Petroni on his westerns (interview)
This is part of an interview with Giulio Petroni by his nephew Eugenio Ercolani for the magazine Nocturno. See for the entire interview (in italian): www.nocturno.it. The translation is published by permission
In ’64 Sergio Leone’s first western was released. Before we start talking about Death Rides a Horse, what were your thoughts about the genre?
The only westerns I liked, were the Americans. A bit like Orson Welles, who used to answer, when he was asked who were his major influences: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford. Stagecoach is for example one those movies I used to return to again and again. Fort Apache and The Searchers are among my favourites too, and let’s not forget Kazan’s Zapata. In other words, the great classics.
So it’s because of your love for the great American directors, and not just coincidence, that your movies often seem closer to Hawks than Leone?
Maybe you’re right … I’m not too familiar with Hawks, but he was without a doubt a great director. Rio Bravo is a masterpiece. I felt some sympathy for Leone’s westerns, but few of this infinite number of westerns that were produced afterwards, will stand the tooth of time. Leone was a real expert on the history of the West and the western. I certainly wasn’t. That said, I think I managed to get in touch with the genre and create a real western feeling. Most of these fumblers who tried to make a western, only came up with shoddy products, hardly worth mentioning. Just watch Requiescant, made by Lizzani, a man who doesn’t even know how to spell the word western.
Death Rides a Horse has often been compared to Raul Walsh’s 'Pursued'
I know. I have always said the same thing: I have never seen Walsh’s movie and the script for Death Rides a Horse was written in a spontaneous way, little by little, bit by bit, it was difficult to put all the pieces together, and most of the work was done on the set.
In his Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana, Marco Giusti sustains that Antonio Margheriti collaborated to the script. What’s your comment?
What can I say? It’s not true. The only two people responsible for the final script are Luciano Vincenzoni and me, Giulio Petroni.
How was your relationship with Vincenzoni?
Tell me Eugè, how long is this interview going to take?
Shall we pass to another question?
Vincenzoni thought the western was a little below his intellectual level. But it cannot be denied that the movie benefitted from his contributions.
Who came up with the idea to ask Lee Van Cleef?
When Alfonso Sansone and Enrico Chroscicki came to me with the idea to make a western, they were already thinking of hiring him. He was an excellent horseman, but he had a few physical problems. However he was a professional of the highest level. One of the numerous talents of Leone, was the capacity to find actors of a certain age, whose careers were in decline, and to bring up the very best in them. Van Cleef already had some problems with alcohol. I remember us bringing out a toast on the new year on January the first: he did it with a glass filled with Coca-Cola.
This movie marks your first collaboration with Ennio Morricone
Yes, and it would be a lasting collaboration. I’d like to note that I made no less than six movies with Morricone, and yet they’re never mentioned in articles. Never. When he, deservedly, won an Oscar for his entire career two years ago, Walter Veltroni (1) delivered a very eloquent speech in which, among other things, he named all directors Morricone ever worked with. But he never mentioned me, nor one of my films. You tell me, what’s the reason for this?
I know what you think about this
I know, I know, and I also know you are right. Let’s talk about something else …
Okay. You know, better than anybody else, that Death Rides a Horse is called a true classic in the US, especially after the things Tarantino has said about it
Look, I’m not surprised that of all my films the westerns have aged best. I put far more into them, on an emotional level that is. I always gave my best on a professional level, but otherwise the difference with the previous films couldn’t have been bigger. The other films had given me the opportunity to work, to learn the trade, and to become a familiar name within the business. But when it comes to westerns … and I’ve heard this from others too … they offered me the opportunity to do something more important. What me intrigued most in the idea of the West, was this aspect of adventure, of nature in its purest state. I was attracted by the idea to make an adventure movie that reminded me of the books I loved when I was a child. And it was clear from the beginning that Death Rides a Horse was an ambitious production. Sansone and Chroscicki had excellent relations with foreign producers, and we knew from the beginning that the movie would be distributed by Titanus in Italy and by United artists in other countries. And then Tarantino has spoken in favourable terms about me …
He has done a lot more, in Kill Bill there are several clear references to the movie
The opening scene, alright, the violence of the opening scene, but otherwise … I don’t know. And the score by Morricone, of course, but I must admit that I found the film quite boring. There’s too much of everything, it’s a sort of cartoonish minestrone.
