6 Filmmaking Tips from Richard Lester

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2015

Any summary of Richard Lester’s career inevitably begins with his helming of A Hard Day’s Night. This is no dubious honor ‐ what was meant to be simply a “jukebox musical” when United Artists got the ball rolling on the project ultimately changed what the rock ’n’ roll movie could be, and produced a hugely entertaining manic farce of modern celebrity in the process.

But Lester’s career in the 1960s alone is far more diverse than even his two enduringly fun Beatles films would suggest. The American-born Lester unwittingly became a major figure in transforming British cinema during the heyday of “Swinging London” by pursuing radically unconventional means of filmic expression. Where British exports were previously divided between Sean Connery for the mainstream and kitchen sink realism for the arthouse, Lester’s films catered equally to commercial and discerning audiences by combining experimental styles with lightning-paced, biting humor, like in his Palme d’Or winning The Knack…and How to Get It or his incisive anti-war film How I Won the War. Lester made waves across the pond as well, between deeply felt dramas like the San Francisco-set Petulia (still one of New Hollywood’s underrated gems) and, in later decades, popcorn films like two Superman sequels and the internationally successful Three Musketeers.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from one of about a dozen people who was at one point referred to as the “fifth Beatle.”

Leave Home

Yes, this is highly impractical advice, and Lester didn’t necessarily leave his home country in order to become a filmmaker. Rather, he found in England a home he never quite knew had existed before. And even though Lester would eventually make films in the United States beginning with Petulia, it’s impossible to imagine any work by that point without his work with the Beatles, Peter Sellers, and on British television. By leaving home, Lester found a roundabout path to filmmaking that would certainly not have existed in the same way, if at all, had he stayed stateside. Various places, circumstances, and contexts produce different inspirations and opportunities, and the road most traveled might not be the best road for one to take.

It Gets Harder

Steven Soderbergh: “A distinct memory of when we met briefly in 1990 in Park City. They were showing some of your films and I saw Petulia and The Knack for the first time and I met you and [Hard Day’s Night producer] Walter Shenson on the street for just a minute. You said, ‘It gets harder, you know.’ I wasn’t quite sure what you meant… Lately what it’s come to mean is that it gets harder to maintain the course that you feel is your own when this course is obviously at odds with what else is going on, the kinds of work that people want to see.”

Lester: “My suspicion is that my thought at the time was more to say when you made your first film, nothing you made had gone wrong.”

Soderbergh: “Right.”

Lester: “And when you made your eighth film, a great part of eight films had gone wrong and you will always have that needling feeling in the back of your head: don’t do that again. And you may do it again, but there will be something that will be inhibiting you in having that enthusiasm of opening the door and saying, ‘Let’s go, lads! Over here with the forty!’ The feeling that last time you did that it didn’t quite come off and that’s going to build and build…It ahs more to do with yourself than with what the industry will be doing to you.”

It’s extremely difficult to make a film, but often just as difficult to continue filmmaking, as each successive project can bring new or compounding troubles on both institutional and personal levels. Taken from Soderbergh’s interview with Lester for the former’s 1996 book Getting Away with It.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be an Amateur

“I think I have an amateur’s approach to filmmaking. I tried to learn technically, but having never been an assistant, or a cameraman, or an editor. I never saw how anybody else made films. I used to call myself the Rousseau of Twickenham Studios. When Rousseau was shown Cezanne’s paintings, he said, ‘They’re very good. I could finish all those.’?”

Do What Works

Lester transitioned into filmmaking from live television, and despite the fact that film is very much not a “live” medium, he attempted to maintain the sense of energy and spontaneity that imbued the time-crunched medium in which he cut his teeth. So, from his first short (1959’s The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film) to his first feature (1962’s It’s a Trad, Dad!) and beyond, Lester used multiple cameras for simultaneous coverage and encouraged happy accidents, adapting the techniques he knew from television directly into film. His lack of formal training in the conventional techniques of cinema ultimately benefitted his work greatly, forming his unique aesthetic. Few other directors in 1964 would open a film with such an egregious “error” as The Beatles falling over one another.

Work to Your (Non-) Actors’ Strengths

Not only has Lester worked with some of cinema’s consummate screen performers, including Peter Sellers and Julie Christie, he’s also worked with a number of non-actors as his leads, particularly musicians. He shaped memorable performances for all of them by playing to their gifts and finding their charisma in whatever form or range it may exist.

Use Surrealism

Surrealism, for Lester, is not simply a means of achieving a comic effect. It’s a political tool, and one that’s especially useful within the devices available to filmmakers. Rather than use the utilities of cinema to reconstruct a sense of reality or an uninterrupted flow of time, Lester repeatedly takes advantage of the potential for disruption, invention, and unreality embedded within the tools of filmmaking. As a result, he not only comes up with hilarious moments like this (that would go onto influence subsequent surrealist comedy acts like Monty Python), but to also subvert reality and affix new lenses on our means of perception. Surrealism is a potent tool, and its potential uses for play and for critique are far from mutually exclusive.

What We’ve Learned

In numerous interviews, Richard Lester has listed Buster Keaton as a formative influence in his career, not only in terms of comedy but towards his cinematic education more broadly. Keaton had a keen and intuitive sense of comedy as a form of spectacle, but furthermore was also interested in the mechanics of filmmaking itself ‐ how a sense of reality is fabricated through cinema’s devices, and how to elegantly but defiantly bend those devices in order to dance across the line that structures coherent cinematic logic. And I can’t think of a more fitting way to describe Lester’s similarly rich and inventive contributions to filmmaking than likening them to Keaton’s.