With one of the most extraordinary casts ever assembled and based upon a politically charged novel by Richard Condon, Winter Kills should have been remembered as one of the gems of 70's American cinema. Instead, the movie has remained an obscure, underrated picture, which is incredible when you consider the fact that it stars Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Sterling Hayden, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, Eli Wallach and Elizabeth Taylor, and that it had artists such as Robert Boyle and Vilmos Zsigmond working behind the camera. The reasons for the film's disappearance from view are murky and complex, with the story behind the production of Winter Kills being almost as compelling as the movie itself. After seeing the picture for the first time this summer, I got in touch with the director William Richert who generously agreed to talk to me about his remarkable debut feature.
As I said in my email, Winter Kills was screened here as part of a Jeff Bridges retrospective, and when I looked through the programme I couldn't believe I had never heard of this film before. You've got one of the best casts I've ever seen, but it seemed like the movie has completely fallen out of the public consciousness.
Well, it was never really in the consciousness, you know. It was almost like a spaceship that came to Earth and then went away again. Before I talk about Winter Kills, are you showing a movie called Success there with Jeff Bridges?
No, they're not showing that one. That was the movie you went and made with Jeff during a break in production, right?
I've got to send you a copy of that. When we hang up send me your address and I'll send over a DVD. But to get back to Winter Kills, it was given a few chances to reach an audience but there was never a studio behind it or enough money behind it to release it properly. Each time it seemed to get started, something strange would happen to block it. When it was first released by Avco Embassy, it was basically pulled out of the theatres right after it opened. It had this amazing review by Vincent Canby, in fact it had lots of review like that, but it was pulled from the theatres and Richard Condon ended up writing an article in Harpers Magazine called "Who Killed Winter Kills?" It turned out that Ted Kennedy was running for President at that time, Avco was a major defence beneficiary of federal funds, and apparently the Kennedys didn't like the movie. I was at a party one time in Manhattan thrown by my friend Benny Chavez, who used to run the Zoli modelling agency, and it was full of people – Jack Nicholson was there, Woody Allen was there – and somebody said to me, "You know, the Kennedys just came but they left when they found out you were here." I thought "holy shit," it was never meant to touch a nerve with the Kennedys, but we were talking about a sort of psychic takeover of the country and where America is. It's so linked over there too, you know, I was thinking about Winter Kills and I've been following the Murdoch thing, who's another Huston character, and Brooks is a sort of a female Cerruti running this whole network. Up until now they've protected themselves but it's like Bertold Brecht said, "When the house of a great one collapses many little ones are slain," but they sometimes pull down the big ones when they fall.
But to answer your question, Winter Kills doesn't exist in the consciousness because the consciousness is not a very evolved thing among humans right now. There's an attitude of gigantic entitlement and there's a sense of entrenched power that has always been there. I remember John Huston telling me why he didn't like Jack Kennedy's father, the old man. I forget his name.
That's it. Apparently, the old Kennedy used to keep young Jack Kennedy sitting outside his office for hours in London when he was ambassador to England while he was supporting Nazi endeavours and smuggling booze into America. Huston knew those people. Kennedy was a smuggler and a supporter of Adolf Hitler in the beginning and that was Condon's basis for all of these characters.
Condon was an amazing writer. He could produce fiction that was tied into reality in unsettling ways and really touch a nerve.
He was fearless and brilliant, he was a researcher and a student, but above all he was a great entertainer. He actually stuttered like The King's Speech, and so did Somerset Maugham. My friend Diana Forbes Robertson told me that when he was dying his assistant got Diana on the phone and she sang him an English ditty, and she said he stuttered because "he was always looking for the right words." Condon was the same and I remember him coming to a screening of Winter Kills that John Huston and a whole bunch of people came to, and after the screening he came over to me and said, "The d-d-difference between you and m-m-me is that you like people and I d-d-don't." [laughs]
When you first started adapting this novel, what was your perception of the financial situation behind it? I assume you believed that everything was in place.
I was told the funding was there. The producers had offices in Manhattan in the MGM building with a lot of white leather furniture, and they had been distributing at that time the Emmanuelle series. Then they had offices where I first met the producers in Miami, and it didn't take long to find out that they were dealing with smugglers, you know, you heard stories of planes flying in and landing in Key Biscayne and smuggling cocaine from South America, but I had no idea of the extent of it. Everybody was wearing $100,000 Rolexes back when $100,000 meant something, you know. They asked me to write it because I had the same agent at the time as Milos Forman and they had gone to him to see if he'd direct it, but he wasn't interested so my agent Robbie Lance directed them to me. I had a meeting with them when they gave me a book and we had many drinks at the Honey Bear in Key Biscayne with all of these characters, and I would have taken the job just to be around these guys because they were so fascinating. I've always been interested in gangster stories.
