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Richard Lester interviewed by Steven Soderbergh
SS: We'll backtrack slightly to talk about your career prior to A Hard Day’s Night and most specifically your work in television. You were in the States, you were in Philadelphia?
RL: Yes, this was the very beginning of television because what television there was in America was experimental until after the War and I started in 1950 so they'd only had a few years of television work. Nobody knew quite what to do. In fact we were working out of a radio station which meant they built the scenery on the second floor and we carried it up - because I was a stage hand at the time - to the fourth floor where we would assemble it and that's where the cameras were.
But the great thing about it is I was able to go from stage hand to floor manager to assistant director to director in a year because there was just noone else to do it and what I didn't realise and what people don't understand now about television is that we used to do about five shows a day. You'd do a news broadcast in the morning and then you'd do a sports programme then there'd be a give-away show then there'd be a musical sequence of about half an hour and then a quiz show. And you would just have a headset on and you had a row of buttons in front of you and you punched from one camera to another by yourself and it all went by terribly quickly.
A year went by and at one point I was doing a live television Western five half hours a week with horses and stunt men and it was a nightmare. The reason that this is apposite is that it accustomed me a) to work quickly, b) to work with many cameras, and c) to be hysterical. And I've carried that with me in my life and work.
So when I came to England at the very beginning of commercial television it was easy for me because I was only doing one or two shows a week at most. It was really a holiday. It takes people of my age to remember what live television was like in the days, especially when you had Spike Milligan writing the script. You rehearsed all the day and at 8 at night the show went out live and if anything went wrong there was nothing you could do to cure it. You would panic, you would shout, you had a continuous conversation with the back room, in essence saying "Something's gone terribly wrong here, the dog has just knocked over the set and the actors are sitting on the floor, we've got no pay-off to the sketch, can you go to the news? Can you get us out?" And they'd just say, "Tell them to ad-lib. And the great thing about doing the Goon shows was that nobody noticed, nobody noticed anything!
That stood me in perfect stead for having to live a little bit by my wits and on my feet. As in something like A Hard Day’s Night when we would go to shoot a sequence in Notting Hill and you'd get one take. Suddenly, out of nowhere 2,000 kids would appear and completely block entrances and exits and the police would panic and say, "Just go away." So you would then have to find something to ad-lib with, or do, until somebody could find another street that was suitable where nobody knew we were coming. We'd put a car in going one way and have a car waiting to pick the boys up at the end of the take and go the other way and we just hoped we would remember where we were supposed to be in the afternoon! There was a famous case in Help! where the boys had to run into Aspreys in Bond Street and we cut the camera for two minutes and they ran out the other way - which we were going to cut the two minutes out. In that two-minute time John Lennon spent £8,000 in Aspreys!
SS: Now at the end of doing The Goon Show there was a one-time only show that was called the Dick Lester show?
RL: At the very beginning of commercial television they had a half hour to fill between Dragnet and the first commercial pantomime and they didn't know what to fill it with. Part of my brief to be able to stay in this country was that I was supposed to train new directors. I was 22 at the time so I was passing on the wisdom of the ancients. Alan Owen was an actor and he joined me with it. It was a test show for Philip Saville, it was his first job. But in any case when the time came to fill this slot they said you did this test show which was an ad-lib show based on the fact that it was going out half an hour before we were ready. The only thing we knew what we were doing. And without any pressure as a practice exercise it didn't go too badly but when we did it on air it was a nightmare, it was absolutely dreadful, nothing worked, no jokes came off. It was one of those moments you hope will never happen again. We were the fourth-highest rated programme because nobody bothered to turn away from Dragnet before the pantomime, so we had this wonderful rating.
But the next day I came into the office feeling awful and there was a phone call and a voice said, "You don't know me but I saw your show last night and either that was the worst show that there has ever been on British television or you may be on to something." I said, "Do I have a choice?" and he said, "My name is Peter Sellars, would you like to come and have lunch with me?" and he decided that I would be the one entrusted with trying to take the radio Goon shows and put them on television.
SS: And Peter had recently purchased a camera.
