J O H N M I L I U S : B E H I N D - T H E - S C E N E S I N T E R V I E W W I T H T H E W R I T E R / D I R E C T O R O F C O N A N
FILM INTERVIEW BY STERANKO
Those who know the history of Conan have labeled it one of the most remarkable films ever made, from Robert E. Howard’s creation of the character in the 1930s’ adventure pulps to the casting of strongman-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. Although the production is equally rich in talent, its ultimate success depends on one man: John Milius.
Like Conan, the controversial writer/director has attracted a huge following who are intensely interested in his work. Born in Malibu, California in 1944, Milius was educated in Colorado, then at City College in Los Angeles. He attended USC with film hopefuls George Lucas and John Carpenter, and subsequently entered motion pictures as a screenwriter.
Milius is known for memorable lines he has written for Dirty Harry, Evel Knievel, Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Magnum Force and most recently, Apocalypse Now. In addition, he has directed Dillinger, The Wind and The Lion and Big Wednesday from his own scripts.
In the Hollywood community, Milius is a maverick, much like the characters he brings to celluloid life. Ha is a man who lives by his own rules, who collects guns, surfs on weekends, and has been known to direct his sagas on horseback--like a general leading his troops. He was interviewed in his offices shortly after he completed Conan the Barbarian.
PREVUE: Even though Conan was originally written by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, he seems to have an appeal that’s timeless, like Robin Hood or Tarzan, The Conan paperback revival, for example, is almost 2O years In the past, but his popularity remains strong. What is it that attracted you to the character?
JOHN MILIUS: I didn’t know about Conan when I grew up. I read history, not pulp fiction. But, when I finally found him--after I got into the project--I discovered he was like many characters that I read about when I was young: the Vikings, the Mongols, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the barbarians of Europe. I’d always been fascinated with Teutonic or Nordic myth, and a certain form of character which is not found in other celebrations of the hero. Similarly, Conan appeals to me more than other modern-day heroes, like Superman or James Bond; they really bore me. But Siegfried, Roland and company are very complex, always interesting.
PREVUE: Then, you drew on that mythology to create the Conan film.
MILIUS: A great deal. I wanted to make Conan a classic Northern European mythic hero.
PREVUE: What kind of research did you do?
MILIUS: A tremendous amount, most of it myself, though to save time, I hired a researcher to cover larger areas. I wanted to look at all the Greek snake and sexual cults, for example. I’d been a student of Mongology and the Nordic cultures for years, so I brought that information to the story.
PREVUE: What about armor and weaponry? I recall evidence of your enthusiasm on the walls and doors of the old A-Team offices--or what was left of them. (MEDIASCENE 38)
MILIUS: Oh, yeah, yeah! When I was younger, I took kendo for several years, so I was acquainted with the weapons. There was a very definitive way that I wanted them used in Conan, so I practiced with those weapons now and then--inside the building. No one was killed!
PREVUE: You had a number of sword-makers, edged-weapon experts come in for consultation.
MILIUS: I wanted the weapons to be very sophisticated and realistic. I hate movies where weapons are phony-looking and the swordsmen wielding them in battle are clumsy clowns I wanted to emphasize skill with the sword, and the idea that the sword itself possesses mystical quality. The fluid use of the weapon, its grace and beauty, is an art form all its own. There’s no doubt that the highest level that man has attained in the use of a sword was in Japan. I tried to intertwine the spirit of Japanese swordsmanship into the action and philosophy of Conan.
PREVUE: Were Akira Kurosawa’s films vital to that purpose?
MILIUS: Kurosawa is etched into my background. I’ve always studied at the feet of the master, though I only met him once. He’s a wonderful director; he makes us all look like amateurs. I watch his films endlessly.
PREVUE: Do your action scenes in Conan top Kurosawa’s in any way?
MILIUS: Nothing I ever do tops Kurosawa. Listen, if I thought I could make films as well as he does, that would be my goal.
PREVUE: What are your favorite movies, films that have inspired you?
MILIUS: Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, John Ford’s The Searchers, Howard Hawks’ Red River. I love all of David Lean’s work enormously, Apocalypse is right up there, too.
PREVUE: Aside from those influences, what personal instincts are important to your work?
MILIUS: One must be very decisive to be a director. If you don’t have a clear, firm vision, you will flounder. The thing that’s helped me the most as a director is that I was an artist before I became a filmmaker. Because I draw reasonably well, I can convey my dramatic ideas visually. I know what I want to see on the screen.
PREVUE: Then, you see the scenes you write in your mind’s eye?
