Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson interview: Milius

A chat with the directors of a new documentary charting the career of filmmaker John Milius...

“Are you ready for your round-table with Joey and Zak?”

“Yes, I am, lovely PR person”, is my instant reply. Yes, I am. Although that second half is me adding poetic license here. I’m too British to go full-out on the compliments this early into a relationship.

That exchange of pleasantries heralds a welcome interview with directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson. They’re in town to talk about their documentary Milius, charting the incredible life and career of filmmaker John Milius. It’s a very good documentary. So good that I’m not concerned at having to share them with three other interviewers.

And it’s so good that I don’t mind being a little deflated when I finally get into my first round-table interview. Because there’s no table. Nothing. Just a semi-circle of four seats surrounding Joey and Zak. So it’s essentially a round interview.

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But what the interview lacks in wooden furniture, Joey and Zak make up for in enthusiasm. So much enthusiasm, in fact, that we over-shoot our allotted 30 minute time slot by 15 minutes. And it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of great John Milius stories.

Here are just a few of them…

Why did you focus on John Milius as your documentary debut? Most people would consider him before their time, so is it a lesson in film history or is it something you did out of admiration? And if this is directed towards young people, why him?

Joey Figueroa: It’s a combination of both.

Zak Knutson: Yeah, with John, I mean, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola… they’re all household names. They all look up to John Milius as the ultimate storyteller. We look to them as the ultimate storytellers. But John Milius isn’t a name that’s household. You can’t walk down the street and say, ‘Hey, you know who John Milius is?’ and have everybody say ‘Of course!’

But everyone has been influenced by John Milius in pop culture in one way or another. Whether it’s through knowing the lines that he wrote for Apocalypse Now if you’re a movie nerd. But also having helped create the MMA, which is the fastest growing sport in the world. Or Walter in The Big Lebowski, which everyone over the age of 10 has seen, and probably under as well!

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It was some of those things and knowing the fact that John isn’t that known, and should be. So yeah, it’s a bit of film admiration but at the same time he’s got this amazing character that doesn’t seem to exist in Hollywood any more.

JF: We would ask people, ‘Do you know who John Milius is?’ And I would say eight out of 10 people would say no. And they know movies, so how can they not know this person? So that was part of the idea also, to bring him back into the limelight.

Not only to give him the credit that he’s due, because his resume is undeniable, but it’s almost to re-introduce him to another generation of filmmakers, of fans of cinema and just kind of put him out there in the same likes of his counterparts that he grew up with in that generation. The Spielbergs and the Lucas’ that everybody knows globally. And also to know this character, this artist, that he is.

ZK: And they don’t really exist in Hollywood any more. Characters don’t exist any more. You used to have John Ford and John Huston and Sam Peckinpah, and now I think we’ve got Quentin Tarantino of the younger guys. But out of John’s generation there was a lot of them. And John’s kinda the last one. And John was the craziest of them all. So any time you can take the guy who’s the craziest, you’re probably gonna have a good story in there.

JF: And it wasn’t just about trying to find the gossip of the craziness. That was just a cherry on top. It’s a bonus that this man has accomplished a lot, but he’s a wacky character at the same time as well, you know?

So how did those phone calls go when you were trying to get people on board? Because it’s a dream list of contributors in this film. Were they ‘Yeah, I’ll talk!’? There’s the sense that they all love him. Did anyone say no?

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JF: Well, you know, that process took a while.

ZK: The younger guys said no.

JF: Yeah, I think the younger guys were a little more intimidated. Especially further along in the process when we did have all these names. I think the younger guys were like ‘Whoa, I don’t know!’ It was intimidating for them.

But when we started this project, it was a total passion project, independently financed, self financed by Zak and me at that moment. And we were doing our own jobs, doing this while we can, picking up interviews when we can. And then when finally we got some help financially, we really put the pedal to the medal. But before that it was really like pulling teeth trying to get people to commit to an interview.

And so we had to come up with a strategy. Like, how do we do this? We had a couple of interviews of friends, but we need some big names in order to legitimise the project and make people feel it’s a real project, it’s not just two dummies with a camera going, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ Which is really what it was! [laughs]

But it was serious and so that was our strategy: let’s get some sizeable names and maybe that’ll give us some legs and we can hopefully get that domino effect where some other interviews will fall into place. And that worked. We got Schwarzenegger and Lucas, so when we requested interviews from other people in the industry, they were like, ‘Who else is in it?’

