Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Sir Christopher Lee

Festivals
by Susan Kouguell
August 16, 2013 3:01 PM
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The opening night of the Festival on August 7 dramatically began under a lightening-filled sky in the Piazza Grande, where Sir Christopher Lee received the Excellence Award Moët & Chandon.  Film stills of Sir Christopher’s roles were projected on the buildings surrounding the Piazza.  Accepting his award, the charismatic Sir Christopher spoke mostly in Italian, stating his mother was from Italy -- and then switched to English.

Sir Christopher’s most loved line of the night, “I did it. That was me doing the sword fights with Yoda, not a stunt double.” The audience cheered!

On August 8, the Festival presented a Conversation with Sir Christopher hosted by Emmanuel Burdeau. The background accompaniment of torrential rain and thunder was the perfect backdrop to this memorable event.

Sir Christopher raises controversy when he talks about The Wicker Man

“A movie dear to my heart. The film got a poor reception in 1973 but now it’s one of the most important British films. The Wicker Man for me as an actor was definitely the best film I’ve ever done. And I’ve done nearly -- between appearances in front of the camera and like this -- 270 to 300 -- I’ve stopped counting.  It’s the best film I’ve been in of my career of 67 years and the best role I’ve ever had. It was written by an absolutely brilliant writer Anthony Shaffer who made his name with the play Sleuth

“One day I got a telephone call from Robin Hardy, who I didn’t know, and Anthony Shaffer, who I didn’t know, and they wanted me to play a part (Lord Summerisle ) in this film, and I said of course because Shaffer was the number one name as a writer.”

Sir Christopher describes the plot of the film and then his character Lord Summerisle.

“You wouldn’t say he was a bad man because his beliefs are genuine.  I would not describe him as a bad person; he’s simply a believer in a totally different area. He has a great sense of humor, smiles a lot, sings, very helpful, greatly respected by his people.  And sometimes dresses as a woman.  That’s part of the legend that goes back hundreds of years. A man dresses as a woman and leads his people in a kind of a procession or whatever happens in the end. He’s not a transvestite, that’s part of history that really did happen.”

Sir Christopher reveals his feelings about the movie he made and the one that was released: 

“The film we made was never seen. This is a great tragedy. What we made was sheer genius. We shot the whole script, and obviously things are going to be cut; this happens in every film, whatever the reason. I saw the film with my wife privately, before it was made public, and with my agent at the time, my agent who is not with us. I spoke to the director, the producer, that I had just seen the film and there is so much missing -- the brilliant dialogue, scenes with me and the policeman, the doctor, the fish monger, the baker, the tiny part of chemist, which was very important. We shot a script, we filmed the script word for word, and what I saw was not what we did. I said, ‘Look, this is what I’ve seen, we can arrange to recut it. All we have to do is go to the lab and get the negative of the film. We’d get the outtakes and recut that negative. They were never seen since 1973.  Disappeared. I have my own opinions. Other people have their opinions – why and who’s responsible.”

Emmanuel Burdeau: “What is your opinion?”

Sir Christopher: “I can’t say.  It concerns individuals. It’s really frightening that a film, wherever it is, is so cut.  Now they’re talking of a reissue, maybe five minutes more.  And now they say they found more material.” 

Emmanuel Burdeau: “Critics said this is one of the best 10 films ever made. Called the Citizen of Kane of the horror film.

Sir Christopher: “I wouldn’t describe it a horror film.  The end is frightening, but totally logical. It has to happen.”

Sir Christopher recounts his conversation with director Billy Wilder about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

“I didn’t want to be known as a man who only made horror films. I made some, very few. We counted the other day, maybe 12 out of nearly 300. That’s the press, they put a name on you and it’s very difficult to get away from that. I made three films with Boris Karloff. He was absolutely wonderful. We lived next door in London. A wonderful actor, a wonderful man. He was able to do lots of things, including comedy. So did I. Poor Bela Lugosi never escaped from this type of casting.

“Wilder said to me, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done, what you’re known for. I want you to play the brother of Sherlock Holmes in my film. But I want you to look different. Be different. Surprise the audience. Always surprise audience. Always do something that they don’t expect.’ Wilder changed my whole appearance, took away my hair -- everything. It was a wonderful film.

He said if you stay in England you’ll always be asked to do the same kind of thing. Then I did a film with Richard Widmark, a wonderful man. He said, ‘Don’t stay in England; you’ll find in America you’ll do many things.’ My wife, daughter, and I moved to Los Angeles. I filmed many things. I played the head of the Hells Angels. And they were all gay. (Sir Christopher pauses) Me too. (Sir Christopher pauses again) Always surprise the audience!”

