The Storytellers — Interview with Sergio Donati

Interviewed at his home outside of Rome on October 17, 1999

Sergio Donati is best known for his collaborations with Sergio Leone on such films as Once Upon a Time in the West, Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in America. In fact, he is invariably interviewed not about himself but about Leone. When I assured him that I was more interested in his own career he relaxed considerably.

Donati has enjoyed a prolific career, including writing for Hollywood with the Schwarzeneger vehicle Raw Deal and Orca, among others. We spoke about his career and the years spent with Leone inevitably came up. He recalls his career and friendship with Leone and Morricone and relays anecdotes about visiting the sets of the various spaghetti westerns.

He is the most contemporary of the six writers. He is the only one who adheres to the three act structure. I asked him if he had any personal rules he used when writing. With a classic Italian shrug he replied, “What is film? In the first act, you hang a man up in a tree. In the second act, you throw stones at him. In the third act, he falls down. If he is alive, it is a comedy. If he is dead, it is a drama.”

On the terrace of his house by the sea he is relaxed and at ease although he longs for the revival of the Italian cinema and talks about the current, albeit eternal, crisis.

MCA: How did you first begin in the film industry as a screenwriter?

SD: I started rather early. I was 21 and studying law at university. I didn’t want to become a lawyer so I wrote a mystery novel and got it published. Over the following year I wrote two more books and suddenly I had the biggest producers like DeLaurentis and Ponti taking options out on my books. Two of them, years later, became films.

So I had the chance to meet people involved in films. One of them became the foundation for my career, Sergio Leone, who was a young assistant director at the time. We became good friends. Shortly after that I was give the opportunity to write a screenplay based on a good novel by James Hartley Chase. It was a period when Italian film was in the midst of a crisis, much like now. I didn’t get paid all the time. I was rather disgusted by the film industry so I decided to move to Milano. It was the capital of advertising and publishing and I started a career in advertising. For five years I didn’t even think about films.

However this Sergio Leone guy kept calling me saying, “What are you doing in Milano? Come back to Roma and make films.” One day he called me and told me to go and see a Kurosawa film, Yojimbo. When I asked him why he said that we could do it as a western.

I told him he was crazy. I said to my wife that if a man named Leone calls to say that I wasn’t home. That is why I didn’t write A Fistful of Dollars. Nevertheless, he kept calling me and I finally decided to come back to Roma and I worked as an uncredited ghost writer on a rewrite of A Few Dollars More.

Leone kept insisting that I write more for him. He kept calling me his writer. I decided to ask Alberto Grimaldi, Leone’s producer, for a one-year contract that matched my advertising salary, plus extra for each film I wrote. I got it. I was a ghost writer on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and wrote a couple of other good westerns which are now cult classics. The Big Showdown and Face to Face by Sergio Solema. Finally I had the honour of having my name on Once Upon a Time in the West. So that is how it all began. In the meantime I wrote many other films for various directors.

There are many I’ve written that were never produced. A good screenplay must be topical. Many of mine didn’t fit into the trends of the period.

MCA: You are still active as a screenwriter. What have you been doing recently?

SD: I’ve done many things. I had two movies out last year. They disappeared rather quickly because Italian cinema is an endangered species, protected by the WWF. The Italian public doesn’t go to see Italian movies.

I’ve been writing for television since the 80’s. Not series, but mini-series which are basically three-hour long films. After writing so much for Leone, three hours is like a short film for me. (laughs) For Italian writers, mini-series are the only chance to write action-adventure or period films with the biggest actors.

MCA: Italian film has been in a crisis so many times it seems.

SD: The State funding seems to always choose films with cultural significance over box-office hits. But you can’t force the audience at gun-point to see these films. Especially now with all these multi-plexes. If you have seven big American films and two little Italian films, nobody will choose the Italian films. Like George in the Seinfeld series says, “This film cost ten thousand dollars to make. Why do I have to pay the same ticket price as a Spielberg film?”

MCA: How do feel about the anonymity of being a screenwriter?

SD: I remember an excerpt from Charles Bukowski’s book, Hollywood, about his sole experience as a screenwriter. At a press conference he saw everyone else: the director, and the actors, all talking about “their” film. The writer just sits in a corner and listens even though it was his or her blood, sweat and tears that created it.

