Today is the 111th birthday of the man who inspired me—and so many outstanding directors—to make movies.
I celebrated the occasion with a private screening of two of his early masterpieces, Great Expectations and a film that was sadly neglected until its rediscovery in the David Lean centenary celebrations, The Passionate Friends.
This iconic poster now adorns my studio!
I managed to track down a hard to find DVD of this Spanish made documentary about David Lean’s dying wish to make a screen adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo. Lean believed it would be his defining work, the pinnacle of his career.
My excitement at getting hold of this DVD was tempered by sadness at how everything conspired to prevent David Lean from realising his dream. Lean’s widow Sandra, along with Steven Spielberg and others involved with the project, tell the heartbreaking story of endless delays and false starts. The most moving account of all came from Georges Corraface, who was set to play Nostromo. The surviving screen tests show how brilliant Corraface would have been in this role.
Those closest to Lean felt the constant frustrations and disappointments hastened his death. Fellow director John Boorman visited David Lean days before Lean’s death. They reminisced about their lives and their films. As John Boorman was leaving, David Lean said: ‘I hope I get better and that I’m able to make Nostromo. You see, I’m just beginning to think I might be getting the hang of filmmaking.’
As his two Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist testify, David Lean was the undisputed master of the literary adaption. Having read the script and heard Lean describe some of the key scenes, I am convinced that Nostromo is the greatest film never made.
In a series of postage stamps celebrating great British films, the Royal Mail in the UK has recognised Lawrence of Arabia, the first film that I ever saw and the one that started me on my film making journey.
How well I remember my first visit to the cinema and being entranced by this extraordinary film. I recently watched the 50th Anniversary restoration and was captivated anew.
I have to be honest and say that there have been some moments recently, when post production on Rere’s Children has proved so difficult, that I have cursed the day I stepped into that cinema and saw Lawrence. But as I now experience the joy of completing the Amiri & Aroha trilogy and sharing it with the world, I know that I owe Lawrence of Arabia - and David Lean - a great deal more than words can ever express.
Frame enlargement from this evening’s footage: the passing train adds the perfect atmosphere as Arapeta and Miriama walk back from their frightening experience at the castle, only to be apprehended by a youth gang.
Trains have always fascinated me. Indeed trains have proved significant characters in a number of my films. Trains were a symbol of departure and loss in one of my earliest films Andante and the dramatic climax of Phaedra’s Friend took place on the London Underground.
Back in Gisborne, I had shot some very atmospheric scenes of Shane Luke as the adult Arapeta wandering along a disused railway track when his life falls to pieces at the end of Amiri’s Child. Tonight’s scene will add unity to the locations as well as a dramatic transition between the scenes at Campbell Park and the youth gang sequence.
David Lean always maintained that: “good films can only be made by dedicated maniacs”. After a long and punishing day on location, camping out by the train track to get this elusive shot was definitely dedicated and, in the view of the cast, quite maniacal!
This is me circa 1986 at the Schoolhouse set from Ryan’s Daughter
Our weekly trip to Dunedin for the David Lean season continued this week with Ryan’s Daughter.
Ryan’s Daughter is one of those films which over the years has developed a huge cult following and has become one of cinema’s icons. Books have been written on the legendary trials and tribulations of its production, and critical reappraisal has assured it a place as David Lean’s most underestimated film and his undiscovered masterpiece.
Ryan’s Daughter was tremendously influential on me as a young film maker, coming as it did in 1970, whilst I was planning my first film Thursday’s Child.
I am not alone in making a pilgrimage to the locations where this extraordinary film was made. The school house still stands, over 40 years after the film was made!
Ryan’s Daughter was hugely influential on me as a young film maker.
David Lean’s masterpiece was released in 1970, during my last year at school. I was preparing my first film, Thursday’s Child when I first saw Ryan’s Daughter at the Empire Leicester Square in London, at the time said to have had the world’s best 70mm projection. I was spellbound from those opening titles, with dawn breaking over the Irish coast, one moment exquisitely beautiful, the next menacing and threatening, like the opening of a great novel.
Whilst the projection and print quality at the Rialto Dunedin was no match for the Empire Leicester Square, it was wonderful to see this film, with its unparalleled 70mm cinematography, back where it belongs on the giant cinema screen!
No other film, in my view, has so effectively captured nature’s permanence over human frailty.
The Rialto David Lean season in Dunedin continued this week with Doctor Zhivago. Often glibly dismissed as Lean’s most commercially successful work, today’s screening emphasized to me that Doctor Zhivago is an immensely personal and powerful piece of cinema. Contrasts abound; Lean shot the love scenes harshly and the war scenes romantically. Contrary to those glib put downs by the critics, Lean gives us striking characters in a gripping plot. It would perhaps be surprising to those critics that Lean in fact initially wanted to film Doctor Zhivago in black and white for stark effect. Yet Lean clearly felt there was more he wanted to do with Zhivago, even in the last days of his life he talked about his wish to remake Doctor Zhivago.
The opportunity to see David Lean’s final four films again on the big screen is a dream come true for me. It was Lawrence of Arabia which ignited my lifelong passion for cinema as an impressionable teenager. The impact of these four masterpieces on my film making has been immense. I was really sad when I saw that the four films were screening in a David Lean season in Auckland earlier this year and there was no way with all my commitments that I could get to see them. What joy that the season has now come to the Rialto Dunedin and I will be able to see all four films on the big screen as Lean had intended. Young people are so used to seeing these films on DVD and video, but nothing can compare with their power in the cinema.
Walking into the beautifully atmospheric Rialto cinema in Dunedin this afternoon to watch Lawrence of Arabia was just like my first visit to the cinema as a teenager, I was transfixed as that beam of light from the projection room lit the screen and the magic of this wonderful film had me captivated once more. This is cinema at its very best and something which television or video can never capture.
Good films can only be made by dedicated maniacs - David Lean
It was with great sadness that I learnt of the passing of Eddie Fowlie today, on the eve of publication of his memoirs David Lean’s Dedicated Maniac - Memoirs of a Film Specialist.
Eddie Fowlie was one of the last surviving members of David Lean’s Dedicate Maniacs, the faithful band of film makers who helped the great director achieve his elusive vision. Eddie also became on of David Lean’s closest personal friends.
Perhaps Eddie Fowlie will be best remembered for creating the Russian winter in a Spanish summer for Doctor Zhivago, creating vast snowy landscapes using tons of crushed white marble dust. Or perhaps even more remarkable, creating the idyllic woodland setting for the love scene in Ryan’s Daughter inside an old barn!
Your work lives on Eddie, in these magnificent films.