RL: We did actually get the shows on and we did three series. At the end of the third Peter bought a 16mm Pyer-Bolex - he was a mechanical freak, he liked toys of all sorts - and it was the fact that he wanted to try the camera out that became The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film… a short film which is 11 minutes long, that we never planned to show to anyone but Peter was friendly with a man called Herbert Kretzmer who used to be a newspaper television critic. He's now known as the man who wrote the English lyrics for Les Miserables. Peter showed Herbert the film which had cost us £70 to make. We edited it on Peter's drum-kit and I wrote some music for it and I got some friends to play it and it was all done very much as an amateur production but they showed it to Herbert who said "I think you should try to get it at the Edinburgh Festival."
And they showed it there and there was this man from the San Francisco who said "I'll show it at my festival." And then it got an Academy Award nomination so the film that we had made for ourselves for no money - we only had the one copy - and it was an Academy Award-nominated film and I thought, "I've got a future now. I'm a contender." What happens is everybody said "We love the film, if we ever want a long version of that - well, it was a silent film for God's sake - we'll let you know."
But nobody spoke to me for two years. Until a producer called Milton Sibotsky sent me a 24-page script [for It’s Trad, Dad] and I said "I think I can do something with it" - it was with pop-stars, with Gene Vincent and Helen Shapiro and a lot of trad bands, so I said "I've been around this kind of music all my life I think I know how to deal with it as soon as you get a first draft screenplay I'd be delighted to read it." He said, "That's the shooting script and you start in three weeks." I said, "But it's only 24 pages long” but he said, "You'll find a way to pad it out."
So we gathered these poor pop people with this feast of moveable sets behind them and shot them three a day. At the end of the last week of shooting, the Twist started - Chubby Checker and his first big twist success. So I said to Milton, "I think it would be a great idea, we could be the first film in history to have the twist in it. He's in New York I could go over and shoot him." And he said, "If you pay your own way over you can go." So I did and we got him in the film, and that was one of the contributing factors to getting A Hard Day’s Night.
SS: You started to make commercials and you continued to do this between films.
RL: Yes, you can see from the kind of films that I was making I didn't get much of a chance to practice and to do tests and to learn what new equipment was out. The great thing is that in the 60s commercials were very much driven by technique, camera technique, different use of lights, filters, stock. Commercials enabled me to try things out. We were the first people to use a cameraman called David Watkin who went on to do The Knack. We had an idea of using extreme whites in a very high contrast stock, which we tried out. We went to Barbara Mullins' place to shoot a butter commercial for Ireland. In the end she looked like Lena Horne - you couldn't see her at all, she had just vanished there was just a dress and a black blob. The commercial was totally unusable.
But we learned enough from that disaster to paint one of the rooms white in The Knack and find out how we could manage to actually see the person's face. David obviously liked this because by the time we got to Robin and Marian he managed to do some night shots of Audrey Hepburn in the most dramatic part of the film where we couldn't see her either!
SS: Right after It’s Trad, Dad which came out in 62 and got pretty nice notices you went on to do Mouse on the Moon where you met Walter Shenson.
RL: Again that was through Peter Sellars, who had done the first Mouse That Roared and he said, “I'm not going to do the second but I'll see you right.” We didn't have enough money for sets, but Cornell Wilde had done a Lancelot/Guinevere thing at Pinewood and the sets hadn't been torn down so we grabbed them and they became Ruhitania where Margaret Rutherford lived.
SS: Why did Walter Shenson end up owning 100% of Hard Day's Night?
RL: UA thought The Beatles would be a spent force by the summer of 64.
SS: Only out by 35 years!
RL: Walter didn't know who they were and I only knew them through a freakish accident but I did know them and their music. They had seen Running Jumping, they had heard that Trad Dad was not an obscenity, it was actually passable and they knew that I used to play piano rather badly and we felt we could get on together they weren't really bothered too much about who was doing it. UA felt as long as the film came out by June they would put the money up.
It was £180,000 to make the film and we started filming in March, we shot for 6-7 weeks. We had three weeks and four days to cut the picture, dub it and get a final print, which was not a lot of time. And then there was the famous story where they said they liked it a lot but they were going to have to dub it because noone would understand the voices so we had to fight over that one. But in the end, for some ungodly reason, the Beatles kept on going.
SS: How long did it take to decide on the idea of a Day in the Life of… as opposed to an Elvis Presley traditional type of movie?
