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More Than A Fistful of Interview: Christopher Frayling on Sergio Leone

Cenk Kiral with Prof. Christopher Frayling

The man, who spent most of his time and energy on writing books, articles on Spaghetti Westerns and Sergio Leone, is now about to come out with the biography of Sergio Leone. It's probably going to be the most interesting, detailed and profound book on one of the greatest film makers of all times.

It was the spring of 1986, when a friend of mine called me up and said "there's something I saw in the bookshop at the film theatre, which is just for you. You must not miss it". It was the Istanbul Film Festival days, and the 'thing' I must not miss was a book, called 'Spaghetti Westerns - Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone' by Christopher Frayling. I went and saw the book on the shelf. I was stunned when I turned the cover page to see what's inside. There it was a two page wide picture of Lee Van Cleef, in 'Colonel Mortimer' costumes. That famous artistic Van Cleef pose, looking out deadly with his Angel Eyes, waiting for Indio for 'La Resa Dei Conti'. As soon as I saw that picture, even without reading the book, I said to myself this guy must have the same feelings as I have towards Leone's movies. Eversince then I have been reading that huge 284 pages book with full of interesting details and analysis. Every time I read it, I feel as if I am learning new things. I still refer that book quite often. He has also done television documentaries on Leone and Morricone for BBC.

On October 22nd, 1997, I have met Professor Christopher Frayling at his office in the Royal College of Art, where he is the Rector. This was our second meeting in this year. Our first meeting was on March 5th 1997, again at his office. The first was more of a formal courtesy meeting, and took about 45 minutes only. It was right before my 'A Fistful of Leone Trip' to Spain. He gave me wonderful tips on where to visit around Almeria. There's no doubt that he is one of the most knowledgable people on Leone. He is also a very busy person, running from one meeting to another all the time. This time, when I arrived at London, I wasn't sure whether we could even meet. Then I had a message that he gave me the appointment at an evening hour. When I arrived in his office, it was already 7:30 pm after a long tiring day. But, one good thing was that there wouldn't be any phones or any other interruptions. We had about two and a half hours of long and splendid interview meeting. Every time I asked a question he has always responded with much more than I asked. All was very delightful for me, asking about a matter and getting very detailed answers with bonus anecdotes. Professor Frayling is a very lively person, always ready shoot a surprising bullet at you. He likes giving out unknown details on Leone's films, or Leone's life, but then, he sometimes realises that he must keep some of them for the book. I assured him that even if we speak for a month, I'd still go and buy his book. His office, like many creative minds, doesn't look that organised and carries the signs of his quite hectic schedule. But, he surely has his perfect system of finding everything he looks for among the heaps papers. He likes to talk about Leone, his years long work and many anecdotes he has collected over the course of many years. When he starts off talking, he sometimes gets so carried away that he jumps to other subjects. It's really great when listening, but when it comes to transcribing his words on paper, my tape and I had to spent long, tedious hours.

At the time of this interview he was about to conclude his book on Sergio Leone's biography. He is planning the release around the spring of 98. According to him, with the release of the book, he hopes to organise a whole series of events on Leone, like a season of films, exhibition at Museum of Moving Image (MOMI) at London. You can read all about it in the last part of the following interview. Here are the notes of the interview with Professor Christopher Frayling:

We know that so far you have spent great time and energy in Leone. Why Leone among many other film makers?

Well, the first Leone film I saw was "A Fistful of Dollars" in 1967 because it was delayed due to the law suits of plagiarism with Kurosawa's film company. They (Kurosawa's film company) got the rights to distribute the (Leone's) films for the Far East, and the irony here is that these films made more money than Kurosawa's own films. So, I saw these films in a very short time period. First 'A Fistful of Dollars', 3 months later 'For A Few Dollars More' and 6 months later 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. In the summer 67 when the 'Fistful' was released, it was the time of Vietnam, and in England people had very mixed views about America. We grew up dreaming about America as a wonderful place. It was the land of plenty, where everything was possible, consumer goods, electronics, cars, music and etc. There was a big illusion set in 50s, and partly because of Vietnam, politically people became worried about America. Kennedy was like a god here and he has been assasinated. That upset people over here. A kind of sourness set in. Here is this movie that had a cynical attitude towards America in 1967, because most westerns released so far celebrated the American dream, wilderness and so forth. Here is this movie saying to us most men south of the border worked solely for cash. Why are you doing this for us? For 500 Dollars? So, it just captured this cynical feeling in England about America.

