Sergio Leone Web Board

Films of Sergio Leone => Once Upon A Time In America => Topic started by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:14:29 PM

Title: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:14:29 PM
In trying to figure out what happened in -- and to -- Once Upon a Time in America, I started fishing through the IMDb, looking for clues that would give insight into the film’s long writing process. I can’t say that this long post (Warning: Really Long) answers any of my questions, but I did find what I think is some interesting stuff. Read it if you’re interested.

Besides Leone, IMDb lists five other writers for the project, plus one more who went uncredited. That’s not counting the pseudonymous Harry Grey, who wrote the source novel “The Hoods”. This is, it need hardly be said, an unusually large group, and that could account for some of its shifts in tone, and what I see as its gaps in continuity. For such a large team, it’s remarkable that except for OUATIA, I don’t see any films that any of them wrote in English. (“Additional Dialog” writer Stuart Kaminsky does have a few other English-language writing credits; there’s one more if you count him.)

The writing team’s other credits show that they represented very different sensibilities. Leonardo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi were a team that wrote mainly popular Italian comedies, most without much pretense to high Art. By contrast, Enrico Medioli wrote a number of art-house epics up through the mid-70’s for director Luschino Visconti. The much younger Franco Ferrini wrote logic-defying horror thrillers for cult director Dario Argento. The uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi was the only one with experience in the gangster genre, and the only one who had previously worked with Leone, but he also had the least distinguished career overall.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Franco Arcalli hangs over the script, seeming to cast “The Curse of 1900” over the production.

Title: The OUATIA Writers, Part 1
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:16:29 PM
Part 1:
Franco Arcalli and “The Curse of 1900
I can’t find a date of birth for Franco Arcalli, who died in 1978, six years (!) before the release of OUATIA. His first film credit is from 1963, so he either took up filmmaking late, or died on the young side. Credited as co-writer on OUATIA, Arcalli was better known through his career as a film edtor. He did his most noteworthy work with director Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist). However, he did receive a writing credit for Bertolucci’s epic film 1900 (1976), which he also edited.

The history of the film 1900 will sound eerily familiar to fans of OUATIA. Most obviously, it stars Robert De Niro, then fresh off his breakout roles in The Godfather Part 2 (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976). Tracing 45 years in the lives of two men born just after the turn of the century, 1900 dramatizes the class politics that tore Italy apart. Alfredo (De Niro) is a wealthy padrone who finds himself aligned with the fascists, while his boyhood friend Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), is a peasant turned socialist agitator.

Like OUATIA, 1900 is famous for the epic battle over its editing. The original director's cut of the film ran 311 minutes -- a little over five hours. Alberto Grimaldi, the film's producer, would not accept this cut. Bertolucci originally wanted to release the film in 2 parts (!), but Grimaldi refused. Locking Bertolucci out of the editing room, Grimaldi assembled a three-hour version. Bertolucci, horrified at Grimaldi's cut, decided to compromise. He cut the film to 255 minutes, and this was the version that was initially released in America. In 1991 the film was restored to its original length, and given a limited release. While the original U.S. release received mixed reviews, with many critics commenting on how choppy and difficult to follow it appeared due to many scenes having been cut, critics who saw the restored version consider it a vast improvement. Change the names and numbers a bit, and you’ve got story of OUATIA all over again, if by “again” you mean “eight years earlier.”

Some side notes: A couple of similarly troubled projects featured De Niro and other alumni of 1900 or OUATIA. Grimaldi was later the producer of another long-delayed film, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002, but in pre-production since at least 1978). Scorsese originally wanted De Niro in the lead role eventually taken by Leonardo di Caprio, and later Scorsese considered De Niro for the villain played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

De Niro and OUATIA producer Arnon Milchan followed up OUATIA with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), yet another film legendary for studio power struggles over its editing. Though Gilliam’s original cut was a relatively short 142 minutes, Universal studio head Sid Sheinberg re-cut Brazil to an infamous 96-minute happy-ending version that was never released theatrically, but was broadcast on syndicated television. These struggles are documented in the book “The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut” by Jack Mathews, and in the 3-disc Criterion DVD release.

