Deconstructing John Milius
On Thursday we unveil a dozen-plus interviews with filmmakers showing at SXSW Film. But print space is tight, and we have so many juicy outtakes, we’re sneaking some online early.
Milius, the feature-length debut from industry stalwarts Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, is as outsized as its subject, filmmaker John Milius, whose screenwriting and/or directing credits include Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, and Red Dawn (not to mention uncredited but crucial script-doctoring work). In this galvanizing documentary, the movie brats – Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Stone, etc. – all pay homage to him even as his gun-toting personal politics estrange him from the film community he calls home.
Austin Chronicle: Which is more intimidating: Sitting in the same room with this massive bear of a guy holding a shotgun and asking him questions, or surveying his massive body of work in the span of a couple of hours?
Joey Figueroa: It’s all an act with John. He’s a teddy bear. We know the teddy bear John. At first it was a little intimidating when we first met him, because we really didn’t’ know much about him other than obviously just his work. His personality supersedes so much of that, and what you found out about what other people think of his personality, it makes this character built within the industry so iconic. But on a personal level, I never really felt that intimidated being in that room. I just felt fascinated. I wanted to learn so much about this guy, aside from his résumé. Talking to him, and the stories he would tell us, sitting down while he was holding court, as he would call it, for hours and hours was just fascinating.
Zak Knutson: The first time we met John, he came to our office to talk about the documentary. He actually knew, Ken Plume, who ended up being a producer on the project and had done a 40-page interview with him. We read that and thought it would probably make a good documentary. And then we talked to John, and I was intimidated at first, but probably within the first 15 minutes, he gave out this big bear laugh in response to a question about his career. He instantly put you at ease, and then the stories would start coming out of him. He loves talking.
Joey Figueroa: It was supposed to be a meet and greet, and it turned out to be a six-hour meeting. He didn’t want to leave. Neither did we. We sat there for probably four hours in the office and another hour in the parking lot and then another standing next to his car. I was in awe of what was happening.
Zak Knutson: Yes, it was kind of awesome.
Austin Chronicle: As filmmakers, is there added pressure doing a documentary on a legendary filmmaker? How did you go about structuring it?
Zak Knutson: That’s actually really good question. Here’s a question for you: You’ve obviously seen the doc. The stroke. Are we going to talk about the stroke in this interview? [To Figueroa] Is that going to be something that we try and hold onto until after the premiere?
Austin Chronicle: Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about mentioning the stroke.
Joey Figueroa: Zak, I actually did an online interview that Matt [Perniciaro, producer] oversaw, and I did mention the stroke in there. I feel okay mentioning it.
Zak Knutson: Okay, cool. Basically, the answer is, we started out the documentary as one thing, because John hadn’t had the stroke yet. We were going through it, and I would say we were two years into the documentary, and we were about to do our big on-camera sit-down interview with him, and we got a call saying, “Don’t come up right now; something’s going on, and we’ll talk to you about it later.” And then we found out that John had had a stroke. So, once John had the stroke, we put everything on the back burner, because at that point we had gotten to know John pretty well, and we were just kind of concerned about his health. After about six to nine months, John moved back to L.A., because he was living in upstate New York, and we had a meeting with him and his son. And we talked about whether this was something we were going to continue with or something where we would say, “You know, we’re kind of done; let’s leave it as it is.”
Joey Figueroa: For a while, there was this possibility that it would never see the light of day. It was one of those things where it was like, “You know what? I don’t think it’s going to happen,” because we wanted to chronicle John’s life to present day, so how do we approach this?
Zak Knutson: John still wanted to do the documentary. He wanted to take part in it, so we decided to move forward. But we knew we had to address the stroke. We said, “It’s not your life; it’s not your professional career, but it did affect it,” and he was totally fine with that. We kind of moved on from there.
Austin Chronicle: Moved on to –
Zak Knutson: Figuring out how to do it! [laughs] You would interview one person, and they would say, “Have you talked to this person?” Because originally, we were supposed to do only 15 interviews, and we ended up doing 60-plus. The spider web of John and all of his friends: It just kept growing and growing and growing. We always wanted the documentary … whoever was there at the time, we wanted them to speak. It’s always more interesting to hear from the people who were there than somebody else.
