Sir Sydney Samuelson and Real Picture Quality
A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson. Recorded in London, Monday 17 October 2011 + 28 January 2012
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|Interviewed by: Thomas Hauerslev. Transcribed for in70mm.com by Brian Guckian. Proofread by Sir Sydney Samuelson and Mark Lyndon for accuracy. Images by Thomas Hauerslev, unless otherwise noted||Date: 26.08.2013|
|Sir Sydney Samuelson in his garden. Click the image to see enlargement.|
TH: We’re sitting in Sydney Samuelson’s living room...it’s Monday October 17 2011, around 3.30pm, and here we go –
So Sydney, tell me about how you entered the industry – was your interest originally to work with movies and cinema?
Sir Sydney: Well my interest actually came from my father, who was an eminent producer, if I may say so, in the British silent film industry. He was born in Southport, Lancashire from immigrant parents – his father came from what was then called Prussia and his mother came from Poland.
And he set up virtually at the beginning of cinema in the UK – a rinky-dink cinema in a church hall in Southport. He must have borrowed a hand cranked projector from someone – he used to show a programme of films.
Whether it was the first cinema in Southport, I don’t know, but in those days, you obtained – if you were showing films for money – entertainment films. You bought yourself a complete programme and then, when there was nobody left who had not seen your programme – if you lived in Southport, as my father did, you sold that programme to an even smaller cinema somewhere in your area and bought a new programme, and then showed that.
And in fact, legend has it in our family that my grandmother, who was, as I said, this immigrant lady with very little English, it was she who said, “Why don’t you change things; instead of people having to buy a programme and then sell it when nobody around wants to see it anymore, wouldn’t it be better if they could rent a programme, say for a week, and for much less than it would cost to buy it outright? Then, every week, the cinema owner could put a new programme of films on and the customers would want to be coming and seeing films on a weekly basis”.
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The First To Rent Out Film
|Sir Sydney's parents, photographed in November 1946. Marjorie Vint (1901–1989) and George Berthold "Bertie" Samuelson (1889-1947). Private image|
And I think the records have it that the first person to rent out films in Britain was my father, who was known as Bertie, short for Berthold – GB Samuelson was his professional name.
Now I mention all this because I was always in an environment of cinema. My parents always talked about cinema; my mother worked as an actress in films – she had a professional name, even.
One of the few films of my father’s of which we have a complete copy is a drama called “She”, written by Rider Haggard, quite a famous English author. And for my father it was one of his last silent films. Made in Berlin, it was a German-British co-production, and I think the deal was probably that my father’s company provided the script, the actors, the crew, all the technicians – and the German partner supplied the studio, which was an old – sometimes we’re told it was an old tram garage, other times that it was where Zeppelins were built – but it was certainly in Berlin. The German partner probably supplied the craft grade people of the production crew. It was 1925. I know that, because we’ve got a production still of the whole crew and all the actors and actresses and, in the corner, are my mother and my father, the producer.
I like to say that as it was in the middle of 1925 when that photo was taken, and as I was born in December 1925, I reckon I’m somewhere in that picture as well!
• George Berthold "Bertie" Samuelson (1889 - 1947) (PDF)
• Samuelson Film Service (reunion)
• The Argus
• British Film Industry Salute
• 'Strictly Sydney'
• Clapper Board Part 1
• Clapper Board Part 2
• St. Mary's 1963
|So that’s why I know the dates, but by the time I was old enough to leave school, which was in 1939 – when I became 14 – my father had lost everything in his business life.|
The first disaster for my father was when, virtually overnight, talking pictures came in, and whatever capital my father possessed was in the form of some of the pictures he’d made, which became somewhat obsolete overnight. First there were only silent movies, and then "The Jazz Singer" came from Hollywood, complete with sound. After this, who wanted to see silent pictures anymore? And if your capital was tied up in a string of silent pictures, suddenly – your capital, whatever it was – was no longer there. That was the first time my father had a major financial disaster I think.
Anyway, by the time I was fourteen, at the end of 1939, my elder brother had already left school, and I was ready to leave. I think a lot about 14-year olds today, like my grandchildren aged 14 – I consider them still to be children!
Hard Times for my Father
|The four Samuelson Brothers. L to R – Sydney, David, Tony, Michael. Private picture. |
The fact that I was working in the local cinema when I was just 14 is, in today’s terms, an amazement to me. But at the time, my parents had no money. My mother ran a little shop and we all somehow survived out of it, but with difficulty. We just about managed with my father unable to get work of any kind. I explain the situation in that it would be like if, say, Richard Attenborough came on hard times and needed a job. Nobody would give him an ordinary job – how would you be able to say to Dickie Attenborough, “I could give you a job as a clerk in my distribution office”...you couldn’t do that. My father had had such senior positions, and was so respected (and had made over a hundred feature films) it was not that he was simply unemployed; he was unemployable! Nobody would give him a job. My father, if he could have managed to get a job earning – and I’m talking about the late ´30s – five pounds a week – he would have been so pleased to have five pounds a week coming in. As it was, my mother ran this shop six days a week, came home – her day off was Sunday, when she did all the laundry for the family of six because we were four brothers. And she did all the cleaning of the house on that one day. And my father used to look at her down on her knees scrubbing the floor in the kitchen. And there he was, once a great figure in our industry, unable to provide for his wife and children. And seeing his wife, his darling wife, on her knees scrubbing the floor. It was a very hard time for my father.
So there was no question, as soon as my older brother, David, who’s 17 months older than I am – as soon as he was 14 he got a job. And as soon as I was 14, I too got a job. And I was lucky, because while I was still at school, in the latter part of 1939, they were building a new cinema in our little town which was called Lancing, on the South Coast of England – near Brighton, Sussex, if you know anywhere around there. I called in when they were still building, and managed to see, not the Manager, but the Managing Director, sort of the owner of this new cinema, called the Luxor, Lancing. And I said, “I just wondered, Sir, if you will be needing a boy in your projection box because I’ll be leaving school once I’m 14”. And he said, “When will you be 14?” And I said, “On December the 7th”. And he said, “Well we haven’t taken anybody on yet, it’s a bit too early. We’re not going to be opening until the end of the year – late December – we hope to open in time for Christmas. But I will speak to the Chief Projectionist, who is coming to us from the Plaza, Worthing”.
The Plaza, Worthing, was about 3 miles away – part of a big circuit called ABC and it was their flagship cinema in Worthing, probably 15-, 16-, 1700 seats – a newish cinema, built in the mid-1930s. And the Chief had been attracted to come to be the Chief at the brand new, but smaller, cinema in Lancing – I think we were a thousand seats.
Anyway, sure enough, I got that job, Rewind Boy at the Luxor Lancing.
That answers your question – I’m afraid a bit of a long rigmarole!
Cinema was always in my Family
|Sir Sydney in 1939, age 13. Private image|
But Cinema was always in my family, in my mind. My parents always talked about films, although we actually hardly ever went to the cinema from when I was about 7 or 8, simply because my parents couldn’t afford it. They never went to the cinema, I never went to the cinema, my three brothers didn’t go to the cinema – we didn’t have the money. We were not an unhappy family; we were lucky, we were a close, loving family – but we’d no money.
Anyway, perhaps I could just tell you a story – when "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" appeared – I think it was 1937 – it came to the other big cinema – the Odeon in Worthing, because Odeon released all the Disney product – and although there was a little Odeon cinema already in Lancing, my mother must have said to herself, “I’m not going to have my four being the only children in the school who have not seen "Snow White"”. Because when it came out, the first full-length cartoon, ever – and a very good movie as well – everybody wanted to see it.
And so one Wednesday – because the shop by law had to close on one half day a week; it was called “early closing day” – it was the law to give the staff half a day off a week, because they worked on Saturdays; if they worked in a shop they had to work on Saturdays, so Wednesday afternoon and all day Sunday were their time off – so my mother, instead of doing household chores, or whatever it was, one Wednesday afternoon – early closing day in Shoreham-by-Sea, which is where my mother’s little shop was – she actually took us on the bus to Worthing to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
And I remember every word of the following conversation – she went up to the box office and said to the girl, “One and four halves” (this was at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon – we call it the Matinée performance) and the girl in the box office said, “No half price for "Snow White"!” And do you know, Thomas, that made the difference between us going to see "Snow White" and not going to see "Snow White"! The best my mother could do – and I still think about it, the humiliation: how could that poor woman have felt – we were virtually in the cinema – to say, “No, we were not going, let’s see what is on at The Plaza”.
And so we went, and because the disappointment was so momentous, I remember every item of the Plaza show. We went to see Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery in "Stand Up and Fight". The second feature, the “B” film, had a young comedy actress called Jane Withers and that was called (I think) "Always in Trouble". And we saw the Pathé News, also a black-and-white cartoon, and the trailer for the film “coming next week”. And the man came up on the Wurlitzer organ and played “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”, because Worthing was a famous seaside resort and that was his signature tune.
So if nothing else, Thomas, it’s an example of how impoverished we were.
|Sir Sydney in the British air force. Private image|
Many years later, when Bob Gottschalk, the President of Panavision said, “While you’re over here Sydney, I want us to go to the Disney Studio; they are always asking me to have lunch”, and I thought, “I don’t like having lunch with them because they never use our lenses and cameras. They never use our gear because they’ve got all their own old stuff, and Disney doesn’t particularly like me, they never give us any business at all, and they’ve got all this out-of-date equipment which they insist on using”. I’m sure you know, Disney have their own studio at Burbank. So we went and had lunch there. Bob used to take me as – I know this will sound awful – as his kind of gentlemanly English friend...so unlike the rough and tough Hollywood people! [Laughs]
I think that was why he used to like me go with him, and he would introduce me as the Panavision representative in Europe, and so on.
Now we’re jumping on a little bit – but years and years after that, when I was the British Film Commissioner, I used to go regularly to Los Angeles because that was my job – to say to people like Spielberg, “I know you’re investigating and doing reconnaissances for a new picture...I believe it’s called "Saving Private Ryan"...and I know that you’re going to be looking for a location in Europe to reproduce the D-Day landings, and we’ve got the beaches that you can use for Normandy and we’ve got all the equipment you could ever want by way of cameras and everything else, and we’ve got the best technicians certainly in Europe, arguably in the world”.
And that was really the job of British Film Commissioner – to promote the British film production sector. I met all the top production people from all the studios. I was sitting privately with the then Chief Exec at Disney, who happened to be an Anglophile (when I was later invited to have dinner in his home he had a flagpole outside, flying the Union Jack, he was that much of an Anglophile), and I was able to tell him about "Snow White" in Worthing all those years earlier. And I always remember because he said, “No half price for "Snow White"...My God!” It was for children, that film, but not for me, my mum and my brothers.
I was trying to tell you how my interests came in cinema in the first place – now if I could just go back to my earliest days, at the Luxor Lancing. I did get the job, round about September 1939, when I was still at school, with about three more months to go until my 14th birthday. The British Parliament changed the law and they said, “14 is too young; children should be at school until they are 15”. And it was changed; as from January 1940, the school minimum school-leaving age would hence be 15. I was absolutely devastated! Because I wanted to leave school, not only because it would be more enjoyable - “It must be more lovely to be working in a cinema than to be sitting at school!” was how I thought, aged 13. But what happened was the War started in September (1939). And so they didn’t change the school leaving law – they left it at minimum age 14 because so many young fellows were being called up into the Army, Airforce, Navy and everything. I hate to say it, but it was probably the only good deed Hitler ever did! Certainly for me, because he enabled me to leave school when I was 14 instead of having to – as I probably thought – “waste another year”.
The Rewind Boy
|So I went to the Luxor Lancing because the Managing Director had interviewed me a few months earlier. But I remember well a problem I had – a kind of a problem – it was that the Chief Projectionist resented the fact that he wasn’t the one who’d interviewed this boy and given him a job. He felt – and I now sort of understand it – he felt that to select and hire the Rewind Boy was the job of the Chief Projectionist and not of the Managing Director. So to him that didn’t make me, as we say, the flavour of the month. I had some difficult times. And the way I describe it is that I felt that my boss – Frank Chipperfield his name was, with an impeccable reputation as a Chief Projectionist; he’d had the top job in the area, at The Plaza Worthing – I felt that, in later years, when I’d been much involved in the training of young people coming into our industry, I felt that Frank Chipperfield seemed to believe that if he didn’t make the boy cry at least once a week he was failing in his training schedule! Not only that, for the first weeks – not days – weeks – I never touched a frame of film, let alone rewind a reel of it. I only did cleaning and polishing, making the tea, running errands, going and getting cigarettes for the other projectionists. Eventually I was scheduled to actually begin training as a rewind boy.|
Now there are many who will say, “Well isn’t it just – doing that, rewinding film from one spool to another?” But there was more to it than that, with this Chief. First of all, you had to do exactly that of course, but you had to run the film through thumb and first finger to identify any old joins that were coming undone, or any tears, or anything rough. You didn’t just rewind from one spool to the other. And you had to get used to holding one edge of the film, just one edge, against the inside of the spool flange, so that, on the other side, you could run your fingers down the reel to ensure it was absolutely flat, that there was no ridging, no risk one piece of film was sticking out halfway down the reel which could get bent over and tear at the sprocket holes. I was given a practice reel of film and it wasn’t until I could rewind it and deliver it for the Chief to inspect it that I was allowed to actually rewind.
The films came in ten-minute reels (900 – 1000 feet), and we always joined them together in pairs. A spool for a projector was 2000ft; two ten-minute rolls joined together. You cut off the leader of Part Two and the end of Part One and joined them together. And a cement overlap join was made (as there were no plastic joiners in those days). So it was a very unhappy time for this lad, but I learned my standards as a projectionist from that man because he didn’t allow any mistakes. We used to show six feature films a week, because there were three different programmes. Each programme had a first and a second feature – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday was one programme, Thursday, Friday, Saturday was another programme. On Sundays it was old films, usually very old copies as well. But they were like – what would you call them – nostalgic archive films, mostly not that old, but they would be films perhaps that people had enjoyed seeing years ago – such were the Sunday presentations at the Luxor.
Anyway, my life was a bit of a misery. I remember one of my weekly jobs was to clean the floor in the battery room, a separate room with huge lead acid batteries for the emergency cinema lighting circuits. Next door were the two rectifiers for the projectors. They were all there, floors to be kept clean by me. There were also fumes wafting around, I suppose off those big batteries. I used to hide in there when I needed to have a cry! [Laughs] I would pull myself together and go back and get on with whatever I had to do. But that man Chipperfield, he taught me so much. I think for every new programme he used to sit in the back of the Circle with a notepad and note the sound levels on all the reel changeovers. Sometimes, in the film laboratory, the density of a new print would vary from reel to reel. The lab outputs were not necessarily consistent. I don’t think it was a problem with variable area sound, but it affected variable density tracks. And so Chief used to list if there was a change in sound level when they went say, from reels 1 and 2 to 3 and 4. He would make a note of that and would produce a cue sheet for every film that was shown. It would have from the end of Part 6 to the beginning of 7, “Up 2 points on the fader of the incoming machine”. He was that meticulous, and of course if he was sitting there, and there was a changeover and the incoming arc had not been accurately trimmed so the overall colour of the light varied – it was mostly black-and-white films so you’d notice whether it was a bit blue or a bit yellow; it would be a bit yellow if the carbon arcs were not trimmed properly – the Chief would go crazy and want to know how did it happen? He was a hard taskmaster. I think he came to feel that I wasn’t such a bad kid after all, and that was probably because I was an enthusiast – I was fascinated by the movies and the machines which showed them.
Sir Sydney with a camera. Private image.
The law in those days was that if you were age 14 and working, you couldn’t work after 9 o’clock at night – you had to leave by 9 o’clock. So at 9, even though the main Feature would have just about started – the third and last running of the day – I would be dismissed. After I had delivered the first two parts of the main feature, and it would have been laced up, ready to go, usually around about 9 o’clock, I said farewell. But I would go and sit in the cinema and watch the main film every night. So I saw, probably, three main features and sometimes three “B” pictures every week!
And so I got to know a bit about movies. I don’t think in those days I was ever aware of who the Cameraman was; I would know one or two Directors – every few months we would show a film by Alfred Hitchcock – I don’t think I knew probably the name of any Cameraman of any nationality in those days. Then, on my day off – I think it was Tuesday, so I could work on Sunday – I used to go on the bus all over Sussex – East Sussex, West Sussex, little bit into Hampshire, little bit into Surrey. And I used to go to the local cinemas and request at the box office, “Could you ask the Chief if he would let me see the ‘box?’” So the strange thing was that I knew all the projection equipment that there was around. Because I would go to a town like Brighton – it had magnificent newish cinemas – the Odeon, the Astoria was the big ABC house, and they had another big one as well, the Savoy, up the road – but they also had little cinemas, and some were what we call “fleapits” – does that expression mean anything to you? – Good! Because it describes them – maybe very old live theatres that had at sometime been made into cinemas. Nothing much done, except two projectors put in, plus a sound system and a screen.
But I got to know all the makes well. I’ve always felt that the trouble with British projector manufacturers was their product was too good! They never wore out...the only things it seems to me one ever had to occasionally change were the sprockets and the exciter lamps. The intermittent sprockets, that had the hard work to do, their teeth used to wear down...and then you could hear that they were just catching the film and clicking a bit. You then had to change the intermittent – but that was about all! And so these very old fleapit cinemas still had the same projectors that had been put in when they first became cinemas. Some of them were the systems that had been put in when talkies – sound – came along in the late 1920s.
Often installed was what was called the Western Electric Universal Base. It was a base that the sound people supplied to carry the projector, regardless of make. Western themselves made the sound – they didn’t make the projectors or the arc lamps, but they made the base that it was all assembled on. And they made the motor. The base had a disc player as well as their own “Wide Range” sound-on-film system - the discs for “talkies” were about 18 inches diameter. It was big. They designed the soundhead, photo-electric cell and so on, and some of those projectors, on the original Western Electric bases, were still there...but then I thought, “They’re so ancient, yet they’re still using that equipment”. But I’m talking about when I started working and going around to look at other people’s gear. That was 1940. Talkies came out in 1928, so that was only 12 years before. In my childlike imagination it was as if it were 50 years ago that they’d had installed those projectors, but it was really only 12 years earlier since talkies had come in, before the period I’m talking about.
And why I remember them, the Western Electric bases, so well – it was a fine piece of engineering, with its dual sound system, because at first some talkies were “sound-on-disc”. Then, particularly from Fox – their sound process was called Fox Movietone and they were only sound-on-film, variable density – but a cinema had to be able to play sound-on-disc or sound-on-film – they didn’t know till they got the copy from the distributor whether the print also had a box of discs with it, or whether the sound would be on a track on the same piece of film as the picture!
And so they had to have the dual sound system, but not for very long, because the disc sound system was so unsatisfactory. I never worked with sound-on-disc – but when you think of it, sound-on-film, if you have a break, you lose two frames when you’re doing a cement overlap join – you had to take the two ends, scrape the emulsion off one of them, add acetone and put them together, so you lost at least two frames. When you think of it, every time you joined the end of Part One onto the beginning of Part Two, you lost two frames! And then, when you were sending the film back after you’d finished with it, you lost two more frames! One from the end, and one from the beginning, so every time it went to a cinema, two frames were lost, which meant a total of four frames, and so the sound jumped, and the picture jumped! And the older the copy was, the worse it was!
So that was one thing, but it was much worse with disc, and that is, if you got a break in your picture, and your sound was on disc, OK, you could cut the break out and do a cement join. There’d be a tiny picture jump at first, and if you had to re-do the join there’d be a bigger jump. But how do you remove the equivalent amount of sound from the disc? You can’t – so they used to have to put black spacing into the film to make up the fact that the disc would be the same length, even though you were cutting bits of film out all the time. You were supposed to – if you cut out two frames, you had to compensate with two black frames in – imagine! You’re watching the film and two black frames – what’s that, a twelfth of a second – doesn’t sound like much, but you can see a twelfth of a second. So it must have been that the quicker they could get rid of discs and go completely onto sound-on-film, the better.
So I don’t think discs were in place for more than a couple of years, if that, and I should think if the film was any good, once sound-on-film was available they would do a new copy with sound-on-film and throw away the discs because they were so difficult. And I think the actual sound quality was terrible as well. Of course, if somebody bumped into the pick-up arm, you could never find the place! [Laughs] You know, there was nothing you could do to get back into sync; it was a terrible system.
|Bertie Samuelson, Sir Sydney's father. Private image|
However, there was a hangover for me in that when my father eventually got work, it was up in the Midlands. It was an awful job – what had happened was that all the distributors’ Birmingham branches, with all the copies of all their films, were all on nitrate stock. And so the Fire Department in the City of Birmingham said, “We don’t care what you do, but if one incendiary hits John Bright Street (the street that more or less had all the distributors’ places in it – like Wardour Street in London), if one incendiary hits one stock of films, if it hits Paramount, the whole street will go! So you’ve got to get out”. So all except Warner Bros. and MGM, who made their own arrangements in their own disused country houses out in the country, in the suburbs of Birmingham, all the other distributors took one great big old house in a place between Birmingham and Walsall. And all the distributors moved in, some of them put up temporary buildings to store their copies. And then, on the main changeover day, which was Sunday morning – because every cinema changed their programme after Saturday night; whether they showed their film for a week or only three days it always ended on Saturday night – all the films used to be collected during the night and taken to this “film dump” as it was called, where, if I can just suggest, you only have to think of the shortage of manpower during the war, what kind of characters from the social community were left to man the film dumps, humping these great cans of film and loading them onto trucks: what kind of women were there left, who weren’t working in factories making shells and tanks, armoured cars, things like that – what type of women were left to be doing the repairs of the old, and older, copies of films, which were all kept at the film dump as well?
You had – I know it sounds awful – the lowest level members of the community working at the film dumps and therefore what was going on doesn’t even bear speaking about, what with the fighting of the men and the behaviour of the men to the women. In the end, the KRS – the Kinematograph Renters’ Society – had to do something about it. So they had to appoint a Supervisor...and that was the job that my Dad got. It didn’t pay very much, but it did two things: it meant at least he was self-sufficient, and that included the fact that as he had always been an employer, he had no State benefits – he had no dole (“dole” is a government payment when you’re out of work – we call it “being on the dole”). There was nothing – he had no right to any dole because he’d always been an employer and therefore had not paid his weekly amount of what we call National Insurance, which was where the dole money came from, and he was severely diabetic and his insulin had to be bought. So at least this awful job in the Midlands meant that he was not a financial drag on his beloved wife and, also, it enabled the shop, which had been getting into financial difficulties – because the South Coast had been a defence area – any time the Germans were expected to invade, the result of that was you could move out of that area and go and live somewhere else, but you couldn’t move into it – the government, the war office, whoever it was, they didn’t want civilians down there – they would have cleared it all out of civilians altogether if they could have done, but where would they put everybody? – it enabled the shop not to close down.
|Professor Henri Chretien, father of the Hypergonar lens. Plaque at the Nice Observatory, France|
TH: Let’s jump forward to your great adventure with Panavision, and how you got involved with that, and Samuelson Film Service –
Sir Sydney: What happened was this: arguably, Big Cinema was once saved by the introduction of CinemaScope – it was saved from the inroads that television was making into public entertainment.