Where Leone fits in this picture? Well, all of his films are about a European's relations with the American dream. He was born in 1929, grew up in the late 1930s, and for him American movies were like a religion. He grew up watching gangster films. The films he particularly remembers seeing were the films of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and westerns of late 30s, like the films of John Ford and many others. Then in early 40s, many of the films were banned under Mussolini's regime. Then, like a lot of things prohibited, they even became more magical. When you are not allowed to do anything, it becomes wonderful. So, bootleg copies of these films were circulated. It became a sort of dream. Leone's father was from Naples, but Sergio Leone was born in Rome. He (his father) spent most of the war in Naples, under a sort of informal house arrest, because he was banned by the Mussolini regime. In 1944, you have the Sicily Landings, and the allied armies came to Southern Italy. That was young Sergio's first encounter with real life Americans. They arrived with bars of chocolates, all these Italian girls wanting to hitchhike with American boys. And, it is a very odd way to meet with your heroes that invaded your country. You have this dream of America from Hollywood and the reality of these troops invading your country. He said
to me that he got very confused because they (American soldiers) weren't like the heroes in the movies, or they weren't like the heroes in the books. They were tough, rough American soldiers, like any other soldiers. From then on he always had this double attitude towards America. He loved it, but he also hated it. And that comes through every movie he made. The other thing is, when he was a child in the 30s, he was very lonely person, and movies were like a kind of magic for him. They almost became the only way for him to contact the world. And then, in the 50s and 60s, the movies he saw coming out of America didn't have that magic. What he wanted to do is to make films that recapture that magic that he was feeling when he was a child with big music, big action with almost child like a view of the world, which also includes his double attitude towards America. So, it is this combination of big, spectacular, noisy, large American movies which is like the magic of the cinema when you were a child. And at the same time, the theme is that 'none of these myths are true'. They are not the heroes of the 1930s. And, I think, when I went to see his first film, I really picked up on that. The double thing what was going on, the magic in his movies. You feel great when you watch them. It is a total experience with the music, visuals, costumes. At the same time, what he was saying about America is that they aren't all John Wayne. Life is more complicated than that. It's tough, cynical people on the take after your dollars and the big rule of life 'make more money anybody else', all that sort of stuff, which was not like the heroes in 1930s. So, it is the funny combination of wanting a childlike experience in the cinema but with an adult theme. Leone did it very well. He told fairy stories for adults. And I think I picked up on that in 1967. But, it's 'The Good The Bad and Ugly' that blew my mind. I said to myself this guy is magic. When you watch his films, you can see the development in the artist, the technique gets more sophisticated, the performances are better, the production values are higher. It is amazing to see how far he came on in just three years. He has done three classic movies in three years, which many people do in a lifetime. And the funny thing about Leone's career is that he has done his three movies in three years, and fourth in 1968, then a different movie "Duck You Sucker", which by the way I don't quite consider purely a Leone movie, then he was back only in 1983. What an odd career!!! Bang, bang, bang, and then 15 years gap. I find it very interesting. So, it's partly the style, partly the relationship with America, and partly the magic of the movies that kept me on him. If you look at the movies coming from America in the mid 60s, realism was the big thing. They were trying to make them look as realistic as possible with overlapping dialogues and a documentary feel to the movies. And here is this guy with a spectacular epic again. So, I really felt in sympathy with what Leone was doing. I also love America but I don't. I love American things, I love thinking about America, I love American movies, but I got this double attitude for America, which I think Europeans sometimes have. I figured it in movies, and there is no doubt that's what Leone was up to. And, there are the titles of the movies 'Once Upon A Time' - a fairy story- in America or in the West. You get this stereo effect, one speaker is a fairy story, the other is brutal and nasty. It is a fabulous combination.

How did the Biography project come about?

Well, I started off writing the 'Spaghetti Western'in the late 70s, and it came out in the early 80s. And, I thought I really have said all I have about these films. I've spent a lot of time on that book. It's a long book. I don't think I'd write it same way now. It's a dense sort of book. It took me about 3 years to write it. And then, in 1983, one day I was sitting in my office at the RCA. The phone rang. My secretary was out. So, I went and answered the phone. I picked up the receiver. At the other hand, someone said "this is Sergio Leone". I thought some was joking with me. He then turned into Italian, and I didn't understand enough of it, and said "I'll put my interpreter on" because he didn't know English well. So, the interpreter came on to the phone. He said "Mr.Leone has read your book, or rather, someone translated it into Italian" - quite a job: 300 pages. I have found out some material about his father, which he never knew. He said "I must talk with you, I am really interested in how you found all this". So I met Leone and we have talked about the part on his father, and I have told him where I have found out the material. He was really excited about the things I found about his father. Then, every time he came to London we would meet after that. So, slowly emerged the idea about a book on Leone's films. I've been in a lot of television programs in the 80s for BBC about movie people. I took the opportunity to reach the people, who were connected to Leone films on the back of these programs. I have spoken with Fred Zinneman about 'High Noon' and 'Once Upon a Time in West', I spoke with Charlton Heston about 'Ben Hur', at which Leone was the assistant director. Leone died in 1989. I had nearly finished the book on his films, but then at that point, I said this has got to turn into a biography, because no one has published Leone's life. Now he has died. Someone ought to do it soon, and talk with these people. Because if no one does it, and speak with these people, they will go away, everyone will forget. So, I started again in 1989 to organise a life story. So, I have the films and also the life story put together. That's why it's a huge book. The publisher has been very patient. I started off in 1989. It's now 1997 and just finishing . It's really become huge. In those days it was 60,000, and now it's 350,000 words. This is a long book, about 500 pages. It's the biggest book I've ever written. It's like a Leone movie. It starts like a small film and gets bigger, bigger and bigger. In the meantime, I wrote a biography on Clint Eastwood back in 1987.

So, you personally went and interviewed Clint Eastwood as well?

Yes, actually it was in London when he came to promote his film called 'Pale Rider'. We spent a lot of time talking about the Italian Western. It was quite embarrassing, because he wanted to talk about 'Pale Rider', quite rightly, but we talked about his days in Italian films back in 60s, and a lot of it goes into this book. Some of the materials, which didn't get into that book got into the Leone book.

But, I didn't realise how difficult it was to write such a book. I had to find out about Italy and Rome in 1920s, the background to Leone's childhood. You've got to find out about the rise of Mussolini, what it was like to live in Italy in 1930s, what it was like being in Rome in the Second World War, what it was like to meet the Americans coming up from Sicily, what was like to work in the Italian film industry in the 50s, when the American epics were made, like 'Helen of Troy', 'Last Days of Pompeii', these sort of films. So, a lot of background research I had to do which took a lot of time. My reading Italian is good, my spoken Italian is terrible. It's an academic disease. You can read it but can't talk (laughs). So, I could read all those materials but when I had to speak with someone, I needed an interpreter, which was quite expensive and took a lot of time. I think I've talked to virtually everybody with something important to tell.

Such as?

Such as Tonino Valerii, Tonino Delli Colli, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzoni, Ennio Morricone, and of the Americans, John Milius, who was going to direct 'Once Upon A Time in America'. He is a great Leone fan. His (Leone's) family, his wife Carla, his son Andrea, his daughters Rafaella, and Francesca. I wouldn't interview them if it wasn't the biography book, but you need to know the family for such a book. Carla was very helpful.

