This was written for MOJO magazine’s issue of November 2002. Its main elements are interviews with Paul McCartney and Denis O’Dell. Brought in as the film’s Associate Producer, Denis O’Dell dealt with all parties, from head office number-crunchers to the mop-topped thespians themselves. His empathy with the group was instant: he would eventually become a director of Apple and worked on all their later film ventures.
Thanks are owed to Pat Gilbert for some additional interview material.
At the end I’ve added some Denis O’Dell interview notes and unpublished quotes.
It’s been a… full 38 years since a certain guitar chord first rang out in darkened cinemas across Great Britain. From market town Gaumonts to seaside Essoldos, big city Odeons to rustic Tivolis, it raised the curtain on what may be the greatest pop film of them all.
“To this day,” admits Sir George Martin, “I still don’t know what that chord was. But it was a very good one. And it set the whole tone for the song and the whole film. Because we knew that what was going to follow was going to be dramatic, wonderful, funny, exciting and everything else.”
In 1964, of course, nobody knew what a DVD was. But today A Hard Day’s Night is available in that very format, generously enhanced with documentary footage. The Tivolis and Essoldos may be gone, but the splendour, fun, tunes and humour that made The Beatles’ first film a classic are startlingly present. The four boys stand at the movie’s psychological pivot, the point of mental equilibrium between the neurotic cloddishness of uptight adults and the surging worship of hysterical children. They are cool, collected and smart: the only custodians of sanity.
Around them is another vanished world, of roadies in shirts and ties, technicians in horn-rimmed glasses, businessmen in bowler hats and ex-Army commissionaires in peaked caps. It was a world The Beatles helped hasten to its extinction. And if what has replaced it is no better, at least A Hard Day’s Night still glows with invincible optimism.
“We were just so young and excited to be making a movie,” recalls Paul McCartney. “The Beatles’ career built from little clubs in Liverpool, Hamburg, ballrooms in London, theatres, stage shows, TV, it just kept going up. Film was the natural progression. We’d had a couple of offers to do things but they weren’t very good. We stuck out because we wanted to be in something good.”
There had been some terrific rock’n’roll music at the movies: the Little Richard and Eddie Cochran cameos in The Girl Can’t Help It spring to mind. But no-one had yet devised a film with pop at the core of its being. The British contribution was epitomised by such cheerfully gormless fare as Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. “Rock’n’roll films were traditionally bad vehicles,” says McCartney. “Films like Don’t Knock The Rock were terrible but they might have Clyde McPhatter, one of the few guys you wanted to see. ‘Hey, why don’t we book Clyde McPhatter tonight?’ ‘That’s a great idea, Eddie!’ Alan Freed or someone would be a DJ trying to act, and it was really bad. So we had this idea that it would be great to be in something that was actually a decent film and had music.”
Before The Beatles’ celluloid ambitions could be realised, though, their manager Brian Epstein had to find the right partners. This he eventually did (though not for the best terms possible) by accepting an offer from the American company United Artists. The band had yet to break in the States, but UA sensed The Beatles’ potential even more keenly than the group’s US record label. In fact their chief objective was to secure a percentage of the spin-off soundtrack albums: the films themselves would be little more than pot-boilers. Like almost everyone else, UA assumed the Beatle boom would be short-lived. In the event, their opportunist punt in a foreign novelty market would prove fabulously lucrative.
UA gave the project to an American producer in London, Walter Shenson. He in turn hired his fellow ex-pat, a sharp-talking slaphead called Richard Lester, to direct. Aside from a little movie work (including one of those proverbially duff British music flicks, It’s Trad, Dad!), Lester’s specialism was anarchic comedy: he’d assisted Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan in some TV adaptations of the venerable Goons wireless shows and directed the pair in a zany, widely-admired cinema short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film.
