Monday, 1 November 2021

John Milius: American Outsider

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
A new documentary about the writer and filmmaker John Milius recently premiered at the SXSW in Texas (see trailer here). Made by debut directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, Milius (2013) explores the life and career of the maverick Hollywood filmmaker behind such works as Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and Conan the BarbarianFeaturing interviews with such Hollywood luminaries as Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Francis Ford Coppola, Milius promises to be a comprehensive take on the life of a unique storyteller.

John Milius’ early flamboyance led Paul Schrader to label Milius as the ‘Master of Flash’ – a contrarian in which the gesture of showmanship always took precedence over politics – and sometimes even over morality. Noted for his volatile personality and penchant for guns and machismo John Milius became something of an outsider in Hollywood in later years. A self-styled ‘zen anarchist’ Milius was also supposedly the inspiration for the fiery Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) in the Coen Brothers’ cult movie The Big Lebowski (1998).

Born in 1944, Milius turned his hand to writing after he was refused entry to the US marine corps due to a chronic asthma condition. Milius graduated from film school at the University of Southern California in 1967 along with fellow students George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He found success relatively early, writing Apocalypse Now in 1969, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and co-writing Dirty Harry for director Don Siegel (1971). For Spielberg’s hugely successful Jaws (1975), Milius contributed Robert Shaw’s speech about the US Indianapolis sinking in shark-infested waters. 

John Milius directed his first film Dillinger in 1971. Starring Warren Oates as the eponymous outlaw it was described by writer and director Paul Schrader at the time as ‘the most manic, insane, unbalanced, immature film I have ever seen. It is also one of the best, most promising first films I have seen... The film is a total excess, an arrogant display of youthful talent.’ Milius went on to direct The Wind and the Lion (1975) which explored issues of US military intervention; Big Wednesday (1978) his homage to the surfing scene; and Conan the Barbarian (1982) his monument to camp heroism. In recent years his most notable screen credits have been Clear and Present Danger (1993) and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). 

However, it is for the original screenplay of Apocalypse Now (1979) that Milius is best known. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness director Francis Ford Coppola has gone out of his way in recent years to dispel the myth that Coppola completely rewrote Milius’ work (see article here). In the following extract from an interview with Creative Screenwriting, John Milius discusses the origin of his screenplay for Apocalypse Now, along with his approach to screenwriting: 

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Going back to the beginning, what did you learn about screenwriting in your two years of film school?

Well, I learned everything I need to know. I had a wonderful teacher, Irwin Blacker, and he was feared by everyone at the school because he took a very interesting position. He gave you the screenplay form, which I hated so much, and if you made one mistake on the form, you flunked the class. His attitude was that the least you can learn is the form. ‘I can’t grade you on the content. I can’t tell you whether this is a better story for you to write than that, you know? And I can’t teach you how to write the content, but I can certainly demand that you do it in the proper form.’ He never talked about character arcs or anything like that; he simply talked about telling a good yarn, telling a good story. He said, ‘Do whatever you need to do. Be as radical and as outrageous as you can be. Take any kind of approach you want to take. Feel free to flash back, feel free to flash forward, feel free to flash back in the middle of a flashback. Feel free to use narration, all the tools are there for you to use.’ I used to tell a screenwriting class, ‘I could teach you all the basic techniques in fifteen minutes. After that, it’s up to you.’

I used Moby Dick as an example because I think Moby Dick is the best work of art ever made. My favorite work of art. I used to point out the dramatic entrance of characters, how they were threaded through.... Moby Dick was a perfect screenplay, a perfect example of the kind of drama that I was interested in. Another great influence on me was Kerouac, and a novel like On the Road, which has no tight, linear narrative, but sprawls, following this character. Moby Dick and On the Road are completely different kinds of novels, yet they’re both extremely disciplined. Nothing happens by accident in either of those two books.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Directed by John Huston)
Would you say that your original screenplay for ‘Apocalypse Now’ followed more of the Kerouac approach?

I don’t know. You could say it’s very much like Moby Dick, too. You start with this character who’s given up on life, and suddenly they haul him out of his shower and take him to the ship. They tell him you’re gonna hunt white whale at the end of the river. I don’t know. I never thought of it that way.

I was kind of thinking along the lines of its flowing with the character.

Yeah. It’s very influenced that way. But the basic idea is that this thing is out there that you’re going to have to deal with, you know, that somewhere there’s going to be Judgment Day, somewhere, you know, you’re gonna meet Moby Dick.

