Cinefilia Ritrovata propone questa volta una trascrizione della bellissima lezione/dialogo, avvenuta nel contesto del Cinema Ritrovato 2014, con Richard Lester e Peter von Bagh, che in questo modo commemoriamo ancora una volta. Ringraziamo, oltre al curatore Guy Borlée, anche Stephanie Centeno (University of California) per aver riportato su file questo prezioso contenuto, che offriamo “in lingua originale”, a seguire…
Peter von Bagh: My first question is what was the first film you saw?
Richard Lester: Fantasia (1940). I was seven and I didn’t see another film for ten years. It’s not Fantasia’s fault. It’s just that we didn’t live near a cinema.
Peter: You are American, so can you describe where you lived and what were the circumstances?
Richard Lester: Well I had parents.
Peter: That’s something.
Richard Lester: We lived not near a town and we didn’t have a car and there weren’t buses. So it was really until I went to university that I started to see films and then, thank you forever, I saw Buster Keaton and my life changed. And I still think he remains one of the biggest influences on my life and work. That happened when I was I in my teens and then I came to Europe and suddenly started to see films. But the problem was that I never caught up with what everybody else knew. I’m not a cinephile. I don’t know all the films of John Ford. I know nothing about that. I’m the 20 year old Rousseau of British films. Remember Rousseau when he saw one of Cezanne’s masterpieces said, “Well that’s good. I can finish that.”
Peter: What did you study in the university?
Richard Lester: I studied clinical psychology and I have made no use of it from then until now. Although maybe I think I better start soon. Peter: Well then how did things proceed in England?
Richard Lester: I had been involved from the very beginning of television in CBS in America. When I came to England, commercial television was about to start, so provided I helped train other directors and young people who wanted to be directors I was allowed to stay. Those were the days where there was no take 2 and no telerecording. It was all just live. If you want a very serious way of learning your job, do live television because when things go wrong, everybody knows. It took me about nearly ten years of television to realize that if you go and make film, you have something magical called take 2.
Peter: Can you mention some things that you were very involved in during the first period?
Richard Lester: In the very first period, I was involved with live television western, which meant everything going wrong. There were horses falling down and musical instruments exploding because of the temperature change from inside sets to outside sets. You had to run from one set to the next. Fortunately, when I went to England my first big job was with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and the Goon Show. The great thing about those programs was if a mistake happened nobody knew. Out of that came my first film. Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and I made a film in a day in a field on 16mm, called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (1960). We only cut it together and it ran as long as the film that we shot lasted. It was about 12 minutes. Somebody said we’ll take this to a festival and so it was sent and somebody took it to San Francisco and in the end it got an Academy Award nomination. We still only had one copy and the entire cost was to date was 80 euros. And because of that I was an Academy Award nominee director on this first bit of film. Fortunately, John Lennon saw it and because of that it made my job working with them a lot easier.
Peter: It was made in a day?
Richard Lester: Yes.
Peter: That’s incredible.
Richard Lester: It wasn’t a very big field.
Peter: It was a film I remember very well and its reputation came all the way to Finland. We discussed it and gave a totally new view of things.
Richard Lester: It’s a very good idea that, if you’re going to make your first film, to make it a film without dialogue because then it can go quite happily to Finland. Nothing personal of course.
Peter: Thank you. Well before going on can you say something more about young Peter Sellers? What was his way of working?
Richard Lester: Well in those days he was fat and jolly. He had a wife, two children, and two small dogs and lived in a simple semi-detached house. He had not become totally famous, but he was known in television and had made one or two films with the Boulting Brothers. In the course of history he met some interesting ladies and discovered yogurt and he became thin and worried and stranger and stranger until in the end he was nearly certifiable, but he was still funny.
Peter: There was no possibility of you working with him?
Richard Lester: I worked with him for three years. We often talked about projects, but it never worked, so we never worked together again. I’m still very grateful for the time I had with the Goon, especially with Spike Milligan. I have a passion for surrealism and Milligan was a specialist and fortunately John Lennon had a great sense in it, which I hope becomes apparent in what we tried to do with A Hard Day’s Night (1964). To take the stripped fictionalized documentary and say to the audience at a certain point, hold on a minute, it’s not quite what it looks like. There maybe that ability of the surrealism to look around the sides because the Beatles had that ability to look for themselves. They had that ability always, even in the heights of their ascension to world fame. They were looking at each other and saying, “Is this what we should be doing?” And that is where I hoped that element of the surreal would help and simplify what we did.
Peter: What was the situation when you started preparing A Hard Day’s Night ? At what stage was the Beatles fame then?
