Monday, October 16, 2017

Interview with Daniel Raim, Director of Harold and Lillian


October marks the home video release of Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. If you follow me on social media, you know I've been a champion for this film ever since I reviewed it back in 2015. I recently hosted a Twitter chat for the movie's TCM premiere and have been recommending Harold and Lillian to anyone who will listen. Now that the film is available, I encourage you all to all to purchase the DVD or Blu-Ray which contains over 2+ hours of deleted scenes, words of wisdom from Lillian Michelson and a full lecture from Harold Michelson on storyboard art. To celebrate the release, I had a chat with director Daniel Raim about his work on the movie.

Daniel Raim got his start as a documentary filmmaker while he served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Born in Israel, he moved back on his own at the tender age of 15. He studied painting at art school but it wasn't until his time in the military where says he learned to "tell stories through camera and editing." Raim said, "I found it something I connected with on a level and enjoyed immensely. To look through the lens of a camera and see individual stories and to shape them." During the last week of his service, he had a premonition that he would go to Hollywood and meet a wise sage who would teach him the way of cinema.

Daniel Raim at the 2016 TCMFF.
Source: Zimbio
Raim found himself at the AFI where he met a sage in the form of Robert F. Boyle, the production designer who worked on Hitchcock masterpieces such as Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, North by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie. Boyle was then 90 years old and had founded the production design program at the AFI. Raim remembered hitting it off with Boyle immediately. He said to himself "this is the guy I want to learn cinema from. I wasn't interested in becoming a production designer per say but I was more interested in him." While the other AFI students didn't fully appreciate Boyle, Raim saw not only the opportunity to learn from him but also to tell his story.

The first documentary Raim made was The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000), a 40 minute film profiling Boyle's career. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. About the film Raim says "I made it my personal mission to make a documentary that takes the time to listen." At the time Raim felt that he didn't have the skills to make the film he really wanted to make. He followed up The Man on Lincoln's Nose with a feature length project called Something's Gonna Live (2010), which became a portrait of six artists, icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood. These include Robert Boyle (North By Northwest), Henry Bumstead (Vertigo), Conrad L. Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Harold Michelson (The Graduate), Albert Nozaki (The Ten Commandments), Haskell Wexler (America, America). Raim said, "somehow all these careers and friendships were intertwined and there's a narrative about that."

It was during Raim's time at AFI that he met storyboard artist and production designer Harold Michelson. Harold had a long and varied career and worked on everything from The Ten Commandments to Spaceballs. He began as a storyboard artist in the studio era which then became New Hollywood. Raim remembers, "I'd go hang out in Harold's office... For hours, he'd just tell stories. Then I noticed on his bookshelf were all these original storyboards from Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, The Birds, The Graduate, The Cotton Club. Mind-blowing, more than I could handle." Harold's stories weren't fanciful fantasies of a glorious time in Hollywood. They were about the real struggle to work in what Raim refers to as the "combat zone of working on a Hollywood movie production set." A place where egos often clashed. Raim told me that feature films during the studio era "were often storyboarded long before a direct was brought on. There was a script, someone like Harold storyboarded it, with all the camera placements, angles, height, tilt, lens... all of this was economical... to determine how much set they needed to build."

Then there was Harold's wife Lillian Michelson, the vivacious, charming and genius film researcher. In 1998, Harold invited Raim to meet Lillian at DreamWorks where she regularly had lunches with industry folks. Raim remembers,
 "[it] was amazing to be so warmly received. She [doesn't] know who I am.  She's immediately interested in who I am and what I'm doing. It's almost like being welcomed into a family you never knew you were a part of. It was like this open door in a way. The routine was that I'd have lunch, Lillian would spend half an hour yelling at Harold because of what he was eating. She'd go off and do her research work. Then I would spend the next few hours in Harold’s office soaking in all this amazing film history. I would leave these lunches completely energized.”"

Harold and Lillian Michelson (Source)

Fast forward to 2013. What started as an interest in Harold Michelson's work developed into a feature-length film about two personal and professional lives that made an impact on Hollywood and the lives of those who inhabited their world. During the process of working on the movie, Raim visited the Art Director's Guild and asked if they had any taped interviews of Harold that he could use. Harold had passed away in 2007 so anything Raim could get his hands on would be crucial. He received a Hi8 Analog cassette shot in 1998. When Raim went to digitize the grainy footage he recognized his voice on the other side of the camera. He remembers, "I don't even remember shooting this stuff. Later I recalled that I was asked to record this interview with Harold for his lifetime achievement award... The cinema gods have handed me the making of this film." This footage allowed for Harold Michelson's own voice to shine through in the documentary.