How far did you get on that script in film school?

Not very far. I wrote two real scripts in film school, but when I came here and really started writing, I rewrote every bit of them. Neither of them were ever made, but I was able to option them. I had them rented out for like $5,000 a year.

You left film school with a new wife. How did you work at getting into the industry?

Well, I was just happy having any job at all. I was very lucky. I did very, very well from the beginning. I went to the first job I had, working for AIP for Larry Gordon, and I was amazed that I actually got paid to do this, I mean for something other than lifeguarding. Then I worked for Al Ruddy over at Paramount and I wrote a script called The Texans, which never got made and wasn’t very good.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
Was that an assignment?

No, I just thought it up.

But you got paid to write it.

Yeah, not very well. But it was enough. I didn’t need a lot. And then after that I wrote another bad script. I didn’t do a good job and I realized the reason I didn’t do a good job was because in both cases I was influenced by the people who had hired me. They said put this in and put that in, and I went along with it. Every time I went along with something in my whole career it usually didn’t work. Usually there’s a price to pay. You think of selling out, but there is a price to pay. Usually what people want you to do is make it current. They want you to make it relate to people in 2000.

To have ‘cultural resonance.’

Yeah, ‘cultural resonance.’ And of course, that’s always the worst shit. Cultural resonance is dated instantly. When I did Big Wednesday my first impresions were that I was going to do this coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones about surfers that nobody took seriously, their troubled lives made larger than life by their experience with the sea. And that’s what the movie is. It never strayed from that. There was a lot of pressure to make it more like Animal House, but the movie has a huge following now because it did have loftier ambitions. It wasn’t just a story about somebody trying to ride the biggest wave or something. That’s not enough.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
What place does the use of myth have in screenwriting?

Well, people talk about it all the know George Lucas talks about it all the time. He doesn’t know how to use it at all. He doesn’t understand myth at all. As illustrated by Phantom Menace. Writers who really understand myth don’t use it consciously. There are very few things that are truly mythical. There’s a lot of stuff that’s famous, but very few things that are the stuff of myth and legend.

I’m thinking more of classical mythology. Do you think that can empower a script in a way?

Yeah, I think there’s something there. See, myth is something where you feel an importance. The writer is relating something to an important story. If the hero has the heel of Achilles or something, then you might create a slight resonance to The Iliad – then in your gut you feel that this is important. I think the reason that The Iliad works is because nothing’s real clear. You know, it’s a story about war in which nobody is really sure what they’re fighting for, which makes it like all wars. Therefore it becomes myth.

The Mafia is myth. The Mafia is one of the great American myths. There are two truly great American myths, the myth of the Old West and the myth of the Mafia, and they’re both the same story. They’re about promise, about coming here with nothing, and the promise over the next horizon. They’re the same story, told in different ways. One’s told in the city, one’s told in the country. That’s why we love the Mafia. We never tire of the Mafia.

Are there any rituals that you put yourself through in your writing?

No, I just like to write at the end of the day because I like to think about it all day. And usually, I’ll try to avoid thinking about it, I’ll bullshit and talk to people all day long. I’ll do various acts of procrastination and then as the sun starts to get low and the shadows lengthen, guilt wells up.

Dillinger (Directed by John Milius)
Do you still try to write six pages a day?

Yeah, at least six. If I feel like going for more, I go for more. But I write no less than six – in longhand.

Keep away from the computer.

Yeah, it’s too easy to change things on the computer. You don’t have to handfit it, you know. And basically, this is hand work. There is no way to make precision parts and put them together. Every screenplay is different so it must be made by hand.

Now, you were able to option two scripts right out of film school.

Yeah. I lived pretty well on $15,000 a year back then, so $5,000 was a third of my income. If I went up to Malibu and shot a deer that cut the income down even further. I think the first year I made about $25,000. The second year I made about $40,000 or $50,000. I mean, I was as rich as a rajah.

So, the early scripts that you wrote attracted attention in the industry, they got you some small assignments and decent options.

I never got any assignments. I never got assignments from them. I had an agent sending me to their offices – I guess what they call ‘pitching’ today. I hate ‘pitch’ because it’s such an ugly term. It really describes the demeaning of the writer. Writers are treated like garbage, just stepped on and spit on. In my day, when I was hired as a young punk writer to write Apocalypse Now at Warner Bros., no one would dare think of hiring another writer. John Calley said, ‘This guy’s a genius. Leave him alone. He’s going to do this brilliant screenplay and most of all, he’s cheap.’ Nobody knew what it was going to be. He didn’t know whether I would turn out to be a good writer. But that’s the way they treated writers then.

