QT discusses William Witney
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Whoa Trigger! Auteur Alert!
September 15, 2000
by Rick Lyman
"I've found directors I like, but William Witney is ahead of them all. I think it's so cool that he began as the king of cowboy serials and ended with a black exploitation film. That's a career, man." QT.
QUENTIN TARANTINO, WILLIAM WITNEY AND THE GOLDEN STALLION
The following article from The New York Times was the first in a series of discussions with noted directors, actors, screenwriters and cinematographers. In each article, one filmmaker selected and discussed a movie that had personal meaning. Quentin Tarantino, the young independent maverick director of such films as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", elected to discuss William Witney and his film "The Golden Palomino".
Hollywood - The six-by-eight-foot flickering rectangle of light turns the white wall to amber above Quentin Tarantino's fireplace. Not far away, back through a Spanish archway, a 16-millimeter projector rattles with a persistent click that never quite disappears beneath the bleating of the soundtrack, like static on a short-wave radio. "I love this scene," Mr. Tarantino says. "It's a really tough scene, a tough, tough scene. But it's not the kind of scene you expect, all right. The emotion is right out there. But if you buy it, and I totally buy it, then it can make you cry."
This is the guy who made ear-severing a dance routine, turned sadomasochistic basement torture into comic relief and created the scene where Uma Thurman takes a six-inch hypodermic in the chest. So when the director of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," the celebrity prototype for an entire generation of Sundance-bred, film-geek auteurs, tells you that you are about to see a scene that is tough, you listen to him, don't you?
Roy Rogers is standing off to one side, elegant and stoic, with that thin, shiny mouth and those exotic eyes. Dale Evans is a few steps behind him, plump and fretting. A few steps away, the sheriff's men have Trigger, Rogers's famous stallion, held tightly on a rope. Trigger bobs his head up and down, shifts from foot to foot, his preternaturally floppy mane slapping across his forehead. It doesn't look good for the good guys. Rogers and Trigger have been found standing next to the body of a villain whose head has been bashed. We know the horse is innocent, but circumstantial evidence points to Trigger. "In this case, Roy, circumstantial evidence is enough," the sheriff sadly intones.
Yes, Trigger is about to get one between the eyes, right now. There is no court of appeals for killer horses. The screen is suddenly filled with the face of Rogers. Somehow, fear, regret and calculation all begin to wash out of his eyes even though his face doesn't move a muscle. He drops his head, a decision made. "Wait, Sheriff," Rogers says, and then confesses to the killing. "Roy, don't you know what you're doing?" Dale whimpers. He knows. He's saving his best friend from a bullet, even if it means several years on a chain gang for him. Mr. Tarantino leans forward and rests his elbows on his lanky legs, his face riveted to the flickering image on his living room wall where "The Golden Stallion" is playing. He says the film is one of the three or four masterpieces of a now all-but- forgotten journeyman director named William Witney. Mr. Witney, 85, an Oklahoma native now living in quiet retirement in rural California, is the sweetest fruit of what Mr. Tarantino says has been a year and a half of gorging on film history and B-grade filmmakers. Mr. Tarantino says he had a suspicion that there were "forgotten masters" out there, workaday moviemakers who had carefully chosen their assignments and then transformed them into art, but who had been overlooked in the post-auteur critical landscape.
"People think that the only good westerns made in the 40's and 50's were by John Ford or maybe Howard Hawks," Mr. Tarantino says. "Film guys might add, oh, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth. But I just had this suspicion that because they didn't make A-list movies or didn't work with A-list stars, a lot of really great masters were getting lost in the shuffle."
So while he was working on the two screenplays that he intends to begin shooting, one after the other, after the first of the year, Mr. Tarantino says he also indulged his film-scholar fantasies and dived into the world of the forgotten genre flicks.
Best Horse and Best Friend
"I've found directors of some of these movies who I'm really into, but William Witney is ahead of them all, the one whose movies I can show to anyone and they are just blown away," Mr. Tarantino says. "He makes you accept everything on his terms, and his terms are that Roy and Trigger are best friends. Trigger is not just his best horse; he's his best friend. You know, in some movies, a cowboy might go to jail to save his best friend from being shot down dead. Well, Trigger is Roy's best friend. It's the easiest leap to have him do that here, yet it's so powerful and so unexpected. What's great is that you buy it, you absolutely buy it, and I don't know that I really would buy it from anybody else but Roy and Trigger."