Joey Figueroa: The approach completely changed with John’s condition. For us, there was a challenge. Our original approach was completely out the window. And with documentaries, that’s not uncommon. It happens all of the time. You start out with an idea of what you want to present, and all of sudden, there’s not just one single path. You have to go with the roads and the stories that present themselves. What happened with John, we obviously wanted to give him a voice, so what we had to is, we had to find old audio tapes, old video tapes, old interviews, whatever we could get our hands on, because John had to speak, and he wasn’t able to speak. We were lucky enough to find some stuff, some of it really rough, but we tried to make it work, including the last sit-down interview that he did, what was it, with students from Cal State, Zak?
Zak Knutson: I think they were from Cal State-Northridge, yeah.
Joey Figueroa: They did, like, an hour with him, and that was a gem for us. It was in 2004. He really hasn’t spoken publicly since then. How do we incorporate that most effectively in John’s present condition? The original idea was to chronicle John, who was MIA from the industry for a long time, during this big comeback. “Let’s reintroduce John Milius to the world. If you don’t know who this man is, you’re going to. Whether you like movies or not, you should know who this dude is.” That was the original approach.
Zak Knutson: The thing with John was, if you like movies, and you’re involved in pop culture in any way, you’ve been affected by John Milius. Whether it’s reciting “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” or the Dirty Harry line or watching the UFC, which John was one of the founders of.
Joey Figueroa: It’s like Six Degrees of Separation with John Milius. We were trying to capture that.
Austin Chronicle: The interviews contain so much gold. The anecdotes alone…
Joey Figueroa:… They all had wacky, funny, interesting stories about John, about how he affected them. You can imagine the amount of footage we’ve got with these interviews. And, as filmmakers, it was basically like cutting our arm off every time we had to lose a story. That’s what it felt like. I can give you one of my favorites that didn’t make it: George Hamilton says John Milius saved his life.
Zak Knutson: [laughs]
Joey Figueroa: I won’t give you the full story, because I think it’s better if you use your imagination. It included Hamilton being wrapped in a hotel towel, a helmet, a flak jacket, a remote-detonated lawn, and a crazed hooker with a pistol.
Austin Chronicle: Jesus, that’s no joke.
Joey Figueroa: And someone might say, “How does that not make it in?” Well, you know, you gotta pick and choose.
Austin Chronicle: You’ve talked about John’s heroes. Is he a hero to you guys? Is that what drew you to this project to begin with?
Joey Figueroa: He’s become someone who I’ve grown to admire immensely. For reasons that you might not imagine. You look at John, and the writing’s amazing. His body of work is amazing. In the beginning, my knowledge of John was just that: his work. But what I appreciate about John is his personality, and what we’ve learned in this process. He’s fiercely loyal; he speaks with zero filter. No bullshit, and I like that about anybody. Sometimes that’s not popular, but I respect it. He carries himself with a code. He backs up what he says.
Zak Knutson: For me, I love John’s work. I think Dillinger is an overlooked masterpiece. It’s beautiful. Conan the Barbarian, I was a fan of it when I was a kid, still am. Red Dawn, I remember the controversy that came out of it, and I really didn’t understand it, because adults took a different slant on it. As kids, we took it the way John intended it: The bad guys came in and took over your town, and you fought back. Whereas adults were, like, “This is right-wing propaganda!” I like characters, and I think that’s something lacking in Hollywood today. There aren’t a lot of filmmakers, maybe a handful, who say, “This is what I’m going to do, and this is how I’m going to do it, and damn the torpedoes.” John definitely had a take to his films. You can call it macho, you can call it masculine, you can call it guy stuff, but it was a unique point of view, which made John stand apart from his peers.
Joey Figueroa: He’s probably one of the last few of that breed. A handshake guy.
Zak Knutson: Tarantino, now, is in that tradition.
Austin Chronicle: How much does someone like Tarantino owe to Milius?
Zak Knutson: I think he would be the first one to say that John was a big influence. John actually advised him a lot on Inglorious Basterds. Quentin gave him a thank you. The story John tells is about that opening scene with the girl and Christoph Waltz and the families under the floor. Tarantino showed him the movie and said, “See that? I’m doing you right there! I’m doing you!”
Joey Figueroa: It’s always the writers who know and look up to John. They’re the ones who are most strongly influenced. Tarantino is an awesome director, but he’s really a writer: He changed the way people speak in movies, and, beyond that, what movies are capable of. It’s the same way with John.
Milius screens Saturday, March 9, 9:45pm at the Vimeo Theater; Sunday, March 10, 6:45pm, Alamo Village; Wednesday, March 13, 1:30pm, Alamo Slaughter; and Friday, March 15, 7pm, Vimeo.