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Michael Lindsay Hogg - Interview

  by Eoghan Lyng

published: 25 / 10 / 2023

Michael Lindsay Hogg - Interview


Eoghan Lyng talks to filmmaker and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg about his work on The Beatles' 'Let It Be', 'Brideshead Rvisited' and The Rolling Stones' 'Rock and Roll Circus'.

"Peter Jackson sees Let It Be and his Get Back as companion pieces," Michael Lindsay Hogg states. "He thinks it's very important that they are both out in the world. I hope Let It Be gets a re-release. It's shorter and simpler, but because there isn't as much in it, it's easier to focus on certain things." And then he delivers the zinger: " Get Back is like a great novel, and Let It Be is like a great short story. And you know, I just came up with that there." The director laughs, one of many he and I’ll enjoy through the interview. As has happened before, and will happen again, he asks how to pronounce my first name. "Owen," he says. "Close enough," I say, and the interview carries on in a manner that's warm but deeply informative. He hopes to see a re-release of Let It Be (“Hopefully, this year, or early next year..”), the fly-on-the-wall doc he recorded with The Beatles, which was meant to document their return to the stages, but mutated into a codicil about the greatest band of the 20th century. As is apparent in this interview, the film was misunderstood for decades, leading many to write it off as the final word on a breakup that perplexed not only the band, but the rest of the world. “I’m not a musician,” he readily admits. “There are things [a musician] can talk about that if you’re not a musician, you don’t really know what they’re talking about.” Indeed, the director has enjoyed a friendship with Keith Richards for more than half a century, although the pair have never discussed music beyond the most superficial of levels. Summarising the technical nature of music, the American-born filmmaker says, “It’s like reading Sanskrit.” Lindsay-Hogg worked closely with The Rolling Stones on their Rock and Roll Circus, a spectacle that lay in the vaults until it toured the festival circuits in the 1990s. Bolstered by the rise of Britpop, the film became something of a memento to a more liberal age, and stands as one of the most important rock films of the era. At 29, I'm roughly the same age as Lindsay-Hogg was when he worked with both bands, which intrigues him. “How did you get interested in all of this stuff?” He elaborates: “Rock and roll, music and writing.” I’m flattered by the question, and give him a response he’s no doubt heard before: “The Beatles, basically.” The director - who worked with the band on their ‘Hey Jude’ promo before Let It Be - is happy with the answer. “They’re the answer to everything,” I say with a fan’s fidelity. “Well, they were, and they are, in a way,” he replies. “They’re certainly the answer to their part of the 20th century. And when you hear it on the radio, or whatever you do, it still holds up.Not only lyrically and musically, a lot of the songs still hold up emotionally. Underneath a lot of that was a wishing to connect.” Lindsay-Hogg recognises that although they were “tough boys from Liverpool who wanted to conquer the world”, he senses that they harboured something grander still. “Lennon and McCartney particularly were reaching out, and looking for connection,” he points out. “It’s not that The Rolling Stones weren’t looking for connection, but they were looking to meet girls.” As this interview will highlight, Lindsay-Hogg holds the Jagger-Richards partnership with similar esteem, but feels that there “is still a little bit of magic” to The Beatles oeuvre. We talk about Dublin, the city where I am calling from. Ireland holds a place in his heart, and like Paul McCartney, he has strong familial ties to the island.(His mother, Geraldine Fitzgerald, was born in Wicklow in 1913.) In a written correspondence, Lindsay-Hogg mentioned that he used to work for Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), and I'm naturally eager to hear about his experiences, filming an Ireland that would otherwise have been discarded by time and memory. “ Ireland was not prosperous at that time,” he recalls, “and still cowed by the iron fist of the Church. JFK brought a bit of glamour with him when he came to Ireland in 1963. I was a floor manager at RTE, connected by earphones to the director and other crew members, and I was up on a platform with the camera as his armoured limousine made its way through the celebrating crowds in O’Connell Street.And it was either later that day, or the next day, when he went to speak at the Dáil that I was the floor manager there. And there was nothing for me to do, except stand and make sure the camera was on..” He stops, as if bowled over by the emotion of the event, re-playing in front of his very eyes. “I was very struck by the fact that he almost had orange hair.” Compared to the darker tones that regularly meets an audience member’s eye - though the documentation tends to be in black & white -the young man from RTE felt that President Kennedy, with his vigour, glamour, intelligence and fine use of language endeared himself to Ireland, “which