The idea behind this series is to sit down - with accomplished filmmakers or actors or screenwriters or cinematographers, people who have contributed something to the history of film - and simply watch a movie, not one of their own films, but someone else's, a film that has some special resonance for them. Perhaps it was a film they saw as a teenager, something that inspired them or has grown mysteriously in their estimation over the years, or maybe something like this, something they have stumbled across with shocked delight. The goal is to get some sort of understanding of how film artists absorb the movies they love, and how those movies have informed their own work. Instead of just another profile about the last project or the most recent award or the next big deal, this is to be about the work. That's the idea. And so Mr. Tarantino, champion of everything from B- grade 1950's genres to 70's black exploitation to life as a bitter and ironic cocktail, was asked what he wanted to watch and he said, "The Golden Stallion," a 1949 minifeature from the days of the Saturday morning cowboy serials, neither bitter nor ironic. Tough? Quentin Tarantino thinks so. You think you know better?
Jungle Girls to Cowboys
"The thing about William Witney is that he was really a director of genre movies," Mr. Tarantino says. "He started making serials in the late 1930's, and he made some of the best of them, from the Dick Tracy ones to Spy Smasher to Jungle Girl. And when they stopped making serials, he moved over to Saturday morning cowboy pictures and did pretty much everything Roy Rogers shot between the late 40's and the early 50's"-when Rogers stopped making movies and shifted to television. As the lanky Mr. Tarantino grows more effusive about his subject, he also becomes more mobile, pivoting on his hips as he chatters, then leaping up to pace the room, peppering his long, fast sentences with earnest expletives like "all right" and "cool." The faster he talks, the faster he walks. The more intricate his sentences, the more baroque his gestures. "When they stopped making Saturday morning cowboy pictures in the 50's, when Republic Pictures closed down, he moved over and made juvenile delinquent films, and they are some of the best of those movies ever made," Mr. Tarantino says. "And when they stopped making those, he moved over and did some rock 'n' roll movies in the 60's. He flirted with the A list a couple of times, but mostly he was a guy who moved from one B-list genre to another, all right, for something like 40 years. And all the while he is churning out TV shows. He did a ton of "Bonanza" and episodes for almost every western of the period. And do you know what his last movie was? A black exploitation flick in the 70's. He ended with "Darktown Strutters" in 1975, about a female black motorcycle gang. I think it's so cool that he began as the king of the cowboy serials and he ended with a black exploitation film. That's a career, man."
A spokesman for McFarland and Company, which published Mr. Witney's 1995 memoirs about his years as a serial director-"In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase"-said that Mr. Witney had suffered a stroke a few years ago and was not able to be interviewed, but that he had been informed about Mr. Tarantino's interest in his work.
The rap on Mr. Tarantino, 37, is that he doesn't make as many movies as he should; years and years come between his films. It's been three years since his most recent, "Jackie Brown," and that one was a long time coming. This is all just about to change, he promises. One of his new projects is a tasty little noirish thriller starring Uma Thurman. "My fans are gonna love this one," he says. "They've been waiting a long time, and I think they're really going to happy with it." The other is a big, epic World War II adventure; he is just now trimming and polishing the screenplay.
Yet what does this very deliberate filmmaker, who spent a lot of his time in the last decade trying to generate an acting career, find to love about a true Hollywood salaryman like William Witney, who was making five movies a year when "The Golden Stallion" came out? The flickering image shifts: Rogers is off in prison now. There was no last-minute reprieve. He had to do his time, and hard time it was. Not only that, but he also had to watch as Trigger became the property of the bad guys. And yet he never became bitter. Mr. Tarantino finds it odd that this is so moving to him.
"Normally, I would be drawn to movies where a good-guy Roy Rogers character becomes corrupted through life," Mr. Tarantino says, transfixed on the screen again. "In one of my movies, this guy would probably have come out of prison wanting to kill somebody. And he would kill somebody-while riding Trigger. "Nowadays, Roy Rogers seems almost too good, but you buy it from him somehow. I find myself being moved by his common decency. Life's events and other people's actions have no effect on him and his heart. He didn't save Trigger to become a bitter man; he did it because it was what he had to do. His code is his code. The whole world can change, and it doesn't change his code."
Mr. Tarantino first came across Mr. Witney's work when he watched an old print of "The Bonnie Parker Story" (1958), a kind of juvenile delinquent movie set in the Depression, with Dorothy Provine playing the infamous gangster. "I was blown away," he says, "It was like, whoa, who made this? I have to see everything he ever did." And so began the hunt for the half-forgotten works of Mr. Witney. One after another, he found them, watched them and, with one or two exceptions, found them absolutely riveting, the work of a real lost master, just what he had been looking for. He has whittled Mr. Witney's oeuvre-more than 100 films from 1937 to 1975 - into what he considers to be his four greatest masterpieces. The earliest is "The Golden Stallion." Then comes "Stranger at My Door" (1956), another western, this time with Macdonald Carey playing a frontier preacher whose homestead is invaded by a robber on the lam. ("I showed this to a group of friends, all film people, and it just blew them away," Mr. Tarantino says. "We talked about it for hours afterward.") Then "The Bonnie Parker Story" and, in 1959, "Paratroop Command," a realistic World War II adventure about a platoon pariah who has to prove himself.
