Interview: Director John Milius

John Milius

[This interview was first published in 1999 in Film Threat; this is the full, unedited version of the text, as it existed before it was cut down for original publication.]

John Milius is a Hollywood legend. With nearly 30 film and TV credits as a screenwriter, his most famous scribe gig was penning Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). As writer-directer, he gave us dramas like Farewell to the King (1989), the beloved surf-epic Big Wednesday (1978), and the notorious Red Dawn (1984), films which often had much to say about masculine identity. Yet his most enduring contribution to popular culture may be Conan the Barbarian (1982), which makes the best cinematic use of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s taut, rippling flesh, and which can boast as being the only version of Robert E. Howard’s character and setting that comes anywhere close to the original pulp stories.

Milius participated in making A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and the Searchers (1998), a documentary on John Ford’s famous 1956 film from director Nick Redman. The film contains footage taken from twenty reels of outtakes discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. The documentary is now included with the video release of the special widescreen edition of the film. Redman had heard of screenwriter Milius’s great affection for Ford’s work, and contacted him to provide commentary for the piece. Milius’s poetic descriptions and throaty narration add an engaging sense of epic depth to the film.

Among other things, I asked Milius about his involvement in the project and his feelings about Ford, as well as his association with Francis Ford Coppola, his political views, and his fondness for guns. He’s a great, jovial bear of a man, and talking to him, even on the phone, was the conversational equivalent of shooting the breeze with your favorite uncle while smoking cigars and drinking single-malt scotch.

Allen White: Tell me about your involvement in the John Ford documentary, A Turning of the Earth.

John Milius: Well, he (A Turning of the Earth director Nick Redman) just came to me, and he said, “I know that you’re a fanatic about this film, and kind of showed it to all your friends and everything, and now widely stolen and quoted, and everything (laughs). So he wanted me to sort of talk about it. And he had a very interesting technique; he just had me kind ramble on, and I tend to get quite esoteric, or poetic, or pretentious when I’m rambling on, and especially when I don’t realize it’s being recorded. Then what he did was he took pieces of that, and used that against his film, in different contexts and stuff for the narration. He then came back to me and had me re-record it. But what was sort of startling to me was how good some of this stuff sounded, you know, when I read it.

…all great filmmaking is personal filmmaking, and (John Ford) is one of the most personal filmmakers.

AW: It sounds like it was written, it really does.

JM: I know, and I said, “You mean I said that?” (laughs)

AW: In the documentary, you speak of Ford very reverently, and say “I think John Ford is the best director who ever lived.” Tell me why John Ford is so important to you.

JM: ‘Cause he is. In doing this, from what I’ve learned in a lifetime of trying to make films and stuff, and you know, if you do these things, these things ultimately…all artistry is ultimately the same. It’s like building a piece of carpentry, or a gun-stock, or a surfboard or something like that. You learn how to do certain things, you learn your craft as a screenwriter; there are certain things that are kind of finishing, there are certain things that are shaping, there are certain things that are kind of rough sanding, or laying out the wood. And writing a screenplay is just like it would be in anything else. And what happens when you just kind of reduce it to that, when it stops being, you know, when you’ve done it enough, and done it well enough, too, you really have to learn how to do it good to get to that stage where it becomes workmanlike. Then you start looking at the films, the work that you really admire, and you can really see what the guy is doing. And when you can really see what the guy is doing, you realize that Ford is the best; how effortless it is, how simple, how elegant, you know, how the choices are better, how there’s just something that also speaks to me. All great directors, all great filmmaking is personal filmmaking, and he’s one of the most personal filmmakers.

AW: Was it a film that you saw when you were younger, and it was one of those films that made you want to make films?

JM: Yeah, but at the time I didn’t ever think of making films. I was like fourteen years old, and I wanted to be a jet pilot.

AW: What are your feelings about John Ford and John Wayne as two men who helped define the Hollywood masculine image?

JM: Well, I think it was a really good thing. I think that the values you get from those films — from Ford, from his films, from Duke Wayne for what he was — are really good values. And if they find a masculine image, it really isn’t such a strange one, because it really is a masculine image that’s been around for about five thousand years.

AW: In fact, you mention Homer in your description of John Ford. Tell me about the use of mythic structure in The Searchers.

