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Interview with “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie” Director Craig Teper

Interview with "Vidal Sassoon: The Movie" Director Craig Teper

Vidal Sassoon’s life seems like the ideal subject material for a feature film – an opportunity that filmmaker Craig Teper was unwilling to pass on. Mixing archival and contemporary footage, Teper’s documentary follows Sassoon’s life from a Jewish orphanage in London to the heights of celebrity and beyond. The director recently got in touch with indieWIRE and went into some of the experiences he had while making “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie.” His responses include his origins as a filmmaker, the reasoning behind some of the stylistic decisions he employs in the film, the grueling editing process, and a look at what’s in store in the director’s career. “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie” opens on February 11th at New York City’s Village East Theater.

Seeing stories from the start…

I’ve been interested in filmmaking as long as I can remember. As a very young child I used to take reams of copier paper from my mother’s office and draw long, elaborate, wordless narratives, with each page a full frame, like storyboards. My visiting relatives would be subject to what must have seemed like endless pitch meetings as I walked them, one page at a time, through these stories. It wasn’t until I was seven, after seeing a TV special about the making of Star Wars, that I even realized that people made movies, and they didn’t spring divinely from the TV or theater screen. It had never occurred to me before that such a job was real. Once it did, I never thought of doing anything else.

Making a feature out of an idea…

Michael Gordon, the film’s producer, for whom I have worked and made films for nearly 10 years, approached me nearly four years ago about making a short tribute film in honor of Vidal’s 80th birthday. I immediately said yes because I had met Vidal and knew how compelling both he and his story were. I felt that he was a perfect subject for a feature documentary and moved forward from day one as if that would be the ultimate result. Many months down the road, after the initial shoot was complete, both Michael and Vidal were so excited about what we had shot that they committed to filming additional footage in London a few months later. Then more and more and more…before I knew it, we were making a feature.

A visually engaging documentary…

I considered, from the start, that we were dealing with a story that was largely in the past tense. That the major milestones of Vidal’s career had already passed. The struggle was both how to bring the past to life, and how to maximize what Vidal was doing in the present. I wanted, as much as possible, to bring Vidal to the actual locations where events had occurred (like the orphanage in London where he lived from 5-11 years old) and to use archival material, highly stylized graphics, and at times suggestive recreations, to make the story as alive as possible. It was also clear that the bulk of archival photography and film was going to be in black and white, due to the period. I saw an opportunity to capitalize on that fact, and that Vidal is as vibrant and alive as ever at over 80 years old, by showing only him in color, and making the rest of the film black and white. I believe strongly that documentaries can be as visually compelling and narratively propulsive as scripted films and it was my goal make this film in that manner.

Editing a film from a one and half bedroom New York apartment…

In addition to directing the film and shooting a good portion of it, I cut the film myself. With over 14 terabytes of newly produced footage, archival photography and film it was a daunting task. Made all the more so by the fact that I did all the editing in my apartment. A small, one and a half room, New York City apartment. It’s always hard to see the forest for the trees when working on a project covering this much time and with this much material, but living and working in the same forest makes it especially challenging. We had weekly screenings, where I would share the work with Michael and our other producer Jackie Gilbert Bauer, which were vital to maintaining perspective (and sanity). It also helped that my working relationship with Michael was so well defined, that I could completely trust his instincts. When he said, years after the edit had begun, that he could watch the film without cringing, I knew we were close.

What audiences can learn from the film…

I think that people will be surprised both by Vidal’s amazing rags to riches story and the significance of his contribution, as well as inspired by him as a person. He’s truly an original with a rather unbelievable life, spirit and drive. It’s a film which can appeal to anybody interested the deeply human story of a creative person.

Adventures in production: a mobile, dynamic crew…

There is a scene toward the end of the film where Vidal is greeted by a standing ovation during an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. it’s a moment that was beautifully captured by English cinematographer Saul Gittens, and a scene that we almost didn’t get. We had multiple cameras on sticks positioned throughout the house. Saul, and the sound man Steve, were working handheld backstage. I was given a one hour warning for Vidal’s entrance and used the time to check on the stationary cameras. From the opposite end of the hall, across hundreds of heads, I could see Saul sprinting (a funny sight in itself), camera on his shoulder, dragging Steve by his headphone cable. He’d overhead a stage manager calling for Vidal, well ahead of schedule, and dashed to make the shot, following him on to stage and doing an almost unbelievable 360 degree handheld track around him. I will always owe him for that.

Upcoming projects…

I’m just getting back into production on a documentary that centers on Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. It explores the connection between science and mysticism and the nature of consciousness. It’s a very different kind of film, in terms of its subject matter and visual approach, but like “Vidal Sassoon The Movie,” it centers on the story of an exceptional man who’s experiences have a universal appeal. I have much of the film already in the can and am gearing up for the rest, as well as developing some TV projects which really excite me. The TV projects are all character driven, and focus on getting behind the scenes in different worlds (including fashion and music) as well as the human side of their subjects, as in the Vidal film. I plan to edit these somewhere other than at home.

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