MILIUS: Yeah, the most exciting thing about writing is seeing the characters and the action for the first time--in your mind. After that, you’re involved in the labors of actually making the film. It’s not until you see it almost for the last time--when you finally view the finished print--that its ever as exciting again.
PREVUE: What part of Conan the Barbarian is Robert E. Howard, and what part is John Milius?
MILIUS: I’ve long since forgotten. In the heat of writing, it’s not easy to be that accurate.
PREVUE: Do you write fast?
MILIUS: I did when I was younger and tougher. I’m lazy and soft now, so I write slower. When I’m really writing well I like to produce six handwritten pages a day. That usually only takes an hour, but I think about those pages all day long. I’ll do everything I can to avoid writing until around 5:00 PM; Then, I realize the day will be ruined, and I’ll feel guilty all night if I don’t get something down on paper. So, I sit down and write from 5:00 to 6:00.
PREVUE: Good films always have memorable lines like Dirty Harry’s “I know what you’re thinkin’. Did he fire six shots or five? So you gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?” or “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” from Apocalypse Now. Can you know those lines are great when you write them?
MILIUS: Well, you think you do, because you like them. Those types of lines were always there in history, lines of overstatement or understatement. There’s always wry humor in a great line, too.
PREVUE: Do you get the same satisfaction when writing a line that an actor does in delivering it?
MILIUS: All writers live through their characters. We live a part of ourselves that we’d like to be and never can be, so we usually put our best into it because of that.
PREVUE: Oliver Stone said that Howard was guiding him when he wrote the first Conan script. What was your reaction to it after you were brought into the project?
MILIUS: When I read Oliver’s script, I realized they were serious--someone was really going to make this film. I didn’t particularly like the script myself, but I said, “My God, what a concept, what a character.” Oliver’s script had a lot of spirit. I liked the freedom of his images, like the armies of mutants. I didn’t use them, but the idea of somebody attempting to write a movie with armies of mutants in it was interesting. I stopped working on another movie Half the Sky, and started this one. Teddy Roosevelt--when he was going on his final trip to the Amazon--said, “It’s, my last chance to be a boy again.” I saw Conan and said, “Its my last chance to be a barbarian--again.
PREVUE: Or still?
MILIUS: I guess I’m still a pagan, still a practicing heathen
PREVUE: Then, by Crom is John Milius really a barbarian named Conan?
MILIUS: No, I suppose I’m closer to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Actually, Francis Coppola is Kurtz. He always says that I’m the character Robert Duvall played. I hate to see myself that way.
PREVUE: Do you love the smell of napalm in the morning?
MILIUS: Yeah. I suppose my kids see me that way.
PREVUE: I’m not sure Conan will change their minds. But let’s talk about changes. In your own script, many elements were changed, especially the climax. Stone’s original ending had a spectacular battle scene.
MILIUS: So did the first ending of my script, thousands of warriors on horseback. But, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful as the ending that’s there now.
PREVUE: Why not?
MILIUS: In a massive battle, a huge canvas with thousands of people moving, the characters we’re really interested in tend to get lost in the action.
PREVUE: The greatest conflict is always in the individual battle.
MILIUS: Exactly, you’re watching the spectacle instead of the drama.
PREVUE: Do you have a technique for translating and capturing on screen what you put on paper?
MILIUS: Kurosawa refers to Seven Samurai as a “moving” movie, a film composed of motion. To me, that represents an entire school of filmmaking--in one sentence. In television, in ordinary pictures, you tell the story, let people talk to each other to deliver exposition, then solve the problems that result from the exposition, in the standard series of scenes. Then, there’s the other school of filmmaking--a lot of directors really get into it, but Kurosawa is the finest of them all. He goes beyond the rest, into compositions of motion, mood, sound; he creates an experience, rather than just a story. That’s what I wanted to do with Conan. I was enormously influenced by Francis and his work in Apocalypse Now. With that film, I think Francis stepped far beyond what he’d ever done before, and that was a challenge to me. I said, “I gotta do that, too; I gotta step out like that.” I couldn’t tell this story in a normal way.
PREVUE: Let’s talk about specifics. Why did you use the bracketing structure?
MILIUS: The prologue and the epilogue? It gives the story a certain formality and shape. I feel an epic should have a presentation frame.
PREVUE: You didn’t use one in The Life and times of Judge Roy Bean.
MILIUS: I did in the script; Huston decided not to use it.
PREVUE: Does it hurt to spend part of your life getting all the words and scenes right, then two years later, see a film which has little to do what you originally wrote?