took him as one of their own.” His description of the Catholic President matches the image I hold of Jeremy Irons, who worked with Lindsay-Hogg on Brideshead Revisited. The serial - based on Evelyn Waugh's excellent novel - captured much of the flavour of the 1940s, piecing together an impressionistic judgment of an England lost to debris and distraction. But in contextualising the era, Lindsay-Hogg was reliant on the stagecraft of his leads, which leads me to wonder if Timothy Dalton - all chiselled chins and Brontésque stares - was ever considered for the series? "Timothy Dalton, James Bond? He's an extremely good looking guy, but in a slightly rough way." Clarifying the comment, Lindsay-Hogg says,"There's something slightly virile looking about him. If he was considered for Brideshead, he would have been considered amongst a bunch of English actors who might have been able to play Charles or Sebastian." "One interesting thing about casting is that it was a very divisive time in England," he continues, "and it was going into Margaret Thatcher time. It was also a couple of years past the punks and the Sex Pistols." England was in turmoil with miners and protestors crying out for an audience that would aid them during this time of change; Northern Ireland was a province of passionate fighters, some of them starving themselves to death in protest to the Prime Minister they did not see as their own. In this era of change, actors were distancing themselves from the upper-class characters that nominally appeared on the television during the 1960s. "America has political rivalries," Lindsay-Hogg explains. "I mean, you want Donald Trump, or Joe Biden. In England at the time, there was much more of a political attitude from like all actors. Most of the young actors were playing left wing characters, and they didn’t want to be playing aristocratic characters. They didn't want to do the accent. Weirdly, our pool of actors was smaller than you might have thought. If Tim Dalton was considered, it was on a longlist of actors who were available at the time, and in one way we would have been lucky to get him, because he's a very good actor, but he might not have been quite right for the part." Irons, it appears, was the right fit, although he was initially pencilled for Lord Sebastian Flyte. "He agreed to play Sebastian, but we couldn't cast Charles. We went to a lot of people: Malcolm McDowell was one. It was a long commitment, because at one point we talked to Charlotte Rampling about playing Julia, and she'd recently married a French musician." Rampling declined the part. "She didn't want to spend, as her agent put it, 'Six months in a field in Yorkshire,'" Lindsay-Hogg chuckles. He stops briefly, before continuing with the story. "Derek Granger, the wonderful producer, and I thought that Jeremy, because he's very smart, would be right for Charles. Early on in the scripts there hadn't been the voice-over. Before shooting, I thought, and Derek agreed, that it needed Charles' voice. Otherwise, he's just looking around, staring at all the paintings. Once we said to Jeremy, 'We'd love you to switch from Sebastian to Charles,' and we put in the voiceover, he agreed." The actor, impressed by the developments which transformed him from passive commentator to orator, created an impression on viewers, leading many - including this writer - to single it out as his most arresting work. But what about Sebastian? "We were getting closer to when we had to choose," Lindsay-Hogg says. The fact that Air Malta demanded birth names on their flights ("You couldn't use Mr.Smith, you had to use real names..,") complicated matters during pre-production. Ultimately, it all came down to two actors. "One was a really good English actor called Nigel Havers," he says. What about the second? "I'd seen Anthony Andrews in a series called Danger UXB in which he'd played a bomb disposal expert in World War II. And there's one particularly good episode where he has a nervous breakdown, because being a bomb disposal person, you can get blown up." Ultimately, Andrews won out based on poise and aestheticism. "Nigel is not dissimilar to Jeremy in looks, although he's smaller than Jeremy. He's got the same cheekbones and slightly square , long jaw. If you had them in a two-shot, it's sort of like looking at the same man. You could tell them apart, but it wouldn't be like people from different lives and backgrounds." "Anthony Andrews had a round face," Lindsay-Hogg continues. "And it's funny how actors get cast [chortles]. Anthony Andrews looks different from Jeremy; their physiognomy is different. So, if they're standing together in a two-shot, you're going to think, 'They're from different backgrounds.'" Lindsay-Hogg highlights Andrews acting ability, but "the reason he was cast was because he had a rounder face than the other actor." He praises the recently deceased Granger as a producer and a pal. "He helped re-write the script endlessly," Lindsay-Hogg claims. Collaboration, it would appear, is an integral part of his arsenal as a filmmaker, which leads me to ask about George Harrison, the garrulous guitarist who stormed out of The Beatles during the filming of Let It Be. We both feel that George Harrison matured as a songwriter - to this writer’s mind, Harrison benefitted most from the break-up - leading to my next question. Considering how he appeared in interviews, was Harrison as irritable to work with as his reputation might suggest? He mutters to himself, before deciding that “no” is the correct response. “He was extremely affable in real life,” he says. “We used to have lunch everyday while we were at Twickenham, and there’d be the four of them, and Yoko, and me. Occasionally, our camera man, Tony Richmond [would join us]. George was very easy to talk to, and very open.” Lindsay-Hogg continues: “He was not moody. This is a weird thing, but in some ways I think he felt more sure inside himself of who he was becoming, which was a songwriter very much in his own right. And he knew the moment would come when he would start to get his songs out there, once he managed to extricate himself from the band.” Indeed, it was Harrison who pointed out that “the money situation wasn’t as good as they would want it to be.” Money was flowing out, and less of it was coming in. Brian Epstein, their loyal manager, had died, and “there was no one looking after the shop.” The band had released a number of projects that were “socially conscious”, but fiscally irresponsible for them as an outfit. “They had a store that they opened up, and I think it was called Apple,” Lindsay-Hogg reflects. “It was on Baker Street. God knows what they were selling: t-shirts, sneakers. Whatever they had in those days..” And then Lindsay-Hogg comes onto the subject of “Magic” Alex. “He was on the pay roll, and he would invent ‘wonderful’ [sarcastic tone prominent] things,but no one really knew what they were. When we moved from Twickenham to Saville Row, pretty much overnight to go on with the recording, Tony Richmond and I went to look at it with Glyn Johns, and what we found was the studio which was ostensibly designed by ‘Magic’ Alex had no plugs in the walls to plug electrical equipment into.” Little wonder “Magic” Alex “disappeared” in the weeks after this incident. “George was frustrated, I think, and not feeling as respected, which is kind of the word we use these days, by MacLen, or LenMac, as he felt he should be. Prior to 1968, or 1969, pretty much if there was an album, there’d be nine Lennon-McCartney tracks, one George, Ringo; whatever. [Lennon & McCartney] were eating up most of the album.” It’s quick to discern a certain critique from the above statement, but Lindsay-Hogg sympathises with the group, suggesting that given their youth, the band were simply following an established demarcation. “John was sixteen,” he muses. “Paul was fifteen, and George was fourteen. And that’s the way it had started. I mean, the ages might be a bit off..” Lindsay-Hogg was as surprised as anyone when they broke up, although judging by some of the information we have now - Lennon’s love for Ono, Harrison’s spiritual crusade, Ringo Starr’s interest in acting - the split was inevitable. By 1971, McCartney realised that the best way to perform live was with another outfit, leading to the formation of Wings, every bit the spiritual successor to the Liverpool outfit. Contemporary rock bands like U2 and Blur have halted their trajectories to let their members explore other avenues the band might prohibit, and Lindsay-Hogg says he always imagined The Beatles would follow a similar course. By the late 1960s, Harrison had furnished his own lyrical voice, yet he remained third in the pegging order, which can’t have been thrilling for the guitarist. “[Harrison] wasn’t getting the attention from the others,” Lindsay-Hogg sighs. “This was partially what was causing his frustration when we were doing Let It Be.” “George got in my way a couple of times while we were making Let It Be, but I understood the reasons for that,” he says. “I understood they were principled reasons. I never had a beef with George: I didn’t always agree with him. That’s just normal human interaction.” He laughs when he recalls the wit and wordplay that awaited him when he interacted with The Beatles (“They were from Liverpool, which is basically like being Irish in England..”).Harrison briefly quit the group during filmmaking, standing at the head of the lunch table and announcing: “See you round the clubs.” “And then he left,” Lindsay-Hogg recalls, enjoying the anecdote as he says it. He's joking around, but his voice grows much more serious when he discusses the release of the feature. “Let It Be, as you may know, came out at the worst possible moment,” he admits. “A month before the film came out, they had officially broken up. Everybody looked at it as the ‘break-up’ movie, and they didn’t know, or had no reason to know, that we’d finished shooting it almost a year before.” As a result, audience members “invested a lot of feelings” in the film, which aligned with their imagination of the sessions. A barbed exchange between McCartney and Harrison over a suggested guitar riff quickly became shorthand for the tensions that surrounded the band in their later years. “People took that as a big ‘Wow’,” Lindsay-Hogg says, no doubt shaking his head as he does so. “A schism or a chasm going between the two of them.And it was no more than what you would call an ‘artistic argument’.” Artists