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Merchant Ivory productions and no longer working with James Ivory


The Bostonians: Problems on set
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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And then there was a certain amount of problems with Christopher Reeve and Vanessa. That was my first film with Vanessa, subsequently I made another Merchant Ivory film with Vanessa, and I have the greatest respect for Vanessa, but sometimes she can be a real pain. In this particular film, she had taken Madeleine Potter under her wing. Madeleine Potter is the one who plays the young girl, hadn't made a film before, so Vanessa and she used to go round arm in arm, carrying copies of the novel. Every now and then they went to James and they... look in this scene and this scene in the novel. Don't you think it's much better, you know, there's all this got lost... in transferring to a script it got lost. And James should've said, 'Look, you cannot... if you could film a novel straight off without writing a script, we would do that. But you have to write a script, forget the novel. We have to film the script. Forget the novel'. But he never did that. Because, as I already said, James wasn't very good with strong-minded women, like Vanessa. So, there came a point in time where I took Vanessa and Christopher aside, this was while we were shooting in Boston. Most of the film is made in Boston and Cape Cod, little bits in New York. And I took them aside once and I said, 'Look, we have a problem, and I thought I better talk to you about it because I don't think James is going to, and he would like to, but he's too shy. The problem is that when you take them aside during shooting hours, and say, look I really think that this bit of characterisation, it doesn't feel right and I really think we should change that, and how should we change it'. 'Well, I don't really know'. Those sort of discussions can take place before the shooting starts, but when the shooting has started, and I looked them straight in the eye, I said, 'Look, do you understand, we don't have the time. Like you're talking to a child. We don't have the time for this kind of discussion to go on while all the crew is waiting to shoot the next scene'. And he saw the point and... both of them, and they sort of said, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' Rather plaintively, rather like that. I said, 'It's very simple, get off the director's back and let him get on with it'. And that sort of sunk in and things were all right for a while.

But it wasn't totally effective, of course. They went back to... the old discussions continued beyond that point. I think it was helpful. But it was usually up to me to make that kind of intervention. I very often exceeded my authority as cameraman. Many other DOPs, or DPs wouldn't dream of doing anything like that. They stick strictly to their job, and if there's some discussion which doesn't involve the photographer, they just sit in their chair and read a book until it's all finished. But I could see a situation arising, like many times before, where, at the end of your schedule, you have a beautifully finished half a film, because you haven't got it together to combine quality with speed, a degree of speed. That film wasn't... We weren't pressed for time. We had 10 weeks. We had a nine-hour day, or something like that. We were never particularly stressed, but we couldn't afford lengthy discussions about character and motivation and all that kind of thing, in the middle of shooting. We just couldn't afford it. And I'm the one that couldn't just sit idly by and read my book while that sort of problem was solved. The culmination of that kind of interference came one day when it was the eve of the Labour Day three-day holiday, and we were in Boston and everybody, most of the crew were from New York, so they were all anxious to go back to their families for the three-day holiday. We had a sort of bits and pieces day, where we had to just finish certain bits, certain scenes that consisted of three or four shots, in four different locations. And we got more and more behind, and the last thing we had to do was a scene where Madeleine Potter and Vanessa Redgrave come out of the house, they cross in a relatively narrow... in an alley, basically. They come out of this house, they cross the street and they walk 50 yards up the pavement, and they have to speak four lines of dialogue, culminating in Vanessa's very important line where she says to Madeleine, 'Promise me you'll never marry'. Right.

So I'd arranged to shoot this scene in early dusk conditions in order not to have to light the whole bloody street, but use daylight for lighting the street and just put some lamps in some windows. So the generator couldn't get very close, it was very narrow alleyway, difficulties of access, being pressed for time, so time was of the essence. But we got it all ready and we started rehearsing, we laid this little track, and we started rehearsing and they did their rehearsal. They came out of the house and they crossed the road and they walked along the track, and they didn't speak a word of dialogue. So the first time we said, what the hell's going on here. So, I said let's have another... James said, 'Why aren't they talking?' So he talked to them and said, 'Don't they realise they have to get the four lines of dialogue out in this crossing the street and going along the track?' We've just got the right amount of time for them to speak this dialogue. I'm sure there's enough time to speak those lines. So we go again. Right, start, action. And they come out and again they don't speak the dialogue. But instead of... they're doing this, as they're walking along they're doing this. I thought, what the hell is going on here? So, I went to them and said, 'What is going on here? Why are you looking up at the sky?' And Vanessa said, 'We are looking at the stars'. And that was in order to get into the mood to speak this very important line. So I said, 'Right, that's a wrap, we're not shooting that scene tonight', and I closed the shoot down. We shot that scene somewhere else much later.

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: 6 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008