THE EPIC OF THE WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN
April 17 2018 Text: David Moreu.
Photography: Sad Hill Unearthed Archive.
The history of cinema is fascinating and unpredictable in equal parts, although not all films manage to become icons of popular culture. To get this passport to eternity it is necessary to transgress certain norms, tell a universal story, have actors in a state of grace, draw attention at the time of premiere and, above all, keep falling in love with the public in later decades. Good luck is also a key factor, but that does not depend on the director or the producer, but on people claiming it as a classic that changed their lives forever. To all this we must add the mythomaniac desire of many people who do not conform only to review some films frame by frame (to hunt unique details), but also are obsessed in visiting the places where they shot as a pilgrimage. This level of fanaticism has one of its highest peaks in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", the legendary Spaghetti Western that Sergio Leone directed in 1966 in the natural settings of Almeria and Burgos. A film that marked a point in the epic of the western Mediterranean that triumphed at that time and that, years later, is considered one of the great masterpieces of the seventh art, at the same level as Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and "Taxi Driver" by Scorsese.
The adventure that was experienced in that filming in Spanish lands has reached a mythological status on its own merits and we knew some curious details thanks to press articles. However, a documentary entitled "Sad Hill Unearthed" has come to claim its legacy and, at the same time, tell the fascinating story of some residents of Burgos who have dedicated several years to unearth the emblematic cemetery of the final sequence of the film. A plot that works in two bands, telling us the ins and outs of a shoot that would change the lives of many people and the passion that is currently lived with this work that never ceases to amaze. We had the opportunity to interview its director, Guillermo de Oliveira, to know the details of this work so well received in international film festivals. Although we still have to wait a few months to see it in the cinemas of our own country.
I propose to start this story at the beginning. When did the news reach you that there was a group of people in Burgos digging up the cemetery of Sad Hill?
It all started on November 7, 2014, with a tweet from a friend, Jorge Olmos. He knows how much I like cinema locations. When I travel, I always carry with me frames of the movies that have been shot in those destinations. I come to the place and try to reproduce the frame, look for the remains of the shooting and, in short, explore the footprint that has left the passage of time in that particular place. One day Jorge heard on the radio that there was a group of fans of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" who wanted to unearth the cemetery from the final sequence of the film and sent me a link to their website on Twitter. The idea that the paved circle of the final duel was still there, buried under 10 centimeters of vegetation, fascinated me and I got in touch with David Alba, founder of the Sad Hill Cultural Association and, in the end, one of the protagonists of the documentary film. A month later, I stayed with him and he took me to see the cemetery. It was a horrible day, it did not stop raining and the fog did not let us see more than 10 meters, but the place was pure magic. In the center of the cemetery, he showed me how a couple of stones had been uncovered and I fell in love with the place. For months I kept track of them on social networks, until in September of 2015 they announced that the Regional Government of Castilla y León and the Ministry of the Environment had given them permission to dig up and recover the place. The next day I took a camera and a drone and I filmed the place before anyone started working.
As a director, I suppose you were interested in both the personal aspect of the subject and its relationship with the world of cinema. Why do you think the Spaghetti Westerns have become pop icons?
I like the Spaghetti Western, but above all I love Sergio Leone. I would love to say that I watched his films without stopping when I was little, but the truth is that I did not discover it until I attended the university. At the New York Film Academy they gave us the first 13 minutes of "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968). It is an endless scene in which a group of bandits await the arrival of the train to a station in the middle of nowhere. I say interminable because, from a dramatic point of view, nothing is happening in the scene, and yet you cannot look away from the screen. Building tension with the most primitive tools that a filmmaker can use: sound, editing, set design and characters. I had not seen anything like it in my life. Still today I am surprised that Leone needs to be vindicated. The modernity of his work speaks for itself. As for the rest of the genre, I think that even that most fans will recognize that it is full of films of questionable quality and low budget, but they all have a soul. They are authentic and honest in their shortcomings. Admirable in their impudence. In the way they look at the American western. Without complex. But often also very bad.
An essential part of the documentary is to trace the history of the people involved in the recovery project of the cemetery. What did you discover during the interviews and your trips to Burgos?
