Lucas-era USC Film School Luminaries: John Milius

“There isn’t any grandeur anymore.”

This was the mantra of John Milius, perhaps the best known among my classmates at the USC film school in the late ‘60s except, of course, for George Lucas. It was also a line in an animated student film he co-wrote with, if I remember correctly, a student named Jerry Strawbridge.

It was, after all, the era of Peace and Love, Let it All Hang Out, Do Your Own Thing, paisley, weed by the brick kilo, teeny boppers, and flower children. Against the backdrop of namby-pamby limp-wristed acquiescence, Milius knew he could carve out a career preaching manly, hairy-balled, rough-and-tumble machismo.

His best-known screenplay has to be Apocalypse Now. He wrote tons of other scripts that he did not direct, for example, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. He also wrote and directed no small number of blockbuster blood-and-guts action/adventure tales, virtually inventing Arnold Schwarzenegger with Conan the Barbarian (which his pals derided lovingly as Conan the Librarian).

John had a collection of firearms, which he delivered to the set of a long, freak-out, no-script student film by a classmate named Bill Phelps. It was called The Reversal of Richard Sun. For one scene out in the desert, the whole film student body showed up to serve as extras in a film purportedly regarding Revolution. Everything back then seemed to be Revolutionary. Even a particular mouthwash or laundry detergent or candy bar was new and Revolutionary.

“Hey!” John declared during the shoot, roadside in San Bernardino Country. “Let’s rob this gas station!”

We didn’t imagine anyone would take us seriously, but somehow reason prevailed, if only barely, and we declined the opportunity to commit a (mock) felony.

In that ancient era, some studios still maintained writers on staff, even though the industry had for the most part gone freelance. Amazingly enough, a few years later I was signed by Universal. I had a parking place with my name on it, directly beside that of Paul Newman who was on the lot to star in the aforementioned Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. The script had been written by John, and he was slated also for the first time to direct it. At the last moment, the studio got cold feet and took the project away from him.

Infuriated, he made a deal with the town’s low-budget production entity, American International Pictures, to write the movie Dillinger starring Warren Oates. The deal was for John to write it for scale, that is, the minimum fee the Writers Guild would allow, in exchange for the guarantee that he would direct.

A movie assignment, John announced, is the neatest toy train set a kid ever got to play with. Compared to sitting alone in a room and writing, week after week, month after month, directing is a walk in the park, he averred.

I recall his summoning a bunch of by then-former film school cronies to view an assemblage of the film, a version that was even looser and longer than a rough cut. Among the group was George. The assemblage ran well over three hours. George advised John that he did not need to show each and every gesture, did not need to show a man stopping the car, turning off the engine, exiting, making his way to his porch, taking out his key and unlocking the front door, entering, and closing the door behind him.

A year or two earlier there had been a new agent signed to what was then CMA—Creative Management Associates, a powerful packaging agency, which would soon enough merge with Ashley Famous Artists to form yet another dreadnaught of an artists’ representatives organization.

The young, new agent was named Mike Medavoy. He would move on to helm United Artists, then Warner Brothers. He would form his own company, Orion. Mike’s strategy at that time was to sign everybody from USC, including among many others Lucas, Milius, Willard Huyck, and even me. It was Mike who won Milius his Roy Bean and Dillinger assignments, and also my staff contract at Universal.

One day there was a party held at Medavoy’s house in Brentwood. I drove over there with Willard and his wife, Gloria Katz. On the way, we picked up Milius. He showed off the latest acquisitions among his gun collection, and handed me the first draft of Apocalypse  “Francis (meaning, of course, Coppola) is going to produce and George is going to direct,” he told me. Eventually, as all know, Francis ended up re-writing and then directing the film.

This was the height, or depth, of the cocaine plague that swept Hollywood. Anyone who has seen Eleanor Coppola’s (Francis’ first wife) documentary Heart of Darkness, recounting the production of Apocalypse, can see that the movie was made in a long drugged-out stupor. As fine a film as it is said to be, in my view John’s earlier version was superior. Indeed, to this day I regard it as among of the finest scripts I’d ever read. John would disown the film, but then, given its huge success critically and financially, he reclaimed it.

Milius was always something of a blowhard. My unlicensed, unsolicited, unqualified diagnosis is obsessive-compulsive disorder mixed, perhaps, with a taste of what was once called Asperger syndrome. The writing/producing/directing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz told me that he would sometimes call them just to rant, and it could be several hours before they were able to pry him off the phone and get back their own work.

In so many ways, then, John was his own worst enemy. For all his bluster he was perpetually endeavoring to fill the emptiness that could not be filled, and in his later years became grotesquely, morbidly obese.

That said, however, there’s no question that he had a genius for language and story/character craft. No one could more poetically answer the question, “What is best in life?” than Milius via Conan:  “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”

So tragic it is, therefore, that at the time of this writing, this master of language and story sits quiet and still for five years or longer, silenced by a stroke.


Richard Walter is a screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Professor Walter offers an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Learn more at http://richardwalter.com/workshop/ and sign up for updates by joining Richard Walter’s email newsletter list: contact him at rwalter@tft.ucla.edu.

© Richard Walter 2018


Photo Credit: USC via The Hollywood Reporter