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Born in Philadelphia but based, from early adulthood, in England, filmmaker Richard Lester began his career in British television, where his fondness for absurd humor led to a professional relationship with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, of the hit radio program The Goon Show. Working with them paved the way for work with another, comically simpatico bunch, The Beatles. Lester helmed both A Hard Day's Night and its 1965 follow-up, Help! (now available on DVD again, after a long absence). But Lester's story hardly ends with The Beatles. Released between Beatles films, his 1965 feature The Knack… And How To Get It—an energetic, experimental comedy about sexual mores in '60s London—took the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1965. Lester filled out the '60s with dark satires (How I Won The War and The Bed Sitting Room), a Sondheim musical (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum), and the remarkable Petulia, a doomed romance starring George C. Scott and Julie Christie, shot in the midst of San Francisco's Summer Of Love.
Lester worked steadily throughout the '70s and early '80s, his output spanning a pair of irreverent Dumas adaptations (The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers), an autumnal return to Robin Hood (Robin And Marian), and a pair of Superman movies. Though retired from filmmaking since 1989, Lester remains a lively conversationalist, and he recently spoke with The A.V. Club about Beatles, pacifism, and what might end his retirement.
The A.V. Club: How does Help! look to you today?
Richard Lester: Well, can I offer a few caveats? I hadn't seen the film for about 35 years. I don't like watching my own films. I get nervous, I sweat, and I think "Why am I putting myself through this? I can't offer anything. Nothing can be done. The audience is grown up, they've grown faster, their attention span is shortening, and I'm providing films for them that are 30 or 40 years old." So it's best if, when the films come on, I smile at people at the beginning, and then go off and have a very nice drink. Having said all that, I saw it in San Sebastian two or three weeks ago. My general feeling was, I was very pleased with the fact that our representation of the way The Beatles were in '65 seemed accurate and fresh, that the musical numbers worked as well as I had thought that they would, and that we had that sense of fun and irony that a vaguely surrealist piece can produce, where The Beatles were not only themselves, they were outside themselves, looking in in an ironic way. So all that worked for me. Probably one of the problems in watching a film in another country is that the subtitles don't represent the dialogue. A lot of dialogue of films of mine is difficult to either dub or subtitle. It's a little bit idiosyncratic.
AVC: Because of the wordplay?
RL: Yeah, and it's asking a lot for somebody to either produce equivalent wordplay in another language, or accurately produce likely jokes. That's a rather long-winded explanation of what it was like seeing the film again. What people tell me is that it's being enjoyed by audiences that have seen it lately. It's not for me to say whether it should work or shouldn't work. I'm just grateful if it does. I was grateful in 1965, and I'll be just as grateful in 2007.
AVC: A Hard Day's Night and Help! were two of many, many films made to cash in on the popularity of musical groups at the time. Apart from being Beatles films, which obviously puts them in a class by themselves, why do you think those films have endured, where others in the genre haven't?
RL: [Takes a deep breath, sighs.] In a way, I'm the wrong person to ask, because I worked instinctively. I called upon what interested me, and I had a background right from the start of enjoying surrealist humor. It was what I did. I think if you take a straightforward, documentary approach to a subject, that will have a limited shelf life. If you take an earnest attempt to, as you said, cash in on a group or a person's popularity, there is a tendency…
If most of the musical films of the late '50s and '60s, Bikini Beach Party, the Elvis Presley films, the Cliff Richard films, if somebody said "Hey kids, let's do the show right here," they meant it. If John Lennon said it, you knew he was being deeply ironic and very sardonic. And that quality, I think, helped to avoid a sense of being period films some 40 years later. And the other thing, probably, if you want to have a film that lasts, you either find your way to an original version of some universal truth, which is deadly serious and very valuable, or you make a profoundly silly movie. And I think we did the latter, because somehow silly doesn't date as badly as earnestness.
AVC: You worked in television before moving into film. Why did you focus on film?
RL: Well, in my day in television, there was no taping; there was no telerecording. You rehearsed, and then it went out live. If something went seriously wrong, so be it. You would come home and say to your wife, "How was it?" And she would say, "Was it meant to be like that?" And you'd say "No." You can only take that and do that for so long, and then suddenly you find that—and this happened with me when I was doing The Goon Show with Peter Sellers—we were shooting little bits of filmed inserts to go in with the live television, and I was able to do something called "take two," and I became very enamored of take two, so I thought, "Well, there must be another way." And I naturally gravitated first to short film, and then into feature films.
