Monday, 18 October 2021

Herzog: In the Shadow of the Vampire

Nosferatu (Directed by Werner Herzog)
Based on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) was a dual-language production shot simultaneously in English and German starring the volatile Klaus Kinski as the vampire Count Dracula and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker.

A homage to the 1922 Murnau classic and a tribute to German silent cinema, Herzog’s film is an evocative and visually striking lament on the loss of innocence as articulated by Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, Dracula

Herzog’s film is not a direct copy of its cinematic source, although it does offer an occasional shot-for-shot reflection. Unable to shoot in Bremen, as Murnau had in 1922, Herzog began filming instead in the Dutch town of Delft. Memories of the German occupation of the area resulted in a degree of tension between the local townspeople and the German production crew which was exacerbated by Herzog’s decision to release thousands of rats during the film’s plague sequence.

Further complicating matters, Klaus Kinski was having to undergo hours of daily make-up to capture his part as Count Dracula, while the notoriously temperamental actor was also having to cope with the personal storm surrounding the impending break up of his marriage. Despite Kinski’s personal problems and manic tendencies, Herzog recalls that Kinski was calm and contented during the production – a tribute perhaps to Herzog’s ability to channel his star’s demons into a vulnerability crucial to the part.

Avoiding traditional horror film tropes the film had a mixed reception on release. The critic David Denby, however, perceptively noted at the time that ‘the young German director has made not a conventional horror film (there are no shocks) but an anguished poem of death’. Herzog’s undead creature is a forbidding force of Nature, even as he is a manifestly destructive killer. But he is also an intensely sympathetic demon spurred on by a terrifying blood lust and the need to die even as he lacks the means to realise that end.

For Jack Kroll, ‘when the Dracula figure lurches ashore in F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 Nosferatu, carrying his coffin filled with native earth, it was a chilling premonition of Hitler’s imperialism of death, the desire to necropolize the world. Following Murnau, Herzog’s Nosferatu mixes such resonances with a surprisingly successful attempt to humanize Dracula.’

Herzog’s spare, precise screenplay gives precedence to the film’s visuals over a more literary approach. Drawing on Stoker’s familiar narrative, the plot is revealed through action, movement and the changing lighting and emotional canvas of Herzog’s impressive cinematic design.

In an interview published in Herzog on Herzog, the director discusses the filming of Nosferatu, his working relationship with Klaus Kinski at the time, as well as the making of Woyzeck which was shot immediately afterwards:

For ‘Nosferatu’ did you go back to the original Stoker novel or did you base your own script directly on Murnau’s film?

I could probably have made a vampire film without the existence of Murnau’s film, but there is a certain reverence I tried to pay to his Nosferatu and on one or two occasions I even tried to quote him literally by matching the same shots he used in his version. I went to L├╝beck where he filmed the vampire’s lair and found among the few houses there not destroyed during the war those Murnau had used. They were being used as salt warehouses, but where in 1922 there had been small bushes, I found tall trees.

The reason Murnau’s film is not called Dracula is because Bram Stoker’s estate wanted so much money for the rights, so Murnau made a few unsubtle changes to his story and retitled it. My own film was solely based on the original Nosferatu, though I knew I wanted to inject a different spirit into my film. In Murnau’s film the creature is frightening because he is without a soul and looks like an insect. But from Kinski’s vampire you get real existential anguish. I tried to ‘humanize’ him. I wanted to endow him with human suffering and solitude, with a true longing for love and, importantly, the one essential capacity of human beings: mortality. Kinski plays against his appendages, the long fingernails and the pointed ears. I feel that his vampire is actually a very erotic figure. Moreover, in the film evil does not have only negative aspects; for example, the plague scene where there is real joy.

