[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Richard Lester is sitting in the study of his house in Surrey “looking out over a garden filled with rain and daffodils.” He was raised in Philadelphia but he has spent nearly half of his 42 years in England and he has no particular wish to return to the States. England has given him his career, his wife, his children and most of his friends, for all of which he is most grateful. In addition, he has a rather perverse fondness for English weather.
In the middle Sixties, Lester seemed unstoppable. He had made, consecutively and within the space of a few years, four highly profitable films for United Artists, films whose box-office clout was exceeded only by their glowing critical reception. He turned his attention then to a couple of projects which, although they were much more personal, seemed to him to have only slightly less popular potential. He was wrong. How I Won the War, Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room—all brilliant, unique films—failed miserably at the box office. From 1968 to 1973 Lester watched forlornly as a dozen potential projects fell through for one reason or another. He occupied himself in the long interim making television commercials for European producers. When the Salkind family troika approached him with the prospectus for a version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the drought broke.
Two films were made from that book. The first, The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, was released in the spring of 1974 and did excellent business during the summer and fall; the second, The Four Musketeers, The Revenge of Milady, was scheduled for release the following spring—shortly after the ensuing interview—and promised to do as well. Hardly a month after he had finished post-production work on these, Lester was offered, and took, the job of directing Juggernaut—which was in release barely six months after he began work on it. Andrew Sarris, who was later to contradict many reviewers in preferring The Four Musketeers to The Three, wrote of Juggernaut that it “comes very, very close to being the best film I have seen all year under any auspices. It is a thriller, yes, but it is much, much more, besides.” Just .as Juggernaut was being released, Lester began work on a long-deferred project, Royal Flash.
Both Juggernaut and the Musketeers films were essentially commercial projects conceived by their producers rather than Lester, but he nevertheless managed to inject his own brand of irony and wit into them, making them considerably more interesting than they otherwise might have been. After all, Lester is an old hand at the battle of the genres, having wittily satirized the Donen-Minnelli musical with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, reconstructed the melodrama in Petulia, and destroyed for all time the war film in How I Won the War.
He is also a very articulate, careful, precise, and concerned man, who doesn’t at all mind talking about his films but believes he’s not a very good judge of them. Yet his analytical bent won’t let him leave them be. At the time of our interview he was still working on Juggernaut and was several months away from the pressurized work environment of the Musketeers project. He was relieved. It was clear that the drought was unlikely to resume, that he was working steadily again, and working well.
James Monaco: A lot of people like to think of you as an American exile, deliberately staying away. Have you been back to the U.S. since Petulia in ’67?
Richard Lester: No. Petulia was practically the first time I’ve been back to America since I left it in 1954, and I used the chance of making a film about America as a means of examining what I felt about returning—how I felt the country had changed and what my impressions were—and I think I was able to put into it all the feelings that swept over me on that return. Having done that, it seems pointless to try to repeat the exercise until a similar period of time has elapsed. That’s not saying I’m setting out deliberately to stay away for another fifteen years; but since my work doesn’t normally take me to America, since my family are British, my house is here and my work in films allows me to work more or less where I like….
I didn’t want to go to America and, as it were, attempt to comment on the country by making a film there. I’ve always tried to avoid making films which I felt I was not the right person to do. Unless I felt myself reasonably qualified, in other words, unless I felt that I was a sensible choice for that subject, I’ve always walked away. And since my knowledge of America now seems to rest with faded copies of Time magazine in dentists’ offices, I find myself pretty ill-equipped to deal with the problems and the quality of life that must exist in America today. My only valuable contribution, it seemed, was for a reassessment based on a very large gap, a gap of fifteen years. Since that hasn’t happened, I’ve left it pretty well alone.
JM: Ingmar Bergman has a fear of travel based, they say, on his acute sensitivity to a new environment—the colors, the light, the air. That’s one reason that he has until now avoided the garish, powerful mood and atmosphere of New York. I don’t suppose that kind of objection has anything to do with where you work and why you leave the U.S. “pretty well alone”….