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They wanted to make sure it was real. But the reason why it did take so long, you can imagine trying to schedule these people on their time. People like Scorsese, it took us up to two years. Coppola the same amount of time. Eastwood…

ZK: Eastwood’s been making more movies now than he has at any other point in his career, so it was like ‘Okay, how about Clint now?’ ‘Well, he’s just started pre-production.’ ‘Okay, well how about Clint now?’ ‘Oh, he’s in post’. ‘Okay, how about now?’ ‘He’s back in pre-production!’ [laughs]

What stage did you get finance?

ZK: We’d probably been doing it for two years already and then we got to the point where we’d have to do a lot of travelling. And then we had already accumulated so many interviews by that point we were going to need hard drives. We were going to need to grow. Scott Mosier, who’s the executive producer on the project, he found the guys at Haven, and we kind of sat down with them at breakfast and did this pitch. ‘He’s written all these things and you don’t know who he is!’ And we kinda did our whole thing. And they said ‘We’re in!’

They jumped in immediately, before we had a lot of the big names, so I give those guys a lot of credit for seeing down the road and believing in us as filmmakers and believing in the story.

We never expected any of this. We were just going to be happy to sell it. The fact we’re going to SXSW, Telluride, London Film Festival. It’s like, ‘This is awesome!’

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What makes you celebrate him now? Was this a project you wanted to do for a long time?

ZK: It wasn’t something we’d been wanting to do for a long time. It was one of the producers on the film, Ken Blum, who used to write for IGN, he’d done a 60-page interview with John. I think it’s still out there. You type in John Milius on Google and it’s like the first thing that comes up. And within that interview was the blueprint for the documentary. I was reading through it, and I know John, and I look at myself as a pretty big film nerd, and I was like, ‘I don’t know half this stuff’.

And that’s the first thing that got me, in my self-centred movie nerd head of mine. If I don’t know a lot of this stuff, a lot of people don’t know a lot about this stuff. And if a lot of people don’t know about this stuff that could be a fascinating documentary.

And Ken kept in touch with John. So that’s when we set up the meeting and met with him.

JF: One of the things that was really interesting for us in the beginning was the access to him. Usually a lot of people will do a biog documentary and they don’t have their subject fully on board. We had John Milius on board from the get-go. And we were like, ‘Wow! This man can speak. And this is going to be amazing, because he’s so vocal and has like zero filter and he’s just going to say all this shit that’s going to be awesome’.

And, obviously, if you’ve seen the film, you know what happens, so that changed the entire dynamic of how this documentary got made.

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Originally Milius was going to be our driving force in this picture and that totally got derailed. And we had to find this voice now, because we have to hear him speak, obviously. That’s what made it a bit more difficult.

Do you think his new Hollywood emerging style that was so popular in the 70s still holds today? Do you think he still has a place today?

ZK: I do, actually. And the other thing that goes along with that is I think that pendulum has started to swing back. Because when John and George and Francis Ford Coppola were coming up, they were just coming out of a time when Hollywood was making these huge, massive blockbusters. It was huge. Except people were tired of them, they got bored of them, because it was the same thing going on.

I think the same thing’s happening now where, in Hollywood, unless you have a cape or an emblem on your chest, and it’s $200 million, I think audiences are getting a little tired of it. I think that’s why you’re seeing something like Gravity, which is Sandra Bullock in space, it’s become a huge success worldwide. Audiences want to go back to something, I think, and that all ties in with John. Because I think John does still hold a place. Any time you can tell a story, and tell a story well, you’ve got a place behind the camera.

JF: But I don’t know how much his personality would be accepted in today’s Hollywood.

ZK: Corporate Hollywood would not take him.

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JF: That personality is a throwback. It’s old Hollywood. It’s when directors were looked at in a different light. They were looked at as the artists. It’s not like that any more. It’s a business. It’s always been a business, but even more so today. So someone like John Milius today can still fit in to the Hollywood mould, but I don’t know how much he’ll like it! He’d have to change, in my opinion, and I don’t think John Milius will change his personality. And that doesn’t mean he won’t ever work, it just means he will have that many more battles. Which I think he would like. [laughs]

ZK: I don’t think John would do well with the studio system being so corporatised now. Because they don’t care about you as a person, or as an artist, they only care about their quarterly profits. And then, put on top of that, John coming in and putting a loaded .45 on the table, all of a sudden…

John Kelly and Frank Wells, back in the day, loved that stuff. ‘Put that gun away, John, knock that shit off!’ [all laugh] And he’d go, ‘Okay, fine’. The new guys are terrified. And you know what, rightfully so. [laughs]

JF: They’d be like, ‘John’s a terrorist!’

