Tribute to David Lean
From the 1940s until his death in 1991, David Lean lorded over British cinema. To mark the centenary of his birth, fans and collaborators tell us what Lean means to them today
Writer, ‘The Pianist’, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’‘When I was growing up in Cape Town during World War II and immediately afterwards, I have no doubt that the films of David Lean stimulated my imagination above all others. I had no inkling that I would ever write a film or, indeed, anything else, but I suspect Lean’s films influenced me profoundly because of a gift he demonstrated time and time again: his ability to tell a story, something I have sought to emulate all my writing life. Lean always organised the events of his films in the right order and that may be one of the most difficult feats in the art of making movies. ‘He was to me quintessentially English, and patriotically English. This feeling was reinforced by his use of wonderful English actors, among them Alec Guinness, Trevor Howard, Robert Newton, Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson. His instincts for casting accurately and sometimes dangerously are always apparent, another essential weapon in the director’s armoury. ‘Of his films, “Great Expectations” made, I think, the most lasting impression. I had not read the book so Lean’s narrative line and the atmosphere he created was what drew me not only into that particular story but also opened to me the works of Charles Dickens. He demonstrated that it was possible in visual and dramatic terms to extract from a long, complex work the very heart of the matter.‘I am well aware that Lean has many detractors who accuse him of superficiality, of creating spectacle without depth, of over-simplifying complex historical events. 'These criticisms are tainted with envy. Lean was an outstanding filmmaker whose movies reached vast audiences. The combination of box-office success and artistic excellence inevitably causes grapes to taste sour. In what is after all a popular art form, Lean was a popular artist, a master craftsman whose contribution to the cinema was and is of the highest order.’
Director of ‘Atonement’‘If you watched all of David Lean’s films, and learned everything they have to offer, you could probably go away and be a filmmaker yourself.‘There are a number of sequences in his work that have affected me. The whole of “Brief Encounter” as a sequence of moments in time is like a masterclass in filmmaking. ‘There are many other moments, too, like the cut from the match to the sun in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a film which blows my mind every time. Or Bill’s dog scraping at the door as Nancy’s bludgeoned to death by Bill in “Oliver Twist”: that taught me that it often creates far more impact not to see the epicentre of the drama but to see the reaction, to see the ripples from it. ‘And there are moments like Pip running through the graveyard in “Great Expectations”, with the trees wiping the frame from right to left as he runs. Then Pip slams into a great big trunk of a tree which turns out to be Magwitch. It’s another moment of genius as far as I’m concerned. There are technical lessons to be learned from Lean – but emotional ones as well.‘Another thing that had an effect on me was Kevin Brownlow’s biography, with which I identified a lot. Lean’s being dyslexic like myself was a revelation: that you could be dyslexic and a filmmaker at the same time, that the reordering of symbols is something that, as dyslexics, we do well, that images and moments are our lexicon.’
Actor in Lean’s final film, ‘A Passage to India’ (1984)‘We’ve got this picture today of David Lean being impatient with actors. He was a very shy man of few words, and actors often don’t feel secure with that sort of person. But if you think of Alec Guiness in “Great Expectations” or Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence”, you cannot say this man was not good with actors. He always spoke warmly of actors. I remember him speaking in those terms about William Holden, who was in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.‘Far too much attention has been paid to Judy Davis’s comments about Lean (Davis called Lean "a bully” after playing Adela in “A Passage to India”). She was of a different generation, and times had changed enormously. He was straightforward. He was something of an old-style autocrat, but there have always been great autocratic directors. He wasn’t modern, he was imposing, which distanced people from him. But he had enormous respect from his crew.’
Director of ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’‘I think David Lean had a huge impact on British cinema. One underestimates his impact on that quintessentially English cinematic sensibility. Whether it was “Brief Encounter”, in terms of portraying suburban England, or the English abroad in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “A Passage to India”.‘But the Lean film that I love is one of his collaborations with Noel Coward, “This Happy Breed” (1944). The dialogue is great, but I love the way he shot it, with all those shots through windows and doorways. It’s set in a London street between the wars, and it shows how this family changes. To me, it presents such a brilliant social history of the English character at that time.’
Director of ‘The Warrior’ and upcoming ‘Far North’‘Of all Lean’s films, it’s “Lawrence of Arabia” which speaks to me the loudest. The more I’ve grown up, the more I understand what a massive achievement it is. I’ve understood why so many other filmmakers say it’s their all-time favourite. I’ve got a copy of a book of images that came out alongside the re-released director’s cut version of “Lawrence…” and that has been a massive influence on myself and my cameraman. All the detail is there. My cameraman Roman Osin and I, whenever we do a movie, we use that book for a reference. To me, that’s what cinema looks like.’‘The other thing I like about Lean’s cinema is that it’s quite an old-fashioned form of filmmaking. You go out and shoot it for real. There are no computers or effects, and that’s something I’m interested in, especially as my two films have been set in the desert (2001’s “The Warrior”) and the Arctic (“Far North”, which will be released later this year). It’s visual filmmaking of the best sort. Genuinely epic.’
