“I’m The Guy Who Wrote The Wild Bunch”

by Julian Gough

illustrator Jenny Mörtsell

Issue IV

Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Brady Donovan died a year ago this week. The Irish novelist Julian Gough interviewed him a few months before his death. They talked about Donovan’s time working with Sam Peckinpah, during Peckinpah's ill-fated first attempt to film The Wild Bunch in 1965. The following account is edited together from several conversations.

Yeah, I’m the guy who wrote the original script for The Wild Bunch. That was a tough job. Sam wasn't well at the time, he’d started drinking heavily on his previous shoot, and he was coughing up things that looked like frogs. I hadn't worked with him before, but I'd worked with guys who had, so I knew what to expect. We met out at his ranch, sat on the porch. He offered me a bottle of some kind of Mexican beer. You see them in New York now, with a slice of lime stuck down the neck of the bottle, cost you five bucks, like some kind of fashion thing. But the Mexicans, they just ran that lime round the top of the bottle to disinfect it, threw it away. Rats, you know, in the cellars. You can get that disease where your eyeballs go red and your skin turns yellow. And in Mexico in those days, there was no point washing anything. The water was more dangerous than the dirt. So anyway, I said no thank you, Mr. Peckinpah, I never drink while I'm writing. He laughed and drank them both himself. He had a refrigerator out on the porch, so he didn't have to leave his chair to get a beer. So we wrote that script together, for The Wild Bunch, on the porch, him drinking Corona, me drinking some water I brought in a bottle.

       So what's this film about, Mr Peckinpah, I asked him. It's about a bunch of killers, hiding out in the hills in Mexico, he says. And I don't want them prettied up, mind. They ain't got a sensitive side and they ain't misunderstood. But they will die together rather than lose their balls, you understand? When they're given an easy way out at the end, when they could walk away at the cost of giving up their friends, they shrug and they spit at the ground and they say no thank you.

       So we wrote that film, and I think it was a good script. Sam seemed happy, and he took it to United Artists, but they were having money troubles around then, and they said Sam, we like it, but we ain't in a position to do it, and they passed. And I think he was a little hurt by that. So he took it back to Warner Brothers, which he didn’t like to do because he’d just had a bad experience with them on Major Dundee. They’d taken it off him and butchered it. But Warners said yes, perfect, just do one more draft. The usual one-two.

       But we did another draft, and the notes started to come back, and they weren't good. The producers were getting cold feet, because this film was maybe the first honest Western, these guys weren't the Gary Cooper type of cowboy. I mean, even for Peckinpah, this was a pretty brutal movie. His thing was, no redeeming features. Don't blame anything on their fucking childhoods, these guys are just, you know, they like killing. So anyway, the studio say, it's great, but there's no love interest. We won't get the young couples in, if it's just a bunch of guys. And Sam is saying, it's called The Wild Bunch! It's about a bunch of guys! And they say yeah, but just give us a love angle and we can sell the fuck out of this motherfucker. No love angle, says Sam. Well, then, just give us a woman we can put on the poster, for Christ's sakes. This argument went on for days, Sam just saying no love angle. Eventually they say, no love angle, fine, make her a nun. But, you know, a sexy nun. And Sam, he’s tired, he’s drinking, it’s been days of this, he says OK. So I write in a sexy nun.

And I think that was where the script started to go wrong. Because she, you know, she stood out somewhat in this script, we had to rewrite a bunch of scenes to find her something to do, and she stood out among all these guys, there was a lot of conflict between her and the guys in the script. And conflict is sexy, you know, conflict is drama, so as soon as she was in there, it changed the whole script. And pretty soon the notes came back, yeah, we like the nun, give her more scenes. But Sam is tearing his hair out, he's saying, you know, how wild are these guys if a fucking nun is telling them what to do?  So he was, you know, maybe they can rape and kill her. And the suits were, uh, maybe not. I suggested, how about we make her a little older, older than these guys and more experienced, so that it makes some kind of sense that she can order them around. But the suits had signed up this young English actress who was hot at the time for the part of the nun, so we compromised, and made the guys a little younger, so that it made sense that she could kind of intimidate them, boss them around. But to make that work, we had to make them so young, Sam said we might as well put fucking school uniforms on them. And he was joking, but the executives said, well you know, that's a pretty good idea, some kind of uniform, because then you can tell at a glance that they're a gang, and not just a bunch of hobos, because they didn't like the way Sam dressed his characters, they weren't what you might call photogenic. I mean, posters for his films looked like Wanted For Vagrancy posters.