ZK: ‘He pulled a gun, the son of a bitch!’

Did you see his gun collection?

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JF: He showed us quite a few. This is funny: we went up to his cabin – well, as Zak calls it, the condo in the woods, is basically what it is.

ZK: Everyone’s like ‘Oh, John’s got a cabin the woods!’ And you picture this log cabin with a rifle above the door, a big mangy dog. It’s a fucking condo! In the woods. And his dog, it’s a half-blind, tiny little poodle thing. It just goes to show, this image that he’s built for everyone…

JF: We were there, just having a little conversation, and he starts pointing out some stuff, and he’s pointing out some photos on the wall, and he’s like ‘This guy was in the Hawaiian Mafia’. And then he goes ‘Let me show you something’. And he goes to one bedroom and he pulls out his shotgun, he’s got this cabinet, and he shows us another one, and another one. And then he goes behind a door and there’s another one!

And he goes ‘Let’s go down to the garage’. He opens up a safe, ‘Here’s this one, and this one, here’s the .44 magnum…’

ZK: Yeah, the .44 magnum. That was the inspiration for Dirty Harry, like he pulls it out…

JF: And we didn’t even scratch the surface. And then we go and have lunch with some friends of his at the gun store!

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When we first pitched the project to John, he had two stipulations. He said, ‘One, you have to tell the truth’. And we’re like, ‘Okay, that’s awesome’. And he says, ‘Two, no guns. You can’t show me with any guns’.

Now at that time, we were like, ‘Okay, we can do that’. But as we dove in, we realised it was an impossibility, this is ridiculous! And then we looked at each other, like, ‘He was fucking with us, right?’. And I could just hear him laughing. [laughs]

But it’s typical John. Everything he does is for effect, for the story. And in his head, he’s like, ‘I just totally screwed with these guys, when they get into this project they’re going to realise that’s an impossibility!’

ZK: He knows that story’s being told right now, and laughing.

JF: And that’s the great thing about Milius. It’s like he told us, it’s always about the story.

Do you get the sense that he manufactured that image though? The tragedy that we glimpse from the documentary is of John Milius being blacklisted because of this character he created for himself.

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JF: It’s almost like his detriment. Some people would say that. I think John was very calculating in the things that he did and the things that he said. He knew the repercussions, but what’s got to be admired about him is that although he didn’t have a filter, he stuck by, no pun intended, his guns. He stuck to what he said. He didn’t waiver. Even if it was to his detriment.

It could be celebrated too, because he’s so outspoken and here we are talking about him, and for being such a rebel at a time when you’re allowed to be. And it didn’t matter that he might get some backlash for it. To him I think he fed off that. And I think sometimes he said things just for that, for the effect, just for the response. Because he liked to mess with people.

You’ve got to take a lot of the things he said with a grain of salt. As Zak says, you can’t get a sense of humour at Harvard, you just have to have a sense of humour. You either get it or you don’t. And he’s perceived a certain way, but I feel that everything he’s done is kind of calculated. And it is sad. Because you feel it did hinder him. He did shoot himself in the foot. I keep using these gun references. [laughs]

ZK: We would ask people in the interviews, ‘If John could have made those ten movies you think should have got made, if he had a time machine, but he had to take back everything he said, would he do it?’ And everybody said no. As much as John loves his movies, and as much as John loves dialogue, this character that he’s built, and the stories that are told about him, he loves just as much.

It’s part of the reason we have ‘Man, Myth, Legend’ on the poster. Because it’s about the man, it’s about the myth he’s created, and both of those have created this legend.

It’s mentioned in the film that he represents what the 70s were. Do you agree with that? What do you think the 70s were about?

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JF: Well I think it represents a time when there was a change in movie-making and Hollywood. They needed something fresh, they needed new stories. Hollywood was kind of in a rut. So people like the Coppolas and the Lucases and Spielbergs, they were kind of revitalising Hollywood.

ZK: They weren’t making Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or Paint Your Wagon. They didn’t want to do massive musicals. They wanted to tell very intimate stories but they wanted audiences to see those stories. They weren’t out to just, ‘I’m going to make my art and damn the world!’ That was a failure to them. They wanted butts in the seats.

