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Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Sir Christopher Lee

Locarno Film Festival: Conversation with Sir Christopher Lee

opening night of the Festival on August 7 dramatically began under a
lightening-filled sky in the Piazza Grande, where Sir Christopher Lee received
the Excellence Award Moët & Chandon. 
Film stills of Sir Christopher’s roles were projected on the buildings
surrounding the Piazza.  Accepting his
award, the charismatic Sir Christopher spoke mostly in Italian, stating his
mother was from Italy — and then switched to English.

Sir Christopher’s
most loved line of the night, “I did it. That was me doing the sword fights
with Yoda, not a stunt double.” The audience cheered!

On August 8, the
Festival presented a Conversation with Sir Christopher hosted by Emmanuel
Burdeau. The background accompaniment of torrential rain and thunder was the
perfect backdrop to this memorable event.

Christopher raises controversy when he talks about The Wicker Man

“A movie dear to my heart.
The film got a poor reception in 1973 but now it’s one of the most important British
films. The Wicker Man for me as an
actor was definitely the best film I’ve ever done. And I’ve done nearly — between
appearances in front of the camera and like this — 270 to 300 — I’ve stopped
counting.  It’s the best film I’ve been
in of my career of 67 years and the best role I’ve ever had. It was written by
an absolutely brilliant writer Anthony Shaffer who made his name with the play Sleuth

“One day I got a
telephone call from Robin Hardy, who I didn’t know, and Anthony Shaffer, who I
didn’t know, and they wanted me to play a part (Lord Summerisle ) in this film,
and I said of course because Shaffer was the number one name as a writer.”

Sir Christopher describes
the plot of the film and then his character Lord Summerisle.

“You wouldn’t say he
was a bad man because his beliefs are genuine. 
I would not describe him as a bad person; he’s simply a believer in a
totally different area. He has a great sense of humor, smiles a lot, sings, very
helpful, greatly respected by his people. 
And sometimes dresses as a woman. 
That’s part of the legend that goes back hundreds of years. A man dresses
as a woman and leads his people in a kind of a procession or whatever happens
in the end. He’s not a transvestite, that’s part of history that really did

Sir Christopher
reveals his feelings about the movie he made and the one that was

“The film we made was
never seen. This is a great tragedy. What we made was sheer genius. We shot the
whole script, and obviously things are going to be cut; this happens in every
film, whatever the reason. I saw the film with my wife privately, before it was
made public, and with my agent at the time, my agent who is not with us. I
spoke to the director, the producer, that I had just seen the film and there is
so much missing — the brilliant dialogue, scenes with me and the policeman,
the doctor, the fish monger, the baker, the tiny part of chemist, which was very
important. We shot a script, we filmed the script word for word, and what I saw
was not what we did. I said, ‘Look, this is what I’ve seen, we can arrange to
recut it. All we have to do is go to the lab and get the negative of the film. We’d
get the outtakes and recut that negative. They were never seen since 1973.  Disappeared. I have my own opinions. Other people
have their opinions – why and who’s responsible.”

Emmanuel Burdeau: “What
is your opinion?”

Sir Christopher: “I
can’t say.  It concerns individuals. It’s
really frightening that a film, wherever it is, is so cut.  Now they’re talking of a reissue, maybe five
minutes more.  And now they say they
found more material.” 

Emmanuel Burdeau: “Critics
said this is one of the best 10 films ever made. Called the Citizen of Kane of the horror film.

Sir Christopher: “I
wouldn’t describe it a horror film.  The
end is frightening, but totally logical. It has to happen.”

Sir Christopher recounts his
conversation with director Billy Wilder about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

“I didn’t want to be
known as a man who only made horror films. I made some, very few. We counted
the other day, maybe 12 out of nearly 300. That’s the press, they put a name on
you and it’s very difficult to get away from that. I made three films with Boris
Karloff. He was absolutely wonderful. We lived next door in London. A wonderful
actor, a wonderful man. He was able to do lots of things, including comedy. So
did I. Poor Bela Lugosi never escaped from this type of casting.

“Wilder said to me, ‘I
don’t care what you’ve done, what you’re known for. I want you to play the
brother of Sherlock Holmes in my film. But I want you to look different. Be
different. Surprise the audience. Always surprise audience. Always do something
that they don’t expect.’ Wilder changed my whole appearance, took away my hair
— everything. It was a wonderful film.

He said if you stay
in England you’ll always be asked to do the same kind of thing. Then I did a
film with Richard Widmark, a wonderful man. He said, ‘Don’t stay in England;
you’ll find in America you’ll do many things.’ My wife, daughter, and I moved
to Los Angeles. I filmed many things. I played the head of the Hells Angels. And
they were all gay. (Sir Christopher pauses) Me too. (Sir Christopher pauses
again) Always surprise the audience!”