Stoker’s novel is a kind of compilation of all the vampire stories floating around from romantic times. What is interesting is that it focuses so much on new technology; for example, the use of telegrams and early recording machines, the Edison cylinders. Like the changes society was undergoing in the nineteenth century, there may well be something similar taking place today, as for some time we have been living in the digital age. In both cases there is something of an uneasiness in society, and vampire stories always seem to accumulate in times of restlessness. The novel is strangely obsessed with these kinds of things, and in this way Stoker was quite far-sighted by somehow anticipating our era of mass communication. At its heart, the vampire story is about solitude and now, more than a century later, as we witness this explosive evolution of means of communication, Stoker’s work has a real and powerful actuality to it. His story is structured in an interesting way, using all these forms of communication to carry the story along, something which does not emerge in film versions.

While we are talking about communication, allow me to add something. It is my firm belief, and I say this as a dictum, that all these tools now at our disposal, these things part of this explosive evolution of means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal – be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever – human solitude will increase in direct proportion. It might sound paradoxical, but it is not. It might appear that these things remove us from our isolation, but isolation is very different from solitude. When you are caught in a snowdrift in South Dakota, fifty miles from the next town, your isolation can be overcome with a mere cellular phone. But solitude is something more existential.

There was a great deal of press at the time about the fact that you let thousands of rats loose in the town square in Delft, the town in Holland which substituted for Wismar in the film.

I was looking for a northern German or Baltic town with boats and canals and a Dutch friend of mine suggested Delft. As soon as I saw the town I was fascinated by it. Delft is so tranquil, so bourgeois, so self-assured and solid and has remained unchanged for centuries. Because of this I felt it would be the perfect place to shoot this story. The horror and destruction would show up very effectively in such a clean and uncontaminated town. I have always felt that rats possess a kind of fantasy element in that they are the only mammals whose numbers surpass those of man. The figure is something like three to one, and our fear of the creatures stem in part from this fact. Before we started shooting I explained to the city council in Delft exactly what I had in mind, and got an OK on everything. I had presented to them in great detail the technical plans we had to prevent a single rat from escaping. But many people in Delft were nervous because the town is full of canals and for decades there was a very serious rat problem which had only recently been overcome. So there was a developing feeling of unease.

Where did you get the rats from?

They were from a laboratory in Hungary and it was very difficult to transport them across Europe. At every border customs checked the medical certificates, and one time an official opened one of the boxes to check the contents and fainted. When we bought the rats they were snow white and had to be dyed grey. There was a huge factory in Germany that produced shampoo and hair dye that would test their products on rats because the texture of rat hair is very similar to that of human hair. I went to this factory along with Henning von Grierke, a painter who did the set design of the film, and Cornelius Siegel, the special-effects expert who taught at the University of Bremen. Cornelius was the guy who set the glass factory on fire in Heart of Glass and single-handedly built the clock that you see at the start of Nosferatu. We asked at the factory how we should go about dyeing 10,000 rats and they gave us the idea of dipping the wire cages for a second into the dye. Cornelius designed this massive conveyor belt for dipping, washing and drying. We had to wash them off with lukewarm water immediately and blow-dry them with a huge system of hair-dryers otherwise they would have caught pneumonia.

What we did before we released the rats in the town was to seal off every single gully, every single side street and doorway. Along the canal we fixed nets to prevent any single animal from getting into the water and even had people in boats down in the canal to collect any creatures that might have escaped. When filming in the town square we had a movable wooden wall just behind the camera, and another in an alley at the end of the street. When the signal was given, both walls moved out of their hiding places and would noisily move towards each other, trapping the rats in an increasingly narrower space so they could then be caged. Fact is, we never lost a single rat.

This was your second outing with Kinski. What was he like to work with this time?

