nown as one of the last really great storytellers in Hollywood, in 2010 writer/director John Milius suffered the kind of setback that any professional wordsmith dreads — he had a stroke. Though it was serious, physically he came back from it reasonably well. He can walk with just a hint of paralysis on one side and even shoot sporting clays (one of his favorite pastimes). But suffering from aphasia, the significant loss of the ability to communicate verbally or use written words, has been a major trial. Despite the stroke, Milius understands everything and remembers everything. It’s just the difficulty of getting his own words out — generally one, two or three at a time, sometimes a few more that — is often trying. Old friends who share his passions on everything from the military, history, surfing, fine shotguns, cigars, and grand storytelling stimulate his ability to communicate. I am proud to be one of those individuals who is privileged to spend that kind of quality time with him. Sonny Bunch recently asked me to sit down with John and talk about screenwriting, Quentin Tarantino, history and a number of other related subjects.
S.B.: When Quentin Tarantino received his Golden Globe for best screenplay for Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, he said his favorite screenwriter growing up was John Milius, but he dedicated the award to Robert Bolt, who he said was your favorite screenwriter. What was it about Bolt’s work that appealed to you or shaped how you approached screenwriting?
J.M.: Bolt’s Lawrence of Arabia, along with The Searchers by Frank Nugent are the two best screenplays ever written. Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons and Ryan’s Daughter are really great screenplays, too. I love that Bolt’s protagonists are people on the outs with the prevailing societies they are part of. They stand by their own personal codes and are then forced out of their own groups. John Wayne in The Searchers is like that. Bolt’s Lawrence matches that description, as do Sir Thomas Moore in A Man For All Seasons and Sarah Miles’ character in Ryan’s Daughter. Most of my characters like Jeremiah Johnson, Dirty Harry, Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse, or the Rasuli in The Wind and the Lion stay true to who they are and knowingly suffer some sort of consequences. I really like that Bolt’s screenplays are literate without being snooty and very visual, the script’s scene structures all build economically and pay off at the right moment. They may be long scripts about complex historical characters, but are great reads that make you want to turn the page, which has become a lost art amongst most screenwriters. In The Searchers, Nugent gave you a lot of great pertinent details as to character, time and place that would be foolishly discouraged today.
S.B.: With your love of history, I was hoping to pick your brain about how Tarantino plays with history. You’ve written and/or directed several great movies about historical figures — John Dillinger, Teddy Roosevelt, Geronimo — and understand the fine line between history and fiction and how to mix the two. But Tarantino doesn’t play with history so much as blow it up and reconfigure it into a more wrathful, form. How does he pull this off?
J.M.: Quentin is kind of this unique rogue rebel in Hollywood. No one else can get away with fracturing history the way he does. He makes it work because it’s an original voice that’s all his.
I think it works best in Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood because the bad guys are people you really want to see get their just rewards. It’s kind of like my The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Tarantino’s favorite screenplay). Bean, an outlaw himself, has been shot, brutalized and left for dead by really bad outlaws at the beginning of the script. But he survives and comes back like a wounded avenging angel and kills them all — even the whores — because, “They were bad men, and the whores weren’t ladies. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord!” [LAUGHS] I think Quentin has taken my warning at the beginning of Roy Bean to heart: “To pompous historians and other such types. If this story did not happen this way, it should have. Once more, the author does not give a damn!”
S.B.: I understand you like Bone Tomahawk. What is it about S. Craig Zahler’s movie that appealed to you? Is there something present in that picture that you find missing in some of the more mainstream fare out there?
J.M.: Well, first off, it’s not politically correct. The cavemen-like cannibal Indians — they are not, to quote my late friend Kevin Jarre (Tombstone, Glory) liberal Hollywood Indians — Happy Hippies Fucking in the Hills — they are primitive savages, plain and simple — Ishi, the last of his tribe on a bad acid trip [LAUGHS]. And the period detail in Bone Tomahawk was great — the saddles, the clothes, the guns and holsters. It just goes to show that you don’t need a big budget to get that stuff right. If you’re trying to get those things right, you’re usually paying attention to the acting, the camera work, and everything else. [Ed. Note: For more on Kevin Jarre, please read Michael Biehn and Jim Anderson's essays for REBELLER on the making of Tombstone.]
S.B.: I’m a big fan of Clear and Present Danger so I’ve always been curious about the evolution of that screenplay, since it’s credited to three writers (you, Steve Zaillian, and Donald Stewart). You did an early draft with a lot of input from Tom Clancy. Then you were brought back to rewrite or punch up some action scenes. Is there ever a sort of collegial concern about stepping on toes?
J.M.: They didn’t film my first-draft version of the script. Sherry Lansing, then head of Paramount, hated my secretly working with Clancy and that I thought the really good story was about the Hispanic-American (Spanish-speaking) troops from the 10th Mountain Division who were trained and dropped into Colombia and then abandoned. Tom Clancy really liked my take, Paramount didn’t. But they brought me back for an “action polish” on the script. Which I agreed to do “if they gave me a brand-new SUV loaded up with Cuban Cigars!” [LAUGHS] Which they did. Steve Zaillian and I actually had a much more interesting ending, where the drug lord makes it to Washington, D.C., and kills the National Security Advisor, who is the real bad guy. The drug kingpin winds up lost in a really bad neighborhood and is stabbed by a junkie because “I need your money, I need to get my dope, man!” He finally dies sitting on a bench on the National Mall looking at the Capitol lighting up a Cuban cigar and laughing to himself! [LAUGHS] Paramount and Harrison Ford didn’t like that Jack Ryan didn’t get a great scene like that.
