Richard Donner refuses to speak his name. Tom Mankiewicz thought he was too sophisticated for Superman. He’s Pierre Spengler’s desert island director. Ilya Salkind says he is a brilliant director, if surrounded with a talented cast and crew. Producer David Picker considers him to be one of the best directors he’s ever worked with. Film critics label him as of the most influential directors to come out of the 60s. Many Superman film fans blame him for derailing the Salkind’s Superman series. Richard Lester invokes a variety of opinions, but if you judge him on his full body of work there’s no doubt that he’s one of the 20th century’s great innovators and visual artists of film and television.
The Early Years
Richard Lester entered the medium of television in the early 1950s, working for America’s CBS. He was a music editor, assistant director and eventually a director. In 1955 he moved from America to London to work for the newly established ITV channel as a director and composer. He also shot numerous television commercials where he further developed post production and editing techniques. Here he became associated with the notorious The Goon Show, the anarchic comedy series which united him comedian Peter Sellers. This eventually lead to the groundbreaking 11 minute short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still. Although nothing more than a silent home movie, Lester energetically lensed Peter Sellers, Leo McKern and Spike Milligan from every angle while never restricting their creativity, no matter how daring their ideas were. The film was eventually shown on British television where its immediate popularity prompted appearances at film festivals like Cannes and eventually the Oscars where it was nominated.
One of pop culture’s greatest influences had arrived in the mid-Sixties: The Beatles were a phenomenon that had middle-aged parents cursing them as the devil incarnates and the new generation swinging to their every beat – everywhere. All four members of the band were fans of Lester and his work with Peter Sellers, so they commissioned him to direct a day in the life-of film to cash in on their rising popularity. A Hard Day’s Night and more so its follow-up, Help! show how Lester revolutionised sound in film. Up until that time, films containing popular music had always been, as Bob Neaverson explains:
“Song performance derived from the classic Hollywood musical, with lip-synched performances and minimal on-screen backing sources to give illusion of performance.”
Lester used pop songs as the incidental music to play over fast edited images which told a story in a fresh style, never seen before on the big screen, as described by James Monaco:
“What Lester did was break the ‘grammatical’ convention. He introduced a ‘frenetic’ editing style using jump cuts.”
Lester obliterated the cinematic continuity, with images slowed down and sped up, often with images bumping into each other. Essentially this captured the essence of the Beatle’s place in 60s pop culture, through the synergy of energetic imagery and sound. In the ‘Ticket To Ride’ sequence from Help! Lester had the Liverpudlian lads involved in a skiing scene in the Alps. With two cameras, he randomly shot them going about their leisurely activity. Later on in the editing suite, aided by his new friend John Victor Smith, Lester ‘frenetically’ juxtaposed the images together in no logical order. The result was perfection, and years later MTV pointed out that Lester was the ‘Godfather’ of the music video. A Hard Days Night plays like an improvised experiment , but at its core a clear narrative emerged — a powerful indictment of the trappings of being a celebrity; in one scene the fab four are stuck in prison, avoiding the screaming girls. The situation is amusing, but the underpinnings are much more serious, and Lester milks it for all its worth. Lester paints them as the victims of their own success.
The anti-establishment insolence is masked by their cheeky humour: After the credits, the fab four share their train carriage with a man of the gentry. An opportunity for both sides to show their impudent behaviour, signalling the extreme class and generation division. Wild contrast becomes a trademark in many of his later films.
The Knack…To Obscurity
In 1965, Lester also made the ‘mod’ cool Britannia film, The Knack…and how to get it, based on Ann Jellicoe’s play. It was this film where established Lester techniques that became his trademarks. For instance, the incidental commentary from passersbys and the physical humour, some of which were lazily ported over into the Superman films. The plot is relatively simple: A schoolteacher joins his misogynistic and womanising friend to learn how to score women, but when a new girl comes to London, they end up competing for her. Beneath the veneer is a somewhat disturbing look at a woman as a sexual object. Shot during the height of the swinging sixties, the film also explores the repressed World War II generation clashing with the World War II babies, often with humorous off-screen comedic mutterings supplanting the serious overtones of sexual freedom.