Dirty Harry (Directed by Don Siegel)
A lot of that probably goes back to the demystification of screenwriting through all the books and seminars and tapes...

It is mystical. All creative work is mystical. How dare they demystify it? How dare they think they can demystify it? Especially when they can’t write. These guys who write these books, what’s their great literary legacy to us? What have they done? They don’t even write television episodes.

A writer’s greatest fear now is not that he’s going to be no good when he sits down to write. A writer’s greatest fear is that he’s going to be brilliant and that no one will read it, that no one can read it, that no one knows the difference because they read these stupid ‘How to write a screenplay’ books. It’s made people into idiots. In the old days the writer’s greatest fear was always, this time out, it just isn’t going to happen. I just won’t have the stuff. Now the fear is that I’ll have it, but those little jerks from Harvard Business School won’t be able to understand it. Because these MBAs can follow instructions, they read these books and say your script has to have these characters and those turning points. They ask questions like, ‘Who are you rooting for at the end of the first act?’ I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. I didn’t know what a character arc was. It’s all bullshit. Tell a story.

When I got in, you had to write all that stuff like ‘ext,’ ‘day,’ all the stuff that’s necessary, and then writers actually wrote, ‘we see so and so coming down the hall, she is a beautiful woman in her thirties and by her walk we can tell she’s a certain type...’ I threw it all out. I said, ‘I don’t want to write that. That doesn’t tell you what the story’s about.’ With The Wind and the Lion, the first line was ‘A gull screams, horses hooves spattered through the surf.’ I actually wrote it in the past tense because it was in the past. But I wrote Apocalypse Now in an active tense because I wanted it to have a crisp, military feel to it. Plus, Vietnam was still going on when I wrote it.

I remember fooling with the form a great deal then and I was respected for it. Today, you fool with it and they say, ‘Well this doesn’t follow the form.’ They don’t know what’s good. They don’t have any judgment. This isn’t just sour grapes. Look at the crap that’s made. I’ll put my titles up against anything these jerks produce.

Big Wednesday (Directed by John Milius)
Have you had to change the way you think about your own writing to try to get it past some of these people?

Never compromise excellence. To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you don’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today – only Steven Spielberg knows what’s popular today. Only Steven Spielberg will ever know what’s popular. So leave it to him. He’s the only one in the history of man who has ever figured that out. Write what you want to see. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to have any true passion in it, and it’s not going to be done with any true artistry.

So is it that passion that ultimately sells and makes people interested in a project?

Not necessarily. It’s that passion that makes for good writing, but a lot of tricky writing, a lot of gimmicky writing sells. That doesn’t mean it’s good. Most of the people who talk about how wonderful they are, about their great reputations and their great careers as writers, and being able to write what sells, don’t have very many credits. They may do rewrites and work occasionally, but they don’t have a body of work or a voice because nobody cares. There’s a million other people just like them.

Jeremiah Johnson (Directed by Sydney Pollack)
In those initial scripts, were you developing your perspective, your voice as a writer?

The real breaking point where I knew – and it was almost overnight – that I had become a good writer with a voice was Jeremiah Johnson. When I started working on that, it was called The Crow Killer and I knew that material. I’d lived in the mountains, I had a trapline, I hunted, and I had a lot of experiences with characters up there. So, it was real easy to write that and there was a humor to it, a kind of bigger-than-life attitude. I was inspired by Carl Sandberg. I read a lot of his poetry and it’s this kind of abrupt description – ‘a train is coming, thundering steel, where are you going? Wichita.’ That great kind of feeling that he had, that’s what I was trying to do there. I remember there was a great poem about American braggarts. You know, American liars – ‘I am the ring-tailed cousin to the such and such that ate so and so and I can do this and I can do that better than Mike Fink the river man...’ I just realized that this was the voice that the script had to have. It was as clear as a bell. I knew that writing was particular to me.

Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford didn’t trust me very much at first, though. I wasn’t really housebroken in those days. I was a wild surfer kid, you know, and they preferred their writers to be more intellectual. And so they would get the intellectual writers to try and rewrite it and they’d have to hire me back because none of those guys could write that dialogue. None of those guys understood that stuff. They didn’t understand the mountains. They didn’t understand what a mountain man was. I love mountain men. I’d love to write a mountain man story today.

Was that based on an historical figure? 