JM: Well, I think that mythic structure is only a simple thing; that whatever’s happening in the present in the film in the foreground has echoes or resonances that go much, much further. And you can’t do that on purpose. You can’t say to the audience, “Lookit, lookit, this is symbolic, look, this is the white whale!” You can’t do that kind of thing. You either have to make it obvious if you’re going to point to something else, like Apocalypse Now being Heart of Darkness, or something where you don’t try and hide it, you know, you point out that there is a similarity, there’s a reason why I’ve chosen this story. There’s a similarity between these times, or something. Or, you have to do it in such a simple and elegant way that it just does it on its own, like The Searchers does.

AW: And in fact in Hearts of Darkness (1991) you compare that story to Homer’s Odyssey. Was that mythology conscious when you wrote it?

JM: No, you just sort of feel, you know…usually writers kind of throw that stuff in after they’ve done it. In other words, you say, “Yeah, yeah –- this is like The Odyssey, yeah.” Afterwards, you sort of realize, boy, that’s sort of similar to The Odyssey. I remember reading a piece on Apocalypse, where they said, “Well, there’s only a few references that could possibly be similar to The Odyssey in this work.” Like I was really consciously trying to make it like The Odyssey? I mean, what did the guy think I was doing? I was just bullshitting because it was done. (laughs) You know, it’s good for English classes.

…we’ve always been fascinated with the Warrior. The Warrior has always been one of the most exalted figures in society, because war is so bizarre.

AW: I guess it’s always amazing when you read other people’s critique of your work, and they’re pulling out ideas and things that you never consciously put in there.

JM: Or you sort of allude to something and they take it so dead serious.

AW: Well, you know, academics need to keep their jobs, too, I guess.

JM: Certainly, it is an odyssey; Apocalypse is an odyssey, The Searchers is an odyssey.

AW: In the sense that it’s an archetypal journey.

JM: A journey of discovery, too.

AW: Looking at Apocalypse, Farewell to the King, Conan, and even recent efforts like Geronimo (1993), it looks very clear that one of your recurring themes is of the testing of a man’s character in the heat of battle, that his true nature emerges in life-and-death circumstances. What is your fascination with the character and culture of the Warrior?

JM: Well, we’ve always been fascinated with the Warrior. The Warrior has always been one of the most exalted figures in society, because war is so bizarre. And it’s like a mystical thing that man does –- ants do it too, I suppose; warriors would be important in an ant colony, too, and probably would be exalted. I mean, we do it in our society whether we like it or not; I mean, why do you think football players brag about their Super Bowl ring? You know, this is that same thing exactly. And people who sort of, you know, kind of scoff at me and say, “Well he’s just a militarist,” or something like that, yet they never miss a basketball game, and they have their basketball stars they love who are, you know, fulfilling the same sort of place –- not very well.

AW: Just to paraphrase, you’ve got quotes like Kilgore in Apocalypse, who says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” and goes on to say, “it smells like victory.” And then you have Conan, who says, when asked what is best in life: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Which is one of my favorite movie lines of all time.

JM: (laughs) That’s paraphrasing Genghis Khan.

AW: (laughs) Really? That’s excellent!

JM: He said something like, “To see enemies in flight before you, to take their women and hear their crying, and to hear their women and their children crying, and to ride their horses.” He put in, I love that, “to ride their horses.” “To watch their cities burn,” you know. It was a wonderful kind of very poetic thing that he just sort of rambled on. I always wondered, when I read that, I always wondered when it was asked. Was he going by and some media guy said, “Great Khan, can you give us a few words about what is best in life?”

AW: (laughs) “Tell us about the sacking of Carthage.” Really.

JM: Of course, he really understood P.R.

AW: In A Turning of the Earth, it’s also a very similar philosophy that you’re espousing when you say: “The Comanche are not jackals, they’re lions. They’re not beasts, they’re kings. And they’re gonna get you.” And then you also say: “Ethan doesn’t care if he dies here among the Comanche arrows and bullets. Because he’s going to kill this guy, and Scar knows that. They have no fear of each other. They’re dogs just barely held by the chain.”