So yes, I thought the money would be there if the script was good enough, etc. The more I wrote the script the more I was enjoying what I was writing about, but they had wanted Arthur Penn to direct it and they had sent it to other directors who had turned it down, so I said why don't you give me a shot? Give me six weeks to put it together and get the actors, and if someone else comes along in the meantime you can say, "Hey, we've got Arthur Penn" and you can get rid of me.
Your background was in documentaries at the time. Did you feel ready to direct a feature?
Yeah. I had done two documentaries and I had been working on the Steve Allen show, who was a wonderful ancestor of Jay Leno and all of those late night guys. He was a great raconteur and comedian and historian, you know, and that's where I started. Then I interviewed all of the living daughters of the American Presidents with the help of Margaret Truman and Catherina Grant of the Washington Post, but all my outtakes got stolen from my apartment, probably by the secret service, after Don Hewitt the powerhouse at 60 Minutes called me and said, "Bill, the White House doesn't like this."
You really think the Secret Service stole the tapes from your apartment?
Well, I don't know if they did, but I know Nixon really hated this thing that I had done. CBS had put part of the interviews with the Johnson daughters on, nothing to do with the Nixons. During that time I had met with Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Franklin Roosevelt's daughter, Lyndon Johnson's two daughters, the Nixons' two daughters and Margaret Truman, and I had talked to them for hours. I'd asked them all over 100 questions each and they told me all of these personal details about their fathers. My outtakes disappeared from my apartment in Manhattan which had bars all over it so I had no idea how anyone would even get in and out. Because of this, by the time I went to work on Winter Kills I was well versed in the power of the government to give and take away. To finish that story, along with the stack of film they stole there was a small brick of incredible hash. What pricks! [laughs]
How did you feel as a first-time director going to all of these legendary actors and persuading them to be in your film?
I went to California and took that six weeks to get Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and each of these actors was a different kind of audition. I wasn't sure it was ever going to work so I thought I might as well go for everything; "Let's get John Huston! How about Toshiro Mifune? I've got an idea, let's get Tony Perkins!" Somehow we did it. I was with Robbie Lance who was also Elizabeth Taylor's agent, and at that time people with talent were helped. When I had meetings with these greats they liked that I wanted them to be in my movie and they asked a lot of questions. I remember meeting with Tony Perkins and I told him about the script, about Cerutti and the whole thing, and he said, "Yes, I know why you want me for the part, but why should I want you?" He invited me to see Equus, which he was doing on Broadway at the time, so I went the following night. I didn't like it so much because I don't like any play where they hurt the horses, but Perkins was really great in it and afterwards I went back to his dressing room while he sat there taking off his makeup. I'm thought, "how amazing this is!" I couldn't believe I was sitting in this little makeup room with Tony Perkins. He says to me, "Listen. At the end of the first act I do this long speech and I've always got a laugh but I'm not getting a laugh anymore. Why do you think that is?" I'm thinking, is this some kind of fucking trick question? [laughs] But I think about it and I say, "You're doing it differently, because you're waiting for the laugh." He threw down his thing and stood up, and then he turned the way only Tony Perkins can turn, like he's on the head of a pin. He says "Follow me," and he leads me out through the lobby and back onto the stage. The set was like a boxing ring with ropes around it, and he walks around this ring, taking a huge theatrical breath, and then he says, "I love the theatre, don't you?" I said yes, and then he turned around and walked off the stage saying, "Call my agent Monday morning." I was left standing on the stage by myself, and that was my Perkins introduction.
So that was your first time directing an actor?
[Laughs] Yes. I mean, I studied with Sammy Meisner and I produced Law & Disorder, so I was on set every day, and I was on the Steve Allen show, so I'd seen actors being directed and I don't want to make it look like it all just easily fell into place. But I had never directed actors on a set, you're right, and I started having anxiety attacks all the time, I'd be going out to dinner and I'd have to put a paper bag over my mouth to breathe. Leading up to that thing and realising that it was actually going to happen, that Elizabeth Taylor was doing it and Toshiro Mifune, out in Japan, had read it, that was monumental.
What about working with John Huston? Not only are you directing a legend there you're directing someone who is also one of the great directors himself.