Richard Lester: When we started work they were very popular in England. Before we started shooting they went to America and did the Ed Sullivan Show and they were then popular in the world. Between the time that we were writing the screenplay and the time we started shooting was the tipping point of where madness really took over. The easiest way to describe the construction of the script was when I met them after a tour in Sweden. I asked John “Did you like Stockholm?” And he said, “Well it was a car and a room and a room and a car and a cheese sandwich.” That in essence became the first half of A Hard Day’s Night. It was breaking out of that play in the field, which was the way we constructed the film.
Peter: So it seems that from the very first beginning John Lennon was the one with whom you had the most complicity.
Richard Lester: It is difficult. John had an immense personality and he was the one that punctured the bubbles of pomposity, which all of us filmmakers have in space. He was the one who was always checking what was going on. They all had that in them, but I think that John in that cynical world was the king.
Peter: How do you deal with the film because the group picture is so lively. How did you find the characteristics?
Richard Lester: The first thing we did is we constructed a script, which had its highs and its lows and it speeds and its slowing down and stuck very firmly to that. We put in the music where we thought it would be helpful for the rhythm of the whole piece. Stuck to the dialogue that was written, there was very little improvisation. Maybe in the interviews with the press, but that’s about all. From the visual standpoint, everything was open. The script read, “the boys escape down a fire escape and play in a field. Nothing else. ” When we got to a field we just worked it out and I had some practice with fields as you know. I think what we had to try was that the elements were not real. The first one happens in the train, when suddenly they are not in the carriage talking to a man from the establishment, but they are outside. That is setting up the next event which is when they were playing cards and playing music simultaneously as a means of making a song work. The next one I suspect is of John Lennon going down the plug-it hole in the bath. There were little bits of lardons that were put into the meat all the way through. If you ask how it’s technically done. I think the simple English term is kick, bollock, and scramble. Wherever we were, suddenly out of the ground, 2,000 screaming children, who had nothing to do with us, chased us. The police would give permission to shoot in particular place and would rip that up and say you’re causing a terrible disturbance, go! So to do take two we would have to walk four blocks in another direction, set the camera up, and try to do it there, so that was not easy. The fact that the idea for the film came from the music department of United Artists and they said if you make a low budget black and white film and start shooting in March we can have it in the cinemas in July. And that’s fine because if by the end of the summer, we think, the Beatles will be a spent force and then we would have at least have a good release. What that meant is that we only had six and half weeks to shoot in March and three and a half weeks to cut the film, to cut the negatives, and to do a final dub and get a release print. And that is not easy. My one great memory is trying to, for those of you who are technically minded, in those days you go for a take of ten minutes of optical film, which meant that all your reels. There were picture reels and there were three sound reels: music, dialogue, and sound effect reels. They were all up on projectors. If the mixer got a bit wrong you had to stop everything, go back and rewind. Everything comes off the projectors, they put them on benches and rewind and it took half an hour to get everything back for take 2. I had a wonderful editor, no longer with us I’m afraid, John Jympson and he was getting so angry at our rather Middle Age sound mixture that the studio had. At one point he went crazy and he picked up the first thing he could find and he threw it at the sound mixture as hard as he could. Fortunately, for the film and everyone else the only thing at hand was a sweater, which gradually fell down to the desk and we then carried on.
Peter: How was the script developed?
Richard Lester: The writer and I went to Paris when they were playing at the Olympia Theatre and I think they were number two there with Françoise Hardy. We stayed in the George V when they played the Olympia. Before getting there in cars, doing the show, coming back to the hotel, big blondes, small blondes, medium sized brunettes, cheese sandwiches, a lot of something with whiskey and coke, which is a disgusting drink which they all drank because nobody could tell that it was mostly whiskey. In essence the film wrote itself before our eyes, we were just taking notes.
Peter: So plenty of the things that happen in the film actually occurred?
Richard Lester: Absolutely.
Peter: Who was the most inventive guy?
Richard Lester: The thing you have to remember is that they were four very equal people, very much closer than we expected, we tried to separate them. We gave them false idiosyncrasies: George was mean, Paul was cute, John was cynical, and Ringo was picked on by the others. It just helped it was something to hang their personalities on, but in essence they were very alike. They were very very supportive of each other. If one of them had too much to drink and had a problem at home, the others would try to protect him and take over. They were the ones that would be doing the jokes that were aggressive and outrageous and the other one would recover. It was a very interesting thing to watch. I was privileged to be a part of it for 3-4 years.
Peter: Can you talk about these four individuals one by one? What do you remember about them?