Lester was sent to meet his prospective stars in radio rehearsals at the Playhouse Theatre: “We were asked to sniff around each other like dogs,” he said, “to see whether we would get on. What came out was that we each knew the kind of film we didn’t want to make. And, mercifully, we coincided.”
McCartney: “We held out for someone good and Dick Lester’s name came up. We found out he’d made The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which was kind of surreal for its time – there was a very long shot where Spike Milligan is on the horizon and he takes about five minutes to come towards the camera, and when he gets there a boxing glove just comes out and hits him. You’d never seen those kind of things then, so that was one of our cult little films: ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s a student’s film, that is!’. So we were very chuffed that he was interested.”
Lester’s first choice of scriptwriter, Johnny Speight (later famous for Till Death Us Do Part), was unavailable so he turned to a Liverpool-Welsh playwright called Alun Owen, who’d also done some writing for the director’s short-lived TV series The Dick Lester Show. To observe his subjects in their natural habitat, Owen joined The Beatles for three days on the road in November 1963, taking in their show in Dublin, some promo work in Belfast and the journey back for a gig in east London. According to McCartney, “Alun hung out with us for a few days and he got the sort of wacky humour that we’d got going: ‘He’s very clean, though, isn’t he?’ or ‘I fought for the likes of you in the war.’ It was all the stuff you grew up with in post-war Liverpool: we’d all been asked to turn radios down on the train, for instance, so we’d tell him this and he’d say ‘Oh, that would make a good little scene.’”
Brought in as Associate Producer, Denis O’Dell dealt with all parties, from head office number-crunchers to the mop-topped thespians themselves. His empathy with the group was instant: he would eventually become a director of Apple and worked on all their later film ventures. “An average feature film of the time,” he says, “would cost over £1.5 million. I eventually got UA to push the budget for A Hard Day’s Night up to £180,000. It must be one of the cheapest films ever made.
“UA said they wanted it done very cheaply and very quickly, because they were not sure how long this group would last. So that put us in a helter-skelter situation, but it was great fun to do. What was extraordinary was that originally UA were really only interested in the soundtrack. And within three days of the album being released, their share of the soundtrack had paid for the entire production of the film. So they had a film out for nothing…”
This parsimony extended to The Beatles themselves. According to O’Dell, the group were paid a flat fee of just £25,000 between them. The irony was that, between the signing of the UA deal in late 1963 and the start of filming on 2 March 1964, the group made their historic breakthrough in America, played the Ed Sullivan Show and became a global phenomenon. “But,” recalls O’Dell, “by then the budgets were done, the preparation for the film was done, so we just went along with the plan. If we’d waited they might have got more money, but we’d have a very different sort of film.”
At a quiet time of year for the industry, freelance film crew were likewise hired at modest rates: “Top flight people for bottom flight money,” he says. As had happened with George Martin, The Beatles seemed blessed in attracting the right people. In spite of its derisory resources, A Hard Day’s Night acquired the cream of London’s creative trades: O’Dell cites the ex-Kubrick cameraman Gil Taylor and the gifted film editor John Jympson (whose daily tussle with miles of footage was central to the film’s eventual brilliance). Other examples of inspired collaboration include the tailoring of Dougie Millings and the poster photography of Robert Freeman. “A film is a collective creation,” O’Dell observes, “and if you can get the right people together, from screenplay to director to performers, design and costume, you get some sort of magic coming out.”
At the beginning of 1964, The Beatles were a band whose collective genius was just beginning to reveal itself. Everyone had to raise their game if this film – as yet un-titled – was to be worthy of its four young stars. Alun Owen, for one, knew there could be no re-make of Summer Holiday: “We’re not going to have a story that ends up at the Palladium,” he said, “with the vicar smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign from the stalls. Nothing like that.”
Richard Lester: “We wanted to get a natural feeling to A Hard Day’s Night but virtually every line was scripted and rehearsed -– although there were moments when it said things like ‘The boys escape and play in a field’ and we improvised. It worked because they weren’t asked to play Shakespeare, the writing was as close to their real characters as possible.”