RL: Well, perhaps I care very little about the qualities of light as opposed to the qualities of life where I live. I·know that my wife is constantly moaning that we don’t see the sun and that England has a dreadful climate. But I’ve come to realize, year in and year out—perhaps it’s spending all those times waiting for a change in the weather to enable one to finish a sequence in a film which started in snow and has ended up in brilliant sunshine—realizing that the weather exists and will always exist. It hasn’t really affected me; my heart doesn’t “leap up” when I see the sun. I’ve grown reconciled to enjoying a rain, sleet, hail, anything that’s going!…
I’ve never for one instant longed to go back. I’ve never been even curious in a detached way about the way life was developing in the United States. I’ve settled in England with a great feeling of calm, and I think I’ve been able to carve out a life that suits me. It’s very easy, especially when being asked questions in an interview, to give a response that’s good for journalism, that has political overtones, or that smacks of Years of Intensive Thought of What’s Best for Me and What’s Best for the Nation. But I think it runs far less deep than that. I don’t want to spend the trouble to examine myself and found out why I am really happy here: Is it escape? Is it fear? Is it this? Is it that? I am just happy where I am. It has cost me the opportunity to do certain films which would have been an interesting challenge. The fact that the English film industry has more or less collapsed hasn’t made things easy. But I think while I can still find the financing I will stay here because I like the way my son’s being educated, I like the way the bulbs come up to order in the garden and, in essence, I’m very pleased with my life here in a selfish and smug way. I see no reason to change it.
JM: What about all those projects that never got off the ground during the late Sixties and early Seventies? You must have felt, after a couple of years, that there was a Lester Curse or something of the sort. Do you want to talk about them?
RL: Not really. I don’t see that it serves any purpose to open old wounds and disagreements. There were several projects that, as I say, I just didn’t feel qualified to do, and others that for one reason or another didn’t make it. I was lucky to be able to make advertising films: they operate as sort of a sketchbook; one can tryout ideas. And of course they were a source of income.
JM: I’ve seen a couple of the American commercials you’ve done, and they are fascinatingly subtle. But the European advertising films are different, aren’t they?
RL: Yes. Longer. Two to five minutes, generally. And the Italian advertising films, for example, are required by law not to mention the product, so that gives considerable leeway; and they are shown once and destroyed.
JM: What made you decide to take on The Three Musketeers? At first it must have seemed like just another one of those projects that people are always pushing on you that you wanted at all costs to avoid.
RL: Musketeers began with a telephone call. I was in Paris making an advertising film, and a man called Alex Salkind (regretfully I was ignorant of his career; I knew nothing about him) called and said he had a very important project that he wanted to discuss with me. I returned his call and said Well, yes, what kind of project? And he said, I’d be interested in you making The Three Musketeers for us. And I said (sigh) Oh, yes! and he said, Well, you don’t sound very enthusiastic, and I said, Well, I don’t know—I don’t know that it’s anything I could do very well, and he said, Have you read it? and I said, Well, of course, everybody’s read it. I think I’ve read it. I must have read it. And he said, Well, when did you last read it? And I mumbled something about “thirty years ago.” And he said, Well, may I send you a copy of the book, and when you’ve read it perhaps you will be kind enough to call me back? I will be at the Carleton Hotel in Cannes.
So, within the hour the 700-page version of Dumas was brought round to me, and that night I dutifully sat down to read and realized almost immediately that the only thing I’d ever read was a children’s abridged version, and after about 250 pages I didn’t bother to go any further. I picked up the phone, called the Carleton Hotel and said, Can I come down and see you tomorrow? Which I did. We talked for about an hour—Alex and his son Ilya and I—about what kind of film they wanted. I had certain disagreements with them. They proved immediately that they would be willing to listen to the kind of film I wanted to make, which in fact is the film that I eventually made. They spoke about casting it in an all-star way. I had no objection to that. They said, What kind of deal do you want? I said, What do you want to pay me? They mentioned a figure. I said, That’s fine, we’ll shake hands on that and don’t say another word about it. I did it without an agent. I didn’t try for a particularly good deal for myself. I don’t have a particularly good deal. It didn’t matter. Suddenly I felt that it was the kind of film that I could do well, and that interested me, and that looked like a film as well that was going to be made, because it had every reason to be made.
We then set about casting it because as you can imagine the cast was critically important. And one way or another, we made out a list of people who would be acceptable to us, and then saw whether those people would be acceptable to the distributors. Incidentally, those lists would prove fascinating reading to those who are interested in the cinema. The number of people who are now still bankable as stars in multi-star projects in small countries and the number of people whom I considered stars who were totally unacceptable [to the distributors] provided several weeks of absolute amazement to me. At any rate, we then having managed to secure most of the cast that we wanted, were forced to have two or three people that I personally didn’t want, although I would certainly never mention their names. But out of, let’s say, the thirteen most important stars, to get away with ten people that I wanted and submit to three, two of which I really didn’t care much about and third I thought … well, I can manage … I suppose that’s pretty fair going for this kind of film.