Throughout the filming (of Apocalypse Now) there were disasters, and everything else. But see, one of the things that that film doesn’t convey is the real heroic nature of filmmaking, which is embodied in Francis (Coppola), which is that you put your foot in front of the other.

JM: Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to be just dogs just barely held by the chain? Don’t we want to have no fear of our enemies? Don’t we all want that freedom of exultation and purpose when you know you have a mission that you’re willing to die on?

AW: Is that part of the appeal for you, then?

JM: Yeah, it’s — to anybody. What’s really interesting is that that’s lacking today. I saw Good Will Hunting (1997). And I thought what was very interesting in Good Will Hunting, which has a lot of really great stuff in it, was that that was lacking. What Roosevelt calls “the great enthusiasms.” “To spend yourself in a worthy cause.” What is it? “To spend yourself in a worthy cause, to know the great enthusiasms, to strive, and if you fail, at least fail doing greatly; and if you succeed, to know the triumph of high accomplishment. But never share that nether world of those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” Generation X is very smart, and everything, but it needs a little, what did he call it? It needs a little “bully.” It needs a little T.R. (Teddy Roosevelt).

AW: A sense of direction, certainly.

JM: Well, they need that passion. They need that sense of –- you know, they need the “great enthusiasms.” They need that sense of purpose and mission.

AW: That goes back, I suppose, to what you were saying about Good Will Hunting, to the idea of a story being about a quest.

JM: Yeah, that there is something that’s worth a quest. I mean, Ethan (John Wayne’s character in The Searchers) spends his life in a worthy cause, and then he walks away. And he gets nothing for it — it doesn’t matter. In Good Will Hunting, what was so interesting about that whole movie, was that the whole movie is about this guy deciding what to do with himself. You know, this guy who’s a genius, and all these other things. It’s all irrelevant — what happened to him as a kid, or his girlfriend, or anything — what’s he going to do with himself?

AW: But don’t you feel that that in a sense epitomizes the modern condition, and epitomizes Generation X?

JM:Yeah, but why give in to it? It is not the nature…all you have to do is look at history, and realize that if you give into it, your generation will just be run over by another that isn’t going to give into it.

AW: If anything we’re certainly lacking a sense of history these days.

JM: It’s like people say the “point of modernity” is Clinton’s impeachment trial. You know, that the country no longer wants the values of character, or what was assumed to be character. This is bullshit! The character that he is being tried upon — not sex, or anything else, but lying and not living up to any code, or anything like that — goes back five thousand years! His legacy is not going to escape that. These things that we’re taking about, we haven’t ruled out the same values that are espoused in Homer, or in The Searchers, or in anything else, or John Ford’s work, or Braveheart (1995), even. We haven’t ruled those out. Those are not obsolete. They may not be popular, for the moment, or something. But they’re not obsolete, because they never were obsolete. There’s no change.

Everybody wants to be a filmmaker, everybody wants to be a screenwriter. You can go to Sundance and be considered a smart-ass artist. And really what’s interesting is none of these people ever talk about, you know, they don’t approach it from the point to view of an artist that they have something really interesting to say.

AW: But has our relationship to those values changed?

JM: No. I think the only reason it seems to have changed is because we’re soft. And we’re going through a very soft period, where we’re rich, you know, and soft. But you know, those are always transitory periods. You know, there’s always misery in store for man. There’s always a test.

AW: Constantly, I would say, yeah.

JM: It’s the same when they were in school, you know: “There WILL be a test.” You know, “Read this information carefully, because there WILL be a test.”

AW: What do you think our next test is?

JM: I don’t know. But there WILL be a test. Make sure you study well, ‘cause there WILL be a test. There always is.

AW: Coppola in Hearts of Darkness, said: “…the questions that I kept facing or running into, into this stupid script about four guys going up to kill a guy, that that was the story. But the questions that that story kept putting me I couldn’t answer. Yet I knew that I had constructed the film in such a way that to not answer would be to fail.” How did your answer of what the story was about differ from Coppola’s? Because your script was changed, he rewrote it during the process of shooting.

JM: Yeah, but that part of it never changed. The incidents changed within the script, but the script basically never changed.

AW: How did you feel about Coppola’s reworking of the ending? Because the ending seems significantly different between your version and his.

