PARK CITY - Richard Lester has been directing feature films since 1961, including "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Robin and Marian," "The Three Musketeers" and two "Superman" films. But it seems like the only movies people ever want to talk about are two he made in the mid-'60s starring The Beatles: "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"
So Lester has learned to be philosophical about having achieved his most popular success so early in his career.
"They were wonderful times," he explained to a group of filmmakers, actors, journalists and fans at the Sundance United States Film Festival last Saturday. "I had three years at the center of the universe. … It was a privilege."
Lester was in Park City for a birthday tribute, and a screening that evening of "A Hard Day's Night." His quick trip to Utah came in the middle of making another film that will document Paul McCartney's current world tour. It seems he just can't shake the Beatle connection.
"If, in fact, this is the last time we'll see him (on the road), I want to have a record of it," Lester said. Then he smiled, and quipped that it's also possible McCartney could turn out to be his generation's Frank Sinatra, and he'll wind up doing "60 farewell tours."
Lester, 58, earned a degree in clinical psychology before making his way to Great Britain in the early 1950s. Once there he began working in live radio and television with performers like Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Leo McKern. Lester's work with these men, in both mediums, is widely regarded as forerunner to the off-the-wall humor executed by the Monty Python troupe a decade or so later.
Lester recalled those live-TV days by pointing out they didn't have the luxury of videotape: "You'd do your work, then come home and ask your wife, "How did it go?' "
The director's first big break came when producer Walter Shenson decided to make a sequel to "The Mouse that Roared." Although Sellers declined to appear in the film, the actor suggested that Shenson hire Lester to direct. Shenson took the advice, and before long the two men were making "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" with the Beatles.
Shenson, who also took part in the Lester tribute at Park City, recalled that the production of "A Hard Day's Night" was "the first time a film was made expressly" for the soundtrack album. Lester added that he got the job as director because the Beatles "liked the idea that I had made a film with Peter Sellers."
For years, it was common belief that there was no script for "A Hard Day's Night," that everything was improvised on the spot. Lester acknowledged there was no script to begin with, but that from the time he began following the band around in Paris (the band received third billing behind Trini Lopez), "the film began writing itself the first night."
"It was an organized film," Lester continued, explaining that he figured if he "could give each one of (the band members) a character trait" to set them apart as individuals, the film would work. "A Hard Day's Night," he said, was a story of a marriage between four males in a band -- "a marriage that was (ultimately) broken by the adultery of Yoko Ono."
Another interesting nugget of information concerning Lester's collaboration with the Fab Four had to do with the film’s music. Both title songs, he and Shenson said, were written overnight by McCartney and John Lennon. Shenson recalled that in both instances, they decided on the movies' titles in the evening and instructed the songwriters to have songs written and ready to record the next morning.
"They did it," Shenson said, shaking his head with amazement. "They could write hit songs on demand."
The Beatles' movies may be his most illustrious, but the director said "How I Won the War," an anti-war film made in 1967 and co-starring Lennon, is probably his favorite. Lester said he liked it because "it came at a time when there was a great deal of nostalgia for World War II," and he saw it as an antidote.
The director said he continues to live and work in Britain because he "feels very comfortable" there, and because his wife and children are English. It also helps to be distanced from the Hollywood machine, he said, especially since he tries to preserve a "naïve and primitive" quality in his films. "Hollywood," he said, "has a tendency to make films the way Hollywood knows best," which isn't always his way.
Lester's latest film, "The Return of the Musketeers," is due for release in March, he said, and we see most of the original cast reunited. But he called the film "the worst experience of my life" because Roy Kinnear, one of the co-stars, was killed in a stunt during filming.