Richard Lester: I’m not sure if I would like to do that because it gets back to them. I will answer what most people say about them. Who was the best actor? Almost impossible, but I think by and large in the middle was George Harrison. He tried less than some of the others, but everything he tried he just about hit in the center and you knew if you get George that he would come up with it. John probably had the ability. I made a film afterwards called How I Won the War (1967) with John who was playing a straight acting part and I said halfway through to him when we just finished a scene, “John if you really wanted to do this, you could become quite a considerable actor. And his answer was, “Yes, but bloody city isn’t it?” And there really isn’t an answer to that. Paul was so in love with the idea of film and their place in show business and art, and serious art and involvement with the modern art galleries and theatre and all that. In a way that I suspect he was never devoted to the technique of acting. Ringo was just a natural, but poor old Ringo was picked on. The most famous remark I think was somebody came to John and said, “Do you think Ringo is the best drummer in the world?” He said, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.” So you see poor old Ringo was put in the back and picked on.
Peter: How were the songs of this specific film?
Richard Lester: The Beatle and George Martin produced ten songs and I discarded two. I can’t even remember the ones that I discarded and why. On a first listening I thought they wouldn’t fit into the rhythm of the film as well as the others and nobody questioned that. They just said well he’s the director, ok. If there are two songs on that album that I should have had I apologize, but it just seemed right at the time.
Peter: Can you tell me something about the chief camera?
Richard Lester: He and I had made a film together about three years before which was pop musical and I had only two and half weeks to shoot that one. I used my television technique which was working with multiple cameras. And in fact from that time on to my first feature film the only way I could get 19 minutes of a musical film was by shooting with multiple cameras, so I used three cameras then and by and large for the rest of my career and I only operated one of them myself. It meant that I could work quickly and not worry about continuity and I always wondered and still do as to why so few directors do. Trying to shoot a musical film with one camera would take 20-30 weeks. I made a film with George C. Scott and Julie Christie (Petulia in 1968) and at one point George C. Scott throws a bag of biscuits at his ex-wife and we never rehearsed and when he threw it, he threw it like he meant it and hit the actress full in the face and she had to then carry on with all the emotions of an ex-wife and if had only one camera and then went and said to the actress now we’re going to do your close-up she would’ve had no idea what it felt like and had not been ready for it. Even if she was the greatest actress in the world it would not have been the same. By having the camera on her, the camera on George, and the camera on the whole scene and it all matched perfectly and that first moment of shock and biscuits in the air and starting to cry was magical and absolutely wonderful. I think to myself over and over again why doesn’t everybody do this? Answers on a postcard please.
Peter: Because of your camera techniques you have beautifully sketched individual portraits at the same time and a whole scene. There was a great scene to be filmed because if we think historically back then there was no such thing as a rock and roll film. At that state it meant that there was no other film form to correspond to.
Richard Lester: The difficulty with trying to respond to that is once I knew I was going to make the first film, which was in 1961. I deliberately did not watch any musical films at all and still have not to this day. I am a Douanier Rousseau. I don’t know what they look like or anything about them. It’s best that I just keep plunging away like an idiot down a narrow field. The last musical film I think I saw was Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)and that was what in the 50s?
Peter: 59. It’s one of the few films that tries to find form in jazz. As to the editing can you tell about that? How much did you cut?
Richard Lester: I think to be honest the most pleasure in being a film director is the editing process, at least for me. Preproduction is fine because everything is ahead and due. Shooting is agony because it’s wasting money all the time. No matter what you do or think you are doing, you are burning money and if you have any sense of responsibility you hang your head in shame by the end of the film. I tried desperately not to overspend and to not waste time, but some things happen. It’s not in your hands because you have drivers who cannot find the right actor to bring to the set. You lose half a day’s work and it drives you nuts. Once that’s over you get into the editing process and that’s a great opportunity and that’s your take two. It allows you to repair all the things you get wrong. I’m not a perfectionist in any way and I would not be the one to do…I remember going into the studio where I used to work to watch a film being made by Warren Beatty and the scene they were shooting was Diane Keaton typing on a typewriter. The film was called Reds (1981) and she had to type something and she would look at it and dissatisfied with it she would scrunch it up and throw into a waste paper basket. I walked in and they were shooting 92 of the takes and I thought she’s not saying anything, she’s just scrunching up a piece of paper and throwing it in a bin. 92 takes? I didn’t realize there was some sort of relationship between Mr. Beatty and Diane Keaton at the time, so I didn’t stay very long. So that’s not me, I would try to say there’s a bit of this that works I’ll find a way in the editing to make it work and by large if you have multiple cameras you can get from one to the other. You can move things around, but you try to keep it as fresh as possible. George Scott was the finest actor I had ever had the privilege of working with and his instincts on the beginning when reading the script and doing the first rehearsal were perfect. Beyond your wildest dreams of what you hoped the part would be, but he had a very low threshold of interest. Beyond the third or fourth take George would go to a corner and do imaginary golf swings and I would probably get one more good take of him because he had lost it. So we ended up shooting his rehearsals and we never told we just had the cameras turned over and sometimes he was scratching his head and doing it. He was just perfect and that allowed him to remain fresh and that is something that I’ve tried to do in all the work that I’ve done.