Let’s talk about And for a Roof, a Sky full of Stars
I have very good memories of that movie. Listen, one of my special qualities as a director, if I my say so, was that I always managed to create a good atmosphere on the set. I always made my actors clear that they could trust me. I have always had a lot of respect for their profession. Let me tell you a little anecdote about one of the greatest swank-pots in Italian cinema, Gillo Pontecorvo. I knew several people working on the set of Queimada and one day I paid them a visit. Pontecorvo had Brando repeating scenes for dozens of times. At one moment, they did a scene for the fortieth time, and still Pontecorvo wasn’t satisfied with the result. Brando stood up and said calmly: “Okay Gillo, do as you please, I’m going back to the hotel.” It was a good lesson for me. I got along very well with my star Gemma.
Okay, but wait a minute, Mario Adorf was the heart and soul of that movie
Sure, the more so since Gemma had already played his character, with a few minor changes, in other movies. True, Adorf was less compliant, as a person he’s a bit of a loner, but there weren’t any real problems with him.
The two actresses are also very interesting, Konopka and Menard. Were they your personal choice?
I had asked Konopka, yes. Afterwards she also made Night of the Serpents with me. As far as Julie Menard is concerned, I’m not sure, I think Gianni Lucari had the idea to ask her.
Who came up with this idea of a bittersweet mixture?
Look, the genre had arrived at the point where it had been inflated by the sheer number of second-rate movies, so we concluded that it needed to look for new horizons. A few years before Trinity, we came up with the idea of this couple of contrasting characters, one nice and smart, the other grumpy and muscular.
In your movies these couples of contrasting characters are a recurring theme: they study each other, fall out, become friends again. Milian – Steiner, Milian – Palmer, Gemma – Adorf
Male bonding, the friendship between two men is in interesting story device from a dramatic point of view, and the western is the ideal framework for these stories.
Solinas has often said that his contribution to Tepepa was minimal and that the screenplay was basically written by Ivan della Mea
That is a complete lie! I have met this mister Della Mea no more than twice in my life, by accident, so to speak. Solinas wrote the screenplay. And that’s it.
In some versions, so I found out, the finale has been changed by removing the scene of Tepepa riding off, with the music of Morricone played in the background
You’re right. As far as the finale is concerned, changes were made from the beginning. I first removed this final scene because Solinas had not written the scene himself and didn’t like the allegory of it. Then I realized the scene worked quite well, so I put it back. You are referring to, let’s call them, censorship problems. I found out that Paramount, for the American market, had again removed this final scene with Tepapa riding off. Most probably, this had something to do with the ambiguous nature of the main character. In those days it wasn’t considered to be very wise to treat a character who had committed several crimes, even horrible ones, as a hero, let alone to mythologize him. Two different versions of this movie exist, the original one, running some 130 minutes, that has been released on DVD recently, and a much shorter one, for which Alfredo Cuomo is responsible.
I beg your pardon?
For some reason or another he thought that the film was too long and made several cuts that not only ruined the narrative, but also Morricone’s score
Look, it was Cuomo who managed to hire him through his contacts with several agencies. I couldn’t believe I was going to direct Orson Welles and told him that I was intimidated by the idea of director the director of Citizen Kane, but he told me “Don’t be silly.” When I made Tepepa I had reached middle age myself, and to him that was a kind of relief since he didn’t support people of the younger generations. Needless to say that he had the reputation of a man impossible to work with, a real grumbler, and I guess he was one, but to me he was always nice. Welles and I spent a lot of evenings together, discussing things over a bottle of whiskey. He liked that very much. He used to talk a lot about Rita Hayworth, apparently she was still bothering him. He never interfered with my work, he only give me a little advice every now and then, and in those cases he was always right. Tomas Milian was often the unfortunate victim of his provocations. He used to call him “that little Cuban”.
What can you tell us about Tomas Milian?
A great actor, by fits and starts, difficult to control. He was a volcano of ideas and had a tendency to overdo things. When we made Provvidenza he kept coming up with the craziest of ideas and I literally had to slow him down. “No, not this, not that!” It was, for example, one of his ideas to use yoga in that movie. It may sound strange, but I’ve always had the idea he was very insecure, about his stature, about his looks. A very complicated person, this Milian, more complicated than one can imagine.
