HAROLD & LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY
HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY; a riveting and deeply moving chronicle of the creative, romantic love story of story-boarder Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian. For 60 years, Harold and Lillian were inspired by their personal and professional disappointments to work on a hundred films, including: The Ten Commandments, The Birds, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), The Graduate, The Devil's Seed (Rosemary's Baby), The Price of Power (Scarface), The Full Metal Jacket.
Hi Daniel thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during these very strange times?
Thanks for asking. Like everyone, I’ve been doing the best I can during these strange times.
Has this time offering you any new creative inspiration?
Yes it has. I found myself reflecting on what’s important, and what stories I want to prioritize. Since 2009, I have been filming interviews (on and off between projects) for a new documentary, and during the early part of the pandemic, I decided to start post-production and find the story. It’s really a blessing to have all this raw material to shape a new film during this time of sheltering at home.
Your documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is now streaming on Netflix and the response has been amazing, what has it meant to you to get such a great reaction to your film?
It’s been wonderful that the doc has received such a positive reaction. Travelling to festivals around the world and speaking with fans of the film has been deeply inspiring. It’s been amazing to see how Harold and Lillian’s story has resonated with viewers all over the world.
Why do you think audiences and cinephiles have connected with Harold and Lillian Michelson's story so much?
It starts with two amazing people that you would connect with just meeting them in person. I wanted to give audiences the same experience I was lucky enough to have, meeting them and spending time with them. When I was in film school, I was fortunate to get to know Harold and Lillian and enjoyed many lunches with them at DreamWorks Animation Studios, where Lillian had her research library. I always came away from those lunches inspired and energized by their generosity, warmth, and creative spirits: listening to Harold’s war stories working with the likes of Hitchcock and DeMille, and experiencing Lillian being her incredibly wise and nurturing self. So I wanted to make an "experiential film" that was as close as possible to having a nice long lunch with Harold and Lillian, sharing that dramatic arc of getting to know two people with all their complexities and incredible contributions to classic film. But beyond their amazing bodies of work, which include hundreds of classic American films, I found their creative partnership and love for each other truly inspiring.
When did you realise you wanted to turn their story into a film?
I was about two weeks into filming the documentary, and at that time, I was thinking it would be a short subject doc for a limited audience. Watching the interviews, it occurred to me that focusing on their inner lives, their love for each other, and how they sustained a marriage in Hollywood that spanned 60 years could be challenging to make into a film, but would be powerful and moving if it was successful. When Lillian agreed to let me scan and narrate their love letters to each other, and when the master tapes to some vital archival footage were discovered, I realized I had a feature doc.
When did you first discover Harold and Lillian Michelson and what was it about their story that connected with you as a filmmaker?
I think you really don’t know someone until you make a documentary about them. And this holds true with Harold and Lillian! I first met them as a film student at the American Film Institute in 1998, in my early 20s. Harold was teaching a class on storyboarding and I asked him if I could interview him for a documentary I was making about my teacher at AFI: Hitchcock production designer Robert F. Boyle, who was also Harold’s close friend and collaborator. That’s when Harold first invited me to meet Lillian and have lunch with them at DreamWorks.
In 1999, Robert Boyle, Harold, Lillian, and I went on a pilgrimage back to Bodega Bay, where they had filmed Hitchcock’s “The Birds” 37 years earlier. We became quite close after that trip and I think it was shortly after that that I knew I wanted to make a film about Lillian’s work as a film researcher, and Harold’s work and genius as a storyboard artist and production designer. I loved their personalities and humanism as much as I admired their contributions to cinema. I wanted to make a film that explored the tension between making art for a living, working in Hollywood, and having a family at the same time. So many people know that struggle.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Harold and Lillian?
How their love for each other fed into their work, and their individual genius at what they did. How profoundly their creative contributions influenced the directors they worked with.
What was the most challenging part of making this film for you?
Visualising and dramatising their love story and Lillian's inner life was probably the most challenging part. Encapsulating the story of a marriage that lasted 60 years while the parties sustained two independent careers within a 91-minute documentary was challenging from a storytelling standpoint.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
From watching films that are about life. I always loved action-adventure movies growing up as a kid, but when I started watching films that were a reflection of what it feels like to be human (such as My Own Private Idaho or The 400 Blows), I was hooked and excited to make films.
"Of course, Lillian being Lillian, she lovingly made the young woman promise to take care of herself and to always remember that she is important."
How much has your style and the approach to your films changed since your debut?
I keep learning and growing with each film. My debut film was a 40-minute short subject doc, and I had barely cut my teeth at that point in terms of telling a story for the screen. I think the more you begin to know who you are and feel confident about yourself, the more you begin to develop the connective tissue between story, meaning, as well as the visual aesthetics and pacing.
What did it mean for you to get such recognition for your film?
Having a World Premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival was incredibly meaningful. It felt like a giant leap forward.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story?
Hopefully, people will find hope and inspiration. It’s been humbling and powerful to recognize that a film can literally change people’s lives: in November of 2016, there was a line out the door for audience members to meet Lillian after a post-screening Q&A in Los Angeles. A young woman approached Lillian, and quietly told her that before seeing the doc, she had decided to “do away” with herself. She said that after seeing the story of how Harold and Lillian overcame the many challenges throughout their lives, she had made the decision to "keep going." Of course, Lillian being Lillian, she lovingly made the young woman promise to take care of herself and to always remember that she is important. I can’t imagine a more powerful reaction to the film and I am grateful for the opportunity to tell their beautiful and inspiring story of art, perseverance, and life.