MILIUS: Well, it does with Judge Roy Bean, where I feel it really missed. But not when it’s Apocalypse Now, which was larger than the sum of its parts. When the disappointments happened, they made me want to direct--in self defense! Recently, I’ve had such good luck, because Francis did such a great job on Apocalypse. Now, I see that maybe there’s another way.
PREVUE: Have you talked to Francis about writing another film for him?
MILIUS: No, but if he ever wants to, I’m sure he’ll ask me. I’d like to write films for a number of directors, for Marty Scorsese, for Steven Spielberg. I’m talking about doing a World War 2 film with Stanley Kubrick.
PREVUE: In Conan, your three leads--Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez--are all rookies. Why did you take the chance of not using stars?
MILIUS: There’s a certain arrogance that overcomes directors. Take Francis; he took rookies on Apocalypse and got great performances because he’s a great director. I said, “Well. I’ll take these three rookies, and mold them into the characters I want them to be!” And it worked! But it did scare the hell out of me!
MILIUS: When they were terrible. I’d say, “God! How will I ever get these people to be believable?”
PREVUE: How did you do it?
MILIUS: I used the dog training method. I’ve never gone to any acting schools or studied any methods. Mostly, I talked to Francis. He said, “That other stuff doesn’t work anyway. Do something you know.” I’ve trained hunting dogs, so I figured I’d use the same technique: simply having them do it over and over until they owned it, liked it, until it became part of their nature. I’d drill them so they’d do it according to orders. Then, when the time came--in the heat of battle--I could talk to them while the camera was running. My voice was in the back of their minds, like it had always been, but not as a distraction. If anyone else said a word, they’d stop and say, “What’s going on?” But they’d never notice me talking. That did two things for them: it gave them a constant source of information while they were working, and a feeling of security. It was a new technique for me and it worked very well.
If I had movie stars, veteran actors with inflated egos, they never would have done what my people did. Arnold’s a great man. He’s very disciplined, the closest thing to Conan in real life. He has built his own character and career just like Conan did: He was willing to work endlessly, training with a word, practicing his lines until he was sick of them, every day, the physical conditioning, the horseback riding, the philosophy. Sandahl is trained as a dancer, so she used her tremendous discipline for hours of practice. Gerry, because he’s a surfer, had the tenacity and endurance. Ordinary actors wouldn’t have done those things because of their preconceived ideas going in.
PREVUE: Arnold and Sandahl said you overwhelmed them with Oriental philosophy, that you changed their bodies and their minds. (Schwarzenegger interview, PRE-VUE 47)
MILIUS: That’s true. I felt they must change their whole way of thinking to accept Conan’s world.
PREVUE: You didn’t want Arnold to act Conan, you wanted him to be Conan.
MILIUS: Yes. I wanted him to think as a Zen warrior. When he was Conan, he owned Conan, it was part of him. Sandahl, too. There’s an old Zen poem that goes, “Paint bamboo for 50 years, become bamboo and paint.”
PREVUE: Arnold admitted he put himself completely in your hands: “I had no thoughts; I let myself be molded.” That’s quite a bit for someone like Arnold to say.
MILIUS: It is, but he never lost his self-esteem or his ego. Someone else who might have fought me would have lost his ego. But Arnold used the Oriental approach: “I am a river being directed; I must flow where I go.” He never lost his identity; he was always completely Arnold. No part of me became Arnold, I just made suggestions and he knew what to do.
PREVUE: How did you help your actors when they had problems with their lines?
MILIUS: I tried to take out the words they stumbled over. Cut their dialogue down so it was easier to deal with.
PREVUE: What about Sandahl’s farewell scene? She wanted to do it with tears, but you asked her to play it without emotion because she was a warrior. She played the scene many times, never well--and finally, she had to go away for ten minutes. then come back and do it.
MILIUS: She knew she could do it; she’s been trained. She doubted herself, but I knew she’d come through. She knew that I knew, because I’d seen her do it many times. It was merely a matter of getting it right. She went all around the scene, knowing that I was waiting for her to do it right. Then, she did it right.
PREVUE: You improvise quite a bit on the set. Isn’t that dangerous and costly?
MILIUS: No, it’s like kendo. The whole idea was that if the actors had a real foundation in kendo, no matter what was thrown at them, they would know how to handle it. The same thing with their lines, emotions, their approach to the part--the foundation allowed me to use them as I wanted to on the spot. They couldn’t make a wrong move, they were always their characters. They trained so hard that their first day was almost anti-climactic. I wanted them to feel that the movie was easier than the training--though it wasn’t.