Have you ever seen Damiani’s Quién sabe?
I have, but I don’t remember it very well. The similarities between my films and that particular one of Damiani, are caused by the screenwriter. Solinas used to write the same movie over and over again. This becomes clear when you watch a few films scripted by him.
Night of the Serpents is without a doubt the least popular of all your westerns
No real surprise, it was a film that I made against my will. Those things happen.
What are your memories of the movie?
I don’t have many. My contributions to the script were minimal. I don’t remember a thing about the other screenwriters, could be I never met them
Luke Askew was a bizarre choice
I hired him. The producers sent me to Los Angeles with the idea that I would make a real discovery. With the help of an agency in the centre of Hollywood I chose him. He had been in Easy Rider. Therefore I thought he would be credible in the sort of ‘social’ western we had in mind, but his face probably was too contemporary, too modern. But I don’t regret my choice, like all American actors he was punctual and precise. They all have these qualities, beyond their artistic qualities.
Let’s talk for a moment or two about La Vita a Volte é Molto dura vero Provvidenza?
Let me tell you first that I didn’t like that title. Too long, hard too pronounce without hesitation. But the producers insisted and in the end I said okay then. The name Provvidenza was dictated by this popularity of biblical names in those days: Trinity, the Four of Ave Maria and God knows who else …
How was your relation with Castellano and Pipolo?
There wasn’t any. Not ever. I can tell you that was perplexed by the stupidity and vulgarity of their ideas when I first read their script. It was a hotch-potch of gags that were by no means funny, just … disgusting. A disgrace, a complete disgrace. We changed nearly everything on the set. Most situations and gags were invented and refined on the set, one by one, by me and the actors.
Who had the idea to introduce Mike Bongiorno (2)?
I did. A lot of people opposed to this decision. “What the hell should Bongiorno be doing in a western?” they told me. But I insisted and finally they yielded to that point. There was a moment in the script in which it had to be decided who was the real Provvidenza by means of a quiz. When I went to see the film in cinema, the Super Cinema in Rome, I noticed people started laughing as soon as Bongiorno’s character appeared on the screen. I had made the right choice.
Have you ever seen the sequel?
Yes, I did, once. What shall I say? I didn’t like it at all. They gave Milian all possible freedom. Not a good idea in any case, but in his particular case it’s the biggest mistake you can possibly make. Like I said, Milian needs a director who is able to control him, who says ‘no’ when he starts exceeding all bounds. Who directed it by the way?
Alberto de Martino
Well then. A stupid film that was also a financial flop. My movie made a lot of money, that is: for the producers. My films have never made me rich. But that’s my own fault.
What do you mean?
Well, if you realize that my movies, or at least some of them, did well at the box-office, and a few even did very well, you would expect that I wouldn't have to live in a sort of basement, but I wasn’t a thief like most businessmen. And I have never been good in controlling my own financial affairs.
Did they ask you to direct the sequel?
Yes, they did, but I immediately made them clear that I wasn’t interested. I was able to do such a movie once, but not twice, furthermore I had the idea it was time to do something completely different.
So Provvidenza would be your last western …
Apart from my personal wishes, it was clear that the genre had run its course, and I didn’t want to get involved in all this vulgarities that had started to dominate it.
What do you think of your own career as a filmmaker?
I think Tepepa is probably my best film, but Labbra and Death Rides a Horse are also very good. And there are some good things in Crescete e Moltiplicatevi and Non Commettere Atti Impuri. But the films I love most, are those I wasn’t able to make.
- (1) Walter Veltroni – Between 2001-2008 he was mayor of Rome. Since 2007 he is the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party. Morricone is known to be a supporter of Veltroni and center-left politics.
- (2) Mike Bongiorno - He was a television host, his knickname was Il Ré del Quiz (The Quiz King). In those days he was the most popular host in Italy.
- Site Nocturno: http://www.nocturno.it/default.aspx
- Intervista : http://www.nocturno.it/intervista/il-partigiano-del-west-intervista-a-giulio-petroni
Interview by Eugenio David Ercolani; Translation: Scherpschutter