A year later Richard Lester directed the film version of the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. A musical farce co-starring silent era comedy icon “Buster Keaton” and Phil ‘Sgt Bilko’ Silvers. The film is held by many critics as one of the most successful stage musicals translated to the screen. It’s here that Lester excelled in slapstick, off-beat humour and skilful physical comedy. It was also the film that united him with his composer collaborator, Ken Thorne, whose adaptation of the music for the film won the 1966 Academy Award for best score.
Petulia, in 1967, saw Lester return to the USA for the first time in fifteen years to look at the hip society of sixties San Francisco from an alternative, alien perspective. Photographed by British DP Nicolas Roeg who only two years later directed his first feature – Performance. Petulia is used by many film connoisseurs as the ultimate historical document summarising modern sixties America.
Lester reunited with Michael Crawford and Beatle John Lennon on How I Won The War, a surreal film that lampoons popular war films and the lunacy of the war itself. Cynical and satirical, Lester uses a variety of techniques to establish reality and fiction, and some times blurring the distinction by contrasting documentary style footage to different character points of view. Musical themes from Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai play over the desert scenes, mocking history revisionism — and this theme seems to be conceit of the story, but ultimately the film’s aim is somewhat confusing. The narrative continually falls over, but then it picks itself up only to fall over again, creating a frenetic style that is frustrating. Lester never wanted the film to be rational, and perhaps this why, at the time, it alienated the audience. It can be no accident that George Lucas, a fan of Lester, was deeply affected by this film — for his rough edit of Star Wars, George inserted World War II documentary footage of diving bomber planes, very similar to the footage found in How I Won the War, in place of the yet-to-be-completed Tie Fighter shots.
Along with his follow up film, The Bedsitting Room, this is one of the few English language films to successfully apply Brechtian conventions such as alienation (a convention used to prevent the audience empathising with the characters). The rarely seen (aren’t most Lester films?) Bedsitting Room focuses on a post atomic world, set in London. Featuring an impeccable British cast: From Dudley Moore, Peter Cook to Spike Milligan and Arthur Lowe — all of which were household names in Britain during the 60s and 70s. Filled with incredible moments of inventive comedy and spellbinding visual comedy from the very first credit. At the time the film failed to find its audience, but it has gained fans and was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray last year.
Lester’s notoriety as a box office unfriendly innovator and the difficulty of finding funding for British productions led to a five year hiatus from making features, instead he directed television commercials from time to time.
Ilya Salkind was a fan of A Hard Day’s Night and decided that Lester would be a good choice to film Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. At first the auteur dismissed the notion, believing it was a kid’s story, but once he read the original novel he was sold. This time he had an opportunity to direct a commercial project, one which provided an opportunity for Lester to magnify his unique style to a much larger audience. Originally intended to be ONE film, in the spirit of the roadshow events of the 50s and 60s — but with a pre-sold release date to make in nine weeks after shooting finished, Lester flippantly told the producers that they could have half. So it was decided that the film be split into two. With lawsuits flying, the producers gave them [actors] a percentage of the sequel. Far removed from the Hollywood version, his two films showed that his iconoclastic nature was truly alive, he brought the lavish and romantic wonder of Dumas’s characters down to Earth — their environment gritty and grimy, a more realistic portrait of 17th century Europe. Lester excelled in making sure the sword fights were real, and they used real weapons, capturing some of the best swashbuckling fighting ever on film. His Musketeers are valued as the definitive filmed versions of the Dumas classic, marrying sincere adventure, slapstick comedy and remarkable period detail.
In-between the Musketeer sequels, Lester went on to direct Juggernaut, when disasters movie were still in their infancy. Instead of being melodramatic like its counterparts, Richard Lester focuses on character development with a dose of (social) reality, especially in terms of class. We believe in the characters because the writer and Lester linger on their particular traits and conflicts in the first half, making the second part much were interesting and suspenseful because time was taken to set-up character.