Oh yes, I admired him as a filmmaker and an actor. He was perfect for the part if I could get him. His agent was Paul Kohner at the Kohner agency, and he wouldn't send the script to anyone. He just didn't like it and he didn't want to get any of his actors involved in something so political. But he had somebody new in his office named Maggie Allen and she got it to John, which only helped because he loved getting anything in a subversive way. John was a fighter and had such generosity. One story about him is that he came into a lot of money and rented a floor of a wonderful Kensington hotel for a year to let some of his out-of-work friends stay there for a year. He just gave it away like that. He was a pretty amazing guy.
What was he like on set? Did he just work with you as an actor or did he give you any advice as a director?
Never. All of these lions are tame on the set, in a way. I had great conflicts with Richard Boone, but John and all of the others were really deferential. When we lost our money – because it turns out they never really had any money – we saw that they really believed in the movie. I know people always say they believe in movies but boy when something happens you should see how fast they run away. They stuck together three different times and over two years! You see, I didn't know you couldn't make movies that way until I tried to do another one. Basically the producers could never come to the set because weren't allowed into California or they'd be shot, so I had the whole thing to myself. Bob Boyle had built 87 sets! [laughs] We didn't realise nobody could pay for this stuff because Hollywood isn't used to big movies not paying their bills. They give you 60 or 90 days and by that time you've shot the movie, which was essentially what we were doing. I didn't know there was a problem until the lights literally went out while we were up on a set 60 feet high, it was that Cerutti set on the biggest soundstage at MGM. I'm setting up that shot with Tony and Jeff and suddenly the lights started blinking. Vilmos said, "I shoot until the lights go out!" but the doors opened and there were the heads of the Hollywood unions, coming in to shut our movie down.
What were your thoughts when that first shutdown happened? Did you think it was all over or did you think there was another way to get the money together and complete the film?
Well, it had this "too big to fail" feeling, right? I mean, those actors are legends now but back then they were giants. When it happened on the set the crew all started coming down ladders and saying, "We've got money for you, boss. How much do you need?" Nobody knew we owed $4 million! [laughs] I was walking down this road to the lunchroom at MGM, and all the way people are coming out to look. It was like yesterday when William and Kate rode down my street and the whole neighbourhood came out to look! I'm walking with Tony Perkins on my right and Jeff Bridges on my left and I'm totally aware of the situation. Here I am, a first time director with these amazing actors, and they've shut it down. Who knows what has happened? This could have been a front for a whole fucking smuggling thing. Tony says to me, "Just keep walking, Bill. This happened one time when I was working with Orson. Just keep walking and smiling." So we're all walking down this road walking and smiling and Perkins tells me about the whole crew leaving when Orson's movie was shut down, so he went over and strapped the camera to a Volkswagen and he pulled the car and finished the shot. I said, "Tony, the Panavision camera is bigger than we are!" We walked into the lunch room and everybody had come down to see this big movie that had just been shut down. Wow...I hadn't thought about that in years. I was desperately thinking of ways to get back and finish this movie but then we realised they owed $800,000 to Universal, $1.5 million to MGM, $1 million-something somewhere else, and that's in addition to all the unpaid actors. Even when we were in Death Valley they left the hotel and stiffed them on the bill! Somehow we managed to get going two more times. I was just thinking about how impossible it was that we did this. Today no company or actors would look at a script like this.
There were a lot of American films in the 70's that you can't imagine getting made today. It was a special time.
The 60's was the cock of the pistol and it went into the 70's. It took the 60's to get it started, the 70's to figure it out and the 80's to drown it out.
I was just watching a YouTube video in which Robert Boyle says Winter Kills was his favourite film. Considering the great films he made with Hitchcock and others, that's some compliment.
Oh, of course it was, and just knowing these guys is a compliment. To get to know a man like that and the other guys I worked with on that movie, is a great compliment. When you're getting older, you'll probably notice this yourself even though you're young, you notice how valuable and few inspiring people are. I went to Bob's 100th birthday, and there were production designers and costumes designers who worked on things like The Great Ziegfeld and movies like that, films you'd never think anyone would still be alive from, but they were all over the place! Bob was sitting in the corner by the cake and when I went over to him he said, "Bill Richert, my favourite director! Winter Kills, my favourite movie!" He was incredible.
It must have been a huge relief when you finally finished Winter Kills and saw it released.
Yeah, but then it was pulled from all the theatres and it was dead. Unfortunately, in Hollywood they considered it a failure because it didn't make any money.
How did that impact upon your career at that time, having your first feature considered a failure?