I've talked with Charlton Heston when I was working for the BBC. There is an interesting story Leone told me which I didn't entirely believe. Because Leone exaggerated quite a lot. He is a sort of character who likes to tell a good story. The more he told them, the more far fetched they became. He told me a story about when he was working on the chariot race on 'Ben-Hur', where he was one of the first assistants on the crew that did the retakes under a man called Andrew Martin, who was the director of the chariot race. It was the biggest movie set ever built, the ancient circus. The director was William Wyler, who had just finished a western called 'Big Country' on release in America. Wyler was famous for being a perfectionist. He shot a scene over and over again, hundreds of takes. And, according to Leone, Wyler came one day and said (to Charlton Heston) "you know this shot in 'Big Country' that I really didn't like. It's not good enough. So, I want to take it again". So, Charlton Heston said "are you mad? I am in Rome, in the middle of the chariot race, and the film is on release in America. So, what you are suggesting is we reshoot this sequence and put it in all the prints which are already out on release?". Wyler said "Yeah". I didn't believe Leone. I thought this was a mad story. So, later I met Charlton Heston and asked him "I hope you don't mind me asking, but do you remember William Wyler reshooting of that scene in 'The Big Country' in the middle of the chariot race?". He said "Yes, absolutely. I wore my cowboy outfits walked into the archaic circus in Rome. Wyler shot this sequence again because he didn't like the light". What's interesting about this story is that, this was the first western Leone saw being shot. He was standing next to Charlton Heston when they filmed that sequence in 'Big Country' in Rome in the chariot race circus. Isn't that amazing?

Which particular scene is that?

It's in the fist fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. What Wyler didn't like is the cutaway that shows Heston lying in the dust after he was punched. He said the makeup looked terrible, light was bad and everything. So, it is that very shot Heston in the dust having being beaten up by Gregory Peck. If you look very carefully, his hair is a bit shorter because it was a different style in 'Ben-Hur'. Amazing!

So, while I was talking with these people, I was checking up on what Sergio told me. All was true in this case. When you do interviews, like this one, it's good to check with other people because sometimes when people start talking, they may get carried away or exaggerate. When in the book someone said something, I've checked with the others. So, I must have done about 30 interviews for the book, read a lot of documents, letters, Italian archives, English archives, film archives. There's a lot of research in this book. There really is. It took me a lot of time. That's how the biography project came about. And, I've got more interested in the man. He was a very complicated man actually. He was a very shy man. When he started making a film, he was a very 'short-tempered' person. It took him time to get to know everyone he was working with, and then he interacted with them. He was very tense to start with. I think probably it's because he grew up being a solitary kind of person. The more I knew about him, the more complicated he became. He wasn't like the big flamboyant Orson Welles type person he seemed. He was, in the public eye, but the inner person is much more complicated.

In you first book (Spaghetti Westerns - Cowboys and Europeans - from Karl May to Sergio Leone - 1981) you keep a sort of impartial and academic point of view, which was sometimes criticised...

Yes, Mr.Garfield didn't like that book at all (referring to Brian Garfield's comments in his book, called 'Western Films - A Complete Guide' - Da Capo Press - 1982)

How is your approach this time? Does it now reflect your personal appreciation of Leone?

Oh, it is much more engaged and much more personal this time. It is certainly much more enthusiastic. Biography is different than my earlier works. When you do a film study, you have to keep an impartial position. Such as in my book, I was telling about many directors apart from Leone, Sergio Sollima, Sergio Corbucci, and many others. That's why I kept my distance, and did a wide ranging survey.

Can you tell us more about Sergio Leone as a person?

He was a very intuitive person in film making. His father was a silent film maker, his mother was a great silent film actress. In the 50s, he worked on a full series of movies shot in Rome, either American movies, like 'Ben Hur', 'Helen of Troy' or Italian movies. In fact, in a total of about 50 films he worked as an assistant or as a writer. Yes he was intuitive but also was an incredible craftsman. Today, if you want to become a movie director, you want it now. This man spent for 15 years in learning his craft working on other people's films before he was ready to make his own film. Where the technical side of Leone is concerned, he was intuitive but he was also incredibly careful. He knew a lot about cinematic technology. He loved machines, cameras, lenses, all the latest toys you get in cinema. For example, when he did 'A Fistful of Dynamite' (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker) he was one of the first in Italy to use a simultaneous video screen, where when you film a shot, you can see it on a video screen exactly as you are filming. You don't have to wait for the film to come back from the laboratory. That's very common now, but back in 1970 that was very very new. When they were shooting 'Ben Hur', he was responsible for constructing a special camera apparatus, which was attached to front of the chariot making all the shots behind the horses at a very low angle. That was Leone's invention. He invented this arm that you put the camera on. He loved the machines, and that came out of his long career of apprenticeship as a film maker. He understands the possibilites of cinema in a way that younger directors wouldn't.

Do you consider Leone as an intellectual?

Not really, I don't think so. When he went to school, he was going to be a lawyer. In fact, a lot of people get into film industry in Italy through law, usually executives, producers, and so on. He didn't like the law and he dropped out of college and became assistant director. He never went to University to study literature or humanities or whatever. I don't think that he was very well read man. I don't think that he read very widely. His education was visual. He knew a lot about paintings, he knew an incredible amount about the history of cinema. I mean, you read about people who can describe a scene in a film. Sergio would give you all the dialogue. He once described to me a scene from 'How The West Was Won' where Eli Wallach plays the bad man, the train robber. When he (Leone) came to see me, he started acting all the parts, and he had all the dialogue between George Peppars and Eli Wallach. He'd remembered it since the late 50s. So, this man had incredible knowledge of cinema. He remembered every movie he's ever seen, particularly the ones he enjoyed. So, on visual education and cinematic education, he was incredibly strong. I don't think he was literary, an intellectual sort of person.

But I remember reading couple of interviews where he said he was very much into reading James Fenimore Cooper, Homer and these sort of authors.....

Yes, he knew a lot about classical mythology after growing up in standard Mussolini's Rome. If you think about it, the history was classical Rome. That's all you studied over and over again. And the punch line was that Mussolini was the new Caesar - history as propaganda. He knew a lot about ancient Greece and Rome. Every school child in Italy had to do learn these in those days. He also read a lot of American books in the 40s but I don't think he read difficult novels. For example, he knew a lot about American detective fiction, some of which was illegal then. When you read a Raymond Chandler story in Rome in 1944, it was under the counter. This book was not allowed. In the war, in Mussolini's time, America was a wonderful world, the model of freedom, the comics, thrillers, wonderful movies. He knew a lot about that, but he wasn't a deep thinking man. His political side was interesting. His father was a disillusioned communist. And as a communist, he was fighting the regime all his life. His father retired in Southern Italy in 1944, and died in the early 50s. His mother died in the late 50s. So, he grew up in a socialist household. He saw, with great cynicism, Italian politics in 50s and 60s, an absolute mess. Everyone was making deals with everyone. The Communist Party didn't know whether they were going to make a coalition with the Christian Democrats and all this. And, the thing with Italy was that it wouldn't settle down. I mean they've chosen more Prime Ministers than any other country in the world. Even now they are unstable politically. So, some of his cynicism doesn't come from books, it comes from someone who was brought up to believe in socialism, and who sees that the world around him isn't like that. It's all deals and negotiations. The reason he made 'A Fistful of Dynamite' was to say to the generation of 1968 that the revolution was a complete mess. The famous long speech about revolution by Rod Steiger in the film, which was actually written on the set. It wasn't in the (original) script. They improvised it the night before.