Title: The OUATIA Writers: Part 2
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:20:09 PM
Part 2:
Leonardo Benvenuti and
Piero De Bernardi

Leonardo Benvenuti (born 1923) and Piero De Bernardi (born 1926) were a long-standing team, with more than 100 writing credits listed together on IMDb. According to IMDb, De Bernardi claims that he worked on OUATIA for about 12 years (!); presumably that would apply to Benvenuti as well. Curiously, considering OUATIA’s violence and dark themes, their work tended toward episodic light comedy. Three of their most popular films, and one notable stinker, are:

Fantozzi (White Collar Blues, 1975, IMDb User Rating: 8.3)

Starring: Paolo Villaggio

A comedy based on Paolo Villaggio's books "Fantozzi" and "Il secondo, tragico Fantozzi", which are popular in Italy. This film tells the story of the life of the most unfortunate Ragioniere (accountant) in Italy - Ugo Fantozzi, played by author Paolo Villaggio. He undergoes a variety of bad experiences over the course of one year, partly due to his lack of common sense. A bad camping trip, a hellish office party on New Year's Eve, having too many drinks and burping in the open, resulting in an avalanche. He works at an Italian office megacompany and ends up beating his shift leader at pool, thanks to a bit of discipline from a stern instructor. [Summary by Stefano Pavone.]

This spawned a long series of sequels that gradually (and literally) ran the character into the ground:
Il Secondo tragico Fantozzi (The Second, Tragic Fantozzi, 1976, 7.9)
Fantozzi contro tutti (Fantozzi Against the Wind, 1980, 7.0)
Fantozzi subisce ancora (Fantozzi Still Gets By[?], 1983, 6.1) For some reason IMDb has no writing credit listed for this particular one.
Superfantozzi (1986, 6.3)
Fantozzi va in pensione (Fantozzi Goes into Retirement[?], 1988, 5.8 )
Fantozzi alla riscossa (Fantozzi to the Rescue[?], 1990, 5.2)
Fantozzi in paradiso (Fantozzi in Heaven, 1993, 4.8 )
Fantozzi - Il ritorno (Fantozzi - The Return, 1996, 4.8 )

A [?] indicates my best guess at the English translation of an Italian title; the guesses are probably as good as one would expect, considering I speak no Italian at all.

The films in this series sound like silly fun with a slow leak, somewhat along the lines of The Pink Panther.


Amici miei (My Friends, 1975, 8.4)

Starring: Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret, Gastone Moschin, Adolfo Celi, Duilio DelPrete

Four friends keep their friendship alive and their Tuscan town lively by means of an endless series of practical jokes and pranks of various sorts. Perozzi (Noiret) works on the night desk of a newspaper, reporting on crime. Mascetti (Tognazzi), an aristocrat, has seen better days. They are joined in mischief by Melandri (Moschin) and Necci (DelPrete), an architect and a cafe-owner by profession respectively. When the town doctor (Celi) manages to outwit the collective efforts of the four, he is soon invited to join their little club. The rhythms of life in a cheerful provincial town are effectively unveiled in this zany and affectionate film. [Summary by Clarke Fountain, All Movie Guide]

Another successful comedy, followed by sequels:
Amici miei atto II (All My Friends Part 2, 1982, 8.0)
Amici miei atto III (All My Friends Part 3, 1985, 5.8 )

This time it seems they knew when to quit. The first two in this series, like the first two Fantozzi films, appear to be well-loved in Italy. [The first at least exists as a Region 2 DVD, but I don’t see any mention of English subtitles.]


