British filmmaker David Lean was an epic director in more ways than one. Not only did he become known for his epic films, like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, but his incredible renown for his cinematic excellence has spanned decades. But, perhaps more epic than his films and reputation was his grand approach to filmmaking. An inspiring look into the director's life on set in the BBC Four short documentary, David Lean and his Dedicated Maniacs, reveals just how far one would go to exercise his passion for cinema.
Born in Croydon in 1908, David Lean's love of filmmaking was something that must've been inherent. Raised in a strict Quaker household, the young Lean wasn't allowed to go to movies, and was poised for the sensible field of accounting, the same line of work of his father.
In 1927, however, Lean found a job at Gaumont British Studios as a tea boy, clapper, and messenger, and eventually making a name for himself in editing. He was given the opportunity to co-direct a feature by filmmaker and "inventor of Englishness" Noel Coward, and then went on to film adaptations of Coward's plays as well as the works of Charles Dickens. It wasn't until the late 50s that Lean made a true name for himself as a director with his film The Bridge on the River Kwai, and then subsequently Lawrence of Arabia.
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"Good films can be made only by a crew of Dedicated Maniacs."
Lean is known for his peculiar behavior just as much as his attention to detail on the set of his films. In the documentary above, four men from his crew speak about their experiences working with Lean, including Production Manager Norman Spencer, Assistant Director Michael Stevenson, and Property Master and special effects expert Eddie Fowlie, with whom Lean was very close.
Cameraman Peter Newbrook talks about Lean's obsession with filmmaking, including the image and story. Lean would say that one should be able to cut any frame out of a roll of film and be able to frame it and hang it on the wall. Every frame of a movie should be breathtakingly beautiful -- that was Lean's conviction as a filmmaker. The director jokes about a journalist coming up to him and asking, "Mr. Lean, is it true that you wait 5 weeks for a wave?" That level of perfectionism is what makes David Lean an incredible filmmaking, as well as, at times, difficult director to work with.
The filmmakers recall working on Lean's films, how difficult, strenuous, long, and dangerous they were. While shooting The Bridge on the River Kwai in Ceylon over 8 months, much of crew were bitten by leeches and got dysentery -- one crew member, a stunt man, fell off of their man-made dam into the "vortex" side and nearly drowned. However, Lean proceeded to make the film despite the overwhelming and perilous conditions.
David Lean's work sounds like the stuff of legend -- year-long on-location shoots in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia), an entire town built in Ireland for one single movie (Ryan's Daughter), a dedicated crew that would go to any length in order to get the images in the can. But, these stories aren't legend. They really happened -- and at the hand of such a quiet, shy, and incredibly impassioned filmmaker and his crew.
What do you think of David Lean's filmmaking? What is the biggest lesson we can learn from Lean's work to help our own?