I think it was Billy Wilder who said, “Why do you need Widescreen Cinema – why would you go see bad films on big screens when you can see bad films at home for nothing!” – some quote like that.
CinemaScope had emerged through the enterprise of 20th Century-Fox; their Chief – Spyros Skouras I think his name was – and the ability of their Camera Department. The lens – you may probably know this, just say so if you do – was originally French, and the designer – I can’t think of his name at the moment –
TH: Henri Chrétien –
Sir Sydney: Chrétien – absolutely – thought of it as a lens for the gunner in a tank, so he could get, without having a great big dangerous viewing aperture – he could see the whole vista in front of him. My brother David has one of the original Chrétien lenses that were used for CinemaScope. "The Robe" was shot with only one lens, and I think it was with the lens my brother has. Something, if you were interested, for another trip!
Anyway what happened was that 20th Century-Fox had brought out this so-called new process and it had become popular, because the screen was a different shape – it was bigger, and of course virtually everything was in colour that was made in CinemaScope. And it was that which caused the public to realise CinemaScope meant “Big Screen”, which was enough to give the process an edge at the box office.
So the other distributors were really uptight about their own situation and, in the end, 20th Century-Fox said, “Well, we will rent you the lenses, but you have to show our logo on the front of your movies – ‘This film is made in CinemaScope’” – with the “CinemaScope” spread out like that [Gestures], and of course the other major companies didn’t want to have to publicise their competitors like that.
Well Robert Gottschalk (12 March 1918 – 3 June 1982), who was the founder of Panavision – had a camera company in Beverly Hills – I think it was called Beverly Hills Camera – it was a high-quality camera shop, it wasn’t just a junky, like Snappy Snaps or something like that – and Robert’s friend was, I think, the Technical Director for MGM.
They were good personal friends, and I suppose this guy, whose name I think was Douglas Shearer – was the brother of the film star Norma Shearer – he said to Bob once, “For God’s sake Bob, don’t you know anybody who can give us [MGM] our own Big Screen process so we don’t bloody well have to go to Fox, down on our knees, and be given dud optics. Remember, every time ten lenses come out of the manufacturing plant probably only three or four of them are as optically good as they should be, and guess which ones Fox takes for their own productions!”
And Bob said, “Well such a system is Anamorphic; I don’t know about anamorphic lenses, but why don’t we do a system using 65mm?” He said, “Whatever way you look at it, what really gives you the quality is the size of the negative. And also, remember that 65mm is not just twice the size of 35mm, it’s getting on for four times the area of the negative”.
So that was how Panavision’s first product was a 65mm system. And its first film I think was called "Raintree County". And obviously you know why there is 65mm, and 70mm negative only in Russia – the negative as well as the print is 70mm.
I suspect – the English expression is “I’m telling my grandmother to suck eggs”, meaning “I’m telling you something you learned as a child, probably!”
So that was a new process...but of course it was big equipment, especially in those days. But I do believe Bob actually set up and he made a smaller 65mm camera – a hand-holdable 65mm camera – but of course it was still fairly big and it was all too costly, so eventually Gottschalk was persuaded to bring out a 35mm anamorphic system.
Now, although there is not much I don’t know about Panavision through the ages [Chuckles] and Bob Gottschalk and I were very close – I don’t actually know where his anamorphosers came from...what I do know is the first product of Panavision in the anamorphic format were projection lenses, and I think they were dual-gauge; there was a knob on the top so you could actually change the degree factor by which it would be stretching out the image.
And then, the Panavision anamorphic camera lenses for 35mm cinematography emerged. From day one, the quality – the optical quality – was better than CinemaScope. And of course Todd-AO was left in the background, and I think they remained associated with Fox. I think Todd-AO made the first Fox anamorphic lenses – I’d have to rely on you to find out about that. There was some association I think between Fox and Todd-AO.
|"Thunder Bay" advert for 1,85:1 Widescreen|
Anyway, wherever Bob Gottschalk got the anamorphosers from, he loved everything Japanese – especially the quality of their manufacturing. And I know, in later days, certainly competitors of Panavision like – do you know Joe Dunton? – his anamorphosers I think were made in Japan.
But he (Gottschalk) brought out those anamorphic lenses and I noticed that more and more anamorphic movies – or just generalising, say Widescreen – because 1.85 style of Widescreen I don’t think came in till a bit later; it must have always been there, there was nothing stopping you shooting 1.85, cutting the top and bottom off an Academy frame –
TH: One of the first films was Universal‘s "Thunder Bay" with James Stewart, specifically filmed in 1.85 –
Sir Sydney: Right – which was a bit like Techniscope, which was a cheap way of getting that 2.35:1 shape. I mean it was a sort of fraud really, because at least with anamorphic – Panavision’s or anybody else’s – you had a bigger piece of negative to help the definition.
|Robert E Gottschalk, 1959. Panavision company photo|
Anyway, Bob cottoned on to the fact that as well as selling – I mean in the widest sense – persuading is a better word – the Cameramen that Panavision’s lenses would do a better job than CinemaScope, he realised that the actors – especially actresses, would appreciate his lenses, certainly an actress who was no longer young, but who wanted to look as young as possible, and avoid that effect – swollen faces – which came with some non-Panavision optics, especially the wider angled ones –
TH: “Mumps” – I think they called them “mumps” –
Sir Sydney: Yes, “the mumps effect” – that’s right. And he had a most useful piece of Test Film, which was split screen. And he must have taken his very best distortion-free 50mm lens and somehow got hold of a lousy 50mm CinemaScope lens...photographed the same girl and had them printed split-screen. And of course it was so dramatic! So Bob would say to the Cameraman of a picture where they’re deciding whether to go with this new-found independent supplier who’s a rather difficult man to deal with, Bob Gottschalk. Bob would say to the Cameraman, “Come along to Panavision and I’ll show you some material that’s been shot recently, using our lenses”.
Then he would include this split screen shot. And he would often say to the Cameraman, “Who’s the girl in your picture?” When the Cameraman would say, “So–and–so, she’s not easy, she’s 46 now”, Bob would say, “Well bring her along as well”.
And of course if the actress had any power at all and wanted to be kept happy, she’d say, “I saw a lens” – she’d say to the Producer – why wouldn’t she say it? Made no difference to her, she wouldn’t get less money if they weren’t Panavision – she’d say, “I think you should have a look, because I look so much better”.
So he was a very clever marketer. And he wasn’t the most loved person in Los Angeles, because if you were – if you liked Panavision, if you appreciated what Panavision stood for – I suppose to an extent, if you were prepared to accept that Panavision says, “This is how much a week our lenses cost: we don’t do discounts” – a lot of people, Production Managers, are more interested in the discount than they are in what actually goes up on the screen! It’s how cheap it is which matters most to some people.
And therefore Bob was not popular with everybody. And of course I remember that the Cameramen who were kind of “locked into Fox”, they didn’t ever use Panavision. And Bob would not speak well of them, because he would know they were not Panavision people.
And just a little bit of explanation of Bob – he was very, very ordinary in his personality – I mean he was forever combing his hair – he was very shy about his appearance – he was completely bald – not sides, but up here, like me. And when I first knew him I still had a little bit of hair – that probably didn’t please him!
We were the best, the closest of friends – he was the most loyal person, business colleague, I could ever have – did ever have. If someone complained to him, along the lines of, “I don’t know why you have Samuelson’s representing your product, they’re very difficult to deal with, you know”. He would say, “Why, was there anything wrong?” “You can’t negotiate with Sydney at all”. And he’d say, “Well are you talking about discounts?” “Well not necessarily, but it’s...not easy to do a deal”. And Bob would always say the same thing – “Have you spoken to Sydney about it?” “Well no, I haven’t spoken about it, I was coming to Los Angeles so I thought I’d speak to you – I thought I’d come to the top”. And Bob would always say, “If you haven’t spoken to Sydney, I don’t know why you’re speaking to me!” And that was very important to me – if anyone was – I think I can say, without sounding too pompous – if anyone was complaining about my company it was because we didn’t discount. In the end, we had to discount just like everybody else in order to stay in business!
Later on, Panavision also had to discount. Bob never used to have a good word to say for anything except Panavision anamorphic – if a Cameraman was not shooting in Panavision anamorphic, as far as Bob was concerned, he was worthless; how could anyone not want the best possible picture on the screen?
But in the end Bob had to bring out a series of non–anamorphic lenses, spherical lenses, and he hated that because he felt it was not the best way to photograph movies.
But again, it was so difficult to get people to pay for anamorphic. And then the labs’ opticals were not very good in the early days of anamorphic, it was easier to shoot 1.85. And of course when Techniscope came out – same screen shape but half the negative size of an anamorphic frame – Bob thought it was just shocking. But when he brought out his non-anamorphic lenses he also brought out at more or less the same time – I’d need to check that, just what the relationship was to the Panaflex camera and the non-anamorphic lenses. It was a big step for Panavision, to go non-anamorphic. They were however a good series of spherical lenses.
|But...when the Panaflex came out – it was so revolutionary, so light in weight, so many features on it that had never been seen before – so quiet – if you wanted the Panaflex, Bob’s rule was – “Only for Panavision anamorphic”. And I remember the Producers and Directors hated this stipulation – they felt, “Who the hell does he think he is, telling us how to shoot our movie!” What they really meant was, “It’s a pity nobody else has a camera as good as the Panaflex”. They wouldn’t say it, but they might even think, “I suppose he’s the only person who might spend the money to develop the Panaflex”...they might even think, Thomas, “He’s got that fantastic Japanese Chief Engineer – ” – we used to call him Tak –|
TH: Takuo “Tak” Miyagishima
Sir Sydney: – One of the articles, incidentally, in one of your magazines, is about him because he just died. You’ll enjoy it – it’s in there somewhere.
So people would think – some people might realise, “Well, a lot of research has gone into this; a lot of Panavision’s money has gone into this; a lot of love has gone into this”.
I can remember the story when Bob had the first Panaflex and he phoned up his good friend, who always went Panavision – Clint Eastwood, who was by that time directing – and he said, “Where are you shooting at the moment? I’d like to bring you something to look at”. And he went on the set, and as luck would have it, Clint – I forget which film it was – was shooting a dialogue scene inside a car, and then cutting to outside – and Bob walked up to where they were shooting, a velvet cloth over what he was holding, in one hand – not any old piece of cloth; not a changing bag, but a piece of quality velvet. And he said, “Clint, I’ve got something here that might be useful on that shot. Am I right in saying you want to be in the car, and then come out of the car?” Then he pulled the cloth off, and there was this not only a very small camera being held in one hand, but a beautifully-styled camera. And Clint used the camera there and then, and it is shot in a much better way. But it would still be for anamorphic in those days.
Now, how did I originally contact him? I had realised that more and more films that I went to see had the Panavision logo on – even the James Bond films, from number three – or four?
|Danish "Thunderball" newspaper advert|
TH: "Thunderball" was shot in Panavision –
Sir Sydney: Yes, that was three, wasn’t it?
TH: "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love", "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball". That was number four...in 1965
Sir Sydney: Yes, but "From Russia with Love" was –
TH: – was Flat
Sir Sydney: – was spherical, wasn’t it? And "Dr. No" was the very first one, wasn’t it?
TH: That was Flat too –
Sir Sydney: So "Thunderball" was the first Bond film [in Panavision]. But a number of films had been shot in Panavision where the Cameraman and/or the Producer and/or the Director had said, “Can we get those lenses? I keep seeing marvellous pictures shot ‘In Panavision’”.
And so they used to bring the lenses in from Los Angeles – the UK Camera Departments of those days were all studio-based. So if you wanted to make a film, you did part of it in Pinewood and then at your location – all the Pinewood gear would go out on the location. What happened with the lenses was, the studio camera was always a Mitchell NC or BNC. And the Studio – this was before reflex – the Studio would take the lenses and make “Viewfinder Cams” for each lens on each camera – a long, tedious job. But that’s how Panavision anamorphic was originally shot. It was before we owned a Mitchell camera, and I used to try and get in touch with Bob Gottschalk – never got a phone call returned. And then – Freddie Young – although he had never shot a picture for my father, he knew of my father when he, Freddie, was a Camera Assistant in 1918 and knew of my father, but never worked with him, but later he knew of us. And once, when a new item of equipment – a Moviola crab dolly – emerged, people kept asking me for a crab dolly and I hadn’t got one. Then the Moviola crab dolly appeared in Los Angeles and I had a look at it. I phoned the firm and bought one, which we couldn’t really afford – I think it was about £2000, for us a lot of money, in those days. Freddie was preparing a picture to shoot in Malaya and I knew him well enough – we’d supplied him with bits and pieces, filters, lenses that Pinewood hadn’t stocked, and that kind of thing – and I said, “I’ve got a new item, Freddie, can I bring it and show it to you?” He said, “Well, tomorrow we’re doing Artists’ Tests at St. John’s Wood Studios” – a little tiny studio. He said, “You could bring it there...what is it?” So I said, “Well it’ll – let me just say it’ll give you lovely movement”. And he said, “Oh well, my Director – ” – Lewis Gilbert I think – he said, “Lewis loves fluidity”. Anyway, I took in a truck this brand new, beautiful-looking Moviola crab dolly. It looked like a professionally-made product, whereas the McAllister (which Shepperton Studios represented in the UK) looked like it had been home-made by a camera techie! And I remember rolling it down outside the Studio, and Freddie was standing there and he said something like, “I’ll have it!” Because he could immediately see what it was. Anyway, we wheeled it onto the set, they mounted the camera on it, they used it for the rest of the day and it went on rental to Malaya for 14 weeks. It was a William Holden film, and Freddie said, “I wonder – we haven’t booked any camera gear yet, we’re not making it out of the studio – how would you be fixed to do all the gear, could you do that?” And I said, “We don’t have a BNC, but I could get one. I could hire one from Bunny” (Bunny Onions was a Cameraman who owned a BNC – which was like the Rolls-Royce of cameras; we were not in that league yet, frankly). Anyway, to cut a long story short, we got that picture, the first BNC feature film we ever did. And it was with a hired-in camera. I remember I had nowhere for the crew to come and check all the gear, so I had to rent a church hall in Hendon! But it all went very well.
Now Freddie could do no harm in Bob Gottschalk’s mind. Bob loved him to bits as a person, and because he’d done a little film called "Lawrence of Arabia" in Panavision and won an Oscar for it. And apparently he had said to Bob, “You know, I think it’s ridiculous you have no representation in London or anywhere in Europe, and it’s not practical bringing lenses in, and the Arriflex” – if you wanted an Arriflex you needed to get that from Panavision, as it was converted to take Panavision lenses, and you know, the bigger aperture plate too – and, apparently, Bob Gottschalk said, “Funny you should say that, because I’ve had a bloke called John Davis, boss of the Rank Organisation, who says that he feels his company should be handling Panavision, and they are already the agents for Arriflex”. Well, that was a kind of turn-off for Bob – he wouldn’t want to be with the agent for Arriflex. He had to use Arriflexes, because hand-held shots you couldn’t get any other way – but that doesn’t mean he liked putting Panavision lenses onto an Arriflex camera. But, for a lot of people in Los Angeles, America, there was only one camera, and that was the Mitchell. Anyway, Bob Gottschalk said something like, “He’s the Arriflex agent; I didn’t like him very much either”. And Freddie said, “Well shall I put you in touch with someone I think would do a good job for you, his name’s Sydney Samuelson, and I’ve known his family as long as I can remember?” And Bob said, “Oh yeah, I know him, he keeps ‘phoning me!” So Freddie said, “I think you should see him”.
Well, Bob never phoned me. So any excuse I had, I called him. If a customer phoned, and they were using a set of Panavision lenses and needed a hand-holdable camera, and I got a call saying, “What have you got that’s hand-holdable, and’ll take Panavision lenses?” I used to have to say, “I haven’t got anything – I don’t think we’d be allowed to re-mount Panavision lenses without authority from Panavision anyway”. I would then phone Bob – if I could get through to him I would say, “I’ve another well-known Cameraman who would like to use Panavision, and has a query, has a problem, so why don’t I come and see you?” And he’d say, “Yeah well, we’ll get round to that later”.
Well then "Thunderball" came about – Panavision lenses...I think that was the first James Bond film shot in Panavision. And their first day of shooting was in Weymouth on the South Coast.
Now a lot of "Thunderball" was underwater, and it was in Panavision 35. And the gear came from Panavision LA, and when they came to put it all together, something didn’t fit something. And of course you know there are two lots of camera crews – there are those who would say, “I don’t think it’s too bad...what can we do about this, get onto Sydney”. Or, there were those who’d say, “Phone Samuelson’s – don’t speak to anybody except Sydney Samuelson, and say to him this is the second time we’ve had an Arriflex from him, and a f*****g battery is flat, and what is he going to do about it”.
The Answering Machine
|In both examples, the problem could be exactly the same – it’s just the way they look at it. First of all of course they’ve got another battery. Second of all, within the hour, at Shepperton Studios we would have a replacement battery. It’s just whether you want to smooth over it, or you want to be able to get at the Supplier. There were people, Thomas, who don’t enjoy – what shall I say – they don’t enjoy success, or appreciate enterprise – they are a bit jealous, envious, whatever – so it was difficult with some people ever to persuade them we’re not the cheapest, but we’re the best value – believe me, I would say we’re the best value! One evening, when I got home, I had just installed my first telephone answering machine. It was a large box in my home, German. Nobody knew what answering machines were, really – anyway, when I got home late one evening – we’d both been out – there was a message on my answering machine. And it was the Office Manager – “I’m phoning up for Mr. Robert Gottschalk – he wants to speak to you”. And it was gone midnight. So I phoned Robert Gottschalk and he did speak to me – he said, “There’s a picture called – ” – and he had to look it up, I remember – “ – "Thunderball" being made – they’ve taken equipment from us, they’ve just started shooting and they say the stuff doesn’t fit together - they must be idiots! Now you’ve told me on the phone before about your Chief Engineer, who came from the Rank Organisation – Bill Vicker is it?” And I said, “Yes”. He said, “Well, tell him to get his ass down to Wye-mouth – wherever that is – right away!” I said, “Bob, it’s 1am...I’ll try to get him, but he’ll need to go on the train – he’ll be on the first train tomorrow, with his toolkit”. So he said, “Right”. I said, “Now while we’re on the phone – we’ve never met, I’ve asked you whether we might talk about representing Panavision. I’ve asked if I can come and see you, but we have no deal. Believe me, Bill Vicker will be there, not later than 9 o’clock in the morning”. And he said, “Oh well, you can come here if you want to”. And so I did!|
I had previously knocked on his door for a visit, and – I’d forgotten this bit – I was shown around Panavision in their relatively small place in Pontius Avenue in West Los Angeles. Nothing about UK representation was talked about, but I did meet him in the end, in passing, as it were. He wasn’t in the mood to say, “Well what do you think of it all”, “Tell me about yourself”, or “Come and have a coffee” – and so I went, but that’s how we began to get a deal.
|TH: OK, let’s devote the last 15 minutes to say, Stanley Kubrick...shooting "2001" on 65mm, and the challenges –|
Sir Sydney: Well, with Panavision came a lot of huge business benefits. It introduced us to the biggest filmmakers in the world – anyone who was going to make a movie in Europe –and they were in the budget class that they would like to use Panavision as a matter of course. They would all come to us. The first deal we discussed was when Bob Gottschalk didn’t even deign to tell me what the financial split deal would be if we handled Panavision in Britain.
So all these Cameramen – do you know about James Wong Howe? – he came once to Samuelson’s in Cricklewood Broadway and I showed him around – I forget what picture he was going to do – I don’t think it was in the UK, it was in Germany or somewhere like that. And he appreciated what he saw; he loved all the staff people who were so enthusiastic about what they did, even if they were just checking out tripods. They loved being in our business – I think I can say that, without exaggerating. And when he was leaving – we had just brought out what we call a Limpet mount, a big “sucker” you applied to any shiny surface: pane of glass, window, tiles – and it had a camera head on it, so you could stick it on the side of a car, we’ll say, and mount your camera there; and it had a ball head on it – we called it the “Samuelson Limpet Mount”.
Everybody now has limpets I should think, every Camera Supplier’s now has limpets – but ours was the first, and my brother David had worked it out and found a supplier of large – I should think about 8-inch – rubber limpets, each with a lever handle affixed. We also made up a wooden platform, about 12 inches square, and mounted on it this limpet mount. We had plate glass front doors to the company and we mounted it on them, about a foot off the ground. Jimmy Wong Howe stood on our Limpet Mount with his arms folded like this [Gestures]. We would never have got people of that calibre to our company without Panavision’s name attached to ours.
Now of course Stanley Kubrick came on our scene.
Joe Dunton in Bradford, 2011
I think I might say there was mutual dislike between Panavision’s Gottschalk and Stanley Kubrick, who was uncompromising in any way, and knew better than anybody. And most of what he felt he knew better, he did know better – but was a bit nutty with it! Difficult...my word! And if he could possibly avoid using Panavision, he would. And that was why Bob – part of his personality was he wouldn’t lower himself to say, “I saw the latest Kubrick picture, it was very well shot”. Bob, with his kind of personality, couldn’t do that – I could do it, even if I didn’t like the bloke, I could still say, “But my goodness what a marvellous movie”. But Bob couldn’t – he would say, “Oh it’s nothing special”. Then, "2001: A Space Odyssey" came up. And Kubrick and I had become quite good friends. But he had collected equipment of his own and therefore he only ever came to see me if there anything new coming along that he didn’t know about. But it was only at his convenience; if there was something he wanted, and we were the only place he could see it, then he would come to us. We never had a row. He never disagreed about paying his bills, or anything like that. He was never a “good” customer. He and Joe Dunton were very close friends. Joe is a fantastic techie as you know, marvellous engineer, knows a great deal about cinematography, every aspect of it – special effects, anything you want to talk about – and he runs a very good camera company. He was pirated away from us by our major competitor, who hadn’t got a Camera Department.
Kubrick would only ever come to see us at night. He was a bit strange – you know his home in Borehamwood was like a fortress, and I don’t know if he actually had live guards – it’s nothing unusual to have security rooms in America, and live security guards for these celebrities – very, very wealthy people. I understand that you couldn't just walk up to his front door and ring the bell – and that’s only local, in Borehamwood, 5 miles away – but he would only come to Cricklewood in the evening.
So to meet Stanley, I would have to hang around at the Office, and then he would stay a couple of hours and he would look at anything we’d had that was new. He would then, if he could, go out and buy it. We never did a picture for him, except "2001", and that was because he hadn’t got 65mm gear of his own.
