A Fable for Adults
by Elaine Lomenzo
They asked Claude Lelouch which American director he likes the most and he says. “Sergio Leone!”—Sergio Leone
It’s a warm, sunny March day at Cinecittà, and the film Sergio Leone has been trying to make for ten years is now in the final days of shooting. Leone hovers over an editing table, absorbed in the action on the screen, with his producer, assistants, and interpreter at his side. The battle with his North American distributor, The Ladd Company, is at this moment not even a cloud on the Rome horizon. For now Leone can toil to make his $45-million dream come true.
Once Upon a Time in America is based loosely on a book called The Hoods, written by Harry Goldberg under the pseudonym Harry Grey. In this autobiographical novel Goldberg recalls his experiences in the Prohibition Era, and attempts to explode the romanticized image of Gangsterism given us by Hollywood. After long talks with Goldberg, Leone began to translate into cinematic proportions the ways in which certain myths take precedence over reality.
As we enter Leone’s favorite trattoria, you know this man has presence. Four maitre d’s greet us, and walking past the antipasto table, Leone nonchalantly samples each dish with his chubby fingers. On his way out, Federico Fellini, paying tribute to Leone’s reputed appetite, presents a caricature drawn on a linen napkin of Leone with spaghetti spilling out of his mouth. Only now, in this more comfortable environment, does Leone begin to talk about the genesis of Once Upon a Time in America, his preoccupation with American style and myth, and the indefinable dangerousness that instantly characterizes the American actor, setting him apart from all others.
You’ve been shooting this film for six months, and you are now in the early stages of editing. Are you satisfied with your material? Is the “fun” part over or is it just beginning?
The fun part is with the first idea; the “idea” is forming a stage. Editing is the true making of the film. But here is where the doubt surfaces—which kills all the fun.
This film is the first you’ve made after ten years. Does this create a pressure on you to continue in a style similar to your famous westerns?
This question of style, it is something indecipherable. Style comes on its own; it’s part of you, part of all your experiences. The minute you try to change “styles” means that you are going to go into mannerisms or something that has nothing to do with your own vision of the world. Style has to do with that particular vision of how things are. Cinematically speaking, style means your own personal way of telling a story. It can be applied in telling a story about a cowboy or gangster or anyone.
For example, any good assistant to any good director has to be light years away from his maestro, from his director. If you imitate him 100 percent, you don’t become anything but an imitation of the man you’ve worked with.
Sure, but you can recognize a master’s influences and still draw on your own resources.
That’s true, but it comes on its own, afterward. When you’re taken with somebody’s style, you might consciously or unconsciously imitate it. That’s the thing to avoid, because the minute you do that out of an admiration for style you become a bad copy of the original. And so a good first assistant is better off if he works with bad directors, because he somehow maintains himself, learns all the other things, and comes out with his own style. Bad directors amplify your own sense of imagination. Above all, they give you a sense of limitation in that you know what you shouldn’t do. On the other hand, you can have an experience next to a director you love very much but to avoid becoming his bad copy, you have to get away and do your own expression.
What is it about the myth of the Epic-West and now the East of Jewish gangsters that fascinates you so? After 20 years of filmmaking, you draw your inspiration from the American fairy tales. Especially since Vietnam and the Nixon years, America seems to be a dirty word in Europe.
I’m fascinated with America—more fascinated with America than American myths or fables. I have a fascination with certain American writers who helped form my youth: Chandler, Dos Passos, Hammett, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. But these writers are only important to me in that they are part of my memory bank and my childhood. When I think of them I see my own childhood. This is also thematic in terms of the film I’m doing right now, in the sense that it is a film based on memory. Inside the film are all the images that I like. There’s an homage to a certain type of filmmaking that I love or cinema that I love. There’s an homage to the script writers who for better or worse helped me to discover the America that I didn’t know, and those who helped me to dream about America.
What do you know about the country besides what you’ve gathered from these writers? Have you spent any time in America other than the “casting time” that is behind closed doors?
I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time. The more I love her [America] the more I feel light years away from her. I’m aware of becoming a part of a generation that is now becoming decrepit—Europe is old and decrepit and I feel part of that generation of Europeans more than Americans. I’m fascinated by the youthful aspect of Americans even when it includes contradictions, and naive qualities of being incredulous at certain things.
It’s this mixture of all these things— the contradictions, the youth, the growing pains—that makes it fascinating, that makes it unique. America is a dream mixed with reality. The most beautiful thing is that in America, without any notice, suddenly, dream becomes reality, reality becomes dream. That’s the thing that touches me the most. America is like Griffith and Spielberg together. It’s Watergate and Martin Luther King at the same moment. It’s Johnson and Kennedy. All those contrasts: dream and reality always clashing together.
Since we don’t know each other, I want to give you a complete picture of myself, why I’m interested in America, why I’m always occupying myself with America: because in America, there’s the whole world. In Italy there’s Italy and in France there’s France. The problems of America are the problems of the whole world: the contradictions, the fantasies, the poetry. The minute you touch down on America, you touch on universal themes. For better or worse, that’s the way it is.
But America is constantly being accused of cultural imperialism by Europe?
I don’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s right to accuse her of that, because America being a giant nation occupies herself first with trying to content her own country. And this is a big problem for America, trying to make Americans content. It’s a giant problem because the country is nude up of many, many countries put together. To arrive at satisfying all the varied tastes of Americans means to get to a point of satisfying all the tastes worldwide: worldwide needs, tastes, fantasies. That’s why Americans have no problems in terms of film or TV. The images go out into the world and meet the same needs of other peoples, because of that universal collective consciousness.