They then let me have the writer of my own choice, and since George Fraser who wrote the screenplay had never written a screenplay before, they showed, I think, admirable courage; and we set out to make a film, made it with no real interference from them whatsoever—in fact, a lot of encouragement to spend, in certain cases, more money than I would have thought necessary. They were always very kind and flattering about the material. As you probably know, I never watch dailies, rushes. I try never to see any of my own material while I’m shooting. And they came constantly, having seen the material, full of praise and encouragement, and made that part of the filmmaking extremely easy.
The film was run by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, both of whom are very young. They’re each 25 years old. And naturally they occasionally made decisions on a technical level which were not the best, but then again this happens even among the most experienced people. The main thing is that they, on their own, raised five million dollars without the help of any distributors, without having to sign away any distribution rights, without having any controls by distributors, without having to show material to anyone. They came up with the project, got it going, got it made, and I have nothing but total admiration for them, for their courage. I’m sure if something had gone wrong, had I not made the film in a practical manner, had the film not been successful, had the scriptwriter that I’d employed not worked, that they could have been financially bankrupt. I’m sure it’s not being unkind to them to say that would have been the end of their careers. I’m delighted that the film seems to be successful and that they will be able to go on from this making more films and using, in essence, that sense of courage in an industry which is consistently lacking in it.
JM: When did you know that Three Musketeers was going to be two films?
RL: We set out to do the entire book of Dumas, 700 pages. We wrote a screenplay which we knew would probably last about three-and-a-half hours. There was never any intention to shoot everything and then cut it down into a very short film. I think that’s a terribly wasteful way of making a film. I certainly have never done it before. I normally shoot the amount of material that I intend to have as a finished film. We did think of having a very long roadshow film running that length of time. We were always aware that films of that length do have a market for television [only] if they can be split into two parts and shown on successive nights, so from the beginning we had an interval [intermission] and the interval was clearly marked in the script, and the first part would have an ending to it which would be satisfying to an audience. But as the distributors became interested, they all were saying that they wanted not a hard-ticket price, but a small film that could be shown more times per day. So it ended up as two shorter films.
JM: What about the production? How much control did you have over that? Were there any battles with the stars, for instance?
RL: There was some trouble with one of the performers about the script, about costumes and makeup, but that was settled by a good old Salkind Russian-French-Mexican compromise before we started shooting. By and large, I was able to pick the key technicians by myself. In essence, I was very happy with the crew. They were the usual mixture of old friends from Spain and old friends from England. I think that it was a very, very difficult production to mount, as you can imagine. It was five months shooting. It was dubbed “Travels with My Aunt” by the Spanish crew because almost every day we got into our cars and drove two hours to all the various locations: Aranjuez, La Granja, Segovia, Toledo, Pedraza…. I can only say that the art director’s car clocked 85,000 kilometers during the process of setting up and shooting the film, and the rest of us were not very far behind him. I remember one day leaving our hotel to try to shoot the scene of Buckingham’s hunt (which is supposed to take place in England) and, having got up at a normal film time of about six o’clock, we traveled north for four-and-a-half hours, by which time everyone was in a state of exhaustion, and the crew said to the art director, “This bloody well better look like England when we get there” and someone else said,’ “Well, it must be England. Certainly we’ve travelled that far already!” It was that kind of production.
It was an agony of travel, of difficulty with the logistics of filmmaking. The scene at the end of the first film, the investiture scene, was shot four different times in four different months because Heston was available only in May, Raquel [Welch] didn’t arrive until September, the Musketeers were finished early in September, Jean-Pierre [Cassel] was not free for the day that they were there so we had to do him in August…. All this doesn’t add to a location of sheer joy, of great pleasure. But knowing that, I think it went off remarkably well.
JM: What are your feelings about the film now? Can you tell whether you like it or not?