He took Panavision equipment on sufferance – I bet he and Bob did not discuss anything at any time about the film – he would have dealt with Bob’s staff rather than meet him; I think I could be pretty sure of that. And, for "2001" Stanley said, “I shall want the equipment for about four weeks beforehand, and I shall want alternative lenses at each focal length. And I will choose which I’m going to use”. That meant equipment was going to be supplied through us. Now you would expect to supply the equipment free of charge for a week – that’s enough time – normally! – to check out all the lenses, all the focus scales, everything; every kind of check that you want to make. But Stanley wanted it for four weeks. And I suppose Bob – nobody moves in Panavision without Bob’s approval – I suppose Bob approved: “Well, it would still be good to have a Stanley Kubrick picture...whatever kind of a sod he is, it will be prestigious to have a Stanley Kubrick picture...shot in Panavision 65mm”.
And the Cameraman was one of the greatest British Cameramen of all time...that was Geoff Unsworth – what a lovely man.
Anyway, this is what Stanley did: he had a set built, and built into the set was a lens focus chart – I think it was about that size [Gestures]. And also, a television monitor. And at the end of the wire, feeding that television monitor, was a video camera with a pack shot lens on it, one that would focus down to about two inches of the lens scale. And then he would have two smaller focus boards at different distances from the main focus board, so that he could measure the depth of field. One say 3 feet behind, and one 3 feet in front, or maybe 2 feet in front. So on the monitor he had a picture of where the setting on the lens scale was. When he saw the rushes he could see which focus setting looked best, knowing that the correct focus would be 8 feet – we’ll say. And he could see if it was absolutely, as they say, “on the money”: the main focus board, pin-sharp at 8 feet, and the depth of field for the two other focus boards.
|Carl Zeiss' 50mm 1:0,7 Planar|
But then, he would do perhaps four other tests on the same lens, everything the same, but with a different setting on the focus. So he would go say, to 8 feet 6, and even, 9 feet, and then he’d go to 7 foot 3 and 7 foot 6 and photograph all those. So you could see actually whether the lens was sharper. If it wasn’t – in other words, if the scale on the lens, engraved on the lens, was marked up absolutely pin-sharp on the number – that’s why he wanted them for four weeks, just for testing.
Anyway, with the obvious approval of Geoff Unsworth, the Assistant – who became an Oscar-winning Cameraman – lit some pictures for Stanley later. Really an Arriflex man, John Alcott, BSC was an Assistant at that time, but was given a break by Kubrick because of course Kubrick was a Cameraman himself.
And I remember that film, it was "Barry Lyndon", an 18th-century period piece – and Stanley Kubrick was determined to photograph a candle-lit scene where the light of the actual candles was the only illuminant. And he’d found one or two or three f1, yes f1, lenses! And the artists had to do everything without moving, forwards or backwards even an inch, because there was no depth of field at all! But it was at f1 – Kubrick liked that!
Anyway, that’s how we came to do "2001". It became an iconic film. Many people have said, who are not necessarily technicians, “Oh, what a boring film”. But of course the music was also so important to that film, for which Stanley paid nothing, when you come to think of it!
But he was such a clever man...
I’m not in favour of everything that he did, like "Clockwork Orange" – that’s not Cinema for me. But then, I’m really old-fashioned. And when I do movie quizzes sometimes – and I have a movie quiz that will confirm what I just said – I've got a reel of ten clips where I say, “To be sexy, you don’t have to be explicit”. Is explicit a good word for you? I've got ten clips where you see absolutely nothing at all. And I suppose my favourite one is from that film "Tom Jones" - the eating scene – do you know the one where they’re –
TH: I haven’t seen the film in many, many years...is that the one with Albert Finney?
"Tom Jones" and one point
|Sir Sydney: Yes, Albert Finney and Joyce Redman – and all it is, is the couple absolutely – |
would obviously prefer to be in bed together, but they’re nevertheless sitting in like, a pub restaurant. And they’ve got chicken – legs of chicken...and lobster – and all it is, is when he’s eating the chicken – he’s not thinking about what he’s eating, he’s thinking about what’s she going to be like in bed! [Laughs] And the same looks from her...there’s no dialogue, and it’s just what’s in one’s mind. You’ll get it out of the library and have a look at it – it’s interesting. I could talk to you about how that happened, to be the first real feature film that we serviced, shot entirely with an Arriflex. When we got the new-fangled blimped Arriflex – which was never very good for keeping the noise in, because, as my brother David puts it, the trouble with an Arriflex is you can’t blimp a noisy camera – you’ve got to design a quiet camera and then blimp that. And the Arriflex un-blimped sounded like a coffee grinder to start off with!
I must just quickly tell you about the producers of that movie, they were good friends, a company called Woodfall. Not low budget, but they didn’t waste any money, I can tell you – we used to service their pictures and we were really good friends. They came to see me and said, “Normally we get the Mitchell from the studio – tell us about the new blimp you’ve got – is it right you can use an Arriflex? We could shoot our next picture, "Tom Jones", on an Arriflex?” I said, “Well you could, and the blimp is quite good, but it would be good if it’s in the Winter, so that everyone could take their coats off and throw them over the blimp to try and keep that last bit of noise in there!” And I said, “You’ve also got to keep in mind that you have to re-load every four minutes instead of every ten minutes, so if you’re in the middle of a dialogue scene you’re liable to have someone shouting ‘Camera needs re–loading!’ That’s going to happen two-and-a-half times more often than using a Mitchell – expensive”. Anyway they said, “Well what we would like to do is, you supply us with the new Arriflex and everything else of course, but we don’t want you to Invoice us, we’re going to give you 1% – we’re going to give you 1 point”. I said, “What does that mean?” “1% of the profit of the picture”.
When I usually tell this story Thomas, I haven’t usually revealed it’s "Tom Jones" – which became best Oscar–winning picture of the year! And must have made an absolute bloody fortune. And I tell that story because I think it’s the worst business decision I ever made! I remember saying to Leigh Aman, the Production Controller, I said, “Leigh, I understand what you’re saying – I don’t invoice, but I’ve got one point – meanwhile, how do I pay my hire purchase? Every month I’ve got to pay the hire purchase payment because I wouldn’t be able to go buy that blimped Arriflex for cash, the whole thing – I’ve got a hire purchase payment on it, and I have to pay every month! How do I do that if I don’t invoice?” And he said, “Yeah, that would be a problem”. And at the end of it they did say to us, “We found some money so we will be able to pay your bills every two weeks as usual”. And they did, but I didn’t have the 1%! [Laughs]
TH: Thank you very much – I want to thank you of course for taking the time out. It’s been so interesting, and I’m sure we can talk a lot more.
Sir Sydney: Well I hope you’ll come back!
TH: Let’s consider this the beginning!
Part Two – Monday 28 January 2012
|TH: Yes – now it’s Saturday 28th January 2012...As I wrote in my notes last time we parted...We ended up talking about Stanley Kubrick and "2001: A Space Odyssey", and his need for having the cameras for four weeks rather than one week I think, to test them, particularly the lenses.|
Sir Sydney: That’s right...and did we go into the way he did his lens tests?
TH: We did that – with the cameras and three feet and the depth of field, and all these things with the lenses... and then we continued and you talked about John Alcott, and we proceeded to "Barry Lyndon", where some sequences were filmed only with actual candlelight.
Sir Sydney: He found an f1 lens...the actors had to have a steady out-of-sight piece of wood behind them to keep their head at the right distance because there was no depth of field at f1 at all.
Jan Jacobsen with his own 3D rig and Arriflex cameras captured by Gerhard Fromm's camera
TH: I heard somewhere that he knew about a Norwegian lens designer – Jan Jacobsen – Do you recall this name? Jan Jacobsen?
Sir Sydney: No –
TH: He was a wizard making cameras – he built the first IMAX camera.
Sir Sydney: Really? In Canada?
TH: No no, he built it in Copenhagen actually.
Sir Sydney: Amazing!
TH: Yes, on my website there is the full story about Jan Jacobsen, written by Gerhard Fromm, who I interviewed – because Gerhard Fromm has a history with MCS 70, the West German 70mm format they made in ’62 –
But Jan made the cameras for MCS 70 and IMAX, and he was a wizard – and he also worked for Arriflex making their zoom lenses – anamorphic zoom lenses.
What he did was he put the anamorphics behind the lens so you could zoom – before that you couldn’t make as I understand, anamorphic zoom lenses.
Sir Sydney: You don’t know about what year we’re talking about?
TH: This is the early ´60s -
Sir Sydney: Early ‘60s...yes...because Panavision zoom lenses – anamorphic zoom lenses – were mostly based on the Cooke 5 to 1 high quality zoom. I think it was 20-100mm – that was the lens on which Panavision based their zoom lens. Of course it became 40-200mm in focal length when they’d made it anamorphic – and as I understood it, although Bob Gottschalk was very secretive (even to me) on that – he never talked to me about it – I’m pretty sure the anamorphic elements were all made in Japan. And that’s how Panavision was able to bring out, early on, a good-quality anamorphic zoom lens, based on the Cooke 5 to 1.
A lot of the Panavision prime – the prime part of their lenses – from since almost the start of Panavision, Inc., were based on Cooke lenses after maximum testing. But then, later, just after Bob died, the executive (Jac Holzman) who took over, who had come from Warner Bros – Warner Bros by that time owned Panavision – he went to Leitz in Canada, and they designed a series of prime lenses, only for Panavision. They must have been to Panavision’s specification – and I forget what they’re called, but it’s something like Super Panalux – but they were excellent spherical lenses – excellent. And I think they were all made by Leitz, Canada. And so you could book a Panaflex camera and book say, six lenses, and they’d all have the same technical background. And that overcame the problem that you had with the use of lenses from different sources, because it wasn’t only the quality say of the definition – the focus, the contrast – you had to deal with the colour temperature. And so you could have two lenses, say one was from Cooke and one was from Zeiss – and they’d both be very good lenses. But if you used them on a movie, and took one lens off and changed it for a focal length of a different make, when you saw the rushes there was maybe a blue bias on one of the lenses, and a yellow bias on the other – I don’t mean heavy colour, but you had to depend on your grader, in post-production, to sort out where different lenses had been used. Well, having this set of Leitz lenses I think solved that problem. What the story is of the original optics today I really don’t know.
TH: I just heard it many years ago that Jan Jacobsen made this extremely fast lens that NASA used for taking pictures in outer space or something, and Stanley Kubrick got hold of one of these lenses somehow, and then he could make the film as he intended to do, in candlelight, because in those days (the period of the picture) there were no electric lights – so everything had to be lit according to how it was in 17-hundred-and-something, when the story of Barry Lyndon takes place. I just heard the story about Stanley Kubrick and Jan Jacobsen, so it would be interesting if you could actually connect the story – if you knew about that –
Sir Sydney: No...I didn’t know about that - I have got a story about "Barry Lyndon"...Kubrick – who hardly ever went anywhere – he never socialised at all; he hardly left his home – he had a paranoia about security...he lived in Borehamwood – Elstree – about 15 miles from here. He never went anywhere abroad, because he wouldn’t fly – he had a fear of flying – and so once he’d come here, he stayed here! And as far as I know, he never went back to America; he never went to any awards ceremonies; he never gave interviews, as far as I know – people would talk about him; people worked with him; but I don’t think he wanted to be publicised in any respect.
Dickie Dickenson and David Lean
|Sir Sydney Samuelson in his garden with the author, October 2011.|
Now when it came to "Barry Lyndon", I think it was shot – I suppose it wasn’t shot with Panavision – I think it was probably shot Arriflex. They’d got their quiet ARRI S-35 by that time – it wasn’t very quiet, it was not as quiet as a Panaflex, but it was quiet enough. Kubrick had a showing at BAFTA of "Barry Lyndon", and while he had Johnny Alcott, the Cameraman, there, Kubrick himself wasn’t there – which was no surprise, because Kubrick was never anywhere...in public. And they had Q&As – Questions & Answers – after showing the film – and there was the famous candlelit shot. And what I remember, which was very interesting I think, was there was an old-time, eminent, British Cameraman – Dickie Dickenson – D-i-c-k-e-n-s-o-n – there, and when it was question time, whereas all sorts of younger people in the audience had said how brilliant the Cinematography was, and how amazing to see shots – to see a sequence – lit entirely by candles that you could see in the shot as well – so the quality of the lens was not just its remarkable speed, but the fact it wasn’t flaring, because the source of the light was itself in the shot – when Dickie Dickenson stood up, he said, “Well, we’ve been listening to what everybody thought about the candlelit sequence, and how it was done – I just want to say I think it’s the worst-looking Cinematography I’ve seen in my life!” He said, “This is a case of you have to be in the Camera Department to understand what has been achieved - that it’s with lenses that are f1 – but the quality is not as good as if you faked it – you could still have a candle in the shot, but you could light it not by the candle, you could light it in the conventional way and it would look better!” And everybody was absolutely stunned – mainly I think because it was so awful for this youngish Cameraman – Johnny Alcott – who had once been Focus Puller for Stanley – and Stanley had given him his breaks. Johnny was no fool; in the earliest days, obviously Stanley was over his shoulder, and kind of suggesting for conventional lighting, where the key light would be, and so on – so Johnny had a marvellous tutor, and he, in the end, got the credit as Director of Photography. But he had Kubrick in the background – a bit like David Lean's films – the credits say “Edited by David Lean” – or “A David Lean Film, Edited by someone else” – you knew that every David Lean film, there wasn’t a cut that David himself didn’t approve of! Exactly there, David Lean would be saying to his Editor, “I think we need to hold that close-up for three frames more”, or, “Take half a dozen frames off that and let’s have a look, because that’s where it needs to cut” - that was how David Lean worked in the cutting room.
TH: David Lean, he loved editing the movies –
Sir Sydney: Yes –
TH: He started as an Editor as well -
Sir Sydney: That’s right – and that’s how he got going as a Director, in the same way – insomuch as – a picture was made during the War, called "In Which We Serve", with that great Writer, Director, Performer, Actor, Musician – Nöel Coward. Nöel was pronounced “Null” [Chuckles] – which is unimportant, but if he was introduced he would say, “The name is ‘Null’” – and he spoke with a very affected homosexual kind of accent. He was one of the most famous gays in this country, and one of the most brilliant performers, authors and entertainers, and he wrote this wartime story about – funny, I mentioned Earl Mountbatten, whose father was a Battenberg...was I just talking about him? Yes – and "In Which We Serve" was the story of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was a Captain in the Royal Navy, and had a destroyer which was torpedoed during the War. It was the story of the ship’s company, led by this dynamic captain, and it was based on Lord Louis Mountbatten – but the captain was played in the film by Nöel Coward. And the story was written, and Nöel Coward decided that he was going to direct the film as well.
When it came to it, he’d had the sense to ask for his Editor to be with him on the set, because he, Nöel Coward, didn’t understand about the putting together of a film...controlling the length of how much he was shooting; knowing whether what you were shooting with would cut together; understanding whether you would need to have a cutaway in order to reduce the length of a sequence. So he had his Editor on set with him, constantly advising him – the Editor was, as you said, David Lean.
Well, Nöel Coward was so busy acting, and revising the script as they went along – there was nothing wrong with that – he was the writer anyway – eventually, apparently, he said to David, “Look, you do the directing...I have enough to do without having to worry whether the continuity girl is telling me that this sequence is going to run just under a quarter of an hour if we don’t do something about some extra shots, so that they can speed up lengths of what we’ve done already”. He said, “You be the director”. The credit on the film is “Editor and Co-Director: David Lean”; “Directed by: Nöel Coward”. And then of course he had a credit as the leading actor as well.
So that was how David Lean got his start. And then Nöel Coward and David Lean and the Cameraman, Ronnie Neame – do you know that name? – and there was one other person – Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan – they formed a company called Cine Guild to produce films. And the next film was shot in Technicolor 3-strip and it was called “Take my Life”. It was about a London family during the War. Then they did "Blithe Spirit", and a whole series of films. And then they all had rows with each other! [Laughs] – And that was the end of Cine Guild.
Anyway we’ve diverted a little bit – it was all long before my time. But I interviewed Ronnie Neame, so I knew a lot about it. And going back to "Barry Lyndon", and the outspoken - Desmond Dickenson was his full name – and I’d known him – I’d never worked with him – but I’d known him for many years, because he was actually a Cameraman for my father – and it was a case of everybody sitting in that audience knew that Dickie – Desmond - Dickenson was right in what he said. After all, what is the point of doing something because it’s just so clever, technically, to do it – that’s not what you’re actually making the movie for! Nobody – unless they’d been told – would have realised that it was amazing to shoot a picture and get an exposure – because films were not as fast in those days – to get an exposure and to even have the source of the illumination in the shot – but of course you had almost to screw the actors’ heads to a piece of wood at the back [Laughs] so that they didn’t move forward an inch because they would go out of focus on the closer shots. There was no need for it. And Desmond Dickenson was no slouch – I think he was Oscar-nominated for the first Hamlet film – black-and-white – Laurence Olivier. I think that was Desmond Dickenson. And he also did one of the early Technicolor 3-strip films after the War – it was an Oscar Wilde play called "The Importance of Being Earnest" – and it was very much a photographed stage play/story – but it was delightfully photographed – it wasn’t a serious film – it was a stage comedy.
British Quota Film, “Quota Quickies”
|I suppose Dickie had a career probably of 60 or 70 years – and he did every kind of movie – in my producer son Marc’s office (he’s the Executive Producer for the Isle of Man government film department, they have their headquarters in London, and Marc runs it), I gave him a still Desmond Dickenson had given me. Did we talk about “Quota Quickies”? – did you know about them? Very quick films made in 6 or 7 days – low, low low-budget – just to enable distributors to meet with the requirements of the law to show a certain percentage of British product in their cinemas – a minimum percentage had to be British-made. All that happened is that a series of cheap movies were made just to meet the quota requirements, financed by the distributors – and even to the extent the law did not say when they had to show these films, it just said they had to show a certain percentage of British product. So they used to show these films, shot in 6 days, budget £1000 per reel - £6000 for a one-hour film – minimum length one hour. And what happened was all the big American studios – MGM, Fox, Columbia, Paramount – everybody – they each set up British production companies to make cheap British quota films.|
And they were all ‘B’ pictures – second features – and often, the distributors simply showed them – projected them at their cinemas during the morning, when the cleaners were sweeping up the ice-cream wrappers from the previous night. This still met the requirements of the law, but they were showing these “Quota Quickie” films, and Desmond Dickenson – if he wasn’t doing anything else – he would, say, get a contract for the Warner Bros Studio at Teddington to do 3 “Quota Quickies”. The production still I gave Marc for his office was for a “Quota Quickie” produced and directed by my father, and there, standing by the camera, in a blimp this size [Gestures], was Desmond Dickenson. And he would be able – he was so experienced – he could knock off a whole lot of work – let’s see: 6 days – they’ve got to do 10 minutes edited screen time a day. Today, for a normal properly-budgeted film, they would do 2-and-a-half minutes, I think, of screen time – final screen time – for a good shooting day. So if you were doing 10 minutes – because you’re making a “Quota Quickie” - that was the requirement, because you could only afford to shoot for 6 days. I’m telling you all that Tom because it shows that Desmond Dickenson was not fussy, as we say...he would take any kind of film – and he was a good bloke to have, and to have him standing there saying, “It’s the worst example of candle light effect I’ve ever seen!” was pretty dramatic [Laughs].
Stanley and Joe
|Joe Dunton in Bradford, 2011|
So that’s a bit of scuttlebutt about Stanley Kubrick...who was a unique character. I think I did tell you that we were quite good friends, in a detached kind of way – not good friends like I was with say – dropping a big name out of the sky – I was truly close with David Lean – and I’ve got a still upstairs of David and I, and David has his arm through mine – Stanley Kubrick might shake hands with me, but he wouldn’t go any further than that [Laughs] – and that wasn’t just me, he was very detached. I would say he was a bit weird – it was very difficult to – I don’t think he had really close friends – I think he and his wife had an affectionate family. As far as his relationships with technicians, he respected knowledgeable people. Do you know the name of Joe Dunton? – well Joe, who’s a brilliant technician in his own right, was the one, I would think probably in the last ten years of Stanley’s life, Joe Dunton was his man, would make special stuff for him – or have it made. He would find special stuff, would phone him up and might say, “I’ve heard that a Nikon lens has come out, and I think it could be adapted, and it would do whatever it might do that Nikon had brought out” [Laughs] – and Stanley Kubrick would probably say to Joe, “Well get one, and put an Arriflex adaptor on it, and let’s see what it can do”. He had that relationship. It was Joe who built Stanley’s viewing theatre, in his own home...and it had the best, the best of everything. And in fact, after Stanley died, I don’t know whether Joe bought the equipment from the viewing theatre, but Joe set up a post-production house and the projection in it – the 35mm projection – was from what was the viewing theatre in Stanley Kubrick’s home.
Anyway, I can’t say Stanley was an important customer to me – he was clearly an important person – he used my company, and our activities, but hardly as a customer – in so much as he was always very friendly – I don’t mean affectionate, that kind of friendship – but he was never like a producer client. Have you ever heard of Michael Winner? Stanley was nothing like Michael Winner, who swears at you and who’s rude, and picks on young people who can’t answer back – just a terrible man – Stanley was nothing like that. But he would phone me up, and say, “I want to be able to hand-hold a camera and shoot sync sound...I hear that Arriflex have just brought out a blimp” (we’re going back a good way here). He said, “Can you hand-hold it? I understand it’s small, only 400 feet, when a Mitchell is 1000 feet”. I said, “You can’t really hand-hold” – he would say, “Well can I come and see it?” And I’d say, “Of course you can” – and he would probably always say, “Will you be there yourself?” – “Of course I will, let’s fix a time”. He didn’t ever come during daytime; he would come at 10 o’clock at night – really strange. And I would go back to the office, and whatever it was he wanted to see, or he’d heard about, I would show him, and I’d have one of my technical people if it needed detailed explanation of any kind, especially when complicated electronics came into our industry – but he would never say, “Well for the next picture I’d like to rent that for 10 weeks”. If he wanted that item, he would find out where it came from, and buy one for himself. He must have been quite wealthy – he’d had some very successful films, hadn’t he, and he had this special deal with Warner Bros. Imagine this, his deal with Warner Bros was that he submitted the script – if they approved the script, and gave him the money to make the film, part of the contract was they were not to be in touch with him at all until he showed them the finished movie. How many Producers, Directors, could ever have that clause – that the money people can’t say, “Well we’ve had a look at your workprint and we don’t think it’s going well” or, “It’s going to be too long” or, “It’s dull” or, “Who will ever pay money to see that?” – “Why would young people ever want to see that?” – or whatever else they might say. They would have the right to say in effect, “It’s our money, and we want this, that or the other changed”. And if the Director said, “No I’m not going to change this” they would then pay him off, and take on another director to finish the project. It happens all the time.
And I always think one of the most interesting things in the old Halliwell Film Guide – sadly no longer produced; it used to come out every two years – it was updated – each film would have all the most important front-of-screen credits – a bit about the story of the film – a bit about what two or three critics said, if it was an important film, or a popular film – and then it would often say who the preferred original actors were, but who were not available. It’s always interesting as to when you’ve subsequently seen the film, whichever stars played the parts, to be able to say, “Oh how interesting – they actually wanted John Wayne to play that part...I wonder what he would have been like?” - but he wasn’t available, didn’t like the script, not enough money on offer, or whatever it was. Anyway, back to Kubrick: he was entirely self-indulgent. What was his last film?