RL: Alan Owen, the person who was with me in that ill-fated venture into commercial television, was by that time a successful director. You never knew where Alan was from: he was either Irish, Welsh or from Liverpool, depending on who he was talking to and who he was hoping to write for. At one point John got very fed up with him and said, "Why should I listen to you, you're nothing but an amateur Liverpudlian," to which Alan said, "Do you think that's better than being a professional Liverpudlian, John?" This was very dangerous because you should never mess with John.
But when we decided that he should write the script for us, Walter Shenson and I followed the Beatles to where they were doing their first performances in Paris and we all stayed on one floor of the George V hotel. Just being with them for a period of a long weekend the script was writing itself in front of us. It would have taken an idiot not to use that energy and what was happening, and also it was the most logical thing to have four people who were not actors to play themselves in situations and conditions that were normal to them. They were used to doing press conferences, they were used to running from their fans, they were used to getting in and out of cars, they were used to being shouted at and pushed around. All we were asking them to do was to do what they normally did.
SS: But apparently the first shot of the first day was a little hectic even by your standards.
RL: What happened is that we were mobbed. There was obviously a mole in our production department who was letting everybody know where we were shooting from day to day. So when we went to get on the train - we were going back and forth to the west country - we were absolutely mobbed and because I was there first I grabbed the handheld camera and started filming anything I could and the boys ran and got on the train and there's shots of it in the film. They're wearing the wrong clothes and the poor script supervisor who was used to rather sedate and gentlemanly movies saw this going on and thought, “this would never cut, they're in the wrong clothes, they came in the wrong way, the baggage car is in the wrong place,” and she wrote this long note, "If this carries on a second day, I'm not going to last a week."
But what happened was at the end of the first day we shot a massive amount of material and we dumped the boys off somewhere near Reading to escape and we came back to Marylebone station and the clapper loader got all the film we'd shot that day in a pile of tins. Unfortunately he was very fond of the Beatles - he dressed like them, he was their age, he had dark hair and it was cut in a Beatles cut. He was thinking, "I'll just get this to the labs and they'll process it and we'll see how the first day's work goes." He gets off the train and suddenly he sees (the crowd) and he really panicked for his life, and he threw the cans as they were about to attack him and we lost about two-thirds of the first day's shooting because it was on unprocessed negative. It was under the train, it was on the floor, it was everywhere.
Hard Day's Night was one of those great films that will never happen again to anyone in their lifetime. UA were in profit before we'd even finished shooting. Brian Epstein was a lovely fellow and not a great businessman and he'd given the rights to the album, A Hard Day’s Night, to UA. The advance sales on the album - the film was out before the album was out - was more than it cost UA to make the film. The film was in profit before we were shooting. I don't think that's happened again although Mr. Lucas can probably contradict that.
SS: The train sequences on the film were the first sequences you shot. How were they? [The Beatles] Were they nervous, did they fall into it quickly?
RL: Nervousness was never something I would ever associate with the Beatles ever. A Hard Day’s Night was relatively unscathed by marijuana, but even then they were quite relaxed about it. They knew themselves. They didn't often remember to bring their scripts with them: they got left in other people's cars or taxis or night clubs. But apart from that technical problem they were very relaxed about what they were doing. Other people were nervous with them. I remember in Help! dear old Frankie Howerd had a scene which we eventually had to cut out because they were just so foreign to the way he worked. Frankie, who gave the illusion of being a great ad-libber, really liked everything to be under his control and down pat. He just couldn't deal with it at all and it was not a marriage made in heaven.
SS: Why is George the best actor?
RL: I think just George came without any highs and without any lows and he always got it right, he nailed it and walked on and waited for the next time. He was very calm.
SS: Because that scene where he goes into the producer's office, there isn't a line in there he doesn't absolutely drive home. He's perfect.
RL: I think Paul probably cared most about acting because he had a girlfriend who was an actress [Jane Asher] and she was very interested in the theatre and I think Paul suffered a great deal from that because he realised what could go wrong a little more than the others. I remember John in the first few weeks of How I Won The War, when he was playing the part of someone else, not himself, and I went up to him and I said, "John if you wanted to do this you really could be very good at it," and he said, "Yeah, but it's ****ing stupid, isn't it?” That's 37 years ago. I haven't found an answer to it yet.
SS: Were you planning to follow A Hard Day’s Night with Help!?
RL: No, I hadn't planned to do The Knack, that came out of the blue. A Hard Day’s Night came out in June and we went on holiday and a telegram came saying would I read something and I did and thought it was something I could do.