RL: I think it’s far too early for me to be able to answer that sensibly. It normally takes about five years before I can even begin to understand the kind of film that I’ve made, or whether I’m fond of it or not. The pain stays at least that long, and the anguish of getting the schedule done and getting the technicalities right. One of the things I liked about it, certainly, was the opportunity to do research, and I hope that some of the qualities of the period—the objets, the sense of values that were uncovered in that research—come through in the film. What I like least about it, I suppose, is the manner in which it is being released. This is the source of the biggest concern to me, because it is almost impossible to make a film work totally both as half a film and as a film of three-and-a-half hours. And I certainly have some structural worries about the picture. I have some casting worries. I think that the use of the locations, the sets, the costumes, the makeup, the photography are all pretty much the way I hoped they would be, and I’m very grateful to the people who worked in those departments. I think they’ve all done an absolutely stunning job. (Pause) … I don’t know … I can’t … It will take a long time for me to understand really what kind of film it is. I think it was the right film for me to come back with after a layoff. At least I’m over the hurdle of seeing whether one can come back for round two! But I think it’s really for people like you to say where The Three Musketeers should be in the course of my filmmaking. I’m keeping quiet for a couple of years on that.
JM: The Three Musketeers has been filmed before, at least eight or ten times. Did any of the previous versions influence you?
RL: I set out to study what had been done so far. I saw the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. version, which I found to be marvelous, and certainly if one was tempted to say “Well, I really shouldn’t go on, it’s been done too well before,” it was only in the case of the Fairbanks version. I thought his ability to portray naïveté, enthusiasm, romanticism at his age was quite staggering, and the charm that was in every frame of that film I found really quite stunning. I then carried on my education by looking at the Don Ameche–Ritz Brothers one, which I found quite appalling; didn’t like anything about it and felt, Well, now’s a good time to stop. I’ve never seen the Gene Kelly version. I did manage to see a book of that film, with all the stills from it, and I found that absolutely fascinating, especially Lana Turner and June Allyson—the costumes! They were a source of some merriment to us all, but then I suppose with our costumes by then we’d become a bit arrogant.
JM: Now about Four Musketeers, the second film—how would you compare it to the first?
RL: Well, it’s all part of the same fabric, of course. We did all the work for both parts at the same time. As to whether it’s a better film … We used only one third of the book in the first film, Three Musketeers. Four Musketeers is the Siege of La Rochelle and Milady’s Revenge. It’s a far more serious, far heavier piece, I think. It still has its jokes, the same characters, but I think so much is taken up with Oliver Reed’s and Faye Dunaway’s contribution that by definition it’s a little bit more serious and a little bit thicker. Suddenly there is a sense in the film of people having a past, something we never attempted in the first film. People who have seen it in its early stages prefer it, but think it quite different, and I think that’s what I set out to do—because even if there had been only one film we didn’t want to keep the same quality, the same texture. We needed it to change and develop and I thought that making the second half a little bit more serious, more dramatic, was the way to go. It certainly has some spectacular fights! We have a big fight on a frozen lake which I think is quite successful, and a fight at the end where Rochefort is finally killed in a cathedral, which comes off fairly well, I think. I think the films make good companion pieces. They’re by no means identical in style or spirit.
JM: Now here’s one of your standard interview questions. I think I’ll make it a little more palatable by leaving it open-ended: What was it like working with ? Fill in the blank.
RL: I think rather than answer it in the normal way, let me say that the interesting thing about making a film like Musketeers is that it enables you at the same time to work with people as wildly different as Charlton Heston (the consummate professional, who learned early on to hit his marks, know his lines, and be on time, and was able to do those three things well on horseback!) and someone like Spike Milligan (who is, if you like, the Douanier Rousseau of straight acting!) to someone like Raquel, to Oliver, to Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain (sort of middle-grade professionals who can do anything and do it really rather well) to Michael York (one of the nicest people in the world, with enormous enthusiasm and a great sense of well-being, and the chance of operating so that the sense of well-being showed up on the screen).
The only thing that was a bit unusual about this film is that because of having so many people, so many different types of acting, it was occasionally a study in how to get on with people, and when you had five of them all working in different ways in the same scene it proved, well, challenging. Fortunately, I think, every actor felt that he had something to do which was worth doing. I think that normally where the bad feeling begins in this sort of film is that a major artist feels that he ‘s being ill-used or under-used and then gets resentful of some of the other actors. But with this one, everybody had enough to do, and enjoyed the work he was being asked to do and the freedom to play about with it a bit.
JM: You mention Milligan, and there’s Roy Kinnear; they’ve both done brilliant work with you before. But I was rather disappointed by the absence of Michael Hordern, who’s also worked with you several times and who—we agree, I think—is nothing less than a genius.
