Tuesday, 15 July 2014


Stephen Weeks began his professional film career at age 17, directing a series of short films for Southern Television's Day-by-Day programme (an English ITV station). He made his film cinema short film, 'Moods of a Victorian Church' (1967) at age 19, and his first cinema drama, a film set in the First World War in France '1917' (1968) when he was 20. At 22, he made his first 'studio' picture, 'I, Monster' (1970) for Amicus Productions at Shepperton Studios, London. In 1968, when he applied for his ACTT Film Union card he had to lie about his age (his sponsors were Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz). He remains one of the youngest directors to have worked professionally.

Can you tell us a little about your childhood?

My parents came from the Portsmouth area, and I was brought up there – in Old Portsmouth, Southsea, Hambledon, North-End Portsmouth and Alverstoke Gosport. They liked moving house.

When did you develop an interest in films?

I was not particularly interested in films during childhood, as my interests were in archaeology and architecture. But I remember being extremely impressed by Ben Hur, Bridge over the River Kwai, Kid for Two Farthings, Sea of Sand, A Hill in Korea… there were a lot of British films about WWII when I was a child, some for the reason that they were cheap to make since there was all that old military equipment lying around!

Did you always want to be a director or did you originally have another career in mind?

I began to think I would like to be a film set-designer from when I was around 14 or 15. That changed when, at 16, I got started on TV. I was a schoolboy in Gosport, Hampshire. Fed-up with seeing Gosport Borough Council busily demolishing the then largely intact Georgian seaport –pulling down listed buildlings (56 of them between 1947 and 1965) in favour of building giant blocks of flats (socialist-style: town councilors had actually visited – and liked! – what they saw in Moscow), I had acted as a one-boy campaigner and got the Council sued by the Ministry of Housing & Local Government for starting to pull down The Hall, the next listed building in their heritage cleansing operation. It became a cause celebre, many years before ‘conservation’ as such came on stream, and I was a 5-minute media wonder (‘16-year-old schoolboys fights local mayor’ etc.). Anyway, I got onto local television at that tender age, and later that year I was directing 5-minute films on threatened local buildings for Southern Television. I also made one or two films of the same nature for BBC tv South.

So I then found myself, in my last year at school (1966), torn between twin passions of the past and film-making. In 1966 my scope as a film-maker widened by meeting a young photography student, Jon Kenchenten, who acted as camerman with his own Bolex and whose then girlfriend – Anita Perilli (later Anita Roddick) – I used in my not completed surrealist film ‘Images’. But I was learning. I also made my first film portraying the Great War, ‘Owen’s War’, with a bunch of my schoolfriends. In it we all looked so young… but that was the same age as many who were sent to the Front. In those days there were no film schools in the UK, apart from the post-graduate course at the Royal College of Art. However, I managed to find that I could do a combined course of Drama and Archaeology at Birmingham University. In the summer of ’66 I was summoned to meet my potential drama course tutor in Birmingham. I went clutching my reel of 12 films I’d made for television. The first thing the tutor asked me was ‘How can I get into TV?’. That made me realize I had probably better skip university.

The story I had chosen was set in the First World War. I had gone in 1966, just before going to London, on a tour of the battlefields in France, hitch-hiking with Anita Perilli,and we had also spent time interviewing the then plentiful supply of veterans. A fellow commercials director working from the same base as I had pledged to put up the money... something as silly as twenty thousand pounds, that’s all it needed. On the basis of his handshake the entire production had been put into action. My friend Derek Banham had written the script, based on a true incident I had come across from one of the veterans. I had searched the country for an area of endless devastation to resemble The Somme in 1917. Eventually I had found it on my first visit to Wales... the postindustrial landscape of the Lower Swansea Valley. I had arranged to rent a former zinc works site, and had there constructed trenches and shell holes and all the hell of the Western Front. 