Matrimonio all'italiana (Marriage Italian-Style, 1964, 7.3)

Starring: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni

Domenico, a successful businessman, with an eye for the girls, begins an affair with Filumena when she is 17 years old. She becomes a prostitute, but also becomes the mistress of Domenico. He eventually sets her up in an apartment, and she works for him in his various businesses. She secretly bears three children, who are raised by nannies. Domenico starts planning to marry a young employee. Filumena tricks him into marriage by pretending to be dying. Domenico annuls the marriage. Filumena then tells him of the three children. She says that one of the children belongs to Domenico, but will not say which one is his. You start to believe that all of the children could be his, and Domenico then marries Filumena again, this time willingly. [Summary by Steve Jordan {}]


Il Petomane (The Petomaniac, 1983, 4.8 )

Just prior to the release of OUATIA, De Bernardi was credited (without Benvenuti, but alongside another OUATIA hand, Enrico Medioli) as writer for Il Petomane (1983). This obscure film stars with Ugo Tognazzi in the real-life story of a French man who was able to control his own farts. (No joke!) Good luck finding this one. This true story was included in Ricky Jay’s wonderful book about unique performers, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women”. Recommended! (The book, I mean.)

Title: The OUATIA Writers: Part 3
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:21:47 PM
Part 3:   
Enrico Medioli

Born in 1925, Medioli worked on Luschino Visconti’s final film, The Innocent (1976, 7.3) with Jennifer O'Neill. After Visconti’s death Medioli’s career declined in the late 70s and early 80’s, Exhibit A being the previously mentioned Il Petomane (1983). Much earlier are three of his best-remembered films, all also directed by Visconti:

Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960, 8.2)

Starring: Alain Delon

The widow Rosaria moves to Milano from Lucania with her four sons, one of whom is Rocco. The fifth son, Vincenzo, already lives in Milano. In the beginning, the family has a lot of problems, but everyone manages to find something to do. Simone is boxing, Rocco works in a dry cleaners, and Ciro studies. Simone meets Nadia, a prostitute, and they have a stormy affair. Then Rocco, after finishing his military service, begins a relationship with her. A bitter feud ensues between the two brothers, which will lead as far as murder. [Summary written by Kornel Osvart {}]

The theme of competition among brothers, leading to murder, resonates strongly with OUATIA. Recommended to fans of OUATIA, who have proven their patience with long films.


Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963, 8.0)

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon

Sicily in the 1800s. Prince Salina, a great landowner, has to watch the decrease of his power and influence after 'Il Risorgimento', the unification of Italy. The upper classes try to ignore the nationalist movements and the prince is uncertain of his own feelings. [Summary written by Mattias Thuresson {}]


La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969, 8.0)

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling

In the early days of Nazi Germany, a powerful noble family must adjust to life under the new regime. The transition from democracy to dictatorship is dramatized through the lives of the family which also owns a powerful German industrial firm. Through such characters as a German Baron, a child molester, a Nazi Storm Trooper, an innocent man framed for murder, and a Captain in the German SS, The Damned shows how so-called "German Upper Class Nobility" first resented Adolf Hitler, then accepted him, and at last embraced him. [Summary written by Anthony Hughes {}]

Title: The OUATIA Writers: Part 4
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:23:14 PM

Part 4:
Franco Ferrini

Born in 1944 (a very significant generation later than most of his OUATIA collaborators), Franco Ferrini is a writer best known for his collaborations with Italian exploitation-horror director Dario Argento; they are still collaborating as of 2005. (Argento, in on of his moments of relative sanity, co-wrote the story for Once Upon a Time in the West, with Leone and… Bernardo Bertolucci! How inbred is the world of Italian cinema!)

The films of Ferrini and Argento appear to provoke love-them-or-hate-them reactions. I have not seen any, and from the descriptions below, they really do not look like they would be my cup of tea. However, Argento’s fans -- and there are many -- point to his brilliance as a “visual” director. Here are three of their best-regarded credits:

Phenomena (Creepers, 1985, 6.7)

Plot Outline: A young girl, with an amazing ability to communicate with insects(!), is transferred to an exclusive Swiss boarding school, where her unusual capability might help solve a string of murders.

