Allan Thomson very generously sent me a 1996 interview he conducted with Oscar-winning cinematographer the late David Watkin, on the subject of his frequent collaborator Richard Lester. I’ve chopped it down to focus on THE KNACK.
David Watkin/Allan Thomson –
14th October 1996. Brighton
I have known him [Lester] since about 1961, very early sixties. What happened is I started in documentaries, and had been with a very good documentary unit for many many years called British Transport Films. Simply because when I decided to come into the film business — which is what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to work in an office, I had no great love for the cinema or anything like that but I didn’t want a boring old job and I thought films would be fun — they wouldn’t let me in features but I was able to get into documentaries. And I started life as a documentary trainee assistant and eventually a cameraman.
And after a while with this unit, I realised that one had to sort of slip away from them, and various things happened and I was involved with Joan Littlewood for a short time, and then left the documentary unit and started to do photographic freelance cameraman but of course that was a bit different because I had been in this other world, nobody outside the unit had ever heard of me but I started doing commercials.
And what happened was I did some commercials, I’d played around with a way of lighting, which was unusual up to the time that I started playing around with it, probably impractical as well. What happened was that I was able to make it work and I used to use it occasionally. I used it on a commercial with Richard, and he liked it and on the strength of that said, ‘Would you like to do my next feature? Which was The Knack.
And with a lot of encouragement, because I regarded it, this thing, as a fairly restrictive way of lighting sets — you would only do it when I thought it was appropriate — and he said, ‘No, you should expand it and use it more.’
And he wanted to shoot the whole of The Knack with this technique, you see, and I first of all thought that was going too far but, I remember then, through playing around with it, I found that it was much more flexible than I thought.
Fiona spotted Jacqueline Bisset second from the right.
And so Richard, I will have to say, was an enormous help to me, not only giving me the first feature that I ever, which started me off you know and that is always a very difficult hurdle that. But actually probably pushing me to do something to begin with a bit quicker that I would have otherwise done it, because I’m quite a slow developer. I think I would have probably done it anyway, but he was a catalyst, is what I am saying, so he was enormously important in my life at the time.
First of all it is quite a hurdle to get a first feature, it is a hurdle which is not a lot of use if the thing then falls flat on its face. Nothing to do with the photography, but I have known very good people who have made a couple of films, photographed them extremely well, but got nowhere because the film had got nowhere, which is anybody’s fault but their’s, but in my case with Richard both the first two films that I did with him were very successful.
The first film, I can remember this, that when The Knack won a Golden Palm I think at Cannes and I was talking to Richard on the phone about that and he said, “Now you can go steadily downhill from now on.” No, I would always be very grateful and I owe him a tremendous amount.
The point about this was it was reflected light and I tended to use [that] in things that wanted to look very beautiful and very gentle and all that sort of thing and I tended to use it with children if I had a scene with children or something like that.
And this was a Shredded Wheat, I will never forget it, it was a Shredded Wheat commercial with kids eating fucking Shredded Wheat. I mean, to me by that time I was fairly used to it, but Richard had seen nothing like it before, certainly not done in that way and so that’s how I got on The Knack.
What you have to remember is that I sort of came up at a time when it’s possible to say, I think, that there was a fairly hard tradition, hard-boiled tradition about feature films — they had become a bit set in their ways: people would accept what had gone on before because that’s what had gone on before. And there was this business of lighting, which people would use as direct light, so you would get a 5K and smash it on your face as a key light, and put a 2K with a wire in it as a fill light, and something else as a back light and that would be that and you know the idea of actually reflecting light so that you get a much softer… And it was in actual fact easier and quicker to do. It was never gone in to. It was regarded, nobody had done it so why do it?
And there was also this very… I was certainly the first person to break this one… […] you couldn’t photography white. That if you had a bedroom scene there were white sheets they either had to be dipped in coffee or dyed grey, you know that white would flare out and be ugly and horrible
And you know the simple fact is, if you had been shooting a picture in 1925, the year I was born, on orthochromatic stock, that would have been absolutely true. A simple fact is that, you know, since then you have got panchromatic stock, you have got different kinds of film, film has sort of progressed but the idea that you couldn’t photograph white hadn’t.
