What do you do when you find yourself in the same room with a legend? There are only two options: 1) You maintain your cool, stuffing your absurd, unconditional admiration for your subject deep into your bowels where it can’t possibly escape, even as hot wind or worse; 2) You let it out and make an absolute ass of yourself, cursing your future with ‘Nam-like flashbacks of the event.
I’m lucky to have found myself in conversations with several personal legends. Sometimes I’m cool. Sometimes I’m the ass.
When Quentin Tarantino was twenty, nearly a decade before he would helm Reservoir Dogs, he talked his way into the office of John Milius, who was riding mighty after the recent success of Conan the Barbarian. Tarantino got there by telling Milius’ assistant that he was writing a book, but that conversation nabbed him another chance at a chat with Milius on the set of Uncommon Valor.
Earlier this month, Tarantino made part of the 1982 interview available on his New Beverly Cinema website. It’s everything you might imagine it to be — fannish and feverish — and an absolute must-read. Tarantino is clearly enamored with Milius, and he should be. In addition to Conan the Barbarian (which forever reinvented the image of Robert E. Howard’s muscle-bound titan thanks to its strict adherence to the paintings of Frank Frazetta, and launched the action blockbuster career of Arnold Schwarzenegger), Milius is responsible for an array of machismo driven cinema: Dillinger, Big Wednesday, Apocalypse Now, Magnum Force, Jeremiah Johnson, Evel Knievel, and The Devil’s Eight. Plus, he played a role in birthing Robert Shaw’s iconic USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws. So, yeah, legend.
Tarantino begins the interview firmly establishing himself as a devotee of Milius. He gets things rolling by complimenting the director on his screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Milius graciously accepts the compliment but also emphatically states his script is superior to the film John Huston made. At that point, Tarantino gets right to it, massaging Milius into revealing how he would have directed the film instead.
Milius happily obliges:
“It would have been a lot different! The movie now is kinda’ a poor man’s ‘Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid]’ or something… it’s a very kind of fritzy, almost I hate to say it, a Beverly Hills western. There’s a feeling to it now that wasn’t there originally. It’s a much stronger movie in the screenplay.”
From there, the two discuss the Milius movie that never was, and how Paul Newman got in the way of the gritty reality the writer was trying to achieve. The conversation flows naturally, but with purpose. Tarantino is not looking to stroke ego. He wants to know how “Mr. Macho” reflects on his perception.
No critic, including me, can describe Milius without also discussing machismo. Milius is not surprised by how others react to his movies, but he also believes film writers lazily rely on assumptions established by the previous guard. “Machismo” gets planted early, and it sticks. Is shaking the concept the responsibility of the director, or the person doomed to illuminate his work?
Sticking with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Tarantino challenges Milius as a chauvinist by labeling the script as romantic, pointing to three specific sequences:
“First there’s the way he feels and speaks about Lily Langtry (the famous stage actress he loves from afar), then there’s the scene in the desert with Maria Elena (Victoria Principal). And he asks her what she wants? And she says, I’d like a box you open it and it makes song. He says, Ya’ mean a music box? Why I’d get ya’ a pipe organ! Then he sings “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to her. He’s old and crusty, but in his own way romantic and eloquent.”
Milius concurs, stating that all of his films are filled with “rapid romanticism.” Tarantino rolls with it, continuing to listen to how Milius’ script for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was better than the film we got. They go back and forth for a bit on the heart beating beneath all the violence, but Tarantino offers another provocation.
Jumping over to Dillinger, Tarantino tells Milius that the only scene in the whole film that doesn’t work is the romantic montage between Warren Oates and Michelle Phillips, which lands with a thud in the middle. He tells Milius that the sequence plays as if his heart wasn’t in it, and the director takes it. When Tarantino says Phillips defending her man with a Tommy Gun during the climax to be the more passionate incident, Milius agrees. Loyalty being the most romantic action of all, and this notion would later infect Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where he would insert Milius’ “if people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful” directly into the mouth of Vincent Vega (John Travolta).
This chunk of the discussion concludes with the two celebrating the greatness of William Smith, whom Milius contemplates as a possibly better choice for Dillinger. Whatever. He got the man to be Conan’s dad, and that’s all kinds of perfect.
What you see in this brief exchange are two guys who love talking about movies. Tarantino wants in on the meat of his favorite films, and Milius serves him a plate of bloody steak because the kid doesn’t merely deliver praise. The difficulty of so many interviews occurs when you come supplied with questions. You need them, but keep them in your back pocket. The conversation is the point. You have to go where it goes.
Tarantino is a man on a mission. This twenty-year-old wants in on the craft. Milius is willing, and game recognizes game. The kid wouldn’t have found his way into a part-two through fawning or a wedged agenda. Tarantino got the gold because he met Milius’ passion with his own, had a point of view apart from Milius, and didn’t brown-nose his way into pap responses.
Now, we wait for Tarantino to post the rest of this epic chat.