LEONE: “I’m a Hunter by Nature, Not a Prey”
by Pete Hamill
During the filming of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone was generally unavailable for interviews. However, earlier this spring, he found time to talk about his approach to filmmaking. The interview took place in Rome and was translated by Michel De Matteis.
Question: When you were a boy, was there an America in your head?
Sergio Leone: Yes, certainly, as a child, America existed in my imagination. I think America existed in the imaginations of all children who bought comic books, read James Fenimore Cooper and Louisa May Alcott, and watched movies. America is the determined negation of the Old World, the adult world. I lived in Rome, where I was born in 1929, when it was the capital of the imperial Mussolini melodrama— full of lying newspapers, cultural ties with Tokyo and Berlin, and one military parade after another. But I lived in an anti-Fascist family, which was also devoted to the cinema, so I didn’t have to suffer any ignorance. I saw many films.
Anyway, it was mainly after the war that I became decisively enchanted by the things in Hollywood. The Yankee army didn’t only bring us cigarettes, chocolate bars. Am-lire army-issue money, and that peach jam celebrated by Vittorio De Sica in Shoeshine—together with all this, they brought a million films to Italy, which had never been dubbed into Italian. I must have seen three hundred films a month for two or three years straight. Westerns, comedies, gangster films, war stories— everything there was. Publishing houses came out with translations of Hemingway, Faulkner, Hammett, and James Cain. It was a wonderful cultural slap in the face.
And it made me understand that America is really the property of the world, and not only of the Americans, who, among other things, have the habit of diluting the wine of their mythical ideas with the water of the American Way of Life. America was something dreamed by philosophers, vagabonds, and the wretched of the earth way before it was discovered by Spanish ships and populated by colonics from all over the world. The Americans have only rented it temporarily. If they don’t behave well, if the mythical level is lowered, if their movies don’t work any more and history takes on an ordinary, day-to-day quality, then we can always evict them. Or discover another America. The contract can always be withheld.
Question: Your father, Vincenzo Leone, was a film director. How did that affect your first impression of films?
Leone: As a child, I was convinced that my father had invented the cinema himself. I knew that my father was Santa Claus and that, on the other side of the cinematic field, beyond the geometric lines of the screen, great masses of technicians, makeup artists, scene shifters, and hairdressers crowded in. I knew all about electric cables, cameras, microphones, reflectors. It’s probably also because of this that the technical side of my moviemaking is so important. I go to the dubbing room as if I’m going to Mass, and mixage, for me, is the most sacred rite. I think filming itself is fun, especially in Death Valley and under the Brooklyn Bridge, where coyotes cry and ships toot their horns.
But the Moviola is the altar of a voodoo rite. One sits down in front of the console and plays his hand with the heights of the heavens. I always knew that films were made by men and structured like prayers.
Question: Could you describe the arduous process of coming up with a screenplay for Once Upon a Time in America“?
Leone: It was after I made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that the subject of Once Upon a Time in America began to buzz in my ears. I found this book, The Hoods, by Harry Gray, in a Rome bookshop. More than anything else, it was a perfect and loving hymn to the cinema. The story of these Jewish gangsters—unlucky three times over and determined five times over to challenge the gods—attached itself to me like the malediction of the Mummy in the old movie with Boris Karloff. I wanted to make that film and no other.
We began to procure rights to the cinematographic adaptation, which, however, was already in the hands of other film-world hombres. It wasn’t very easy, but we finally managed, with cleverness and many dollars, to rip off the rights from the legitimate holders. That was already the first sign of where things were heading. Then the infernal screenplay-writing season began. Norman Mailer was among the first to work on it. He barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with a box of cigars, his typewriter, and a bottle of whiskey. But, I’m sorry to say, he only gave birth to a Mickey Mouse version. Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for movies.
Mysterious arguments within the production cropped up—material problems and supernatural problems, metaphysical mess-ups of every type—and each successive screenplay came out inferior to the concept. And then, a long time after I had willingly gone over to the enemy—that is, to the production side—there was this meeting with Arnon Milchan, who, before dedicating himself to cinematographic production, must have been employed as an exorcist at some Gothic cathedral. The fact is that everything, from one moment to the next, began to take form. Leo Benvenuti and Stuart Kaminsky, the detective writer and the film devotee, miraculously concluded the screenplay, the sun shone again in the sky and away we all went to the great adventure. We worked solidly for two years straight and we finally reached port, it seems to me, with banners waving in the wind and the crew intact.
