During the course of our conversation Zak and Joey spoke of meeting Milius for the first time, and being toyed with in typical Milius fashion. From there the discussion spiralled to take in iconic directors and their love of collaboration, the ownership of film, the changing fortunes of the director as the film business evolved, and the possibility of one last hoorah for the one of Hollywood’s most renowned storytellers.
Of all the filmmakers, why Milius?
Joey Figueroa: This project was kind of brought to us, in the sense that one of our producers had interviewed John some years ago. He’d done like a fifty page interview and he told us, “Hey guys, you should probably talk to John. He’s real interesting, and he’s got a lot more to bring to the table than just his resume. He’s an interesting dude.” So we did, and we took a meeting with him where we were going to pitch him this idea. It was interesting to meet him having read that interview. Besides his resume he had these other anecdotes. He was the inspiration for Walter in The Big Lebowski, and whilst he’s not a co-founder, he had a big influence on the UFC and the MMA back in their early inception. So we took the meeting with him, and expected a half hour meet and greet. It turned out to be a four hour meeting. We tried to find someone else who had done a documentary on his life, and we surprised that no one had. He sat there and he just talked and talked, and finally he did give us the green light. He was on board and he was really excited about it. He gave us only two stipulations; two things that he required. One was to tell the truth. Okay we can do that, and the other was that we couldn’t show him with any guns at all. At that time we were “okay”, but in retrospect we just knew that he was messing with us in typical John Milius fashion. That was the first idea to take on this project. He’s an interesting guy; his resume is undeniable, so now how do we form an interesting way to tell this story?
Zak Knutson: My main reason for doing the documentary was that we all look at Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone as the best storytellers we have. All of those guys look at John Milus as the best storyteller ever. John Milius isn’t a household name like those guys are. Why not if he’s the best storyteller? That was the rough inception of how the documentary came to be for me.
Joey Figueroa: In addition to that, we also kind of wanted to bring John back to the forefront, to be in the conversation with the Lucas’, the Spielberg’s, and the Coppola’s. They all came up in the same generation; they looked at him as the greatest storyteller they knew. We wanted to re-introduce John to the people who may have forgotten about him, or didn’t know what he had contributed to cinema. To re-introduce them to his writing and directing, as well as to a new generation of movie fans and a new generation of young filmmakers who didn’t know or didn’t had any idea of what this man has contributed.
It’s interesting what you are saying, because Milius co-wrote Apocalypse Now, but it is always spoken of as Francis Ford Coppola’s film. Likewise with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Whilst the director is like the quarterback in that he gets both the praise and the criticism, would you say that Milius shows that film is a collaboration that goes beyond the director?
Zak Knutson: Oh very much so, and that’s one of the things with that generation of filmmakers let’s say. I think people forget just how collaborative those guys were. At the first test screening of Star Wars it was John and Brian De Palma, and Lucas was looking for these guys’ input, and Brian De Palma famously said, “It’s shit; you’re ruined.” Spielberg, these guys, they would collaborate and that was part of the fun for them. Somebody says somewhere in the documentary, maybe it wasn’t even in the interviews, “You can make movies alone, especially now with technology, but it’s not going to be fun.” For a lot of these guys that’s what it is. George wants to be able to work with Francis, and Francis wants to be able to work with John; they like the interaction; they like working with their friends. I think that’s something that those guys and that generation really loved. John was never one for fame; he never went seeking fame. He would create a personality for himself and if other people gave him fame for it then FINE, but he never went out seeking it.
Joey Figueroa: To hold him in the same regard as some of his contemporaries is very important, but in saying that, he didn’t necessarily want to be that recognisable name. I don’t know if he didn’t want to or not, but I don’t think it was as important to him. But it is still important to recognise him in that same circle as he’s very deserving.
Zak Knutson: And that’s the other thing that you were talking about with the auteur. That’s not a label any of these guys would ever label themselves with. I think its film audiences that labels them with that because even as Francis says in the documentary, “Everything memorable about Apocalypse Now was written by John Milius.” Whether it be, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, or the voiceover and other things like that, even though the voiceover was written by somebody else, it was one of those things where they wanted that collaboration, and they would be more than happy to give credit where credit is due. But Francis is never going to say it is John Milius’ movie. Steven’s never going to say Jaws was… No it’s my movie, he helped out considerably and I couldn’t have done it without him, but it’s my movie. I think John would do the same thing. I think he would always say Conan is mine, get your hands off it you know?