Starring: Jennifer Connelly (!) as Jennifer Corvino (!)


Opera (Terror at the Opera, 1987, 7.2)

Plot Outline: A young opera singer is stalked by a deranged fan bent on killing the people associated with her to claim her for himself.


Dèmoni (Demons, 1985, 6.1)

Plot Outline: A group of people are trapped in a large West Berlin movie theater infected by ravenous demons, who proceed to kill and posses the humans one-by-one, thereby multiplying their numbers.

Argento did not direct this one, but he co-wrote it with Ferrini.

Title: The OUATIA Writers: Part 5
Post by: Don Rogers on December 05, 2006, 05:26:13 PM
Part 5:
Ernesto Gastaldi (uncredited)

Oddly, none of OUATIA’s credited writers have much of a track record of working in the crime genre. That cannot be said of the uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi, who wrote an extensive list of Italian-language genre films, including many crime films. (Along with Western, gladiators, call girls, pirates, Mongol hordes, war, witches -- there appears to be no “B” genre that he has not worked in.) If he was not a great screenwriter, or even a good one, he at least kept himself busy.

His most notable credit for Leone fans is Il mio nome è Nessuno (My Name Is Nobody, aka Lonesome Gun, 1973) with Henry Fonda and Terence Hill, which would appear to be a blatant Leone knockoff, except that Leone himself supplied the story. That is not to say that Gastaldi was above ripping off Leone, or anyone else.

Among his list of credits, remarkable more for its sheer size than for its contribution to world cinema, are these (mostly) crime films:

Crimine contro crimine (Crime against Crime[?], 1998)
L’assassino è ancora tra noi (The Killer Is Still Among Us, 1986)
Pizza Connection (The Sicilian Connection, 1985)
Assassinio al cimitero etrusco (Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery, 1982)
Notturno con grida (Outcry in the Night[?], 1981)
Il Cinico, l'infame, il violento (The Cynic, the Rat & the Fist, 1977) Note the Leone echo in the title.
Un Genio, due compari, un pollo (A Genius, Two Friends, and an Idiot, aka Trinity Is Back Again, 1975)
La città sconvolta: caccia spietata ai rapitori (Kidnap Syndicate, 1975)
La Pupa del gangster (Get Rita, 1975)
Milano trema - la polizia vuole giustizia (Violent Professionals, 1973)
Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (Blade of the Ripper, 1971)

Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: Juan Miranda on December 05, 2006, 06:19:41 PM
An admirable piece of research. It is worth noting too that Leone had a habit of frequently falling out disasterously with his writers, and almost all of them are on record making dismissive remarks about Leone's intellect. He also worked with 5 different writers on OUATITW, though without dragging out my Frayling I can't remember that picture's gestation time.

Certainly his never made Leningrad film had an immense pre-production period. However, none of this is really in the least bit unusual for film makers of that era. Fellini announced regularly the same roster of productions he was "shooting next" for some two decades, only one of which had ever began principle photography (but then closed as he lost his nerve and then collapsed and almost died from a rare illness).

Kubrick spoke for years of his NAPOLEON, and had made serious pre-production plans, only to give up his dream after WATERLOO.

For almost 20 years Tarkovsky claimed that his next film would be either HAMLET or THE WITCH. He eventually did complete a version of the latter, his last movie, as THE SACRIFICE.

Even in mainstream Hollywood today it's not unusual for a script for fairly mundane, no brainers to pass through the hands of many writers and polishers. However complicated union rules dictate that only (I think I'm right in remembering this) the last two writers paid to work on the script may be credited, and even then this can be contested. Therefor the origional writer may not be credited at all.