Sir Christopher on Saturday Night Live

“Then I did something
terribly important. I hosted a television show.  Saturday
Night Live
.   I did it with the best
people — John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman.
They were absolutely fantastic. The producer Lorne Michaels rang me up on
Sunday and he said, ‘I just want you to know we were all really pleased with the
show last night because you can do almost anything, even ad lib’ –which I did
— he said, ‘You had a 39 share of the audience.’ I had no idea what that meant.  I asked if that was good. Michaels said, ‘Thirty-nine
million people. Not bad.’  Today it is still
number three all of all time. I have a photo of the cast. John Belushi wrote on
it: ‘To Christopher, you are the best in the biz. Belushi is second best.’ This
was very important to me because from this show I got the film with Spielberg, 1941, which was murdered when it came
out, and now it has become a great cult film.”

Sir Christopher recounts his work on Jinnah

The Wicker Man is the best film I’ve done. The most
important film I ever made was Jinnah,
which was the greatest responsibility for me. I went to Pakistan in 1997 — 50
years after Pakistan and India divided. I played the man who founded Pakistan
and was the first governor general. Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That’s the great
responsibility I’ve ever had. The greatest challenge I’ve ever had in a film. Here
I am a western Christian playing a Muslim. Every member of the public, the
police — all came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for showing our great leader.
Thank you, thank you for showing him not just as a politician but as a husband,
father, and brother.’”

Sir Christopher talks comedy

Emmanuel Burdeau: “I
want to go back about Saturday Night Live
what you said. I was wondering if sometimes you wished you did more comedy.”

Sir Christopher: “Comedy
is the most difficult thing to do. Easily the most difficult. Not so much in
the theater because if you say something that is supposed to be very amusing
and the audience reacts and laughs, you can take the time before the next line,
and you can time it because of the reaction of the audience. That’s in the
theater. You can’t do that in a film. You do something, say something, but you
don’t know how the audience is going to react. Comedy in cinema is very
difficult and very serious. Serious.  May
I say it’s the thing I do best. But you try to tell that to the executives in
the studio.  I did about four or five
comedies in America.”

Sir Christopher on The Hound of the Baskervilles

“The main reason for
the success of these films was not me, it was Peter Cushing. He was a fantastic
actor and I really loved him very much. I still think about him. I still talk
about him. I still remember him. As Sherlock Holmes he was absolutely
wonderful. A dear, dear friend. He could say his lines, light his pipe, and read
the newspaper all at the same time. Wonderful man. Actor.  So was Vincent Price when he played Prince Albert.
We always laughed. We had to. We’re making fairy stories. They’re not real.
They can’t happen. (Sir Christopher pauses.) Some of them. And it’s very
important that the audience believe what they’re looking at, at the time.”

Sir Christopher as Saraman in The Lord
of the Rings

“A wonderful
experience. I read the books. I met the author briefly.  I thought these were incredible books. I wondered
if they would ever be made into a film. This was before CGI. Peter Jackson was
a genius and still is, but there are three big, long stories.  At the end of the nineties, I got a call from
my agent: ‘Do you know about The Lord of
Rings? The director is in London with his partner and casting director.
Would you go see them in a church in London?’ 
They handed me two pages and it was Gandolf! I thought, Ooh, my dream! I
realized I was too old, of course.  I read
these in a church, in London, and they said, ‘Thank you very much. My agent
called, ‘Peter Jackson wants you to play Saraman.’  It was a fantastic, great role, great part.

“The final
confrontation between the most important bad evil character Saraman wasn’t in the
film but on the DVD. I was not pleased. 
And I said a few things, which I won’t repeat, and I got excuses.  If you get the DVD, which you should, that
scene is there, and very important to the whole story because it’s the last
meeting between the worst enemy and the Fellowship.” 

Sir Christopher responds to an audience
member’s question about his work as a singer.

“Many years ago, 60
years ago or more, I was in Stockholm at a bar and I joined in with students
singing and someone tapped me, and I turned around, It was the Swedish singer, Jussi Björling, known as Caruso
of the North, an incredible voice. He said, ‘You got a voice. What are you
doing with it?’ I said to him I’m trying to learn to be an actor.  You come to the opera house and I will be
there and you sing something.’ I said I can’t read music. Björling said, ‘It doesn’t matter, we just
want to hear the sound.’

“So I went there. No
music. No piano. I sang. I was very nervous, naturally. The two people said, ‘If
you can live in Stockholm, eat, find somewhere to sleep, we will train you in the
Stockholm Opera and you can become a singer.’ My great grandparents founded the
first opera company in Australia and my great aunts were all opera singers, and
my great grandmother was called the Tasmanian Nightingale. An incredible
singer. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stay in Stockholm. So I became an actor.”

Sir Christopher Lee
then sang to the audience.  And what a
voice indeed.

screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at
Tufts University and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY
and THE
she is chairperson
of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she
works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.





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