Joey Figueroa: But it’s very typical even today that the director is like you said the quarterback. They get all the praise when they win, and get all the flack when they lose. Nobody ever asks who wrote this, where did it come from? Every great movie starts on the page, and that’s the foundation of any solid movie. Any director would say that, but that’s the nature of the business, that’s just the way it works. To his regard, John’s great at both, but he’s more recognised for his writing ability. I just feel that his directing of movies didn’t flourish enough throughout his career, and I think there is a lot of stuff that he could have directed, but it just didn’t happen. The history is that it didn’t happen, and it’s kind of sad in a way because he has a lot of movies left in him, and a lot of movies that people just left on the table.
In creating this incredibly strong persona, did it suffocate Milius the filmmaker, or do you think that personality that put him on the outside by those he upset was a vital source of his creativity? Do you think he could have done what he did without that provocative, bombastic edge?
Zak Knutson: I think the personality he created both helped him in the beginning, and then I think it hurt him towards what would be considered the end. Explaining that, when John first came out the executives whoever it might be, they loved those characters. They had already worked with John Ford and John Huston, these bigger than life, bombastic figures; all of John’s heroes. They had already worked with them, and by the time Milius came along they were like, “We’ve dealt with you, calm down, we get it, we get it.” Now those guys went away, John got older, and the studio executives got younger. Major corporations took this beast over, and they didn’t particularly care about the stories anymore. They had their quarterly profits to think about, and they had to answer for them. If you weren’t turning it in, or you weren’t doing it on time, then you paid the price for it. On top of that you bring in Milius who puts a .45 calibre pistol on the table and tells you to go screw yourself. That’s going to hurt John towards the end, and so I think it both hurt him and helped him.
Joey Figueroa: In addition to that, you can see that John is probably the last of that generation, of when the director was looked at as the artist, a little bit different, where they could get away with shit. They could be a little bombastic and a little bit outlandish, and studio heads would just turn their heads as it’s just the director being a director. It’s a business now and it’s always about the bottom line, and they are not going to put up with those kinds of antics. It did in my opinion serve two purposes. It built this persona, this larger than life iconic figure that everyone is going to be talking about, but at the same time it was to his detriment in certain regards. His talent has always been the same; his talent has never wavered, it’s just how people perceive him. If you know the real John, you’ll know the two sides of him which we try to explore in the documentary: the John side and the Milius side. Hopefully that came across, but it was definitely a detriment in my opinion that… I’ll put it to you this way. It’s not going to help his career for him to act that way. It’s not going to help, but does he care? I’m sure he cares, but he also feeds off of that. He’s very calculated in what he says, because it’s all about the story. It’s going to build the story and so for him it’s like, hey man let them keep talking as long as they’re talking about me.
Zak Knutson: One of the questions we actually used to ask people during the interviews was if John could take back those things that he said in return for getting those ten movies that he never made, would he? And everybody said no because John loves John; John loves Milius. He loves that thing that he created, and he loves that it’s a beast that lives within its own world.
We always talk about great sports players having that great comeback, that second wind. Do you think Milius is all said and done, or do you think we are going to get one final hoorah?
Joey Figueroa: I hope so; I really do hope so. I think with his current condition, it’s slowed down or limited that possibility, but he’s got Genghis Kahn which was written already and he’s actually edited some pages even in his current condition. I would love to see his name on the big screen again in any kind of fashion, whether it be as a director or a writer, obviously as a writer, but even as a director. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, anything’s possible, but the reality is that the notion is probably a little far from reality, and its only because of his condition and not of his talent. His current condition is more of a liability.
Zak Knutson: I think a couple of directors that just came up as examples around John were Friedkin and Malick. Those two guys are pumping out movies more than anybody right now. Clint Eastwood is almost ninety, and he’s making more movies than ever in his career. But John, he may not be able to direct them, because the financing, the insurance companies won’t cover it, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be the creative driving force. It doesn’t mean he can’t be the producer. He’s already written stuff. He’s got a couple of scripts that are amazing. He’s got a couple of TV shows that are ready to go. I mean the guy did Rome, so he’s definitely got things that can be out there, which he can be the force behind. He may not be able to direct, if he could great, but if he can’t he can still be the creative driving force behind some pretty awesome stories that we’d all love to see.
Milius is out in cinemas on November 1st, and available on DVD on November 18th.