RL: Michael Hordern was out for The Musketeers basically because he was working in the National Theatre and there was no way that one could commute from the wilds of Spain to be back in the theater by seven o’clock in the evening. I think he was still playing in Jumpers, the Tom Stoppard play, in which he was in fact brilliant. When I took over the Juggernaut project the first thing I did was to send the script to him and say There’s only these parts left but you’re welcome to any of them. Although there was nothing he could really get his teeth into, he came down for a day and was one of the people in it.
I do manage to keep Roy Kinnear up my sleeve (if that’s possible—you need a fairly big sleeve). He took over a nice part in Juggernaut, in which he’s really quite amazing, and I certainly enjoyed working with him on the Musketeers films—although the problems that we faced with Roy becoming an expert rider were something I’d like not to have to repeat again. The scene in which Roy rides smack into a tree, does a somersault and hits the ground was pure accident. But he survived.
The film had more than its share of casualties. Naturally, when you’re using live swords you expect trouble. Actors get tired and then they get cut up, sometimes rather nastily. Michael York, who has … I think the kindest way to put it would be “an extraordinary nose” … often seemed to be leading with it, and the results were two or three rather bad cuts. Oliver Reed took a sword through the wrist—in one side, out the other—and was in hospital for several days. And then there were problems with the horses. We needed a very large horse for D’Artagnan and couldn’t find one in Spain, only in the North of England. After a long journey the horse arrived and had, shall we say, excuse the expression, his first taste of Spanish flies. He was wild, and every time Michael got on him he was thrown, and this from a great height. This all builds tension. You feel the actors getting tired, you don’t know whether or not you’ve shot enough material and you wonder whether to try again, whether you’re taking an undue risk or whether to say It’s only a bloody film and call it off, not take the gamble.
JM: What keeps you going in circumstances like that?
RL: It’s very simple, really. As soon as shooting begins, there’s a kind of blind hysteria that takes over, from which you aren’t free until the very end. It’s agony, really. People don’t seem to realize how much hard, grueling, physical labor is involved in the shooting of a film, to say nothing of the mental anguish. Only after you’ve finished do you realize that you’ve had really quite a good time, and you begin to look back on the experience with a sense of nostalgia, almost as if it were your childhood. But during the shooting, especially on a film like this one, the main sense is only the pressure, every morning, of 150 pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting for you to produce! If you get by that, filmmaking is marvelous fun. You have some of the nicest toys for adults outside of a nuclear laboratory, and you don’t have to have much special intelligence to play with them. And of course you meet a lot of people with wonderfully adaptable imaginations, a sense of fantasy, and that certainly is worthwhile. I suppose I still have a kind of childish wonder at it all….
JM: Maybe this would be a good time to ask you some questions about your technical style. For instance, you’ve always worked with three cameras instead of the more common single camera….
RL: Yes, it’s always seemed much more sensible, more normal to me to work with three cameras. As long as you don’t put them in awkward places, as long as it’s possible to light the scene adequately for more than one camera, you gain tremendously. The conventional way of shooting a scene, as you know, is to first shoot a master, then closeups, first one character, then the other. The actors are forced to try to produce the same reactions, the same emotions, at least three times, which I think is often counterproductive. And then, you may be shooting a closeup and you miss that rare happening—the leading lady breaks her leg during shooting, for example—and that’s just what you always hoped would happen. With three cameras, you’re covered!
JM: This method also allows you to work exceedingly rapidly. Both Musketeers films, for instance, were less than ten months from inception to finished prints, which is enormously quick.
RL: Yes. In addition to shooting quickly, however, what helped here was that we were editing the film as we went along, actually doing two jobs at once, and this saved many months. Then too, I have a habit, as I’ve said, of not shooting more footage than I think is absolutely necessary, and this helps.
JM: During that long period when you weren’t making films I was always … stupefied at the producers’ stupidity for not hiring you. It wasn’t just that you had made very fine films. I didn’t really expect producers to put much stock in that. What did amaze me was that you still had the reputation of bringing films in under budget and under schedule, which is almost unheard of on the contemporary film scene. (Subsequently you shot Juggernaut—a big-budget adventure with a cast of thousands—in two months.) And then those films—most of them—made millions of dollars. I really couldn’t understand how a filmmaker with such a reputation for being economical, efficient, and effective could be out of work so long. Your Beatles films, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Knack made very substantial profits for United Artists in the middle Sixties, and you made all four of them within the space of a few years. But the three films I consider your best (and a lot of other people do too) are the last three films you made in the Sixties, before the drought: How I Won the War, Petulia and The Bed-Sitting Room. Petulia has developed quite a reputation, and more and more people are beginning to admit that it’s probably the best film about America made during the Sixties; but the other two have never been widely seen. How would you compare these films—which were never really popular—with The Musketeers?