The first skeptic about the reconstruction work was myself. It seemed like a very romantic idea: fans and volunteers who want to unearth the location of their favorite movie from oblivion. That was a story by itself. But I could not imagine that they would achieve it. As the weeks went by, people from all over Europe joined them. And I began to question other things: Why are people like Jean Pierre and Anne Marie coming to the cemetery for the fourth time? They have been working all week and, when they could rest, they drove 800 kilometers by car to Sad Hill. This phenomenon is what triggered a small report to be transformed into a documentary. There are 86 minutes dedicated to explaining why. In the end "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" becomes a perfect excuse to talk about other things. How cinema, music and art influence us. From our search for meaning and how we all try to leave a mark of our insignificant passage through the world.
The other part of the documentary is dedicated to investigating the filming of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in those parts of Burgos. How was the documentation process? Where did you locate all those images of the shoot?
One of our first respondents was the English writer Sir Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone's biographer. It was he who opened our eyes to the incredible story that was hidden in the filming of the film in 1966. Why does a production of an Italian western, with American actors, end up filming in Burgos? And how the hell was the Spanish Army involved in the construction of an immense cemetery of 5,000 tombs for the film? The volunteers who came to Sad Hill every week knew all the anecdotes of that shoot. Some have already acquired a legend, but it was essential to know that background. Another great help was the book by Peter J. Hanley on the filming of the film. Peter is a professor of biology at the University of Münster in Germany, but above all he is an inveterate fan of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". He dedicated 15 years of his life to researching the filming of the film and collaborated with us to locate graphic material from the Italian film archives.
In addition to the personal side, the interventions of very relevant personalities of the culture stand out. How was the meeting with Ennio Morricone at his home?
With Morricone we were shocked. He had won the Oscar for the soundtrack of "The Hateful Eight" a month and a half ago and had not been able to leave home for weeks due to a broken femur. We had agreed with his wife to record him a little bit, invite him to the 50th anniversary events of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in Burgos and Almería and give him a small commemorative trophy. They told us to wait for him in the living room and, after ten minutes, we heard several key turns. On the other side of the room a door opens, the teacher appears and begins to walk slowly towards us. Wearing a red sweater and sweatpants. Without a word, he calls his wife and starts shouting: "I'm not going to do this! I have not agreed to any of this! I've already given all the interviews I want to give!" We were stunned and I think we would still be frozen if his wife had not come to the rescue: "Ennio, we've already talked about it. They came from Spain, sit with them. Be good and if you're nice, I'll prepare your food." Maybe the latter is not entirely accurate. My Italian leaves a lot to be desired, but María Travia's tone said exactly that. Little by little we softened his heart, he answered all our questions and, in the end, he signed the vinyl of The Mission and even took us to his office to show us his two Oscars.
Director Guillermo de Oliveira w. Ennio Morricone
Metallica serves almost as a "McGuffin" throughout the documentary because they appear briefly, in the final pop. How did you manage to interview James Hetfield?
We wanted to interview other fans of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Famous people that will provide some light to our thesis and that, from a distance, they will explain how they saw this phenomenon of the fans who are on a pilgrimage to the location of their favorite movie. We did not get Tarantino (and he has always said that it is his favorite movie of all time), but we did get Alex de la Iglesia, Joe Dante (director of "Gremlins") and James Hetfield. We knew that anecdote (almost a spoiler for those who have not seen the documentary) that all their concerts have started since 1983 with the scene of Tuco's arrival at the cemetery and Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold". With that premise I was prepared for a 10-minute interview in which I explained the origin of that anecdote and little else. But, to my surprise, Hetfield was completely fascinated by the work of the fans and eager to comment on every scene of the movie he adores. I imagine that when you have given thousands of interviews facing the same questions, being able to explain yourself to something so rare is very grateful.
Sergio Leone's close associates, especially his editor and assistant cameraman, provide the most intimate parts. How did you manage to contact them? What image do you have now of the legendary Italian director after having spoken with these people?