Owen watched the four personalities and amplified them for effect. Though each of The Beatles would come to find their respective stereotypes stifling, it was an accidental stroke of marketing genius. At that time, the British and American publics had only the vaguest notion of individual Beatles. In fact their defining qualities, to most adult minds, were the identikit mop tops and peculiar accent. It was through A Hard Day’s Night that The Beatles first emerged as four distinct entities, immeasurably adding to the interest and complexity of the group. (The lesson would not be lost on the creators of The Monkees, and was practised to perfection by The Spice Girls.)
Producer Walter Shenson recommended that Owen craft a “concentrated day in the life” of the group. Travelling with them, the scriptwriter found the same “claustrophobia” that struck the film’s director: when Lester had asked John Lennon about a recent tour of Sweden, the disillusioned Fab replied that all he had seen was “a car and a room and room and a car – and a cheese sandwich.” (The line would duly be adapted for use in the movie script.) From hotel to press conference to dressing room, hemmed in everywhere by the fans and by the punishing demands of their minders’ schedule, The Beatles seemed like prisoners whose only exercise yard was the stage.
Lester expressed the essence of Owen’s story by filming in all the tightest spaces: train carriage compartments, low-ceilinged corridors and backstage stairwells. Relief arrives in the musical interludes, but there are just two moments of unconditional release – the exhilarating dash down a theatre fire escape on to a broad, sunny field, and the ecstatic climax of the eventual live concert.
The decision to film A Hard Day’s Night in black-and-white was made for financial reasons. It also turned a good little movie into a masterpiece. There had been disquiet at EMI over The Beatles’ recent LP sleeve for With The Beatles, shot in austere monochrome by Robert Freeman. Yet it swiftly became the iconic image of its era. For all the wide-eyed exuberance of their music in those pre-psychedelic days, a part of The Beatles’ heart was hankering for depth. The happy whackers from Liverpool had actually been shaped by the city’s art school scene, by their friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe and the young existentialists of Paris and Hamburg. “We were really glad it was a black-and-white film,” says McCartney. “It just seemed harder, more student-y… That’s a bad word, but you know what I mean. More artsy. We liked all that stuff.”
“It never really came up as a problem,” confirms Denis O’Dell. “It was just accepted that this was in black-and-white. Yes, it fitted the budget, but it also fitted The Beatles, and the style in which we wanted to film – almost a Jean-Luc Godard style of cinéma vérité.” If A Hard Day’s Night was not to be one of those corny rock’n’roll exploitation jobs, nor was it to be a Merseybeat update of the Technicolor musicals that Hollywood had gorged upon through the 1950s.
Filming kicked off in early March at Paddington Station and continued at various locations until late April. An early casualty of the economic stringency was Alun Owen’s plan to start the action in Liverpool: “It was impossible,” explains Denis O’Dell. “To take an entire crew from the South to the North, we’d have had to pay subsistence allowances, accommodation, travel, etc.”
But at least The Beatles got to use a real train. “The original idea, as they used to do in films at that time, was to put a back projection screen up and build part of a carriage to go in front of it. You’d then show the countryside whizzing by. The problem was that you could never move the actors more than a few yards either way. For years the film industry had used this system but I was against it, and when I read the script I said to Richard Lester, How would it be if I got a real train? Do you think you could cope with that?”
To Lester’s delight, the loan of an authentic locomotive was hastily arranged with British Railways, with carriages customised to take camera tracks and electrical generators. Crowd scenes were shot at Marylebone, while the transit footage was filmed on specially-cleared lines between Paddington and the West Country.
