How I Got to Call the Shots

Share this with your friends

An interview with esteemed screenwriter/director Burt Kennedy

By Jeremy Arnold

Burt Kennedy with John Wayne on the set of War Wagon (1967)
Burt Kennedy with John Wayne on the set of War Wagon (1967)

In 1956, a 78-minute western called Seven Men From Now, starring an aging Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher, became a surprise hit.

Six more collaborations followed over the next four years, revitalizing Scott’s career and securing Boetticher’s place in film history. These spare little movies are now considered to be among the finest westerns ever made.

Certainly the presence of Boetticher, Scott, and several young actors (including Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Richard Boone, and Claude Akins) as superb villains helped make these pictures classics, but most of them also started with the taut, lean scripts of Burt Kennedy.

Kennedy’s deceptively simple stories contained complex themes of morality where the good guy wasn’t necessarily all good and the bad guy was certainly never all bad. The scripts were genuinely witty, exciting and humorous. Born into a family of performers (his parents led an act called “The Dancing Kennedys”), Kennedy later was highly decorated as a cavalry officer in World War II. After the war, he wrote for radio and found stunt work in Hollywood, notably on The Three Musketeers (1948). John Wayne hired him to write a TV series that was never produced, but he was impressed enough to keep Kennedy on to write Seven Men From Now. (Unavailable for 40 years, Seven Men is currently being restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Coincidentally, an Arnold Schwarzeneggar remake is also in the works.)

Having formed a quick friendship with Boetticher, Kennedy followed Seven Men with four more scripts for the series—The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, and Buchanan Rides Alone (uncredited)—among other projects, before launching his own directing career in 1961. Over the next decade he wrote and directed many more westerns and western comedies, sometimes with success (Support Your Local Sheriff!, The War Wagon), sometimes not so much (Welcome To Hard Times, Dirty Dingus Magee), but nearly always with his trademark humor and witty dialogue.

John Ford talked with Kennedy in “Action!”

That humor developed into one of Kennedy’s most consistent traits as a writer and director. Some of his 1960s western comedies, like Mail Order Bride (starring a hilarious Buddy Ebsen) and The Rounders (a sleeper hit in 1965), succeed primarily because of their amiable tones, much like Howard Hawks’ work of the same period.

Burt Kennedy lives alone in a large house in a comfortable San Fernando Valley suburb. When he and his dogs ushered me through his living room, it was hard not to linger over the many awards and memorabilia from his Hollywood and army careers. (He was a cavalry officer in World War II.)

And when we entered the rec room to sit at his bar for the interview, it was impossible. The room is crammed with dozens of posters, framed letters, script pages, and photos of his famous pals.

Like many film pros of his generation, Kennedy resists discussing his work analytically. His comments are a lot like his dialogue for a Randolph Scott picture—quick and lean—and he’s much more eager to talk about his latest film, a short called Comanche, than about any work of the past. But when prodded, Kennedy opens up to reveal some pearls of insight into his career and the writing process.

Stuart Whitman and Randolph Scott in Seven Men From Now (1956)
Stuart Whitman and Randolph Scott in Seven Men From Now (1956)

Jeremy Arnold (MM): Seven Men From Now was a writing assignment for John Wayne’s company, Batjac. What did they give you to start with?

Burt Kennedy (BK): Nothing. I had a title, and they just put me in a room with a legal pad and a pencil, and six weeks later I had written Seven Men From Now. Batjac had a 10-picture deal with Warner Brothers, of which they had two scripts left, including mine. They sent both over to Warner, and on mine they put “First Draft”—making excuses for it—but Warner fell in love with it. He wanted Duke to do it, but Duke was doing The Searchers. Wayne always said to me after Seven Men, “I should cut my throat—I should’ve done that picture!”

MM: Describe your first meeting with Budd Boetticher.

BK: He was at lunch with the Duke and he had read just part of the script. He said to Duke, “I want to do this picture, it’s a great script.” And Duke said, “How do you know? You’ve only read 10 pages!” Budd said, “That’s all I have to know. I want to meet this writer.” So Duke introduced us—I was sitting right there!

MM: That must have felt pretty good to hear.

BK: Yeah, that was a big step for me, to know that finally someone was going to do the picture. I didn’t have a career. And I had known about Budd’s work from [his] bullfight pictures.

MM: What made Boetticher such a perfect director for your scripts?

BK: Well, he, too, liked action as opposed to dialogue. He’s just a great action director. He thinks visually—in everything he does.

MM: Comanche Station opens with a very long, wordless sequence. Was that a conscious visual experiment on your part as the writer?

BK: A picture I directed, Young Billy Young, opens that way, too. That’s not by design; it just happened. If you can do it visually it’s always better. And it’s actually easier to write that way. I don’t overwrite, but the more detail I go into in describing [a setting], the easier it is for me to visualize what happens there. It comes to life.

MM: How important a consideration is landscape to a writer of westerns?

Stuart Whitman and Randolph Scott in Seven Men From Now (1956)

BK: My theory has always been to write a real small story against a big background.

MM: Did you have the unique landscape of Lone Pine, California, in mind for Seven Men From Now?

