Archive for Richard Lester

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…

Things I Read Off the Screen in CATCH US IF YOU CAN

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2015 by dcairns

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THRILLS

I’ve had a built-in resistance to seeing CATCH US IF YOU CAN, aka HAVING A WILD WEEKEND, John Boorman’s first feature, starring the Dave Clark Five. “Surprisingly good,” say most reviews, before commenting on its unusually bleak quality. I was never tempted because A HARD DAY’S NIGHT holds a prominent place in my heart, and the DC5 are no substitute for the Fab 4.

But those reviews are accurate, and also the film is damned odd, a worthy debut for its maker, a visionary, or would-be visionary, whose visions have often taken him in quite curious directions. CUIYC/HAWW seems perversely calculated to avoid the upbeat charm of AHDN, and even when the action is occasionally fast or rambunctious, the tone is sour, or depressive, or grumpy or just flat.

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MEAT. GO!! GO!! GO!! MEAT FOR GO!!

The mild satiric impulses in Cliff Alun Owen’s Beatles script are amplified here to take in everything about the movie’s world. The DC5 play stuntmen, ludicrously referred to in the script as “stunt boys,” as if that were a thing. Mr. Dave Clark-Five himself runs off with a model, the latest face of British meat, Barbara Ferris, and her jealous boss plants a story in the press that she’s been kidnapped. The other band members are only occasionally along for the ride, and the script doesn’t bother to differentiate them at all, though several seem more interesting and up for it than Mr. Clark-Five. The few songs aren’t performed, they just turn up on the soundtrack, jostling for space with instrumentals by a uncredited John Coleman and the reliably melancholic Basil Kirchin (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES).

So it’s mostly Ferris and Clark-Five on the road, failing to have adventures, get into scrapes, or meet extraordinary characters. Instead they mope, even at speed. But the movie is unexpectedly brilliant. Like LEO THE LAST, it feels like Boorman has spent his life in an entirely other England and is reporting back from this alien plane. It helps that Manny Wynn’s b&w cinematography is so gorgeous, and the wintry landscapes so well-chosen. The movie always looks as exquisite as a breaking heart.

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DANGEROUS BUILDING

One of many collapsing Boorman properties, from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC to HOPE AND GLORY. And then there’s the trundling church in DELIVERANCE.

Guest stars turn up — a very naturalistic David Lodge, and a posh couple in Bath played by smarmy Robin Baily and acid Yootha Joyce, who at first seem intended to embody middle-class, middle-aged malaise, but turn out to be good sports. At a fancy dress event at the Roman baths, he has a good time as the Frankenstein monster (an emerging theme here at Shadowplay as we near Halloween) and she drags up as Chaplin, which OUGHT to be the scariest thing ever — imagining Yootha at her most corrosive, crossed with Gloria Swanson’s creepy Little Tramp act in SUNSET BLVD… but it’s oddly mild, since Yootha doesn’t bother doing any Chaplin schtick.

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GUY

The screenplay is by Peter Nichols (GEORGY GIRL, A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG) which grounds the whimsy, which was more than a little heavy already. There’s an encounter with ragged hippies, and Actual Drug References (Clark-Five has never heard the term “spliff,” apparently), and The Writing is already On The Wall as far as that lot are concerned. They are in awe of their mystical leader, a raddled drug casualty who drones garbled prophecies through his implausible facial hair, for this is Ronald Lacey, the bald Nazi from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

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On the basis that pop fans were going to turn up for this anyway, no matter what the actual plot or tone consisted of, Nicholls and Boorman deserve credit for making something nobody would otherwise have commissioned, a glum picaresque of urban and rural England providing none of the expected chirpy pleasures and gloriously vague about what alternative delights we should be getting from its meandering maunderings. It’s pure Boorman, far closer to ZARDOZ, if you can believe that, than it is to any pop film before it.

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H.M.S. DANDY

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