In addition to this, Raim had access to Harold's poems and cards and a very carefully selected and small pile of love letters that Lillian allowed him to use. In these Raim and his wife and co-producer/co-editor Jennifer Raim, found "nuggets of wisdom and humor and everything else that humanized them." Harold and Lillian were a real couple audiences could relate to. Raim said about their story:
"I was determined to make a film that puts the audience in the shoes of Harold and Lillian to experience what it must have been like to come to Hollywood in it's heyday... I wanted to create that narrative so I found the idea of that moment when she's stepped off the train in Hollywood for the first time. For me that's what the movie is about. That moment."
Even though Raim did not have Harold to film he did have Lillian, who like Harold did not care to be on camera. In addition to that, she was reluctant to discuss anything negative, especially about Harold. However, Raim didn't want to make a puff piece. He said to Lillian, "I promise you audiences will believe the movie only if you share with me some of these less flattering stories. These stories humanize Harold and make his accomplishments that much more believable." And that meant discussing Harold's drinking, his depression as well as her own challenges and her son's Autism. Raim made Lillian more comfortable by ditching the film crew. He didn't hide the fact that he was filming her but he scaled it back to make for a more intimate atmosphere.

A piece by Patrick Mate from Harold and Lillian

Harold and Lillian features excellent storytelling about two captivating figures. The film has added elements that effectively draw the audiences into the story. Artist Patrick Mate's illustrations would not only fill in the gaps where footage was lacking but would also enhance the storytelling and pay tribute to Harold's art. Early on in the process Raim had shown Mate a rough cut. Mate reluctantly agreed to view it and as soon as he did he knew this was a project he wanted to be involved with. Raim said "it was wonderful how Patrick's images tell a very nuanced story all in one frame." When you watch Harold and Lillian, look closely at Mate's illustrations. Some of them are references to classic films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and several others. Raim knew the ending of Harold and Lillian very early on. The train sequence when Lillian travels to Hollywood to meet Harold is the heart of the film. It was up to Mate to tell that story with his line illustrations and he did so quite beautifully. Those pieces were the first ones Mate created. If you watch closely you'll see the illustration techniques change throughout the film to what Raim called " a little more surreal, a little more adventurous."

Part of the whimsy of Harold and Lillian is the lovely music which includes an original score by Dave Lebolt as well as a classic piece by Debussy. About the music, Raim told me,

"I worked with him and at some point I arrived at a kind vision for the music based on an attitude I felt the music represented towards their life. . The Jaques Tati-esque music that's on the Blu-Ray, that was born out of thinking about their life and also my desire to present their life in a way that it channels the ups and downs. That they look back on it with humor, wit, compassion, love. To use music that wasn't inherently dramatic but presented a driving forward, how they approached life. They just kept going despite the challenges. There is a more poignant piece of music that we call the Lillian theme. That more poignant piano theme makes a statement that there's more to it than someone who organizes books on a shelf."

Would audiences get what the director was trying to get across? Raim received help and advice from Danny DeVito, a good friend of the Michelsons. He had collaborated with them on several projects. DeVito was one of the first people Raim interviewed for the film. He, along with editor Lynzee Klingman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), encouraged Raim to edit the movie down to 1-1/2 hours from it's original 2+ hours length. DeVito's involvement was so important to the film that Raim invited him to become executive producer.

Lillian Michelson, Daniel Raim, Jennifer Raim at the 2016 TCMFF. Source: Zimbio

Also instrumental to the movie was Jennifer Raim. Daniel Raim told me that Jennifer brought "a sensitivity and sensibility toward Lillian's very personal feminist struggles." This became crucial in presenting Lillian to an audience who would be primed to receive her message of perseverance and hope. One of the things that surprised Raim about the release of Harold and Lillian, despite the fact that it had a successful 68 city theatrical run, was how much of a rock star Lillian would be. He told me a story of how he and Lillian attended an American Academy of Dramatic Arts event where the Michelsons received a lifetime achievement award. The crowd of academy alums watched the documentary and shortly afterwards there was a line out the door to meet Lillian. One young woman told Lillian that her story inspired her so much that it helped lift her out of her depression and suicidal thoughts. In fact Lillian Michelson has had a profound effect on many people who have watched the film, myself included. She is the feminist hero many of us women look to for guidance and inspiration.

Following the success of Harold and Lillian, director Daniel Raim is busy with many new projects. He's working on a series of videos for the Criterion Channel on Filmstruck. While he was in Japan he made a documentary about one of his favorite directors Yasujiru Ozu. He continues to be inspired by stories of filmmakers and has other features currently in development. Stay tuned for more from this talented director. Make sure you follow him on Twitter @DanielRaim and check out his production company Adama Films.

Many thanks to Daniel Raim for taking the time to chat with me. Make sure you visit the official Harold and Lillian website to purchase a DVD or Blu-Ray copy of the documentary. It's also available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play for digital download and to rent on DVD Netflix.

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