From the archives: Meet The Beatles...again: Richard Lester revisits 'A Hard Day's Night'

Friday, Feb. 7, marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' arrival in America, followed two days later by their sensational U.S. live TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Film Journal International joins this week's Beatle celebrations with a look back at our 2000 interview with Richard Lester, director of the 1964 Beatles movie classic A Hard Day's Night.

On a recent Saturday in New York, Richard Lester was having his own "hard day's night," burrowed for eight hours in a suite at the Regency Hotel while a parade of journalists filed in—one every 20 minutes—to enjoy a rare audience with the man who first directed The Beatles. Lester's visit was prompted by Miramax's December release of a sparkling new print of A Hard Day's Night, the 1964 classic that established the director's reputation and proved that the Fab Four were much more than just another fleeting pop-music craze. Indeed, The Beatles were even compared to The Marx Brothers in this freewheeling, literate showcase that feels as fresh today as it did in the height of Beatlemania. And now, with a fully restored negative and digitally remastered, six-track stereo sound, A Hard Day's Night looks and sounds better than ever.

Dressed in a beautifully tailored gray suit, Lester showed no signs of fatigue as he greeted Film Journal International during hour number seven of his promotional marathon. A spry 68, he has retired from film directing, mainly out of disdain for the "new electronic techniques" that pervade contemporary movies. It's our loss, after the stylistic panache Lester brought to such diverse projects as The Knack, and How to Get It, the Beatle followup Help!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the World War II satire How I Won the War, the ultra-stylish Petulia, the underrated black comedy The Bed Sitting Room, the antic Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers, the ocean-liner thriller Juggernaut, the elegiac Robin and Marian, and Superman II and III. Even with that range of credits, his experience with the preternaturally gifted John, Paul, George and Ringo clearly remains a high point of his life.

The American-born Lester recalls his first meeting with Liverpool's most celebrated export. "It was very ordinary. I went down to the BBC theatre in Whitehall, a tiny radio theatre where they were about to record a show. We chatted away for about an hour or so. They knew my work because they'd seen The Running, Jumping and Standing-Still Film [Lester's Oscar-nominated 1959 short starring "Goon Show" veterans Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan] and my first feature film [It's Trad, Dad!], which was a pop musical. I knew them by sheer accident, because I had friends who were art directors that worked in Manchester and they brought Beatle records back to London, and at parties they used to play the earliest of the Beatles songs. The Beatles also knew that I used to play piano, rather badly, so that at least I knew enough not to cut in the middle of an eight-bar phrase. So there was an element of trust built up. And then we followed them to Paris where they were appearing with Francoise Hardy, I think. They took a whole suite at the George V and [writer] Alun Owen, [producer] Walter Shenson and I stayed in rooms on that floor and we watched the film write itself."

The Beatles' ease before the cameras was no surprise to Lester. "They were only being asked to be themselves, and they were being deliberately put into circumstances that were recognizable—like a press conference or a rehearsal or a sound check, or being chased through the streets, getting into cars and trains and being ordered about by road managers and being shouted at. They knew how to do that. They'd done press conferences, they had been harassed by the gentlemen of the press. We didn't want them to be the Musketeers, we wanted them to be themselves. The idea of a fictionalized documentary became self-evident very early on, and then the task was to find a writer who could produce the Liverpudlian cadences so that it wouldn't seem a foreign language."

Lester says that only on rare occasions did he have discipline problems mirroring those of the frantic TV director in the film. "There were times when somebody had been out all night and was coming in not at his best, and there are some scenes in the film where I am wearing Beatles shoes and I'm operating the camera and I'm panning from my feet to the other three because one of the four was [he raises his voice] missing! But apart from that, no more than the normal problems."

Though much of the film feels spontaneous, Lester says it was all scripted, with the notable exceptions of the press conference scene and the exhilarating sequence in which the group escapes the confines of the studio. "We wanted the notion of a release from being in low-ceilinged rooms and being ordered about, to suddenly saying: 'No! We're breaking out of this!' We shot it in three different weeks, a half a day each time, and cobbled it together. Now, nothing of that was scripted. We used a helicopter at the end—I went up in the helicopter and they held my ankles and I leaned out and did the shots down onto them on that square.

"We hadn't planned to shoot the press conference when we did, but we were kicked off the streets by the police who said we were causing too much of a disturbance, so we grabbed a room and called people that we knew who were actual members of the press, and we gave them some answers and some questions. I sometimes cut one question to a different answer, and there were some good ad-libs the boys did. But, apart from that and the physical motion, there was no ad-libbing. They were all Alun Owen's lines."