SS: And the sequel had been discussed at that point?
RL: Yes, it was supposed to be three films, always.
SS: But you jumped into The Knack pretty quickly.
RL: It was a successful stage play and Charles Wood and I deconstructed it and said, "Now we'll put it back together again and see what it is that we actually need.” I think that is a good principle in general: instead of trying to open out a stage piece, you just explode the whole thing and slowly bring ourselves back down and when need to be claustrophobic, we will be and that worked fairly well with us. We started shooting that in October and finished it in time for Cannes, by which time I was nearly finished shooting Help!.
SS: You won at Cannes that year and you were on the jury the following year. That was the year Welles was there with Chimes of Midnight and you were approached at one point.
RL: I had a phone call saying, "This is Harry Salzman” - the Bond producer, also the producer of the Orson Welles film. "Would you come to the Carlton Hotel, suite 400?" I thought, "Oh terrific, this is the big league.” I went up there, knocked on the door. Harry came out with no shoes on, behind him there were beautiful women, drink, there was champagne, there was Orson. He shut the door behind him and went out into the corridor with me and said, "Stop being rude the other members of the jury." I said, "Harry, what do you mean? I haven't been mean to the other members of the jury and anything I've been saying Peter Ustinov - who was also on the jury - has been translating for me and we're getting laughs." And he said, "You gotta relax. You understand. You know what I mean.” He turned and went back inside. I had no idea what he meant.
Only afterwards did I realise that he, I think, had been promised Chimes of Midnight was going to win the main prize - the Palm D'Or - and it became apparent that five of us thought it shouldn't win and quite a lot of us were absolutely obsessed with a Danish film which we thought was terrific. With a view to that we all decided to give a special award to Orson Welles for his contribution to the cinema, but not to that specific film, which they did and that's the way it was announced.
While I was at Cannes my son was just four, and we were staying in a hotel just along the main street and a young man came up to me and said, "I've got two films running tonight. I produced them and I'm in one and they only cost $30,000 each but I'd really like you to come and see them." And I said, "Well I would, but I've tried before to get a babysitter at this time of night and we just can't get them." He said, "If you go and see my two films I'll baby-sit for your son." I said, "Well alright, that seems fair enough.” So he did and I did and I came back, said how much I had enjoyed the films and he left and I didn't see him again for about 15 years and I was in the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles which has very dark and very cold air-conditioned corridors that go endlessly away and I'd just walked in from the light, couldn't see a bloody thing. I was walking to my room and a voice said, "Richard," and I said, "Who's that?" and he said "It's me… how's Dominic?" - my son. It was extraordinary to think that I hadn't met someone for 15 years and he's remembered my son's name. The person I had entrusted to look after my son was somebody called Jack Nicholson!
SS: Help! was what many people expected the first Beatles film to be, in that it was a fictionalised knockabout piece. Was that a hard decision to come to?
RL: If you didn't want just to do a colour version of A Hard Day’s Night and you think, "Well here are these people playing themselves and we don't want to see what they do in their work, we can't show you what they do in their life because that's X-rated, so what are we going to do with them?" We have to therefore make them passive responders to some external stimulus and that was how Help! came about.
SS: How was that shoot different from the first?
RL: Just longer. I had more money and a bit more time. I had to learn to say to the crowd "Get out of the way" in three different languages. But it was no harder except that the boys had really discovered marijuana and there was a lot of smiling - more from them than me, but it was just as pleasant. It was very nice.
SS: So you jumped right into A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Was there a difficulty in translating farce onto film?
RL: Yes, I think there is a simple rule of thumb: if you can avoid it, do! I love theatrical farce but think it is the hardest thing to work on screen because good farce relies on the audience understanding the geography. In film the minute you go to someone's close-up, the geography is lost.
SS: While you were finishing that film you were preparing one of your more creative ambitious films, How I Won the War.
RL: Yes, I think it was one of the most ambitious and foolhardy things I've ever made. We said what we were doing was making an 'anti-war film' - where a group of disparate people get together who don't like each other but through the preparation for battle become fond of each and then die bravely. With the excitement of the guns and the bombs and the noise and the music, it sucks you in, and it is impossible to make a genuine anti-war film if you're showing the action of war, so we tried to use this Brechtian technique of alienation where when you begin to like one of the characters he would suddenly turn to the audience and start talking to you or come out of character to break that hold that romanticised fiction has on an audience. The audiences then felt as if they were being manipulated and as what happens in most Brechtian pieces you say, "Get your hands off me, you've sucked me into liking this character and now he's lecturing me. What is this?"