Back to ...AMERICA, I think the long wait meant we are left with a much better film for it. Through the accidents and vagaries of studio accounting we have an epic from the older and seemingly wiser Leone close to the end of his life (just like the entire cast of characters in the film), than the grumpy, impatient, angry younger Leone of the early 1970's.
Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: dave jenkins on December 07, 2006, 08:59:09 AM
I agree that this is an excellent piece of research. However, the question remains, Did the people credited with the creation of the screenplay "write" OUATIA, or did Sergio Leone? This is a vexed question, not easily answered, and I don't propose to go into it here. However, having looked over authorship issues on other films (especially Vertigo), I know that for certain directors the primary purpose of a screenwriter is to act as a sounding board for the filmmaker's ideas. I suggest that something of that case was operating in the gestation of OUATIA. Even in the years it was being "written" SL was telling the story of the film repeatedly. I don't say it didn't change in the telling, but those changes were (chiefly) the product of the teller.

Special mention, however, needs to be made of Stuart Kaminsky's contribution. Given the weird way SL credited people on his films, it is not always apparent that the writer of "additional dialogue" was often the most important contributor SL's scripts. There was a reason SL chose a NY crime fiction writer to collaborate with: he wanted authentic dialogue for his characters. But SL was better served than perhaps even he had imagined. In another thread I briefly mention how the very first scene of the film is immeasurably deepened by a single line of dialogue. I am confident that that line was supplied by Mr. Kaminsky, one contribution of genius amongst a multitude.
Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: Don Rogers on December 08, 2006, 11:47:11 AM
[Note: "mathewviola" posted this response on the IMDb board. I'm reposting it here because IMDb postings tend to disappear after a few months, and I think this one is the exception, knowledgeable and insightful enough to deserve a better fate.]

If you're interested, Christopher Frayling's exhaustive Leone biography, Something to do With Death, goes into the film's screenplay writing history in some detail. Some interesting tidbits:

1) Norman Mailer wrote the first draft, but was rejected by Leone as a "Mickey Mouse version." Thereafter, Leone decided to use Italian screenwriters, telling them "don't write a history of gangsterism, but look at its mythology as seen through European eyes."

2) Leone used a team of screenwriters to cover the different periods. Benvenuti and De Bernardi worked on the childhood section. Medioli worked on the 1933 Prohibition section. And Arcalli (until his death in 1978) was employed to assist with the time-shifts. According to Frayling, "Arcalli contributed to the cutting and shaping of Leone's gangster treatment. Since the story involved several time-shifts, Leone valued Arcalli's uncommon understanding of editing time and visual memory. He would provide the basic structure, not so much as a writer, but more as an improvisor who could talk for hours and suggest ideas as they came to him. According to Medioli, Arcalli produced 'the crux of the film' in precisely this way."

3) Leone wanted Medioli because of his twenty-hour television script for Visconti based on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. According to Frayling, Medioli's involvement helped to create a "remembrance of crimes past." He points out that Noodles' comment about "been goin' to bed early" is "an unmistakable echo of the celebrated first line of the overture to Swann's Way.

4) Ferrini was called in to polish the "definitive script" and apparently thought of the swapping of the children scene.

5) Kaminsky was called in to turn the dialogue into more convincing American -English. According to Benvenuti, "Kaminsky was a strict Jew and didn't like it when De Niro said to McGovern that in prison he used to masturbate while reading The Song of Songs! No! Never! yelled Kaminsky and it was changed."

6) According to Frayling, "The scriptwriters had structured the entire modern section of the story as if it was Citizen Kane retold as a gangster epic."

7) Interestingly, both Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, screenwriting colloborators with Leone on previous films, ridiculed the idea that Noodles could vanish without a trace and that Max could turn up later as a prominent politician. However, according to Frayling, "Leone had derived a wealth of background material from Murder, Inc., a 500-page expose written by former Assistant District Attorney Burton Turkus and first published in 1951. From this he gleaned that it was at least possible, if very difficult, to evade both the vengeance of The Combination and the investigations of the FBI." Frayling also concludes that "it was possible, after all, for a senior political figure to cover his tracks."