It fell to O’Dell to initiate the Liverpudlian newcomers in the mysteries of film-making. “I met them for the first time when we were on the train. They were very interested when I outlined how we work, about the timing and continuity and costumes, all the things that could hold you up for hours if they didn’t work out. They were very good about it, real professionals. There were one or two latecomers. When we did the scene with Ringo on the embankment I think he overslept. Probably a late night at the Ad Lib, I should think…”
Paul McCartney: “The waiting around was the staggering thing that we hadn’t realised about films. Everything else was very nice and very entertaining. But you were nearly all day waiting while they lit a shot and then you’d come in and go ‘He’s clean, though’ and they’d go ‘Great, thanks, that’s it.’ You’d just think, Bloody hell. And you’d go home.”
To cushion the musicians’ inexperience there was a platoon of dependable comic actors. In the key role of Paul’s Irish grandfather was Wilfrid Brambell, already a household name in Britain as the “dirty old man” of Steptoe And Son. (Incredibly, he was only 52 at the time.)
There is an outstanding contribution, too, from the Welshman Victor Spinetti, playing the nervy and self-important TV director: “I knew that Dick had about five cameras going at once,” he remembers, “in order to get them not to be self-conscious. There were cameras crawling between their legs, practically, to get them as much off guard as possible. I knew that one had to keep going whatever they said. I walked on the set and said, ‘You’re late for rehearsals,’ or whatever. ‘I’m the director of the show.’ John said: ‘You’re not a director, you’re Victor Spinetti playing the part of a director.’ So I thought I’d better keep going, so I said, ‘I am a director! I have an award on the wall in my office to prove it.’ John said: ‘Office? You haven’t even got a dressing room!’
“They were amazing people. And they were curious, they wanted to learn. They didn’t have the laddishness which you get now, this wanting to be ignorant. I mean, we really were sitting there and talking about things like Beethoven. Not all the time, you know, but the tenor of their conversation was they wanted to find out. John would ring up and say, ‘We’ve never been to the theatre, let’s go look at something.’
“I enjoyed working with them. In the great whirlwind of Beatlemania there was a small centre where the lads lived. They weren’t trashing a dressing room, or throwing TVs out of bedroom windows, going ‘Notice me! Notice me!’ They didn’t have to be noticed. They knew who they were.”
Spinetti offers this incisive assessment of the four personalities: “I got the flu when we were filming and they each came to visit me in turn. First person that came in was George, who said, ‘I’ve come to plump yer pillows. When anyone is ill in bed they have to have their pillows plumped.’ And he plumped my pillows and left. Next person to come in was John Lennon who said, ‘Ze doctor is coming to do experiments upon you! Heil Hitler!’ And then he left. Ringo came in and sat down by the bedside, looking at me very quietly, picked up the hotel menu and said, ‘Once upon a time there were three bears: Mummy Bear, Daddy Bear and Baby Bear…’ Paul put his head around the door and said, ‘Is it catching?’ I said, Yes! He closed the door and I never saw him again. He was very pragmatic – he didn’t want them to get ill and stop the filming.”
To represent The Beatles’ real-life tour manager Neil Aspinall, Lester hired the Liverpudlian Norman Rossington, while their faithful assistant Mal Evans was played by John Junkin. The real Evans was indeed tall and amiable, while the real Aspinall was shorter and more authoritarian, but any resemblance to the originals was slight. “I liked Norm,” said Aspinall, “He didn’t talk to me about the part, he just went by the script, which was a bit embarrassing because it was nothing like the reality.”
John Junkin, however, did attempt some research. Invited by Owen to meet the group, he was told: “By the way, they’re nervous and they want to be surrounded by genuine Scousers. Now I know you can do it because I’ve heard you. Do it from the moment you walk in.” He duly approached George Harrison: “I said to George, Can you tell me something about Mal? Because that’s who my character was vaguely based on. He said, ‘Yeah, I can tell you about Mal. He looks after our luggage when we move. We’ve just come back from New York and the luggage is in Iceland…’”
In fairness, Harrison was possibly distracted at the time. In the earliest days of filming his eye had wandered to one Pattie Boyd, an actress among the party of schoolgirls who are serenaded by the band performing I Should Have Known Better. As Denis O’Dell recalls, “On this train it was very confined, as you would realise, about 80 people. And I remember George, when we got these girls from an agency – there were about half a dozen of them, dressed as schoolgirls. I remember George spotting Pattie and looking at her. But it was the others who were on the make, really, and George was always a bit reticent like that. He hung back. But I do remember their first meeting, it was charming.” (Boyd of course became the first Mrs Harrison, and subsequently Mrs Clapton.)