And I have a very low boredom threshold: you have only got tell me that something has got to be done because it always had been done that way and I might question it.
So for years in documentaries I didn’t give a fucking toss. So when Richard said to me, ‘Look we have a lot of scenes in a completely white room,’ and he said, ‘Would it be alright to actually photograph them white?’ and I said of course it would be.
I mean I still get it; I had it on the film that I am going to do next. A phone call from the costume designer, a nice lady, ‘Is it alright if I put them in white?’ – ‘Yes.’ That was certainly was something we did in The Knack because as I said was a whole bloody set of white.
A lot of people slagged that period off and said it wasn’t as successful as people say it is.
Only Tories, it was the most civilised time. It was the time when this country actually became civilised. It didn’t last very long. But it lasted… it wasn’t only the sixties it was about mid-seventies. Oh yes, it was the time when we were really, in every sense of the word, a liberal, sort of socialist society. You know it was everything that we’re not at the moment.
It really was an exciting period?
I mean, I have led a charmed life in this business, I suppose because one thing led to another[…] But all the films I made at the beginning my career in the sixties and the seventies with Richard and Tony Richardson, Peter Brook, with Ken Russell, all those sort of films every single one was completely worthwhile. Not only as entertainment but something better than that you know something more than that.
They filmed The Knack, a couple of takes and away?
Well, my dear, one of the things that has never ceased to astonish me in this business is the extent to which some directors will go on and on, take after take after take, which is totally self-defeating unless an actor can’t remember a bloody line or something. You know, it is always within the first couple of takes that you use. This is why, you know, it is so great to go off to work with Sidney [Lumet] because, if it gets beyond take three of four, I mean, it is surprising, and you can get on and get on with it.
I really can’t stand it: I go to the back of the stage and go to sleep. But I mean this business of going on and on is wasting everyone’s time including your own. So the fact that Dick gets on with it, bloody good luck, I wish I had more like him. There are some. Again all the people that I have spoken about. Again all the people I have spoken about every name I have mentioned, Richard Tony Richardson, Peter Brook, Ken, Ken’s had his moments, we did a lot of takes on The Devils, I don’t know why.
I am not I director, I could ever be because I like my private life too much, I have directed commercials. Only shoot what you need and know what you need, and know when you have got it, that’s about all have to do and cast it and that’s you, you have become a director. But they are a rare, rare species most people going around directing films are no more directors than they are chimney sweeps.
So there are only a handful of directors in the world?
That’s true, that’s true. Well the other thing is, this you see, I tend to be a bit scathing about this because in my job all my job consists of is making decisions.
I have to make decisions fairly quickly and I can’t go back on them, nether can I have alternatives. I can’t say, ‘Oh well, look, I’ll light is this way and then you do a couple of takes of that, then I’ll change the lighting and do a couple more takes and we’ll see what you like out of three different kinds of lighting.’
You know, when a director shoots every conceivable camera angle there is, and every kind of alternative inflection of voice, Basically the more he does the less he’s a director and the more he is the assembler of choices for someone else to make a decision. He can’t make a decision and being a director is making a decision and saying ‘That is what it is going to be,’ and this is why I have scant respect for the people who tend to overdo it.
Why Richard? Again either you are terrified of making decisions or they are the greatest fun in the world, and they become fun when you say, ‘Fine maybe it’s wrong but at least I’ve made it.’ And every now and then of course it will be wrong but I mean then you simply say, ‘Well I’ve fucked that up, didn’t I?’ and that’s it, and the great thing about Richard and Tony and Terry Donovan, people like that, they think the same, they would rather I came slightly unstuck doing something interesting than being utterly safe and utterly predictable and boring.
But I don’t know how true it is, but I believe Woodfall made Woodfall made such an overwhelming pile of money out of Tom Jones that it was, in fact, according to their accountant extremely useful to have a tax loss and I think they thought the juxtaposition of Dick and myself would guarantee that, and it went wrong, I don’t know how true that is.
The thing was it was the only film that I hadn’t really been able to choose my own crew because your first film they are not going to pay you much, and they consider you are wrong. They are not going to listen to you. I wanted Paul Wilson to operate on that film and I couldn’t have him.