BK: No, I’d never heard of it.

MM: Did you ever visit the sets there?

BK: On Seven Men I was there all the time, and on The Tall T I was up there a bit. I learned a lot on Seven Men. I went from the very beginning, looking for locations with Budd. I was also there to kind of protect the words. I remember once I heard Lee Marvin saying “seven men from now…” right in the camera, and I thought, “wait a minute!”

MM: A little too obvious! I take it that wasn’t in the script?

BK: (laughing) No. But luckily Budd and I had a [good] rapport… He listened. In Seven Men, after Randy shoots Lee Marvin, [Budd] had Randy put his gun away and sit down—Randy had really hated to kill this guy—and I told Budd, Randy wouldn’t even pay attention about putting his gun away, he’d just sit down on this rock with the gun in his hand. Little things, but they make a lot of difference. The director has an awful lot on his mind—he can’t always see the little things. It happens to me all the time.

MM: Each character in the Scott westerns has a clear, differing stake in the story, and you pit one against another in every possible combination.

BK: Trek pictures are like that. And in those days we didn’t have any money [for] big action sequences, so we had to do talk, we had to play scenes.

MM: They also revolve around issues of pride and loneliness. Why did those themes interest you personally?

BK: I think they went together in the old west. I liked the loner—and I always thought that one secret of a good western, with the exception maybe of High Noon, is that the story’s problem is not the leading man’s problem. The leading man should be able to walk away at any point, but he chooses not to, and that’s what makes him a hero.

MM: Your hero and villain always respect each other even though they know they will ultimately have to shoot it out, which they are constantly telling each other.

BK: There was one thing I did in The Tall T that I think maybe one critic picked up on. At the very end, when Dick Boone’s walking away, he says, “You wouldn’t shoot me in the back, I’m going to get on my horse and ride out of here.” And Randy says, “Don’t do it, Frank.” That’s the first time he called him by his first name or any name. It was a very important line. One line can make a lot of difference.

In fact—and this shows how interesting one line can be—when I wrote the final script on White Hunter, Black Heart, I wrote one line in that picture that made it big. In the book, and in 13 scripts they had, the director character [in the story, based on John Huston] never changed. Even at the end after he was responsible for the killing of the native and some of the elephants, he never said he was sorry. So I wrote a line where after the native is killed, the Huston character comes back and says to the writer, “You were right, the ending is all wrong.” In other words, the ending of this and the ending of the picture is all wrong. And when I wrote that, I said now they’ll make the movie. And they did.

MM: Is good dialogue in itself enough to make a picture good?

BK: Well, I think Neil Simon has proven that over and over. His whole style is dialogue-driven, too much actually, but he’s sure been successful.

MM: The Tall T is based on an Elmore Leonard story. Did you meet him while you were adapting it?

BK: No, not during the movie. But he loved it—he always mentions that 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T were his favorites.

MM: Were Six Black Horses and Yellowstone Kelly originally meant to be part of the Randolph Scott series? The stories and dialogue are quite similar.

BK: No, but they were the same kind of pictures. I haven’t seen Six Black Horses in years. I wrote it for Dick Widmark and I was going to direct it at Universal, but there was a clause in my contract that let them buy me out as director, which they did as soon as I finished the script. They made it with Audie Murphy. It wasn’t bad, as I remember.

Yellowstone Kelly I wrote for John Ford and John Wayne. Ford loved it and sent it to Duke, who was doing a terrible picture called The Barbarian and the Geisha. About six weeks later Ford called him up and said, “What’d you think of the western?” And Duke said, “What western?” Ford got mad, thought Wayne was giving him the brush, and in place of that he did The Horse Soldiers.

MM: That must have been disappointing.

BK: It was really disappointing when you went from John Ford and John Wayne to Gordy Douglas and Clint Walker! And of course about five million dollars came out of the budget. I knew Gordy very well. I liked him, but his pacing on Yellowstone Kelly was atrocious.

MM: How was your experience directing your first picture, The Canadians?

BK: I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember the first shot had like 400 horses in it, and I got the shot and the cameraman said, “What do we do now?” And I thought, “You mean I gotta do more?” So that’s the reason I went into television. I went and did Combat! and Lawman to find out physically how you shoot pictures. And when I got that behind me, I could go ahead and do movies.

MM: I thought the chemistry between Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda in The Rounders was very strong. Was the set always as relaxed and easy-going as the movie itself?

BK: Yes, my sets always are, I must say. And The Rounders was the most fun and satisfying picture to do—it was a long time getting it made. You have to create an atmosphere on the set where everyone can do his best job and not worry about failure. Once in a while you have to put your foot down. One thing Wayne taught me, and John Ford taught me, was how to chew ass… you know, really get mad at somebody. And I do it by design—I’ll pick out the guy and really give it to him. Yul Brynner used to tell me, “Burt, when you’re mad, don’t ever say anything. Wait ’til you’re not mad at all and then you can remember everything you want to say!”

MM: What are the challenges in writing western comedies?

BK: Western comedies are really a tightrope. I try to make the western part of it as real as I can, but I made a picture called Dirty Dingus Magee, with Frank Sinatra and George Kennedy, and it didn’t work because everyone was crazy. You’ve got to have one person in the picture who’s completely straight—like Jim Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff! He didn’t think he was funny at all.