In the case of Sergio Salvati (assistant cameraman) we got his contact thanks to Peter J. Hanley. When we called him the first time he told us: "I'm about to enter the operating room in a life-or-death operation. Call me in a week and if I answer ... everything has gone well. "I did not lose my sense of humor in this. He is a truly endearing person: when I showed him the photo of how the reconstructed cemetery was, he planted a kiss on my face. I am looking forward to the premiere in Spain or Italy, whichever comes first. We discovered Eugenio Alabiso (editor) thanks to his daughter-in-law Begoña, who is Spanish and learned through the means of rebuilding the cemetery. He wrote to the Association and we got in touch to go see him in Rome. A couple of months later, on the 50th anniversary of the film, he came to Burgos for the celebration and it was one of the most exciting moments of that night. The ovation he received was wonderful. A warm tribute of surrendered by five thousand fans.
The big surprise of the documentary is the appearance of a smiling and talkative Clint Eastwood. What was your reaction to finding out what the documentary was about? It's amazing how you kept that letter to surprise the public in the screening of the film ...
The truth is that Clint Eastwood is the only one we could not interview in person. After 10 months of letters, emails, calls and even a fax we managed to send the questions to his production company and they recorded the interview for us. That happened a week before the big event in July 2016, so we kept the surprise and when no one expected more: Boom! Clint appears on the screen to thank them for the work they have done and show them his admiration and respect. It is an epic and unexpected moment. The perfect closure.
Many professionals claim that documentaries take shape in the editing room. Did you have a very definite script at the beginning of filming or was there improvisation? What difficulties did you find along the way?
I could not agree more. There are many types of documentaries, but one such as "Sad Hill Unearthed" is in the editing room where it is cooked. It was impossible to have a definite script for something like that because not even the success of the proposal (rebuilding the cemetery) was guaranteed. The story opens up as a path as you go through it. You cannot count on having an interview with Clint Eastwood, but when you get it your plans change completely. So, for months, we were dedicated to getting the best ingredients so that when the time came to cook we could make the best possible recipe. It is true that getting the interviews seemed the most complicated, but we saved that obstacle, we felt that everything would be rolled out. Obviously, we were wrong. This documentary needed a lot of graphic, visual and sound support with intellectual property rights: archival photographs, clips from the original film, Morricone's music, images of Metallica concerts, Army archives, etc. Everything is terribly expensive, but it is also that most of the time the holders of those rights do not pay attention to you or do not have all the rights. We found ourselves with things like 50% of the rights for the U.S. and Canada belong to so-and-so, the other 50% to mengano and the rest of the world nobody knows who has it. It is a tremendous expenditure of energy and very ungrateful because who sees the documentary takes it for granted. It is natural to want to listen to "Il Triello" when Morricone talks about how he composed it, right?
Now you are ready to release the documentary. Do you plan to present it to festivals or project it in theaters? I have always had the feeling that this type of work on "pop culture" has more repercussion abroad than in our country ...
We would love to premiere in cinemas, but documentaries have little room in theaters. We know that in Spain there are hardly two or three documentaries each year that achieve a decent life on the billboard. In spite of everything, we are going to try to be one of them and that is why we have our premiere scheduled for mid-October of this year. Our route for festivals began in Tokyo last November (where we have also sold the rights for what will also be released there in cinemas). We have taken the documentary to the Santa Barbara Film Festival (U.S.A.) and our last stop was the prestigious BAFICI festival in Buenos Aires a few days ago. It is not as we had imagined, but it has been abroad where we have received our first recognitions. In the end it is not strange because it is something that we had already proven with our crowdfunding campaign, where we received donations from more than 30 countries. The story of "Sad Hill Unearthed" is universal and is able to find followers in every corner of the world, so we hope to bring it to Spain very soon.
Seen in perspective, what is the best memory you keep from the project and the shooting? What have you learned in all this time dedicated to Burgos and the cinema of Leone?
If I had to stay the one thing it would be the satisfaction of the final result ... and I do not mean the documentary, but the cemetery itself. To feel that, in some way, our small achievements have contributed to nurturing the collective dream of so many volunteers to make it a reality. Today Sad Hill has become a place of pilgrimage for fans around the world who marvel at the beauty of the site and, for months, work to be declared BIC (Cultural Interest). That level of protection is unprecedented in a film location and would be the finishing touch to this adventure.