Richard Lester: interview

He filmed The Beatles, reinvented Superman and shunned Hollywood. Richard Lester, 75, the director of films including 'A Hard Day's Night', 'The Knack... and How to Get It' and 'The Three Musketeers', looks back on his career as a special edition of 'Help!' is released on DVD

Richard Lester: interview
Richard Lester (left) shooting 'Help!' with The Beatles in 1965
In the old days, they'd say, 'You're the father of MTV.' I'd say, 'I want a blood test!' But I think my tendency towards the surreal meant I was genetically well prepared to play with music and image. All through my childhood I think I only saw one film, 'Fantasia'. It wasn't until university that I started seeing films: Ealing comedies and then very quickly Godard, Truffaut, Jacques Demy...

But the Europeans worked in a free-wheeling way quite different to me. After working as a backing singer, I started out at the very beginning of live television – with emphasis on the live. You'd just wing it. We were doing our own editing, using multiple cameras, cutting between them with our own bank of buttons. So, as a director, I developed a way of getting through the day's work: operating a lot of cameras in a very loose way, using editing to get myself out of trouble.

I mean, to film The Beatles in London... Very exciting, but logistical hell. Just grab a camera, get what you can! You'd get one take on the streets and then out would pop 2,000 screaming children. And the police would tell us to piss off. We'd say, 'We've got a permit.' They'd say, 'Not any more!' We had three-and-a-half weeks to edit; just cut it, get it to the cinema, off we went. My whole purpose with 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Help!' was to try to put their qualities on the screen: not only their musical qualities, but that sense of irony and exuberance. 'A Hard Day's Night' was the most delicate piece of the surreal. Andrew Sarris called it 'the "Citizen Kane" of jukebox movies'. That's a nice line and I'll take it with pleasure!
I think The Beatles had seen 'The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film', the 11-minute short I made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. We only made it for ourselves; Peter and I had a few drinks, wrote a few gags on napkins and rented a field for a fiver. But it got an Academy Award nomination! Even more amazing was the Palme d'Or for 'The Knack… and How To Get It'. I'll never know what they loved about it. I mean, I was asked to go on the jury the following year and all sorts of imponderables and swindles seem to take place. I won't go into detail…

But we had £100,000 and six weeks to shoot it. Working in London was wonderful, but if I went over that budget, there was no fun for me. In 1964, £100,000 was a hospital. But we got away with it. Steven Soderbergh and I wrote a book together and that was the title – because that's filmmaking. Getting through the day, despite the rainstorms or the actor who lost his script or his marbles. And you say, 'Yeah, I got away with that.'

That doesn't mean the head of a studio didn't watch one of my films, take his cigar out of his mouth, and say, 'How long is this shit going to go on for?' That was 'The Bed Sitting Room'. 'Petulia', which I think is one of my best films, was smashed for being too anti-American. Even though I was born in America, I've been here since 1955. I've got a British passport, a British wife, British children.

I am British! I was never tempted to go to Hollywood, even in the '70s, because I couldn't work the way I wanted to. I've always had creative control with studio money because word was out that I wasn't going to overspend or get it wrong. But very early on, Coppola and Scorsese kept saying, 'Your films liberated me.' That means a lot. I think it's that sense of exuberance, of shooting from the hip.

Now, I don't want to make another film in the slightest. Forty years is enough. I really won't talk about the 'The Return of the Musketeers' [his last film, on which Roy Kinnear died in a horseriding accident in 1989]; I never have and I won't now. But I think you can draw your own conclusions. Also, I think, there was the change around 'Superman III' where CG images could now be inter-cut with film.

I thought: Do I want to learn this other technique at my stage? I probably don't. There are plenty of hungry young guys, let them get on with it. I'll go play tennis.

A new, two-disc edition of 'Help!' is out now on DVD.

Author: Jonathan Crocker





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