Also hiring John [Lennon] in a straight part which I think he was perfectly capable of doing, nobody believed that he wouldn't pick up a guitar and play it and there was this disappointment that he didn't do that. There were decisions that were hard to take and I'm not sure I wouldn't do the same again.
We went to Germany to borrow the tanks from the British army on the Rhine and we were shooting a sequence over the bridge when the tank goes past and Michael Hordern is shouting, "on to Moscow." As each person died in the film it was shot in black and white but it was tinted a different colour based on Arnheim, Dieppe, Dunkirk, El Alemain and when someone died in it, he was replaced just as a platoon is always up to full strength and the actors were dressed in that uniform but dyed that colour with a stocking mask also of that colour over their faces. So we were used to this and were shooting the sequence when the people we'd borrowed the tanks from came to watch and they said, "What's that - are they supposed to be British soldiers?" Luckily my producer was quick-witted and said, "Oh don't worry, that's a camera test for technicolour!"
SS: So you were working on Robin and Marian and you got a call to work on Juggernaut.
RL: A friend of mine said, "We've just fired our second director, we've got 18 days before we shoot, and we've hired a Russian ship to come and find bad weather, can you come in and do it?" And I said, "Only if I can come in and rewrite it and recast it." And we rewrote it from scratch in two weeks and went to the captain and said to the Captain, "Go to Lands End, turn right and keep going until you find a force 8 gale,” which we did and we found the gale somewhere above the Shetlands. And we said, "Lovely, now take the stabilisers off," and he said, "Fine, nobody can go outside without a harness." We said "But that's not in the script, they don't wear harnesses!"
And the other thing that happened was we had to have an explosion to blow the funnel of the ship off and he wouldn't allow us to do that. You're not allowed to bring dynamite aboard a commercial liner, but we did and we didn't say anything. On the last day of shooting just as we were about to get back to Southampton, our producer got one of the world's first digital watches and had it inscribed with, “To Captain Alexandrov Dondua with the grateful thanks from the cast and crew of Juggernaut” and we had a presentation ceremony, got all the senior were on the bridge and just as he was handing it over at precisely 10am, BOOM, we blew up the funnel with four cameras on it and a helicopter up above, by that time it was too late and we docked at 11.30!
Hollywood decided this was going to be the year of the disaster movie. There was Towering Inferno and Airplane. And we suffered because we were the first and there weren't big scenes, it wasn't a disaster movie. It was a really rather small and controlled piece. I mean we shot it in six weeks.
SS: It was scheduled for nine.
RL: I like gardening. I like to go home early.
SS: Yes, this obsession with speed. You feel compelled to do the day's work no matter what.
RL: If someone gives me a call sheet with a list of numbers of what I've got to get through during the day and if I don't do it, I'm almost physically ill and there's no reason for it. Even if I know it wouldn't matter and there was enough money to do it. If someone says we didn't get up to 11d I'm like this [physically shakes]. And I don't know why I'm like this, I think it's deep in my childhood. It's something you can't change and when you hear a director who's always been rather relaxed with the way he spends money and he says, "We're going to do a low-budget film," run like hell because he can't do it. Anymore than I would be able to spend a lot of money foolishly.
SS: Robert Bresson said, "Those who can work with the least can work with the most but those who are accustomed to working with the most can never work with the least." And that's been true in my experience.
RL: Buñuel was absolutely like that. He used to give money back. He used to say, "Let me do what I want to do and that's all I'm going to spend."
SS: Did there come a time when you felt further away from your potential audience than when you started and did you feel that your take on material and your take on society was becoming further removed just because of the changes going on?
RL: Certainly changes in your self. I always was aware that I would walk into a cinema audience and think they were hamsters watching it because their metabolic rate had speeded up considerably more than mine. It's inevitable. And you end up wanting to do simple, pure films. Because you can't compete against the others. I could no more now set out to A Hard Day’s Night. I would be the wrong person to do it. Learn not to try. If someone else can do it better, walk away.
SS: After the Four Musketeers you did Robin and Marian. You seem to like bleak takes on traditional ideas.