There are certain themes that run through your new film: solidarity with the outcasts of society, choices dictated by despair, closeness of male friendships, betrayal, violence and corruption, which also ran through your earlier films. Do you see these themes as “American”?
I’m trying to do a film that can’t easily be categorized. It’s not a realistic film, not historical. It’s fantastic, it’s a fable. I force myself to make fables for adults.
But you do deal with those questions?
There are themes that are inside of me. Friendship, for example, is a theme I feel very much, maybe because I was an only child. Obviously all these themes come up because they play a major part in my own psyche. And I’m essentially a Roman, which doesn’t necessarily mean being essentially Italian. It means something else because Romans are a separate race. Romans always have a paradoxical sense about things; they have an unfettered sense of irony and self-criticism. The irony is almost always placed against themselves or made in terms of themselves. All of this put together means that I put into my films certain of my own phantoms or ghosts.
Sometimes if I choose settings for my films that are underdeveloped or slightly criminal, it’s also to make the point that sometimes the good guy, if you scrape a little of the varnish off, is a little less good, and the bad guy, with a little less of the “bad guy” varnish, is a little less bad.
There’s a small Roman story: A cardinal dies who did good and bad. The bad he did very well and the good he did very badly.
Let’s talk a little about the talent you came across in America. Was it difficult casting this film? Is there a perceptible difference between the talent in America and the talent in Europe? If so, what in your opinion accounts for this?
The talent in America is based first of all on the number of people, and then this blind love they all have on arriving or becoming—whether it’s an actor, director, or whatever else. It takes them up to some extreme type of sacrifice. I’ve never seen stars work as waiters in any other part of the world; in America, they do, they start off that way. This means they choose a very humble work in order to be exclusively at the service of their art. They are taken in and totally absorbed by their ambition, their dedication to the arts.
There’s a common factor involved in all of this. They always say that Neapolitans are naturally born actors. I would say that they are natural comics, and that Americans are natural actors. They are helped enormously by the extreme richness of language.
Could it also be something to do with the freedom that Americans have, politically, socially, culturally? As children it’s part of our cultural experience to have choice: to wear what we want, to say what we want, to eat what we want, to live where we want, to move away from the family, and so forth.
Yes, total liberty from infancy on. Children are exposed to everything. People talk in front of them and together with them. A 50-year-old can be friends with someone who’s ten. All those things are a result of that liberty, and they provide an enormous sense of spontaneity, an enormous amount of security and a great availability to acting and to delivery. Thus, whoever really loves this work then chooses to study it, very well and precisely, whether it’s with Actors Studio or wherever—ten or twenty-methods of approach to this kind of work, mixed with an intense process of study. Consummate actors are the product.
We don’t have that here. Our resources are almost always more geared to immediate spontaneity and immediate contact with people more than the form of expression used. A spontaneous actor in Italy, if he’s young and spontaneous, can only be broken down by an acting school in Italy, not encouraged or taken to a point of higher expression. He will be restrained. That’s why neo-realism was born in Italy. Because in that moment it was impossible to use professional actors to report the times they were living in at that point. It became false and studied and manneristic.
How do you manage to communicate with your cast when you don’t speak English? I have this picture of you “conducting” them, rather than “directing” them.
I use an extrasensory imagination, where I use no language. This relationship is particular, certain nuances have to be created. The use of words eliminates these nuances or “sits on them.” In this process of directing there becomes an extrasensory demonstration between the actor and myself. A “felt” relationship between actors and myself specifically, because there is no verbal dialogue.
On this film Robert De Niro collaborated with you on the casting. Is this a practice that you’d repeat?
I’d repeat it immediately with him. He was much faster than I could be at understanding whether a New York accent would lie right on an actor or not. He always left the total responsibility on me to decide on the actor’s quality in terms of his delivery or acting, and the same for physical characteristics. That choice was left to me. He was a great collaborator.
I’d like you to talk about your long relationship with composer Ennio Morricone. At what point do you discuss the music for your films? Before, during, or after the shooting? Do you almost hear the music while you’re shooting or is the music a direct result of the action?
I talk about the music of the film long before the filming begins. I have the music programmed before I begin shooting, so I can use it while I’m shooting. For me, the music is part of the dialogue, and many times much more important than the dialogue. It becomes an expression in itself.
So the music is number one in part of this process, and you direct to the sound and beat of the music ?
When we’re not using direct sound for dialogue it’s much easier. When we’re using direct sound, obviously we can’t use music as the background, because it would ruin the sound. But I do play my music on the set whenever I can for the actors.
But the music plays in your head constantly?
The work is done originally for me. I discuss it with Morricone months ahead of time, and the music guides me through the film in terms of certain sentiments or emotions. I have him create ten or fifteen or twenty themes before choosing one. Because the one I choose is the one that gives me the most primary sensation about what the intensity of that particular moment or pan of the film is. The first musical test. I make on myself.
Now that you’ve finished filming, are you developing any other projects that you would like to discuss?
No, because at this moment or phase in production, I’m still taken with idiosyncrasies that occur during the making of the film. I’m also taken with a love for the project that I have—the amount of love needed to take the film to the end and finish it. I have another sentiment, too: I always think this is the last film I will make.
You have said throughout that you draw a lot on the past. But what about your life now? What influences affect your art now? Are they perceptible, or is this a moot question?
By indicating the past we can discover the future.
Where does that leave the present?
The present is transitory. It’s only right that the present should become the past or immediately the future. The present today is what counted yesterday or tomorrow. For tomorrow to become better you should take a look again at yesterday.
Film Comment, Vol. 20, No. 4 (July-August 1984), pp. 21-23