Royal Flash, based on George Macdonald Fraser’s second book of a series, follows the exploits of a cad, coward, racist and bounder Harry Flashman. The unsympathetic hero is thrusted into the “Prisoner of Zenda” scenario where he learns that he’s being used by Otto Van Bismarck for his own nefarious plans. This story was right up Lester’s creek, where opportunities for farcical humour was guaranteed and his fascination and cynicism with history revisionism. Originally Lester was prepping to make the first book, but that fell through. Royal Flash is perhaps Lester best looking film, making full use of the incredible locations in eastern Europe and the sumptuous photography is a credit to the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth BSC . On its release the film was panned – Malcolm McDowell seemed to be miscast, because in the book he’s described as a much stockier man, which makes his cowardly behaviour much more fun.
Although Robin and Marian was another disappointment at the box office for Lester, he did capture a beautiful chemistry between Connery and Hepburn. Again, Lester effectively kills the romanticized version of Robin Hood, preferring to explore his vulnerability to aging. The battle scenes are not superhuman but human, fighting the sheriff of Nottingham is almost like a drunken brawl; two old men fighting an ugly, pathetic fight. The film’s climax is perhaps Lester most poignant, where Marian poisons Robin and herself. Robin and Marian clearly personifies Lester’s take on the myth, it’s a far cry from Curtiz’s legendary take. Lester’s dim view of sweet nostalgia is apparent, the film’s an elegiac lament to the zeitgeist.
Richard Lester came aboard Superman production when relations between Donner and the Salkinds deteriorated. Lester acted as an intermediary producer between the two parties. Since the Salkind’s allegedly owed him money, this was a way of getting it plus a salary, as an uncredited producer. [Ilya Salkind vehemently denies any monies was owed to Lester.] Lester wanted no part in the direction of the film and would only come on the set if asked by the director. He wasn’t a sinecure, but he eventually did mind a unit and offer advice. Lester did suggest to the producers and Donner that they should put all their efforts into the first film, his thinking was that “Who would want to see the sequel if the first film wasn’t good?” Donner agreed. He shot all the remaining scenes with Hackman, Perrine and Beatty (They didn’t return for any extra shooting under Lester in Superman 2) and finished off some other scenes, then all work was concentrated on the first picture. During one editorial session, Donner sought Lester’s advice on the finale of Superman. Lester felt that despite the amazing Superman feats during the earthquake special effects, it lacked emotional impact. Donner and Mankiewicz concocted the death of Lois, and plucked the time reversal ending from Superman II.
The first film took off [no pun intended) at the box office and it seemed that relations between Donner and the producers was thawing. But secretly Donner was still fuming about the way the production was handled and it boiled over into the press, demanding that the sequel be made on his terms and if Pierre Spengler was on it, he was not. The producers fired him.
After much deliberation the producers asked Richard Lester to finish the sequel. Lester’s interest in Superman might be connected to outstanding monies owed to him, but it seems that he wanted to experience and be involved in a large scale production and an opportunity to work with sophisticated special effects. Richard Donner’s “Superman” had been a labour of love, he romanticised the myth. Richard Lester was the complete contrast, and it presented a salivating prospect to subvert the comic book material at every opportunity — but he had to conform to the Donner and Mankiewicz framework, and keep the series profitable and damage proof.
All of Lester’s previous films had one thing in common; their source was already established material. The Beatles were musicians and celebrities, The Knack and How to Get It was an Ann Jellicoe play, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum was a Broadway musical, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was an established western and Robin Hood was a legend. Lester’s talent was to challenge the conventions of established material, essentially distorting our fragile memories. In The Three Musketeers, he constructed an accurate period atmosphere and social reality background for which he was then able to pepper with his own idiosyncratic style. His attention for detail was of an incredibly high standard, looking and sounding entirely authentic. But his attempt to even attempt social reality in Superman II was never going to fit, especially with the baggage of interweaving his ideas around someone else’s film.
With the passing of time, the producers and Lester reviewed what Donner had shot in 1977 and felt that the material was not as good as they expected, plus a decision by Alexander Salkind not to pay Marlon Brando his potential Superman II grosses made the situation even trickier. They did court Tom Mankiewicz, but he made it clear that he was not returning due to loyalty to his friend. So Richard Lester teamed up with writers David and Leslie Newman to devise new material within the bounds of what had already been shot, some 70% – 80% was added and the remaining Donner footage was further manipulated to fit.