JM: Oh, I wrote so many endings, that, you know, his ending isn’t any different. I mean, the ending we both liked the most we never got to do. The ending we both liked was kind of an ending that was sort of out of the book, where they take him (Colonel Kurtz) back down the river. The Montagnards follow, singing “Light My Fire,” and then finally attack the enemy and call in an airstrike. And there just wasn’t enough money for that. Or time. But we both realized that that was the best ending. And so, you know there were many different endings. The other ending that was very good, we were going to have an ending where Willard goes back to see Kurtz’s wife. And that was very good. I wrote that, and that was a very good scene.

AW: Yeah, you’ve got a framing device in an earlier version of the script where we see the character (Willard) basically in the present talking about the war, and we come back to him at the end, and that was totally discarded.

JM: Yeah, that was in several versions where he was on a boat, working for some rich guys, or something like that. Another one, he was talking, just telling the story to somebody.

AW: You mention in Hearts that you went to the Philippines to meet with Coppola for a rewrite, and that he convinced you that everything would work out for the best. Before he turned you around, did you get any sense of edgy foreboding from the cast and crew that things weren’t going well?

JM: Throughout the filming there were disasters, and everything else. But see, one of the things that that film doesn’t convey is the real heroic nature of filmmaking, which is embodied in Francis, which is that you put your foot in front of the other. Whatever happens you’re gonna keep going. That movie created a much greater romanticization of what went on than what really did because it seems like there was this great moment of crisis, and there was this moment of crisis that was overcome. There were crises every day. And it went on and on forever. And it was just who was going to be standing at the end. Well everybody knew that Francis would be standing at the end. But Francis wasn’t gonna quit. He wasn’t gonna compromise, and he wasn’t gonna quit. The only way to make a good movie is to have that attitude.

Don’t we want to be just dogs just barely held by the chain? Don’t we want to have no fear of our enemies? Don’t we all want that freedom of exultation and purpose when you know you have a mission that you’re willing to die on?

AW: I think, though, one thing that it (Hearts) conveys very well is that the journey of the story of the film is mirrored in the journey of making the film.

JM: Yeah. You can’t show what I was just talking about because it isn’t exciting. It isn’t dramatic. But it is the truth. And ultimately, ten years afterwards, or something like that, we had this reunion, it was like a veterans’ reunion. And everybody was scarred. You could see that everybody was scarred, because this had taken a lot out of people’s lives. Everybody from Francis to the grips.

AW: Did you have any sense when you were working on it that it was going to be this cinematic milestone?

JM: No. No. You never do, you never have a sense of that. You just wonder whether this is going to be the movie that breaks the studio, or whether it’s going to make money. You know, I knew it would be really good. Because the elements…when you start out with real, real good materials — real good actors, real good director, good script, all that — you’re gonna get a good movie. Especially if you have the ambitious desire to make a good movie. Francis is not like another director. You know, a director today is sitting there saying, you know, he’s more interested in…you know, like I say about screenwriters: screenwriters, for the most part, are much more interested in making a living than in telling a story. And that sort of describes filmmakers today, totally. Whereas we weren’t that way. We were much more interested in telling that story.

AW: When you started in filmmaking working for American International Pictures, do you feel there was a sense of adventure in those days that filmmaking now lacks?

JM: Yeah. Absolutely. There was no climate of fear. There wasn’t this sort of “cheap gene” that I talk about, you know, the idea that, “Gee, I’m going to make a lot of money in this business, and I’m going to be famous.” This is a new role to play in our society now, that of filmmaker, that is sort of opened up to everybody. Everybody wants to be a filmmaker, everybody wants to be a screenwriter. You can go to Sundance and be considered a smart-ass artist. And really what’s interesting is none of these people ever talk about, you know, they don’t approach it from the point to view of an artist that they have something really interesting to say. Or that they’re gonna strive and try and make these things for a long time, or anything. It’s all to do with the big score.

AW: In fact, David Mamet wrote an essay that’s in this month’s Zoetrope All Story (Spring 1999), Coppola’s magazine, and he talks about exactly that thing, that everybody is writing a screenplay these days, and how it’s basically all about commerce, and has nothing to do with art. Which is really depressing, actually.

