Part one of the interview.
Do you think that often, with stories, whether they are true or not is not the most important thing – what is more important is whether we can get some kind of truth from them?
Exactly, that's so much the point. And also, I've always felt that this idea that violence in comics or movies or whatever is somehow destructive of character is extraordinarily naive: the idea that if we could disarm Eastwood or Schwarzenegger, the world would be a better place strikes me as ludicrous. I've always been amazed, because all action stories have violence. If you tell people you are going to tell them a violent story, people cringe. But if you tell them you're going to tell them a story full of adventure and action, they say ''Oh, boy. Let's pull up our chairs here. '' It could be exactly the same story. Of all these stories, though, there are very few that aren't quite strong, positive, moral, ethical lessons. There are very few of these so called 'violent' movies where the bad guys prevail. We see wicked people do wicked things and they are punished severely at the end. This is a staple of sub-literary efforts as well as on a more sophisticated level. Our great poets examined this! One of the distinguishing marks of literature is that you don't just make it good and bad, you make the argument for both sides. I believe the great Jean Renoir said ''There aren't any monsters, it's only the monstrous''. I say ''Hear, hear!''
Do you enjoy the moral aspect that comes with a lot of Westerns?
Nobody likes to describe themselves as a moralist, but at the same time, Westerns do tend to be Old Testament stories. If you say 'moral tales', you're slightly out of fashion, but if you say 'stories that deal with ethical concerns', you're still on safe ground! It's again, the choice of words.
You had a Presbyterian upbringing. Do you think this led to you liking the Old Testament nature of many Westerns?
I'm surprised you knew that! I don't remenber ever saying that in any interview. Yes, I grew up Presbyterian. I was sent to Sunday school and church, and I stopped going when I was sixteen. I should have probably kept going. I wasn't entirely happy that I was going at the time but I now think of it in a very positive way. The stories that I learned were very instrumental in developing a lot of my attitudes. I think that if you make a living out of your own wits in what's usually known as the 'creative areas', there's s this idea that you have to be wildly original. But we are all linked together and we are all standing on each other's shoulders. We tell stories that are different turns of stories that we are familiar with. I know the great Borges said that movies had a great relationship with their audience: the audience recognised the stories and anticipated them, and that that was one of the great pleasures of movies. In a sense, I think Cowboy Iliad is connected to that idea.
I think Westerns are kind of an extension of the Old Testament. People say to me ''It must be fun making Westerns – you're caught up in the 19th century and the costumes and this and that .. '', which is true. But I always thought it was much more like you were walking around in the Old Testament. You were always kind of telling, one version or another, Old Testament stories. Most Westerns are just turns on them. Some may have a modern psychological dimension to them, for example.
By the way, I wouldn't want to overstate my religious background. I'm not like Paul Schrader, who is very involved with his Church. He had a very strong personal reaction to his upbringing in that sense. It was part of my life, as was baseball, and fifteen other things, but I think it has had lasting value. I'm married to a Jewish woman. We both agree that the worst mistake that we made in raising our daughters, although they turned out well, was letting them decide if they wanted to become Jews or become Christians or have any religious teaching at all. We feel that we both failed miserably! We should have chosen one or the other or something, because it ended up they weren't really educated in those areas. They both chose to be Jewish. I don't know what that says. I guess I didn't make my case very well!
You started your directing career as the Western genre was fading out, but do you feel that most of your films have had elements of the genre in some form?
Well, I've said that in the past, but I think I tend to like what I call 'complexities based on simple stories', which is one of the aspects, I think, of the Western. I like stories that involve characters in situations where they don't have the normal recourse of a civiised authority for a solution. That again is the province of the Western. To tell you the truth, I think all of us only know four or five stories. We are just trying to figure out different ways to tell them. We put new clothes on them now and again and go out and make another version.
Do you wish you had made more Westerns in your career?
Oh, I don't know. I think I got to make more Westerns than anybody, save for Mr. Eastwood, so I can't really complain. They are more fun to do. You're usually out in the middle of nowhere, which means you're a long way from the studio and is part of the good news! The beautiful countryside when you make Westerns tends to be inspiring, and I like to be around horses. When you're making a movie downtown in some city, you're fighting to make every shot. You have to work around traffic and people on the street and hope that nobody is looking at the camera. Every shot seems like pulling teeth. When you're out there making a Western, it's just you, the actors, the crew, and the horses, and you own it. That's a very pleasant aspect of making Westerns.
In the booklet to The Cowboy Iliad you reveal that Greil Marcus's book The Old, Weird America (1997/ 2011) led you down the path to embark on the project. How so?
I read the book and he constantly has references to the 'Old, Weird America', which is one of his phrases. The shootout in Perry Tuttle's dancehall is I think so emblematic of this phrase, and also the American folk songs, 'Dock' Boggs, and any number of the darker American folk tales. I only know the author just to have a very brief conversation with him. His book also got me interested in Ken Maynard, who was a Western actor in the 1930s who put out some songs and was the real thing. We used some of his yodelling on the music tracks on The Cowboy Iliad. So I owe Mr. Marcus this, which is why I acknowledged his contribution.
You also thank Christopher Logue, Sam Peckinpah and Sam Shepard. Why those particular people?
Christopher Logue I knew a little bit. I had lunch and dinner with him three or four times. He was very good friends with some writer friends of mine in London. He decided to do his own poetic version of the Iliad called War Music (1981). He spoke no Classical Greek, but he felt that was to his advantage. He would go down to the library and assemble various classic translations of the Iliad and then out of all that, create his own poetry. I had several conversations with him about this, about 25 years ago. I loved the book, which is actually a compilation of a series of books he put out separately. I was fascinated by what he did, which was very modernist. I felt that with my nerve of using Homer for my own purposes I was kind of holding hands a bit with Christopher. 'Dare to win' as the commandos say!
I worked with Sam, I wrote a film that he directed, THE GETAWAY, which was at least a commercially successful film. I'm rather fond of it. I think it turned out to be a good movie. The success of that film is what largely enabled me to become a director. Again, as I was doing The Cowboy Iliad, I thought that Sam would probably like it. I was honoring the debt, I guess you could say.
Sam Shepard is sadly missed. I knew Sam the last few years of his life. My wife is a theatrical agent and she represented Sam as an actor for a number of years. I got to know him through her. He had a very strong interest in Westerns and he and I were going to do a Western together. We would co-write it together, I would direct it and he would star in it. He was a very good actor, and a very good Western actor. But it didn't happen. We had lost the rights to the underlying material, and we were both often busy on other projects. He would call the house sometimes and we would talk about Westerns. I had done a movie called WILD BILL and the song Leaving Cheyenne was reprised many times in that movie. Sam had a very strong interest in the song and I have no idea what this was based upon. We would discuss the song and its meaning, and some of the obscure cowboy lyrics. At Sam's memorial service in Kentucky, a little over a year ago, his son played Leaving Cheyenne on the violin and it was very moving. As I was doing The Cowboy Iliad, again, I thought he'd probably like it.
Part three of the interview.
The Cowboy Iliad is available on Amazon on CD, MP3, and as a companion book, written by Walter Hill.
Extract from the audiobook.
Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.