I had arranged for the local Territorial Army to blow up the remaining buildings for free, as an ‘Exercise’ - and I had managed to find someone to exchange lorry loads of mud from Swansea Docks for the zinc slag that made up most of the site.I had also found a forest of dead trees nearby at Port Talbot, choked by fumes from a nearby copper smelter. These were transported to the site to add to the bleakness. Then a week before production was due to start, Patrick - this other director - bumped into me in the commercials studio canteen. “I’ve decided to buy another house in Wimbledon, he said calmly... “ so I won’t be going ahead with the film.” This threw me into a flat spin. I called my agent, Al Parker, who tried valiantly to sell the project elsewhere. Three days to go, and still no bites. At that stage I had to make a decision - either to stay in London, weep and see if anyone else came forward, or to continue with the trench building in Swansea, still praying that something would indeed turn up. Peter Clark, Al’s assistant, finally called me as I was about to leave for Swansea. “I’ve got you a meeting with Tony Tenser of Tigon Pictures,” he said. I explained that this would just have to wait another thirty six hours - for Tenser was either going to like it or not, and he was the last possible chance, and if he did - then the film set had better be ready!

The film was due to start shooting on a Monday morning. It wasn’t until 9pm on Sunday night that I finally got up to Southport Lancashire where Tigon Pictures was producing ‘What’s Good For the Goose’. Tony Tenser was all that a hood could aspire to be, in terms of appearance, with his toothbrush moustache, gappy smile and sunbed tan. He had started as a cinema manager, then had gone into risqué flicks with a partner named Michael Klinger from an office above a sex shop in Old Compton Street, in Soho. They had chanced upon a starving émigré film director, Roman Polanski, and had financed his first two English pictures - ‘Cul de Sac’ and ‘Repulsion’. Tenser had then set up Tigon

I had an agent back then called, Al Parker. Al had been a leading director / producer of silent films in Hollywood. When ‘The Jazz Singer’ was released, Al had all his money invested in silent films… he lost almost all of it as result.He became an agent in London with his wife Maggie. One of his favourite expressions (usually to producers not offering enough for his clients) was ‘go piss down the other leg’.

Whenever he shook hands with a new person, he’d say: ‘Al Parker. Excuse the wart!’ I could never understand why he simply didn’t get rid of the said wart. Anyway, I think it was Maggie who knew Chris Lee – and a screening of ‘1917’ was arranged for him. He was impressed by the film and recommended me to Milton. No ‘talking him into it’ was needed. But first came a script commission – to adapt Victor Hugo’s ‘The Man Who Laughs’, as a vehicle for Lee. When the offer came through to my agent for ‘I, Monster’, I wasn’t nervous especially – I was ready!

What was it like dealing with Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky?

I think I only met Max once. He was never around. He was always somewhere else raising the money. Milton was a strange bird. I soon realised why he wanted a young director – to push around. He would find out that I wasn’t quite so malleable as he hoped. Milton was polite to a fault, but he did not understand the sensibilities of creative people.  For example: I had given him the script of ‘The Man Who Laughs’ a week or two previously, but by this time I had begun work on ‘I, Monster’. Every day Milton’s limo would call on my little house in Fulham for me – he already being inside. One day, when we got to Shepperton, he opened the car door for me, but quietly said to me, as I got out, “By the way, that script you did for me, it’s junk!” Tactful – or what?!

Subotsky had a reputation for being very "hands on" as a producer, especially in the editing room... did you find this to be the case?

He was very hands-on, yes – but he was also chronically shy, so he was never on the set itself. Yes, he worked with the editors – it was the old-fashioned system… the cutting rooms were completely industrial in their premises and furnishing, and editors held on to the use of ‘Moviolas’, noisy, cranky machines with a tiny screen for viewing suitable for only one person at a time. It made it impossible for a director to look at the same time! Since I had made ‘1917’ (and all my earlier films) with television or advertising guys [I name first class editor Jon Costelloe] who used flat-bed editing machines, ‘Steenbecks’, with big screens at big desks, with comfortable chairs, and room for discussion – then Shepperton Studios’ cutting rooms were a disappointment, to say the least – and a retrograde step, so cutting the film was struggling with antique machinery, antique people and antique attitudes.