Yeah. Though it changed a great deal. That was when I really realized I had the voice. And I think what gave me something there that I didn’t have before is that I allowed a sense of humor to take over, a sense of absurdity – that was the spirit of the thing. ‘I, Hatchet Jack, do leaveth my Barr rifle to whatever finds it. Lord hope it be a white man.’

Jeremiah Johnson (Directed by Sydney Pollack)
So you wrote ‘Jeremiah Johnson’, but then you weren’t able to sell it.

No, I wrote it for nothing. I wrote it for $5,000. And then I was offered a deal to rewrite a Western script [Skin Game] for $17,000. But Francis [Ford Coppola] had this Zoetrope deal at Warner Bros. and asked me, ‘How much do you need to live on?’ I said, ‘$15,000.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll get you $15,000 to do your Vietnam thing. You and George [Lucas],’ because George was going to direct it. He offered that wonderful fork in the road where I could go do my own thing rather than just rewrite some piece of crap that would probably be rewritten by somebody else. That was the most important decision I made in my life as a writer. That sort of steered me onto the path of doing my own work and being a little more like a novelist. Today I see writers making the exact opposite decision, taking the $17,000 again and again.

Two grand more.

I see them always taking the two grand more because it’ll help their careers, they’ll get to work with a real big producer, they’ll be in a big office, they will be working on a greenlit movie, and it’s going to star someone who’s hot. They always take that job, every time. Whereas I tackled an unpopular subject that no one was going to make a movie about where the chances were really slim that I could pull it off. There was no book, nothing but me and the blank page. And that was wonderful because I had followed my heart. One of the nicest times in my life was writing Apocalypse Now.

What kind of guidance did you get from Coppola or anyone else in writing it?

None. Francis was very good about that. Francis wanted us to be artists, like him. He didn’t want to interfere with anybody. He wanted you to go out and write your scripts and if you couldn’t do it, if you went to him and whined and said, ‘Gee, I need some help,’ he didn’t have much regard for that. You know, he expected you to be independent and he was giving you a wonderful opportunity to be independent of anybody else. But people did go to him and complain and whine all the time. All the time.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Had you thought about ‘Apocalypse Now’ at all in the interim?

Yeah, somewhat. I never think about any story too much. I sort of know where they’re going and I know specific things are going to happen to them along the way, but I don’t know when they go do this and when they go do that, because if you do know all that, for me anyway – I mean other people write it all down on little cards – I don’t want to know what’s going to go on. I want the people to surprise me each day. I have no idea how I’m going to make transitions from one scene to another. I have no idea where they’re really going to go and the thing I just wrote. On my latest script, Manila John, I had a voyage of discovery because I had my own ideas on who this character was and what he did and in the middle of writing it I found the man who knew him and who saw him die and idolized him back then, and he completely changed my mind about what I thought the script was really going to be, and that was wonderful.

How do you approach getting inside the heads of your characters?

You get to know them and perceive the way they’d say things and view things. Like Manila John, he comes from New Jersey, so he’s always going to call a girl a dame. You know? A dame, a broad, or a doxie.

Did you go back in then on ‘Apocalypse Now’ and rethink what you had written?

I didn’t need to because I had left it open. I knew what the beginning would be. I knew sort of what the end would be, and I knew certain things would happen in the middle. It was the same with Apocalypse Now. I knew where it was going to end, I knew Kurtz was at the end of the river, but I didn’t know how we were going to get to him. I knew somewhere along the line there would be the first obstacle, this character Kharnage [Kilgore in the film] who was really like the Cyclops in The Iliad, and then there are the Sirens, who are Playboy bunnies. But basically I didn’t know where I’d find them, or what would happen. When I was writing Apocalypse Now I wanted them to meet people and become involved in the war, but I could never think of anything that was appropriate. Every time I would get them into a firefight or an ambush or something it would degenerate into just another meaningless Vietnam war scene. They had to be thrown into the war at its most insane and most intense.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Did Coppola just tell you to go for it, pull out all the stops and realize your vision? Be out there as far as you can be?

Absolutely. Absolutely. You have to also discipline yourself to pull it in afterwards and make sense of it. But you’ve really got to go for it. The worst thing about today’s films is the complete lack of ambition. I mean, look at all these independent films that should be interesting. Most of them are about a bad dope deal in the Valley. The rest of them are about a homosexual love affair that’s misunderstood. There’s really just not a lot of ambition there.