JM: It’s true. I don’t know if we can sit there and say, well, “this has nothing to do with art.” I mean what defines art? Is art so sacred? It’s just that commerce is something else. I don’t know, it just seems to me that these people are doing it for different rewards. They want different rewards than we want. I don’t know what those rewards are; being hip, being in, being famous, whatever it is. We didn’t want those rewards — we wanted to see the finished product; that was the reward.

AW: A great goal.

JM: We wanted to sit down one day and see Apocalypse Now.

AW: Especially after making Red Dawn, certain detractors labeled you as a right-wing reactionary. How do you respond to this?

I’m just a right-wing extremist so far beyond the Christian-identity people like that and stuff, that they can’t even imagine. I’m so far beyond that I’m a Maoist.

JM: They misread me. They’re wrong. You know, I’m really an extreme right-wing reactionary. I’m not a reactionary — I’m just a right-wing extremist so far beyond the Christian-identity people like that and stuff, that they can’t even imagine. I’m so far beyond that I’m a Maoist. I’m an anarchist. I’ve always been an anarchist. Any true, real right-winger if he goes far enough hates all form of government, because government should be done to cattle and not human beings. Actually I think I’ve found a political voice in Jesse Ventura. I really like Governor Ventura. He’s my man. I’ll follow Governor Jesse — I’ll vote for him.

AW: I see elements of Red Dawn that are actually satirical. Like when they’re in the prison camp, and the drive-in movie behind them is running propaganda films and Sergei Eisenstein.

JM: Oh, yeah, and if you can ever hear what they’re saying, it’s just hilarious. It’s just outrageous, wonderful stuff that’s blathering on the screen — you can’t hear it, though. And one of the great scenes they took out, which is the greatest scene, where they go to McDonald’s. All of a sudden this Cuban armored unit comes off the road into McDonald’s, in front of them and everything, APCs driving up to the window, and the guy’s saying, you know: (Russian accent) “Beeg Mac. Geeve me Beeg Mac.” Pressing the buzzer. “And fries. You forgot the fries. There is special today. Why are you trying to fool us?”

AW: That’s culture shock.

JM: There was all kinds of stuff like that in there that was taken out.

AW: I think the film definitely spoke to the certain zeitgeist of the Reagan era in a big respect, which is probably why people took it so seriously.

JM: It is serious…I mean, so many people say to me, “Oh, what do you think of it today; there is no more Soviet Union.” I say, “That movie wasn’t about the Soviet Union. That movie was about the Federal Government.”

AW: Is it fair to say that your main story interests, as a screenwriter and as a director, lie in the world of male relationships, and that female characters are basically peripheral to what you’re interested in?

JM: Female characters are mysterious. I find females a mystery. They’re always a mystery.

AW: Yeah, you me both. So how do they fit into the stories?

JM: You know, prime motivational forces. Often the most extreme motivational forces.

AW: Well, yeah, arguably; look at The Searchers, for example. It’s two men looking for a woman.

JM: Or look at my films, you know, The Wind and the Lion (1975).

AW: Valeria and Conan.

JM: Or The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), where women play this terribly important role.

AW: Your themes in a certain respect seem to me to be very much like Hemingway’s. Is he an influence?

JM: I suppose so. I suppose that he was an influence on everybody in my generation. Though I was sort of tired of him by the time I was sixteen. And I was really more into Steinbeck, and those writers. I think Steinbeck’s had a tremendous influence on me.

AW: In what respect?

JM: Looking back, I mean Faulkner, I read a lot of Faulkner, too. Those were who you read. You were usually introduced to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And if you were the outdoorsy type, you liked Hemingway. And if you were the guy who wanted to be in a fraternity you went to Fitzgerald. And if you went beyond that you found Faulkner and Steinbeck. And one of the things I really like about Steinbeck was there was a certain kind of social resonance, sort of an anarchistic leftist nature, a seeking of justice. It was really good for young men to read, and older men, too, once you get a sense of mission, and a sense of humanity. And that combined with a really clear writing style and a certain pagan gusto.

I think there’s a lot of themes and a lot of stuff that’s thematic in similarities in my work…but I think there’s sort of an enthusiasm for the struggle.

AW: Tom Clancy is a friend of yours, correct? Since doing an adaptation of Clear & Present Danger (1994), have you discussed collaborating on anything else, or doing other adaptations of his work?