RL: Well, I don’t think I will be disappointed if they are successful in comparison with the other three films you’ve mentioned! I was very concerned with those three that they didn’t reach an audience. I was proud of those three, as you well know; and films, I think, are successful or are failures based mainly on the number of people who see them, because that’s what films are made for. I think that I can only be grateful if a lot of people see the Musketeers films because if they’re successful then it enables me to make more films, to get going and get on and make up for the five years I spent not making films. I can only wish that the film has every possible success in the way that I wish everyone’s films to have every possible success, because the more films that are successful, no matter who makes them, the more people will invest in films and the more people will consider going to the cinema a worthwhile and enjoyable pastime.
As to the new films being different from those earlier three, in essence that is what I was mumbling about before, that I do think that at these times we have a responsibility to try to re-induce and re-excite the sense of cinema in audiences, and that is one of the main reasons I chose to make Musketeers. It is something that I felt I could do fairly well which would appeal to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. It doesn’t mean that having done that, as it were, that I’ve paid the dues, that I feel I should go back to making very specialized films. I think that at this time it’s up to all of us to try to find a subject, a vehicle, which can sufficiently entertain a large section of the populace and still be for some of us. of some value; and to that extent, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s the only way that I would say that Musketeers were a step forward from any of my other films, that perhaps their appeal is slightly more universal, and that can’t be a bad thing.
JM: Yes, but do you want to make films like, say, Petulia again? Would you consider, for example, some sort of package deal with a producer—a Help! combined with a Bed-Sitting Room?
RL: Well, again, I think I’m certainly pleased that I made those three films. I don’t think it’s very sensible to try to deal in packaging, let’s say, a commercial film with an uncommercial film. I think you must approach each film with the thought that it is a subject that is worth telling to everyone, and maybe in my own deluded way I never imagined that Petulia would appeal to that small an audience. When approaching a film, I find myself so wrapped up in the subject, so dedicated to it, and so convinced of the purpose of making it (naturally if you didn’t feel that way it would just be sheer, exhaustive work, like being down in the mines) that I approach every film with the feeling Yes, this is going to be a work a lot of people are going to be interested in and it’s going to serve a useful purpose. And I think that to quite callously formulate a package is a very dangerous process.
I would like to feel that all that The Musketeers will do is to enable me to become financeable for whatever period of time. But I don’t think I will say Well, I’m going to use that money willfully to make a film only for a minority audience. That is as dangerous a process as somebody saying Now I’m going to set out to make a film purely for mass entertainment. I think both concepts are wrong. You just make films because you feel that they’re worth making. You hope a lot of people see them, but you can’t set your sights on your audience. Films are not made for audiences any more than they’re made for directors. (Pause) In any case, I was deluged, of course, with swashbuckling pictures; I was offered two other Dumas projects, and a picture of the 1770s in America, 1800 in England. It’s … it was inevitable. But again, I hope I will be able to play each ball on its own merits.
JM: What do you think about various methods of distribution and production? For me, the structures of distribution and exhibition seem to be crucial, even though they’re not very exciting. French and Italian filmmakers, for example, don’t seem to have as many problems as English and Americans do.
RL: Yes, the whole French and Italian system of production is that most of the good films are financed by one single producer, financed independently and then sold to a distributor, as opposed to the reverse being normally the case in England and America, where the distributor finances them first and has the contract over them. I think that the French and Italian system is infinitely preferable, in that it allows the Truffauts and Godards to function with only a moderate degree of success. That is, they don’t have to make blockbusters every time. I think that having a producer say Yes, I will give you money to make this, or No I will not give you any more money because you didn’t make money with your last film—I don’t think this makes for very good films, or even for more popular films. So everyone loses, really.
JM: Let’s get back to the Musketeers. Peter Bogdanovich, who is no slouch at making popular films himself, was very intrigued with Three Musketeers and even discovered some politics in it (which his own films notably lack).
