Interview: Jack Foley & James Morgan
Q. Welcome, Sir Christopher and thank you for joining
us. You have previously written Sergio Leone: Something to Do
With Death, which is frequently referred to as the definitive
book on Sergio Leone. What inspired your passion for spaghetti
westerns and Leone in particular? How long have you been researching
them and writing about them?
A. I remember going into the cinema in 1967 to watch
Fistful of Dollars. I was in a foul mood, having had an argument
with my girlfriend and I remember being hit by the style of the
At the time the film had been receiving terrible reviews by the
critics and it was very unpopular to like. But what hit me was
the whole visual and overall feel of the film, the cynicism of
the anti-hero with the designer stubble; it really hit the moment
of the time.
Here is this movie saying to us most men worked solely for cash.
It just captured this cynical feeling in England about America.
I remember trying to get all my friends to see the films who were
really not keen at all so it became sort of a crusade. I saw myself
as a lone voice crying in the wilderness in support of these films.
What I particularly like are films that add a new take on a tired
and old threadbare genre.
Q. Have there been any other films in recent times that
you have thought similarly about?
A. Well I suppose Resevoir Dogs springs to mind as does
the first Alien, I like films that take an old, tired genre and
breathe new life into them.
Q. The Dollars trilogy is obviously the best-known of
the spaghetti westerns (apart from Once Upon A Time in the West).
What makes them so special in your opinion?
A. Fistful of Dollars was not the first Italian Western,
in fact it was the 25th, but it was the first one which was not
a complete copy of the American ones.
The reason these Italians were making these Westerns was because
the Americans were not and there was still a European audience
who wanted to see them.
The idea of the magnificent stranger not wanting to get involved
in someone else’s war was something that was still in the
minds of the Italian and European people.
Leone was the first post-modernist filmmaker, that is to say he
was making films that he wanted to see as a film fan. Film buffs
making their own films about films they have seen and loved, in
Leone’s case it was the John Ford Westerns.
Q. Which of the three is your favourite? And why?
A. My favourite has got to be The Good The Bad and The
Ugly, the films were originally never conceived as a trilogy.
But as the first two were becoming more and more popular Leone
was given the money to conclude his films in the perfect way and
bring the story full circle. For me, it’s a perfect mix
of the other two films, the music the photography, the characters
and the direction all come together in such a great way.
Q. How important do these westerns remain in the genre?
And how important were they at the time?
A. Well the impact that these films made was far reaching
and is still today, I think it is widely acknowledged that The
Wild Bunch was made possible by these films. Pekinpah even said
it himself. Peckinpah almost made 'A Fistful of Dynamite'. It
would have been very interesting to see the two of them together:
Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah present.
At the time it inspired film makers to have more anti-hero characters
and get away from the whole James Stewart clean cut leading man,
to characters that people could relate to, the rugged mercenary
creating a new kind of hero. So I think that was the immediate
impact that the films made.
In the longer term, I think that Leone’s use of music has
really influenced today’s cinema. He and Morricone used
to stress the importance of sound design; that is a lesson that
the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and even Tarantino have all taken
Q. At a time when Hollywood continues to look to other
cultures, like Japan, for inspiration to remake films (witness
the current horror explosion, Ring, etc), is it any coincidence
that Japan once again provided the inspiration for some of the
best westerns of all-time (Yojimbo for A Fistful of Dollars; Seven
Samurai for Magnificent Seven)?
A. I think that Leone was definitely influenced by Kurosawa
but I think there was a definite mutual appreciation between the
two. I think that Kursawa took a great deal of inspiration from
the early John Ford films and added a new dimension to them.
For example, the final scene of Seven Samurai in the rain added
a new darker direction to the Western. Hollywood has always taken
inspiration from outside cultures and films and it will continue
Q. It's difficult to think of anyone else other than
Clint Eastwood playing The Man With No Name, yet Henry Fonda and
Charles Bronson were reportedly offered the role first. Does this
intrigue you in a kind of 'how would they have fared sort of way'?
A. Originally James Coburn was due to play the lead but
he was too expensive. Also, I think he had too much charm to play
the character - too many teeth in that grin of his!
Bronson was asked and was given a script which was a very poorly
translated version of the Italian script and I think he said it
was the worst script he had ever read and unsurprisingly passed.
Henry Fonda would have been interesting as he would have been
playing a character totally against type but he turned it down.
The myth is that William Morris gave a photograph of Clint Eastwood
in the TV series Rawhide to Leone and he started colouring it
in, then and there, adding the stubble and the cigarette. I don’t
think that’s true but it’s a nice thought.
Q. Leone clearly has his
favourite actors, re-using people throughout the Dollars films
(Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte), and returning to Fonda and
Bronson for Once Upon A Time In The West. Is this indicative of
the determination of the man in pursuing his vision?
A. I think that Leone definitely had a genius for casting
and yes I think he did have actors that he preferred to work with.