AVC: You were only slightly older than The Beatles when you first directed them. Did you find that being that close in age to them helped you tap into that sensibility?
RL: I think the sensibility was that John had a great sense of surreal, liked the same things that I like. He had a very elaborate sense of wordplay and word nonsense, as shown in his two books that he wrote. They liked the television work that I did, and I liked what they were, and the way they were and the way they handled themselves. We just seemed to get on. Yes, I think it helped that we were fairly close in age. Yes, I think it helped that I had a musical background and that I was a terrible piano player they could ridicule. It all seemed to be okay, but that doesn't mean that if somebody who was 20 years older than I had come up with a good plan for them, that he couldn't have done a good film either. Whatever happened, happened with me.
AVC: A Hard Day's Night was shot quickly, and you must have had the sense that you were capturing history in the making. Did you find that the skills you picked up from that translated into creating a document of swinging London like The Knack?
RL: No, not really. I'd always worked quickly, because I was used to that in television—because you had to—and you work quickly because you don't have a lot of money to use multiple cameras in order to get enough footage to have a 90-minute film at the end of it. My first film was two and a half weeks in shooting. And I'm a little worried about you saying that history was in the making. When we decided to do a fictionalized documentary for A Hard Day's Night, we followed The Beatles to the George V hotel in Paris, the writer and I, and had a room down the hall from them, and in a way, watched how they went from the car to the hotel, and the hotel to the Olympia Music Hall where they were performing, and back, and then to a club. And in essence, a structure of a film was writing itself in that weekend. It just turned easily into that film.
That had happened—and I hope I've got my dates right—before The Ed Sullivan Show, where you got the feeling that we were on a huge runaway train. But I don't think anybody would have, in March of 1964, put his house on the fact that The Beatles would still be talked about 42 years later. So, you know, all we did was to say, "How can we best make this film work? How can I, as a filmmaker, best serve what I find so attractive in these four people?" And that carried on through the time that I was with them. We had, let's say, double the amount of money for the second film, but we had double the amount of expense in the second film, so more or less it all came out the same, and in both of them we had a fairly restricted editing time.
AVC: It was your second film with [cinematographer] David Watkin, it has a kind of color photography that looks like few other films from 1965. How did you arrive at that look?
RL: We wanted this vaguely Victorian, melodramatic thriller shot in the style of pop art. We didn't want it to look like a traditional melodramatic film, and I suppose that we were reflecting a lot of the art movement at the time. But we certainly did spend a lot of time carefully, once we'd cut the film, and when we wanted to grade the negative, taking two frames from each shot in the film, putting them on a lightbox with some color filters to try to augment… in other words, what we were doing in a very clumsy, longhand way is what people are doing now with computer-generated imagery. But we did spend our time, because we wanted to have that kind of look, and I think for David, who was shooting his first color feature, it was a chance to really let rip. There were a lot of times where both I—because I used to operate quite a lot on one of the cameras—could play about and gamble on things. There's some sequences in one of the early musical sequences where I'm pulling the exposures ring wide open from 2 to 22 while it's still in-shot, just to see what it would look like. And it ended up in the film. We were prepared to play about because it was that kind of film.
AVC: Mistakes could end up in there, but they would look deliberate.
RL: Nobody seemed to mind. This is a great advantage of doing a silly film: You can get away with most things, and people will think, "Oh, they probably wanted to do that."
AVC: You had an ability, however accidental, to be in the places that were becoming the center of the world with The Knack and A Hard Day's Night, and then later with Petulia. When you were in San Francisco shooting Petulia, did you get the feeling you were somewhere that was about to become the most famous place on earth?