Kinski loved the work and for pretty much the whole time on set he was happy, even though he would throw a tantrum maybe every other day. He was at ease with himself and the world at the time and loved to sit with his Japanese make-up artist Reiko Kruk for hours and hours. He would listen to Japanese music as she sculpted him every morning, putting his ears and fingernails on. We had to do the teeth and ears and shave his head every morning and just seeing him with this enormous patience was a fine sight. I would walk in and sit with him for fifteen minutes. We did not talk, we just looked at each other in the mirror and nodded at each other. He was good with the project, and he was good with himself. Though the film is close to two hours and Klaus is on screen for maybe seventeen minutes, his vampire dominates absolutely every single scene. That is the finest compliment I can give him for his performance. Everything in the film works towards these seventeen minutes. His character is constantly present because of the story and the images which intensify this sense of doom and terror and anxiety. It took fifty years to find a vampire to rival the one Murnau created, and I say that no one in the next fifty years will be able to play Nosferatu like Kinski has done. This is not a prophecy, rather an absolute certitude. I could give you fifty years and a million dollars to find someone better than Kinski and you would fail. And I think Isabelle Adjani is also quite remarkable in the film, the perfect counterpart to Kinski’s monster. Her role was an extremely difficult one: she had to be frightened of the vampire and at the same time be attracted to him, something she really managed to communicate to the audience.

Like some of your other features, there was more than one language version of ‘Nosferatu’. What language did you shoot the film in originally?

As with Aguirre, where we had people from sixteen countries on the set, English was the common language. This included Kinski and Adjani. As a filmmaker you have to make a choice, not just to make communication on set easier, but also for the sake of the international distributors, and for them English is always the preferred language. But even though the film was shot in English, we did dub a German version of the film which I have always considered the more convincing version. I do not dare to speak of the ‘better’ version. I speak of the more ‘culturally authentic’ version.

Where did you film the scene at Dracula’s castle?

Whatever you see of Transylvania was shot in former Czechoslovakia, much of it actually in Moravia at the castle of Pernstein, and in the High Tatra mountains. Originally, I had wanted to shoot in Transylvania proper, in Romania, but was not allowed to because of problems with the Ceausescu regime. I actually never received a direct refusal from the government, but got word from some friendly Romanian filmmakers who were very supportive of my wishes to shoot in the Carpathians. They advised me to leave the country immediately and not wait for permission, as it would never come as long as Ceausescu was around. Parliament had bestowed upon him the title of the new Vlad Dracul, the historical defender of Romania. The title had a contemporary meaning: Ceausescu defending the country against the Soviet Empire. It turned out these local filmmakers were right, though I had a wonderful time in Romania searching for locations, methodically travelling every path of the Carpathian mountains.

Five days after you finished shooting ‘Nosferatu’, you continued with the same crew and, of course, lead actor, and shot ‘Woyzeck’. Why did you make these films back to back?

Today Woyzeck seems like a little hiccup after Nosferatu. It took seventeen days to shoot and only five days to edit, and I would have started shooting the day after we finished Nosferatu but we had to let Kinski’s hair grow for the role. It was mainly for technical and bureaucratic reasons that we continued with the same crew on a new film. At that time in Czechoslovakia it was an endless saga to obtain shooting permits. We had ended up shooting the second half of Nosferatu in Moravia and other places in the eastern part of Slovakia, and I thought it was a good idea to just continue shooting Woyzeck but tell the authorities it was still Nosferatu we were working on. Actually we did start shooting pretty much the day after Nosferatu was completed, and I just shot around Kinski’s part.

Woyzeck (Directed by Werner Herzog)
I don’t think that Kinski has ever been better. It is a truly stunning performance.

Kinski was never an actor who would merely play a part. He would exhaust himself completely and after Nosferatu he remained deeply in the world that we had created together, something that was glaringly apparent from the first day he walked on to the set of Woyzeck. This really gave his performance a different quality and from the opening scenes of the film he seems to be so fragile and vulnerable. Look at the shot of him just after the title sequence where he is just staring into the camera. There is something not quite right with his face. It was actually swollen on one side. What happened was that when he was doing his push-ups during the title sequence the drill major kicks him to the ground. Klaus said to me, ‘He’s not doing it right, he has to really kick me. He can’t just pretend to kick me.’ The man who does the kicking is actually Walter Saxer, the man who is being screamed at by Kinski in Burden of Dreams a couple of years later. Kinski was kicked so hard into the cobblestones on the ground that his face started to swell up. I saw this and said to him, ‘Klaus, stop: do not move. Just look at me.’ He was still exhausted from doing his push-ups, but he looks with such power into the camera that it really sets up the feel of the rest of the film.