Did you believe in the 3D process that Subotsky wanted the film to be shot in or was it a drawback from your point of view?

The whole 3D thing was a nonsense. It was never a ‘process’. Milton had the notion that if you looked at a moving image with one eye looking through a neutral density filter (best) or one sunglass (cheaper!), then one eye would see the image slightly later than the other, and cause of a king of 3D effect.He called it ‘the latent eye principle’. ‘Late eye’ would be more accurate. If the effect worked at all, it was hardly noticeable – and only if there was vigorous action on the screen, and all going in the correct direction for the late eye behind the sunglass! Being a man with buck teeth, hating being with a lot of people – shy, and what now be called a nerdish type, then he surprised himself when he found a woman prepared to marry him – and further surprised by the fact that he could produce a child. So he made frequent reference to this baby – and when it came to ‘testing’ his ‘3D’ idea, he photographed this baby climbing up the stairs of his flat in St John’s Wood.

I couldn’t see the effect – maybe a faint shadow on one side of the moving object (the baby). Others in the screening room – people whose jobs depended on Milton – all said they could see it. Next, Milton screened this to the Boulting brothers, owners of British Lion / Shepperton Studios. They both had very bad eyesight, and bore thick, pebble glasses. I believe they agreed the effect only because they didn’t want to admit they could hardly see anything. Anyway, they were offering 50%, based on 50% coming from the NFFC (National Film Finance Corporation). The NFFC didn’t look at the test, as they said ‘Well, if John and Roy Boulting like it, then that’s fine’!

So the ‘3D’ went into production with no proper evaluation – which could also have included asking cinema chains if they would be prepared to issue glasses with one lens knocked out. I’m sure they would have said ‘We don’t think our patrons would want to look like dick-heads’. An added complication then came up: Tony Curtis, the art director, didn’t agree with Milton that the camera had to move from left to right for the effect to work… he decided it was right to left: so he built all the sets for that direction. Then, to please his wife who was a psycho-analyst (probably where Milton met her – in therapy!), Milton added to the exact version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde pages and pages of chat about Freud and Jung…. Static dialogue. The effect couldn’t work (if it worked at all) if everything was static!  [By the way, Dr Jekyll became Dr Marlowe, and Hyde became Mr Blake – a real shame, as we would have had a really authentic version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story... apart from the info-dump at the beginning....

I think the schedule was six weeks – I believe the ‘3D’ lasted about 2 weeks… there was no way any of it would work in all these circumstances. Yes, I kept up shots with plenty of movement, but naturally there had to be some static shots – and shots in corridors, for example, were all theoretically at least in the wrong direction, due to Curtis’ sets.

Not one word was ever exchanged between me and Milton about the 3D or its abandonment! I just faded it out. This story has a lot of shades of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, doesn’t it?

What were your initial impressions of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing?

They were both excellent actors and highly professional – and it was a pleasure to work with such talent.

You were very young when you made this film... did directing seasoned pros like Lee and Cushing intimidate you at all?

My age did not cause any difficulties. Lee and Cushing liked what I had to say to them about how I wanted it, so there was genuine mutual respect. However, not so with the crew: the camera operator, when he found out that I was at least 2 years younger than his son, who was a student, he never spoke to me again; I had to speak to him through an assistant director!

How would you compare the two actors in terms of temperament and approach to their work?

Cushing was gentle, and worked carefully without having to worry about his ego – Lee was a problem in that he didn’t want to show himself in any embarrassing way… he was paranoid about it. However, once hidden behind the Mr Hyde mask-like make-up, then Lee could even be laughed-at… he was safe! It was remarkable.

Questions: Troy Howarth
Images and Design: Marcus Brooks

Join us for PART TWO of our interview with Stephen Weeks : Sean Connery. Sword of the Valiant and The Bengal Lancers!



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