PREVUE: Sandahl said she never had to think about how to parry a sword or react because it was second nature to her by the time she was in front of the camera.
MILIUS: Exactly. There’s no excuse for bad preparation and training, and no alternative for it, whether you’re playing football, invading a beach or making a movie. When I give classes in writing, I say, “How much have you written? Because whatever you have written, it’s probably not enough.”
PREVUE: What scenes were eliminated from your final script and the finished film?
MILIUS: There were several. In one scene, Conan killed a couple of women--and we didn’t want him to do that because he’s a chivalrous fellow. I took the scene out. There were a couple of other bits with Zen touches like where Conan thanks the Wheel of Pain when he’s released from it.
PREVUE: Why was that cut?
MILIUS: It slowed up the film. In a way, you still get the idea. By cutting the scene out, it makes Conan more innocent. While he was on the Wheel, he was like a beast who never really knows what is happening to him. When he’s thrown into the pit to fight, he’s still very innocent, but he begins to learn. In cutting the movie, I tried to make Conan as innocent as possible, continually stress his wonderful naivete; Conan’s a child in a world of savages.
PREVUE: I’d heard that Dino DeLaurentiis wanted the tavern scene (PREVUE 47) edited out.
MILIUS: No, no, it’s back in, but it took a major fight. We had a lot of those. Every frame of this film was paid for in blood--mine. I feel like Admiral Nimitz at the end of World War 2. Dino said, “Well, I gave you everything you wanted!” I replied, “The Emperor of Japan gave Nimitz everything he wanted; he gave him Guadacanal, he gave him Saipan, he gave him Iwo Jima. He got all of them, but they were duly paid for.”PREVUE: Why did you go for an R-rating?
MILIUS: It wouldn’t be Conan with a PG.
PREVUE: I understand you shot some very violent, bloody footage, in case you needed it. How would you describe that aspect of Conan?
MILIUS: I think it’s all tastefully done. The film is still very violent, but it’s not drenched in blood. If you happen to see it, you see it, but it isn’t dwelled upon in order to just shock the audience. Violence should be seen that way indirectly, but never be focused on deliberately.
PREVUE: How do you feel about films like Raging Bull with its blood-squirting scenes?
MILIUS: It was very well done; I was quite impressed. Remember that last fight scene, where Sugar Ray punches LaMotta one final time, and the blood flies all over the Mafia spectators? It was wonderful! Their man being beat up, and they get the blood on their hands, too. I loved the movie, it’s one of the two best made in the last ten years. It’s what I call industrial strength cinema, really strong stuff. You leave the theater with an experience you won’t forget for a long time. It’s more than entertainment. Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull were industrial strength, and so is Conan.
PREVUE: Why did you de-emphasize sorcery in the story?
MILIUS: I wanted all the magic to be natural, so the audience won’t say, “Oh, a special effects sequence.” I felt the magic should be another facet of life in Conan’s time. If somebody takes a snake and turns it into an arrow, no big deal! That’s simply part of the culture.
PREVUE: That doesn’t exactly track with Howard’s concept of Conan.
MILIUS: Sometimes It does. Whenever Howard wrote his big sorcery sequences, it was usually because he found no other way of resolving the story. In Worms of the Earth with Bran Mak Morn, Howard has to destroy the evil Romans, but he makes creatures come up from underground to do it. Until then, it’s a terrific story.
PREVUE Won’t your approach draw fire from Conan purists?
MILIUS: No, because there’s plenty of sorcery in the movie, but it comes naturally from the action, it adds a very surrealistic mood that’s stranger and more mystical than anything else that’s ever been done.
PREVUE: What’s your favorite scene in the film?
MILIUS: The ending, what happens after the killing of Thulsa Doom. Conan sits on the steps, contemplating what has happened. Eventually, he goes into the temple, burns it down, takes the princess with him and leaves. But its not the action, it’s the way it’s done. I love the mood and the feeling; it’s the most successful filmmaking I’ve ever done. It takes me into Howard’s world, into another time another place--like it’s all over, yet there is more beyond what we saw. It’s dreamlike; it touches on something that I seem to remember from--I don’t know--when I was a kid, or perhaps another life.
PREVUE: How much of your vision of Conan actually made it to the screen?
MILIUS: It’s as close as anything I’ve ever done; a good 90% anyway.
PREVUE: Was there anything you’d do differently if you had the opportunity?
MILIUS: Maybe the snake fight. I like it very much; it has a kind of swashbuckling feel, but I might have done it differently by constructing the snake another way.
