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The Bostonians: problems on set

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The Bostonians: problems with the film stock
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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The next film I made with Merchant Ivory, and the last one that I made with James Ivory, was "The Bostonians", in the subsequent year in 1983, which is made in America. It stars Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve and is based on a novel by Henry James. They'd already done "The Europeans", the other Henry James novel. I was actually a little bit- I wasn't upset, but I think- I thought it wasn't the right thing to do to follow "Heat and Dust", which is quite an innovative sort of subject, with the two time periods and so on, and they went back to yet another literary adaptation, as I saw it. So I said, well, all right, if you want to do that, it's okay. But it caused a comment from Penelope Houston, who was the editor of Sight and Sound, who made a very astute comment about the Merchant Ivory output in general at some point. She said, those Merchant Ivory films, they're all very well, but they never go above 50 miles an hour. And there were lots of adverse comments made, rather unfairly, about Laura Ashley wallpaper and all that sort of thing. But, "The Bostonians" was prepare- I was preparing that at a point in time when Kodak had just come out with a new negative material. One of those type numbers, I think it was 5284, I'm not sure. I managed to obtain some rolls of the previous material, which I'd found to be very satisfactory, and I didn't know about the new one. But the strategy of that film involved shooting the big finale, which takes place in a huge theatre, the Music Hall in Troy, New York, it's called the Music Hall, and we couldn't light that for 100 ASA film. Impossible, we couldn't have done that. So I planned to use the high-speed film for that, and the first shooting of the film was in these stately mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, which are like museums. You can't touch anything. You can't attach anything to the walls, you can't put anything on the ceilings. It's like working in a museum. But I managed that all right, but I'd used- the strategy was to use the high sensitive film for that- high-speed film for that. When the first reports started coming back, there was a strange- certain scenes suddenly turned grainy, without warning, from one shot to another. The film was being processed in London, so there was a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing with finding out what was the trouble. It took a while to find what was the trouble. But, James was horrified because those scenes had to look very elegant, and I couldn't tell him what the solution was, because we didn't know what the problem was. We didn't know why one scene should be perfectly okay, and the next scene, shot on the same roll and developed at the same time, should suddenly show grain. So we had to abandon that and shoot the rest of the movie on 100 ASA film, except for the finale, for which I managed to dig up the last 10 or 12 rolls of the previous material, which was okay. Which was slightly slower, it was 320 ASA as against 400 ASA, but it was fine. But that caused a lot of headaches, and there was also- certain scenes had a very, very fine scratch on them. Hair thin. And there again, they couldn't- everybody always refused- you know, the lab says it isn't us, Kodak says it isn't us, they say it must be the camera. But after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, it turned out to be a stock fault. And Kodak was always very reluctant to admit any stock faults. But it was a stock fault. It made me think of a story I was once told where Kodak couldn't get out of it. The buck stops here, sort of story. Somebody told me that on some movie they were making on a Mitchell camera in, I think it was, England, suddenly the camera jammed and they opened up the camera and they took the film out. And they found a piece of film where the sprocket holes just ran sideways off the film, and the rest of the film wasn't perforated, so no wonder it jammed. I would've loved to have been there and called the Kodak representative and say- you get out of that one. But usually they won't admit to anything being wrong. But it was very difficult for a while because I had to rethink the whole treatment of the film, to light it with the available means, which again, were limited, and yet work with 100 ASA material and not 400 ASA material, which was a great- made it much easier to shoot big scenes in big locations, indoor locations, because of the extra speed.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008