How do you comment on the harsh criticisms on Leone when his western films were first released in America?

I find them as typical reactions to an outsider, who makes films about the Americans' history. The first reactions, unjustly in my view, were 'how dare an Italian could make such films on our traditional wild west'. I think these things happen when something about a national myth is made by an outsider. Look at the reactions when 'Midnight Express' came out in Turkey. I don't of course think of Leone's films and that film the same way, but the reaction was almost the same. But, now things are not the same. In the course of the passing years, some American critics began to appreciate Leone's films. Others didn't. Others still don't .

When I look at all the relevant interviews, documentaries, even the one you have done for BBC, there are several parts about various actors, Clint Eastwood, Rod Steiger, Robert DeNiro and others. But none of them mentions anything on Lee Van Cleef. Even when you read books on Eastwood, they slightly touch on Van Cleef, but then pass by. There is currently no in-depth book on Van Cleef, his life and his career. Why didn't Leone ever talk publicly about Van Cleef? Is there a particular reason for that?

There is one story, which I heard Leone tell many times, about how he discovered Lee Van Cleef. He never talked really about working with him. He said that he originally wanted Colonel Mortimer, an older character in 'For A Few Dollars More' to be played by Lee Marvin. But, Marvin was then offered 'Cat Ballou'. So, Marvin pulled out at the last minute. So, they were in trouble. The sets were built, Eastwood was cast, everyone else was cast. They had about two weeks to go. As I say, Leone had this fabulous memory for films. He remembered Lee Van Cleef, not because he was a star, but because he was always there in the westerns in the background. The second bad man from the left.

Any particular films, in which he remembered Van Cleef's image?

Particularly 'High Noon' sitting at the station waiting for Frank on the noon train. He remembered the way he walked, rode a horse, his extraordinary profile, like an eagle. Leone said he looked like Van Gough. Lee Van Cleef would have been a wonderful Van Gogh. So, they went over to the States to meet Van Cleef. It was only the second time Leone had ever been in to America. The first one was to sign up Eastwood for the second film (For A Few Dollars More). Leone visits a motel in the West, and tracks down Lee Van Cleef, who was in semi-retirement. When you are in Hollywood, as that book called 'Bad at the Bijou' shows, as a small part actor, it is tougher than it looks. You don't make much money. You can do a bit of TV work, a bit of film work but your wife has to work. You don't live very well when you're that sort of 'bit part actor'. Actually Van Cleef was then at the end of the career, not the beginning. He had never managed to make into the front rank in America. He was always at the background, always a bad man, always get killed. Killed, hanged, knifed. He was the one who had couple of lines and got killed. When Leone found him, Van Cleef was earning his living as a painter, as an artist. He had stopped making films. He also had a drinking problem. He had a very bad accident, which made it difficult for him to walk. If you look at his films, he walks very badly. His legs were very buckled. His knee particularly never actually recovered from that accident. So, they found him. Leone was sitting in the hotel. In comes Van Cleef, dressed in a big raincoat and wearing boots. Leone saw Van Cleef coming into the motel. He said to his brother-in-law "I don't even want to talk with him. He looks fabulous. If talk with him, I may change my mind". They came with a suitcase of dollars, cash money. They gave Van Cleef the advance on his contract, which is more than he ever made before. Van Cleef rushed back to his wife. His bills weren't even paid, his electricity, telephone were about to be disconnected. And, suddenly they've got thousands of Dollars in cash. It's an extraordinary story. In a few days, he was on plane to Rome. The first sequence they shot in 'For A Few Dollars More' is where Van Cleef has the telescope on one side of the street, and Eastwood binoculars on the other. That story Leone loved telling. He often told that story. He didn't say much about working with Van Cleef. Van Cleef was very professional man. He was always on time. He always learnt his words. He was a real old Hollywood professional. He wasn't the kind of man who got involved in the film making process. He never wanted to be director, or writer. He was a professional working actor. So, he never contributed very much to the films he was in. He did very good performance, he looked great, but, unlike Eastwood, who was discussing the scenes all the time, Lee Van Cleef did just what he was paid for. He wasn't particularly a creative actor.

Wasn't James Coburn also approached for the same Colonel role?

I heard that Coburn said that. I also heard Charles Bronson said that too. But, I've never heard Leone say these two actors were offered the role.

How about Eastwood? How did the sequence of events proceed until deciding on Clint Eastwood?

It started originally with Richard Harrison, an American actor living in Rome, who made a lot of Gladiator movies. He was an inexpensive choice, and the producers wanted him to get the part. Then Fonda, then Coburn, then Bronson, then Eastwood. The interesting thing was that 'The Magnificent Seven' was a very successful movie in Italy, and I guess they picked their way through that film offering part to Coburn and Bronson.

I always thought that Harrison was the last one offered, and he recommended Eastwood to Leone.

No, I don't think so. About 3 people told me what happened in that case. In fact, there was the agency, called William Morris Agency, which had an office in Rome. Leone couldn't find anyone to play this part. So, the woman who ran the William Morris agency in Rome said I've got an episode from the American TV western series 'Rawhide'. It's the episode number 113, called 'Incident of the Black Sheep'. It arrived on film. So they all went to William Morris agency's viewing theatre in Rome. It's one of the episodes where Rowdy Yates had a big part to play because sometimes Eric Flaming had the big part, sometimes Clint Eastwood. In this one Clint Eastwood had the big part. So, they watched and that's what made Leone decide to cast him. It could be possible that Richard Harrison confirmed the choice. I don't know exactly how that connection was.