TH: "Eyes Wide Shut" -
Sir Sydney: "Eyes Wide Shut" – with that little actor – American – big star –
TH: Tom Cruise –
Sir Sydney: ...Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – I think that was certainly Kubrick’s last picture. I think they shot for over a year – it was made at Pinewood, it was a studio picture – over a year! And I don’t think it was much of a success...even after spending all that time. And he only used the very best people on it...I never saw that film, but I believe it was pretty sexually explicit, a serious film, but I don’t think it did that much business! [Laughs]
I don’t think anyone ever says to me, when we’re talking about enjoyable movies, I don’t ever remember anyone saying, “Gosh, did you see "Eyes Wide Shut"? - Stanley Kubrick” – I don’t think anybody said that to me. But there are quite a lot of successful Directors and Producers about who you have to say, “But his last five or six films didn’t work that well”.
I don’t know if it’s a case of whether directors simply lose their touch, get too old, or they don’t understand how the main audience - the main cinema audience – is younger, and they think in a different way. But you get people like one who I knew very well – Otto Preminger – he was a terrible man as well – used to shout at junior people – if a young actress or actor was having difficulty with their lines, and they did take after take after take, he used to scream at them – which of course doesn’t help! He was just...just awful on set. This kind of material we’re talking about, Tom, is it of interest?
TH: Yes – we’re going around –
Sir Sydney: You need to bring me back!
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
|TH: I would like to bring you back to the thread of 65mm and "2001" – last time we ended with Stanley Kubrick getting the equipment and taking all the measurements he needed – can you remember from the actual shooting of the film – did you have any contact with him and his crew...about the equipment?|
Sir Sydney: Only complaints! And some of them might have been justified, but I’ll tell you the kind of complaint – it wasn’t the lenses (“the 75mm lens is not good enough”) – they did these four weeks of tests, and of course the fact it was 65mm negative running through the camera, when they were doing the tests, if there was any lens that Kubrick thought was not as good as it could be – it may not have been that it wasn’t as good as it could be – just he thought it wasn’t as good as it could be. Maybe he didn’t think the focus scale was accurate; he thought that it was sharper when the focus was on 10 feet, if you had that scale on the lens at 10 foot 6 inches – I mean that kind of complaint. And being 65mm, we had to bring in every item of camera equipment from Los Angeles – we didn’t stock 65mm Panavision – there wasn’t enough 65mm Panavision for us to be able to hold a stock in London, and to have it waiting on shelves. There wasn’t a great amount of 65mm – there wasn’t a great call for 65mm – Panavision couldn’t afford to build gear, and not have it used. I would think that Panavision had enough 65mm probably to do two major movies at the same time – to shoot them both at the same time. It may be that there was a third film where they only needed one (wild) camera to get some coverage of something before they started the main shoot. Panavision would be able to supply them with just one camera and some lenses to go to say, the Himalayas, to get some preliminary material. But as far as providing three cameras – an average would be three cameras for any major film – I doubt they could cover more than two major 65mm productions at once.
So when we came to do 65mm out of our own premises, serviced from us, first of all, the gear had to be shipped from Los Angeles. We used to get the list from the crew of what they wanted, and then we would all order it and it would be shipped in by Panavision. But it wasn’t as if, when they wanted to change an item, that we had six of them on a shelf – if a cameraman said, “I’m not really happy, Sydney, with the 35mm lens”, or, “We’re having a bit of trouble with the sync motor...we think it’s hunting a bit – you know, it’s not running smoothly [Imitates noise of mechanism] – seems to be alright on the rushes, but we would like you to change it...give us another motor and let us try it” – that kind of thing, with the complexity of the mechanics, such problems happen all the time. With 65mm, with Kubrick at the helm – he was so unbelievably fussy – I had to rely on the common sense and the friendship of his camera crew people. Cameramen as an example of this, the cameraman on "2001: A Space Odyssey" -
TH: - was Geoffrey Unsworth.
Sir Sydney: Yes. Geoffrey was one of the nicest people you could ever imagine...and so indeed was Johnny Alcott – who was like a whizz-kid because of his longtime association with Kubrick. I would think that Johnny probably was permanently on Kubrick’s staff...he probably got a regular wage – not a Lighting Cameraman’s wage, when they were not actually shooting, but I can’t remember Johnny doing anything much for anyone except Kubrick in his latter days. And then the poor fellow had a heart attack and died very young, like 40, that kind of age.
TH: He did "Greystoke", didn’t he?
Sir Sydney: He did "Greystoke", yes –
TH: That looked beautiful in Super 35 –
Sir Sydney: Yes, you’re absolutely right – yes, wonderful music on "Greystoke" as well. Didn’t do much business – I thought it was a fascinating story, and I thought the actor, who played the difficult main part where he’s hopping about like an ape [Chuckles] – I thought he was excellent!
TH: Christopher Lambert -
Sir Sydney: Yes –
TH: How many years did they shoot "2001"? More than two years, wasn’t it?
Sir Sydney: Was it?
TH: I think so –
Sir Sydney: I don’t know – and I don’t know where I could look that up because it’s not a normally required statistic –
TH: There are many books explaining the background -
Sir Sydney: Of course, a film like that – but if you said to me, “How long did they take to shoot "Bunny Lake is Missing?"” – or you know, a run-of-the-mill film, I don’t know where you would find that statistic...unless you knew the production manager, or one of the camera crew who had a good memory and he could say, “Oh yeah, we were out in so-and-so and we were there about 6 weeks, and then we did 3 weeks back in the studio”. So you then knew they shot it in a normal 9 or 10 weeks. But extraordinary films – you might also know of some of those – like it’s legendary how long it look to shoot "Eyes Wide Shut", and how much it must have cost Warner Bros...they just sent the money, on demand, as it were.
TH: Can I finalise "2001" by asking, "2001" had a lot of special photography, well done in 65mm by the special effects team – do you have any recollection of their cameras, because they might not be Panavision cameras, they could be any 65mm camera –
Sir Sydney: I think they were all Panavision cameras – it was a very big assignment for us – I would think they had about five cameras. And Panavision’s 65mm cameras, they even had a hand-holdable 400 foot loading version – a 65mm camera that went on your shoulder – and they had a kind of a midway camera – by that I mean it was a 1000 foot camera, but it wasn’t blimped, so you couldn’t use it if you wanted to get sync sound. But it probably went up to a higher speed than the normal sync camera would – a normal sync camera is made to shoot at 24 or 25 frames – it might go up – you might be able to put a wild motor on it, like a Mitchell – and speed it up to 30 frames, but you couldn’t go at 120 frames say, with a Mitchell BNC, because all the design was into making it a quiet camera. And you couldn’t put a motor on it that was going to want to turn everything over – all the gears were fine, and tuned, but not designed to go at high speed.
Panavision had this 1000ft kind of standard camera that I think went up to 120 frames per second – which is not ultra-high speed, but it’s five times normal speed. When shooting anything at sea they always overcrank – instead of 24, they shoot at about 36 frames, because it smooths out the movement of the sea. If they were in a tank, and they’d got some wave machine creating disturbance in the water, if you shot that disturbance at high speed, it then had all the more effect of being the real thing, particularly with models – so that if you had a model of the Titanic and it was actually only 30 feet long, over-cranking the Titanic going through the water in the tank in Malta made it look bigger [Laughs] – made it feel bigger. So Panavision had two or three maybe of those versatile midway cameras which the special effects people would invariably use. And it was probably designed also to go at normal speed, high speed, to overcrank, and because you were not worrying about how much noise it made – because you weren’t attempting to shoot sound at the same time – it was an ideal camera for the special effects unit, for the action unit, for the aerial unit – whatever.
So Panavision – and I’m just estimating this – it would probably be able in my day to service two full-scale 65mm feature films, together with some ancillary cameras for special effects, etc. just as you said. I think the Special Effects man (on "2001") was a chap called Wally Veevers...and he was a great techie and a really nice man.
One of the problems Tom, is that nearly everybody’s died now! I look at the credits rolling up, and I used to know person to person pretty well. This will sound terribly pompous, but I knew pretty well all the British cameramen – any credit that went up, and said “Gil Taylor”, I knew Gil, I knew all about him, I knew how difficult he was, I knew what a good cameraman he was, and I knew many of the American cameramen. I didn’t know them all personally, but I got to know them because I saw so many movies, and I would know for example in the great MGM days, starting with before the War, and going on to what – 15 years after the War – they were the big Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer days. And so I would notice that their Senior Cameraman seemed to be a guy called Joe Ruttenberg...and I think he maybe is still the only Cameraman that’s won three Oscars, for Colour – or maybe not just for Colour...there was another one, called James Wong Howe, whose grandfather came to Los Angeles as a Chinese labourer, building the railway that ran from the East Coast to the West Coast. He came over with thousands of Chinese – they called them Coolies – his grandfather was a Coolie – but having reached San Francisco (it was actually from Chicago – Chicago to San Francisco) – I think they called it the Union Pacific Railway, where they built it from both ends – you’re a railway man, you know much more about this than me – but the rivet where they joined the two ends of track in the mid-West, ran a thousand miles in either direction, it was a golden set of rivets they used to mark their achievement –
TH: Spike – The Golden Spike
Sir Sydney: The Golden Spike – yes it’s not rivets, it’s spikes! Well, James Wong Howe’s grandfather was a labourer, and the reason that San Francisco has such a huge Chinese population to this day is because all those labourers were allowed to apply for permanent citizenship. And why would they go back to China when they could stay in America, marry, have their children, and have their children educated to the same standard as non-Chinese, non-minority children? And it applied also, as you probably know, to the Japanese – it was a bit later with the Japanese, and I don’t think that they came as labourers to build railways...but they came in large numbers, and first of all it was part of the ethic of Japanese life that whether you can afford any luxuries in life at all, it didn’t matter – the first thing was to educate your children. And I can tell you that for the immigrant Jewish families, it was the same. Even if you could only afford to give a really good education to one child, invariably the eldest son, if there wasn’t enough money – if the father was slaving away at a sewing machine, they would do their best to educate at least one child and get him a qualification. From then on, that poor innocent fellow would be expected to support all the brothers and sisters and brothers-in-law and everybody else, because he was the one who got the education (Laughs) – I’m talking Tom about a hundred years ago, or more. My grandparents came to this country about 1860...and my father was one of five. Four only survived – in other words, one died in infancy – the eldest one became a Chartered Accountant. None of the others did, but they all got on their feet in different ways. But the one who had a profession, and was educated – had what we call higher education – not University, but accountancy – accountancy college – that was the eldest one. But the Japanese were such wonderful technicians...and in Bob Gottschalk’s day – sorry, I have to tell you a little story about this – Bob found that the best people in his design department were of Japanese family origin.
|Panavision's Tak Miyagishima and Danish cinematographer and director Mikael Salomon in 1994.|
TH: Takuo Miyagishima?
Sir Sydney: Yes, Tak was an example of that - and he was Bob’s Chief Engineer. And the story I wanted to tell you was that Bob, who fell in love with anything Japanese – and I don’t know if you read my original notes, but I said that once I had to take issue with him. I said, “I don’t know if you know anything, Bob, about building a railway through Burma under the auspices of the Japanese Army if you were a British prisoner of war...where you were not only in that climate without any care or medication, but you were starving as well – you don’t know about that”. And he said, “I don’t think it was as bad as you say” [Laughs], and I remember thinking, “You don’t know, Bob, you simply don’t know”.
There’s a BAFTA colleague of mine who was the director of a series on television called "Fawlty Towers". It’s classic comedy – British-style comedy. Well, the director I think of the first eleven – no, the producer of the first eleven – is the name of a chap who was on the BAFTA Council – that’s how I knew him – and he always used to arrive at the Council meetings on time, or sometimes early. And if I got there early, I always used to enjoy chatting to him, really nice guy. And I once said to him, “You’re one of those people who’s always got a kind of smile on your face...I never see you looking cross, I never see you looking angry.” And he said. “Well, there’s a simple answer to that...I was in the British Army; I was captured in Singapore, and I was a prisoner on the Burma railway for three years. After that; having survived that; everything in life is absolutely bloody marvellous!” [Chuckles] ...That was his philosophy.
Anyway, going back to Bob Gottschalk, and the Japanese – he was so enamoured with them, that they were so reliable – that they were so conscientious – they didn’t arrive for work late, or anything like that – they studied – further education – even though they were doing a job at Panavision, they would get that extra qualification in their own time – which was just marvellous as far as employers were concerned. The day came when Bob needed two more people in the drawing office...so he put an advert in the local paper – “Engineering staff vacancies”, or “Engineering staff wanted” – whatever the paper was in Los Angeles where you could, once a week, advertise within the engineering industry. Bob advertised he wanted two Japanese mechanical draughtsmen. And he must have telexed it to the newspaper [Chuckles] - the small advertisement - the text – and he got a phone call from the person in the newspaper – probably The Los Angeles Times, in the office that handled the “Staff Wanted” page – and she apparently said, “I’m afraid by law you’re not allowed to specify the nationality or the ethnic background”. So Bob didn’t get beaten by what to him would have been a stupid law: he then changed his advertisement to read, “Wanted: Two mechanical draughtsmen, able to speak Japanese” [Laughter]
Because you know, if you’re not Japanese, not from a Japanese family, it’s very unusual if you can speak Japanese! [Laughs] So that’s how he got his two Japanese / American draughtsmen...and Tak was just fantastic – as a draughtsman, as an engineer / designer and as a person.
|When Bob got his first Oscar, his first Technical Oscar, it was – I don’t mean an Oscar that a Cinematographer using Panavision received, of which I think Freddie Young for "Lawrence" maybe was the first one – 65mm as it happens, I mean when Panavision got an Oscar for its technical contribution to the art of Cinematography. I can’t remember what the whole Citation was, but anyway Panavision got its own Oscar, and the Citation, after the first bit of wording, said, “To Robert Gottschalk, Chief Executive” – only Bob’s name. And I said, “Isn’t that amazing, it’s just lovely...and it’s all been done by one man!” [Laughs] You must admit, I’ve got nerve...I knew him well enough – “It’s all been done by one man”. And he knew exactly what I was getting at, because he was rather self-centred...so brilliant, but so selfish – he would have probably insisted that it was to record just his name. A technical award, you know beforehand it’s being considered, and he would have known someone in that department at the Academy, and he would have made it clear that he was Panavision. Which he was – however, in the case of an Oscar for engineering innovation and general excellence I thought that Tak’s name ought also to be there. And do you know, I think it got changed...how, I don’t know. I’d no idea whether Bob had second thoughts about it, I don’t know whether anybody complained – I don’t think Tak would have said a word – but somebody else might have said, “Bob, don’t you think that Tak, and Jack Barber [who was the guy that ran the workshop] – don’t you think their contribution to the design skills that made Panavision – or helped you to make Panavision what it became – don’t you think, on a Technical Oscar, [Technical Achievement I think they’re called] shouldn’t their names have been mentioned?” Or I might have said to Bob, “I’m disappointed that the Academy didn’t mention anybody else having made a contribution”.|
I’m telling you all that because Tak was a major part of what Panavision stood for, what they achieved. And he seemed to be not just in the optics, the mechanics, he seemed to know about everything. He was the Chief, and he had his board, his drawing board in his office, and he played a very major part in what Panavision became. I would say he probably had nothing to do with the business side of it – he couldn’t care less about how much a 100mm Super Panavision lens rented for, he wouldn’t care about that. But a lot of the cameramen knew him very well, and they would go and talk to him if they wanted something special made, like I’m pleased to say people used to come and talk to us in London.
A 20:1 Zoom
|The way of things was, they would first talk to me, and then I would say to them, “Well let’s go and talk to Bill Woodhouse, our Optics Chief” – he was affectionately known as “Bill the Lens”...that’s a sort of London kind of semi-Cockney way of describing someone. Anyway, Bill was I think an untrained optical expert – for all I know he went to Night School, and learned about optics – but he was just brilliant – and he, and Joe Dunton, who was on our staff at that time – they brought up the first 20:1 zoom lens – 20:1 – that would cover a 35mm frame. How they did it was they took an existing Angénieux 20:1 zoom lens designed to cover a 16mm frame, and in effect added – what’s it called, it’s like an extra lens?|
TH: An extender?
Sir Sydney: No, it’s not an extender...if you want to do a big close-up, you
put such a lens on the front, which enables you to focus right down close –
TH: I have a macro lens at home –
Sir Sydney: Yes, same item I’m sure –
TH: I can actually make a stamp be larger on the negative than it really is, because it magnifies – it focuses down to 2 inches –
Sir Sydney: There’s a name – Diopter – that’s it – they fitted a diopter, which they’d had to have specially made, to a certain optical formula. The new 20:1 zoom lens had its limitations because putting on the diopter reduced the speed of the lens by 2 stops. I think it started off at 5.6 – so it became maximum aperture: f11. Well not for every shot you want to do have you got a enough light to shoot at f11, nevertheless you could happily do most exteriors, and I remember Dickie Attenborough was shooting a film with an American director, and it was about a ghastly murderer – a real life story – the murderer’s name was Christie, and he lived in a terraced house –
TH: "10 Rillington Place"
Sir Sydney: Yes! My goodness, fantastic that you would remember that – because it wasn’t a big film – "10 Rillington Place" was the address of the house where they found the first body hidden behind a panel, and the police started investigating – I think in that house they found about five bodies. And, the owner of the house, who had mental difficulties, was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of some other people, tenants, I think two of them were prostitutes. These bodies that had been found had been murdered several years earlier. And the murderer was this multi-killer Christie, who was also a tenant in the house.
Anyway, what’s that got to do with the Angénieux 20:1 lens you’re asking yourself? [Chuckles] I was talking to Dickie, and he was telling me about this film, and the technical difficulty, because Dickie had hair that time. As for Christie, part of his persona was that he was completely bald – he was a bald-headed, ugly man, with horn-rimmed glasses - so Dickie had to be made up to look like Christie, not to look at all like lovable Richard Attenborough! So he had to wear what they call a “bald” wig. And although you couldn’t see the join, I think he spent 3 or 4 hours in make-up each morning, while they fitted his wig – covered the join. There were scenes where Dickie had to show emotion, went red in the face, but the bald part didn’t go red! [Laughs] Which was a major problem. So Dickie had to shoot emotional scenes – without being emotional! Somehow, he had to be mentally laughing it off, whatever he was shouting and screaming about, because his head changed colour if he let go, showed all the temper such scenes required.
Oh yes, the other thing was, and a true story, Christie disappeared. The police couldn’t find him – they knew he had done all the murders – I can’t remember the timeframe from the crimes, but the innocent owner of the house had been hanged, and then they found a couple more bodies somewhere else. They knew who the murderer was – but where was he? Eventually he was arrested, this is in real life, on Putney Bridge. He was standing, looking into the River Thames, leaning on the balustrade at the side, there was this bald-headed figure, the police found him. And the shot the director imagined, when we told him, “We’ve got a 20:1 zoom, a 20 to 400mm – ”
Anyway, they did a great wide angle shot of Putney Bridge...and the houses all around, and the river – and there was a little tiny speck of a human being leaning over the side of the wall...and they did a 20:1 zoom in, and there was Christie at the end of it. So that was the first 20:1 feature film shot that we can claim! Probably a bit of useless information for you, but that was part of the kind of thing we did, and we did it because, as I’ve said many times – when people have said, “Well, how did you come to build up that marvellous business?” I used to say, “Because what I’m good at is finding and choosing people”. And that’s really, absolutely true – I couldn’t just on my own have thought out a 20:1 zoom lens! Even an f11 maximum aperture lens – but it was a 20:1 zoom that didn’t exist before Samuelson’s. I had all these marvellous people on staff who together made such things happen.
David Lean and The Friese-Greene Award
Ask me another question that’s important to you –
TH: I think we should talk about David Lean because you knew him well, and he shot "Ryan’s Daughter" on 65mm and "Zhivago" on 35mm (then printed up to 65mm) – both with Freddie Young as DP.
Sir Sydney: Yes, we can talk about that, and I can get the photograph I’ve got of me with him. You can reproduce it if you want to!
Sir Sydney: Now look at this please.
TH: The Friese-Greene Award...
Sir Sydney: Do you know who Friese-Greene was?
TH: He made projectors, I seem to remember –
|Alex Thomson in Bradford, 22. March 2004|
Sir Sydney: – Cameras; certainly the first British moving image camera was allegedly invented by Claude Friese-Greene. My brother David, who knows more about the detail and the history, says the trouble with the Friese-Greene camera was, it didn’t work very well! Friese-Greene actually died in abject poverty...he dropped dead at a technical meeting and he was found with only a few coppers in his pocket – but he had an achievement that was a start to Cinematography in this country. His son became a very fine Cinematographer. Ronnie Neame was his operator – and he, Ronnie, got his first breaks as a Lighting Cameraman when deputising for Friese-Greene. His great grandson, I think it is, was the young man (who works for Panavision Ireland, in their branch there) who presented the Friese-Greene Award to me. And I knew nothing about it until it happened. It’s a beautiful glass thing – not easy to lift it – it was designed by a Cameraman’s wife, Alex Thomson – the late Alex Thomson BSC – you’ve heard of him?
TH: I met him –
Sir Sydney: Oh, you met him –
TH: - in Bradford – he came up and presented "Hamlet", which he shot for Kenneth Branagh in 65mm.
Sir Sydney: Absolutely – his wife is a fine sculptress, and she designed it – I think the BSC commissioned it – the Friese-Greene – is a life-size statue in the house at the front of Shepperton Studios, and then I think the BSC must have commissioned her to make some miniature versions.
I did it small because I wanted to keep it – can you read that?
TH: “Presented to Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE by William Friese-Greene’s great-grandson Kevin Greene at the All-Industry Tribute Lunch (to Sydney) at the Grand Camelot Room, London 22nd September 2011. The Award was created to honour the man who is regarded as the inventor of Kinematography. It was his death in poverty in 1921 that led to the founding of the Cinema Veterans, now the British Cinema and Television Veterans and also the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund. The Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund has become the Custodian of the Friese-Greene Award. It is intended to recognise people with an outstanding career in Cinema, or who have made a major contribution to the Cinema and Television industries. The Fund believes there can be no more suitable recipient for this first Award than Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE for his lifetime achievements”
|Sir Sydney Samuelson with his awards.|
Sir Sydney: The first time it’s been presented – so there’s a bit of history about the British industry. Right, I’ll just get the David Lean photo –
TH: Would you mind if I took a picture of you next to your awards up here?
Sir Sydney: No, I wouldn’t mind at all – and in fact, if you’re not going to show it – the lower part, I could kneel down there so I’d be level with it! [Laughter]
TH: I’ll bring the camera!
TH: It’s wonderful pictures you have – like these portraits – really nice.
Sir Sydney: That one’s a French – the painter was French – they are, I think, of a Sicilian couple –
When we moved to – first time we had quite a large house, we needed stuff to hang on our walls. We knew the kind of things we liked, so we spent a couple of years collecting pictures. What amazed us, Tom, was how many pictures that we absolutely would be aghast if they were hanging on our wall! Like hunting scenes, where someone’s holding up the fox, with its throat cut, with the dogs yapping, who would want that on their wall?