Well, during that period I was able to get Success done with the same actors and I did have a lot of offers. Steven Spielberg told me to come to Hollywood from New York because he wanted to work with me on something, but when I was reading stuff that was available for 'directors for hire' there wasn't anything I wanted to do, and I couldn't understand why they wanted to make most of these films. I turned down stuff and I remember having lunch with Spielberg and telling him about this script I wanted to do. I went back and my business manager asked me how the meeting went so I said "It went great, they want me to do this thing at Universal" He said, "That's fantastic!" but I said, "Yeah, but I gave them another idea." [laughs] Actually, Steven and I had come up with an idea called Merlin and Arthur in Illinois, and it was about a young magician – and you know how successful stories of young magicians are these days – but instead of pitching that story I went to Columbia and pitched the story of Success.
Anyway, Winter Kills and Success turned out to be an epochal situation in my life that would never happen again, and it turned out that the kind of people I made that movie with didn't come back again. But I suppose what really knocked me out of Hollywood was my fight with the Writers' Guild and Aaron Sorkin. I had developed this script for twenty years that I thought I was going to make with Redford, but he decided at the last minute to make it with Rob Reiner because it felt safer, and then he got in a fight with Reiner and Sorkin – who was doing a rewrite – and quit. My script was The Executive Wing, so you change two words from that and it becomes The American President and you change one word and it becomes The West Wing. When that happened, I got in a big fight with all of the people involved, Castle Rock, Warner Brothers, Universal, and that was the end of any interface with me in LA.
How long has that dispute been going on?
It's still going on. It went quiet for a long time because we couldn't figure out how they managed to award this guy Aaron Sorkin the credit. We thought we had an arbitration, you know, every writer gets other writers to read their scripts, but now we've found out that our scripts were never read by other writers ever, so we didn't get an arbitration. I found out years later that Sorkin was fucking the head of the studio at the time Julia Bingham, and she put his name forward, Reiner was trying to get him into rehab, then Sorkin admitted reading it and kind of gloated about it and then this year he called me a hack. It's the corrosive effect of a certain kind of power, you see, but it gives power a bad name. There are takers and givers, right? These people are the opposites of the Hustons and all of those people in my movie. People with no conscience have an advantage over thinkers, and the less you're connected to any kind of consequential thinking, the less you think, "Well, if I do this then this will happen to all of these other people," the more you'll become a person who'll just grab it, like Sorkin. Now I've been forced to study this guy, to look at his stuff. Every single thing he's done has been a transcript of some kind; even The Social Network has come out of transcripts, hearings and depositions, and the same thing with Charlie Wilson's War. On The West Wing he had all of these writers and he stole from them, they said, "He took my credit." Not all of them, but a lot of them.
I don't want to keep you for much longer but before finishing I really want to ask about another iconic film you were involved in, which was My Own Private Idaho, in which you played Bob. How did you get involved in that?
I'd never wanted to do much acting and I didn't really want to play that character when River first gave me the screenplay. I was dating a beautiful young actress at the time and I'm reading this script by the fireplace to her, and along comes fat Bob Pigeon and I realise he's a leader of this gang of gay guys, and I think, "Why does he want me to do this?" So I called him and said, "Is this what you think of me?" and he said, "No, it's the energy Bill. We need your energy." They had Lionel Stander, one of my favourite actors, playing that part first but River and Keanu basically fired him and it's a long story how I got into that part. Basically, after I told him no he showed up six months later at my house with a rewrite and asked me to read it, so I did and took five seconds for me to say, "It's the same character! I don't want to do this guy." I said to him, "River, let me explain this to you because you're young and you don't know this business. If I do want to act one day, I don't want the first job I ever do to be a big fat gay man who's lusting after young boys. For the rest of my life I will be given screenplays about big fat gay men. So tell Gus that." He said to me, "You can tell him, he should be here by now." I said, "You asked Gus to come to my place? River, this is very rude to adults." [laughs] So to make a long story short Gus shows up at my place and River asks if they can read the screenplay to me out on the porch, so we all go out onto the porch and I light a joint to show that I really don't give a shit about this thing. I'm standing there watching Gus and River read this thing until it gets to my role, and River deliberately made it loud and built it up for me to say, "OK, I'll read it." At the end I still didn't want to do the movie, so they went away, but months later I got this call and it was River and Keanu on the same line. They told me they were losing the actor and they were desperate for me to come up and play the role, so they sent me a ticket and I went up to play fat Bob Pigeon. I remembered everything Sammy Meisner taught me and River started telling me these acting tricks he knew and I knew all of them because I taught them to him! [laughs] It was incredible because I was the guy who showed River Phoenix the first James Dean picture he ever saw, because I'd known him since he was a kid, him and his brother. I think back on what a sweet kid he was, really. He was really trying to help Gus make this movie.