of all persuasions - which considering his métier, Lindsay-Hogg is more than entitled to claim - have had disputes about the direction of their work, yet to the public it looked like two guitar players who couldn’t agree on their shared legacy. “They’d been talking to each other like that for fifteen years,” Lindsay-Hogg reveals, although he does commend the band for affording him the space to piece his film together. “They didn’t interfere with the film at all. And they never asked to get that little sequence out. The Beatles themselves never had any problems with that sequence, partly because their feeling about Let It Be was that they realised they weren’t really the ‘Mop-tops’ anymore.” What we get with Let It Be is four men approaching thirty (three of them fathers offscreen), dealing with the next section of their lives. “Those moments which, for audiences at the time because the band had just broken up, might have read as big dissension between them was a kind of ‘squabble’.” It’s at this point Lindsay Hogg asks me the third question of the evening: “Are you a musician yourself? I’m not.” Despite my valiant efforts on piano as a teenager, I cannot describe myself as a musician with any conviction. “My mother tried to turn me into a piano player,” he chuckles. “But my middle two fingers are sort of webbed underneath.” His fingers, he feels, couldn’t help him become the next Rubinstein. Considering his catalogue, he needn't worry: Brideshead Revisited for one, is almost as beautiful as Rubinstein's Melody in F. It's time to talk about The Rolling Stones, the band the British media pegged as the rivals to The Beatles. "The Beatles were more insular than The Stones. When I suggested something to them, they would go over it until they came to a whole. Whereas with The Rolling Stones, although the other guys were really smart, it was really Mick who ran the show." Directing episodes of Ready Steady Go!, Lindsay-Hogg suggested some of his conceptual designs to the band's singer and primary lyricist. Jagger was eager to play with the formula. "I said we should play with the lighting for 'Paint It, Black'," he says. "So, in a sense, we were painting the studio 'black'. Mick loved the idea." Keen to work with Lindsay-Hogg, Jagger invited him to his house in Chelsea and asked him to come up with an idea for a Television Special: “Sort of like Magical Mystery Tour but better and more fun.” “I worked out of their office in the West End and, after a couple of weeks, didn’t have any ideas and felt dispirited. There was a legal pad in front of me and I kept doodling on it, stick figures and circles. Circles. And out of nowhere a title came to me. I called Mick and said, ‘I’m going to say seven words to you. The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.’” “‘Great’, said Mick. ‘You nailed it.’” “I usually do not like circuses,”Lindsay-Hogg admits,”but I did know a good title when I came up with it.” Filmed in December 1968, the Circus is a kaleidoscopic portrait of an era when the counterculture of the West were casting off the traditions shovelled by their parents for colour, candour and hard rock. "He [Jagger] said he wanted Brigitte Bardot to compere," he reflects. "She was, I guess, the Margot Robbie of her day." Not half! Lindsay Hogg flew to France in the hopes of welcoming her to the project. He was armed with a note from Jagger. "I went to her with a note from Jagger. He speaks French very well now, but I don't think he did then. I gave it to her, and she said: 'Mick is a very naughty boy!'" As it happened, Bardot didn't appear in the film, although in a work that features Tony Iommi jamming with Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton performing beside John Lennon, and a fiery vocal turn from Taj Mahal, her absence isn't missed. "I had done some work with The Beatles, so Mick asked me if I thought either Paul or John would be interested," Lindsay-Hogg explains. "And I said, 'I think John would be more interested than Paul.'" Preceding The Last Waltz by the bones of a decade, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus highlighted the talent of the era, demonstrating an eagerness to match the urgency of rock against the depth, contradiction and shape cinema provides. "All the acts came from Mick's address book," Lindsay- Hogg says. "We thought about putting on a supergroup, and there was Steve Winwood who was a young guy who thought he would be interested. But when it came nearer the time he said [Lindsay-Hogg puts on a drugged up voice], 'Sorry'. So, we looked at other options, and got John." “By the time The Stones got to play, it was very late. Brian could barely play. I mean maybe if they’d been a bunch of Nuns…” He lets the idea sit there as a lost possibility. And laughs, maybe relishing the idea.