Dario Argento on working with Sergio Leone

Dario Argento on working with Sergio Leone

I started writing reviews when I was very young, still at school. I first heard of Sergio Leone when I saw A Fistful of Dollars. I saw that it was a great film, but for other critics it was nothing. They don't understand Sergio in Italy; they didn't like him. They started to understand him much later, with his last film - but that was too late. In other countries they got him - the French did - but Italian critics think the French are crazy.

I was a small voice, but he heard me, and we wrote to each other a few times. In 1967, I was writing film reviews for Paesa Sera, a very leftwing newspaper. Then he wanted me to write his film Once Upon a Time in the West. This was incredible. I had not written a screenplay before, but Leone was very smart and would always try new things. He wanted to add a young spirit, which was something I have done, too - on my first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, I used Vittorio Storaro. It was the first time he had done anything so difficult.

I started work on the screenplay at home, with Bernardo Bertolucci. We began with nothing except an idea of Sergio's: he wanted to have a woman as lead for the first time. I would write on my own, then Bernardo would write on his own, then we would write together. Once a week Sergio would come to see how we were getting on, and offer his thoughts. He was incredible at generating ideas. He made me realise the director should always be involved in some way with the screenwriting.

Sergio would discuss, not write. He would describe things very technically: first comes this shot, then the camera goes up, then moves in, and so on. Movies are not two people talking - that is theatre. The movie is the camera. Sergio could judge a script in two minutes: he would flip through it and if he saw lots of dialogue it was no good; if it had lot of descriptions then it was interesting. That is something I learned from him.

Bernardo and I studied many films over three or four months. The one with female leads, like Johnny Guitar, were important. But we were not working on a script: it was a treatment. It was very long, very free, full of ideas, dreams and descriptions. It was full of fantasies. And then Sergio and Sergio Donati turned our work into a screenplay.

I saw the film at a cinema, with an ordinary audience - which is how films should always be seen. It was recognisable from our treatment, but Sergio had added something wonderful.

I continued to write for films, and a couple of years later I wrote The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. I hadn't planned to direct it, but then I thought, "Well, maybe I could." I remember meeting Bernardo at his house. He had just finished writing The Conformist. I had my script with me; he read mine and I read his; we both liked each other's and wished each other luck.

When Once Upon a Time in the West came out in Italy, it was the same as A Fistful of Dollars: it meant nothing to the critics. I found that unbelievable. But the public loved it, they went crazy for it. Sergio had achieved greatness. This film was impossible to better: after this, the western was finished. It's such a nostalgic film, a very sad film. I love how slow it is. How enormous. It will be here forever.

• Dario Argento was talking to Phelim O'Neill

Dario Argento

The GuardianTramp

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