S.B.: Could you recommend one screenwriter whose screenplays you think people should read to understand the form and how a movie differs from page to screen?
J.M.: I’m probably not the best guy to ask that about. You can look at my scripts that I’ve directed and then look at the film and there’s not all much difference between what’s on the page and what wound up being shot and used in the final cut. I write it how I see it and film it the same way. I’ll work out the action scenes with my 2nd unit director Terry Leonard, he’s just the best there is, and the camera crew on the set. The battle scenes in Rough Riders (television miniseries) look like they are from a then $70,000,000 film like Private Ryan. But Rough Riders’ budget was $20,000,000 for three hours running time. You never heard about me going over budget on a film. That was always a point of honor with me, to come in on time and on budget — I don’t think I’ve ever got much credit for that.
S.B.: Is there a subject you think filmmakers routinely get wrong? Is there a subject that Hollywood needs to do better with? Is there a group of people that Hollywood just doesn’t get right now?
J.M.: Hollywood disdains Fly Over Country and the people who live there. Which is really stupid on the studios’ part because there’s a huge amount of money to be made there. We need more films like American Sniper, Lone Survivor, Hell or High Water and Wind River that all prove that Oklahoma City, Dallas, Nashville, Omaha, and Kansas City will show up at the theaters for good films that aren’t trying to be hip or cynical. I hate how most Hollywood films do history — most Hollywood films about history reflect the times the film was made in, not the real history. I hate revisionist history because it’s always politically correct and politically motivated. Most films are so cynical today without reason, and the executives and the filmmakers are usually so calculating, business-management types trying to second guess the audience. They don’t believe in anything except being accepted as hip and cool, that’s their God. That mindset is all a product of these by-the-numbers-write-a-screenplay books and courses. They should all be outlawed; scripts that are obviously written by the numbers from those books should all be burned in effigy. [LAUGHS] Just tell a good story, create interesting characters. Reread Moby Dick, everything you need to know about telling a good story is in Moby Dick. Writers should write a movie they really want to see, not a movie based on another movie.
S.B.: Rome is one of the great, under-appreciated shows from the new golden age of TV: brutal and bombastic and real and sad. The first season is genuinely epic, while the second season feels a bit rushed and undercooked. I understand there was a dispute between you and HBO about how the show was going to develop. Could you talk a bit about that and what your vision of the program would have been like after season one?
J.M.: After writing the pilot, I was pushed out of the deal. Bill McDonald was along for the ride; a new writer was also involved that HBO pushed out of the deal, as well. Then the husband of one of the big executives at HBO was made head writer and producer. I wrote the pilot, but he got co-created by credit, and I had some contributions from earlier writing that was weaved into one other episode. I was promised to direct several episodes and write more episodes, but HBO never came through on those. HBO then was this kind of incestuous cabal that protected its own first at everyone else’s expense. There’s far too much of that mafia-like attitude in the business. But sooner or later, Melvin Purvis and his G-Men might wind up coming after you!
S.B.: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers on the scene right now? What’s one under-the-radar movie that came out in the last five years that you think everyone should watch?
J.M.: I’ve always loved the Coen Brothers films; Hail Caesar! is a riot. I really like Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water, Wind River and Sicario. All really original, well-done films that you can tell are reflected in his scripts. Sheridan has an original voice and it shows. Hotel Mumbai is a fantastic film by an Aussie director, Tony Maras, a true story that comes across as real on the screen. I also like Brian Helgeland’s work, especially Legend and his script for L. A. Confidential.
S.B.: Do you have any thoughts on the current debate over streaming vs. theatrical? Streaming seems to open the door to many more types of movies and filmmakers. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the theatrical experience, that feeling of being alone together with a room full of people experiencing the highs and lows of a great story.
J.M.: In general, I really hate theatrical films today. TV is where most of the original quality storytelling is being done. I love Vikings and Downton Abby; the English and Irish seem to be much more thoughtful about how they portray their own history, and European history. Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone must be the first modern, really successful Fly Over Country hit on television. I’m not a fantasy fan, but Game of Thrones is wonderful. George R. R. Martin really modeled his fictional medieval landscape into an almost historically based world and the series is true to his vision. His own versions of Hadrian’s Wall, the War of the Roses, the Mongol invasion, Norsemen and Norse legends all into one time and place, and it works. You can do a lot more as a writer on top-quality TV in 10 episodes today that is far more interesting than most films being done. I’d love to see my Genghis Khan script done as a high-quality streaming series, or even my Dr. Strangelove-like Cold-War script about General Curtis LeMay could work very well as a limited series.
John Milius is the writer of Apocalypse Now and the writer/director of Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian, among countless other pictures. Dan Gagliasso is an award-winning documentary director/writer (History Channel, Discovery Channel) and screenwriter (‘Nam Angeles, Last Stand at Lang Mei) who has been a friend of John Milius’ for years. He co-wrote the TV pilot Code Red with Milius for Morgan-Ruddy Productions and was a researcher and sounding board for Milius on several scripts including Texas Rangers and Curtis LeMay. In 1997, he served as an historical adviser on Milius’ epic TNT miniseries Rough Riders.