At the same time he loved playing the part so much and in many ways was very much in balance with himself during the shoot. If something would not go as I had hoped, he would say to me things like, ‘Werner, what we are doing here is important, and just striving for it will give it its appropriate size. Don’t worry, it will fall in place.’ He worked very hard on the text and, unlike so many other times, he generally knew his lines. It was truly a joy to work with him for those days, and I think back on that time with genuine fondness. And yes, he is so good in the role. He truly captured the spirit of the part; there is such a smouldering intensity to him.

This was clearly a project that had been on your mind for a while.

My film of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is probably my simplest connection to what is the best of my own culture, more so than Nosferatu, which was more an explicit connection to a world of cinema. Though I have always worked within German culture, making a film of Woyzeck meant to reach out to Germany’s most significant cultural history, and for this reason there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture, and because of this the film sparkles. Yet all I did was reach up and touch these heights.

I had wanted to make a film of Woyzeck for some time. For me there is no greater drama in the German language. It is of such stunning actuality. There is no really good English translation of Woyzeck, nothing really completely satisfying. The drama is a fragment, and there has been a very high-calibre debate within academic circles as to which order the loose, unpaginated sheets should go in. I used an arrangement of scenes that made the most sense as a continuous story and I think most theatrical productions use this same shape.

‘Woyzeck’ is probably my favourite of your features. It is such a tremendously inventive piece of cinema, the way you filmed it in a series of long takes.

We used a series of four-minute-long shots, and so the film is essentially made up of about twenty-five cuts, plus a couple of smaller takes. It was very difficult to maintain this: no one was allowed a mistake. It is a film of such economy that I will probably never achieve again. What made the whole approach exciting is that the film space is created not by cuts and the camera’s movement but wholly by the actors, by the force of their performances and their use of the space around them. Look at the scene where Woyzeck tries to flee from the drum major: he heads directly into the lens of the camera and at the last moment is pulled back. In a shot like that Kinski creates a space far beyond that of the camera; he is showing that there is a whole world behind, around and in front of the camera. You feel he is crawling desperately towards you, even into you. So the creation of space – and how as a director I used it – became even more important than normal in Woyzeck.

I truly like filmmakers who are daring enough to show a whole sequence in one single shot. You really have to let your pants down if you are trying that. What you show on screen has to be very strong in order to hold the audience for three or four minutes. Poor filmmakers will often move the camera about unnecessarily and use flashy tricks and an excess of cuts because they know the material is not strong enough to sustain a passive camera. This kind of film-making – full of unnecessary jump cuts and things like this – gives you a phony impression that something interesting might be going on. But for me it is a clear sign that I am watching an empty film.

–  Extract from Herzog on Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Ed. Paul Cronin. (Faber, 2002).


Monday, 11 October 2021

Sam Peckinpah: Screening Violence

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure at the age of 59 on December 28th, 1984, following years of hard living. The following day a brief obituary was published in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, ‘best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time.’ 

Following the release of The Wild Bunch in 1969, Peckinpah became known as ‘Bloody Sam’. In 1971, Peckinpah released Straw Dogs – a brutal tale of rape and revenge set in Cornwall, thus sealing his claim to notoriety as a director of violent films. 

Sam Peckinpah became a bankable, yet controversial director. Much in demand, he sought to justify his work in a series of interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines while also writing missives to newspaper editors defending his films and rebutting his critics.

Some feminist writers criticised his films for their representation of women and their allegedly unbridled use of violence. The critical consensus coalesced around the idea of Peckinpah as a violent director and the debate that ensued centred not only around the apparently ‘violent films’ but also affected the response to his more meditative works. 

Prior to The Wild Bunch Peckinpah’s work was not particularly noted for its excessively violent themes or style. In his early career Peckinpah had been involved in the production of a number of television serials as well as three feature films including Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965) which were marked by an intelligent and original take on the Western genre. 