RL: Instead of filming the love scene I'd like to see the maid taking the sheets off and taking them to the laundry the next morning. I'm more interested in not what the person seems to be but the other side of the myth.
SS: When you're doing a film that's based in the past, you have a rule abut how to research and what to look for.
RL: Some of the best examples would be the Musketeers. At the time when we were starting to do the duels, the first thing I do is get books on the history of medicine at that time and the history of architecture or whatever you can find out about ordinary people lived, what they grew. In dueling, almost all of the Hollywood duels were invented by mostly Hungarian fencers who were ex-Olympic fencers of the 1920s and 1930s and they all used very small swords and they would parry on their back foot. If you look at any of Stewart Granger's, Errol Flyn's and Fairbank's films, it was all that.
But I found a book from 1615 - the musketeers was set in 1627 - which tells you that the sword was huge and you didn't parry with the blade, you parried with a main gauchen, which was a dagger or a cloak, your weight's on your front foot and you hack with the sword - you didn't stab, you hacked. Now the minute you do that, the way the person fights is totally different from anybody else's fighting, but that was the way they fought. So give dear old Oliver Reed the instruction hack at somebody and he just went at it and terrified the stunt men he was fighting, who would be seen retching in the corner.
Another lovely Oliver Reed story is from when we did Royal Flash he played Bismarck, and he was supposed to have a fight with a man who was the bare-knuckled prize fighter in England. So we got Henry Cooper to play the part and we staged the scene where the two of them were fighting in the very elegant Georgian dining room. But Oliver had gone to the stills photographer and said, "Keep your eyes open" - and he was obviously planning on going back to his pub and saying, "I decked the former heavy-weight champion and here's the photograph to prove it." And dear old Harry was very correct and polite standing with his moustache and whiskers and the full clobber and we'd practised the moves, but once the cameras were rolling Oliver decided that he'd change a few of the moves. Henry, who was being the perfect film professional, was doing his best but slowly he was getting a little bit angry and a little bit concerned and finally at one point where Oliver was flailing away at him suddenly - and you can only see it if you slow the film down a great deal - Henry's fist travelled about that far [indicates short distance with his hands] so fast that nobody saw it and Oliver was quiet and silent… on the floor, gone. No photographs. Nothing.
SS: I've always remembered that always check up on medicine and then you also talk about games people play, the cost of things in relation to other things in the period.
RL: We used that in Butch and Sundance because normally you go to a Western and people load their guns up and go "boom, boom, boom" and when he goes to buy a gun, when he goes to buy his gun coming out of prison the man hands him over a great box of cartridges and he says, "No, I'll have a dozen," because for a box of cartridges you could buy a washing machine and that's all the money he had and he was going back to his wife and he'd better buy something that was useful, otherwise she wouldn't let him back into the house. Ammunition was expensive, really when you look at a Western where people are just going bang bang, wouldn't do that, they didn't have the money, it was six months' salary.
SS: Now the Superman films. You were a producer on the first one.
RL: I was a smiler because the other producers they weren't talking to each other so I had to make sure the film got made despite that and then I got interested in it and it was not the kind of material that I really ever thought I'd want to do. I realised how little I knew about the technologies that were available and were becoming available. We were about the last films not to use optical effects. Everything was being done electronically. By the time we had finished the third film things were happening electronically. We were trying to do everything mechanically. We had Christopher [Reeve] on trampolines, we had wires, we had him dangling from a crane because we did it physically, and then we'd have to paint out and light the wire that he was hanging on so noone saw it. Nowadays you just go in and [pretends table is computer keyboard] and the wire disappears. You kids have it so easy.
SS I haven't been offered a Superman film yet! … Is there anything you miss about making films?
RL: No! It's awful to say but in the early days I used to have nightmares that I wasn't working and in the last ten years I have nightmares that I am working and wake up white-faced thinking, "Oh dear God."
SS: And does cinema hold any interest for you as an attender?
RL: Obviously less. You get out of the habit, it's harder. I do see quite a lot of things that I'm surprised that are working as well as they do and I see them with audiences and I know that they are working but your metabolism changes and I was always fairly narrow minded about other people's films because I'm not good with horror. I keep being invited to horror film juries and it's agony, absolute agony; I can't judge the difference between one or another. I can't see which is better. I was never good with erotic films and I was never good with Westerns so all the genre film-making is a complete loss to me.
