Archive for Richard Lester

The Film

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2016 by dcairns

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I got interested in Donald Barthelme after reading of him in Steven Soderbergh’s interview book with Richard Lester, Getting Away With It. Lester, encouraged by regular screenwriter Charles Wood, had contemplated a film of Barthelme’s The King (the legend of Arthur updated to WWII and expressed almost entirely in dialogue — not an obvious movie subject) and I was quietly gratified to notice a copy of the novel still adorning Lester’s bookshelf (I am an incurable bookshelf snoop) when I visited to conduct my own modest interview.

Lester had guessed that Barthelme might be up Soderbergh’s street, a shrewd supposition given that SCHIZOPOLIS, the most ludically Barthelmian of Soderbergh films, was still in post-production at the time. 40 Stories has an introduction by Dave Eggers, another artist up whose street Barthelme might be assumed to lie. In fact, one might uncharitably suggest that Barthelme is the writer Eggers would like to be — both share a taste for a certain kind of airy whimsy. But Barthelme is much more mysterious in his effects — one doesn’t know precisely what he is up to, and we will never explain or offer a hint — and he also has a gift for pastiche that allows him to layer his whimsy deeper below the surface. I was very taken with his piece The Film, which apart from being Grade-A nonsense, also captures precisely the mixture of pensive doubt and self-importance which always seem to be present in diary entries published by film directors at work on another masterpiece.

I think he may have been looking at Truffaut’s diary of FAHRENHEIT 451, which would account for the name Julie. But I think Godard’s diaries, published in Cahiers, are MUCH more pompous — only Woody Allen could do them justice in parody.

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An extract —

Thinking of sequences for the film.

A frenzy of desire?

Sensible lovers taking precautions?

Swimming with horses?

Today we filmed fear, a distressing emotion aroused by danger, real or imagined. In fear you know what you’re afraid of, whereas in anxiety you do not. Correlation of children’s fears with those of their parents is .667 according to Hagman. We filmed the startle pattern–shrinking, blinking, all that. Ezra refused to do “inhibition of the higher nervous centers.” I don’t blame him. \\then we shot some stuff in which a primitive person (my bare arm standing in for the primitive person) kills an enemy by pointing a magic bone at him. “O.K., who’s got the magic bone?” The magic bone was brought. I pointed the magic bone and the actor playing the enemy fell to the ground. I had carefully explained to the actor that the magic bone would not really kill him, probably.

Next, the thrill of fear along the buttocks. We used Julie’s buttocks for this sequence. “Hope is the very sign of lack-of-happiness,” said Julie, face down on the divan. “Fame is a palliative for doubt,” I said. “Wealth-formation is a source of fear for both winners and losers,” Ezra said. “Civilization aims at making all good things accessible even to cowards,” said the actor who had played the enemy, quoting Nietzsche. Julie’s buttocks thrilled.

We wrapped, then. I took the magic bone home with me. I don’t believe in it, exactly, but you never know.

The Magic Magnetic Monitor Monster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2016 by dcairns

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Oblivious of the towering Nazi being positioned before me, I shade my eyes (far right) to peer between the Velcro flaps of the monitor, glowing promissory note of the film to come.

Interesting watching myself at work on THE NORTHLEACH HORROR. A few students and ex-students were on the shoot, and one or two said afterwards they could see me putting into practice stuff that I’d taught them. I rather felt I was guilty of ignoring a lot of it, particularly when it comes to the monitor.

I had opted to save money by only getting a small monitor. Money was tight, so I can’t regret the decision. But if I were doing it again I might try to save money elsewhere and go large. I’m somewhat in thrall to Richard Lester and Steven Soderbergh’s view of the monitor, which is to see it as a kind of devil incarnate. It puts the centre of attention and energy in the wrong place, to paraphrase Soderbergh. And a director glued to the monitor is at one remove from the actors.

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But Lester and Soderbergh both operate the camera themselves. Lester says that when you see a good performance coming at you down the lens, you just KNOW. I’m getting more and more confident about knowing when a performance is right, but as I don’t operate (Lester worked with multiple cameras, doing the master shot — the easiest to operate — himself, whereas Soderbergh is his own director of photography), I rely on some other means of observing. Sidney Lumet, shunning the monitor, recommends watching the actors live but from as close as you can get to the camera’s position — right under it, if possible. This does give you a great rapport with the actors, but is second-best compared to watching on a screen the actual movie as you record it.

I did make a point of trying to get from the monitor to the cast after every take. That’s a vital moment when the actors need to know, at once, if you’re going again, and why. Instant communication with them comes before everyone else on the set — though the 1st AD and the DoP will learn from overhearing whether you need another take. I try to begin the comment with “We’ll do one more, and this time –” from which everyone can glean the information needed to prepare for what comes next. Being glued to the glowing screen can make delay this process.

Marianne Sagebrecht told a story about working with Danny De Vito, actor and director, on THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Sat at table for a dinner scene with him, she found him peering at a small monitor clasped between his chubby thighs. She was struggling to get the attention of the actor playing a scene with her because he was also the director and he was trying to watch it at the same time. I think that’s a misuse of the device. Jerry Lewis famously developed playback so he could check out scenes he was acting in, but he didn’t, so far as I know, attempt to watch them live. Of course, replaying a scene takes time — on at least one occasion I shot a retake rather than replay the shot, because it takes the same amount of time and you end up with more material. (Set-up time is essential, but it’s the filming time that you’re left with in the edit.)

Note: THE NORTLEACH HORROR has raised around £3,000 of its £5,000 target! Go here to contribute.

Litter Louts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Lester has said “Someone should teach a class on film openings,” pointing out that this is where the director is often most free to lay out the themes of the film without the pressure of narrative.

The making of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was a running battle between Lester and his producer, Melvin Frank, an old-school Hollywood type. Frank couldn’t comprehend the idea of Lester shooting a musical without a camera crane, refused to let him hire a screenwriter to rewrite the script (Lester eventually did it himself with Nic Roeg, his cinematographer), wrote a long memo explaining exactly why the film must and should contain a water ballet on the theme of “flags of all nations” (Lester framed this and hung it in his bathroom), and eventually locked some of the footage in a vault to prevent it being incorporated in the edit.

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Reading all this in Neil Sinyard’s critical study of Lester, I surmised that the title sequence of the film, climaxing in a collision between two Roman litters, with the producer’s name superimposed over one and the director’s over another, was a sly comment on the fraught nature of their “collaboration.” The first time I met Lester I congratulated him on this.

“No. That wasn’t intentional.”

Chalk up another victory for the power of the unconscious mind.

Titles are by Richard Williams. Editing is by John Victor-Smith. Perhaps it was their idea. The sequence is rather remarkable for the way it shuffles Zero Mostel introducing the story direct to camera (with song), Zero Mostel conducting a crooked game of dice (the start of the story itself), cutaway portraits of the dramatis personae as they are introduced, documentary shots snatched of extras who Lester had actually living in the set, flashforwards of highlights to come (so that the movie contains its own preview of coming attractions), and deleted footage that doesn’t appear in the movie at all (perhaps rescued from Frank’s safe?). Lester told me there wasn’t any more footage of Buster Keaton than appears in the movie, but there are a couple of tiny, suggestive moments here…

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