I ran it for him the first time and he said “Burt, I’m really disappointed in this,” and I said, “Jim, this is the best picture you’ve ever been in or probably ever will be in.” Everybody was crazy but him, and that’s the reason it worked.

MM: The Money Trap was a rare departure into urban drama. How did it come about?

BK: Glenn Ford was stuck to do it at Metro, and since The Rounders had been such a success, he came to me and asked me to do it. It really was a money trap—they offered me a lot of money and I did it!

MM: Welcome To Hard Times is unusual in many respects. Its setting is about as desolate as any western ever made, and Aldo Ray’s nameless villain doesn’t speak a word for the entire picture, yet he’s terrifying.

BK: I read the first chapter of the Doctorow book and I said, if there’s nothing else in the book this will make a good picture.

MM: What attracted you to it?

BK: In the first scene in the picture, the bad guy comes into the saloon, and the bartender says to Henry Fonda, “You gotta get rid of him,” and Fonda says, “If I go over there, he’ll kill me.” I liked that—finally a guy who didn’t strap on his guns and run to get the bad guy. He was honest, a realist, a complete anti-hero. The movie was way ahead of its time.

Doctorow really hates the picture. He goes out of his way even today to say, “Get the hammer out for Welcome To Hard Times!”

MM: In the ’70s and ’80s you directed lots of TV movies.

BK: I used to call them “Mortgages of the Week!” You know, you have to stay in the game.

MM: Are there any pictures you regret not doing?

BK: Cat Ballou. They brought it to me, and I turned it down because I didn’t think it was funny!

MM: What is your approach to the writing process?

BK: Hemingway said, and I picked up on it years ago, “Write four pages a day, and figure out what you’re going to do tomorrow, then you can sleep tonight.” You don’t have to stay on that thing you come up with—you can throw it away in the morning—but if you can do four pages a day and figure out where you’re going the next day, you can really do a lot of movies.

MM: How long does it typically take you to finish a script?

BK: Probably six weeks, if it all goes right.

MM: Do you do a lot of outlining?

BK: Mostly I start with a couple of characters and the opening and find out where it’s going, and let the characters take it. It works for me.

MM: Do you prefer directing your own scripts over someone else’s?

BK: I like doing originals because the worst part about adaptations is facing the original author when you’re through! But you fall into a trap of doing your own scripts, because you think what’s on paper doesn’t have to be improved. If you have a weak script from someone else, you’re always trying to make it better. Which reminds me, I saw Magnolia yesterday. Very strange movie. It was like amateur night in Dixie, some guy who was allowed to ramble and scream and holler.

MM: Do you prefer directing over writing?

BK: Yeah, because writing is so tough. You don’t lose sleep over directing.

You do over writing.

MM: The great stars you’ve directed—Mitchum, Fonda, Wayne, Brynner—were all seasoned pros when you worked with them. Did that make them easier or harder to direct?

BK: Easier, by far. They were very secure in themselves. They didn’t have any [ego] problems. Never. Especially Fonda. He was the best actor I ever worked with. He loved direction. The way you get through to those guys is with a sense of humor—because if you take them seriously, you’re in trouble. You could get to Wayne easily by just telling him he was awful in a scene—he’d fall apart!

MM: What do you want from an actor you’re directing?

BK: Professionalism.

MM: What don’t you want?

BK: Guys who just kid around and don’t help the other actors. You know, the big thing in acting is you listen. Fonda said you go beyond that—the real secret is listening and hearing it for the first time. That’s real acting.

MM: Will westerns ever be truly popular again, aside from the occasional Unforgiven?

BK: No. Some guy gets very big and says, “I want to do a western,” and then they make it because of the guy. That’s the reason they do it with Clint.

MM: Why have westerns faded in the public appetite?

BK: Because of the tempo of a western—the attention span [it requires]. We’ve educated audiences to see things blowing up. In the old days we used to do stories—though we still get some good pictures across every year, three or four of them.

MM: What are you working on now?

BK: I just finished this half-hour picture, Comanche. I shot it on Super-16 with a good cast—Kris Kristofferson, Wilford Brimley, Ethan Wayne, Angie Dickinson. It’s the story of the horse that was the lone survivor of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. He was wounded there seven times, but he became the prized pet of the 7th Cavalry. Nobody was allowed to ride him, and he roamed around Fort Riley for about 10 years until he died. It’s a very touching story.

MM: What’s your take on the current squabble between the Writers’ and Directors’ Guilds on possessory credits?

BK: The day that the writers can say who gets the “a film by” credit will never happen. Years ago I wrote this advice to writers: get good, and then you can get anything you want. It’s all about ego—they should quit worrying about their ego and worry more about what they’re doing. You write something that’s great and you’re gonna be able to call shots. And if you don’t, you’re not. Simple as that.

The thing is, a bad writer will write reams. Good writers won’t write at all—because they know what’s good and what isn’t!

MM: And the good stuff is hard to come by?

BK: You better believe it! MM

© MovieMaker Magazine

Share this with your friends