PREVUE: Arnold said you jumped on the snake yourself and showed him how to kill it. He said you didn’t ask him to do anything that you wouldn’t--or didn’t--do yourself.
MILIUS: It’s true. I did the same thing with Big Wednesday. I think that movie was just an excuse for me to go out and ride big waves again. We all risked our lives making that one.
PREVUE: Conan wasn’t too easy, either.
MILIUS: No, it was an arduous task, the kind on which you put one foot in front of the other, ignore the misery and hell, and keep the end in sight.
PREVUE: That’s what generals do best, don’t they?
MILIUS: I suppose--and that’s what they pay directors to do, too.
PREVUE: You choreographed most of the action, working with stunt coordinator Terry Leonard. Were there any stunts too difficult to film?
MILIUS: Not really. Terry and I have been at this for a long time. Choreographing stunts is the easiest thing in the world for me to do. I seem to have a knack for it.
PREVUE: Do you ever think you’ll run out of ideas?
MILIUS: Each stunt is different, has its own problems, its own excitement. I won’t run out for awhile.
PREVUE: What scene was the most difficult to shoot?
MILIUS: The Cimmerian village attack in the snow. Because of the difficult weather, we had to reshoot it three times. There were tremendous blizzards which were fiercely cold, then, suddenly it would get warm. The snow would start to melt, and we couldn’t match the previous footage. Besides that, it was so cold during the blizzards that we couldn’t shoot.
PREVUE: You weren’t in the best of health, either.
MILIUS: I wasn’t; I’m not really suited to be a movie director.
PREVUE: But you keep making action films, outside on location.
MILIUS: Nobody offers nice indoor comedies. I’d love to do a nice stage play in New York, where it’s all indoors, but nobody’ll ever be interested in me doing that. I have an idea for one that I’d love to do, though. What I’d like to do most is write a really good book, but I’ve been lazy. For years, I’ve been told that I should be a novelist, not a screenwriter. I’ll give it a try one of these days.
PREVUE: How often do you like to undertake a new film?
MILIUS: One every three years is plenty for me. I’d like to write some movies for other directors, so I’d increase my output. As far as me directing, my lungs are week. I’m not that strong a person, so I’ve really got to want to do it very much. Right now, I’d like to rest, to sleep under a tree for a long time, or just sit and watch the sun go by.
PREVUE: Would you like to make one of every kind of movie--a sea adventure, a boxing film, a great white hunter story?
MILIUS: I could be talked into all of them if somebody said, “You have to do a film on the Merchant Marine.” I could find 12 ideas by the next day. History is full of wonderful stories; it’s just a matter of doing them.
PREVUE: Then, what is your next project?
MILIUS: There are several I’ve been thinking about. One is an adventure story about the exploits of a couple of Marines in China prior to World War 2. Another is a Viking tale.
PREVUE: What about your mountain man movie, Half the Sky?
MILIUS: Audiences have tired of westerns for awhile. Someday I’ll make it, when time is right.
PREVUE: Will Sam Peckinpah make The Texans script you and he worked on?
MILIUS: I don’t think so, but the producers have been talking about it. Maybe they’ll hire another director for it.
PREVUE: Have you ever wanted to make what Steve Spielberg calls “little movies?”
MILIUS: Um, well, yeah. I don’t see them way he does. He’s talking about a very intimate movie. I suppose I made mine with Big Wednesday.
PREVUE: George Lucas told me you might direct a Star Wars episode.
MILIUS: He’s never told me, but I’d love to! I’d like to do one on Darth Vader, The Darth Vader Story. Young Darth, where he goes bad.
PREVUE: But first there’s the Conan sequel. Is it more than an idea?
MILIUS: Yeah, there are people discussing it now. Let’s hope the first one’s successful.
PREVUE: Is there any doubt in you?
MILIUS: Always! The movie business is very strange. You can never tell what people will like.
PREVUE: Have you been surprised in the past?
MILIUS: Sure, everyone has. Big Wednesday was a movie I didn’t expect to be tremendously successful, but I didn’t expect to be treated like a war criminal for making it, either.
PREVUE: You once said you’d be happy making king Conan sequels for the rest of your life.
MILIUS: Yeah! Sure, I like this character, but I don’t think I could still say that now. I already know what I want to do. I’d like to make two more Conan films, because I see his story in terms of a trilogy.
PREVUE: Would you consider Conan your best film to date?
MILIUS: Certainly! It’s a real experience. I was born to make this film.
Originally published in PREVUE 48 © 1982, 2001 James Steranko. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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