Lester’s compositions for the sequel were tailored to evoke the images of a comic book, no sweeping shots (unless Donner footage) but flat, static camera positioning gave the desired effect. Hard core fans expected subtle integration, but Lester, rightly in fear of challenging Donner’s work, applied no integration skills, neglecting the epic canvas for the less pretentious comic book flavour.
Instead of continuity between the bookends of part one and two, Lester’s footage is graffiti, spray-painting the essence of comic book across Donner’s legend. The best example of this is in the Mount Rushmore scene in Superman II. Donner’s special effects unit had shot the model of the national monument and the intention was to have Ursa deface it and etch the three Kryptonians faces using her heat vision. Lester took the footage and superimposed the faces of the three Kryptonians across the ruins in true witty fashion. Note also the opening alleyway transformation sequence of part two, spray-painted across the brick wall is a crude, bright yellow graffiti version of the ‘S’ emblem.
Terence Stamp felt that Donner’s version was superior — the villains were painted vividly as diabolical, power hungry, criminal elements as promised in Jor-El’s speech. Lester somewhat diluted the power crazy villains, instead of visual world domination, annihilating monuments and causing carnage to biblical proportions, they conquer a small town. Funny, considering their ambition is to take over the world. They don’t even step outside America! Yet they are bored in the White House. Quite ironic. This is indicative of the auteur’s paradigm view on comic book, he finds the concept of super villains predictable with their pretentious world domination mantras. Conquering a small town is twisted and logically inventive in the Lester framework. Of course, he’s also paying homage to the B-movies of the 1950s where small towns were wiped out (incidentally, another medium with its origins in comic books). These towns folk are certainly not intended ‘stereotypes’, and are obviously not used to represent different social groups. Lester isn’t viewing the U.S. from an alien perspective as he had done in Petulia, his Houston is entirely fictional, played for laughs with comic caricatures and cartoon violence.
At the heart of Superman II is the love story between Superman and Lois. The scenes in the fortress between the two characters are heightened by the excellent acting by both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve, monitored by Lester’s three camera set-up which bravely chose to linger on their subtle performances. In the Donner version, Lois is active in breaking Clark’s disguise. In the Lester version it’s not as well structured – Lois doesn’t have goal in the film. Clark trips over the pink bear; Superman, who performs such amazing feats, can’t hide his true identity when he trips. Pierre Spengler offered an interesting observation: “Superman’s subconscious wanted to reveal the truth.”
Lester shoots the opening teaser in Paris on a morose day, the city he had first met the Beatles in. Paris is considered to be the most romantic city in the world, but Lester never romanticizes it, he shoots it on a rainy day – obviously he shoots fast and doesn’t wait for the weather to clear, but it’s coincidentally logical in his world view. When Superman stops the descending lift, instead of dialogue, Superman and Lois stare at each like lovesick puppies, undressing each other with their eyes. Lester is clearly a romantic but never lays it on thick, where possible he visually presents their love for one another by lingering on their obsessed stares.
The final product is a technical divorce from the first film’s accomplishments. Lester wanted to do the film to learn about the dazzling wizardry, something that was virtually alien to him, but his lack of experience in rallying the troops is evident – the standard of optical work here falls short at times considering what had come before. Saying that, one must consider the deadlines that had been brought forward to take advantage of the Australian summer, in November 1980. David Speed, Zoptic operator, told me that he never saw Lester at the flying sessions when he was there.
Superman II was the Frankenstein of the franchise, Lester was constrained by the Donner framework, but in Superman III there could be no excuses. The shackles of pretensions gone, the grandeur downsized considerably, Superman III is barely able to retain its cinematic reputation.
If you control “coffee and oil”, you rule the world! Lester delves into social commentary but without preaching the morals or ethics, beginning in an unemployment office where a down-on-his-luck African American sparks an idea, to become a computer programmer and when he does get a job, he climbs to the top in no time, lead by dreams of avarice. Eventually he’s used by a non-threatening white American tycoon to disrupt oil tankers and build a super computer. Make sense? Did I mention Superman? He makes an appearance.
The comedy on the “Streets of Metropolis” is a farcical representation of everyday life, from a blind-man losing his dog to bank robbers losing their loot. Expertly choreographed but ultimately displeasing. Lester relied on the physical humour from the The Knack…and how to get it, sometimes it was a direct lift. It’s unclear if Lester was really motivated to be inventive here.