Were any of the films affected by Van Cleef's drinking problem?

No, I don't think so. Originally, Leone didn't want to cast him in the 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. He thought that everyone would have memories of Colonel Mortimer. He wanted rather different character. 'The Bad' was a younger man with darker hair. He's a very bad man, completely evil. He (Leone) was worried that Colonel Mortimer was really quite a decent man. He avenges his sister. He was worried that no one would believe that Van Cleef was a really really bad guy in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly'. He (Van Cleef) wasn't originally going to play the bad man.

Who was going to play it?

Again, Bronson was offered the part. And, instead, Bronson made the 'Dirty Dozen', which is like the remake of 'The Magnificent Seven' in the Second World War.

There's very a interesting thing about Italian film industry. In America, particularly in the 1960s, you're only as good as your last movie. People come and people go. In Italy everyone remembers. Once a star, always a star. You remember these old timers, American actors. When Hollywood have no use for them, they were making a very good living in Italy. Like Jack Palance, Alan Ladd, all these people. Towards the end of their career, they were still stars in Italy, in Europe. Everyone remembered Van Cleef. I've got a poster from 'High Noon'. The film was reissued in 1968 in Italy. It's strange. It says starring Gary Cooper and Lee Van Cleef with Grace Kelly. And yet he has a walk-on part.

The part given to Tuco developed when they were filming 'The Good The and The Ugly', Leone enjoyed working with Eli Wallach so much that he kept giving him more and more lines. So, the part got bigger and bigger and bigger when they were filming. Eli Wallach completely dominates that film. I mean, Eastwood is like a guest star in that movie. He didn't have much to do. In the beginning he had quite a lot, at the end he got quite a lot, in between it's Eli Wallach's movie. I think maybe there was a bit of tension where Eastwood thought this man is running away with the movie. It's because Leone and Wallach talked a lot. Wallach spoke a little bit of Italian, they talked together and developed the part. I don't think Van Cleef ever had that relationship with Leone where they talk and develop ideas. He came, did his work and went back to his hotel. When he was making those Italian westerns, he had a flat in Rome, a Ferrari, which he bought. He lived quite well in Rome. But, even then he wasn't very well known in America. His career was sad after the spaghetti westerns. He either made American westerns, which are trying to be like Italian westerns, like 'Barquero' or 'Bad Man's River' with James Mason, 'Magnificent Seven Ride', where he plays the Yul Brynner's part, 'Captain Apache'. Bad movies, bad movies. In 'Captain Apache' he even tried to sing the theme song.

What was the real root cause of the break up of the Leone-Eastwood relations around 1966?

I wrote all about it in the book. I won't say too much about it here. But, it was mainly during 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. Firstly, it was the third movie Eastwood made with Leone. He was ambitious. He wanted to make it back home. All were 'Leone' films. He was ambitious to make 'An Eastwood' film. It was the Leone film, where he had the least to do. Eastwood had it enough. He had done three by then. He wanted to become a director and an actor in the States. The details you can find out in the book.

I guess you mean the quarrels in the dubbing studio?

Yes, and other things.

When he started his career in the States again after Leone, was Eastwood paying special attention not to repeat a typical Leone film, like not using Morricone's music, the typical Leone style gundown scenes?

No, I don't think so. Every character he has always played until recently was the variation of the 'Man with No Name' really. He was always a loner, vigilante. It was very new this character in the 60s. Heroes always had relationships, families. Here's the guy, a loner, very tough man. He started off in 'Hang'em High' trying to turn the vigilante into an American character. Then he had the vigilante in the police setting with 'Dirty Harry' in San Francisco. It's like a modern day frontier city. Then he explores giving this man relationships in 'Outlaw Josey Wales' with Sondra Locke and Chief Dan George. This guy keeps getting relationships, that he doesn't want. He's a loner but he picks all up these responsibilities as he goes through the Wild West. So, he tried to get a hold of the character, 'The Man with No Name' and Americanize him throughout his career. Yes he didn't use Ennio Morricone, and he didn't think quite the same was as Leone, although there some little touches in his films similar to Leone. At the end of 'High Plains Drifter', when he rides through the cemetery, you can only just see two gravestones. On them are written Siegel and Leone. There is one press still from that film where you can read them very clearly. He knows he has a debt. And he acknowledged publicly at the end of 'Unforgiven'.

Now that Eastwood has made a long way in his career as a director as well, how do you compare Leone with Eastwood as film makers?

Oh dear, that's a tough question. I think Eastwood is more consistent. Obviously much more productive. Leone's whole career is basicly six movies. It's a tiny career for a film maker. Leone always wanted the big punch, whereas Eastwood has made tiny changes in his movies. The visual approaches were very different. Leone had an incredible eye. He (Leone) loved paintings. He was a collector of paintings. 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' is full of references to Italian paintings, just like in 'A Fistful of Dynamite' he made reference to Goya's 'Masssacre of December 3rd'. Leone showed Tonino Delli Colli the paintings and engravings of Rembrandt before shooting 'Once Upon A Time in The West'. The monocohrome darkness and portraits of faces. Not portraits of aristocrats but ordinary people like his (Rembrandt's) mother, his friends, someone he met in the street. Rembrandt invented the physiological portrait. In that film you can read the person's history on his face.

Another difference between the two is music. Leone and Morricone told me that the music for the last twenty minutes of 'The Good The and The Ugly' was recorded in advance. So, the reason the cemetery scene is so beautifully choreographed, so well cut is because it was actually done to the music. And the same for the duel scene. They were walking in time with the music. It's shot like a rock video. But, on that video tape (Prof.Frayling is referring to an audio interview of Wallach by Bill Shaffer) which you kindly sent me, Wallach says 'No, I've never heard the music'. I don't understand this. There's a mystery here.

Maybe he was referring to the main title theme.

Maybe. Same is true for 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. The music there was also recorded in advance and played on the set while shooting the movie. You see, Leone couldn't speak English. So, what he did was, he created atmospheres for actors. For example, you have a romantic theme playing in the background for Claudia Cardinale. Or, you have that rough theme for the massacre scene. It tells you about characters, you don't need words. So, the music created all the atmospheres for him. There's one moment in that film where the horse was actually trotting in time with the music. It's the scene where Henry Fonda rides back to the train to find Mr.Morton has been killed. It's the trumpet version of the theme. It's incredible. Incidentally, the music here is a parody of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'.