Dropping Like Flies
"I was showing 'Paratroop Command' to Peter Bogdanovich one day, and there comes this moment in the film where he goes, like, hey, wait a minute, what the heck is happening?," Mr. Tarantino says. "These guys, who you've been getting to know throughout the movie, suddenly start dying. And I don't mean a big, glamorous cinema death. They're just dropping like flies, unceremoniously. It's so realistic. You know that it was a movie made by a guy who had been there. William Witney was in the Marines in World War II for something like five years."
The projector is still clicking away, and the wall above the fireplace is filled with motion. Trigger is running through a broad valley, the sun backlighting his mane and a team of wild horses following behind. Dale Evans, in voice-over, is reading a letter she is writing to Rogers, back on the chain gang. "I find this so poetic, so beautiful," Mr. Tarantino says. "The letter is beautifully written, her delivery is great, and these images of the wild horses are just stunning. Wait, I want to run it back."
He jumps up and runs back to the projector and rewinds to catch the last few minutes again. Appreciating William Witney begins with understanding what he did with Roy Rogers, Mr. Tarantino says. "Roy's movies at this time had turned into these sort of western musicals, like frontier jamborees, where he's singing and walking around in outfits with fringes," Mr. Tarantino says. "After their first few movies together, Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures. Audiences loved it. Nobody had ever seen Roy fight like that, so it was kind of cool to everyone that he was such a good fistfighter. And a fistfight in a William Witney movie is a fistfight. They're tough. People get bloody noses."
Mr. Tarantino says he admires Mr. Witney for his rough and believable action scenes, but also for his taste, as shown in his choice of assignments over the years. He compares him to Howard Hawks, a director who spanned genres but managed to bring something of himself to each of them. "It shows you how important taste is," he says.
A Visual Stylist
And there is something unpretentious about the way Mr. Witney worked that appeals to the young director.
"He's a visual stylist, but he's a visual stylist in the way that a lot of those guys were back then," Mr. Tarantino says. "It's always about moving the camera like 'Hey, Mom, look, I'm directing.' He was clever about camera movement. One of the things I got from looking at his films is that the camera movements are so elegant. You have to have made movies for 30 years to be able to move the camera so unpretentiously. His camera movements, when they happen, are so cool. They're either completely artful, in a cool, don't- call-attention-to-yourself kind of way, or they're visually about how to tell the story. These guys were storytellers. They knew how to move the camera to convey information so they didn't have to shoot another dialogue scene to explain something."
And something else has jumped out at Mr. Tarantino. "Look at the way he uses Trigger in this film," he says. "William Witney is the greatest director when it comes to working with animals. In his films, if there's an animal, it's another character in the movie. If a homesteader has a dog, it's not just yapping in the background. You get to know this dog; you might even follow it on its own little adventure in the middle of the movie. And 'Golden Stallion' is his masterpiece when it comes to working with animals, perhaps because he's working with Trigger, the greatest animal actor who ever was."
A Noble Pursuit
In the long run, Mr. Tarantino says, he hopes Mr. Witney has influenced him in subtle ways, perhaps helping him build his instinct for when to move the camera and how. He did, while still in the first flush of admiration for Mr. Witney's work, write two animal scenes into his World War II epic, though he says that the script has grown too long and byzantine and must be trimmed back and that both of the animal scenes, sadly, will probably have to go. In one, a refugee girl hiding in a barn is attacked by rats and saved by a dog; in the other, a soldier separated from his platoon finds and befriends a runaway horse. Never to be filmed, he says with a shrug: "That's the way it goes." Has this year in the film-scholar trenches been worth it? These are, after all, years in which Mr. Tarantino could have been making a lot of money and a lot of films. "This is a very noble pursuit," he says. "I've turned quite a few friends on to William Witney, so he lives through us, at least." It's easy, he knows, to "get hung up on somebody when you do something like this," and perhaps exaggerate a filmmaker's gifts or importance. But he has thought about it and really believes that Mr. Witney is the genuine article. So has it been worth it? Yes. "You know, in this business right now, there are a whole lot of people making movies to pay for their incredibly extravagant lifestyle," he says. "There's just a whole lot of that going on. I'm not judging, but that's not why I came here, to make movies to pay for my pool. I never want to have to do that, and I don't have to do that. But you know, if you come at this as though it's a religion, as opposed to a job, then sometimes you have to keep close to God a little. That's what this last year was. It was my way of renewing myself."