A vintage interview with late British director Michael Winner on his 1977 film THE SENTINEL.
Michael Winner was my friend.
I mean, we didnt go bowling on Friday nights. He didnt call me at 3am when he was having a dark night of the soul. I never borrowed money from him or vice versa.
But, as much as any two guys who spend time talking and communicating over years about art and life in a positive, appreciative manner, yes, I’d say we were friends.
The notorious, larger-than-life British filmmaker who found his first blast of serious International fame when he made the Marlon Brando-starring THE TURN OF THE SCREW prequel THE NIGHTCOMERS and then, with the box-office smashing vigilante action thriller DEATH WISH (the movie that also made Charles Bronson a household name) and its first 2 sequels, had, through the years, built up a reputation as, well, not the easiest man to work with or for.
And Im being kind.
But, when I met Winner in the early part of the century, he was lovely. Giving. Open and friendly.
His life as a director had ebbed and he was working as a food critic for a London newspaper. Ironic that the man who made so many tasteless films, ended up in this profession
Winner and I had many conversations over the years, via email and telephone. I was a fan. He was a man enjoying telling stories about his wild life. He sent me his autobiography Winner Take All (a magnificent read) as a gift and was always available when I had a question or needed content.
The last interview I did made it into FANGORIA #312. I sent it to him. He was overjoyed .
And then he passed away soon after in 2013.
Somewhere in the miasma of our chats, I had asked him about one of his few outright horror films, the masterful, star-studded 1977 supernatural shocker THE SENTINEL.
You can read my love-letter to that film HERE.
THE SENTINEL was controversial upon release and not embraced by critics. But time has proven it to be a classic of theological terror; THE EXORCIST filtered through the lurid Winner sensibility.
Here then, pulled from my vaults for your reading pleasure, is an interview with the late, great, Michael Winner .
SHOCK: When did Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel THE SENTINEL first land on your radar?
WINNER: I received a copy of the book after attending a Beverly Hills party thrown by Herb Jaffe where Ned Tanen, then the head of production at Universal Pictures, was also a guest. We talked about the book and he later sent it over to my hotel. Universal has attempted a number of scripts based on it when the novel came out in hardcover but none of them were well liked. By the time I got involved, the book had come out in paperback and was doing very well. They offered me the job of writing a new script and, if they liked it, to produce and direct the movie.
SHOCK: One of the most striking things about the film is the whos who of Hollywood legends cast in sinister roles. How did you manage to get all of these incredible performers involved?
WINNER: Well, its simple: they liked my script! But they were all fantastic, really. Burgess Meredith was a professional and a pixie-like delight. He and I became great friends afterwards. Ava Gardner also became a great friend and I saw quite a bit of her in London, where she lived until the day she died. Many of the other actors like Eli Wallach and Martin Balsam had worked with me before
SHOCK: For your male lead, you had Chris Sarandon, who at the time was at his peak of career. Was he your first choice?
WINNER: Oh no. I should have had Christopher Walken in the lead instead of the small part he ended up playing but it was Universal that wanted to have Chris in the role. I actually offered the part to Martin Sheen, but to my surprise, the studio said We dont want Sheen. Hes in television! Ridiculous.
SHOCK: THE SENTINEL is really gory for an R rated film. Did you have to make any cuts?
WINNER: No, the film wasn’t censored at all, believe it or not. But yes, it was gory. In a number of interviews, Beverly DAngelo was asked about the scene where she and Sylvia Miles were eating Chris Sarandon’s brains. She told them that I said Darling, youll be with two Academy Award-nominated actors while youre doing it, so dont worry! It was a jolly picture indeed!
SHOCK: You kind of pulled a Tod Browning by using real freaks for the pictures disturbing climax. Why did you decide to go that route?
WINNER: I decided to use the real freaks to save hours and hours of prosthetic make up work, in fact. But they were all very lovely people and greatly enjoyed being in the film. I have a news clipping from a US paper where one of them was being interviewed after the film wrapped and said I was so happy to discover that there were other people as deformed as I am and to be with them. His nurse said he viewed it as the single greatest experience of his life. The only thing that was appalling about the whole situation was that the New York crew who, having worked with the freaks all day, refused to eat with them. So screens were put up to hide the freaks from the crew. It was dreadful, just dreadful. That said, I myself had lunch in my cool, comfortable air conditioned room. Im very ashamed I did that. I should have set an example…