Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sergio Donati discussion hosted by Lauri Lehtinen

Cinema Orion, Helsinki (For a Few Sergios More / Helsinki Festival), 27 Aug 2011

Sergio Donati told us about his work with Riccardo Freda, on a project based on James Hadley Chase, and his involvement in a Spanish Western. One project fell through because the producer's condition was that the location should be a particular hotel to acquire some advertising for the hotel and for the producer to meet a certain actress. Donati focused on his career in advertising, becoming an executive in the second biggest advertising company in Italy, and contemplating establishing a company of his own.

Sergio Leone, an old friend, kept calling Donati, and asked him to see Yojimbo, for a basis for a Western. "I had a good career in advertising, and I rejected. Leone called, called, called." Being a friend of Vincenzoni, Donati came to help in For a Few Dollars More, to help solve trouble with overlength. The solution was a discussion in the scene of the legless soldier.

The great work was Once Upon a Time in the West. Donati showed us a copy of his screenplay of 420 pages, for which he has the credit with Sergio Leone. "No computer, it's Olivetti." Some people don't know the difference between a story and a screenplay. Italian screenplays are not like the American ones where one page equals a minute. Italian screenplays are detailed to the second. Ennio Morricone composed the music based on this screenplay. Claudio Mancini the production manager was the one that was hanged in the flashback. He plays Harmonica's father. Charles Bronson approached Donati to discuss the lines, to have the "f" eliminated. He has a lisping problem with "f".

Face to Face was a Alberto Grimaldi Western directed by Sergio Sollima, for whom I had written The Big Gundown. Sollima was very political and wanted a lot of dialogue. He wanted to explain, explain. A very good director.

Duck You Sucker Leone just wanted to produce, he had already ended the West. Eli Wallach they couldn't cast because Rod Steiger was the big star. Eli I adore. I suffer even today when I see Rod Steiger. Leone wanted Giancarlo Santi to direct. He presented him to Rod Steiger, saying, he is just like me, can do it as well as I. Rod Steiger said to him, ok, tomorrow I'll bring my cousin, he is just like me. There were 25 weeks of shooting. In the massacre there is a reference to the Fosse Ardeatine massacre conducted by the Nazis in Rome. In 1968-1969 we reacted to the Leftist wave in the world. LL: The film seems to be on the side of the revolution but is indifferent. SD: Leone was unpolitical. I disliked the quote from Mao about revolution being an act of violence. Not from me. LL: In the political phase you were disappointed. SD: In 1968 things seemed to change. Nothing changed.

Once Upon a Time in America: I was not part of the actual production, but I was involved in the preparations long before the film was shot. I did research in New York, met with cosa nostra characters and policemen and we found locations in New Jersey that could be used for New York in the 1930s. But Leone had a talk with Fellini who was shooting E la nave va in Cinecittà. Fellini lived on the set, had a big room there, with a shower. So Leone built New York in Cinecittà. The film is beautiful but it did change, change, change, from 1967 to 1984. My son was the first assistant director, the only Donati in the production team.

LL: You also had a comedy phase in films directed by Michele Lupo. [In the extract of Ben and Charlie there is another occasion of the cinema's obsession with the cancelled wedding. The tramp has escaped from his own wedding. The fiancée is a prostitute.] SD: The author of the story was Luigi Montefiore, an old friend, also known as George Eastman. He is still very busy writing for the tv.

With Sollima I had to fight, his dialogues were too long. With Leone, it was strictly business. Lupo was a friend.

LL: On Holocaust 2000: it was riffing on popular themes of the current cinema such as a nuclear powerplant, the second coming of Jesus and Antichrist. SD: Kirk Douglas was a macho man who invited us to his home in Beverly Hills. He had a fantastic wife, and he was proud of his son Michael who had produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Dino de Laurentiis produced the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal. Arnold had a terrible accent, and we decided to exaggerate and use irony. Arnold is very smart, and from this movie on, there was always some kind of irony in his films.

LL: What about Italian cinema today?
SD: Dead.

Mr. Berlusconi owns half the television and controls the other half. He owns Medusa, the biggest cinema distribution company. If you want to make a movie you have to secure the rights for primetime tv. In Italy, you don't see Italian films. My last work, The Sicilian Girl, has been seen all around the world, but in Italy, hardly at all.

Producers like de Laurentiis, Ponti, and Cristaldi, there are no more. We have very good actors. Previously there was the system of prima visione, second, third, etc. for cinema exhibition.

LL: Why were Italians successful with Westerns? SD: French producers don't understand Westerns. In Italy there was always a sense of i film di genere. After the Leone period it developed into Terence Hill, Bud Spencer movies.

LL: The Colt tv series? SD: In 1989, it was my last project developed with Leone, about a gun passing from hand to hand. It faded.

The first Q from the audience was from Kari Peitsamo, a Finnish rock legend. He asked what it means when Harmonica calls Frank "a man of ancient race". SD shrugged. Henry Fonda came to the set with his very young wife looking himself very old. But as soon as he was in costume he looked 20 years younger. My 3 year old son was watching cartoons in Spanish with him in Almeria.

Q: The bandits waiting at the station, was there an idea that they would be "the good, the bad, and the ugly", including Clint Eastwood? SD: I don't think so. Leone's relationship with Clint - bye. Leone didn't speak English actually. In the dubbing Americans were unexperienced. They worked on the same take on different days with different actors. Clint initially requested only to speak the lines that were in the original script. Clint is a fantastic director and writer, but then we didn't know. He sat silently in the corner. He hated smoking, yet he had to bite that cigarillo. Nobody understood his talent. The original choice had been Cliff Robertson, but Leone had seen Clint in Gunsmoke as the limping deputy. For the first movie he got $ 12.500, then $ 200.000, then a million. Leone shouted "I invented him, without me you'd be nobody". Clint said the same, "without me you'd be nobody". Leone used to joke that Clint had two expressions: one with the hat, the other without the hat.

Q: Is it true that Leone was unmusical? SD: Leone loved music and sound effects. Morricone became great with Leone. The Mexican trumpet and the Bach melody, those were suggestions from Leone.

Q: You have worked with many great directors: Corbucci, Castellari, Bellocchio, D'Amato... SD: Corbucci let actors improvize.

Q: Can you explain what a screenplay is more precisely? SD: In the USA, the screenplay of Raw Deal is 120 pages. In Italy, a screenplay is more like a novel. Leone used the expression desunto. What you see is written here exactly. Leone didn't improvize.

Excerpts viewed: Face to Face, Duck You Sucker, Ben and Charlie, Holocaust 2000, Raw Deal.

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