Following The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah made the elegaic The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) – ‘the story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert’. Following the controversial Straw Dogs, Peckinpah directed Junior Bonner (1972) starring Steve McQueen as an ageing rodeo rider. Made in between his forays into violent cinema both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are lyrical depictions of individuals in changing times – a theme found in much of Peckinpah’s work including his late masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

In the following extract from John Cutts’ 1969 interview, Sam Peckinpah discusses his career up to that point and his hopes for the success of The Wild Bunch:

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
‘The following took place at Sam Peckinpah’s Malibu beach house. A charming, if somewhat crowded, hideaway on that particular Saturday afternoon. For in addition to Peckinpah and myself, there were at least eight children, nine adults, and a wandering python. It was a warm spring day and I felt even warmer due to a touch of flu. Ever the considerate host, Mr. Peckinpah insisted on mixing several personally guaranteed flu cures – all of them containing large amounts of whisky and gin. At the end of the afternoon Mr. Peckinpah presented me with a signed photo bearing the message ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’ (a line taken directly from ‘The Wild Bunch’). A sentiment, Sam lad, that fits my viewpoint just as well. My thanks again for everything – good talk, the considerable pleasure of your company, the potency of your flu cures, and most important – for introducing me to that damn snake of yours before the gin and whisky began to take effect.’

Let’s begin with some background details. There’s a rumour that you’re part Indian – is that true?

Well, I had a great aunt Jane who was a full-blooded Paiute. Other than that, I’m a Californian, born and raised here – as were my parents and grandparents. My grandfather, Charles Peckinpah, started a sawmill up in Madera County outside Fresno in 1873. There’s a mountain there, the Peckinpah Mountain, where my father was born. My other grandfather, Denver Church ran cattle out of Crane Valley about ten miles away. Old Denver went broke thirteen times, not that it worried him any; cattleman, superior court judge, district attorney, congressman, he had quite a life. Lincoln Peckinpah, Rice Peckinpah, Mortimer Peckinpah – aren’t those great sounding names? It’s a very colourful family.

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
With your family roots so firm in the soil, how come you were attracted to the theatrical life?

I have no idea. I always wanted to raise cattle – though by temperament I’m completely unsuited, my ranch now is a disaster area. As a kid I used to read a lot (even when working on my grandfather’s pack station up in the high country), used to see as many movies as I could. Maybe the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I took a directing class at Fresno State after leaving the Marines, and that led to enrolling at USC for a master’s degree in drama. After this I sorta drifted: I became producer/director for the Huntingdon Park Theatre, then I went to Alburquerque (wife and baby in tow) to do summer stock as an actor, then I came back to LA to work in TV as a stagehand. KLAC was the station and I stayed there two and a half years until I was fired as a floorsweep on The Liberace Show because I refused to wear a suit. It was at KLAC that I put together some experimental films making them on my own time and money (I started at twenty-five dollars a week, and graduated to eighty-seven fifty). Not that they were any good. More like homework, you might say.

Didn’t you get a job with Allied Artists about this time?

Right. A friend got me in to see Walter Wanger, who got me a job as fourth assistant casting director. A gopher really; you know, go for this, go for that. Then I got upped to dialogue director – with Don Siegel on Riot in Cell Block Eleven in fact.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Directed by Don Siegel)
Aren’t you supposed to have acted as well during this period? There’s a story that you can be seen in Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.  

I played four different parts in Body Snatchers. Peckinpah, man of a thousand faces. I was also stunt man on the picture. Let me think, I was a meter reader, a pod man, and a member of the posse. In addition, Don also had me on it as a writer for two weeks. My best performance, though, is in Wichita (directed by Jacques Tourneur). There’s this great scene I have with Joel McCrea. He comes into the bank and I’m behind the counter. He looks at me. I look at him, and then I say ‘Forty dollars.’ Great stuff. I’m also in The Annapolis Story as a helicopter pilot if you look close enough.

What came next?

