WHEN filmmakers Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson first approached John Milius about shooting a documentary on his incredible life, the legendary screenwriter of Apocalypse Now asked them point blank: “Why do you want to do a documentary when they already made The Big Lebowksi?”
“He thinks that’s the perfect Milius documentary,” laughs Knutson, referring to the fact that the Coen brothers based John Goodman’s Vietnam-obsessed gun nut on Milius’ own outsized public persona. “He loves the character of ‘Milius’ that he’s created and wants it to be shown to people.”
That ‘character’ – a sort of outrageously libertarian, testosterone-fuelled amalgam of John Huston and Theodore Roosevelt (whose “Man in the Arena” speech he wholeheartedly embraced) – is certainly in evidence in Knutson and Figueroa’s new film. Serving up a riotous appraisal of the man responsible for crafting some of the most memorable dialogue in cinema history (“Do you feel lucky, punk?” “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, and the “Indianapolis” speech from Jaws all came from his pen), Milius has great fun recounting some of the wild and crazy tales that have grown up around this self-styled “Zen Anarchist”.
But it also tries to get beyond the myth. The first of the film school brats to really break into Hollywood, Milius – whose filmmaking credits also include directing surf classic Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and The Wind and the Lion, starring Sean Connery – fell out of favour in Hollywood just as his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg became its most powerful players.
“His politics or his outlandish behaviour may have limited his career,” reckons Figueroa. “But the thing about John,” adds Knutson, “is that he would never mean the things he said. At his core he’s a teddy bear with an AK-47.”
If he sounds like he might have been a handful, his story took on a more tragic dimension as Knutson and Figueroa were embarking on the project: just two days before they were due to visit Milius to interview him on camera, he suffered a serious, speech-debilitating stroke from which he’s still recovering. “I think it was important for John to show that he still had strength,” says Knutson of Milius’s subsequent decision to continue with the film. “Even though he had the stroke he wanted to show he was still strong, still shooting guns.”
Or, as Roosevelt might have put it, he’s still “in the arena”.
“Exactly,” says Knutson.
• Milius is on selected release from Friday, and released on DVD on 18 November.