And the other subject that there are a lot of, is a Biblical theme – John the Baptist with his severed head on a silver slaver, sometimes with the blood dripping down the side!
|Sir Sydney Samuelson with his picture of Sir David Lean and himself.|
– Here’s the David Lean –
[TH takes photo]
TH: David Lean’s films: I think "Doctor Zhivago" is one of my all-time favourite movies...I read Kevin Brownlow’s magnificent book about David Lean, and I’ve been following David Lean since the mid ‘70s when I saw "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia" for the first time. So can we talk about David Lean? –
Sir Sydney: OK – David Lean, in my book, is, as far as Cinema is concerned, the greatest story-teller in cinema history. When you think of just the stories – of course the fact that most of them are big stories – but when you think of what is in a traditional David Lean film, it’s so impressive. That doesn’t mean he’s the only British filmmaker that matters, but, as far as the screen is concerned – the action and romance – and the relationship that he depicts one human being has for another, and the complexities of the way people think, from so many different backgrounds. David Lean I first came to know really through Panavision. It was at the time of "Lawrence of Arabia" but it was not when I personally began to know David. What I only learned later was that the great Freddie Young – now I don’t need to explain to you Tom, who Freddie Young was – or the significance of it being him I’m going to talk about – but he had just won what I think was Panavision’s first Oscar: first Oscar for Best Cinematography of a film shot in Panavision – "Lawrence of Arabia" – Panavision 65.
Bob Gottschalk was ecstatic – I think because he had so many people in LA, his own town, who didn’t like him. He would have felt that they were his enemies, you could be a Bob Gottschalk enemy simply because you didn’t use Panavision! There wasn’t anything in between, there was jealousy I think in the other direction towards Bob, because he had produced something really superior – lenses, anamorphic lenses that were better than any anamorphic lenses in existence before he came on the Hollywood production scene; he had great success as a company who’d come from nowhere.
Bob originally owned a camera shop, I know I talked about this to you already. What happened was that various firms in Europe had approached Bob Gottschalk and said, “Well, your anamorphic lenses seem to be very well thought of in America, so why don’t you have representation outside America, especially in Europe?” Now I don’t know who else approached him, Bob, except for one. Remember, first of all, in Bob Gottschalk’s eyes, Freddie Young could do no wrong, and they had become very good friends. So, when Freddie was doing another picture, it was automatically planned to be in Panavision. Freddie would go over to Los Angeles to talk about the equipment and he would spend time there. Bob Gottschalk would entertain Freddie and his wife, Joan, constantly. If they would agree, he would take them out every night and drive them out somewhere interesting in the Los Angeles area. At the weekend nothing changed as far as entertaining the Youngs was concerned.
Freddie had asked Bob about his business and how it was that he had got equipment that people really wanted, especially the lenses. It was mostly to do with anamorphic lenses at that time – there was no 35mm Panavision camera, for example, until later. But people wanted to rent anamorphics which could be shipped as necessary, and fitted to their own Mitchell camera. The only exception was Panavision supplied, for hand-holdable shooting, an Arriflex camera body adapted to take Panavision lenses. It was not monobloc lenses, meaning an anamorphic lens which was the prime lens and the anamorphoser all in one piece – it was the attachment anamorphoser that was in front of the prime lens. It meant, in those days, that you had to have two focus pullers, because if you needed a shot where focus had to be changed during the shot, you had to have one focus puller for each lens - because the focus scales were separate, and the amount of movement to go, say, from 20 feet to 4 feet, the amount of movement to change the focus on the anamorphoser was different to how much change there was on the prime lens. Sometimes the control lever for the change of focus was on the opposite side of the camera for the anamorphoser, compared to the focus lever for the prime lens.
But nevertheless, Panavision would supply a hand-holdable camera, an Arriflex, that would take three prime lenses on its turret, with an anamorphoser that you can put in front of any one of the three. And that was pretty well all that Panavision supplied in those days. Now when Freddie was next over in Los Angeles, checking out the equipment he would need for his next picture, which was also Panavision - but Panavision 65 – it was called "Lord Jim" – I think that was the picture he did next, after "Lawrence" –
TH: Freddie went to Los Angeles again?
|Sir David Lean and Sir Sydney Samuelson. Sir Sydney's collection|
Sir Sydney: ...Freddie went to Los Angeles, but the person who really needed to go to check out the gear was not Freddie, not Freddie’s operator, rather it was Freddie’s focus puller! He was the chap who would be in charge of all the equipment on the shoot, and he was the chap who knew best about all the equipment. He was the chap who would say, “I’d also like to look at the matte boxes” and if he was shown a matte box that would only take one filter, he would be the one who would say to whoever was showing him the equipment at Panavision, “Yes, but Mr. Young sometimes wants to put a diffuser on, as well as an 85 filter – you need a matte box that will take two filters...or he might want to be able to take a fog filter, as well as another filter”. And so Panavision would, without too much difficulty, make matte boxes for this particular job that would each have two filter holders built into them, and maybe even a rotating third filter holder to put a Polascreen into.
And so the focus puller was the key man. But of course Freddie was the one who would go for two weeks to Panavision to be shown around town with his wife, by Bob Gottschalk, and who would be looked after by Bob’s people. Everybody would have a lovely time. And being Oscar-winning Freddie Young, for the Distributor making – financing – the next picture – if Freddie said, “I think I need to go to Los Angeles to talk about the equipment I want – to see what they’ve got that’s new would be useful” – they wouldn’t say, “No, we can’t afford that Mr. Young” – he would be allowed to go. A lesser-achieving Cameraman would be told, “I’m afraid you’ll have to do it on the phone”!
Anyway, Bob Gottschalk had lots of hours of conversation, and I know at some time Freddie must have been talking about representation of Panavision in the UK...and Bob must have said, “Well I’ve had somebody, who seems to have the necessary facilities and the necessary company set-up, that they could represent us in London – which is the first place we would probably want to have an agency. A man came to see me, John Davis – in fact, Sir John Davis – and he runs The Rank Organisation. And The Rank Organisation already represents camera companies like Nikon – they distribute Nikon in the UK – and Pentax, and he said that his firm would definitely be right to distribute Panavision”. Freddie said something about, “I think, before you sign up with The Rank Organisation, I doubt if John Davis himself would know what your technical requirements would be; first of all, The Rank Organisation knows nothing about renting equipment, they only know about selling equipment. Yes, they sell Arriflex cameras – they’re the agents - they sell Nikons and Pentaxes, and all sorts of hi-fi equipment – but they don’t know anything about renting equipment. So I think you should see Sydney Samuelson”.
Now in parallel to that – and I’ve also already told you about this – I realised that more and more credits on films I saw had a logo which said, “Photographed in Panavision” - less and less seemed to be “CinemaScope”. Of course there was a bit of Todd-AO 65mm at that time – "Around the World in 80 Days", for example. So Bob Gottschalk had obviously taken on board that there was a chap recommended by, in his mind, Freddie Young – he who could do no wrong – “He Who Shall Be Obeyed” if you like, to use another phrase. “He’s told me about four brothers who do know about equipment, and Cinematography, and they have a rental company”. But he didn’t do anything about it, because taking decisions as momentous, for Bob Gottschalk, as somebody else handling his beloved equipment, would take a bit of thinking about; a bit of investigation.
Purely by coincidence, I was attempting to get in touch with him. I used to try on the telephone, but I don’t think I was ever put through to him – “I will tell Mr. Gottschalk, Mr. Samuelson, that you called again, and I’ll ask him if he would be able to call you back”. It never got any further than that. And then I used to start enlarging on the content of my phone calls by saying, “A long-time customer is preparing a major feature film, and I’m pretty certain that they would shoot in Panavision anamorphic if they could come along to us to get Panavision anamorphic lenses”.
I would have conversations – not with Bob Gottschalk, but with his Number Two – a chap called Frank Vogelsang – but it never got to the Boss Man...or it got to the Boss Man, but he never responded directly to me. And then I noticed, of course, that with individual production companies, some of them were determined to use Panavision, and were renting Panavision lenses themselves from Panavision, Los Angeles – renting them – because Panavision didn’t sell anything – they were renting themselves, bringing them in, setting up the lenses on the cameras they were going to use – from Shepperton or Pinewood Studios. Mind you, they had to cut a set of matching viewfinder cams for their own cameras, a long and tedious procedure.
|Panavision camera equipment. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site|
Then, as I think I’ve probably told you, luck again comes into one’s life. I consider I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever come across – and being at the right place at the right time is the most often-used luck I’ve had throughout my business life and my personal life. This includes how I met my wife 66 years ago. Well, the people making the James Bond film had started to shoot the fourth one, "Thunderball". A lot of it was to be filmed underwater; I think Panavision had constructed an underwater blimp – or maybe they already had an underwater blimp – and Eon Productions, who make the Bond films to this day, had brought in a stack of Panavision lenses, and an underwater blimp, and had gone down to Weymouth to shoot for the first day. Not underwater, but at sea, and on other locations in that coastal area. I’d just put in an answering phone, at home, so that, as I put my phone number in my catalogue, out-of-hours, people could phone me; occasionally I might not be in, but I would be able to deal with the call upon my return.
So answer phones had appeared – it was a box about that size [Gestures] that stood on a table, but nevertheless, if you weren’t in, it answered the phone – it left a message. It was a German company, with a branch only along the road from our company. I went to see this amazing new electronic gadget, and so I said, “I want one of those”. It was all different because in those early days the message had to be recorded in their studio by them – you couldn’t answer it yourself and leave a message saying, “Please phone back”, or anything like that – you had to specify a message to their specification, spoken by a woman, who they supplied.
So when they were in trouble with the imported Panavision equipment, including the ancillary items that they’d rented from Panavision – like the friction head, tripod, stuff like that – they’d had trouble fitting it to work with their own gear. They complained to Panavision that the equipment they’d supplied was not standard, and they were unable to use it. Why the crew didn’t previously check every aspect of how this camera would be used on a geared head that they were supplying from the Studio, I’ve no idea, but they had phoned Panavision Los Angeles and said, “We can’t use some of the equipment you sent us”.
I got home, and there was my answering phone, going – and it was Bob Gottschalk himself. Now I had had a conversation with him by then, and he had said, “Well I’ll think about it”...and I said, “Well I think you should come here, Mr. Gottschalk, and see our place and let me show you what we do. Or, I will come to Los Angeles”. Before any of that, he’d had a row with my answer phone! Because there were no answer phones in Los Angeles, yet, and Bob didn’t understand that this “woman” was just delivering an electronic message! Because, while she was saying, “You have reached the phone number for Samuelson Film Service Ltd., and if you would care to leave a message – ” – which bad tempered Bob Gottschalk, not knowing what the hell was going on, and who this woman was, interrupted, and said, “I don’t want a message, I want to speak to Sydney Samuelson!” And of course she goes on talking about, “The number to phone is: [so-and-so and so-and-so]” And he eventually hung up, in high dudgeon, because he didn’t understand; it was a machine just to take a message. But I had his name from this row that went on with my answer phone, so I phoned him back. And he then sort of continued his shouting at me, saying about the camera crew, “These f---ing idiots! I don’t know who they are, but they obviously don’t know what they’re doing! They’ve got standard equipment, which they’re complaining about, and saying it doesn’t fit together”. Then he said, “You told me that you’ve got a good Chief Engineer, and I want you – [and these are his exact words] – to tell him to get his ass down to Wye-mouth, wherever that is, and sort them out! I know there is nothing wrong with our equipment!” And I said, “I’ll put Bill Vicker onto a train first thing in the morning”. He said, "No, I think you should send him now!" I said, “It’s 2am in London”. He didn’t even understand that, really! I don’t think he’d ever travelled out of America, at that time; he didn’t understand the time differences, and so on. An intelligent man, who knew nothing about being abroad. And I said, “There are no trains to Weymouth leaving until – whatever the first train is in the morning – and it’ll probably be the milk train, which is no good because it makes 18 stops! But whatever the first, fast train is, Bill Vicker will be on it, with his tool kit”. And that’s what happened. Before I hung up, I said, “But we’ve got to meet up, Mr. Gottschalk, because as you know, I’d like my company to represent you...but we need to talk about it; we’ll need to discuss a deal”. He said, “I know, I know you’ll need a deal, and we’re going to have a deal – but you just get your man down there, to those idiots”. That was, more or less, the phone call that I had – that’s how we sorted out Panavision. And that’s how I had the reason to go and visit Panavision. I phoned him up; I was able to tell him, later that day, like 5pm about, as soon as I knew they’d be at work in the morning, in Los Angeles – and I said, “It’s all been sorted out – there was nothing wrong with it – a few adjustments that Bill Vicker has done, and they’re perfectly happy now. Now, I need to come and talk to you”. He said, “Well yes, you can do that”. How lucky can you be?
So I went. Bob he showed me all round, which I thought was a good sign. It’s funny how I remember how I was thinking at that time, because he knew I was with my wife, because I didn’t know I was going to be there, for very long – it was just to meet the big man. And I had Doris waiting in the car outside, reading a book! But I remember thinking, “If he just says to me, ‘Well why don’t we have dinner’...if he says that, I’ll know we’re in with a chance here, a chance to be ‘Panavision – Europe’”. I thought, “Why not – it doesn’t have to be Panavision UK, let’s talk about Panavision Europe”. And it turned out he didn’t really know the difference! [Laughter] - Between England, and Europe!
TH: Same thing [Chuckles]
|Publicity still from "Doctor Zhivago" - note the Panavision camera. Picture MGM|
Sir Sydney: Yes, exactly! Anyway, he never did ask us to dinner. I came back, and then something else happened, a definite order – it was Freddie Young again – a little picture even you may never have heard of Tom...so small that I can’t remember the name for the moment – anyway, it was a picture to be made by the Boulting Brothers, and I think it was even in black-and-white – there was still as much black-and-white shot as there was colour, in those days. I was able to phone Bob and say, “I’ve got a picture, and they would like to shoot Panavision. And the cameraman is Freddie Young. It’s a small picture – we need five lenses. And a Panavision-modified Arri”. And that was really the start of it. And so my brother Tony and I went to Los Angeles. We did a deal, and the rest is history, as it were. I got to know Bob Gottschalk, as you are aware, very, very well. A brilliant, amazing man, wonderful sense of humour...unbelievably self-centred and selfish – I told you a bit about that. Nevertheless, what a wonderful business partner to have, completely honest, always.
And meanwhile, "Zhivago" had started shooting in Spain; and David Lean, being rather selfish himself – brilliant again, not quite the sense of humour that Bob Gottschalk had, nevertheless another brilliant guy; wonderful, great filmmaker – he was not hugely pleased that it was not just David Lean who won an Oscar for "Lawrence of Arabia". His Cameraman, the “old man” [Chuckles], he also got an Oscar. David would never admit it – but everyone knew he was a bit jealous – even though he’d got an Oscar – Best Film for goodness sake – did he get Best Director? I think he must have done.
TH: Sam Spiegel picked up the Oscar for Best Film, and David got the Oscar for Best Direction, I think. The film won seven Oscars all together.
Sir Sydney: That’s right...yes.
TH: - Anne Coates won for Best Editing, I think –
Sir Sydney: Yes –
TH: And did the music win? I can’t remember -
Sir Sydney: Ah - Maurice Jarre – yes. You want to know who the Camera Operator was, or the Focus Puller? Ernie Day.
TH: He was the Camera Operator?
Sir Sydney: Yes, did several pictures – anyway, David Lean decided he didn’t have to have Freddie Young to shoot "Zhivago" – huge picture. And he had decided - maybe because Sam Spiegel would always be pleading poverty – and indeed, Sam Spiegel – or “S. P. Eagle” as he was originally known – a nom de plume because he’d been in prison under the name of Sam Spiegel, so he modified his name for the film industry to S. P. Eagle – and I think his credit for "Lawrence" may have been “S. P. Eagle”, was it? He would have got his Oscar in his real name –
TH: I remember “S. M. Spiegel” on the poster –
Sir Sydney: You do – well then...but of course the posters may have been printed later – but certainly the film before that – maybe he had such huge and wonderful success with Lawrence that he then reverted to Sam Spiegel, and to hell with the fact that he’d been in prison for fraud, in Austria. Anyway, for a cameraman he took on a filmmaker who you will know – a very bright, much, much younger DP.
TH: – Nicolas Roeg?
Sir Sydney: Nicolas Roeg. You know this story? Nicolas started, as DP, the shoot on "Zhivago", and I knew he was a good cameraman, half Freddie’s age, probably - but David Lean simply did not like what he saw on the screen. And probably, through bad luck for Nic, they started with a huge street scene at night – remember, with the trams going up and down? The street lamps on, and snow, and the crowds of extras – the whole thing, those were the first scenes they did. Anyway, after two weeks, David Lean decided he would have to change the Cameraman...now that’s a big decision on a film of that size – and he wasn’t deciding to change some inept Spanish cameraman who had been forced upon him because they were going to shoot the picture in Spain, or anything like that; Nic Roeg was an eminent Cameraman – an eminent young Cameraman – but he said, “You’ve got to go”. I’m sure that Nic would have had a very good severance payment: probably he was contracted for the whole of the picture – so goodness knows how much he got in compensation. But it’s not good to be fired off a picture; everybody in the business knows when a cameraman is changed.
Like, we were talking about Alex Thomson, weren’t we – Alex Thomson – another very good Cameraman – he started "Jesus Christ Superstar". I think they were shooting in Israel at the beginning, and after a few weeks, Norman Jewison, the Director, didn’t like what was going up on the screen – didn’t hate it, but just didn’t like it. But he must have accepted it, because what Alex Thomson shot for the first four weeks or so was in the picture, in the end – so it wasn’t that unusual or anything – but Norman Jewison changed him, and Douggie Slocombe became the Cameraman. I know that for Alex it took a bit of living down, the fact that he’d been changed.
But back to "Doctor Zhivago": it must have been a predicament for David, because he needed a Cameraman, instantly...he’d fired his Cameraman, and neither David Lean nor Nic Roeg himself wanted Nic Roeg to continue, even for ten minutes after he’d been fired – neither of them wanted that – so Nic was out, instantly. The safest thing to do was for David to go back to Freddie Young – Oscar-winning Freddie Young – who of course was absolutely acceptable to everybody – what’s the term they use when decisions are taken at board meetings? The printed minutes would report “It was received with acclamation”. Freddie Young who had done so many big pictures, including "Lawrence of Arabia", for David Lean. So Freddie was back on "Zhivago".
|Sir Sydney Samuelson in his garden, October 2011.|
TH: Technicolor Rome made this format called –
Sir Sydney: – Techniscope –
TH: – Super Techniscope, which used only two perfs – the entire width of the frame, leaving out the area where the soundtrack would go, so you would have a 2.35:1 flat spherical image –
Sir Sydney: Absolutely – and you had to modify each camera you used, to pull down only two perforations – but it reduced the cost of your negative by 50%! But you still have to have an internegative – an interpositive I suppose – because you had this 2.35:1 ratio spherical shape that you had to optically get up to 35mm anamorphic. You had a spherical negative – so you had to make an interpositive, and then make an internegative from that...and you were starting with a 50% area only of negative. So the purists hated Techniscope! The producers and the production accountants didn’t think it was that bad, because it was cheaper. ARRI supplied a Techniscope gate and claw movement, and we fitted them to our cameras. Depending on how much Techniscope business we had, we would not have normally modified them back; we would have kept them as Techniscope-only cameras.
The question with Bob Gottschalk vis-à-vis Techniscope – which he despised, and you would understand why: lack of quality, a fake anamorphic format. My contract – our contract – with Panavision was that we could not handle any other anamorphic equipment...but of course Techniscope was not anamorphic! And although Bob objected, I had to say to him, “Bob, I can’t afford to turn down pictures where they’ve decided they’re going to go in Techniscope. There are too many low-budget pictures being shot Techniscope, and we just have to take whatever business we can”. And Bob had to admit that our contract of exclusivity was limited to shooting in true anamorphic.
I remember we serviced one of the Olympic Games films and it was, like, 30 cameras from us of all different kinds – all modified to Techniscope. It was the biggest contract of its kind we’d ever had - it was the Mexican Olympics. And it so happened that the presenter for the BBC doing the television coverage - he’s now retired, but he was the number one sports commentator for the BBC – was David Coleman. We switched on for the opening ceremony, we were sitting watching it and the compère said, “Oh, and by the way there’s a feature film being made of this brilliant event, and everywhere you look, there are film cameras. And I can tell you, that whenever you see a film camera, it’s come from a British company, called Samuelsons”. It was just one of the great business moments of my life! “It’s come from a British company - Samuelsons” [Laughs]
Anyway, we’ve diverted a bit – we must go back to David Lean. So the small Freddie Young picture that we were involved in was called "Rotten to the Core" – it didn’t do much business I think. It was a comedy, black-and-white, it was the Boulting Brothers and it was shot at Pinewood with four Panavision anamorphic lenses on their studio cameras. And "Lord Jim", incidentally, I think must have been after "Lawrence", but it was 65mm Panavision and they hired the equipment direct. I went to see Freddie when he was shooting "Lord Jim" on the big silent stage at Shepperton – but it wasn’t our equipment. Maybe some ancillary gear came from us, like grip, dollies, geared heads, filters – whatever.
Anyway, back to "Zhivago" – they shot it – what did we call it – Panavision –
TH: It was filmed in Panavision – 35mm anamorphic –
Sir Sydney: Yes, that’s right...yes it was, sorry – yes it was 35mm anamorphic. But it was printed up – at first anyway – to 65mm. So I think they composed for a 65mm frame, and that’s how it became acceptable, instead of shooting on expensive 65mm negative. David and Freddie and crew would have happily accepted shooting on 35mm negative – anamorphic – instead of 65mm spherical. Of course, there was also a 65mm anamorphic system –
TH: Ultra Panavision –
Sir Sydney: Ultra Panavision – I suggest we don’t go there for a moment! But "Doctor Zhivago" was 35mm anamorphic, and it was a bit of a compromise as far as the crew was concerned, compared to 65mm spherical; they’d all shot "Lawrence" and, no doubt, "Lord Jim" as well. Anyway, I went out to see Freddie, because we took over the servicing of "Zhivago"...because we became official agent for Panavision, Europe while "Zhivago" was shooting. And I remember going to the studio in Spain, and they were doing an interior, where they were all (the actors) supposed to be bitterly cold; they were in great thick overcoats – Omar Sharif, and our great actor –
TH: Julie Christie?
Sir Sydney: – Julie Christie –
TH: Rita Tushingham –
Sir Sydney: – Rita Tushingham. No, the man – Alec Guinness.
TH: – Ralph Richardson?
Sir Sydney: – Ralph Richardson, yes that’s another one. Guinness won the Oscar for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" – that came in there – that was earlier I think, that was CinemaScope.