Do you think there was a special reason behind Leone's words on Eastwood during the Pete Hamill interview in 1984?

It became a common thing all the time. Whenever Eastwood was interviewed he said he invented all the good things in these films, and whenever Leone was interviewed he said he invented everything. It was almost like a game between the two. But of course, in 'Once Upon a Time in America', for the first time really, Leone worked with a complete different style of acting with DeNiro. A style of actor, who becomes the person he's playing. DeNiro is a fascinating actor. Never gives interviews, very quiet man, and he just lives the part. During the shooting of Once Upon A Time in America, he walked like an old man. He was wearing an overcoat on set just like old people who do not want to get a cold. So, when Leone gave that interview, he was working with a completely different kind of actor. He had never worked with someone like DeNiro before. And surprisingly, Leone and DeNiro got on incredibly well. His previous experiences of working with that kind of 'psychological' actor was bad. They didn't hit it off at all. I think that interview was given just as Leone was really beginning to appreciate DeNiro's style of acting.

What do major Western film makers, such as John Ford thought about Leone?

There's a signed photograph from John Ford in Leone's office. 'To Sergio Leoni with admiration__John Ford'. Woody Strode got Ford to sign and brought to Leone. They never met in person. But, if you look closely at that photograph, Ford misspelled Leone's name. It says 'Leoni' rather than 'Leone'.

Has John Ford personally seen any of Leone's films?

I doubt it. When I interviewed Fred Zinneman, he'd never seen 'Once Upon A Time in the West'. The next generation coming at that time, who were learning at film schools in the 60s, were completely different. People like Scorsese in New York, Milius in California, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma. It's a whole new generation coming up and they loved Leone. They were showing the last reel of 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly' in film classes. And, it changed their lives. The new generation of youngsters, who grew up living and breathing cinema, for them Leone was the top. Look at the opening scene of 'Close Encounters', straight out of 'Once Upon A Time in The West'. And, when you look at the last reels of Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' and even 'Pulp Fiction', the three way duels, they come out of 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. He's admitted it in interviews. That generation and the more recent generation, Leone was the key influence for action films. But, the old timers, I don't think they knew much about him. Ford was too old by that time. That generation was drifting away from the cinema world.

How about John Wayne? Have you ever heard of Wayne making any comments on Leone's westerns?

No, but 'The Shootist', which is a wonderful movie, was Wayne's last western. By then the westerns weren't that popular in America. There weren't many produced at that particular time. It's quite rare to see a big budget western when 'The Shootist' was made. As Wayne comes out of the distance, the title appears as 'A Dino DeLuarentiis Production'. Wayne's last movie was a spaghetti western. It was produced and financed by an Italian. They couldn't find money in America. So, I don't know what John Wayne thought about Italian westerns, but the Italians financed 'The Shootist', which by the way was a great movie.

How about Peckinpah/Leone debate? I've recently read three books on Peckinpah, and none of them mentioned anything on Leone. What do these men think about each other? - Did they really know each other? - Has Leone really influenced Peckinpah?

Peckinpah said that Leone created the context which made his films possible. He meant by that the new attitude of violence, the Mexican location, the dust, the idea of the 'anti-hero', all that was made possible by the success of Leone's films. So, 'The Wild Bunch' was made possible because of Leone. And Peckinpah admitted it. The two men met in London when Leone was preparing 'A Fistful of Dynamite'. Leone tried to get Peckinpah to direct the film. Peckinpah agreed, but then he went on to make 'Straw Dogs' instead. He (Peckinpah) almost made 'A Fistful of Dynamite'. It would have been very interesting to see the two of them together: 'Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah present'. That would be something. The thing I don't understand about the books on Peckinpah is that, they are all trying make out he was an artist! So, they keep making references to Norman Mailer, or Shakespeare, or Herman Melville. I don't think he was that sort of guy at all. This guy had guts as a film maker. You can tell these films are like going to the pub and have a noisy time with your friends. I mean his films are over the top, but all these books trying to claim that he's got a Phd or something. I just don't understand this. I don't get that from his movies.

(He pauses for a moment, looks at me, and asks) What do you think about 'Once Upon A Time in America'? You never talk about this movie.

Of course I will. I started off chronologically with his westerns, and there are just so many things to talk about them. I was coming on that film. But, since you started talking about it, let's move on to that film.

I have difficulties with this movie. I think bits of it are among the best things Leone did. I think the music is fabulous, of course. The time shift in that film between the different periods, the children growing up in the 20s, becoming successful gangsters in the 30s, and then the 60s, the elderly man coming back. The way he shifts between these three time periods is incredible in that movie. It's so clever the moment where Robert DeNiro is walking along and a frisbee comes over his head and a hand appears, which turns into James Woods' hand picking up a suitcase. It's like that moment in '2001', where the bone turns into a spaceship. 5000 years of human history in two frames of film. It's a brilliant approach. So, visually I think it's fantastic. Technically it's his best film.

Did he create these touches in the post-production or had he thought about them in before the shooting?

No, they were all in the script. In fact the script was very detailed. It's a very detailed and technical script. Much more technical than usual. He loved the technical side of it. He talked with the cinematographers for hours about how we are going to do it, what sort of focus, etc.

The thing which was difficult for me was the sexual politics of the movie, the treatment of women. Something to do with the difference between a Western and a more modern day movie. The things you show in a Western don't affect people because it's in the wild west and we accept certain conventions of the 19th century and so on. But then in the 1930s and 1960s, it's too real. The rape scene in the car is horrible, it's a really nasty piece of film making. And it lasts too long. It's a rare example of Leone losing his control. He normally knew just when to finish a scene. It (the rape scene) goes on much too long. It's a very upsetting scene. OK, it tells you a lot about the movie, the character. This intuitive, romantic gangster, who is obsessed with the girl of his dreams, so he rapes her in the back of the car. But there's something wrong with that scene in my view. It's particularly brutal because it's supposed to be a romantic rape. The whole film is very dark, and melancholy.