Question: You seem to be fascinated with American myths, first the myth of the West, now that of the gangster. Why is this?
Leone: I am not fascinated, as you say, by the myth of the West, or by the myth of the gangster. I am not hypnotized, like everyone east of New York and west of Los Angeles, by the mythical notions of America. I’m talking about the individual, and the endless horizon—El Dorado. I believe that cinema, except in some very rare and outstanding cases, has never done much to incorporate these ideas. And if you think about it, America itself has never made much of an effort in that direction either. But there is no doubt that cinema, unlike political democracy, has done what it can. Just consider Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Scarface, or Rio Bravo. I love the vast spaces of John Ford and the metropolitan claustrophobia of Martin Scorsese, the alternating petals of the American daisy. America speaks like fairies in a fairy tale: “You desire the unconditional, then your wishes are granted. But in a form you will never recognize.” My moviemaking plays games with these parables. I appreciate sociology all right, but I am still enchanted by fables, especially by their dark side. I think, in any case, that my next film won’t be another American fable. But I say that here and I deny it here, too.
Question: Why does the Western seem to be dead as a movie genre? Has the gangster film taken its place?
Leone: The Western isn’t dead, either yesterday or now. It’s really the cinema—alas!—that’s dying. Maybe the gangster movie, in contrast to the Western, enjoys the precarious privilege of not having been consumed to the bones by the professors of sociological truth, by the schoolteachers of demystification ad nauseam. To make good movies, you need a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of goodwill. And you need twice as much of it today as you needed yesterday. And the old golden vein, in California’s movieland, where these riches once glistened so close to the surface, unfortunately seems almost completely dried up now. A few courageous miners insist on digging still, whimpering and cursing television, fate, and the era of the spectaculars which impoverished the world’s studios. But they are dinosaurs, delivered to extinction.
Question: What was it that you saw in Clint Eastwood that no one in America had seen at that time?
Leone: The story is told that when Michelangelo was asked what he had seen in the one particular block of marble, which he chose among hundreds of others, he replied that he saw Moses. I would offer the same answer to your question—only backwards. When they ask me what I ever saw in Clint Eastwood, who was playing I don’t know what kind of second-rate role in a Western TV series in 1964, I reply that what I saw, simply, was a block of marble.
Question: How would you compare an actor like Eastwood to someone like Robert De Niro?
Leone: It’s difficult to compare Eastwood and De Niro. The first is a mask of wax. In reality, if you think about it, they don’t even belong to the same profession. Robert De Niro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else might put on his coat, naturally and with elegance, while Clint Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armor and lowers the visor with a rusty clang. It’s exactly that lowered visor which composes his character. And that creaky clang it makes as it snaps down, dry as a martini in Harry’s Bar in Venice, is also his character. Look at him carefully. Eastwood moves like a sleepwalker between explosions and hails of bullets, and he is always the same—a block of marble. Bobby, first of all, is an actor. Clint, first of all, is a star. Bobby suffers, Clint yawns.
Question: Does it surprise you that an actor could become president of the United States? Should it have been a director?
Leone: I’ll tell you, very frankly, that nothing surprises me any more. It wouldn’t even surprise me to read in the newspapers that a president of the United States, for a change, had become an actor. I wouldn’t be able to hide my surprise if all he did was take on worse films than those done by certain actors who became presidents of the United States. Anyway, I don’t know many presidents, but I do know too many actors. So I know with certainty that actors are like children— trusting, narcissistic, capricious. Therefore, for the sake of symmetry, I imagine presidents, too, are like children. Only a child who became an actor and then a president, for example, could seriously believe that The Day After concealed who knows what new yellow peril.
A director, if possible, would be the least adapted of any to be president. I can picture him more as the head of the Secret Service. He would move the pawns and they would dance, accordingly, to the end, to produce, if nothing else, a good show. If the scene works, great. Otherwise, you redo it. Old Yuri Andropov, if he had been a director instead of a cop, would have enjoyed greater professional satisfaction and— who knows?—he might have lived longer.
Question: Most of your films are very masculine. Do you have anything against women?