Amazingly, A Hard Day's Night went into production on March 2, 1964, and was in theatres by July 6. "Oh God, what a nightmare to get it out. But it was probably good marketing sense by United Artists at the time—yes, [Beatlemania] will probably last through August, but come September, somebody else will come along and we've got all this money invested in the film. Well, not all this money. As I'm sure you know, United Artists retained the rights to the LP of A Hard Day's Night, which meant that the film was in profit before we started shooting-the advance sales for the album were something like a quarter of a million [pounds], and our budget was 180,000.

"We showed it to United Artists a couple of days beforehand, and they said we've got to re-voice The Beatles because nobody will understand them in America. I started to scream and kick my feet on the floor like a spoiled child and we got away with it. But we knew when we were filming that we were doing good work, and before we started shooting they had come to America and done the Ed Sullivan show, and what was a local phenomenon had become a worldwide phenomenon. We were reasonably confident that we were onto something, and provided we could reproduce that sense of exuberance and charm that we palpably felt when those four boys came into a room—that was my job and if I could pull that off, we would be all right."

Thanks in large part to Lester's sensibility, A Hard Day's Night earned raves for its loose, airy filmmaking style, very much in tune with the French New Wave and British documentary innovations of the period. "I had come off making quite a few documentaries," Lester notes, "one of which was about young kids in the East End [of London] who were involved in Jamaican Blue Beat and ska music, and that integrated random documentary material with music. And the fact that I was a live television director for ten years meant that I was comfortable and accustomed to using multiple cameras, without which we never could have finished the film on time."

Those years in live TV were a good preparation for the accelerated pace of Lester's mid-'60s career. "Things were going so quickly," he recalls. "After A Hard Day's Night, I then had to go off and do a documentary for Esso about Formula One motor racing. Then somebody called me up and said: Have you seen The Knack? A Hard Day's Night had come out in July, and I was shooting The Knack by October, having done seven screenplays in a mad rush to try to turn the play into a film. And then it was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival and it won, and I was in the middle of shooting Help! and I couldn't even go to Cannes to pick up the Palme d'Or. And during that time, I shot 70 commercials. I looked at my diaries for those years, and I thought: This isn't possible, I couldn't have done that. Plus the number of films I'd seen and the theatre and art shows. I could no more do that now than fly. There wasn't even time to think: Am I doing good work? I was doing work, and I was grateful to have the opportunity."

Lester has no false modesty about his role in The Beatles' early success. "The Beatles were always clever or lucky or both. They found people very early in their career who believed in them, trusted them and wanted to protect what they did best and allow them to be at their best. Brian Epstein, George Martin, and then me. We all had a fierce loyalty to try not to end up doing 'Hey kids, let's do the show right here.' They didn't want it, and we didn't want it. And they found the right person."

When Help! went into production a year later, Lester could see a dramatic change in his stars. "I think the press began to feel that they owned them. There was a lot of pressure and they began to get edgy because they were being harassed. I sound ungrateful to the publicity that the press can engender, but they were being harassed… No matter what country we were in, we were being surrounded. That was a big difference, and I think some of the joyousness undoubtedly was being leeched out.

"At one point, Ringo's eyebrow went white, almost overnight, and we had to darken it down for shooting. Out of nervousness. It was hard. A car would drive up and it would be [whooshing sound] all the time, people shoving books at them, asking them to sign things, the press saying, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you going there?' Everybody wanted a bit of them. That happens with most actors, but they were 20, 21 years old and they weren't actors, they were themselves. I think they survived amazingly well. I was astonished at their patience from time to time. But there was a faster fuse on Help! than on A Hard Day's Night."

Lester reunited with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney for his final film, the 1991 concert documentary Get Back, and he professes no desire to re-emerge from retirement. "I prided myself that I knew a lot about the techniques of filmmaking, or enough so that when somebody said, 'You can't do that, guv'nor,' I could say, 'Yes, I'm sure there is a way, we'll find it.' With electronics, it's: 'Don't worry about that police car in the 17th century, I'll get rid of it later.' And some 19-year-old comes in and gets rid of it. It was not film as I knew it, and I knew very little about what was happening. I think there comes a time when you feel that enough is enough. It's a young man's game, and I'm not a young man.

"Ask my children, who are both involved in computers in one way or another. One works as a mixer in the sound department that did Notting Hill and Shakespeare in Love. And my daughter teaches computer animation at St. Martin's School of Art. I show not only a healthy distaste, but I'm terrified when they leave any of their equipment lying around. They say, 'Don't you want to learn how this works?' And I say, 'No, I love a 2B pencil and I will write out in longhand anything I need to do.' I don't think I'll ever learn."