Who did it?
I better not get into that otherwise I would be getting sued for libel. Ask Richard, he may be bolder than I am. It’s a ridiculous thing, that you say some accountants sitting at a desk thinks he is saving £5 a week on something and in actual fact what it is costing you indirectly is a lot more than that.
[Lester told Soderbergh that a lot of the white room scenes had to be duped, blown-up, reframed to get rid of the boom mic which the camera operator had a knack for getting in shot.]
Nobody would argue with me now about that. No-one would say you can’t have the operator you want. If they tried to they would get a very short answer but if it is your first film there is not a lot that you can do about it.
The other thing of course is it was black and white. For me back and white is a joy. You have to know what you are doing. Black and white is much more exacting, you have more control over the result on the screen with black and white than you do with colour.
Note the Beatles graffiti.
That style was there long before, I mean made a film called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film. Nothing new for Richard. He got all that sorted out before. He’s got that kind of fertile humour… I mean, the thing that I like because I am similar is that Richard would scoop things out the air in front of him. I am pretty much like that, impetuous, sort of, I react to things. I don’t sort of sit and pore over my thoughts beforehand and come out with something great.
Yes, that sprang out of the fact that the Beatles couldn’t act and therefore you could never really, rely is too strong a word. You could never hope that they did the same thing twice. And so Richard developed this technique of using two cameras so that you would have one camera on the wide shot and you would have the other camera doing the close-ups, well of course, there is four of them.
The thing about the two camera technique is that Richard got it right. It’s fine: what you do is you obviously have the two operators. Now to have two really good operators who know their job […] if there is a better or more experienced operator he in fact operates the second camera not the main unit.
And what would happen is you would set up for the wide-shot of the scene where Freddie Cooper as the main cameraman would operating there and Paul Wilson would quietly watch through a Hanson — he would get his own set-up, Dick would give him his own set-up — Paul would quietly in his own set-up. And Paul would know — this is what is great about operators that are good — he would not only know what Dick’s needs were, he would also understand what mine were. So you could feel absolutely secure that Paul would never shoot anything that would be bad for me, would never put himself anywhere which would be bad for me, and would always pick-up stuff which would be helpful for Richard.
But I mean The Knack, it’s a wonderful picture of the social progress we were making at the time. Which may have gone into reverse, I mean Charles Wood, who’s a great writer, now that’s somebody, Charles is a great writer…
Producer Oscar Lewenstein…
[…] When Tony Richardson was such a success, Tony gave a percentage of Tom Jones to all the key people that worked on it – Walter Lassally, Albert Finney. I think I mentioned it. The Knack was supposed to have been tax loss so when it made money it made money it was an embarrassment rather a mess. And it was Oscar’s film. Tony was the head of Woodfall but The Knack was Oscar’s film, not Tony’s.
So it was not up to Tony to sort of interfere with the film to any great extent. But […] said to Oscar, in my presence in actual fact, ‘Well you ought to give David a percentage of the film, it’s no use to you and David is a great boy.’
And Oscar’s reply to that was, that, ‘If David had money I might not be able to get him when I wanted him.’ And that was that.
Robert Freeman, the Beatles’ stills photographer…
And for some reason or the other, was given the job of designing, designing the title background for The Knack. His idea for designing the tiles for The Knack was to put the lettering on Venetian blinds. So you would have a shot from a window of Venetian blinds with lettering which is so small you can’t read any body’s…
We filmed the Venetian blind and they put Mr. Freeman’s ‘bottom line of the optician charts’ kind of lettering on it and that was that.
Production designer Assheton Gorton…
Assheton is a wonderful, wonderful designer, stubborn as a fucking mule. I love old Assheton he is the son of an archbishop. Not like the recent Bishop. No, Assheton is a very, very bright man/ designer. …Once Assheton has dug his heels…
Lester liked him…
He would have to be pretty dense not to realise Assheton was something unusual.
If you were in the situation that Richard was in for a large number of years it’s up to you to choose who you work with. If you don’t choose the amusing people you know it’s a bit silly. You can always get what you want.
Huge thanks to Allan Thomson.