By: Yannick Aiani
June 27, 2018
Once upon a time Sergio Leone: interview with Sir Christopher Frayling
Insights, Festival starring “Once Upon a Time in the West”, Cinema Ritrovato 2018, Sergio Leone, Sir Christopher Frayling
He must have felt at home, Sir Christopher Frayling, moving among the books and visitors of the Renzo Renzi library: he, the greatest expert on the cinema of Sergio Leone, right in the middle of the posters of “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Once Upon a Time America” (second and last film by the Roman director respectively), which stand out above the Book Fair shelves in the Bologna Film Library. Moreover, a guest of his caliber could not miss, on the day of the projection in Piazza Maggiore of what - along with “Once Upon a Time in America” - remains imprinted as the most pregnant film of Leonard cinema epos: “C'era volta the West”, of course, whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated. We cannot say that the London baronet has spared himself, on Tuesday, June 26: the engagement for Frayling has been triple, from a lectio magistralis on the feature film in question to the meeting with Stefano Delli Colli (author of a fresh and enveloping book dedicated to the career of his father Tonino), up to the introduction in Piazza Maggiore, before the screening. The same professor honored the anniversary of the release of the film with a book - yet another - on Leone, this time focusing on the work of 1968; unfortunately, fans of the genre will have to wait until autumn 2018, hoping for an Italian translation of the book. However, between a commitment and the other, we managed to steal a few minutes from the English author, very happy to integrate the content provided during the day.
Let's start from a less scientific question, but more personal: why, among all the directors, have you chosen to devote almost all you life to the analysis of Sergio Leone?
We must start from 1967, when I was in college: it was the years of the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, of Times they are a-changin 'of Dylan, of Comma 22, of the posters of "Che" Guevara hanging on the walls. The cultural atmosphere was of great transport to the American culture, but at the same time of ill endurance towards the American ideology. I happened to see “For a Fistful of Dollars” at the cinema: I could not believe it, it was the western I was waiting for! Not a film about John Wayne or James Stewart, not a film that presents the ideology of American society: it took the characters from the western genre, but at the same time it was cynical, because everything revolved around money, basically around capitalism. Yes, I had already seen Kurosawa's “Yojimb”, but the atmosphere was very different. Just think of the music, so different from the one that appeared in classic American westerns, not at all symphonic: Morricone's music reminded me more of the Beach Boys, with that sizzle of the Fender Stratocaster, to which were added the choirs and sounds taken from nature. There was, in that atmosphere, something that struck me deeply, also derived from the set, that dusty Almeria! In short, it was an aesthetic experience totally different from the classical westerns. Of course I showed it to my friends, for whom it was only an American western that came across badly; from that moment on, it became a crusade for me to try to convince anyone to see and appreciate Sergio Leone.
Then I saw his second film, the third (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) and finally I met Sergio: there I realized the concept that Tarantino himself told me in an interview, that is, with Leone he started modern cinema. If you show John Ford's films today to young American students, they do not trace any point of contact with modernity; with Leone's films, it's the opposite. We find the modern hero, who no longer makes crusades in the name of some moral value: not so much as James Bond, who - despite everything - still works for the Crown and somehow possesses a moral substratum, but more like the bounty hunter Han Solo. Of course, the style must be emphasized: its cinema does not deal with the real world, with the streets, but is configured as a network of references to other films. Not to mention the use of music: as Tarantino, Leone also chose the musical themes before shooting the film. And in fact Tarantino, not even to say it, pays homage to him using Morricone's themes in “The Hateful Eight”.
In short, can we talk about Leone's films as postmodern objects before postmodernism, at least for some features?