“But Mick has inexhaustible energy. He’s 80 years old now and still in terrific shape. I think he, Keith and Ronnie have a deal that if any of them weighs more than 145 lbs, they have to leave the band.” Watching the footage with Jagger and Richards after the shoot was over, Lindsay-Hogg noticed some reticence on their part. “Keith said, ‘I wouldn’t care if it was called The Who’s Rock and Roll Circus, but it’s not.’”The Who had been touring for some time , so they were very tight. The Stones had been in the studio with ‘Beggars Banquet, so they weren’t.” Considering the cost of the project, it simply wasn't possible to re-film The Rolling Stones in a manner that was more understanding of their roles as headliners. "A year went by, and by then they had moved to France," Lindsay-Hogg explains. By 1971, the band had moved on. “There were 32 cans of film in a now small office crowding out two assistants,”he says, and credits Ian Stewart - who had played piano with The Rolling Stones before moving into more stage focused work - for rescuing the cans and relocating them to the country. By the 1990s, the band were ready to unveil the work. "It was shown at the 1996 New York Film Festival," Lindsay-Hogg giggles. “Twenty eight years after it was made where, predictably, it had great reviews and sold-out screenings…” He’s the first to laugh at the irony: “I remember saying to my girlfriend at the time , ‘I’m 28 and working with The Stones and The Beatles.’ And of course the irony is that one barely came out and the other became something very different.’ But for all the jocularity, there is a sadness to the interview. Many of the subjects who frequented Lindsay-Hogg's work have parted from this mortal coil. Three of the people who appeared in Let It Be (or Get Back, the title Peter Jackson used for his serial, which used Lindsay-Hogg's footage from 1969) were dead by 2000. “You couldn’t have imagined it. John Lennon and Mal Evans, both shot in America, and George dying before he was sixty." He sees Let It Be as the biological parent of Jackson's Get Back, but he sees the promo of Hey Jude as "the father of Let It Be." "We did ‘Hey Jude’ in front of an audience. Six takes and between each take and delay The Beatles would start to play, tentatively at first, songs they liked, mainly Tamla MoTown classics, but then they got into it , and so did the crowd of 250 people. And so, without really thinking about it, The Beatles had played to an audience, however small, again. Paul called me a few days later and said, “We liked it, sort of, playing in front of an audience again. We’ve been thinking. Do you want to come up to the office and talk to us all ? “ And that’s how Let It Be was born.” Let It Be closes with The Beatles performing on their own roof top. It was the last time the four of them played to any kind of audience. If Brideshead Revisited is his greatest work, then there's no doubt that Let It Be is the work Lindsay-Hogg will be best remembered for in years to come. By the turn of the 20th century, Lindsay-Hogg opted to return to the land of The Beatles, speculating on conversations Lennon and McCartney enjoyed in the 1970s. Jared Harris, son of Irish titan Richard Harris, played Lennon, while no less a luminary than Aidan Quinn (The Mission) took on the role of McCartney. "There's a film I saw years ago directed by Todd Solondz called Happiness. There's a scene where one of the characters gets picked up in a taxi by a Russian taxi driver. And I thought it was very daring of them to find a Russian taxi driver. And when the credits rolled, 'Russian Taxi Driver played by Jared Harris'! He's just one of the very best actors of his generation. And he has the ability to infiltrate any character he's asked to play. He was in that Chernobyl series where he was really wonderful. Benjamin Button. He's one of those actors who does a lot of research. He's very particular. One of the issues with Two of Us was the nose. He didn't think the prosthetic nose was right, and he said he would not do the part unless it was right. We were lucky to have got Aidan Quinn for Paul. He was just as particular about his research as Jared had been.” Two of Us demonstrates a more fragile portrait of Lennon, who had largely abandoned the spotlight for a more solitary path. He's visited in the film by McCartney, now enjoying a creative second wave with Wings, the band that had allowed him to explore the stadiums The Beatles hadn't ventured. What follows is a ninety minute teleplay which examines two men in their thirties, peering at their collective glories and failings. How did McCartney feel about Two of Us? "Here's a nice story, Eoghan. Aidan Quinn who played Paul was nervous of taking on the part. He admired Paul, and he really hoped Paul would like the work that he did. Anyway, we shoot the thing very well in Canada, and fortunately they [Quinn and Harris] get on very well. And then the following holiday season, Aidan takes his family down to a resort in the West Indies. As he's going up to the little house he's rented, which is on the beach, he looks to the nearest house by him, which is probably forty feet away, and he sees going up the stairs to that house [is] Paul McCartney. He's with his family. So, the next day Aidan is sitting at the beach. He's sitting in his towel, and Paul sits down beside him. 'I really like what you did playing me in that film,' he says, 'And I really like the film.' I was glad, because I was concerned for totally different historical reasons; I wanted Paul to like it because I’d known him a long time." McCartney wasn't the only one who enjoyed Two of Us!

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