Wherever the filming went, Beatle fans materialised out of nowhere. Children across the land had become enchanted by these Pied Pipers. Onlookers found something uncanny in their ability to scent the group, and their devotion could take ferocious form – filming at the Scala Theatre was interrupted by mobs of gatecrashers who used hacksaws to force entry. Joining The Beatles for the train sequences, their old friend Klaus Voormann found Lennon already wearying of Beatlemania, though it had barely begun.
“The fans could be a nightmare,” admits Denis O’Dell. “I realised we weren’t going to be allowed the freedom of the streets for the way we wanted to shoot… For the Scala Theatre sequence, I needed young people and that was a problem, because that’s who The Beatles’ followers were – schoolkids – and at that time the extras from the Film Artists Association were all fairly old. So what I did was agree to pay for some young people from the drama schools, put together about 80 or 90 and paid them, and surreptitiously let in all the rest. I got hauled over the coals for it but it was important to do the right thing for the picture.”
Among their number on March 31, 1964, was a 13-year-old boy with stage school connections called Phil Collins. “I don’t even remember knowing it was going to be The Beatles,” he says. “I just remember there was a call for a film that was being shot at the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street, and could they send 50 kids down? And I was one of them. And other schools sent kids down, so there was about two hundred of us there.
“We were all ushered into the theatre and told where to sit, and we sat nattering amongst ourselves. Suddenly four guys came out on stage and started to play She Loves You, Tell Me Why, If I Fell… We couldn’t believe it. Everyone was screaming. Sometimes, when they were filming us, they sent four extras out dressed the same, which was a bit of a bummer as we had to pretend. But a lot of the time it was them. No one was told to scream during the filming – they just knew that it would happen. Very spontaneous, totally genuine. We were there all day – we got £15 for the day’s filming, which was standard – and then we went home.
“I saw the film about twenty times when it came out. I fell in love with Pattie Boyd… along with George. I fell in love with her, and got to know her later, along with Eric.”
In a strange parallel to the scene where Paul’s fictional grandfather is led away from the Scala queue by police, and has to wangle his way back in, there was a real life Beatle relative outside the building, pleading for admission.
“Freddie Lennon turned up,” remembers Denis O’Dell. John’s estranged father, whom he had not seen since childhood, was evidently on the trail of his newly-famous son. “That was extraordinary. My production manager brought it to my attention. We’d had so many try-ons. So I went to tell John and he said, ‘Tell him to fuck off.’ I said, John, nobody tells their father to fuck off. He had a little laugh over that. You can imagine Freddie trying to make his way to the front of 500 people outside the Scala Theatre who are pressing to get in, and my production manager’s trying to keep them out and he’s saying ‘But I’m John Lennon’s father!’
“Eventually we let him in and they had some sort of reunion. They had a quick conversation before John was called off to do something. I don’t know what was said, I presume he was there to put the bite on John, but then he disappeared. Later on they reconciled.”
The Scala performance scenes are at the heart of A Hard Day’s Night. Clever as the movie is, only The Beatles’ music confers immortality on what would otherwise remain a stylish period piece. In the embarrassment of riches, Lester could even discard an entire song: You Can’t Do That is powerful, ominous and chugging, but it slows the pace of the finale and the number was deleted. Once again A Hard Day’s Night was innovatory, however, for its visual technique. A cameraman on the shoot, Paul Wilson, contends: “We established a style that’s still used today when they photograph rock groups.” Working from multiple angles, a squad of cameramen were given discretion to be the director’s eyes. They captured minute details – a guitarist’s hands, the drummer’s foot on a pedal – with a sophistication unequalled until Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.