Peter: How long did editing take?
Richard Lester: Three and a half weeks to get into the cinema. To actually have the prints delivered to the London company.
Peter: That again is unbelievable.
Richard Lester: It is. It was frightening. Then sweaters were thrown.
Peter: In editing it’s obvious that at this stage when you come from surrealism. There is very strange tension in the film.
Richard Lester: Well it seemed the right way to make that film and it seemed the right film to make that time. Basically what we were trying to do is to take what we felt about four extraordinary people and show it to an audience and say you’ll like these people. They are fun to be with.
Peter: How sure were you that it would become a tremendous success?
Richard Lester: I was sure before we started shooting that they were extraordinary. Unless I really made a mess of it I ought to be able to capture it. The unique quality happened because of their exposure on the Ed Sullivan show after all the deals had been done and the budget was fixed. The album of Hard Day’s Night was owned 100 percent by the United Artists who were financing the film. Before we started shooting the advance sells on the disc meant that the film was already in profit. So it would have been difficult to get that wrong.
Peter: It’s evident that it was the best possible time to make the film because they were still fresh. And if you have made the film six months after it would not have been the same?
Richard Lester: It would’ve been a different film and it would’ve been called Help (1965)
Peter: Yes sorry it was called Help. It’s beautiful that they were captured in their freshness and their innocence in that stage.
Richard Lester: I’m sure you’ve heard film directors say it, but it’s really a mirror of their time. Mine I hope were of those circus mirrors that were slightly distorted because I don’t like to see things as they are but I would love to go around the back and see it from the side. If you are dealing with something that seems interesting at the time it should work.
Peter: It was obviously in England and England became the center point of many modern phenomena.
Richard Lester: It was a good cusp because it was still not that long since the war and I think it works perfectly if we say the establishment was still there to be shot at. “I fought the war for you” was still around everywhere and those Beatles were the ones to fight that.
Peter: Tthat’s very poignant. It’s more about that time and the overall period. One of the liberation movements.
Richard Lester: Things were going terribly well until Time magazine had a cover saying “Swinging London” and from then on it was downhill.
Peter: Other things that interested and impressed you at the time.
Richard Lester: Everything was happening and it was all intertwined. The fashion was a big number. It was enthusiastic and optimistic and that sense that “if you really want to do it”. All you have to do is to learn three chords on a guitar. It was a good time for that and it really didn’t last much beyond ’66 or ’67. Then you go to Vietnam and the May riots in ’68. It was short honeymoon period, but God it was fun.
Peter: What is your memory of Help ?
Richard Lester: To me it was the only way we could deal with what we had available to us. We didn’t just want to make A Hard Day’s Night (1964) in color. We didn’t want to do a film about their private lives because it would have been X-rated. We therefore took the decision rightly or wrongly that we should find a story that attacked the four and use the story as a device to try and show them as they were in 1965. This as you probably know led John Lennon to say very kindly, “We’re extras in our own bloody film”.
Peter: I will give the audience a chance for a couple of questions. We still have some time.
Audience Member: I was wondering about the beginning of the film when the chord beginsin A Hard Day’s Night . Did you always know that the film was going to begin with that chord, that song? That very first frame of them running, was that planned from the beginning?
Richard Lester: I think you speak with some knowledge, but I’ll tell you the story, it’s very aware. I always felt that when we heard A Hard Day’s Night that we should start the film absolutely from black and there would be no titles before, no producers should be presenting, no United Artists, that we should just start from black, the chord hits and suddenly they are running towards the camera. I managed to succeed and we had a world première, a royal première with royalty and we were all in evening dress, in the London Pavilion, 50 years tomorrow. The lights went down. Unfortunately the cinema had an organist who was playing a mighty Organ, “Songs from Beatles Hits” and he had a spotlight on him and he was playing and the film, the black happened, the chord happened and very quietly because he hadn’t finished his bits of music and he played on during the chase until he finished and the curtain came down. I was sitting in the audience in tears and there’s nothing you can do about it. That was the first time it was shown to an audience. So thank you for that question. You don’t have an organist in your family, do you?