Sir Christopher on Saturday Night Live

“Then I did something terribly important. I hosted a television show.  Saturday Night Live.   I did it with the best people -- John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman. They were absolutely fantastic. The producer Lorne Michaels rang me up on Sunday and he said, ‘I just want you to know we were all really pleased with the show last night because you can do almost anything, even ad lib’ --which I did -- he said, ‘You had a 39 share of the audience.’ I had no idea what that meant.  I asked if that was good. Michaels said, ‘Thirty-nine million people. Not bad.’  Today it is still number three all of all time. I have a photo of the cast. John Belushi wrote on it: ‘To Christopher, you are the best in the biz. Belushi is second best.’ This was very important to me because from this show I got the film with Spielberg, 1941, which was murdered when it came out, and now it has become a great cult film.”

Sir Christopher recounts his work on Jinnah

The Wicker Man is the best film I’ve done. The most important film I ever made was Jinnah, which was the greatest responsibility for me. I went to Pakistan in 1997 -- 50 years after Pakistan and India divided. I played the man who founded Pakistan and was the first governor general. Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That’s the great responsibility I’ve ever had. The greatest challenge I’ve ever had in a film. Here I am a western Christian playing a Muslim. Every member of the public, the police -- all came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for showing our great leader. Thank you, thank you for showing him not just as a politician but as a husband, father, and brother.’”

Sir Christopher talks comedy

Emmanuel Burdeau: “I want to go back about Saturday Night Live what you said. I was wondering if sometimes you wished you did more comedy.”

Sir Christopher: “Comedy is the most difficult thing to do. Easily the most difficult. Not so much in the theater because if you say something that is supposed to be very amusing and the audience reacts and laughs, you can take the time before the next line, and you can time it because of the reaction of the audience. That’s in the theater. You can’t do that in a film. You do something, say something, but you don’t know how the audience is going to react. Comedy in cinema is very difficult and very serious. Serious.  May I say it’s the thing I do best. But you try to tell that to the executives in the studio.  I did about four or five comedies in America.”

Sir Christopher on The Hound of the Baskervilles

“The main reason for the success of these films was not me, it was Peter Cushing. He was a fantastic actor and I really loved him very much. I still think about him. I still talk about him. I still remember him. As Sherlock Holmes he was absolutely wonderful. A dear, dear friend. He could say his lines, light his pipe, and read the newspaper all at the same time. Wonderful man. Actor.  So was Vincent Price when he played Prince Albert. We always laughed. We had to. We’re making fairy stories. They’re not real. They can’t happen. (Sir Christopher pauses.) Some of them. And it’s very important that the audience believe what they’re looking at, at the time.”

Sir Christopher as Saraman in The Lord of the Rings

“A wonderful experience. I read the books. I met the author briefly.  I thought these were incredible books. I wondered if they would ever be made into a film. This was before CGI. Peter Jackson was a genius and still is, but there are three big, long stories.  At the end of the nineties, I got a call from my agent: ‘Do you know about The Lord of the Rings? The director is in London with his partner and casting director. Would you go see them in a church in London?’  They handed me two pages and it was Gandolf! I thought, Ooh, my dream! I realized I was too old, of course.  I read these in a church, in London, and they said, ‘Thank you very much. My agent called, ‘Peter Jackson wants you to play Saraman.’  It was a fantastic, great role, great part.

“The final confrontation between the most important bad evil character Saraman wasn’t in the film but on the DVD. I was not pleased.  And I said a few things, which I won’t repeat, and I got excuses.  If you get the DVD, which you should, that scene is there, and very important to the whole story because it’s the last meeting between the worst enemy and the Fellowship.” 

Sir Christopher responds to an audience member’s question about his work as a singer.

“Many years ago, 60 years ago or more, I was in Stockholm at a bar and I joined in with students singing and someone tapped me, and I turned around, It was the Swedish singer, Jussi Björling, known as Caruso of the North, an incredible voice. He said, ‘You got a voice. What are you doing with it?’ I said to him I’m trying to learn to be an actor.  You come to the opera house and I will be there and you sing something.’ I said I can’t read music. Björling said, ‘It doesn’t matter, we just want to hear the sound.’

“So I went there. No music. No piano. I sang. I was very nervous, naturally. The two people said, ‘If you can live in Stockholm, eat, find somewhere to sleep, we will train you in the Stockholm Opera and you can become a singer.’ My great grandparents founded the first opera company in Australia and my great aunts were all opera singers, and my great grandmother was called the Tasmanian Nightingale. An incredible singer. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stay in Stockholm. So I became an actor.”

Sir Christopher Lee then sang to the audience.  And what a voice indeed.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.  www.su-city-pictures.com

 

 

 

 

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