A script is like a spermatozoa. When the movie comes out it is like they are baptizing the child and it is in bad taste to talk about that night, nine months before, when the child was conceived. That night was the script. But nobody talks about it.

In Europe we don’t the 3 million dollars that the great American screenwriters get and so we can’t fight for our ideas. We just shrug and say, “Okay. Maybe I’ll be luckier with the next one”.

MCA: Should screenwriters have the chance to become stars like some of them are in the States?

SD: Well, it is difficult. In Italian the word for screenwriter and scenographer is very similar and everybody mixes the two up. I have even led myself to believe that I was a scenographer. (laughs)
There are two kinds of screenwriters in my opinion. Those who think writing is a stepping stone to becoming a director and those who are screenwriters. The best screenwriters in Italy have never thought about directing. Sergio Medea was a great Italian screenwriter and whenever anyone said to him, “Nobody knows who I am. I’m always in the shadows”, he would tell them that they have chosen to be a sergeant. If they had want to be a general, they should have gone to West Point.

MCA: A good screenwriter shouldn’t have aspirations as a director?

SD: I believe that to be true. It’s a different mentality. A good director should be able to write well. Leone was a good concept maker. He wasn’t a good writer but he was a great inventor and a great talker.

MCA: What was the collaboration like between you and Leone.

SD: I’ve always been a writer. I like to work alone. I like to exchange ideas and discuss with Leone but then come home to my typewriter or computer. But I knew exactly what he wanted and how he thought. If you look at the script for Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s like a transcript of the film. He was very faithful to the script and never improvised.

MCA: What is the writer’s responsibility in the film process.

SD: There is no one answer. There are many factors. But the writer is very important. He should be. For example, the writer should be on set but that is rare these days. But that is a question of money. There isn’t any money for the writer to be on the set like there was in the old days.

MCA: Did you visit the set of Once Upon a Time on the West?

SD: Only for three weeks but for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly I was involved for more than eight months — working on the Moviola and the editing. Leone called me his “right-hand man”. I was really involved in the process. We had to cut more than half an hour of film and I wrote a scene covering everything that was missing in those 30 minutes and we dubbed it into a shorter scene.

Once Upon a Time in the West was more than three hours long but Leone said that he wanted to change his style and do things differently so I wasn’t on the set. But then he called me from Almeria — he had to suspend shooting for two days — and he said, “Sergio, come down here, we have to cut half an hour”. So I went down there and cut the script by 30 minutes and helped out on the set.

MCA: Do you have any favourite genres?

SD: I like action-comedies. Both to see and to write. But the kind of film you like to write isn’t always the kind of films people ask you to write. But I’ve written all kinds of films. In a sense I was lucky because I never had to go around with a script. They always came to me. Flaiano always said that that is what kills a screenwriter, the check in advance. So even though I’ve always had work, perhaps I’ve never had the chance to write a film that simply had to be made. My film. Only a couple of times.

MCA: What was it like to live and work in Rome during the golden age of Italian filmmaking?

SD: I never really lived “la dolce vita”. I don’t really like movie people. All they talk about is the movies, other movie people, money and success. I don’t like that very much. All of my friends are people who have nothing to do with films. I don’t have much contact with all the famous people in the film industry. I’m like a secret writer and people are always surprised to finally meet me.

MCA: Did you go to the premieres for your films?

SD: I don’t like them. Mostly because you are a nobody. Everyone wants to see the stars and the director. It is really a Bukowski feeling.

MCA: So where did you see your films then?

SD: Leone and I used to go to the cinema a few days after the premiere and sit in the last row. That was when people used to smoke in the cinemas. We found that it was the best way to test the film. After the film started we would watch for the first cigarettes to be lit. Seven, eight, ten minutes into the film. After the tension of the opening scenes died down. It was a great way to see how the beginning of the film worked. We would sit in the dark and watch and listen to the audience.

These days I still go to the cinema and pay for my own ticket to see my films.

MCA: All the screenwriters I have interviewed in this series are from an older generation. What is curious however is that they all seem to have outlived the directors they worked with. Why do you think that is?

SD: The stress. The stress that a director is under is enormous. The writer tends to be quiet and calm. And the success is a factor. Making a flop can be fatal for a director. The screenwriter can always say, “they ruined my script” and go on to write for someone else. The only stress sometimes is waiting for a paycheque.

MCA: So being anonymous helps us survive perhaps.

