By David A. Ellis.
Director Daniel Raim is the talent behind the movie Harold and Lillian – A Hollywood Love Story. The film is about Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian, who between them made a significant contribution to many well-known Hollywood movies. They were married for sixty years.
Harold was a storyboard artist, illustrator, and production designer. Lillian was a researcher. Her role was making sure everything was up-to-date and historically accurate. There are many people on screen, paying tribute to the couple’s outstanding achievements, including executive producer of the film, actor and director, Danny DeVito, who was a friend of Harold’s; film critic and author Bill Krohn; director Francis Ford Coppola; and director, producer, writer and actor Mel Brooks. Krohn describes the pair as being “The Heart of Hollywood”.
The ninety-four minute documentary mainly features Lillian, who takes us down movie memory lane. She talks about her life with Harold and the many movies they worked on, including: The Graduate, Reds, The Birds, Catch 22, The Ten Commandments, Terms of Endearment, History of the World Part One and Star Trek. Harold, who sadly passed away in 2007 while living on the Wasserman Campus’s long-term care unit, also talks about his life, and how he got to work in an industry he loved. As a production designer, Harold was nominated for an Academy Award for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Sometimes the storybord artist puts the director’s vision on paper, having collaborated with him or her. Other times it is the storybord artist’s vision that gets photographed. On The Graduate, it was Harold’s idea to have a scene showing the Dustin Hoffman character looking at the camera through Anne Bancroft’s raised leg. This famous shot was used on the film’s poster.
This endearing story from Zeitgeist Films opens in New York on April 28 and in Los Angeles on May 12. Daniel Raim is an Oscar nominated film director. He was born in Israel and raised in the USA. His other films are The Man on Lincoln’s Nose and Something’s Gonna Live. His latest premiered as an official selection of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for The Golden Eye Award.
Lillian bought Lelia Alexander’s library at the Goldwyn Studios but had to move out. The library was moved a number of times. Lillian now lives on the campus and manages her collection of books.
Daniel when did you get the idea to make the film and why did you want to do it?
Daniel Raim (DE): In early 2013 I was visiting my dear friend Lillian and she showed me this amazing archival material that someone had filmed in the 1980s at Paramount Studios, at her research library. The material gave me confidence and I could visualise a wonderful story. Beyond that I had known Harold and Lillian since I was a film student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Harold was one of the subjects of The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. Robert Boyle, who was an art director and production designer was also a subject, discussing his film work. Harold, Lillian, Robert Boyle and I went to where The Birds was shot in Bodega Bay – thirty-seven years earlier. During that time I had become close to Harold and Lillian. I thought there was a really great story to be told about two unsung heroes.
What was the budget and how long did it take to shoot?
DR: It was a modest budget and the film took two years to make.
Did you use shoot more than was used in the film?
DR: I would say there was a thirty to one ratio and I will be using the unused footage in the future.
How long did it take you to write the script?
DR: The script was written during the editing process. I had archival material to begin with, but I was able to have on going camera interviews with Lillian during the entire editing process. So, as the story developed I was writing the screenplay and editing the rough cuts. I was interviewing others up to the end. The Mel Brooks interview took place a week before the Cannes Film Festival.
Lillian, why did you go into research work?
Lillian Michelson (LM): That’s a very good question. Well, I think the first really big strong feeling towards it was when my children were attending school for most of the day. Harold was working at Goldwyn Studios in 1961, and the research library was right across the hall. The lady that owned it was Lelia Alexanda. My husband chatted with her at different times. He asked if I could volunteer to work for Lilia as I had free time during the school day. Lelia said yes, and I volunteered for around eight years. I never finished college. I only did one year, then I eloped. So my education was interrupted and I felt with this research I was getting an education. It was weird because so many movies were crimes and westerns. It was lop-sided; it wasn’t a standard college curriculum.
Did you go on the set?
LM: Not on the set. My work was usually done before the set was built. Sometimes my work would take place six months before anything was built.
What hours did Harold work as a storyboard artist and you as a researcher?
LM: When there was the studio system they were pretty regular hours. When it was freelance they were irregular hours and very long.
Did you and Harold have a favourite film?
LM: Harold loved working on The Graduate, Winter Kills, Fiddler on the Roof, Star Trek and The Birds. The Birds was the first time that a director (Hitchcock) actually asked for him to be flown out to the location and work with him. Harold had a lot of fun on Star Trek and my favourite is Fiddler on the Roof. It took a year, and I learned a lot about the Jewish religion, which I knew nothing about, even though I was born Jewish. Harold, who also worked on Fiddler on the Roof, went to London, where they were shooting in Pinewood Studios. Harold was away a lot. On Catch 22, he was gone for two years. It is a tough industry for people with families. It can be really hard.
I take it Harold came up with his own ideas after reading the script and put his own input into it. Some of the directors probably wouldn’t have thought of doing it how Harold saw it. For example, on The Ten Commandments I see his drawings were used a lot. He was more or less, in a sense, on the level of the director, because he was putting in great input, which often ended up on the screen.
LM: That is a great statement. You are so right. Cecil B. DeMille and other directors would never admit that they got ideas from their storyboard artists.
How many drawings would be required, say, for example on West Side Story?
LM: I don’t know, but I know he worked at night when we were in bed. I was reading, and fell asleep while he was still drawing.
Lillian, what was it like working at DreamWorks?
LM: I really enjoyed my time at DreamWorks. They were wonderful to me. I was there for nineteen years and it changed my life all for the better, in every way possible.
Daniel, was Battiste Fenwick in charge of cinematography?
DR: Battiste is a cinematographer I often work with and he helped me out on about three of the interviews. Most of the cinematography with Lillian was done strategically myself, so, there was just me, Lillian, and a camera in the room, keeping it as intimate as possible. That is part of my shooting style and I thought it was important to do that with Lillian.
LM: Dan is such an exceptional listener and I knew that I was talking to a dear treasured friend. He got me to open up in a way that I would never have done with anyone else. He has a great gift besides being a wonderful filmmaker.
Lillian, when did you retire?
LM: I retired involuntarily in 2011 at the age of eighty-three after suffering ill health. Thanks to this miraculous movie that Dan made about Harold and my life and his work, I have made new friends all over. When it is shown at festivals there are people who come up and shake my hand and say such wonderful things about the movie. I have friends all over the world. I can’t tell you how my life has changed. It’s beyond belief. Dan can fill you in.
DR: The audience response is beyond comprehension. It is the Hollywood story that touches people on its level, because Lillian was brave enough to share a very intimate and profoundly beautiful and challenging love story. Harold has left behind this beautiful legacy of poems to Lillian. There was an opportunity to tell two stories in one.
LM: Every mother’s day, Valentines day and my birthday he would write a poem. They were beautiful poems and he illustrated them. I had them published into a fantastic coffee table sized book. They are my treasure.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).