With filming almost complete, the need for a title – and a title song – became urgent. Nobody knows for sure when Ringo declared one heavy session “a hard day’s night”. The phrase was first aired in public by John Lennon, using it in the “Sad Michael” story of In His Own Write. “I used to take out my typewriter after the show,” he recalled, “and just tap away as the fancy took me. Sometimes one of the others would say something, like Ringo thought of the film title. ‘Hard Day’s Night’ – I used that in the book.” When the phrase came to Walter Shenson and Richard Lester’s ears it was seized upon. Paul and John concocted a song around it almost instantly.
There were never any qualms about The Beatles’ songs – they were UA’s reason for making a movie in the first place. But there was some anxiety about the film. “We’d finished it in such a rush,” says Denis O’Dell. “We started in March and it was out in July, which was unheard of – a picture at that time would take almost a year. At that point Richard was so nervous he wouldn’t go to the viewing when United Artists came to see the picture.” (The Beatles, too, had watched their first acting efforts with discomfort.) The most peculiar reaction, he recalls, came from the American wife of a senior UA executive: “She said, ‘Well, I just loved it but we have to dub their voices!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How do you answer the boss of all bosses at UA?”
Wiser heads prevailed and A Hard Day’s Night went out, with Scouse accents intact, on 10 July 1964. Premieres were held that week in London and in Liverpool: Princess Margaret attended the former, half the population of Merseyside surrounded the latter. Reviews were uniformly adoring. The movie’s reputation has not faltered since. It has been imitated shamelessly and its influence upon music video is unquestioned.
But how was it for the Fabs themselves? In the ten years that he lived as an ex-Beatle, John Lennon could be a notorious revisionist and was scathing about some aspects of A Hard Day’s Night. But others recall him enjoying it at the time. “Everything seemed more magical then,” says Paul McCartney. “Youth makes things magical… Dick being a good director, Alun being a good writer and us, being really up for it, there were no moodies or anything. The only one who wasn’t quite so keen was George. I don’t know if he was just shy or just thought ‘Oh, we should be making music.’ He wasn’t that keen on the acting thing.” (Quoted in the 2000 Anthology book, however, George emphatically denies this: “I loved it! The only thing I didn’t like was having to get up at five in the morning.”)
“Ringo took to it like a duck to water,” says Paul. “There was no holding him back, he was totally in his element. He became the star of the film in a way. John was very good just because he’s very good anyway. The four of us came off well. And what we liked was that it was a film, it wasn’t just a vehicle for a rock’n’roll act. It captured our personalities.”
Denis O’Dell, Associate Producer. Interview Notes and Extras.
An average feature film budget of the time was over £1.5 million.
“We didn’t pay very much to any actor in that film. The Beatles were paid £25,000 for the four of them, which was an extraordinarily small amount.”
(Brian Epstein did the deal with UA then retired from involvement in the film, as he did with the music.)
“When UA asked to do this they said they wanted it done very cheaply and very quickly, because they were not quite sure how long this group would last. So that put us in a helter-skelter situation, but it was fun to do.
Breaking America must have changed things, though? “Yes, it was all that, and also the Paris concert just prior to that, I remember distinctly, it was such an outrageous success, but by then the budgets were done, the preparation for the film was done, so we just went along with the plan. I think if we’d waited they might have got more money and we’d have a different sort of film.”
His budget was £180,000: “I did the budget and reckoned it could be done for £150,000. Eventually we got UA to push the budget up to about £180,000. It must be one of the cheapest films ever made.
The film used “top flight people for bottom flight money.” This he means as a boast, not a complaint. “Early spring was traditionally a lean time for film freelancers,” hence the availability of a good crew.