RL: Well, I think certainly the political undertones are there. One of the things that did fascinate me was the general level of literacy in the period, something I didn’t really consider until I started researching carefully. The sense of terror, the sense of righteousness, the sense of availability of knowledge, as it were, the concept that someone who is well-educated would know everything there is to know about every subject—if you were a 17th-century man—is something that has always interested me. And the fact that 90 percent of the people around this educated man would be totally unaware of any of the things he knew. I tried to get a little of that into the film, but again one of the problems with a plot as clearcut as the one Dumas provides is that you can only put those details in the background, because it is vital that in an adventure film the sense of adventure is foremost. All my feelings about politics and religion could only be sketched in in the background.
JM: The backgrounds of your films are usually fascinating, full of all sorts of details and ironies that aren’t apparent sometimes until you’ve seen the film several times. The Musketeers films are also rich with detail, but as you point out, you were somewhat limited in this respect this time around because of the nature of the film.
RL: The man who did the sets is Brian Eatwell. It’s the first film I’ve worked with him, although I’ve known him for many, many years and he’s done some advertising films with me. It’s an absolutely perfect film for design. I showed everyone a lot of Delatour’s paintings and said Let’s start from here in terms of light quality. We’ll think in terms of using fast lenses so that we’ll be able to illuminate a set purely with candles. There were various conceits that we worked on, one of which takes place in Part Two where Milady’s house is a kind of nouveau-riche establishment filled with trompe-l’oeil based on Botticelli’s “Spring” but with overtones of a 17th-century Magritte, which I think might be entertaining. When we went into costume research the primary concern was that everything was correct and the only way to achieve that was to start from the bottom up and make sure that the wooden stomacher, the bum roll, all these amazing corsets and bits of female accoutrements were correct! And starting from them, you begin to get things right.
Yvonne Blake, the costume designer, was an absolute marvel; she’s always been a great costume designer and really marvelous person, but she also had the experience of having worked at our costumier for many years, actually sewing and making dresses, and she has enormous technical knowledge of how a dress was made at that time, and how the material was cut and so on and so forth, so that in essence one just called upon the amazing resources there were available to us. The patrimonia in Spain were eventually really quite cooperative, letting us use some of the palaces—one of which, fortunately, had very recently been reconditioned on the outside so that it looked like a new 17th-century palace, as opposed to a 17th-century palace that you normally see, which has 300 years of filth stuck on it.
But as I say, the only thing I can comment on is that David Watkin [the cinematographer], Brian Eatwell, and Yvonne Blake were marvelously creative, kind, gentle people who did a smashing job. I think we’ve caught the period pretty well. You get some awareness that, for instance, this was a time when aristocrats kept three or four houses because they were filled up so quickly with their own excretions that they had to move and bring in the cleaners to clean the place out. That there were no toilets, and those marvelous tapestries one sees in all the museums were really used to hide behind when one relieved oneself. That the ladies’ dresses were never really cleaned, just picked over and then beaten and resewn if necessary. It was a very dirty century.
JM: Would there have been more of these touches if you had had more time? You started working on the film in early ’73 and you were finished shooting in the early fall, which is an absurdly short time. (Stanley Kubrick would have taken five years for a project like this.)
RL: As I explained before, in an adventure film it is vitally important that the audience knows absolutely what’s happening in terms of plot, even if the plot’s an old chestnut; their eyes have to be glued to the center—more, in a way, than in a film like Petulia where detail is all. The only thing that rushed me really was the sense of the structure, I don’t think that detail would be better achieved by shooting a two-hour film in sixteen weeks as opposed to eight. I’m glad that the amount of detail is in, and is being noticed, but I think I put in the right amount, so that it didn’t swamp the principal action. In all, it was quite a complete script. I was able in the preparation, in the research to put enough bits of detail in the script so that it gives an insight into some of the things that interested me in the period: the sense of literacy, lack of literacy, economic inequality, so on. So that the script itself was a fairly good key to what the film should achieve, and therefore the actors understood the context of what they were being asked to do, and without much prompting were able to do it, to make a fairly full contribution.
JM: It’s relatively easy to have a good bit of control over the background of a film, the design, the technical details, the structure; but the foreground—the actors, the characters—that’s another matter entirely. Aside from the fact that you had to deal with one actress who wanted her boyfriend to do her costumes and wanted her own makeup and so on, how do you “handle” actors so that they fit with the rest of the elements of the film which are more strictly under your control?