Leone: I have nothing against women, and, as a matter of fact, my best friends are women. What could you be thinking? I tolerate minorities. I respect and kiss the hand of the majorities, so you can just about imagine then how I genuflect three or four times before the image of the other half of the heavens. I even, imagine this, married a woman, and, besides having a wretch of a son, I also have two women as daughters. So if women have been neglected in my films, at least up until now, it’s not because I’m misogynist, or chauvinist. That’s not it. The fact is, I’ve always made epic films and the epic, by definition, is a masculine universe.
The character played by Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West seems a decent female character to me. If I can say so, she was a fairly unusual and violent character. At any rate, for a couple of years now. I’ve been harboring the notion of a movie about a woman. Every evening, before going to sleep. I rummage over in my mind a couple of not bad story ideas for it. But either out of prudence or superstition— as is only human, and even too human, I prefer not to talk about it now. I remember that once in 1966 or ’67, I spoke with Warren Beatty about my project for a film on American gangsters and, a few weeks later, he announced that he would produce and star in Bonnie and Clyde. All these coincidences and visions disturb me.
Question: How do you think you fit among the Italian and other European directors? Which directors do you admire? Which are overrated?
Leone: Yes. without a doubt, I, too, occupy a place in cinema history. I come right after the letter L in the director’s repertory, in fact a few entries before my friend Mario Monicelli and right after Alexander Korda, Stanley Kubrick, and Akira Kurosawa, who signed his name to the superb Yojimbo, inspired by an American detective novel, while I was inspired by his film in the making of A Fistful of Dollars. My producer [on that film] wasn’t all that bright. He forgot to pay Kurosawa for the rights, and Kurosawa would certainly have been satisfied with very little and so, afterwards, my producer had to make him rich, paying him millions in penalties. But that’s how the world goes. At any rate, that is my place in cinema history. Down there, between the K’s and the M’s generally to be found somewhere between pages 250 and 320 of any good filmmakers directory. If I’d been named Antelope instead of Leone, I would have been number one. But I prefer Leone; I’m a hunter by nature, not a prey.
To get to the second part of the question, I have a great love for the young American and British directors. I like Fellini and Truffaut. However, I’m not an expert on overrating. You should ask a critic—the only recognized experts on over-, under-, or tepid ratings. The critic is a public servant, and he doesn’t know who he’s working for.
Question: Which comes first: the writer or director?
Leone: The director comes first. Writers should have no illusions about that. But the writer comes second. Directors, too, should have no illusions about that.
Question: What advice would you have for young people who want to be directors?
Leone: I would say, read a lot of comic books, watch TV often, and, above all, make up your minds that cinema is not just something for snobs, other moviemakers, and the mothers of petulant critics. A successful movie communicates with the lowbrow and the highbrow public alike. Otherwise, it’s like a hole without the doughnut around it.
Question: F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Action is character.” Do you agree?
Leone: The truth is that I am not a director of action, as, in my view, neither was John Ford. I’m more a director of gestures and silences. And an orator of images. However, if you really want it. I’ll declare that I agree with old F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often say myself that action is character. But it’s true that, to be more precise, I say, “Ciack! Action and character, please.” Certainly we must mean the same thing. At other times—for example when I’m at the dinner table—I sometimes say, “Ciack! Let’s eat. Pass the salt.”
Question: When you’re not making movies, what do you do?
Leone: I will confess that since I was a child, when no one dreamed of asking me these questions, I always imagined I would respond with a preemptory and dry “Stop right there! Nothing doing. I won’t even hear of it. My privacy is sacred and I have no intention of putting it on display in the piazza just for the amusement of nosy journalists like you.” I try, every time, but then they shame me like a dog and I end up admitting all the horrible truth. That is, the following: that I sunbathe, go to the movies and to the stadium, think about my next films, read books and screenplays, meet friends, go on vacation sometimes, play chess and hang around the house irritating my family with, what’s worse, superfluous observations. I’m very fond of my family, as all Italians are, including Lucky Luciano and Don Vito Corleone, but I wouldn’t know how to talk to them. They say they put up with me, but the truth is that I put up with them.
Question: Now that you’ve finished Once Upon a Time in America, are you able to step back and assess the film?
Leone: Once Upon a Time in America is my best film, bar none—I swear—and I knew that it would be from the moment I got Harry Gray’s book in my hand. I’m glad I made it, even though during the filming I was as tense as Dick Tracy’s jaw. It always goes like that. Shooting a film is awful, but to have made a movie is delicious.
American Film, June 1984, pp. 23-25