He got a cheap deal off EMI. In those days all electronic equipment was very expensive. “One of the single biggest budget problems was the electronic equipment, and we had a lot of it for the final sequence. We had a deal with Bush but it was costing an awful lot of money.” (So he called EMI and got it for free off Sir Joseph Lockwood.)
Product placement: Through a friend at BEA (British European Aiways) he paid only £25 for helicopter hire by offering to do “BEAtle” bags. (This helicopter is seen in the closing credits but was also used to film the field shots too.)
He also paid some navvies a few bob for using their existing hole in ground; this was an instant idea of Lester’s
British Railways were likewise brought in. “The original idea, as they used to do in films at that time, was to put a back projection screen up and build part of a carriage to go in front of it, and show the countryside whizzing by. The problem was that you could never move the actors more than a few yards either way. For years the film industry had used this system but I was against it and when I read the script I said to Richard Lester, ‘How would it be if I got a real train, do you think you could cope with that? If I got camera dollies made to fit, walkways down the side of the carriages, arrange for generators to be put on?’” Lester was enthusiastic and the pair would have a long association.
He says he had no knowledge of the Maysles Brothers’ US documentary film at the time of making A Hard Day’s Night.
The script-writerAlun Owen: “I thought he was terrific. We used the script as a guide but we were able to extemporise on every page. He did a great job.”
You dropped idea of filming in Liverpool?
“That was a budgetary thing. It was impossible. There were no technicians of any major quality up in Liverpool at that time, these were very early filming days, and to take an entire crew from the South to the North and put them up for six or seven weeks would have been impossible. We did discuss it around the table with Walter and Dick and Alun Owen and we did decide it would work well with the train idea and doing it all down South. We didn’t have to pay anybody any subsistence allowances, accommodation, travel, etc”
There was a suggestion that the voices be overdubbed?
“Yes, I was there when that happened. It was extraordinary because we’d finished it in such a rush, we started in March and it was out in June, which was unheard of, a picture at that time would take almost a year. At that point Richard was so nervous he wouldn’t go to the viewing when they (UA) came to see the picture, the money, Arnold Picker and all those people. And his wife did actually say that: ‘Well I just loved it but we have to dub their voices.’ Can you believe it? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” (He says Richard recalls it being raised at a meeting he attended too.) “How do you answer the boss of all bosses at UA?”
Was filming in b&w budgetary or aesthetic?
“It never really came up as a problem; it was just accepted that this was in b&w. Yes, it fitted the budget, but it also fitted The Beatles, and the style in which we wanted to film, almost a Jean Luc Godard style of cinema verite. All those mistakes, if they were mistakes, worked for the picture. For example, you know the scene where they come out of the theatre and get freedom and leap about? It was from that helicopter shot, because we didn’t have the time to get an autogiro system to take the jolt out of the camera. We knew at the time it was jumping about and the cameraman was going mad, Gil Taylor, but Dick said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And it worked into that wonderful sequence. It was a happy mistake. And Ringo and his three holes. We actually found those guys working alongside the road. Of course we had to manufacture the third hole, where he puts his coat down.”
“Nobody got paid much on that film anyway, I think the whole crew did it for half price…”
“What was extraordinary about it was that originally UA were really only interested in the soundtrack. Their share of the soundtrack, when the album was released, after three days paid for the entire production of the film. So they had a film out for nothing…”
“I think I put together a good crew. It wasn’t a time when the industry was terribly busy and crew all seemed to gel into it. The editor John Jympson was great, I always think he’s underestimated. The way it worked, we were shooting miles of film which was impossible for a director to sit down and see. What normally happens is you’d do your daily shooting then see rushes and the director would give some instruction to the editor. But we’d have spent hours in the theatre. So I used to go and see the stuff with John and he’d take it away and did this terrific job on it. … A film is a collective creation, and if you can get the right people together, from screenplay to director to performers, design, costume, if you get it all together you do get some sort of magic coming out. And I think we achieved that on A Hard Day’s Night.