SD: Yes.

MCA: I’d like to talk about the actual writing process. How do you begin?

SD: I was always very lucky. The directors came to me with a good idea or a novel to adapt. But three or four times I’ve been pressured to write something original. Ideas are everywhere around you. I read an article about a famous footballer who robbed a jewellery store. The man in the shop had been robbed recently and he was shocked to see the famous footballer and he panicked. The man shot him. So I wrote a film about a quiet man who buys a gun and discovers he is a potential killer. That’s just one example.

I met a Spanish director once who told me that there are only 33 plots. You could give him any novel or film and he could place it into one of his 33 fundamental plots. I would say that 70% of films today are inspired by old films from the 40’s or 50’s. So many ideas can be recycled, especially since the plot was so important back then. You can make a career out of recycling old films with clever twists.

Sometimes you do it sub-consciously. You don’t always remember films you saw 5 or 10 years ago but after you write something you discover you have borrowed certain elements from other films.

MCA: What is the specific process you follow when you sit up in your office and begin to write. Do you write a synopsis and then a treatment and so on?

SD: No, I am still a novelist at heart. I am very instinctive. I know the beginning and the ending before I begin. Then I fill in the blanks between them. I am an old chicken who knows the structure and the rules. The fundamental elements. But I like to write. That is why I could never be a director. I love to develop a story. I love to write treatments and dialogue but I hate to rethink a scene over and over like a director has to do. It’s boring. I just write.

MCA: So you like the literary side of screenwriting.

SD: Yes. I write and then you can do what you want with my work. And if I do my job well, they will be true to my story.

MCA: You don’t use various methods like tacking bits of paper up on the wall?

SD: No. I have software that can do that for me but I’ve never used it. Sometimes I can go around for 15 days without writing a line and then I sit down and write like a madman. The most important thing to learn, and it must be learned if you want to be a professional, is the discipline. Setting limits for yourself. For example, I have to write 8 pages a day. It took many years of sweating over the paper to learn it but know it comes naturally.

MCA: You mentioned the rules. What are your rules when writing?

SD: I’ve run a workshop for writers for many years and I’ve read all those books by Robert McKee and people like that. I think that those books teach techniques for script analysing more than writing. They are mostly geared towards commercial films. Try to put a Bergman film or La Dolce Vita into those paradigms and it doesn’t work. In my workshop I have every student write a short film script. I teach them the fundamentals and let them develop it themselves. Like artists who sketch and mix the paints to find the colours. That is the best way to learn. We work together and they understand the differences between the various steps in the process. But there is no real method. The starting point is always the same — an idea. And the final result is a screenplay. Between those two, everyone has their own methods and instincts.

MCA: Do you abide by the three-act structure?

SD: Of course. There was an American actor from the beginning of the century, I can’t remember his name, but he said that in the first act you hang your main character up in a tree. In the second act you throw stones at him. In the third act he falls down. If he is alive, it’s a comedy. If he’s dead, it’s a drama. (laughs) But it’s true. It’s a good description. Aristotle did it. Billy Wilder did it. It works.

MCA: Is screenwriting an art?

SD: Like Syd Fields says, it’s a craft. With a lot of luck thrown in. If your name is Charlie Chaplin and you write, produce, direct and act in a film it can be art. But otherwise it is craft. You are just a cog in the machine but you are the spermatozoa which produces the baby.

MCA: You said you like the literary side of screenwriting and you started your career as a novelist. You’ve even said you don’t that crazy about cinema. Why then have you dedicated your life to screenwriting?

SD: Do you want a cynical answer? (laughs) I’ve always enjoyed writing for cinema but it was mostly because it paid best. That’s the main reason. And literature in Italy… (shrugs) If you write in English or in Spanish you have hundreds of millions of people who can read you or see your films. If you write in Italian you can be read by the Italian-speaking region in Switzerland. That’s all. Then there is the problem of dubbing, translation and sub-titles. Benigni was dubbed in English which was exceptional, and they had to make it look like it was shot in English. That was difficult because there were people speaking German, Spanish, etc.

MCA: Benigni said something I thought was strange. He said that films should be dubbed. (coming from Denmark where everything is sub-titled, that seems radical)

SD: There is a great tradition in Italy for dubbing films. Even Fellini dubbed his Italian films in Italian. He filmed with sound but only as a reference. He dubbed because half of his cast weren’t actors. All of Visconti’s films are dubbed. It’s a long tradition and we’re good at it.