RL: Certainly when we went to look for the locations, because the original novel in which that was based [Me And The Arch Kook Petulia by John Haase] was set in Los Angeles. We switched it, and we went in 1966, [screenwriter] Charles Wood and I, although Charles didn't end up writing the screenplay. We went and did a whole elaborate series of notes about San Francisco. And yes, it was absolutely extraordinary, but what was more extraordinary was the change when we went back to shoot a year later—of how the hardness had really settled in, and the drug scene had become much more dominant and heavy and threatening, and the change in the society's response to the Vietnam War between '66 and '67. What I remember so clearly was the change of a place in a year. But again, to have the chance of working with Janis Joplin, who was an absolutely phenomenal lady, and The Grateful Dead and all, was just a real treat.
AVC: As someone whose work demonstrates a lack of respect for the established way of doing things, when you were there in '66, did the blooming counterculture give you any kind of optimism?
RL: I think if you take the '60s, probably from '65 onwards, we're in a slight downward spiral, which certainly accelerated in '67, and ended when Petulia was the entry in the Cannes Film Festival that collapsed because Jean-Luc Godard tried to set fire to the festival cinema's curtains. They were ripping up the cobbled streets and throwing cobbles at the police. And that's about as far down as it went. There were some hard times, and the sense of pessimism, I think, was extraordinary.
That [incident] was on Thursday, and I remember I was starting shooting on my next film on Monday, and I couldn't get out of France whatsoever. Everything was closed down. I had to take a boat to Italy, and then take a train, and finally got back and started shooting a film, which was ostensibly a comedy, which came out to be a very heavy comedy, because it was a really black time.
AVC: You don't like the phrase "anti-war," but there's a very strong sense about the absurdity of war running from How I Won The War through The Four Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers doesn't necessarily suggest a satire of war. How important was it for you to get that material into your work?
RL: You have certain things that are in your personality. You can't avoid them, and I think that if you put them in in an indulgent way, rather than try to sneak them in, that can be hazardous. How I Won The War, I always said was an example of Brechtian alienation, and it succeeded so brilliantly that I alienated my entire audience, who went home. There are things that I have always felt, because I was brought up with a very strong anti-war feeling. I went to a Quaker school. I came from a long family of generation after generation of atheists, and these things are a part of me, and those elements are in most of the films, even if they're only in the background of the frame somewhere.
AVC: Speaking of alienating your audience, you'd always experimented with editing, but Petulia was the furthest you'd ever fractured a story. Were you worried about pushing it too far?
RL: Not really. I had the feeling that had we not produced that fracture, that the jaggedness that I wanted out of what it was like to be in San Francisco at that time, that kind of nervous energy, would not have been so obvious. I thought that it was a means of helping that quality of unease, that the audience didn't know quite why these images were there, but they would find out in time. I hoped it would be unsettling, but not enough to send them away. It certainly wasn't in the original novel.
AVC: Other directors probably would have put a love plot into the Beatles films. When you do deal with love in Petulia and Robin And Marian, there isn't a strong sense of love conquering all. Did that theme make you uncomfortable?
RL: I'm very, very uncomfortable with sentimentality. I can't say that I'm totally anti-romantic, but I suspect you'll have to ask my wife—and I'll make sure our time's up before she comes to the phone. Suffice it to say, I don't mind romanticism. I think there are elements of romanticism in Robin And Marian, and indeed in Petulia, but it's like the filmmaker's fingerprint's on me when I'm watching an overtly sentimental film. I'm not a sentimental person. I think that's fair to say.
AVC: It seems fair to say you're also uncomfortable with larger-than-life characters. One part of why the Beatles movies work, and the Musketeers movies and Robin And Marian, is that you're not really interested in building up anyone's mythology—you're interested in approaching things from a human level.
RL: Well, it's going around the back of the image to see what it's like. And I think this sense that The Beatles were of themselves and themselves at the same time—that they always knew there was something quite silly about what they were doing—that the fame was not what it was supposed to be. Take a character like Robin Hood—it's much more interesting to me to go around the back and say "Why was it that the Sheriff of Nottingham had taught himself to read and write, but Robin never did?" He was stuck trying to live his legend once he found out that he was a legend, and couldn't manage it. I always said I was not as easy doing the love scene as showing the maid taking the sheets out the next morning.
AVC: A great deal was made of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. Do you have an opinion on the re-cutting of the film?
RL: I didn't know it was re-cut. I read about it once. I've never seen it. I don't know anything about it.
AVC: Would anything lure you out of filmmaking retirement at this point?
RL: Death. [Laughs.]