I sorta drifted into television writing. While at Allied I met Charles Marquis Warren, and when he became producer of Gunsmoke he asked me to do a script for him. As I remember, it took me five months of day and night writing to get the first one finished. But once the first one was behind me, I breezed ahead writing, I think, at least a dozen Gunsmokes. From this I turned full-time writer, working on The 20th Century Fox Hour, then I created two series of my own in The Rifleman and The Westerner. The first time I was allowed to direct anything was on the Broken Arrow series. I’d written about four segments, so as a gift they let me direct the final show before it came off the air. It really went to my head. There was one scene I must have photographed from at least eighteen different angles. I was never so frightened in my life. Don’t let anyone kid you, it’s bloody murder learning how to direct.

Wichita (Directed by Jacques Tourneur)
How did you make the switch from TV to movies?

Well, I’d developed such a marvellous relationship with Brian Keith on The Westerner series that he kinda took me along with him on The Deadly Companions. Anyway, the producer of the picture, Charlie Fitzsimmonds – Maureen O’Hara’s brother – took me on as a hired hand director. It wasn’t the best deal in the world for either of us. He wanted someone he could push about. I wanted to make a picture as best I could. I offered my services as scriptwriter, which he promptly refused. Every time I’d volunteer for anything. he’d tell me to go back in the corner.

Brian had sense enough to know we were in trouble with the script, so between us we tried to give the thing some dramatic sense. Consequently, all of his scenes have a certain strength. while those with Miss O’Hara (with whom I was forbidden to talk) come off not at all well. At the end of the picture, Mr. Fitzsimmonds took over the editing, scrapping my original cut. He then got into such a mess that he had to return to my original pattern – although I defy anyone to make sense of the ending. If it hadn’t been for Brian and old Bill Clothier, the cameraman, it would have been unbearable.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Was it because of ‘The Deadly Companions’ that you were invited to do ‘Ride The High Country’?

I think it helped. Though I think The Westerner series helped more. By the time I came to the pictures, they had a story by N.B. Stone, and Bill Roberts was working on a screenplay. They also had two agreements from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea to play the leads (though not to play the parts they eventually played: one lunch-time they switehed roles – Scott going from good guy to bad guy, McCrea from bad guy to good guy).

It was a small picture by MGM standards at least, but there was a great excitement about it. We had a good crew – Lucien Ballard as cameraman, Leroy Coleman as art director (he was marvellous: at one point he stole the sails used on the Bounty to make the tents in the mining camp scene), and Frank Santillo as chief cutter. The shooting schedule was tight – we had twenty-four days. I think I went over by two days owing to being snowed out of two locations.

It’s funny to remember, but during the shooting Sol Siegel, the then-head of MGM production, called me and said ‘Stop shooting like John Ford. Learn to behave.’ Well, not knowing what the hell he meant, I kept shooting the way I had from the start. Later, on putting together a first assembly, he called me up again and said ‘You gambled with that funny style of yours - and you’ve won. I like it. Go ahead and make the final cut.’ All of which cheered me enormously.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
But then MGM underwent a management change – Sol Siegel being replaced by Joe Vogel. Well, the new management took a look at the picture and they hated it – no if’s or but’s. They loathed it. I think it was the wedding scene in the miner’s camp that did it. All those raddled whores. Anyway, Vogel told me that it was the worst film ever made and that he would not release it – unless he was forced to. I was then kicked off the lot, not being allowed to work on the dubbing or the scoring. Though the version that came out was mostly mine – except for twenty-eight feet cut from the brothel scene.

Then, when MGM had to release the picture owing to some overseas booking commitments, a miracle happened – it began to find its audience. The critics were kind – especially in Europe and pretty soon the film began to get the playdates it deserved all along. It was a delayed victory for all of us.

What had you been doing while waiting for ‘High Country’ to come out? 

What I always do in moments of despair – I head back to TV and write westerns. While waiting for High Country to emerge, I did two hour-long features that Dick Powell produced: Pericles on 34th Street and The Losers. The first was a drama, the second a rowdy comedy with Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn as a couple of conmen on the run. Keenan and Lee had a ball, and the whole thing was a joy to do. I had a good time.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next – ‘Major Dundee’?