The Americans, however, have a problem with dubbing. They’re not used to it. I remember spending a chilly winter in New York in 1967. I was in the States together with Sergio Leone and we had to go to Los Angeles with the script for Once Upon a Time in the West. We visited the studio while they were dubbing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Sergio didn’t speak very good English but I was better at it. I realised that in order to make the dubbed words match the lip movements they had changed the dialogue in a terrible way. I said to Sergio, “Sergio, Jesus Christ, they’re destroying the film”.

So, I spent three months supervising the dubbing. They were also dubbing one actor at a time, even if there was dialogue between characters. Sergio insisted that both actors in a scene were dubbed at the same time. The result was good but it was tough. They didn’t have any experience with dubbing over there. The only films they dubbed were B-B-B-films and porn films. That’s all.

MCA: How do you work with dialogue?

SD: After the idea, the dialogue is the most difficult. Most young people learn that the hard way. They often write dialogue that makes all characters sound the same. When I’m sitting in my office I say the lines out loud and play the roles.

In many ways, Leone was my film school. I learned a lot. He liked to have character descriptions and that helped in writing the dialogue. I wrote a lot in the screenplays we did together. The screenplay for Once Upon the Time in the West is 420 pages long. There was a lot of description.

MCA: That seems very literary.

SD: Yes. He liked it like that. He said that Morricone could make better music if the screenplay was like that and the actors would understand the film more. I agree with that. The Americans write very precise. 90 pages is 90 minutes. The first thing an American does is look at the end to see how long it is. 100 pages is 100 minutes. Not for me. But it does depend on who you’re writing for.

MCA: You’ve written for the Americans.

SD: Yes. When Dino De Laurentis was over there. Together with Luciano Denzionone I did a lot of ghost writing. Dino wasn’t very good at English either so he wanted to have an Italian treatment written before passing it on to an American writer.

We did do some credited work. We were the first to make a Schwarzeneger film with a little irony. (laughs) It was Raw Deal. Schwarzeneger made three or four films prior to that but was also very serious. Dino gave us some videos of his earlier films and we said, “Hey, it’s funny!” That terrible English with that German accent. It was funny. So we wrote for him and that was the beginning of his success as an stereotypical actor. That image, the irony and the muscles. We also wrote Orca — The Killer Whale.

MCA: Screenwriting in Europe is gaining in importance. People are beginning to take it seriously again. What is the most important thing people who want to write for film do?

SD: See many, many, many films. The younger generation thinks that cinema started in the 80’s with Ridley Scott and Spielberg. In my generation there were so many cinema clubs where you could see Eisenstein films like Potemkin and things like that. We loved the whole cinema experience. It’s a pity nowadays. I tell my students to see television. Not television but the old films at night that are put in to fill up space. Record them and build up a personal collection of the best old films. This is the best way to learn. To watch and listen. If you want to play the piano you have to hear music first.

Then of course the best way is to write. All the time. Learn from your mistakes.

MCA: How do you see the differences between American and European cinema?

SD: I can’t remember the last time I saw a great American film. They make many good films but nothing great comes to mind. Generally, this isn’t a good period for cinema. (pauses) Maybe I’ve changed but I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema and came out of a film happy. The last time I saw an American film that gave me great joy was Short Cuts by Robert Altman.

MCA: That was a while ago.

SD: A long while ago. The best film I have seen recently was Almodovar’s All About My Mother. That was fantastic. And I loved Life is Beautiful. I was one of the few Italians who thought it was a wonderful film.

MCA: Where can cinema go from here? Is it dead?

SD: No, no. It’s not dead. It will survive. But in Italy, at least, it is very ill. In the 60’s we produced 10–15 films a year that were of exceptional quality. Now it’s only once every couple of years.

Television creates problems as well. In order for a small producer to make a film he needs to sell the TV rights beforehand. So he develops an auto-censor when looking at projects, already thinking about whether or not they would be good for television.

I may sound cynical or pessimistic but it’s not a good time for Italian cinema. We have the talent and the actors — not the stars but good average actors.

MCA: But no big directors, no personalities like Italy had in the past.

SD: No. All we have left is Monicelli who is 90 and still shooting.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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