John used to joke about wanting to run a studio. And Francis was like, ‘No, we’re going to make movies with the studios. And we’re going to bring the art into the commerce, instead of having it be pushed the other way’. I think those guys did a lot for that time period. Now, the argument that could be made is the monster they created ended up killing the creator. Because they ended up having things like Heaven’s Gate. And studios were like, ‘We can’t do that any more’.

I think the 70s, as far as John goes, I think he represents it for a couple of reasons. First he looks at himself as an artist, more than anything. If you just call John a bombastic character, or writer, or director, he doesn’t look at himself that way. He wants to be seen as an artist.

He wants also to be seen as a personality, which is something that definitely came through in the 70s. ‘My films are a representation of me’, and you can definitely see that in John’s movies.

And the other thing is collaboration. ‘I make movies, but I want to make movies with other people and I want input from my friends’. And that’s definitely true with Coppola doing American Zoetrope and all those guys. And Spielberg. John constantly helped out Steven, whether that was Saving Private Ryan or even going back to Close Encounters. He’d call John up and need something.

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So those guys were always sharing and helping each other out. And I think that’s what the 70s represented.

Do you have a favourite project of his?

JF: I actually like one of his earliest movies, Dillinger. I’m a huge fan of gangster movies and I think he did it justice. Realistically, if you think about it, that movie should have been a B-movie coming from a B-movie studio, and they were pleasantly surprised by the success of that movie. Because it’s that good. You look at it now and it still holds up. I like it better than the new Dillinger movie they did …

ZK: The Michael Mann one…

JF: It was ahead of its time and it’s just a really well thought-out production.

ZK: Mine shifts. It used to be Big Wednesday, because I was a surfer as a kid. So instantly I was drawn to Big Wednesday, and then it’d go to Conan, and currently it’s The Wind And The Lion. And I think the two things that John has written that are my favourites have never been produced and they’re both TV pilots. One’s called Dodge City, and the other’s called Saigon Bureau. It’s about the AIP Bureau in Vietnam, all the photographers. Brilliant scripts, and God I just want to see them made, especially from the guy who created Rome.

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I can’t help but think about the quote at the beginning of the movie, that Sam Elliot says…

[everyone laughs]

JF: It sets a nice tone.

ZK: You have to say it…

Okay, Sam Elliot says, right off the bat, ‘He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women, he writes for men. Because he is a man’. So I was just curious who this documentary is for. Can it be for everyone? Can it be for an audience that includes a lot of women?

JF: Well, I’m hoping that if you absolutely never heard of John Milius before, and you watch this, you can walk away and go, ‘I know who this man is, I got a sense of his personal life, his personality and his art’. And I don’t care whether you’re male or female, I don’t think that really matters. I think it can please both.

It definitely is a macho movie, but he was a macho dude, and what he did kind of falls in that category. But I think women shouldn’t be offended.

ZK: I gotta say this too about the female characters. John’s female characters, if you look at Big Wednesday, the Lee Purcell character is the centre of the family unit, which is those three guys. Very strong female character.

Take Red Dawn, the two female characters, they have more happen to them as characters that is more brutal, and they’re so strong and one of them survives at the end of the picture. Conan The Barbarian, the female, she’s not ‘Oh, Conan, save me!’ She’s out there, ‘I’m going to go rob this guy, you wanna come with?’ She’s a very strong female character.

I think John gets a bad rap because his male characters are so fucking macho, you know? The female characters are so strong, but when you put anyone up against Arnold Schwarzenegger… he’s Arnold, he’s huge!

But I think anyone can watch the movie and appreciate it. If you like personalities, if you like characters, if you’ve ever watched a movie in the last 30 years, I think you can appreciate the documentary.

What do you think characterises manliness in this film?

ZK: I think his characters have a theme which is John’s theme. Which is, ‘My word is worth more than anything. I don’t have a team of lawyers and I don’t have a team of people. I’m about me. I can survive on my own. I will take care of my own problems, and if I can’t my friends will help me.’

But ultimately, I think what says everything about John is a handshake. If the deal can be done on a handshake, that says everything that needs to be done by John.

JF: What I really took away was the sense that this guy was one of the dudes that I would probably be hanging around with if I was his age at that time. I would be smoking cigars with him, and shooting the shit. I would be in that mix because I’m drawn to that kind of character. I don’t know if that’s a macho thing, but it’s manly in a sense that a handshake, it goes a long way.

What got me about this documentary was how much it made me want to see a new John Milius film. But then it made me wonder if we could get a real John Milius film nowadays. Whether he’d be allowed to make the type of film he’d actually want to make. You look at the Red Dawn remake, and it was kind of flaccid …

ZK: Oh yeah, a terrible movie.

