Friday, 11 November 2011

Notes from a Q&A with Sergio Donati

Late in August, the legendary screenwriter Sergio Donati visited Finland and hosted screenings of his films For A Few Dollars More and Once Upon A Time in the West. There was also a Q&A session with Donati, with the film expert Lauri Lehtinen interviewing. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits from that Q&A. Sorry it took so long to transcribe this, I think this is best done by just bulletins than attempting to write a news article or an interview.
  • Donati got his major influences after the end of World War II when he was in his teens. He read the best American novels available, books from Hemingway and Steinbeck. When he met Sergio Leone, they also watched American films, such as John Ford's westerns, together.
  • Donati started out as a novelist, and published several crime novels first in -55 and -56. Film producer Ricardo Freda first optioned him to write a screenplay based on one of the novels. Donati made a "beautiful" adaptation of his crime novel, but never got paid from it. The script was also never made into a film.
  • During this time he also first met Sergio Leone, who was a second unit director back then. As an assistant director, he had an unique style in relation to the story even back then. Leone also had the economic sense to stretch the budget to his likings. He told Donati that he wanted his story to happen within one hotel. Donati later found out that the film's producer owned that particular hotel.
  • The two Sergios bonded because they had the same ideas about movies. When Donati moved to Milan to work as a copywriter in an advertizing agency, Leone still called him all the time to discuss movies and upcoming projects.
  • In 1963, Leone told Donati to go see Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and write the film's plot into a western. When Donati asked whether that would be a copyright infrigement, Leone responded that Kurosawa would never see his version of the movie. However, Donati was too busy with the advertizing business to be able to write the script. Leone had to get other screenwriters for his film A Fistful of Dollars.
  • Confirming the rumours, Donati remembers that Leone attempted to get a lot of bigger Hollywood actors for the main role before he settled for Clint Eastwood, known at the time from his roles on TV westerns, such as Rawhide. The last option before Eastwood was Cliff Robertson, who demanded for too much money.

  • Of course, A Fistful of Dollars became a huge success and eventually Leone would get into trouble for his borrowing from Kurosawa. For Leone's next film in the Dollars-trilogy, For A Few Dollars More, Donati was able to revise and doctor the script. He added some elements, such as the old man who informs Clint Eastwood's Monco about Colonel Mortimer. Donati had the sense of humour to make the character hate trains because the tracks were laid right next to his house. Whenever a train passed by, the house shook violently. The old man himself was driven off the rails by this development.
  • Donati wasn't straight-forwardly involved in the writing of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but helped out in the editing of the film. As Donati points out, the editing is 50% of Leone's films.
  • During the shooting of GBU, the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone started to become strained, according to Donati. Eastwood had become a big star, and thus started asking for more and more money. This led to Leone to insult that Eastwood had only two expressions – with a hat and without a hat.
  • In the end, Leone agreed to pay Eastwood what he wanted, but had Eli Wallach become the real star of the movie, and to make faces at the background when Eastwood was acting in the foreground.

  • Donati got called in to help revise the script for Leone's magnum opus, Once Upon A Time in The West, because Leone was unsatisfied with the script he wrote with Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci. Leone found that script to be too intellectual in its deconstruction of the western myths. 
  • Leone didn't take notes during script meetings, he had the whole film planned out in his head.
  • Donati's contribution includes the fleshing of the character of Jill, about the only real female character in any of Leone's films. Donati laughed that for Leone, a woman was most often either a bitch or a nun. That may be seen in the background for Jill as well, as she's an ex-prostitute.
  • In the original script, Charles Bronson's Harmonica was out avenging his father, not brother. In the finished film, the role of Harmonica's brother was played by the film's production manager.
  • Bronson had problems saying the letter "f". This called for numerous script changes on the set. Luckily, Donati was available. In fact, it was the only time he had been on a film set for a longer period of time. He spend 40 days on the set.
  • The film was shot in accordance of the score by Ennio Morricone, which was played in the set. Donati remembers particularly the scene where Jill leaves the train station and the camera pans to reveal an entire western city. The camera movements were made according to the music playing in the background.
  • Donati debunks the myth that Leone had considered Lee van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood to play the three bandits in the opening scene. He recalled that the relationship with Clint Eastwood was so strained, that Leone had trouble getting the star even to dub his lines for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in New York.

  • Donati wrote the story for Duck, You Sucker, which had references to Italian history, World War II and Italian politics. Leone was initially only interested in producing the film. He was done with the western genre and while Donati's script wasn't a straight-out western, it had plenty of the genre's iconography and sets.
  • The film was offered to Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich. Leone wasn't happy with the latter's refusal to ever use zoom in his films.
  • During the first week of shooting, Leone had to succumb and direct the thing himself. He wasn't very interested in political issues, he was more a visual storyteller.
  • The main role was written originally with Eli Wallach in mind. However, he wasn't interested so the part was given to Rod Steiger instead.

  • For Once Upon A Time in America, Donati was with Leone at location scouting in New York. However, he wanted out of the partnership with Leone as he thought it was beginning to be too tight. In the end, all the film's sets were built in Rome.
  • There was talk of a TV series produced by Leone, called Sergio Leone's Colt, where we would follow a single gun that goes from the hands of dead people to the next users. This never came to fruition.
Sergio Donati (right) with The Finnish Film Archive's Kirsi Raitaranta and the film director Dome Karukoski. Photo by Janne Mikkonen.
    • Donati also wrote screenplays for Sergio Sollima for his films The Big Gundown and Face to Face.
    • Donati didn't enjoy working for Sollima as much as Sollima wanted to have more dialogue in his films rather than just stage directions. Sollima was also very political in his films, whereas Leone was a little more defective. Donati thought that the political ideology was better told with images than to have the characters say straight quotes.
    • Donati compares working with a director to a marriage. He had fights with Sollima about the content, and Sergio Leone cast the screenwriter out when his work wasn't needed any more. Donati's very favorite director to work with was Michele Lupo, who he collaborated with in six films. These include The Weekend Murders (1970), Escape From Death Row (1973) and Buddy Goes West (1981).
    • Donati also remembered fondly the trashy horror film Holocaust 2000 (1977), directed by Alberto De Martino.
    • He remebered how the film's star Kirk Douglas was a great guy. He was proud of his son Michael, who had at the time just won an Oscar for producing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. However, he talked less of his other sons. When one of them (presumably Eric Douglas) came to visit the set it became clear why, to Donati, as Kirk's son was as queer as christmas, and a real prodical son, asking for money.
    • Donati also remembers Arnold Schwarzenegger very fondly from the shooting of Raw Deal (which he wrote original story for). At the time he thought Arnold was very smart, as he didn't choose to take just any role suggested to him. Arnold had to have a layer of irony in his movies.
    • Donati still writes and his latest film, The Sicilian Girl, opened in 2008.
    • He thinks, however, that Italian cinema is dead. Silvio Berlusconi controls the media and any upcoming movie projects have to be suitable for prime-time television.
    • He thinks that the reason Italy became such a big producing country of western films is that it was the country in Europe with the second-biggest movie production. The French may love westerns, but to Donati, they don't understand them completely and thus don't do any.

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