Why is that so?

I don't know.

Have you discussed that with Leone?

Yes. He was very touchy about it. He didn't like talking about it. Because a lot of people criticised him. When 'Once Upon A Time in America' opened at the Cannes Film Festival, he had a very bad time. All the women in the audience really didn't like the film. He never had that before. The audience started shouting at him at that scene, saying "how could you do this, it's disgusting". Some even walked out. He was very touchy about this. It's one reason why the last chapter of the book has taken me so long. Because I've seen that film a lot. I've got very deeply in to it now. And I still find it hard to take it. The first five minutes of the film are incredibly violent. It starts with the most brutal scene Leone ever made. You've got three gangsters, baddies, coming in, shooting the girl in her breasts, which does not kill her and they shoot her again. There are bullet holes on the bed. Then, you've got Fat Moe up in the gym. They put the gun inside his mouth. They move towards the left, and shoot the punch bag. You think that they shot him in the head, blood everywhere. It's horrible. Really nasty. And, Leone isn't bloody usually. It's not his style. But, suddenly there's blood everywhere. Ok, it's the Tarantino effect. It shocks you into concentrating. You get really tense. But after that actually there isn't much violence. It's all in that first five minutes. So, it's an odd film. I think, probably, because he was planning it for so long. He started planning that film right after 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. His first version of 'Once Upon A Time in America', as an idea, was evolved in 1967. And, he lived with this project from 1967 through to 1983. And, a lot had changed in the society in that time. Attitudes to women, attitudes to the environment. A lot of things changed and different attitudes arrived. I don't think he changed. He lived with that project for too long. There's something out of time with that film. That's what upset people. He was making a 60s movie in the 80s. And, that's what makes it upsetting. That brutality you get in the 60s, a special kind of cruelty. You know what I mean? There's also another scene in that movie, again involving the woman, played by Elizabeth McGovern. She's become an actress in New York. We are now in the 1960s, and he (Noodles) hasn't met her since the 1930s. She hasn't aged at all. Everyone else has got old. That's the only scene in a Leone film that I've ever watched where the audience was laughing, because they thought it was so bad. He (Leone) was trying to make a point that she was an eternal beauty. In Noodles' eyes she hasn't changed. But it doesn't work. It's a very subtle thing to do that. It just seemed that someone didn't have very good makeup. The audience was laughing. It's an embarrassment in a way. You shouldn't get that in a Leone picture. But, on the other hand, the good things about the movie, the music for it was written seven years before it was filmed. That has to be a record. Leone has put everything into that film. His whole life was in there. He had a heart attack during the battle over the movie. He had his first heart attack when the studio people saw it and decided to cut it down. The American version is completely different. They put it into chronological sequence. They cut out all the time shifts. They start off with the childhood, then 1930s, then the 60s. It's completely different. It's terrible. It's recut by the man who edited 'Police Academy-II'. This masterpiece was butchered. It was too much for Leone. He had his first heart attack. He said to me he was 90% happy with 'Once Upon A Time in the West', and he was 99% happy with 'Once Upon A Time in America'. "Almost perfect" he said, which surprised me.

How long did it take to shoot the film?

They shot it in one year. Actual shooting time. The locations are incredible in that film. The sequence where Noodles takes Elizabeth McGovern for the evening to the restaurant was shot in Venice. The railway station sequence, where McGovern goes off to Hollywood was shot in Paris. The sequence at the begining was shot in Rome. The sequence where Noodles drives the car from the pier into the water was shot in Montreal. The sequence in the lower East side of New York was shot in the lower East side. This movie was shot all over the place. Each time a new crew. Elaborate sort of routine. It must have been incredibly complicated to make.

Was the film made within the promised budget?

It missed by a mile. It costs somewhere in the region of four times as much as they originally thought, then they had to cut out a lot . It was basically planned as10 million Dollars. It costed about 40 million.

Apart from this film, was Leone faithful to his promised budgets?

He was very professional from that point of view. As I say, he had to cut down a lot from 'Once Upon A Time in America'. The film was originally going to open with a different scene. It was a great idea, but it was too expensive. It was to begin with Robert DeNiro in a truck waiting at a level crossing at a railway line, and a train is going by. On the train is a car transporter with all these Ford cars on their way from Detroit to New York, going from right to left. Then a train comes the other way. It's a 1960s train with 1960s cars on their way to Detroit. The camera comes back, and Robert DeNiro is sitting in a 1960s car. In the background, behind the train, in the first part of the scene, it's open fields. And then, as the second train goes by, it's all 1960s housing developments. He was going to do this in one shot. So, the crane was going to start with DeNiro on one side of the tracks. And the crane would go up as the train goes by. Over the top you see the field. The crane comes back and the train is going through. Fantastic idea for a shot. One shot, and then it says 'Once Upon A Time in America'. But it was too complicated and expensive. Instead, you get some rather dull credit titles.

How about his upcoming project about the siege of Leningrad?

That would have been unbelievably expensive. He was going to reconstruct the whole of Leningrad during the siege in the Second World War. It's the story of an American photographer, probably played by Robert DeNiro, and a Russian girl, having an affair. What's interesting about that is you can see in 'Once Upon a Time in America', human relationships are becoming more important to Leone in his films. There's this man desperately in love with this girl, and he changes his entire live. There's an emphasis on personal relationships which you never get in his westerns. The heart of the Leningrad film was to be this love affair. Leone was definitely changing. He was going to be a different kind of movie maker. Relationships, emotions, and characters who develop because of their experiences. You don't get that in the Westerns at all. There, they are icons.

And based on Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, I guess...

Yes. Morricone has rearranged it for the movie. I don't think he recorded it but he scored it. Leone persuaded the money people that this was to be the first Soviet/American/Italian co-production. He was a brilliant theatrical story teller with hand movements and everything. He went to Moscow and told the story in the mid 80s. Remember we were still in the days of the Cold War. He didn't write it, he told the story. He also went to Hollywood and told the story, and came to Italy. As a result, he raised about 100 million dollars without writing a single word of the script. That's an incredible achievement. Just with his sheer personal magnetism, telling the story. But, it was never made. And it never will be.

Was he thinking about making a last western?