8 ) It seems clear that Leone did favor the opium dream interpretation. Frayling writes: "Noodles' betrayal and retreat into the opium den were always at the heart of the story, and in the script of 1981 the possibility is already there that the entire saga may have taken place in Noodles' head at that precise moment. This could explain why so few people in the 1968 section seemed to have moved on from where they were in 1933; and why Noodles simply interacts in the future with the people he already knew in the past. It is as if time really did stand still when the grandfather clock stopped, only to be reactivated by the man who brought back the key. Of course, if the 1968 sequnces are projections of Noodles' imagination, then how to explain the television set, the cars and so on?"

For what it's worth, Leone's answer: "Opium can create visions of the future. As far as I'm concerned, it is possible that Noodles never leaves 1933. Maybe this is the first time a film has actually finished on a flashback. It could all have been a journey of the imagination."

Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: cigar joe on December 08, 2006, 03:48:28 PM
Of course, if the 1968 sequnces are projections of Noodles' imagination, then how to explain the television set, the cars and so on?"

Well, what else are you going to use as "touchstones" to define where you are in time without actually spelling it out somehow, if he had used Buck Rodgers looking space ships, which may have been more plausible for a 1933 vison of the future it would have been a bit ridiculous no? If you kept the autos and clothes the same we wouldn't know we were in a future time.  :-\
Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: SimRob on January 02, 2007, 05:04:15 AM
Please, let's not turn this into another debate about the dream theory!

Getting back to the writers: according to the Frayling biography, Gastaldi only came up with the opening credits sequence that was never filmed: a car dirving into the sea and then the camera showing stuff at the bottom of the ocean. so that'll be why Gastaldi doesn't get a credit.

Medioli, Arcalli,  and then Benvenuti and De Bernardi and then Ferrini - in that order - worked on the script in the 1970s. It was pretty much completed by 1976. It was only in 1981 when suddenly the film was going to actually be made that Kaminsky was brought in for the dialogue.

And then after that, its difficult to tell from Frayling what happened, but he seems to say that the Benvenuti and DeBernadi team worked on the script some more adn so did Medioli. In one cryptic passage, Frayling says that Leone attributed to Benvenuti the 'miraculous conclusion of the screenplay.' Whether this means Benvenuti put the fninishing touches to it so it was completed, or Benvenuti actually came up with the ending (the smile/ the grabage truck?) is unclear.

Though it can't mean the idea of Max still being alive, because that was in the script from early on. It came when Leone and Medioli visited Harry Grey in New York in the 1970s. Apparently Grey told them that even though in 'The Hoods' Grey had written that Max had been killed, he (Grey) actually knew that Max was still alive. Max had even contacted him wanting to do some more hold-ups! Leone must have liked the idea of a grand deception and put it in the script.

Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: SimRob on January 02, 2007, 05:12:16 AM
oh, and one other thing. My impression from Frayling and other sources is that Kaminsky's contribution was more than the 'additional dialogue' credit gives him. i guess they wanted to indicate that he only did dialogue and not story, but it seems he did so much of it that he should've been given equal credit as writer.
Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: Noodles_SlowStir on June 08, 2008, 11:13:41 AM
Stuart Kaminsky will be attending the 2008 International Mystery Writer's Festival this month in Owensboro, KY.  He'll take part in various book signings and panel discussions.  In addition, the festival has scheduled the world premiere of his Sherlock Holmes play The Final Curtain, and also showing clips of OUATIA in which Kaminsky will participate in a Q&A about the film.  The OUATIA event will be on June 18th.  I wish I was down or near Kentucky just for that. 

Here's an interview in which he talks mostly about Holmes, theater and mystery.

This is link to the Festival.  As an aside, Gene Hackman is going to be there.  Apparently he's written a novel with a cowriter on Andersonville.  The novel is called Escape From Andersonville: A Novel Of The Civil War

Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: moviesceleton on June 10, 2008, 03:38:38 AM
Anyone from Kentucky?
Title: Re: The OUATIA Writers
Post by: cigar joe on June 10, 2008, 08:50:03 PM
BTW is close I think.