They were all there, in these thick Russian overcoats...and it was the height of Summer! With brute arcs, in the crude Spanish studio, with no air conditioning. And the only thing they’d got was like dustbins full of ice, with electric fans blowing on top of them to throw out a bit of cold air. And – David Lean would not be able to say, “Turn over” until the make-up people had been in, and dabbed everybody’s faces at the last moment. And of course, he had to post-sync everything, because there were 20 noisy fans blowing into dustbins of ice to try to make it bearable to do any shooting at all.
Anyway, they shot that picture, and of course it was a huge success. Freddie Young again got an Oscar – David Lean was not recognised, at all. They had some brilliant Cinematography in it – one of the iconic shots of all time I think was the shot of Julie Christie looking through a frosted-up window. Can you remember that shot? She sort of clears it of snow, and you see that beautiful face through the window. The “snow” for the Russian country house sequence was actually all marble dust – amazing! John Box, he too won an Oscar, for Production Design – remember all the icicles and things? All fake!
Anyway, it was wonderful picture – there was an excellent VHS, have you ever seen the tape about the making of "Zhivago"? You have? Good.
TH: I have the DVD –
Sir Sydney: I was going to lend it to you! In it, there’s the stuff about the actress running along the side of the train, trying to hand her baby in, and there was a real life accident, she was hurt, and she was rushed to hospital. David Lean didn’t increase his number of friends when, after she’d been taken to hospital, and nobody knew how injured she might or might not be, he said, “Right, get a double for her” and he continued shooting! And when you think of it, he was absolutely right – what difference does it make? Nobody on the set could give any medical attention; the woman was in hospital. They had got the train, and a thousand extras, and whatever else there was – but David was considered to be totally heartless, that his actress had been taken away in an ambulance.
Anyway, that was just one of many incidents; you obviously know "Zhivago" and the making of it very well; you know that those Winter scenes with the horses were shot in Finland. An absolutely wonderful picture and, I think, a film that was hugely enhanced by the brilliance of the music. Incidentally, the main theme is the most recorded film theme in the history of Cinema – it’s called Lara’s Theme. And it was actually from a folk song, a Russian folk song. Other musicians, other than Maurice Jarre (who got an Oscar for it), it gets up their noses that the main theme, he didn’t even write it! But he used it.
But that’s very much a musician’s complaint, because most films have source music in them. And so the nominated composers, who don’t get the Oscar, they always seem to feel to be able to complain...but of course it was mainly source music, but he still got a bloody Oscar, didn’t he!
Anyway, so "Zhivago", we were on. It was not our equipment – other than some ancillaries that maybe Shepperton didn’t have. I think all the cameras came from the Shepperton Camera Department, and they had a freelance Camera Engineer, Ted Worringham, on the crew.
|Then, the next one after that was "Ryan’s Daughter". Now what happened here was I don’t think there was ever going to be a different Cameraman to Freddie, because David had had such a difficult cameraman experience on "Zhivago". Particularly the American critics, they slated "Ryan’s Daughter". I think you’ll find there was 9 years between the release of it, before David did his next (and last) film...which was "A Passage to India".|
They built a village on the west coast of Ireland – do you know all about the making of "Ryan’s Daughter", so I don’t need to go into that?
Thomas and the School House from "Ryan's Daughter" on the west coast of Ireland, 4 July 2004
TH: I visited the area where it was photographed. And the schoolhouse is still there –
Sir Sydney: Really –
TH: - and many people make pilgrimages to the schoolhouse to enjoy the –
Sir Sydney: What is it called now? There was a single short name – not Brawdy – that’s on the west coast of Wales –
TH: Dunquin –
Sir Sydney: Dunquin? I don’t think so. [Ed. – the village is called “Kirrary” in the film]
TH: Yes, they were based in a small village called Dingle –
Sir Sydney: Dingle – that’s it!
TH: But 14 kilometres to the west you reach the west coast of Ireland – and there’s a very small village called Dunquin -
Sir Sydney: Really...and you’ve been there –
TH: - and it’s beautiful -
Sir Sydney: Right – well I want to tell you a bit about "Ryan's Daughter"...the equipment side of it. I feel comfortable with you knowing...Did I tell you before about the first few days of rushes – David wouldn’t accept them?
TH: No –
Sir Sydney: OK, it was 65mm – in this case, all the equipment was shipped first to us, and the David Lean camera crew came to our works to check it out – used all our facilities. And of course, everything not supplied by Panavision, for example grip equipment, came from us. So we received for the Panavision stuff a small percentage of the hire fee – I can’t quite remember what it was. When we started with Panavision anamorphic for 35mm, Bob wouldn’t at first tell us what commission we should receive – until my brother Tony and I were actually at the airport, to fly back to London, about to go through immigration. Finally Bob decided to tell us what our percentage of the rental would be. As we went in to immigration Bob whispered in my ear, “You’ll get 20%”. Well I was so thrilled to be winning the Panavision agency – exclusive in Europe – and I was truly delighted. But it’s indicative of how much common sense that Bob had, that even though he was so difficult in other respects – because I soon had to go to him and say, “Bob, with the amount of work we’re involved in, especially now that it’s as much spherical as anamorphic – ” (because anamorphic temporarily went out of fashion to an extent – there was always some, but not very much. Cost was really the reason for it) – I had to say to Bob, “ – we can’t manage on 20%. There’s too much of our people’s time required, throughout a movie”. And he said, “Well I’ll think about it, and I’ll let you know”. In other words, that’s a big difference to saying, “Well what do you think it should be”. Or, “What are you asking for” - I didn’t even have that option. He said, “I’ll think about it; I’ll let you know”. And quite honestly, if he’d said, “No, I’ve decided you’ll have to manage on 20%”, I wouldn’t have thrown away the benefit of having Panavision under our roof – and all the rental business for all the other equipment we received. But nevertheless, I expected – I’d made a good case for what we had to do and what our involvement was. And do you know, he phoned me and said, “I’ve decided on a new percentage; you’ll get 40%” - he doubled it! Just like that.
To finish this bit of the "Ryan’s Daughter" story, because it’s to do with the equipment; it was Panavision 65 equipment. The crew had done extensive tests - not like the Kubrick ones, photographing a monitor that was focussed on a focussing scale! [Chuckles] But they’d done really accurate lens tests – and they’d gone away to Ireland with this huge load of gear – very happy – everybody was happy. We were happy, because of what we knew. I think the original schedule was about 20 weeks – of course it went much more than that – you know, I expect, that they ran out of good weather? And they went and shot in South Africa...did you know they had to paint the cliffs there to match the ones they’d shot in Ireland?
|Freddie Young's Camera Team on "Ryan's Daughter. Chris Holden (Focus Puller/2nd Unit Camera Operator) lower left with tweed cap. David Lean in the middle, next to 65mm Panavision camera. Image from Russ Holden |
Anyway, back to my side of it, after the first 3 days of shooting in Dingle, I got a phone call from there, from the Production Manager – one of the biggest – big-time Production Managers – John Palmer – and he said, “Sydney, we’ve got terrible trouble here, we’ve had our rushes back and there’s a problem with the focus”. I said, “What kind of problem?” He said, “Well, David has just stormed out...we’ve had our first day’s rushes and David has stormed out and said, ‘That’s absolutely useless, the lot of it’”. And John said, “We’ve remonstrated with him – ” – Does that word mean anything? Remonstrated? – Argued. “We’ve argued with him that it seems alright, and his camera crew felt that it was probably OK”. My first question was, “You’ve got three cameras out there at the moment – have you been shooting on all three?” “Yes, we have”. And I said, “Are you saying that all three have gone out of focus?” “Yes – everything – David says everything is soft”. I said, “Impossible! Nobody, including me, could be as unlucky as to have three cameras that have each been tested, with their own lenses, no way would all three cameras, simultaneously, on one day, go out of focus. There must be something else”. I said, “What we’ll have to do is shoot some tests – shoot the same thing, on all three cameras and get it off to the lab. And then let’s look at what we’ve got”. I said, “I’m going out on a limb (another expression) and saying, ‘It cannot be a fault of three cameras and three lenses, that have been tested at the same time; there has to be something else’”. I had really no idea what it might be, but labs have also been known to have problems with their own printers.
Anyway, the production manager said, “Mr. Lean wants you to come to Dublin and he will bring the rushes with him. You’ve got to go to Dublin because there’s no 65mm projection in Ireland nearer than Dublin”. And I said, “Right, I’ll get on an early plane tomorrow”. This was in the evening – they’d just seen their rushes after shooting for their second day. And he said, “No, Mr. Lean wants you to be on a plane tonight”. So I said, “Well I don’t know if I can get a seat on a plane tonight”. The Production Manager said, “We have already booked you a ticket...and we will send a car for you at Dublin Airport”. And certainly, when it’s David Lean, and it’s the biggest picture of the year, without any doubt – I think it was the only 65mm picture probably shooting anywhere in the Western World because of the cost-cutting that was going on...Russia may have been shooting 70mm – anyway, of course I was on the plane that night – you don’t say, “Well, tell Mr. Lean he’ll have to wait for me until tomorrow”. And when I got to Dublin, there wasn’t a taxi waiting for me, it was a unit limousine – like a Mercedes – it took me to the big hotel in Dublin – The Shelbourne. Anyway, in those days it was like the big traditional hotel in Dublin. There were four or five who’d come from Dingle: David Lean; the Associate Producer – who I think was Anthony Havelock-Allan; Freddie Young; and the Operator, the one who did several of David’s big pictures – who subsequently shot David Lean’s last film, "A Passage to India" – Ernie Day – he was the operator. Ernie had become a Cameraman but went back to operating, I think to do 65mm for David Lean and Freddie Young – I think that’s what happened. So there were four of them – but when the taxi pulled up, at the pavement outside the hotel, there was David Lean, on his own, pacing up and down. And so I got out, the car drove off, and I said, “Hello David, what are you doing out here all on your own?” He said, “I wanted to be the first to talk to you, Sydney”. And he said, “I think the old boy has lost it”. Something one could say about anyone, if they did something you didn’t like.
Well honestly Tom, because I had such – not just respect and regard – I was in awe of Freddie Young’s entire career as a Cameraman – and as a person, as it happens – and when someone says that, even if he’s got his arm through my arm, I found it really difficult to accept. And I suppose I just said, “Well David, let’s look at the first rushes”. So we went off to the theatre and they projected it of course, in 65mm. It was a standard commercial cinema and I had no way of knowing whether the quality of their lenses, even the quality of the movement of their projectors – I’d no idea what the technical quality of that commercial cinema’s 70mm projection equipment was – how accurately maintained it was. Secondly, I think I should even ask – what sort of date would it be, do you think, Tom?
TH: 1969, 1970.
Sir Sydney: About 1970 – I was 45...I know by then I was wearing glasses – what I’m getting at is, I’m not sure my eyesight was not good enough to be able to absolutely critically analyse the sharpness on the screen. Of course if something was soft I would see it was soft – but if it was not 100% perfectly sharp, it was a very fine degree of opinion. And while I couldn’t honestly say, “It looks perfect to me”, equally, it didn’t look as though it was optimum sharp. It may not have been optimum sharp.
Anyway, I said, “Have you shot the comparison tests?” “Yes, we have, and the labs are putting them through as soon as they get them”. The final opinion was that there was nothing wrong at all. They didn’t change a single lens for any of the three cameras.
But I tell you that story – I want to tell you it, because it’s an example of how personal jealousy – or whatever you like to call it – how the great, wonderful, brilliant, David Lean, right inside, how he felt about Freddie Young, I mean.
TH: That’s extraordinary.
Sir Sydney: It is extraordinary.
TH: Freddie Young, he would have been around 70 – wasn’t he born in 1902?
Sir Sydney: He was 90- something when he died – I think he was almost exactly my mother’s age. I remember, my mother was born in 1901, so if this was 1970, Freddie was about 70...round about that age.
Anyway, there are shots I’ve seen Freddie do – most of them I thought are excellent, some of them I thought are unbelievable, in the extent of them, or in the effect he’s obtained – and I suppose the mirage shot in "Lawrence" is the most famous of them all, which, when you think of it, Freddie had little to do with. Panavision simply made and delivered a very long focal length lens! And it picked up the heat waves wafting over the desert vista.
TH: Omar Sharif coming right up towards the camera from a very long distance away –
Sir Sydney: Yes, it was entirely wonderful. Freddie actually takes the credit of inventing that lens. And Panavision – he would have you believe it was to his specification – I don’t actually think it was.
TH: When I was in Los Angeles in 1994 we went and visited Panavision’s plant –
Sir Sydney: And did you see the lens?
TH: Tak showed us around and said, “You can take all the pictures you want, you can do anything – here’s the camera – ” - the big rack-over camera they used on "Lawrence of Arabia" – “ - and this is the lens - the 450mm”. It was basically just a tube with a small shade, and a mount. And he said, “This was the longest we could make – we measured out the focal length after we put the optics together – ” - the actual glass in the tube – “ - we took it to our parking lot to measure the focal length”.
Sir Sydney: The scale on it, yes -
TH: - The scale on the lens. Because when he did a long shot –
Sir Sydney: - We’re back to Tak! But even Tak, he was only sort of modifying lens elements that already existed. And actually, we’re back to our 20 to 1 (for 35mm) zoom lens. Because that’s all we were doing – I don’t know if they had to specify the formula for the diopter; I suppose they did. I don’t think you could take just any diopter, stick it on with superglue at the back, and that made it into an f11 20 to 1 lens! [Laughs] But I’m pretty sure that let’s just say the “mirage” lens was nothing special. But what an effect – what a shot, what “cinematographic brilliance”.
But what I was getting at was, there were also some scenes which Freddie shot – which I thought – even some in "Ryan’s Daughter" – for example, today, those scenes on the rocks, with the sea breaking over them – over the rebels trying to get at the guns – do you remember those scenes? I consider, in today’s terms, that they’re a bit over- lit: in other words they’re exteriors – daylight – but on set Freddie used to have a bank of brute arcs, powered by generators. I would prefer – I know that they call it fill light – I wouldn’t dare say it to anybody on Freddie’s camera crew or anything, but I think I would say on some of Freddie’s stuff – including those shots in "Ryan’s Daughter" – that they were over-lit by the fill light. And I often say to Doris when we’re watching an old Hollywood film – and it can be a cowboy film – and you get those shots where they’re exteriors, and they’ve got these bloody great brute arcs – not getting rid of the shadows, but almost losing the shadows over the eyes. Because that’s how you did it, in those days. But it’s not how it really looks, and these days there is a halfway. It’s a bit like night shots – you know, the traditional day-for-night was you would use backlight sun and you would under-expose two stops. That was kind of formula you started with – backlight, or three-quarters backlight, and no fill light and two stops under-exposed. And put on your camera sheet “Print Day-for-Night”. So they knew it wasn’t a mistakenly under-exposed shot: it was done for a night effect.
|Now I’m always interested in how did they do the night shots. There’s a film, that I expect you’ll go and see if you haven’t already seen it – it’s called "J Edgar" –|
TH: Clint Eastwood’s new movie –
Sir Sydney: Now I’m an admirer of Clint Eastwood; I think he’s a brilliant Director...even films of his that are not so successful – what’s the one about Mandela?
TH: "Invictus" –
Sir Sydney: Yes! I thought that was a great film – and I thought, “What a difficult film to make!” With those crowd scenes...I thought it was a fine film. And there are several other Clint Eastwood credits that I thought were really good. Some of them of course he’s acting in them himself, as well...Anyway, you haven’t seen "J Edgar"?
TH: I have not seen it yet – I want to see it –
Sir Sydney: Well, please go and see it, because I want to talk to you on the phone afterwards – tell me if you don’t think that, even if you’re a fan of what I call the traditional 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. Crime, black-and-white low-key stuff – I love that style; it’s not as real as drama cinematography is these days – but tell me if you don’t feel that "J Edgar" is too far, and there’s no detail in the shadows at all. If somebody’s walking across the set there will be some backlight effect – but you don’t see even a glimmer of the legs, or the movement, or the arms, or the hands and so on. And of course I’ve also to say that my eyesight is not even as good as when I was analysing Freddie Young’s alleged out-of-focus situation in Dublin. My eyesight is not particularly good now; not good at all. So I have to keep that in mind – I have to keep in mind that maybe the lab simply delivered a very dark print, or video – as it is now. But you don’t see much faulty lab work these days...so I’ll be really interested if you feel it’s a bit “underdone”.
But in the old days of course, everyone was so perfectly lit – and there were never any heavy eye shadows, because they always had, in Hollywood, at least a couple of brutes and a genny out in the sticks with them, to fill in the faces...and especially applied to the girl – the romantic lead – she was always beautifully lit – and of course it was ridiculously unreal.
Anyway, back to "Ryan’s Daughter" – they had desperate trouble with it – after those first terrible “out of focus” days, which of course all faded into the Irish sunset...and of course David, he hadn’t it in him, I’m afraid, to phone me, perhaps saying, “I’m sorry Sydney, I must have almost given you a nervous breakdown. I’m sorry, it all came to nothing to worry about – it was my own fault” – that’s not David Lean. I’ve actually always found that one of the best things you can do in life - in any respect – private life, family life, business life, technical life – is, if you get something wrong, apologise. It’s absolutely amazing! [Laughs] If you say, “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve made a mess of that, can we do it again?” Or, “What can I do?”, or, “I’ve re-done it”, or anything like that.
Fogging a roll of film
|Samuelson Film Service Limited. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site|
My thoughts about that go right back to when I first became a documentary Camera Assistant – have I told you about unloading magazines in a darkroom? I found myself with the Colonial Film Unit; they had three camera units – two on-staff assistants, and I’d just been taken on as the third assistant – two were shooting abroad, in West Africa, but the three cameramen were still here. And so I found myself on an assignment where I was the only assistant for three cameramen...three Newman-Sinclair 200ft roll cameras. And so, at the end of the day’s shoot, having got all the gear back into the office in Soho Square – we had a darkroom with a long bench in it, and I had about seven, maybe eight magazines to unload. Now I thought to myself, like smart*** Sydney, “The thing to do is to have a system here”. So I – with the light on of course – laid all seven or eight magazines along the bench, with the lids uppermost, and then, above each magazine, I put an empty 400ft film can. And by each 400ft film can I put the lid at the back, and in the can itself I put the paper bag that you’re going to put the roll of exposed negative into. Then I switched off the light, went to the first magazine and opened the lid, and put it at the side, then I went to the second one, third one, all the way along – then in the dark, the pitch dark, I had all seven magazine lids open. I then went back to the first magazine, took out the roll of exposed negative, reached for the black bag, knew exactly where it was, put the negative in, put the black bag in the can, and put the lid on, ready to put the camera tape round it, when I put the light back on.
I went along and attended to all the magazines. I switched the light on, only to find I’d done six. There was a magazine with it’s lid off, and a roll of negative, winking at me, with the light on. I quickly put the light off. I’d only just got this job and so it was a matter of, “Do I tell them? Do I tell my boss, the Cameraman, who had the misfortune to have me attending to the seventh Newman-Sinclair magazine, which contained his own work – or don’t I say anything and hope for the best – even for a miracle?” And I’m afraid I thought, “I switched the light off very quickly...and you can only see one side of the roll of film”. Obviously the negative round the outside of the roll, that’ll be fogged – but that doesn’t matter. And do you, Tom, know, I took a chance – because I knew I’d lose my job. If I went in and said – no matter how sorry I said I was – it would be the best rolls of film, the ones which would have the best stuff on them. But unusable through fogging. So I must have reasoned, let’s see, I was just out of the Air Force then, so it was...1947...I was 22 – in my naivety I thought, “What have I got to lose? I’ll be fired, anyway”. And maybe I switched the light off quick enough. I didn’t sleep much that night. And, as soon as the rushes were delivered by the lab I had to take them into the projection box. I think it was my job to put them onto projection split spools, ready to be shown. So I was of course able to look at roll 7. And I looked at the lab report, and it said, “Slight edge fog at end of roll”. And the end of the roll was about a foot of it, and the fogging didn’t even reach the inside of the perforations!
It’s a case also of “how lucky can you be?” But, against what I’ve been saying now, I’ve always found, probably since then, better to apologise, but then, knowing it was going to be the end of the job because I would have definitely have been fired, because I was given the job by the Producer, an old documentarist called George Pearson – and the Chief Cameraman thought he should have given me the job, not the Producer, he didn’t love me anyway! So it would have been a good excuse for the Chief Cameraman, Hal Morey, to be able to go into George Pearson’s office and say, “I’ve just fired that young bloke that you took on...do you know what he did? He fogged a whole roll of film – first day!” I suppose it’s all part of life’s tapestry.
Anyway, back to "Ryan’s Daughter". There were no other problems for us with it. We actually came up with the idea of taking a piece of optical glass, and finding a manufacturer who makes the spinning glass windscreen for ships, so that when they’re in rough weather, the seawater breaking over the spinning glass is thrown off by centrifugal force. It was really my brother David who came up with the idea, and particularly the fact we’d have to (a) get a piece of optical flat; (b) it would have to be cut in a circle to be inserted into the window of a bridge of a ship – we’d have to cut a hole of the right size, and we’d have to find the firm who make the mechanism – the frame that the spinning glass goes into – and the motor – the electric motor that spins it around – and we did all that. But Freddie, in his book, says, “I came up with the idea” [Laughter] My brother David, Joe Dunton and our other techies, they’re the ones who should really take the credit. Doesn’t matter – and we even heard the same after "Ryan’s Daughter" finished shooting. Whether they’d got the idea from "Ryan’s Daughter" I don’t know, but someone else claimed, in America, that they’d invented the idea of a spinning disk, through which the lens could shoot, to do rough water scenes. You know that David Lean first ran out of sunshine, and then ran out of bad weather! And they had one crew with a cameraman – the Second Unit Cameraman, Denys Coop, his crew stayed on, for weeks, together with whatever artists were needed, to get those rough sea shots. But they were hugely effective, when they’d got them. And it was an example I think of Freddie’s photography which was not only full of beauty; it was full of realism. It was like the west coast of Ireland, the awful weather that they have, more often than they have lovely sunshine. And I don’t want to say the schoolroom lighting was flat, because it wasn’t – it was not lit to look like a luxurious set...it looked like a very basic, Irish, village schoolroom. And I thought it was brilliant – beautifully photographed. So Freddie, alleged to have lost his way, he could do photography of any kind you liked – and apart from that, there wasn’t a bad feeling for anybody in his own personality. I can’t ever remember him complaining about anybody. And I think if a junior...if his focus puller said, “I’m a bit worried about that take Freddie” – because as you know, after a take the director says, “How was it?” – I think the way it would happen is the focus puller, he’d be unlikely to say, “Not good for me!” – he would say, either to his operator, or to his cinematographer, “I’m not too happy with that one”. And Freddie would then say, “Going again!” So he, Freddie, would kind of take the edge off the misery of the focus puller, who needed another take.