One of Lester’s most potent, and perhaps most interesting commentary, is the sequence where Kryptonite, mixed with tar, doesn’t hurt Superman physically but corrupts his soul, indulging in lustful and drunken behaviour, abusing his powers for his own needs. The contrast between the evil and noble Superman is original and eye-catching, the nobility of the character is contrary to a good human being, whilst the hostile Superman is portrayed as an alter-ego of ourselves.
Just as Lester had revisited the USA in Petulia, he returned to Donner’s Smallville for a reunion party. Lester seems much more at home here, where he’s able to show his dim view of nostalgia. David Newman related to me that they were discussing a Smallville reunion sequence whilst filming in Niagara Falls during the Superman II shoot [in September 1979].
This sequence introduces the Lana Lang, Brad and Clark subplots were the most emotionally involving intriguing aspect of the film. It is with these scenes that Lester is as true to the origins of Superman as Donner had been, and both Annette O’Toole and Gavan O’Herihly gave true and believable performances. Consider the picnic sequence, one of Christopher Reeve’s best moments as Clark Kent, delivering an authentic performance, but marred by the script’s superficiality, only choosing to skim the surface of Clark Kent’s home town romance.
Lester films Pryor as an established celebrity, genre crossing frequently into comedy. In one skilfully orchestrated piece of physical comedy, Pryor’s Gorman falls from a skyscraper dressed in a pink table cloth, survives the fall and looks startled at the camera (known as ‘Sprung Tempo Rhythm’). Cue the groans. Richard Pryor had a lousy script to deal with and for once Lester didn’t seem to understand that this gifted comedian was also a tremendous actor. His character was burdened with some terrible dialogue and motivation. Gus Gorman designs a super duper computer in the Grand Canyon?
The action sequences are carried out Donner’s rule of verisimilitude, thrilling and fast paced, albeit detached from the character development. One exception to this is the junkyard fight set-piece, where Reeve’s virtuoso performance as both Kent and Superman was obviously an inspiring challenge for Lester.
The central problem with the film is the screenplay. It’s a cacophony of ideas, very much like the Newman’s original Superman scripts. The film focuses on Gus Gorman, when it should have been about Superman vs Superman. Richard Lester is not a writer, but a director who relies on talent around him so he can be inventive with visuals and ad-libbing. For Lester, Superman III was a job to preserve the product. The film generated a modest 60 million in America and was very popular on VHS. Critics found the charm of Superman III in its existence as an unpretentious blockbuster but left diehard fans fuming that their hero could be so trivialised in a film that’s really about him.
For Lester, what once was a winning formula had now turned into a tired failure. It’s safe to say that Superman III made it difficult to seek out and develop new material for now he was labelled a blockbuster director.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade did a new wave of artistic directors reignite the box office with striking new styles of film-making, beginning with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, ironically, a Lester champion.
Looking back, Superman suffocated his style, a dog on a leash always being pulled back. But he directed some of the most inventive and original imagery seen in comic book cinema: The spire of the Empire State Building returning to the top of the skyscraper, the Coca Cola sign fizzing in a shower of neon, Superman returning the flag to the white house and “Superman vs Superman” are just some of the examples that provided crowd pleasing entertainment for audiences everywhere.
After Superman, Lester asked Ilya Salkind to purchase the rights to film Peter Pan, but it proved to be a dead-end – the rights were unavailable. Once again, Lester faded away until he was reunited with producer Pierre Spengler to film the unnecessary The Four Musketeers. Tragedy struck when his friend Roy Kinnear died on set. Deeply affected, Lester decided to walk away from the industry, briefly returning to film Get Back for Paul McCartney. Since then Lester has retired, although he kept his offices at Twickenham studios for nigh on twenty years, until he finally shut it down a few months ago and donated his archives to the BFi.
Richard Lester was one of the most innovative directors of the 20th Century. Many irate fans have only associated him with Superman, particularly as the man who replaced Richard Donner on Superman II, but if you look beyond his chequered Superman tenure, you begin to see just how influential he really was in film and television.
Article is © Copyright Dharmesh Chauhan and may not be used in whole or in part without prior written permission.