing conditions. Being a modest family father, he never had his extremes, he never got mixed up with the high society of the celebrity cinema world. He came like a gentleman, and he left like a gentleman. He certainly said much more about those days in our previous phone interview. That shall be my next action item. I owe it to all Leone fans, and it will come some day.


FDM: For A Few Dollars More GBU: The Good The Bad and The Ugly
OUTIW: Once Upon A Time In The West DYS: Duck You Sucker
OUTIA: Once Upon A Time In America

All right reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Cenk KIRAL. Please apply to the following contact points for any permissions:
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