What Richard Stanley Learned from the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Along with Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time, a book — an essay comprised of diary excerpts, actually — I recommend to all aspiring directors is Richard Stanley’s “I Wake Up Screaming.” It originally appeared in the 1994 third edition of the film anthology Projections, and it’s now published (with permission, the site claims) at the director’s unofficial website, Between Death and the Devil.

“I Wake Up Screaming” documents Stanley’s attempt to make an ambitious Namibia-shot art horror-thriller called Dust Devil years after an earlier production fell apart. The movie Stanley went on to make instead, Hardware, was a hit, and the director marshals industry support to try Dust Devil again.

From “I Wake Up Screaming”:

In July 1991 I flew back to Namibia to finish what I had begun so many years before, praying that, with the support of an international co-production and the resources made available to me by the highest budget I had ever been entrusted with, I would finally have a chance to beat the jinx and capture the demon that was the soul of that bleak country on film.

From the outset it was apparent that shooting would be a nightmare. I had experienced the worst Namibia could hurl at me before, but the rest of the crew still awaited their baptism of fire. The film’s backers seemed to be dangerously out of touch with my true intentions for the project, refusing to agree on a female lead and suggesting, even at a late stage, that we reset the script in Santa Fe and use American Indians in the lead roles instead of black South Africans.

The essay goes on to describe a production that seems in many ways cursed — one wracked by investor interference, logistical challenges, and even troubles of a darker variety, including a truly chilling on-set romance. Indeed, Dust Devil winds up an authentic film maudit.

One story contained within the essay has remained stuck in my head 20 years after I originally read it. It’s Stanley’s account of shooting the film’s climax, a shoot-out on his location’s main drag. For inspiration, he looks to one of cinema’s great sequences, the finale of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and he designs his ambitious shot list accordingly. But, as soon as the day begins, Stanley realizes he’s made a grave error:

Today we begin work on the climactic showdown in the ghost town’s main street. The sequence is deliberately designed to evoke echoes of a classic Western shoot-out, although in Dust Devil it is a shoot-out in which the man with no name’s pocket watch turns backwards, none of the guns are loaded and the antagonists are a white man, a black man and a woman. I drew my initial inspiration from the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which I analysed for long hours as a teenager, but only now do I begin to realize the full extent-of Leone’s genius.

In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the three gunslingers, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood, fan out around a circular arena in the centre of an enormous graveyard. The strength of the scene derives in part from the extraordinary rhythm of Leone’s editing, building up a complex montage of images and angles that plainly demand a vast number of set-ups to achieve.

I realize my cardinal error before we are even half-way through the day. By locating my shoot-out in the horizontal perspective of the main street, I have inadvertently locked us into a rigid continuity of light and shadow, with too many identifying landmarks for us to be able to cheat. Leone’s sequence is set at the hub of a vast wheel, with the characters surrounded by a uniform background of anonymous graves, thus allowing him to cheat the action to follow the sun, rotating the actors as if on a vast sundial and enabling himself to continue shooting throughout the day.

In a single, almighty error of judgement, I have trapped us into shooting this sequence only in the morning, before the angle of the light begins to differ too dramatically from the master take. With the sand-storms closing in on us, I have pinned the main unit and principal cast down in this one exterior location for what may turn out to be weeks. I have no choice but to chalk it up to experience and put a damage-limitation scheme into action, splitting our days between the showdown sequence and the interior scenes.

I thought of Stanley’s essay when I came across the video posted above, Max Tohline’s “The Art of Editing in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which reveals the sequence’s “mathematical patterns, images of thought, and pure musical rhythm.” Watch and listen as Tohline breaks down one of the greatest sequences in cinema.

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