I find the violent films to be particularly onerous. There’s a lot of shooting and killing, and people turning on each other and they’re kind of supposed to be the film noir of the ’90s, but they’re not. They’re all about punks. Everybody gets killed and you sit there and say, ‘God, I’m glad that person got wasted,’ you know. ‘At least I got to see it.’

Some brain on the wall.

Yeah, at least you got to see that guy get knifed and that bitch get shotgunned to death. You know, I got my money’s worth.

So, did you do any rewrites on ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Lucas after your draft was done? 

No. People didn’t do that in those days. They didn’t sit there and interfere. They took things for what they were, and when Francis and I rewrote the script it was when it was being made. The script remained the same ‘til Francis really decided to make the movie, and then we went in and reexamined everything. That was part of a process.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Do you think you’ve gotten enough credit for your writing on ‘Apocalypse Now’?

Oh, yeah. I get full credit for the movie. I mean, I get credit for writing the movie. And Francis gets the credit for directing, which he certainly deserves because no one could have – if I’d have made it or anybody would have made it, it would have never been as good as that. But I get the credit and it’s a Milius movie. It’s not a Coppola movie. A Coppola movie is The Godfather. He was the one who said very early on, ‘I will make this movie more like you than you are, you know? I made Mario Puzo’s The Godfather more like Mario Puzo than he is.’ There’s a thing that Francis did in this movie and in The Godfather, a sense of the theatrical. A sense of grand, epic storytelling that none of us could have done. So ultimately, he gets the full credit. I mean, I get credit as the writer, I get the credit like Mankiewicz did in writing Citizen Kane. But what is Citizen Kane without Orson Welles making it?

It just seems to me that the perception is out there, perhaps fanned by Bahr and Hickenlooper’s documentary ‘Hearts of Darkness’, that Coppola was out there in the Philippines writing the script and essentially improvising what he didn’t write. 

No, I think I get enough credit. Hickenlooper’s just trying to kiss Francis’s ass all the time. When the movie first came out, Francis tried to hog all the credit, but not any more. He gives the credit to me and to everybody else, because everybody who worked on that movie suffered and has credit for it. It stained everybody’s lives. We were messing with the war and war is sacred. There’s something about that war. It’s just, you know, obscene and sacred. You mess with it, you’re going to get your life fucked with.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
In the past you’ve called ‘Apocalypse Now’ a young man’s film. Do you think you could write its equal today?

I’d be different, you know. I’d be a lot different. Apocalypse had a certain outrageousness to it. It went headlong into things. The worst thing I could do now would be to try to do something like Apocalypse. You can’t go back and recapture that power...

What does a screenwriter owe his audience beyond a satisfying tale?

A certain honesty. A screenwriter has to be able to put it on the line. I didn’t have another agenda. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to make me rich. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to make me loved. I didn’t do something because I thought it was going to be hip. I did the best I could and put out something that I believed in…

You have a certain flamboyance. Do you think that helped you in building your career in Hollywood?

Yeah. I think that all the people who are successful in Hollywood have a flair for flamboyance. Francis certainly does, he’s the most flamboyant of all. And I guess you could say Spielberg has a flamboyance in a way. If you don’t have that kind of flair for being a showman, for being an entertainer, then you’re not going to live with this business very well. But to be truly flamboyant you have to be about something.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The scripts of yours that I’ve read have an interesting style. It’s very much cast against the current Hollywood style where writers are warned against long, descriptively detailed passages and long speeches that are meaningful. Did that style just flow out of you, or is it something that you saw elsewhere?

No, I suppose it came from a real desire to do novels. Yeah, today is minimalist, isn’t it? I don’t know how they do it...

Do you find the anonymity of rewrite work exasperating?

I don’t even think about it. You take the job because it’s money and then hopeeully within the job you get to do a couple of scenes where you can really, you know, you can do good riff. Like a musician, you get a couple of good riffs and it feels good, and then you just take the money and go off to another gig.

You’ve rewritten a lot of screenplays by other writers for the films you’ve directed. How do you go about making the material your own?

You have to find something in it that you really like...

What’s the best atmosphere for a writer to work in?

Well, I think Francis was right. I think that you’ve got to say to the guy, ‘Go out and do your best and I’ll be here to help you. You can bounce stuff off, but I’m not going to be here to pick you up. I’m not going to be here to tell you what to do.’ Because the minute you start telling them what to do, you’ve lost...

– ‘John Milius: Interviewed by Erik Bauer’. Creative Screenwriting, Vol 7, #2 (March/April 2000)

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