Yes, absolutely. The funny thing is that Leone wanted to tell the truth about the West: he believed in the great narrative of the West. Instead the postmodern foresees the end of the great narrations, paradoxically. I have already mentioned the style and the music, we could also talk about the approach used in the action scenes, with the dilation or acceleration of time. Even the design of the set becomes a characteristic trait of the character: before everyone starts talking, you already know everything about him, because he desires him from the environment that surrounds him. I return for a moment on the question of modernity: his detachment from every moral substratum also comes from Leone's passion for fairy tales and his disgust towards ideology. And so he takes up the westerns, but does not link them back to American culture. Just as today we can love American pop music and at the same time detest Trump and the ideology he carries with him. Like pop art, which draws the image without accepting its underlying ideology.
His production on Leone is exterminated: in chronological order, his last one was “Once Upon a Time in Italy”. What was the change of perspective and focus, if there was, in treating the figure of Leo from one book to another?
Well, clearly, American clients wanted something about the legacy of Leone in America and the impact of his films on the effects on American cinema. In Italy, the situation is different: as I said at the beginning of the lesson, I had to convince many Italian scholars and critics to take it seriously, to consider Leone as a contribution to Italian culture. Unfortunately, even now there are people who think that to be a great Italian director we must refer to Bertolucci, Antonioni, neorealism and a certain type of setting. Or be a poet, like Pasolini or Visconti. But I tried to explain to them that most American directors work on genre films, because that's the way the studios work: and what's wrong with that? Is it by chance a secondary director John Ford, who has shot “The Searchers”, or Nicholas Ray, for doing “Johnny Guitar”? It's what you create within the genre that makes you important or not. In any case, for “Once Upon a Time in the West”, I looked for everything that could be found. I went to Rome in an archive, where I found the shooting schedule, with the daily programs; then I found the subject written together with Bertolucci and Dario Argento. In addition, I interviewed all the survivors: Sergio Donati, Giancarlo Santi, Mickey Knox, Ennio Morricone, Claudio Mancini. The interesting and fun thing is that everyone contradicts everyone in interviews. Do you know what hit me? I asked Charles Bronson what he thought about it and he replied: "I've never seen the movie". It's incredible! It's his best film and he has not even seen it!
Speaking of Once Upon a Time in the West, the book will come out this fall: can you tell me more in detail how will its structure be?
I can anticipate that it will be opened by an introduction by Quentin Tarantino, based on a long interview I gave him in January about Sergio; then I added my introduction, the interviews section and the documents section. In addition to those already mentioned, you will find the designs of Claudio Simi, the set designer: luckily I managed to convince the family to grant them, because they are really spectacular. A lot of material derives from the Angelo Novi archive, kept at the Cineteca di Bologna: we are talking about 300 photos taken on the set during the filming, many of which are unpublished. Finally, there will be several written contributions by Scorsese, Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Milius, all related to the film in question. Did you know that Carpenter for his wedding wanted as background music the soundtrack of “Once Upon a Time in the West”? Yes, I like to mix the analytical part with a slightly more anecdotal one.
During the lesson he reconstructed the quotes contained within the first 20 minutes of the film, which are perhaps the most interesting part of the film. I imagine that in the book you do not stop at the twentieth minute ...
Clearly, there is also a section in which the quotes are quoted by the American westerns and I personally checked the veracity with Argento, Sergio (when he was still alive) and Bertolucci, removing the quotes that I had picked, but that derived from film that they did not know. In all, we are talking about 40 explicit quotes, some taken from fairly rare films, which I honestly did not know. For example, the name Cheyenne (we speak of the character played by Jason Robards) was inspired by “Desperados” by Glenn Ford, 1943: not really a first level film.
We thank you for the anticipations it offered us in the frame of the Cinema Ritrovato. It is certainly not the first time that you have participated ...
I've been there twice: in 2014 I introduced the projection of the restoration of “For a Fistful of Dollars”. Then I came not as a guest, but as a passionate fan, in 2015. There have been changes over the years: now we have the opportunity to see more recent films, even more commercial, or in Technicolor. Not to mention the spaces: once it was limited only to the Lumière, now it is totally expanded within the city. I really like coming here because I love this environment.