So do you think TV would be the best medium for him now? You mentioned those pilot scripts you’d read…

ZK: I would love… John’s got this script for Genghis Khan. If the studios don’t want to make it as a $200 million epic, I would love for some place like HBO to say, ‘Okay, I tell you what, your original script that’s 350 pages long, go make it!’ Go make it like they did with Band Of Brothers.

Or like they do here over here in the UK which is a limited series, six episodes and you’re out. Just go make it, tell the story, because it’s really kind of awesome and epic. It’s David Lean but at the same time it’s Quentin Tarantino, you know?

And it’s got one of the biggest female characters… really, the female character’s probably the strongest John’s ever written. I love that script. And if you get the chance to read a John Milius script, it’s really different than most scripts. You’ll read a normal script and it’ll say, ‘Exterior, day, a man walks through field’. John’s is ‘Exterior, day, the character walks across the plain, hand flowing across the weeds as the sun…’ It’s very novelistic, it paints this picture where all of a sudden you see it in 2:35, you see it with the silver wash of the film, you see that movie. It’s awesome!

I totally forgot what the question was. [laughs] I kinda got wrapped up in that…

It was that tantalising aspect of the documentary. There seemed to be so many projects he never got to make. Is TV the right home for those now?

JF: We still wonder, ‘what’s the hold up? How come some of these things haven’t been developed?’ That’s the million dollar question.

ZK: We tried to get some studio executives to talk to us, but they wouldn’t talk to us. Because we wanted to go into AMC and say, ‘Okay, he’s got this show with you guys [Rome], and Matt Weiner who did Mad Men is such a fan, he started saying you got to make this show. What happened with it?’ But nobody’s going to get in there and say, ‘This is why we didn’t make the show’. They’re just not going to. But hopefully one day those shows will get made.

A large part of this documentary is that he didn’t get to go to Vietnam. He says himself ‘I didn’t get to go to my war’. Do you think that’s a big part of him? Is that how he explains his films?

ZK: Oh yeah, John surrounds himself with military guys, he’s fascinated with it. If John could change anything about himself it would be that he would be able to join the military.

JF: He wanted to be a general.

ZK: He wanted to be MacArthur! He wanted to be one of the greats.

JF: Here’s a good question we could have asked him: ‘Would you give it all up, everything you’ve accomplished, for a military life?’

ZK: That would be interesting. Knowing he wouldn’t have the gun collection he does now. [laughs]

What was the most surprising fact about John Milius that you discovered when making this documentary?

ZK: To me it’s how much his friends love the guy. Oliver Stone. John and he couldn’t be more diverse politically. Oliver Stone loves John. Loves him. They can debate, he calls John crazy, and one of the great lines in the documentary is when he says ‘I know that means a lot coming from me!’

And then all of John’s friends just love the guy. Harrison Ford doesn’t do documentaries. He doesn’t do them. Within 48 hours of calling his manager he was, ‘I’ll do it, no problem’.

Because a long time ago, he was on a press tour for either Blade Runner or Star Wars. John was on a press tour for something else. John took his kids out for a day at a Samurai museum, and showed them 400 year-old Samurai swords. Those kids have never forgotten that. They think John Milius is the coolest guy ever.

And everybody felt that way. We tried to find the people who were like, ‘Fuck John Milius, he’s an asshole!’ I found one. The executive he pulled a gun on. But he wouldn’t go on camera. I found the guy, tracked him down, called him up, said ‘Look, this story, I’d really like to see if you’d like to take part in the documentary’.

And he says ‘You know, you’ve got a great documentary, it sounds wonderful, but I really don’t want to take part in it’. I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but this story about him pulling a gun on you, can you just confirm or deny it? Because the only person I’ve got telling me this is John. And we all know John can go a little big at times.’

He goes, ‘You’ve got a great documentary, I can’t wait to see it when it comes out, but I can’t take part’. And I was like, ‘That’s fine, but literally confirm or deny’. He said, ‘You want a quote? John Milius is a fucking asshole!’ Click, he hangs up the phone. I look over to Joey and say, ‘He fucking did it! He pulled a gun!’ [laughs]

JF: That was enough confirmation!

ZK: I was like, that’s enough. Anyone that pulls a gun, that’s what you get!

Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, thank you very much.

Milius is released in selected cinemas on Friday 1st November, and on DVD/Blu-ray on 15th November.