Director Richard Lester said he was given a strict deadline and low budget when making The Beatles‘ first film A Hard Day’s Night, because the film’s producers didn’t think the band’s popularity would last.
Speaking to NME before the premiere screening of the remastered 50th anniversary version of the film at London’s BFI Southbank last night (July 3), he also assessed the acting skills of the four Beatles, saying George was the best in the band “because he didn’t try to do too much, but always hit it right in the middle,” and that Paul McCartney “was so enthusiastic he perhaps tried too hard.” John Lennon, meanwhile, “had some cutting words for me at times” and said there were concerns beforehand over Ringo Starr’s solo scene, filmed along the Thames near Kew Gardens, but Lester didn’t doubt for a moment that the drummer could do what was asked of him.
On the subject of the producers’ projection for the future of the band, Lester said: “The idea of the film came from the film department of United Artists at the beginning of 1964, and they said they’d only do it if it was cheap and in black and white and if we could get it done by July. They thought The Beatles were going to be a spent force by the end of the summer.”
The deadline left Lester with three-and-a-half weeks to edit the musical film, which had a budget of £200,000. It went on to take more than £12million at the box office, and proved so popular more than 1,600 prints of the film were in circulation at the same time.
He added: “Before we started shooting The Beatles went and did The Ed Sullivan Show in the States and the world changed, so when it came to making the film, we were already in profit from pre-orders of the album soundtrack. No one had ever heard of such a thing.”
He went on to say he suspected a mole on the film’s production team was leaking information to fans. “Whenever we’d get police permission to shoot on location on a street, thousands and thousands of kids would turn up. The police would then rip up the permission and we’d have to find somewhere else to do take two. Even before social media people knew everything and could track down their favourite bands. We were never shooting on a favoured location, we just had to shoot as much as we could before we were spotted.”
On directing The Beatles, who had no previous acting experience, he said it was important they played themselves, and the film’s plot featured things the band were familiar with, such as press conferences, high-society parties and performing on TV sets. “It was an accurate documentary in that respect,” he said. “The same with the fans. I wasn’t ever going up to the children and asking them to scream, or for some to shout for John and others to shout for Ringo. I didn’t do anything, I just let them all behave as they would.”
Lester went on to make The Beatles’ second film, Help! and cast John Lennon in his 1967 film How I Won The War. His CV also includes Superman II and Superman III and The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film which featured Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.
A Hard Day’s Night is often credited with inventing the music video genre, although Lester says after making the film, he decided never to watch any other music-related films. “I’m woefully ignorant about what has come since,” he said. “I can’t speak for the film’s legacy at all. It’s only really for critics to say what the legacy is.”
The digitally restored and remixed anniversary edition of A Hard Day’s Night is showing in selected cinemas until July 17. It will then be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 21.