Cinematographer on eight Mike Leigh films, including ‘Vera Drake’ and ‘Secrets and Lies’‘In 1984 I was one of two cameramen working on a two-part “South Bank Show” about David Lean which we filmed while he was making “A Passage to India”. We were in India for nearly a month.‘What was he like? He was cagey. He was a bit like Mike Leigh, in a way: he didn’t like his working practices to be exposed. But inevitably that happened. Our equipment was light and small, and several times we caught him directing, him not knowing we were there, which was fascinating. ‘We were on set in Bangalore, filming a big scene, for which a train rolls into a station and there were millions of Indians everywhere: a big, typical Lean scene. Minutes after arriving, I was filming while the producer and director were saying hello to Lean. But every time I turned round, Lean was looking at me. He was on my case. I got really paranoid. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and came over and crouched down next to me and said: “This is not the true India. It’s not the real India.” “Right,” I said. He continued: “The sun’s not out, the sun’s not shining.” And, yes, it was a cloudy day. “We’re not shooting because the sun’s not shining, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t film today either.” He didn’t want the documentary crew to film in the shade! What a control freak!‘He was very friendly with me. We had the same camera, a particular sort of Eclair 16mm. He was a camera nut, he was technically really proficient. He was a despot, but for him filmmaking was nuts and bolts. He fully understood the craft.’
Actor in Lean’s ‘The Sound Barrier’ (1952)‘It’s interesting how people differ in their attitude to someone like David Lean, but I look back to my childhood and think: My God, I was a lucky bugger. The quality of people I worked with. I worked with him on “The Sound Barrier”. I didn’t have a very exciting big part, but Lean was just as caring. And he had a lot of trouble because one of the leading actors broke a bone, but Lean didn’t lose his top, he was a man of great quality. He was patient, he worked round it. It is very different when you’re with that quality of director. They don’t take chances. It’s the time they spend, the ease with which they work, the quality they produce. That’s how they make their name.’
Production designer on ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Harry Potter’‘I think David Lean is of interest to designers and art directors because of his awareness of design and storytelling in pictures, but also because of his choice of designers. I’m thinking particularly of John Bryan, who worked on the early films, “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”. That image of the workhouse in “Oliver” is burned on one’s consciousness as a designer. That was a first. I’m not aware of anyone of the stature of him before in British filmmaking. He was succeeded by John Box who was similarly brave when designing Lean’s big international films, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”.‘Lean did what American filmmakers had done with Biblical epics and great westerns, but with infinitely more going on. Nobody in this country had ever before made films of such breadth, scope, scale, international appeal and yet also of such cinematic and literary merit.’
Director of new American indie film ‘In Search of a Midnight Kiss’ and fan of ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945)‘Brief Encounter’ is from an era of filmmaking that I greatly admire. We made ‘In Search of a Midnight Kiss’ for $12,000 so didn’t have the means to do exactly what we wanted, but ‘Brief Encounter’ exemplified the style that we were trying to emulate (not that it comes close to Lean’s mastery). We wanted to make a tiny, unassuming film which deals with big ideas about love and relationships. In terms of the influence, the smallness of the story of ‘Brief Encounter’ and the way they’re able to tap into Celia Johnson’s psychology so effectively and ride it out with that real sense of tension really got to me. It feels very scandalous, and I love that. Sometimes people criticise the film for being dated, but it doesn’t feel like that at all for me. In terms of the significance of these affairs and how we internalise them and are fearful of them destroying our lives and everything we’ve built up, I feel like it’s incredibly prescient. With ‘Midnight Kiss’, the obvious reference that people bring up is Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunset’ and ‘Before Sunrise’, but I think it’s fairer to say that we were influenced by ‘Brief Encounter’. It’s part of the American indie filmmaking tradition to feel nostalgia for the past, and I think the core ideas from all of these films could have come from any era. There’s not much that has changed. There’s MySpace and texting, but beyond that, there’s nothing'.
British TV actress, starred in Lean’s ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (1954)'I was newly out of drama school and my agent sent me along to audition for Vicky Hobson. David was absolutely lovely. I did a test in costume and David actually came along and, very sweetly, sitting behind the camera, he asked me questions in character. And I got it; I don’t know how many other people he saw for it. It was a very, very happy job and I must say I was very lucky to be in it and he was lovely to work with, incredibly sympathetic. I didn’t have a very large part, and it was only my second film so I was very much on good behaviour. One just tried to do everything that he asked. And Daphne Anderson who plays the other sister became a dear friend. My memories of it are very warm and friendly and John Mills was wonderful. One of the tragic things was that Robert Donat was going to play Mills’ part, and during rehearsals at Shepperton he had an asthma attack and they wouldn’t insure him. So David Lean got John Mills back from holiday and he learnt the Manchester accent in a week and played it with great success. Still, I think it broke Robert Donat’s heart'. Lean’s ‘The Passionate Friends’ opens on June 6. A complete retrospective of his films plays at BFI Southbank throughout June and July with a selection at other London cinemas.
Author: Derek Adams, Dave Calhoun, Wally Hammond, Tom Huddleston, David Jenkins
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