Audience Member: What was your working relationship with the artists that you so admired like Buster Keaton? Can you talk about your first meeting with him?
Richard Lester: I had found out that he was once offered the part of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) on the stage and was either not available or turned it down. So when we went to make the film it was unnatural for me to try and get him and he agreed to make the film. We met for the first time in Madrid, which is where we made the film and I didn’t realize this at the time that he was already seriously ill. His wife was a nurse and she had told him that he had asthma but he in fact had cancer of the throat and was having serious breathing difficulties. So I had hired the world’s greatest movers and to be the greatest film director of all time and he could barely run. It meant that I had to hire a stunt double to do Buster Keaton’s action while he did the words and Buster was not great with words, so I really ended up with the worst of it all. I was so thrilled to have the chance to just sit on the set with him. We would talk about filmmaking and he would say that the scenes seem to be going alright, but you won’t know until you show it to an audience. I said I don’t think that’s going to work Buster because you’re here. Zero Mostel still lives in New York and Phil Silvers lives in Los Angeles. I’m cutting the film in London if we wanted to do it again it would cost a fortune. He said you see in my day all my actors were here I paid them by the year and the only thing that cost was the film stock and the petrol for the lorries. If a sequence didn’t quite work we would throw the whole sequence out, we would throw 10-12 minutes away and start the whole sequence out. If they didn’t like it the second time we showed it to an audience, it didn’t get the right laugh, throw it out and start again. The experiences of the way he worked and the way we worked. He still remains to me one of the men who had the ability to place the camera in a way that the space around him was funny. You just knew that if you moved that camera two feet further forward or two feet further back it would seize to be as funny as he made it. He was impeccable and a great skill mechanically because of the gags he developed and worked out. He knew how to do them mechanically. He was a great genius.
Audience Member: You said that you didn’t watch any musicals before you filmed A Hard Day’s Night which is fascinating. There’s sort of an argument among us film scholars that there’s a sort of a thread from the innovative editing and the French new wave to A Hard Day’s Night. There was just a piece published in American online magazine by a film critic talking about Breathless by Godard and A Hard Day’s Night. It was just talking about the impact of the film and also how it popularized French new wave innovation with jump cutting and so on and when you’re talking about the scene where suddenly the Beatles are outside of the train car and singing and all the discontinuity is there. I was just wondering if the French new wave had any role as you were preparing to make the film? You were probably watching their films because everyone was watching those films.
Richard Lester: I wasn’t an enthusiast but I liked Truffaut films. I liked the early Godard. There is a line there, but it’s not a line one takes knowing that I was deliberately trying to do anything that was keatonesque. It becomes part of your DNA. I was trying so hard not to get involved in other people’s musical work, but I just enjoyed the nouvelle vague. If we had time, I would tell you a long, funny story about that.
Audience: Please do. Go ahead.
Richard Lester: My second film was with Margaret Rutherford, it was called The Mouse on the Moon (1963). It was one of those things where we didn’t have a lot of freedom and we didn’t have a lot of money, but it was sort of a routine film. It starred Margaret Rutherford and before you make a film, the director and the main actors, all have to have a physical examination to have an insurance policy that they are fit and able to do the seven weeks of filming and she went to have her medical. It was a young doctor and he was taking her blood pressure and he said to make conversation, “What are you doing Ms. Rutherford and she said well I’m playing Agatha Christie in the theater on Drury lane and I’m making this film and with some studios… He said, “But you’re 77 years old, that’s much too much work for you.” She said, “Are you telling me I have…, dammit my blood pressure is going up.” And he said, “This woman has high blood pressure, she is unemployable, she is not insurable. This was four days before we started shooting. Try to speed it up a bit. We found out how much my salary and the producer salary were and we worked out that we would be able to have two days of shooting for what that was. We put our salary up and I said if I can shoot all of her lines of dialogue in close up, I can then have that ready if she dies after two days. We can use a body double for long shots, but I’ll have all her dialogue in close-ups. The first day shooting, she comes in and we have a blank screen and some blue sky and a stool and I said Ms. Rutherford, first, if you can sit on the stool and look left and could you do all the dialogue of scenes 42, 57, 63 looking left and she did. Now can you do it again looking right? And then that was taking, bits of wall came behind her, now scene 84 and you’re on a horse. Anyway, this happened, at the end of the day, her husband came to pick her up and as she was leaving out the door she said, “Well if this is the nouvelle vague, I want no part in it.”