JM: I did another one for him, I did The Hunt for Red October (1999) [1], that’s where I met him. I was supposed to direct Without Remorse, and it got tied up, and the company that owned it went bankrupt. So I don’t know what’ll happen with that.

AW: Would you like to? Are you interested in doing other stuff with him?

JM: Not as much. Those things are kind of…they’re technothrillers. A different kind of thing than I do.

AW: So what are you working on now?

JM: A technothriller. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) But it’s a Milius technothriller.

JM: No, I’m actually turning in two scripts for Fox. One which is a technothriller, and the other a semi-technothriller. Actually it isn’t, it’s a technothriller that goes feral. And the other is a sort of medieval western. You know, Shane (1956) during the 100 Years’ War.

AW: Do you like (Sergio) Leone’s work?

JM: Love Leone’s work.

AW: I’m a huge fan, too.

JM: I knew him pretty well. He used to come to my house every year and try to convince me to do various things. He wanted me to do Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Then at the end we were going to do Leningrad. And then he died just as we started to get down to really doing that.

AW: I wonder what he would have done next?

JM: He was going to do Leningrad. He was committed to doing Leningrad. He and I talked a great deal about it. I mean, what we called Leningrad. It was a story that took place during the siege of Leningrad.

AW: Back to your politics, you’re noted for you anti-gun-control sentiment. Tell me about your relationship with, and views on guns.

JM: Well, I like guns because I’m a hunter and a sports shooter, and I like to shoot shotguns and stuff. I’m not obsessed with guns the way people think I am. I don’t have piles of pistols or racks of assault rifles. I like fine shotguns and the workmanship in them, and I like going upland game shooting, and shooting sporting clays. But my obsession is that guns give you a certain degree of freedom, and that our forefathers were very concerned about that freedom, you know, freedom from the government. And that right, once it’s eroded, is the only thing you have, really.

AW: And pretty much that’s what you were saying in Red Dawn?

JM: Mm-hmh.

AW: What would you say is your main theme as a writer?

JM: You never think of that, you never think of…as a matter of fact, if you knew it, it would be terrifying because your work would die, because there’s some main theme that you find interesting in life, and that’s what you end up usually writing about. And if you could really identify it, it would be difficult. So I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of themes and a lot of stuff that’s thematic in similarities in my work, but I don’t know, but I think there’s sort of an enthusiasm for the struggle. I think the only way you can approach it, really. I don’t know, like I say, it’s a mysterious thing. What are we supposed to do, are we supposed to be happy? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to put up a good fight.

AW: I think that very neatly sums it up. Have you talked about writing another piece for Coppola?

JM: I’ve over the years tried to really get him to do something outrageous. We were going to do a Garcia Marquez piece. Recently I talked to him about doing something; we both like Garcia Marquez a lot. And then another thing we were going to do, is I’ve always felt he really should do something on Napoleon that he’s always wanted to do. And of course I’ve always wanted to write Alexander the Great, and I can’t think of anyone who should direct it but Francis.

AW: Who has that sense of epic scale.

JM: Yeah, and it’s the ambition, and what it’s about, what it strives to be. That’s what I find lacking in films today is that they don’t have a lot of ambition. They’re very pretentious without ambition. (laughs) Which is really hard to do!

AW: They seem to be reaching for something that isn’t there, I guess. Because there’s all this money being poured into them obviously, but then, poured into what?

JM: The stuff that’s supposed to be art, you know, like The English Patient (1996)? Oh, God, deliver me from The English Patient! The one that really got me years ago, you know, because we get this big pile of films from the Academy, and the one that really got me was The Madness of King George (1994). And I said, “Yeah, I know that story. That ought to be really interesting. Let’s see what this is going to be like.” And I saw it, and it was the ultimate, “So what?” At the end of it, I went, “So fucking what?!” And I don’t think that’s the one, but I took another one like that, it was Enchanted April (1991); and I took it out into the yard and shot it. But I think that was the year that I wrote in a straight Babe (1995) ticket. I wrote in Babe for best actor, Babe for best pic. I really liked Babe.

[1.] Milius did an uncredited edit of the script for The Hunt for Red October.