Yes he was. You've got to read the book. I have the treatment. His last script. It was to have starred Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke. Two brothers in the American Civil War. One is wearing grey, one is wearing blue.

How about his famous project of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote in modern day?

He was going to make it in the 1960s, and he talked a lot about it, also in the 70s. He came back to talking about it towards the end of his life. It's a great idea, wonderful idea. You can imagine Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza, Clint Eastwood as Don Quixote. That contrast. Loud, noisy, fat, eating, belching, swearing sort of man and the silent, tall knight.

It's all in the book. Also in the book you'll find out the sequences Leone directed in 'My Name is Nobody', and the one sequence he directed in the sequel film to that, called 'Nobody is the Greatest' (a.k.a. The Genius). I can't tell you every thing. You must read the book.

The other thing nobody knows about Leone, which I've gone into, is that he did a lot of work in the 70s. He produced a lot of Italian films. He produced a film called 'The Cat', which is a police thriller. He produced comedies. Morricone did the scores, Baragli did the editing, Tonino Delli Colli did the cinematography, the same team but he was just the producer. He also made many TV advertisements mainly for French television. I've found most of them. When he was preparing for 'Once Upon A Time in America', he was busy. He wasn't inactive, but it is just that he wasn't directing movies. It's that lack of confidence again as well. Every time he made a movie, he was frightened he couldn't do it again. He was afraid that his career would decline in his next film. He was very nervous about it. Leone was timid about making another movie, because he wasn't sure he could do it again. It was really strange, given this enormous talent.

Is there something in Cinecitta about Leone that people can visit?

No, there isn't anything left. In about 1993, there was a big auction in Cinecitta, which is the final part of my book actually, the last page. They sold everything, bits of the sets, bits of the props, all the decors and everything. And, they sold the western Cantina. Maybe it was the one they used in 'For A Few Dollars More'. They even sold the monastery from 'The Name of the Rose'. It was the end of Cinecitta, and the end of a great era in Italian films.

You knew Leone quite closely, even have been at his house. What sort of person was he like at home, in his family life?

Very close family man. He was a very domestic, family man. Very fond of his children, his son and daughters. It's very interesting that his household is full of females, very powerful and beautiful personalities. He always lived in a houseful of females and yet this man made very masculine movies. In fact, his wife Carla once said to me that maybe the reason why he doesn't have many women in his films is because he got too much of them at home. He was also a great collector of antiques, paintings. He had couple of really beautiful 17th century desks. He liked guns and details. His films show it too. He loved taking things to pieces and showing you the details. He was very relaxed person at home, unlike on the sets. He had two houses in Rome. One is his house and his office. The other is near where he grew up. When he died, someone put up a street sign with blue background and white letters, saying 'Rue Sergio Leone' and put it at both ends of the street on the day of his funeral. As the coffin left the house, all the news photographers were filming it, as if the street was named after him. It's a nice touch. At his funeral, there was somebody standing outside the church in Rome, a German student with a placard, which said JOHN FORD IS NOTHING.

The book by Richard Schickel on Clint Eastwood mentions about the meeting of Eastwood and Leone in Rome when Eastwood was there to promote 'Bird'. And, according to the book, Leone knew that he was mortally ill. Was his health so bad at that time?

Yes, he had already had several heart attacks by that time. If you see the photos of Sergio at that time, he looked very different. We are talking about a man, born in 1929. He's in his mid-50s at this stage. I am 50 now, but this man looked like in his 70s by then. You see the photos, and he's grey, pale, he's a little bit hunched. This man looks like an old man. He really does, after 'Once Upon A Time in America'. That film killed him. Most directors leave everything to someone else, like costumes etc. Leone did everything. He got involved so much in all aspects of film making. He didn't look good at all in the photos of these days. He was always overweight.

So, what's going to be the title of your book? Viva Leone?

I can't make up my mind. It's either going to be called 'Viva Leone' or 'Something to do with death - The life and films of Sergio Leone'. I am going to make up my mind in the next month or so.

Are there any messages you would like to convey via your book?

(long pause) I think everyone tends to think that there are two types of cinema. There are art films, shown in film festivals, and there are popular films. And the art films are for the intellectuals, and the popular films are for people who want to have a couple of drinks after the show. One of the biggest thing about his films is that these were films which were very popular that have as much in them as any movie that's been called as an 'art films'. I don't believe in the distinction at all. These are art films. This man is an artist. Everything in them is deliberate, carefully worked out. There's nothing accidental in them. This man is a very special, important film maker. That's the big message I guess. In the book, you'll find out a lot about both the movies and the man who made them. You're gonna find out also how much autobiography there is in these films. There's a lot of Leone's life in these films, that people don't know about. Incidents that happened in his life, memories of his own, which he weaves into the story. You'll find out all about that as well. There's much more than you think. It isn't usual for a Western to be autobiographical, but his were

So, will you release the book in early next year?

Hopefully. It depends on how elaborate the production is.

Is it OK for you that I announce this on Sergio Leone Web Site as well?

Yes sure. You can also say that my 'Spaghetti Westerns' book is about to be reissued. I signed the contract for that last week. I am writing a new introduction to it. It is going to reissued within the next 6 months, with the new cover.

When the Leone book is published, we are hoping to organize a season at the National Film Theatre in London, where we hope to show a lot of Leone's films. Italian Film Archives have been doing a lot of conservation work on the prints of Leone's films, on the original film negatives. We are hoping to show brand new brilliant prints of all these films from the original negatives. We will also show as many of the movies as possible on which Leone was the assistant director, writer, or any movie that had anything to do with Leone. It's going to be huge season. The biggest ever. Simultaneously, there'll be a big Leone exhibition at MOMI (Museum of Moving Image) if all goes well.

It sounds like exciting days are ahead of us.

Hope so. 'Aim for the heart, Ramon'. That's what I say. M

When we are through with the interview, we both realized we got so carried away that, it was already 10:00 pm by then. We both left his office in the Royal College of Art together, and it was apparent from his face that his mind was already occupied with the next day's activities. I thanked him very much for separating this much of time from his busy schedule. What we have talked were already quite interesting. I am kind of anxious to see that bulk of 500 pages. That must be something worth to waiting. We all hope and know that it is.

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