So that’s what I know about "Ryan’s Daughter" – except that the final coup de grace in the relationship was that Freddie got an Oscar for that one as well! [Laughter] Amazing – but the other interesting Oscar-related thing about "Ryan’s Daughter" was – there are not many actors I would say who are close friends of mine, but John Mills was a longtime friend...and I always used to go and see him when I was close by, say at Pinewood – he lived just down the road in Gerrard’s Cross. He had a lovely old house there, so I would call in and see him – and his house was absolutely full of memorabilia – anything – sailor’s hats that he’d worn when he was in a submarine film, and all sorts of things. And he once said to me – such an amusing thing – because if you remember, in "Ryan’s Daughter" he played the Village Idiot –
TH: Michael –
Sir Sydney: Michael – quite right! And John said to me, “Well, I finally got one”. And I said, “You mean, you finally got an Oscar – about time”. He said, “Yes, what is amazing is that I’ve been in all these films, where I’ve had long speeches; I’ve been in the film versions of British classics where the crew have applauded because I’ve spoken in Shakespearean language for 4 ¼ minutes, in one go, and yet I’ve never had sight of an Oscar...and then, when I’m in a film where I’m a blithering Idiot, who doesn’t say a word, I win an Oscar! Perhaps that’s where I went wrong!” [Laughter] It is ironic, really –
So what else would you like to ask me?
TH: Did you know David Lean personally, also?
Sir Sydney: I did –
TH: From the picture you showed me, you seem to have –
Sir Sydney: I did, and I’ll tell you how it worked with David – something like a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, but different – insomuch as David would say, “I’m in town”. He used to, until about five years before he died - he didn’t have a permanent home in town – I think he had a home in Switzerland, and a home on Bora Bora – the island in the South Pacific – and he even made a film in 16mm which he shot himself in Bora Bora.
TH: Yes, it was about the anchor of a ship –
Sir Sydney: Oh was it – and he was there – Doris and I were friendly with three of his six wives...six wives is going some, isn’t it! And he would occasionally phone me – maybe once every six to twelve months – when he was back in London for something. And when you think of it, he didn’t make a movie for nine years in one period – but when he was in town, he used to always stay at the Berkeley Hotel in Sloane Street – or Knightsbridge – somewhere around there. He would say, “Are you going to invite me to lunch, on Tuesday?” And I would immediately say, “I am” – because whatever I was doing on Tuesday, if I already had something in my diary I’d change it – and he’d say, “Have you got new things to show me?” And I would say, “I’ll have a think about what’s ‘new’ that you haven’t seen” – because David knew a lot about new equipment.
And especially lenses: what this lens was like, and the perspective you’d get with 100mm compared to a 35mm. And he would say things like – when they were setting up a shot – he’d say to his operator, “Ernie, looks like a 40 to me” – you know, I can’t remember, but he maybe would be doing one of those – he’d say, “Looks like a 40 to me”. He knew the acceptance angle of a 40, and every other lens.
So there would always be some new lenses, to show; and I wonder if I ever showed him the 20 to 1 – you see he didn’t shoot much 35mm of that kind. He would have said, “f11? I’m looking to be able to shoot stuff at f2! Not faster than that”. “How do you keep it sharp?”, he would have said. We may have even talked about Kubrick at f1...Anyway, he had lovely still camera equipment of his own. And I remember how thrilled he was, because we used to make the metal rigidised aluminium cases -we had our own factory. We absolutely introduced those cases, to the industry...foam fitted inside, so whatever camera it was, and what ancillaries he wanted in the same case, including spare lenses, maybe a couple of magazines, whatever – we used to fit them out. And of course, all the thousands of cases of our own equipment were all in rigidised aluminium. It was stronger and lighter than what camera cases used to be made of, which were plywood covered with either leather or plastic.
Anyway, I remember while he was on one of his lunch visits – usually he brought a wife with him, and his sixth wife actually was a photographer herself. Well, he brought his new camera, I think it was a brand new, latest model Leica – there was a shop in an arcade off Piccadilly that sells nothing but Leica cameras – and I think he’d brought a new one, and being David Lean, and not being short of cash, if the dealer offered five different lenses, David would buy all five. And it had a – what do you call the base you put on so it’ll do a fast series of shots? Like press photographers use?
TH: A mount?
|Samuelson Film Service's Rigidised aluminium cases. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site|
Sir Sydney: It was a motor of some kind. He would have one of those; and he’d have a right-angled viewfinder, so he could look that way, and photograph something – a page of a book that was resting on a table – everything he would have. Anyway, when we went into my office to have lunch, I said, “Why don’t you leave your camera gear here, while we have lunch? Hilary (that was my assistant) – Hilary will look after that”. So he said, “Oh that’s a good idea”, and put down all his stuff, and went to his zipper bag, and put that there too. While we were having lunch it was collected by one of our case-making people, measured; a case was made, and it was fitted with foam rubber, for everything...and when we left, after quite a nice lunch, David said – “Ah” - because all there was then on the table, where he’d put his gear and his zipper bag, was this rigidised aluminium case! He said, “Where’s my camera?”, or “Where’s my gear?”, or whatever – and I said, “There it is”. He said, “Where?” – I said, “Try opening that metal case there”. And of course he opened it, and there it was, all laid out...a magical moment for us both!
So yes, I think I can say we were good friends, and, from his six wives, we even have a favourite, Sandy, who is in his picture.
TH: "A Passage to India"? She is coming in sailing a boat – I think that’s her.
Sir Sydney: Yes that’s right – Anne Todd was in one of David’s films that was made in Switzerland, he had an affair with her – it was one of her earlier pictures...Guy Green was the Cameraman, and it was shot in the lakes...and David had a relationship with Anne Todd, divorced his first wife. So it was early on. This was "Passionate Friends" (1948).
TH: In "A Passage to India" Sandy is sitting in a boat –
Sir Sydney: Yes...was she sailing the boat?
TH: Yes, I think, towards the very, very end of the film...
Sir Sydney: It was the end of the film, where they go to see the young fellow who was the hero, who got into all that trouble throughout the film – it was an Indian guy – a doctor –
TH: Doctor Aziz? And Alec Guinness –
Sir Sydney: Alec Guinness was in a turban – considered the example of how David Lean got his casting completely wrong! And I think it was Alec Guinness who didn’t want to play that part, didn’t think he was suitable, and didn’t enjoy the experience. Nevertheless, he was in it – but the young chap was a doctor, and it was alleged that he’d seduced / raped the young girl in it, who was played by that Australian actress – Judy –?
TH: Judy Davis –
Sir Sydney: Anyway, there were these great big caves –
TH: The Marabar Caves –
Sir Sydney: The Marabar Caves was it? They were where tourists go...and he was sort of a young Indian guy, the guide, and he took her in there, and she alleged that he’d accosted her in the cave; and he was accused of rape, or something. That was the first part of the story, and the end of it was, he was a local doctor up in the north of India – or it may have been in what became Bangladesh – it may have been Western – no, East Pakistan it was originally – at the time of separation it was Bangladesh. It may have been there, because I know up in the hills there is a tremendous amount of water in Bangladesh – they seem to regularly have floods, with people drowned – and so David may have shot that last sequence there.
But anyway, that was Sandie, his fifth wife – I doubt any of his wives, including the sixth one, his widow – I doubt any of them were short of money. David was pretty wealthy, because of course he got residuals – and he’s very generous to charities – industry charities – with his residuals.
The BFI has restored all the David Lean pictures and the David Lean Trust has paid for those restorations. So it’s fantastic that all those great pictures – quality prints are available for ever – they’re on digital, but first, they restored conventional film copies.
I’d love to be able to remember the Anne Todd film, and she was in a couple of other films for him I think, after they were married. I think she was his second or third wife. But the whole crew – I suppose it was Ronnie (Neame) who told me – there they were, up in the mountains in Switzerland and both Anne and David were nowhere to be seen for hours on end! [Laughs] And they realised that they were having an affair...did you say you remember something in a speedboat?
TH: Yes, but that was from "A Passage to India", towards the end of it –
Sir Sydney: Oh – was it a speedboat?
TH: No, I think it was just a regular riverboat –
Sir Sydney: Yes that’s right – no, in this film, the Anne Todd film, it was like one of those famous Italian speedboats that’s named after a town on a lake in Italy, in northern Italy – the little lake –
TH: - Como?
Sir Sydney: Well there’s Lake Como, that’s the big one, and there’s Lake Garda, with a town in the middle called Riva, and the speedboats are named after that...they're the ones with slatted polished wood, and they speed along if they’re allowed to – anyway, I know that some romantic scenes with Anne Todd, and whoever was the actor with her (Trevor Howard), were shot in the speedboat...I’d have to look it up, it’s in one of the David Lean life story books – and David drove, he was at the wheel – when they were doing some of the shots. I can’t quite remember what that story was all about. Claude Rains played the husband, the older man.
TH: I think, as we come to the end –
Sir Sydney: We haven’t given you anything to eat, Thomas!
TH: - That’s fine!
|Ken Annakin in Bradford, 2001|
TH: I think at this point we have been working our way around your career, so when I’m reading my notes I have some questions about...like Ken Annakin and "Battle of the Bulge" – but that was 65mm anamorphic, if you remember anything about that –
Sir Sydney: Yes, well we serviced that one – that was shot in Spain. I knew Ken Annakin quite well – what film was it that he was most famous for?
TH: "Swiss Family Robinson"..."Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines" –
Sir Sydney: Go on, I’ve got the title, I know what it is – go back further...just testing you!
TH: [Laughs] These are the films..."The Longest Day" especially – we showed three films for him in Bradford. I met him ten years ago, and he was so delighted to see his films on the big screen again. Very few Directors go back to see their own films on big screens – it’s so rare. So he was so happy to be with the audience, who came up to him and said, “That’s a good film, I saw that film in ´63” –
Sir Sydney: What were the three films?
TH: "The Longest Day" – the World War II film about the landing in Normandy – great film -
Sir Sydney: The landing I don’t think was as well done as Spielberg did it in "Saving Private Ryan" –
TH: That was more gritty, I think – I didn’t particularly like the beginning of that movie –
Sir Sydney: It was pretty shocking –
TH: ...that’s another story. And then we showed "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines", filmed in Todd-AO, on the curved screen –
Sir Sydney: ...filmed in Todd-AO –
TH: – and of course, "Battle of the Bulge", in Ultra Panavision, and we showed that on the Cinerama curve, so he was very happy about that.
Sir Sydney: Fantastic...now, earlier than that –
TH: I can’t remember –
Sir Sydney: I’ll give you a hint – documentary –
TH: – I can’t remember –
Sir Sydney: Documentary, colour, 3-strip, at sea...you may have never come across it, but it was given a general release...it was about 1945 – it was shot at the very end of the War, and it was called "Western Approaches" and it was shot with a Technicolor 3-strip camera – not the blimp – bobbing up and down in a little rowing boat. It was about the Merchant Navy and the havoc caused by the German U-Boats to the Allies’ Atlantic Convoys...and it’s a classic film for you to look at. I’m sure it’s available; whether it’s still available on –
Sir Sydney: Well yes, it was shot on – of course 3-strip was 35mm – but it was to attempt to put a very large camera through, in this little boat, and it was cold, and wet, and windy. The cameraman was Jack Cardiff.
TH: I met Jack – he went to Bradford as well, a number of times – great company.
Sir Sydney: Yes – it’s a funny thing, when you see the Marilyn film, because he was a bit of a character, Jack; because Marilyn took a bit of a shine to him, as an older man – not romantically – he is not in the film...the new Marilyn Monroe film –
TH: I remember one of the things I asked Ken Annakin about was how difficult it was to work with the 65mm cameras, and he said, “Well, if you’re used to working with 3-strip Technicolor cameras, 65mm cameras are so easy – you can lace it up in 10 minutes maximum”.
Sir Sydney: Quite true –
TH: Did you work on "Grand Prix" with Frankenheimer?
Sir Sydney: Yes, and my son Peter, who’s the one in Los Angeles, he worked on – was "Grand Prix" the Steve McQueen one? No, that was "Le Mans" – but Peter worked on both of those films, and I think that "Grand Prix" was, equipment-wise, the biggest film we ever serviced. One item that we provided was a rushes theatre on wheels - it was actually a Land Rover pulling a 20-, 25-foot caravan which could be blacked out inside, with a screen, a 35mm double–head projector and a generator. And we had our camera car, which was built like a truck, with scaffolding points all the way around - and I know that we sent 3 vehicles, full of gear – the third one must have been one of our regular camera cars. But it’s not generally considered to have been a very good film.
TH: But the Cinematography is fantastic – the way they put the cameras on the cars, and the way they shot it is amazing to see in 70mm.
Sir Sydney: And do you know, and I know about this through Peter, that they had a special technician, and the only thing he did in his life, in his working life, was he made mounts to put cameras onto vehicles – he came from Hollywood somewhere. And so Peter got to know him very well; unfortunately he had a bit of a drugs problem, and it was the first time my son, who was on a break from University – a long vacation when he worked on that film – he was like the 9th assistant director – it was the first time he had to work with someone who had a big problem.
TH: Another of my final questions would be, what it was like for you as the supplier of all the camera gear, to see the films once they were ready and premiered in the West End – what was that like?
|Sir Sydney: Blimey, it was great! And a very big film we did, it was called "Khartoum"...now I don’t think it was 65mm, was it?|
TH: Yes, it was –
Sir Sydney: It was? Let’s see, who was the Cameraman on that – I knew the Producer, very well, an American guy, and he was really good for us, because he loved our organisation. And he used to say, “There isn’t anywhere like this at home; there isn’t a firm where you can get everything that you want”. And he invited us, like almost honoured VIPs, to the Première of the film – it was Lawrence Olivier who played the Mahdi.
And I’ll tell you another one; there was a film made about Mohammed – there were two films made about Mohammed, by an Arab producer – Moustapha Akkad his name was – and they were shot in Morocco. There was great political upheaval, because in Islamic culture the image of Mohammed is never allowed to be seen – and this producer of course, being Arab himself, he knew that, and he said, “You never see his image in my film; you only see the camera’s – from his point of view – and you just see a hand with a sword in it”. And it got to the extent – and I’d become really friendly with him (Moustapha) – he worked out of Twickenham Studios. When they were having the premiere of his film, "The Message" (1977), it was at The Plaza, Lower Regent Street – he received a telephone message and it said, “If you go ahead and show your film at The Plaza Regent Street this day, it will be bombed”. The producer phoned me, because we were going to the premiere, obviously; and he said, “Will you still come?” And I said, “Well, it’s got to be a hoax, hasn’t it” – and he said, “Well, I’m sure it is – but I have to tell you what has been said to me”. Anyway, I went – and there was nothing.
[Chuckles] Just you asked me about going to the premières of films!
Furthermore, there was about the time when I ran the 1982 marathon – when I was what – 57 I think. Why do I mention that? Because I was asking friends and clients to sponsor me – because I ran for the CTBF – the industry charity. And so I went to people to ask, “Would you like to sponsor me?” – I’m sure you do the same thing in Denmark, don’t you – and I went to my Arab friend, and amazingly – it may not sound like much today – this was 1982, so it’s 30 years ago – he sent a cheque made out to the CBTF to sponsor me for a Thousand Pounds! I was quite pleased if someone from a firm sponsored me for £50 – and he sponsored me for very much more than that. Where you went to the bathroom, in a frame is my shirt – you may have seen it, above the washboard. Anyway, there’s a badge for everyone who sponsored me, and my friend Moustapha’s name is up there.
Also what’s up there is "Chariots of Fire" – because David Puttnam said, “Yes, I’ll sponsor you Sydney”, and when it came through, it was from the publicity account for "Chariots of Fire"...not that I had anything to do with "Chariots of Fire"; but it happened that "Chariots of Fire" was a film about athletics, and I was merely a 57-year-old jogger who went round the marathon course: whereas a proper runner does it in 2 hours and a bit, I did it in 4 hours and 37 minutes! But I finished, which is the important thing – certainly was for me, just a few thousand places behind the actual winner!
|Sir Sydney Samuelson and Lady Doris Samuelson.|
TH: What kind of films do you like to see?
Sir Sydney: I’m terribly basic and old-fashioned...first of all, I like satisfactory endings – I say satisfactory rather than happy endings, because “happy endings” sound so corny! But I’m absolutely no good at all at films with very complicated scripts – like films with flashbacks within flashbacks...I have to say to Doris, “Is she really living this, or is she dreaming this?”, and that kind of thing...I can’t get it. And there’s a film on that’s quite good – Oscar-nominated – and it’s called "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" – the script is so complicated that when Doris and I watched it we just couldn’t fathom what it was all about!
Well, you must go and see "The Artist" – loved that film – and have you seen "War Horse"?
TH: No – "War Horse" opened just last week I think in Copenhagen –
Sir Sydney: Yes, it’s very good –
TH: – and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opens in a week or two.
Sir Sydney: Right; what I’m looking forward to is, after you’ve seen "J Edgar" – when you phoned me, I’ve ruined the film for you, because you’re going to spend all your time not watching the movie, but analysing the low-key photography...I think you’d have to call it “lowest-key photography”!
|TH: One other thing I wrote in my notes is James Bond – the James Bond movies –|
Sir Sydney: There’s a whole lot of them! I’ve told you about the James Bond film which started everything as far as Panavision and Samuelson’s were fully concerned...Freddie I think did two James Bond films –
TH: One – "You Only Live Twice" – that was number five –
Sir Sydney: It was in Japan...we had an air-to-air cameraman; I think it was on that Bond film – his name was Johnny Jordan. He was filming from one to another helicopter – and they flew too close. Johnny Jordan had no fear, or nerves, or anything at all like that – and he was sitting actually with his legs outside the door, resting on a kind of skid that they put themselves down on, in a helicopter – and he got too near to the rotor of the one they were filming, and he lost the bottom part of his leg.
TH: It was chopped off –
Sir Sydney: Yes – and he was devastated – I think for the main reason that he was known to be the kind of brave, even daredevil cameraman who was very good, and happily did all these kind of jobs – and how would he now get work?
I had a friend who was a newsreel cameraman with British Paramount News. He had been a war correspondent cameraman during the War and he’d trodden on a mine – and lost a foot. He wore an artificial bottom part of his leg – and when Johnny was home from Japan, and in hospital in the London Clinic, I went to see him. I knew he was absolutely down in the dumps – do you know that expression? – feeling very miserable, wondering about the future – so I took Bill McConville with me – who of course you wouldn’t know that he’d lost a foot. So I said to Johnny, in his time of terrible distress, “I want you to meet another cameraman, Bill McConville. And you’re in his club”. Johnny must have said, “What club are you talking about?”, and I said, “Well, to explain that, Bill would have to roll up his trouser”...which he then did. And I remember how kind of amused, touched, pleasantly reassured the poor fellow in the bed was, seeing that here was a chap who’s living a normal life, and even as a cameraman was still carrying on. And Johnny Jordan indeed did carry on; he had a prosthetic leg made and fitted. And do you know what happened to him in the end? He was on a film – that American film – what was it – David Watkin was the Cameraman – it was about how awful the American Army was...and the title of the film is an expression that gets used – "Catch–22" – do you know of that film? Who else was in it?
TH: Alan Arkin I think –
Sir Sydney: Johnny was doing air-to-air from one of those big American freighter planes, where the door at the end of the fuselage opens up, because they chuck great big packages and jeeps and things out of the back and they go down by parachute. You know the things I mean? Well you can fly with that back door open – and for that film, Johnny was set up with his mount, shooting out of the back of this C32 Lockheed Freighter...and, being Johnny Jordan, he didn’t need a safety harness or parachute, did he?
And they hit some heavy turbulence, and Johnny went out of the back...and that was the end of him.
TH: That’s terrible.
|Sir Sydney: I don’t like helicopters – I don’t think they’re meant to fly! But I have a lovely nephew, who’s a helicopter captain – he talks about it, because he’s quite senior now – and he does a tremendous amount of flying, for films, and for Sky and BBC News, and when there’s some kind of disaster and they need to get shots from a helicopter – he does a lot of that work. He’s talking about retiring – we’d all like him to retire!|
Once, in my business, we had our own helicopter –
TH: At Samuelson Film Service?
Sir Sydney: Yes, we had an Alouette II – French – bought it brand new, because a French pilot, Gilbert Chômat, came to see me; he said, “I’m coming out of the army" – he was a helicopter pilot with the French Army. Also, a guy called Lamorisse in France had built a mount – a helicopter camera mount that helped iron out the vibration [Ed. – Helivision system]. And then there’s another firm that we used to represent called Tyler – the Tyler mount – and Gilbert said, “I’m coming out of the service and I’ve heard all about your company – I’m the pilot who worked out a shot that you may have seen, in a film called "The Longest Day"”. It was an exciting shot – now I wonder if you remember it – it starts just a little above ground height...and it’s at the side of a canal, with a line of say, six American soldiers, with rifles –
TH: Yes, of course, it’s the scene where they’re moving along a small harbour, and you have this helicopter shot – Ken Annakin talked about that...and it’s magnificent.
Sir Sydney: Well, the young guy who came to see me was the pilot. He worked out what could be done. Because I think it finishes up where he’s quite high, and he goes over the top of a roof, and behind the roof are some German snipers. He said, “If you would buy a helicopter, it could be a completely new division of your services to the film and television industry, and I would like to come here and fly it for you. And I would like to come with my wife and four children”. And he did!
And so we had the best helicopter service because of course it was Gilbert who confirmed we needed the Alouette II. There was also an Alouette III, but it was more expensive and bigger than we needed. That’s how we came to be in the helicopter business!
We charged I think a hundred pounds an hour – it may have been £125 – again it’s a long time ago. And the going rate with other people who supplied helicopters, but hadn’t got a film pilot, like we’d had, who understood what the special requirements were when filming – we charged £125 an hour, and you would get Gilbert Chômat with the helicopter. And when you think what the production cost of a helicopter shot must be, £125 an hour is a tiny proportion. Nevertheless we would have people who would say, “Oh, I can get a helicopter and pilot for a hundred pounds an hour”. So we were not always overwhelmed with work. But Gilbert was so brilliant. I went to one or two sessions where he was planning the shots. He did all sorts of films, and commercials – commercials used him I think more than films – because they were only renting it for one day.
And what finally happened was there was a film – a Fox film called "Zeppelin"...and it was a First World War story. They were using, for the air–to–air shots of the mock–up of a First World War Zeppelin, some reproduction First World War fighter planes – German fighter planes, based in Ireland. They were built originally for "The Blue Max" – ever heard of that film? Good – I don’t think there are any films that you haven’t heard of Tom, are there?! – And I think they were used also in "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines".... Anyway, the repro German fighters are flown by Irish Army pilots – who are pretty good – they fly in them in their spare time. And so when you want First World War reproduction aircraft – I think they all have Volkswagen engines – you can get four, five, six of them in Ireland...and the pilots, who know them, you hire them at the same time. That side of it was nothing to do with us – we were providing our helicopter, with our pilot. Before the Producer – production manager – an American, quite well known producer, Burch Williams – his brother Elmo was Head of Editing at Fox. The guy said, “Can you recommend a Cameraman to me?” So I said, “Well we’ve several really good experienced aerial cameramen; it’ll be a matter of who’s available”. I was able to phone him back and say, “Yes, there’s a chap called Skeets Kelly” [Ed. – b. Graham Kelly]. Skeets used to be Operator for Freddie Young, earlier than in the David Lean times – immediately after the War. I think Skeets Kelly was himself a pilot during the War – I think he had the DFC, then he became a very much in demand second unit, action unit cameraman and did a whole lot of aerial stuff. And when he was an operator, he was generally considered to be the very best operator – if any other operator made a mess of something, someone else on his crew would probably say, “That would never have happened if we had Skeets” – he had that kind of reputation.