RL: Well, this is the kind of question one usually gets in interviews, and the truth is you don’t “handle” actors at all, you don’t do anything specific or calculated. I’m sure that working with, say, Raquel Welch is a totally different experience than working with Ringo Starr, but the approach is similar. There must be an understood mutual trust, a sense that neither the actor nor the director is working from selfish motives. Once that truth exists, the relationship between actor and director is … well, it’s just as with any relationship: you just try to get on with people. I never try to show an actor exactly what I want; I can’t—I’m not an actor. It’s better for me to say Let’s see what you have here and let me add a little here, take away some bits there, either because they don’t look like they mesh with the character or maybe the performances of the other actors. I just organize the performances, pushing a little, pulling a little. I think it would be foolish to make specific demands on an actor; that just limits what they’ll give.
JM: It’s ironic and certainly unintentional on your part, but the Musketeers films fit very well into a new pattern of filmmaking that has developed over the last few years in the U.S.: the film based on male friendship, the Sting–Slither–Scarecrow syndrome. For the most part, women’s roles in American films have been perfunctory—the dumb, sexy ornaments—ever since the rise of Marilyn Monroe twenty-five years ago; but only recently has that close-bonded male pair come to the fore so clearly. Most of our new male stars have made at least part of their reputations in films like this, going back at least to Voight and Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and including Redford and Newman, Pacino, Caan, Hackman and a lot of others. It’s just accidental, as I said, but Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers double and redouble that bonded male pair.
RL: I don’t think I put in any more of that feeling of male camaraderie than already existed in Dumas. We have to trace that idea back at least that far, I guess. He was somebody who got to it first. It’s so apparent in Dumas that of course it was important to the film. It’s vital for any version of The Musketeers to get the feeling that there is something that holds these people together, so that they can be very rude to each other and also therefore that we can look at them with a slightly more jaundiced eye than before. But I think it is important for the audience to feel that Athos is a self-pitying old drunk and to accept that and still take him as one of the heroes; the sense of camaraderie makes that possible. As for women in American films being dumb, I tried to pattern Raquel Welch’s .part on the heroine of Buster Keaton’s The General, which goes back some. I don’t think “dumb” is quite the right word, maybe “enthusiastically ignorant”; I wrote Raquel’s part with that girl very much in mind.
JM: You made Juggernaut in record time….
RL: Yes, we did the principal photography in two-and-a-half wintry weeks on a ship called the Maxim Gorki where we took over this extraordinary sailing vessel, 660 feet feet long, 60 feet high, 25,000 tons, and went sailing all across the North Atlantic looking for bad weather. We found only two days’ bad weather out of sixteen, but we had our own cast, crew and extras all on board. We were served by lovely ladies from Odessa—endless supplies of vodka, seven-course meals—and we made the poor captain’s eyes water as we asked him to do things with his ship which I’m sure are against every code of ethics on the sea. We filmed Hercules bombers dropping parachutes on it and helicopters went round it and explosions took place and lifeboats were dropped, and we tried to produce artificially dangerous weather conditions. It was a chance to examine a few attitudes and beliefs. I took it over less than two weeks before the film was to start shooting. It was a fairly big-budget film—over three million dollars. The shooting schedule was about nine or ten weeks. I think it was going to be longer until they found out I was on it, and then suddenly a couple of weeks magically disappeared. We shot on the ship for two weeks and managed to achieve everything we set out to do. The rest of it was a matter of reconstructions of various details, like blowing holes in the side of the ship, or London locations where the man who placed the bombs is being traced.
JM: I’ve always figured that of all those lost projects of that five-year period, the one you probably regretted most was the film of George Macdonald Fraser’s book Flashman. It seemed to me I saw a few similarities in the Musketeers project.
RL: Yes, of course. By using George Fraser for the screenplay there is a good deal of similarity. Really, D’Artagnan could conceivably be a spiritual godfather to Flashman. Flashman itself is owned by another producer. They keep mentioning they’re going to make it. It’s something that is out of my control. I’ve toyed with the idea of Royal Flash, the second book, but in essence one feels I’ve probably already “made” Flashman, having done all the preparation, and that I’m not sure that now’s the time for me to go back to it….
* Raquel Welch brought her own costume designer.
James Monaco is an almost obscenely prolific writer-about-film based in New York City. His articles and reviews appear regularly in Take One, Sight and Sound and other periodicals, and he has a book coming out very soon on the French New Wave. His interview-article on Mordecai Richler was published in MOVIETONE NEWS 38.
© 1976 James Monaco