Yes. Columbia wanted a picture to be made under three million dollars to fulfil a commitment they had with Chuck Heston. They had a script of sorts – something that Chuck and I both saw potential in providing I could do some re-writing. The producer assigned to the picture, Jerry Bressler, gave his blessing to what we wanted to do – though when it came time to shoot, he double-crossed us by ordering fifteen days cut from the schedule.

Was this when you were actually shooting the picture? 

No, two days prior to starting. I said what he was asking was impossible, that I would rather leave the picture there and then. To which he replied: ‘Look, I’m acting under instructions from New York. Leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.’ But he never did. When I saw the final release print, which is to say Columbia’s final release print, not mine, I was sick to my stomach. I tried to have my name taken off it, but by this time the machinery was too far along. What I had worked so hard to achieve – all of Dundee’s motivation (what it was that made him the man he was) – was gone. This was material I’d both written and shot and cared very much about, but which Bressler or Columbia had thought unnecessary to the total effect of the film.

It’s hard to say who the villain was – maybe Jerry, though he was under tremendous pressure from the studio at that time because he was involved in another picture that wasn’t turning out well... something with Lana Turner, Love Has Many Faces. Major Dundee. It gives me the shivers thinking back on the arguments I had with Bressler and the studio. Maybe I should have argued more strongly going in, telling them in no uncertain terms as to what sort of film I was after rather than taking it for granted that they would let me have my own way once I’d shot the material.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
It’s an odd picture. Marvellous in parts, plain bewildering in others. But from the moment Heston gets involved with Miss Berger it never plays as a whole. That whole Durango episode; Dundee finding degradation in the arms of a whore and that fly-by-night escape, just baffles the hell out of me. 

Well, Berger was wrong, totally wrong. She’s a nice lady, but I should have fought her casting from the start. She was wrong and it hurt the picture. As for Dundee’s degradation, that’s all mine. But where it fails, where it refuses to make sense, lies in the fact that all of Dundee’s motivation, the why behind it all, is all gone. I shot a series of progressive incidents in which Dundee kept failing in what he was doing – punching up the difference between what he set out to achieve and what he achieved. I looked at him very closely, zeroing right in on his locked-in approach to his own ego. All of which was cut and junked. I figure I must have shot about forty-five minutes of Dundee under the microscope. The picture ran beautifully at two hours and forty-one minutes by my cut. Heston was superb. The release print was chopped to two hours and fourteen minutes.

In order to gain some extra shooting time, didn’t Heston offer to return his salary to the studio?

Yes, he made the offer, and they accepted it – they took back their money. It was a very gallant gesture. And you know something, Columbia never had the grace to even have a public preview on the picture. There was a showing for some exhibitors, and that was it, all the final cuts came from that.
Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next, ‘The Cincinnati Kid’? 

Yes, I prepared the production, spending about four months on it. None of it pleasant, I might add. Marty Ransohoff was the producer, and to put it politely, we did not see eye-to-eye. There was a time when it no longer made sense even to meet with him on story conferences. Steve McQueen too. Steve and I used to meet, talk, then we’d type up a memo for Marty. It was a very strange relationship. I only started to shoot with the agreement that Marty wouldn’t come on the set. Anyway, I started it, shot for four days, then got bounced. Then they hired a new director and made the picture they wanted to make all along.

Rumour hath it that you set out to provoke Ransohoff by shooting take after take of Ann-Margret in the nude.

Untrue. I did a damn good riot scene, then another long scene between Rip Torn and a Negro prostitute in bed, and that was it. Oh, I was also shooting in black and white. They had wanted colour, but I didn’t.

Coming so close on ‘Dundee’, it was obviously a bad time to get fired. 

God protect me from you English – the world’s greatest understaters! But you’re right, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, couldn’t even get into a studio. It was a long, hard period. Then some TV things came along – including the opportunity to write and direct a version of Noon Wine.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What about the script to ‘The Glory Guys’? 

That had come earlier, about five years previous. Did you ever see it? How about that casting! The same people who made it did another favourite movie of mine – Geronimo, with Chuck Connors in the title role. One of the funniest movies ever made. A positive riot.