“It doesn’t even date, does it? If it wasn’t for the clothes they were wearing, and a little bit of the smoking the boys do, it probably doesn’t date.
Were the fans your biggest challenge?
“A nightmare. It’s amazing how those things affect your life. I realised we weren’t going to be allowed the freedom of the streets for the way we wanted to shoot, to film wherever without set pieces. So I knew this small studio just outside London, but it was closed up. I got hold of the owner, a lovely man called Ken Shipman.”
It’s sometimes hard to say which are actors and which are real?
“I don’t think there was any newsreel in it. As far as actors go, anyone who had to play a line, they were actors, and for anything else we’d use anyone who was around. Deryck Guyler played the chief in the police station. We only used, in the Scala Theatre sequence, I needed young people and that was a problem, because that’s who The Beatles’ followers were, schoolkids, and at that time the extras from the Film Artists Association were all fairly old. So what I did was agree to pay for some young people from the drama schools, put together about 80 or 90 and paid them, and surreptitiously let in all the rest. I got hauled over the coals for it but it was important to do the right thing for the picture.
And John’s father, Freddie Lennon turns up?
“That was extraordinary. My production manager Barry Melrose brought it to my attention. We had so many try-ons. But I remembered talking to John about Freddie and to my astonishment it did look like the Freddie that I vaguely knew about. So I went in to tell John and he said, ‘Tell him to fuck off.’ I said, ‘John, nobody tells their father to fuck off.’ He had a little laugh over that, eventually we let him in and they had some sort of reunion. You can imagine Freddie trying to make his way to the front of 500 people outside the Scala Theatre who are pressing to get in, and my production manager’s trying to keep them out and he’s saying ‘But I’m John Lennon’s father!’
“John was quite good about it really. They had a quick conversation before John was called off to do something. I don’t know what was said, I presume he was there to put the bite on John, but then he disappeared. Later on they reconciled.
“The other thing was when I was doing the DVD I was amazed to look back on it and see how good-looking John was. He was probably the best actor of them all. I took him on afterwards for How I Won The War. Of course Ringo ran him a close second, I had him in The Magic Christian too.”
Did they enjoy it?
“If you take A Hard Day’s Night, yes, they did. I couldn’t do Help! but when I spoke to them about it afterwards, they didn’t know what had been happening and they didn’t enjoy that one bit. It was quite hard to get them to do pictures, which is what I went to Apple for, but the only other time the subject of enjoyment came up was when I did the Hey Jude clip, they really enjoyed it and told me so, and said ‘Now we’ll do another show together.’ Of course by that time it was Let It Be and the rest is history.
“All that stuff with the Tolkien [there was an idea for The Beatles to film Lord Of The Rings], looking back I love the idea of The Beatles being small people in Middle Earth, but I wonder if they could have sustained the long period of shooting. John in particular said ‘I could make a double album of this one scene.’”
Do you recall your first meeting?
“Because I was so busy getting the film organised I always used to use the services of Neil Aspinall, because he was the only one who seemed to have any sort of control over them. So most things I did on the phone with Neil and I never actually met them until we were on the train and they were very interested when I outlined how we work, about the timing and continuity and costumes, all the things that could hold you up for hours if they didn’t work out. They were very good about it, real professional when it came to it. There were one or two latecomers. When we did the scene with Ringo on the embankment I think he overslept. Probably a late night at the Ad Lib, I should think, and I was responsible for a lot of it because I used to go with ’em!”
Did you see George’s meeting with Pattie?
“Yes, on this train it was very confined, as you would realise, about 80 people. And I remember George when we got these girls from an agency, there was a little bunch of them, about half a dozen dressed as schoolgirls, they weren’t actually schoolgirls but were dressed in school clothes. I remember George spotting Pattie and looking at her. But it was the others who were on the make, really, and George was always a bit reticent like that, he hung back. But I do remember their first meeting, it was charming.”