       So now we had a movie about a nun looking after a bunch of kids and I said, Sam, I think this is getting away from us a little here. But Sam, he said, look, we can turn it around on the set. We'll head out to Mexico, get away from the suits, and shoot this right. But the producers get wind of this, and they say we can't shoot in Mexico. And he says, there's no suitable locations in the US. Which is bullshit, but they call his bluff and say OK then, we'll shoot it overseas in the cheapest location we can find, what do you need? He says, sunshine, hills. They go looking and it turns out that the Austrian government is trying to build up a film industry in what they call its “disadvantaged regions,” so we can get major, major tax breaks if we shoot about a mile up in the Alps. Sam goes through the fucking ceiling, but the producers say, look, you asked for hills and sunshine, what's the problem? Yeah, Sam says, OK, there's sunshine because we're above the fucking clouds. I can't shoot this script in the fucking Alps. But by this time they're getting pissed off with Sam, and the Austrian government has sweetened the deal even more, they're desperate for a big Hollywood production, so the producers dig in and say, then change the fucking script. So we change the fucking script and set it in Austria, with a bunch of European deadbeats hiding out in the mountains. And Sam thinks, well, fuck it, let's make the best of this, and he says, seeing as we're setting it in Austria, we can make the guys hunting the gang Nazis. The producers say fine, although the Austrian government isn't crazy about this.

       Now around this time this woman, calls herself the Singing Nun, has a huge hit with this terrible song, Dominique. And the marketing department say, look singing nuns are huge right now—I mean, this is the way these idiots think—can we have our nun sing a song maybe and they can release it as a single a couple of months before the movie opens, build up some word of mouth. Typical marketing bullshit. And we're, come on, you think a singing nun is going to bring in kids to a Western like The Wild Bunch? And they say, hey, Clint Eastwood is singing in Paint Your Wagon, and Lee Marvin too, if you can call it singing, don't get pissy here, there ain't nothing wrong with singing cowboys. So we let them have the song. 

I think it was at this point Sam really started to worry. I mean, Sam was good with the suits, and he was good with bullshit, but this was too much bullshit even for him to deal with, so he starts talking to another studio on the side, about switching the project over to them. But they'd just got in some ex-Disney exec as head of production—some coke-sniffing wife-beater who liked whores to shit on his chest—anyway, full of family values, and he's all, the Nazis will scare the kids, what if they were, say, foxes? And what if the nun was a rabbit? And, you know, we could animate it. And Sam says no fucking way, so the new head of production tries another angle and now he's all, we like the Wild Bunch, we really like these guys, but sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart. Maybe give each of them a characteristic, you know, some little thing that they do in every scene. This one is a little stupid, this one has hayfever, this one falls asleep real easy, you know. So that's how you got that version of the script with Dopey and Sneezy and so on... But Sam nixed that side deal after the guy wanted us to bring it in PG, and we went back to Warner Brothers. Better the devil you know. And casting, casting was a nightmare, because the English actress they'd signed up to play the tough nun, when she turned up she looked even younger than her age, so we kept casting the Wild Bunch younger and younger. Sam tried to get all his old gang on board, but there was just no way. I remember Warren Oates with his busted nose and one ear shot away, literally dropping to his knees in front of Sam and saying "I can play sixteen, going on seventeen!" And because we were fighting with the casting director every day, we took our eye off the Wardrobe Department, which was a mistake. So, by the end of the casting process, The Wild Bunch were a gang of little kids in fucking sailor suits, and a sexy nun. Now Sam's pretty far gone at this stage, so he just groans and says yeah, sure, whatever, and he goes home and he shoots tin cans off his fence till it gets dark. 

       So we get out to Austria, and the first day goes fine, Sam’s knocking it out of the park, gets through twenty three camera setups, the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire. But, second day, the Austrians come out to the set and say, hey, we have very strict laws in Austria about replica firearms and explosives, and the fuckers took all our guns and pyrotechnics. So we had to rewrite on the set. No gun battles, no robberies, so we gave more songs to the kids to give them something to do. Sam was so heartbroken by the last day, he just handed all the footage over to the editor, told the studio do what they liked with it.

When it was all over I tried to console Sam. I said look, you’ve made a great film, at least it’s still about the Nazis chasing a gang over the mountains. But just before release, the studio changed the title, and that was the last straw. Sam took his name off the film. He was sure it was going to be a disaster. Well, you know, it made Julie Andrews a star, it made over a billion dollars in today’s money, won five Oscars, won Best Picture. He never even went to see it. I still think it’s Sam’s best film. But that’s show business.

("I'm The Guy Who Wrote The Wild Bunch" was included in the anthology Best British Short Stories 2012)

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