But he wasn’t afraid to take risks like casting Lee Van
Cleef, an actor who was generally considered as washed up and,
at the time of casting, was struggling to pay his electric bill.
After Lee Marvin pulled out of the role to play Colonel Mortimer
(for which he won an Oscar) they needed someone quickly as filming
was due to start soon. Van Cleef showed up to meet them one night
in a hotel when it was pouring with rain and he came in soaking.
Leone took one look at him and said “Don’t say anything
to ruin it, your hired.”
Leone called him the man with the gun sight eyes. They got him
to sign that night and he was filming in Italy in the next couple
of days, which may explain the startled look on his face in some
of the scenes.
Q. You have had the privilege of interviewing Sergio
Leone, what was the man like in person?
A. He was a small, round man with a big beard and an
Orson Welles-type pesona who had no shortage of tall stories which
would get exaggerated every time they were told. But underneath
this I think he was a very sensitive person.
He was also very extroverted in some of his behaviour, the first
time I met him in a hotel we were talking and all of a sudden
he reached across and scoffed an entire bowl of Cashew nuts.
He told me that he was so pleased that some people were taking
his work seriously. I did some research before we met and found
out some information on his father who was a film maker in the
silent era and found out some information on him that even Leone
did not know and I think we built a rappour after that. I remember
being in his personal cinema at his house and watching Once Upon
A Time The West and he gave me a personal commentary and talked
me through each scene of the film.
Q. And Clint Eastwood? Have you met him in person and
how does he look back on the Dollars films? I gather he did fall
out with Leone after The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and refused
to cameo in the opening of Once Upon A Time in the West?
A. I have had the pleasure of meeting Clint Eastwood
on a number of occasions. He is very unlike the character he portrays
on screen. He has total recall and has a very refined persona,
he eats very well and actually a very anti smoker. He looks back
on the films with a fondness and sees it as the opportunity he
was given to launch his career. It could have ended better and
they did have a bite at each other in the press occasionally,
Leone famously said: “Michaelangelo looked at a big block
of marble and saw David, I looked at Eastwood and saw a big block
of marble which is what I needed.” Eastwood had turned down
the cameo at the beginning of the Once Upon a Time in the West,
which was a shame as the other two had agreed.
The scene would have been the three of them waiting for a train
in the desert and it would have been a nice way of coming full
circle and saying goodbye to that story, before beginning a new.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
In the end, though, it ended very well between Leone and Eastwood,
towards the end of Leone’s life he had dinner with Eastwood
who said that that dinner was Leone’s way of saying goodbye
so the pair ended things on very good terms.
Q. Given the stature of Eastwood as a film-maker today,
and the quality of films he directed like The Outlaw Josey Wales,
how much of an impact did Leone have on his early career and how
much does he continue to have today, do you think?
A. I think that Eastwood certainly took lessons from
Leone as a film maker but I also think that the direction he has
gone down as a director is a route of his own, for which he deserves
credit. In the final scene of Pale Rider as he rides out of town
there are a pair of gravestones with a tribute to Leone and Siegal.
I guess maybe he thought of it as a learning experience and when
he felt ready to move out on his own he didn’t hesitate.
Q. The Dollars films are populated by interesting characters,
which is your favourite and why?
A. Tuco definitely, I think Eli Wallach recently said
that on his gravestone he wants written, “here lies the
ugly”. Eli Wallach took quite a bit of his character for
these films from Leone himself, Leone used to wear a belt and
suspenders and that’s where the line comes from “How
am I going to trust this man, he wears a belt and suspenders he
cant even trust his pants”. His comic timing and the fact
that much of his speech had to be added on later in the editing
studio meant that he had to have great comic timing and miming
skill to pull of that role so spectacularly.
(In fact if you look closely at the shop keepers father in Mystic
River (the recent Clint Eastwood film) you will find its Eli Wallach.)
Q. Can you talk about Ennio Morricone's contribution to
the films. His score was an integral part of their success and
A. I love that soundtrack I constantly have that playing
in the car and I recently had it as one of my desert island discs.
Yes I think that the film will be remembered as much for the music
as for the film but the combination of both make something really
special. With Leone and Morricone working so closely and well
together it influenced a generation of film maker Spielberg and
Williams being a perfect example. I think the line that describes
Q. And finally, the western continues to deliver some
interesting films today (Unforgiven, The Missing, the upcoming
Brokeback Mountain). How do you perceive the genre now? And how
much does it (and film-making in general) continue to be indebted
to Sergio Leone? And how special is this DVD collection?
A. I don’t really think the Western really exists
these days, not the way it did. There was a day when the Western
was the back bone of Hollywood in the same way that horror films
are today. Cowboy films these days tend to be more costume movies
than anything else.
The DVD collection finally produces a print which is worthy of
the films themselves. In comparison to some of the prints I have
seen of this film this is second to none and in terms of extras
it offers a great insight into the way the films were made and
how they came to be.