Anyway, when I phoned Skeets he said, “Oh I’d love to do it”. I said, “There’s a producer chap called Burch Williams, and he’s looking for an air-to-air cameraman – it’s four days, with First World War aircraft, outside Dublin”. And he said, “I’d love to do it, Sydney; I love those old aircraft” and I said, “It’ll be Gilbert and our Alouette II”. He said, “Oh how marvellous”. He was delighted; he said, “I’d love to do it, but I can’t, because I’ve got a dental appointment”.
So I said, “Well I’m really sorry to hear that Skeets, because I would want to recommend you to Burch and do your deal with him, and do the job”. And he said, “Let me see if I can postpone my dental appointment” – which he did. So I put him in touch. I’ve no idea what the deal was – nothing to do with me. We were just given where, outside Dublin, I think it’s called Bray, where the Irish film studio is. I think Waterford Glass is made in Bray. Anyway, he had to rendezvous at the airport where the German planes were, and that was all, as far as I was concerned. What he was shooting, and exactly when, and for how long, and all that was not anything to do with us, it was to do with the production company and the producer Burch Williams, and the cameraman, Skeets Kelly, what they were going to film.
They had their briefing session, and I’d been to a number of briefing sessions with Gilbert Chômat and he was meticulous – he always used to finish, after he’d drawn on a blackboard what the shot was, where this aircraft would be, and what that aircraft did, and there was nothing left to the imagination, exactly what they were told to do. Finally, he made it very clear where he and the camera helicopter would be positioned.
His last words, Chômat, he would always say, “Now just keep one thing in mind – we don’t know exactly where the wind is coming from, you never know how a shot is going to work out – it’s one thing for us to plan it on a blackboard, down here, but when we get up there, it may not work out. And we’ll go around and we’ll do it again”. He said, “The main thing is, if something doesn’t work out, you guys must carry on as we’ve agreed, and finish the shot as if we’re finishing it for real. I will then know what you’re going to do, because we’ve agreed what you’re going to do, and there it is on the blackboard. If there’s any trouble, leave me to get out of it. Just finish the shot, and fly where we’ve agreed you would individually fly to”.
Something went wrong in the shoot – one of the pilots decided he would fly away – do a sharp left–hand turn or something like that. And he flew straight into our helicopter. Our pilot, the producer, Burch Williams, who was observing in our helicopter, and Skeets Kelly the cameraman – they were all killed.
|Samuelson Film Service's helicopter. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site|
Later it turned out that although the film, "Zeppelin", had quite a sizeable budget, and Fox were not a cheapskate organisation, Burch Williams, their production bloke, had opted not to insure anybody. He didn’t have to insure our pilot or our equipment, because that was part of our fee – it included the pilot’s fee, the insurance for the pilot, and the insurance for the Alouette. But he hadn’t insured Skeets Kelly, who he had employed, so it was not my worry. But there was this marvellous, senior, experienced, great cameraman, at the end of his life: he was working, something went wrong, he wasn’t insured.
I suppose Tom, if you said to me, “Tell me Sydney, what was the worst ever task you had to manage in all the years you were running the company?” I would have no difficulty in saying that the worst happening was when another friend (who was an aerial cameraman), Peter Allwork, phoned me from Bray, and said, “I’ve terrible news for you: one of the German fighters has flown into your helicopter and everybody’s been killed”. Because of course the Irish pilot was also killed. I said, “Have you phoned anybody else yet?” And he said, “No, I thought I should phone you first, no doubt you’ll want to tell the widows, will you?” I said, “Yes, well I’ll have to”. So the worst job was to get into a car and go and tell two women that their husbands had just been killed. And when I arrived at Gilbert’s home, which was very close to our firm, there she was, his widow, with her four small children around her, two of them holding onto her skirt – two little tots, all only French-speaking at the time. The children must have wondered, “Who’s this man?” And that was the most tragic thing, I think, business-wise, I ever had to cope with. Really terrible.
But you know, even that awful story, Tom, there’s a nice aspect to it because – again I don’t mind you knowing – I approached my “Number Two” at the firm, my brother Michael. I said, after I told him what had happened – and he was of course terribly shocked – I said, “I have to tell both their wives, how would you feel about doing one of them?” And Michael said, poor fellow, “I don’t think I could...I just don’t think I could”. And so I had to say, “OK, alright, I understand. I’ll go to Anne (that was Chômat’s wife) first. And then I’ll go and find Skeets’ wife (I’d never met her)”. And the nice bit about it is, we had a young woman who ran the admin of our helicopter department, in other words, when a booking came in, she would take down all the details, she would discuss the rental price, she’d take down if they wanted to rent the camera equipment from us, if they wanted to rent a Tyler mount from us, the dates for everything – where and when Gilbert had to be, were any passengers going to be flying with him, to the location, who was the cameraman or did they want a cameraman recommended – all the admin, Sharon Gold looked after. And at that terrible moment, when I sort of must have had my head well down, as I prepared to leave with one of our drivers to go on this terrible mission, to the two wives, Sharon said to me, “Would you like me to come with you, Mr. Sydney?” Now there’s no fun attached to doing that, she didn’t have to do it, but she asked, “Would you like me to come with you?” – and she did. I didn’t take her up to the front door of the two houses, but at least I had somebody to talk to. Probably I discussed what I was going to have to say to them – but I always thought, you know, what a marvellous young person, that she would volunteer to go on an awful task like that.
So I had good people with me – that’s why the firm was so good.
|TH: A terrible story.|
Sir Sydney: It is a terrible story, I’m afraid. Although not directly involved, there are two other filming helicopters that I knew about, which crashed. And in both cases everybody was killed. One was Lamorisse, who invented the helicopter camera mount and was a cameraman himself. He had a favourite pilot in Paris, with an Alouette II, and they used to do the equivalent, for films and commercials, and so on. And they had been involved in an accident, and Lamorisse the cameraman and his pilot were both killed. And when our pilot came into my office and I said to him, “You’ve heard about Lamorisse”, and he said, “Yes, I’ve heard about him, a terrible thing, because we were partners in France for so long, and we worked out how to do filming from a helicopter without vibration”. And then Gilbert said to me, “I’ll be next”. Don’t know why he said that, but he said it. Anyway, he was the next great film aviator to die. Terrible.
And the third one was – you know the film "Guns of Navarone"? Do you remember that film?
TH: J Lee Thompson –
Sir Sydney: Yes – CinemaScope. Then there was a sequel –
TH: "Force 10 from Navarone" –
Sir Sydney: Fantastic. They had a helicopter on it, and when they’d finished shooting one day – in a manner of speaking, this was the most desperate tragedy of the three accidents – when they’d finished shooting, they were going back – the camera crew and the pilot, in the helicopter, to their base – they were in Yugoslavia filming a great viaduct across an open space and the story of the film was that the partisans – the Tito troops – had to blow up that viaduct to stop the German occupying army being able to use it. Well, they used a model for the blowing up, but the actual viaduct they also did shooting of action on it, with German Army trucks going across it, because it was the real thing. And I suppose there were a number of miles between the real viaduct and the base. And so when they’d finished filming of the actual viaduct, aerial shots, and they’d not enough light left anymore – they had to fly back to their base. Don’t know how many miles it was, but probably an airfield somewhere in Yugoslavia. And the pilot thought he’d do a bit of showing off – you know what I mean about showing off – and he flew under some power cables, and he wasn’t quite low enough – and that was the end of them. Isn’t that shocking?
TH: It’s a terrible story. And why would he do that?
Sir Sydney: Why would the captain of an Italian cruise liner sail so close to an island where he had friends on shore who he wanted to impress? They’re trying not to say it, but right at the beginning somebody was interviewed who said, “Well look, that ship often comes by, and they all wave to us”. These are the people who live on the island. And I think he was probably just showing off, both to his friends who lived on the island, and to his passengers on his great big ship.
TH: It’s so bizarre – so unreal to see a ship this size just – phwit –
Sir Sydney: Who would do it! I’d like to think, if I’d started and studied, in the Merchant Navy, and had become whatever it is, a Fourth Officer – Fifth Officer, whatever – and I’d become a Fourth Officer and then I’d got a job on a Liner, and I’d become a Fourth Officer on a Liner, and a Third Officer, and a Second Officer, and then there is another senior rank – a four-ringer – not the Captain, but there is someone else – there’s the Chief Engineering Officer – he’s got four rings – and there’s another officer who’s like Number Two to the Captain – and I think he’s got Captain rank – and then, I would have become a Captain, wouldn’t I? I would have thought I was so proud, to be trusted as the Captain of a ship with three thousand people, my responsibility – I would like to think I wouldn’t be taking any chances to wave to my friends. How could he? He is not a youngster, not like a 21-year-old Battle of Britain pilot, flying low over his airfield.
TH: He seems to think like he’s more or less a rock star – irresponsible, completely irresponsible...that’s a different story. But I know what you mean.
Sir Sydney: Do you know of a film called – was it "Reach for the Sky" – about the RAF during the War – and it was a story of an RAF fighter pilot called Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs before the War, in a flying accident. But he managed to fly, during the War, with two artificial legs, and he became a brilliant fighter ace, flew Spitfires, and he was one of the most decorated pilots because of the number of aircraft he shot down. I suppose Messerschmitts and Heinkels and things – he was a Group Captain (equivalent to a full colonel) and his story – going right back to when he was a young pilot in about 1935 – and how he’d been showing off, which young pilots are forbidden to do. It’s like they kind of reach their home base and they see their mates sitting in deckchairs around, reading the papers and so on, and they decide to “beat them up”. So he comes in over the edge of the runway and flies very, very low over them, at three or four hundred miles an hour – they can be dismissed for doing it, but nevertheless some of these young kids used to like to do that. And if the day before a young RAF pilot had shot down two Focke-Wulfs and then “beat up” his friends on the airfield, I don’t suppose they’d court martial him and take him away – we were so short of pilots anyway!
And what happened to Bader was he had this long career during the War, and artificial legs, and then, he was shot down and was taken prisoner and put in Colditz Castle, because even so, he tried to escape!
I was telling you about that iconic fighter pilot because I had something in mind. Me, wearing a different hat, do you know what BKSTS is? You must do – are you a Member?
Thomas Hauerslev and Sir Sydney Samuelson, Odeon Leicester Sq, London, 14 December 2009. Image by Paul Rayton
TH: I’m an Honorary Member, you gave me the Award!
Sir Sydney: Of course I did! What am I thinking...it’s my age you know! [Laughs] I want to put another expert film pilot’s name forward for an Honorary Fellowship – he’s not a Member of the BKSTS, but we have an Honorary Fellowship for people who are not actual film or television “techies”, but still make a contribution to the industry. And I want to put Captain William Samuelson’s name forward to the Council, so that he might be considered (it won’t be up to me) for an Honorary Award. I need his CV. And you may have heard about Ridley Scott; as it happens, the house we had before this one, about 30 odd years ago, was up the road in Hampstead. And when we decided, as two of our children were away, married, we didn’t need a house as big as that. There was just our youngest son and Doris and me, and so we decided we would sell that house. It had ten bedrooms! [Laughs] But it was a lovely old circa 1700 listed Queen Anne period home – a lovely house. Ridley Scott bought it – Will just told me he is now shooting the third of his big, medieval or whatever, action films. This one is called "Prometheus" – don’t know what "Prometheus" is, or who he was. They were on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, and Ridley arrived to meet the Cameraman and the helicopter crew. Ridley wanted to meet his Cameraman – I suppose it was somebody local there, and so the cameraman introduced himself to Ridley and said, “This is our Pilot, Will Samuelson”. He may have said, “Captain Will Samuelson”, because in the aviation world, that’s what he is, a fully–qualified helicopter captain.
Anyway, apparently Ridley was just talking about some matter to his Production Manager, and when he heard the name "Samuelson" he stopped – he said, “Any relation?” [Laughter] And Will said, “Yes, I think so, Mr. Scott”. He said, “So what relation are you, to that family I know so well?” And Will said, “They’re my Uncles”. And so Ridley apparently said, “Oh, Sydney or Michael?” Well, Sydney’s still here, but Michael died a few years ago. And so Will said, “Tony” (my brother Tony, who you wouldn’t know, because he was the one of the four brothers who wasn’t a technician – he was a lawyer, and he looked after the financial side of the business). And Ridley was so nice, and so pleased to find someone connected to old-timers, us, in our industry.
But those bloody helicopters – they’re a pain – and so dangerous.
TH: I can understand that now, after talking about your various experiences with them.
Sir Sydney: Especially the last one. And that’s why we’ve compared it to the irresponsibility of the captain of the Italian cruise liner.
How Lucky can you be
|TH: I think we should stop; now, when I usually do interviews like this, I ask the Interviewee to sort of think just quickly about what it’s like to talk about all these things after all these years – it usually makes a very good ending of things, when the Interviewee reflects on me coming from Denmark and talking to you, asking a few questions – and then you sort of put out all your experiences.|
Sir Sydney: Well, first of all I’m lucky, because I keep reading about people who are asked if they would be interviewed, and who say, “No, I don’t do interviews”. I actually enjoy being interviewed, and I think it’s much because I love history, in general – and I love, even more than history in general, the history, the nostalgia of our industry. And being lucky enough to be part of our family, in this business for five generations – 1910 my Dad had his cinema – his little temporary cinema, in Southport, Lancashire, with his immigrant mother helping him.
I am lucky enough to be part of a large and close family, that kind of tradition. And I suppose, having experienced so many wonderful events, happenings, almost adventures, and having met so many people – good and not so good! – my watchwords are, “How lucky can you be”. And to find somebody interviewing me, from Denmark, who speaks perfect English – who knows more about Cinema and movies than I know (which is saying something, I suppose), even if that sounds a bit pretentious for me to be saying, but I know about the history of Cinema, because I’ve been in it for more than 70 years, and – I read a lot, and I’m interested in people – whatever the success I may have had in running a major worldwide business concern, I’ve just been the man in the top office, and I’ve been lucky enough in so many ways, including that I seem to have been able to pick out really good people to work with me.
So that’s my philosophy, and I’ve no complaints about what my life has brought me, none at all.
TH: Excellent – it’s been a privilege, I really enjoyed it –
Sir Sydney: I hope we’re going to meet many times again, and you’re going to come, you and your children and your wife – tell me your wife’s name?
TH: Charlotte – two “t”’s and an “e” – Charlotte.
Sir Sydney: Charlotte...my second–youngest grand–daughter, the one who’s 17 - that’s her there, when she was about 5, I think – she’s now 17, and she’s absolutely lovely. I so enjoy the sayings of my children and grand–children over the years – I haven’t got them all written down, but I do remember them from time to time. And I remembered one yesterday, that lovely little thing said when she was about eight, she came home from school, and said, “I wish to announce I am now vegetarian...except for sausages” [Laughter]. Which hasn’t got too much to do with film and television, not a bit!
TH: Well let me just finish by telling you two things, in relation to family and things, which I’ll just recall: I have two children, Maria and August, and I too have a piece of paper with two columns, one for each child, and all the funny things they say. And now they speak perfectly, so I don’t update it anymore – like you, I’ve done that. And, you also mentioned things that your father said to you – my father died ten years ago, when I was 40 – eight years ago. And we never really got along very well – and I didn’t really feel I was like him. So when he dies, you reflect on things: I did it in a way that I wrote down all the silly things I say – one–liners, two or three words, and realised that that was what I had from my father – beyond a lot of other things of course.
So when the Church ceremony was over we all went to a club where he came regularly – we invited all the friends. Of course it was sad, but I like to think that I changed it to a very cheery mood – because I used this A4 paper with all the things that he said, which I came to realise that I have sort of inherited this from my Dad. And people were laughing.
Sir Sydney: That’s marvellous. I really enjoy making people laugh. And at this Tribute Lunch, I decided I wasn’t going to bore everybody by making a formal speech. I played it by ear, I just had a card with what I call “bullet points” – just to remind me. And I always like to make it light–hearted, if I can. And here I was, in front of this wonderful audience, who had all paid money, if you please, to come have lunch in tribute to Sydney Samuelson. We had – I don’t know if you know of a personality called Stephen Fry – well he stood up to talk about me and why, in his opinion, all the 451 people were there, and he can be very funny. And I then had to respond.
|And I hadn’t given it much thought, but I had my bullet points, and I finished on a little story, whereby I say, “In this crazy industry, that most of us sitting here have been involved in, for so many years, one of the best things about it all is that although you may have noticed that a lot of people in our business have egos – you notice that? Sometimes, you find someone with an ego? Only occasionally?” That got a laugh, because there are a lot of people who’ve got very big egos, in our industry. I said, “Well, the good thing is, our industry has a wonderful habit of making those egos crash to the ground!” And I said, “I think I’ve got as much of an ego as anybody I know – but thank goodness for you all, there have been plenty of people, who if they thought I’ve got too big for my boots – ” – do you know that expression? – “ – they do something about curbing my ego”.|
“And I’ll tell you two examples, and then we should all go home, or go back to our jobs – ” - as I said that, I thought in my mind, “By the way, who has been looking after the whole of the British film and television industry while we’re all in here, having lunch?” That got a laugh. And then I said, “Now, back to the ego-crashers”. I said, “When I was first made the British Film Commissioner, I was amazed; I came out of BAFTA, and on the other side of Piccadilly there was a man selling The Evening Standard. And he has a poster below his pile of newspapers, and it looks like it’s been done in longhand – it’s actually done at the newspaper distribution office, and everybody gets the same poster –
TH: Oh that’s the photo you have – I saw that –
Sir Sydney: Yes, that’s another one – it’s the same thing though – “Britain Gets a Film Boss” – that was the headline. And then I saw – when I’d just been appointed – this poster, in front of this newspaper seller in Piccadilly, right opposite BAFTA – “Britain Gets a Film Boss”. I sort of knew it was probably reporting that the government – the Thatcher government – had appointed, for the first time, a British Film Commissioner. So I walked over there, and getting money out of my pocket, I said to the chap, wearing his cloth cap, who I bought papers from for years – I said, “Hello”. He said, “Hello, guv’nor”. I said, “What’s all this about? – ‘Britain Gets a Film Boss’”? He said, “Oh, it’s just some bloke”. I said, “Oh, I see”. I said, “I hope it’s on the front page”. He said, “Nah” (Cockney slang for “Certainly NOT”) – “I’ll show it to you”. And he opens the newspaper, and on page 3 is the same headline – “Britain Gets a Film Boss”, and the picture. The article was about half a page – and there was the picture: a head and shoulders of me. And then he said, “Here he is, guv’nor, look”. And I said, “Well who is he then?” And he said, “Well, I’ll have to read it, won’t I...‘Sydney...Samuelson’ – that’s what it says”. And he looked me in the eye, and said, “I’ve never heard of the bugger, have you?”
TH: And you knew the man from years and years of buying newspapers!
Sir Sydney: Yes! [Laughter] So that got a laugh...and then, my favourite story is when again, when I knew I was going to get a Knighthood, you get told six weeks before. And you’re told before because they want to know that it would meet with your own approval – because some people say, “I don’t want a bloody Knighthood”, or, “I don’t want anybody to decorate me”, or, “I don’t agree with the – ” – it’s called the Honours System. So they want to know that an intended recipient is not going to kick up a fuss – they’d rather not award an honour, than have the chap or woman refuse it, for whatever personal reason they may have.
So you get a nice printed white card, with a gold edge round it, and it says, “Her Majesty the Queen has in mind to Award you the Honour of Knighthood. But before doing so, She would like to ensure that this would meet with your approval” – words like that – they’re maybe not the exact words. Now, that was the first I knew that it was going to happen. And then you’re asked not to discuss it – and that is six weeks before the actual Investiture – sorry, six weeks before the announcement is printed – it happens twice a year, and it’s printed in the Saturday edition of what they call “the quality papers” – like The Times, Telegraph and so on – I don’t think it gets in the tabloid newspapers – and it happens on the Queen’s Birthday celebration, which is in the middle of the year, and then it happens again at the New Year. So it’s called either the Birthday Honours or the New Year Honours.
So I decided that on the Friday night before the press announcement was due, for the 11 people with me at the Commission – I was going to tell them what would be in the paper the following day, because not everybody reads them, as there are several hundreds of names, for all sorts of Honours, different grades and so on. They always print the Knighthoods first, and in full – there’s usually, I would say, ten to fifteen Knighthoods, each time. And so everybody looks to see who’s going to be “Sir”, or “Dame”. I knew that some would read it. And I kind of didn’t like the idea of these really good young people who worked with me not knowing a thing about it until they read it in the paper. So I decided I’d tell them, but not until the evening before it would be in the paper.
|Sir Sydney Samuelson and Thomas, January 2012|
And I decided, in my pompous manner, exactly what I was going to say. First I went into our office manager – 45-, 50-year-old hard-working woman – and there she was, in her little office, poring over some poor devil’s petty cash expenses list that he’s hoping our office manager will approve, and pay him the cash. For a taxi ride, or whatever it was, and so on. She didn’t even look up, and I said, “Lisa, I’ve got something I want to tell you – ” With that, she almost leapt out of her chair and yelled, “Oh my God, what is it?” I suppose she thought I was going to fire her that Friday night. I said, “It’s nothing awful! It’s just something I wanted you to know”. She said, “Well what is it then? It must be awful”. I said, “Why are you so negative, Lisa – why do you say ‘It must be awful’?” And she said, “Well, for one thing, you’ve closed the door behind you. You never close the door when you come into my office”. So I said, “Well, it’s just that I wanted to tell you – ” – and the words I’d worked out were, “This is the last day, probably, that you’ll call me ‘Mister’”. To which she said, without missing a beat – “Oh, having a sex–change are we?” [Laughter]
But you’re right – if you can make people see the funny side of things, and even a funeral – my brother Tony, who was the eccentric out of the four brothers – brilliant guy, qualified as a barrister aged 19 – he was absolutely hilarious. He died about two years ago, now – and he had left strict instructions about the style of his funeral. First of all, there was to be a jazz band, and sure enough, there were four marvellous jazzers playing away when we went into the chapel (it was a cremation). He had specified, if they wished to, who should speak, and I suppose there were six of us – all said some words, very short, as we knew there would be half a dozen people speaking. And in each case, we talked about something funny that had happened between Tony and ourselves. And people still say to me, “I’ll never forget Tony’s funeral”, because it was such a fun occasion.
The other thing was, he said, “I don’t want to come in a Rolls-Royce hearse; I want to come in a truck”. And so his three sons found a pick-up truck, and painted it beautifully. And that’s how his coffin arrived. Nobody in black coats bringing the coffin in – he wanted his sons and their friends to be the ones. And so it was the most un-serious funeral I’ve ever been to; and everybody loved it. And actually, when you think of it Tom, it doesn’t make any difference to the person concerned, does it?
Come on, you’d better go home!
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