SS: Your films are always very well cast and very well acted, and yet you don't like to rehearse.
RL: I was never an actor, I don't presume to tell an actor how he should act. Film directing is largely very well-paid dustbin collecting - you get rid of rubbish. You say to the composer "I love that, I love that bit, but I don't like this." You say to the camera-man "It's looking very good but wouldn't it be better if we didn't have that light from there."
The same thing with an actor, you hire him because you think he understands the character and what you are trying to do. You say to him: "Do it, we'll film it.” It works with someone like George Scott whose first takes in Petulia were impeccable, his instincts were 100% right, he's one of the best actors I've ever worked with. There are other actors who slowly come into their own but basically you hire them because they should know what they are doing. All I can say is, “I don't think that line is working there offer me something else.” And just try by that process to mould it without the presumption of an actor-led director.
SS You weren't a big person for auditions either.
RL: I would never audition with a camera or with an actor to have them read anything, I would talk to them, go out for a meal with them and if I felt they understood what the character was I would eventually hire them. Some people are terrific at auditions, other people - like Michael Gambon apparently gives the most terrible auditions and yet he's a brilliant actor, so you can't tell.
Question 1: What did you think of working with Spike Milligan?
RL: In terms of naked comedy I've been very fortunate to have worked with Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx. But of all the people I've worked with, Spike was the most constantly inventive. An absolute nightmare to work with, especially during live television, but extraordinarily clever creative brilliant mind. Quite unique.
Question 2: In A Hard Day’s Night in the press conference scene when the reporter asks John Lennon what his hobbies are, what did he write on her pad?
RL: I have no idea. Was it noughts and crosses? I do remember that when things didn't seem to be too funny, we'd sometimes switch the questions so that the answers went to the wrong question and we got a few laughs that way.
Question 3: After A Hard Day’s Night people would often be accused of “doing a Richard Lester.”
RL: The only time was one time in the late 70s or maybe early 80s I was sent a vellum scroll from MTV saying that I was the 'spiritual father' of MTV, and I demanded a blood test!
Question 4: Was the audience in A Hard Day’s Night specially selected for the stage show?
RL: We knew how kids would respond. All I did was stick six cameras in the audience. I had one with me and I ran from one to the other. You couldn't hear anything. One of the camera operators lost two back teeth because the sound was so loud, he lost the nerves of his teeth. I gave everyone exactly the same brief: "If you find anything interesting get a piece that's long and pan off and try to make your pans useful. We'll just try and grab it like a documentary" - because that's all it was.
There weren't enough kids of that age that we could fill the La Scala theatre with, so we went to an agency that had teenage kids which was run by Phil Collins's mother and in fact somewhere in that audience Phil Collins is there as 11-year-old boy. We said we're never going to fill up this audience with people who are professionals so just bring your friends. It's a totally spontaneous audience.
Question 5: Would it have been different if you had made a film about the Stones?
RL: I honestly don't know because I didn't meet the Stones until later. But one thing is sure you shouldn't make A Hard Day’s Night-ish documentary of that kind with the Stones. There was something else which was much more interesting going on.
Question 6: Did the French New Wave have an impact on you?
RL: I was hugely impressed by Truffaut's films. I was also a great Jacques Tati fan - that's hardly new wave - Huillot was a favourite film but 400 Blows, Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim are a marvellous trilogy of films and everyone was influenced by them. You'd be crazy not to. I was very influenced by them.
Question 6: You said George was the best actor so why did you choose John Lennon for How we won the War?
RL: I was looking to use John's energy and sarcasm, intellectual curiosity. That's not to say George didn't have those qualities, but if you say those are the three characteristics of a Beatle that you want, I think your instinct would have been to go to John. I think on the basis of what John did and his disinterest in doing it was a good choice, if indeed hiring a Beatle in a non-Beatle was ever a good idea.
Question 7: Is A Hard Day’s Night fantasy or reality?
RL: Film is a fantasy always masquerading as reality. We were choosing bits of a kind of reality; their life was pretty unreal so armed with the fact that it is Beatle-reality and that you're being screamed at from morning, noon to night, one was representing the mood and the feel of some of the way their life had become. They were prisoners of their own success. They were being pushed into cars, surrounded by people telling them what to do, and suddenly they break out of low rooms and low ceilings and go play in a field. That was the structure and the spine on which we wrote the film and that's their reality. But all film is fantasy.
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