What about ‘Villa Rides’? 

Well, the success of Noon Wine sorta took the curse off me. Villa Rides was a straight writing job with little chance of me directing it. I was flown to London to meet Yul Brynner, but he hated the script so much I came home by the next plane. Bob Towne was later hired to do a rewrite on it.

Wasn’t there a time, probably before all this, when there seemed a possibility of you and Disney getting together? 

He called me over to write a Shane-type picture called Little Britches. And I finally came up with the best script I’ve ever written. Walt read it and said ‘too much violence and not enough dogs.’ Well, the violence I plead guilty to, but as for not enough dogs... End of project, though like most things I work on it’ll turn up someday. Did you know I wrote the first script on Brando’s One Eyed Jacks? I worked with Brando for about a month. Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, about how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner – someone they could love. As it was released, I think I’ve only one scene left in the film – the one where Marlon knocks the shit out of Timothy Carey. The rest is all Marlon’s.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Let’s come smack up to date. You’ve now made two films back-to-back for Warners-Seven Arts. How did this come about? 

Through the courage and wisdom of one man – Kenny Hyman. When he took over as production chief of Warners-Seven Arts, one of the first people he sent for was me. Kenny had seen Guns and loved it. He’s that sort of person; if he digs you, the studio is yours. Now, Kenny had a project of his own called The Diamond Story he wanted me to do, but when that fell through because of some casting problems, he agreed to let me go ahead on The Wild Bunch.

It’s a western about the betrayal of friendship. An all-guy western with Bill Holden, Bob Ryan, Ernie Borgnine, Eddie O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates. It’s about a gang of American bandits who steal a US ammunition train and attempt to sell it to some Mexican revolutionaries. It’s about a convict (Robert Ryan) on parole who is ordered to track down all his former friends and gangmates. And it’s very, very violent. During the first preview, thirty-two people walked out during the first ten minutes.

This was during the bank hold-up scene? 

Yeah, the picture begins with a bank hold-up that goes wrong, that ends in slaughter. Wild Bunch is not a pretty picture. It’s the story of violent people in violent times. Violence to the people in the movie is not just a means to an end, it’s the end itself. I make that point very clear. The preview cards were wild: at least thirty per cent said ‘Outstanding. The best picture I’ve ever seen’; and the rest said ‘Disgusting. The most violent picture ever made’; then they’d say ‘Highpoints: the battle scenes, the best ever seen.’ I think a lot of people are going to be shocked – least I hope so. I hate an audience that just sits there.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Tell me about the picture that followed ‘The Wild Bunch’. 

It’s a comedy of sorts called The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert. Jason Robards and David Warner are the guys, Stella Stevens plays the gal. At the moment we’re still editing, still trying to sort out what we have. I’m trying to figure out a way to use a split-screen technique in it. Not fussy like in Thomas Crown. More like it was done in The Boston Strangler.

A couple of quick, final questions. You’re supposed to be a tough man to work with. 

I work very hard, if that’s what you mean. Or maybe you heard how I fired two dozen people off Cable Hogue? Well, did you see that trade ad the cast and crew took out for me? There’s a difference between the things heard here in Hollywood and the way things happen on location you know.

How fast do you work? Do you overshoot? 

I shoot about 22 to 1, and I cover very well. I have a low take ratio – about two to one. I like to use more than one camera – sometimes as many as three or four.

Any ambition you want to fulfil? 

An awful lot is going to rest on how The Wild Bunch makes out. The studio seem to share my enthusiasm. Whether it’s too violent or not, I simply don’t know. I tried to make it as tough as I know how. As tough, and as honest as I know how. And as far as I’m concerned, the two are quite compatible.

– John Cutts: ‘Shoot! Sam Peckinpah talks to John Cutts’, Films and Filmmaking. 16:1, October 1969, pp. 4-9. Reprinted in ‘Sam Peckinpah: Interviews edited by Kevin J. Hayes, University of Mississippi Press (2008).