Gerry O’Hara is a true original, and if he never really got the chance to definitively climb out of the ranks of assistant directors into the realm of full-fledged feature directors, he nevertheless managed to carve out a solid career in the cinema working with such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Ronald Neame, Michael Powell, Sir Carol Reed, Anatole Litvak, Ken Annakin, Terence Fisher, Sidney Box, Otto Preminger and many more in his early years, before striking out on his own with several low budget sixties British films, the most memorable of which is The Pleasure Girls (1963, UK), recently re-released as part of the BFI’s “Flipside” series of lesser-known films that nevertheless deserve attention. Despite its unfortunate title, The Pleasure Girls is in reality a deeply moving feminist document of ’60s London, shot in a real apartment building, as four young women come to London to make their way in the world.
Throughout his career, O’Hara has had to do a number of projects he didn’t really want to do, but he also got a chance to work with some of the greatest talents in the history of the cinema, and is frank about his past, including the biggest mistake of his career—walking off Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962, UK) as first assistant director during early pre-production, after which he alleges that Columbia Pictures effectively blacklisted O’Hara within the industry as “unreliable”. I couldn’t possibly cover all of his credits even in this lengthy interview, but suffice it to say that Gerry O’Hara was extremely active from the early 1940s on, working with all the major talents in the field, and certainly left his mark on the cinema industry. But let him tell it, in this interview conducted on December 3, 2010.
You were born in 1924.
And your father was a bookmaker?
That’s right. He was just small time. He was the equivalent of what was called a street bookie. In those days, it was illegal to take cash for wagering. He was just a very small time bookie in a little country town, Boston Lincolnshire, where I was born.
What about your early schooling?
Very primitive. St. Mary’s Catholic school. It was what was called then an elementary school. They just taught you the three R’s for three hours a day, and being a Catholic school, a lot of religion. Plus a little geography, a little history. But I never finished; I left school at 14. I was really more interested in getting out into the world, and finding my own way. So I became a cub reporter, on a failing Labour newspaper in a conservative town, The Boston Guardian. It was on its last legs, and it lasted for about 18 months at the outside, but when it folded, we were all picked up by the conservative paper, which still exists, The Lincolnshire Standard.
And what was your beat?
Deaths and weddings, christenings, charity dinners; that sort of stuff. I was 14 when I got the job on The Guardian. It’s odd, really, because of course at 14 now you wouldn’t have a chance at something like that. They might allow you to sell newspapers on the street but they wouldn’t make you write them. But anyway, I kept at this for some time, until one day in 1941 The Lincolnshire Standard sent me out to interview [director] Michael Powell, who was shooting One of Our Aircraft is Missing [co-directed with Emeric Pressburger, 1942, UK] on location. We were told in the newspaper office that there was a film unit down at the swing bridge, which was a railway bridge across the river and I went down there on my bicycle and saw what was happening. Ronny Neame was the cameraman, who of course later became a very famous director, and I watched the crew working all day. I got an interview in the evening with Michael Powell, who was very open and forthcoming. I went home thinking about what I’d seen, and it looked very intriguing. After a few weeks the penny dropped, and I thought, “Hey, that looks like a pretty good job.”
It was during the war, of course, but I was young and full of ambition, so I wrote to Michael asking for a job, which took some nerve, I guess. Surprisingly, Michael wrote back and said “yes, come and see me if you come down to London.” So I went off to meet him, but I went to the wrong place. I went to his office in the city, which was an accountant’s office, when of course I should have gone to Pinewood Studios or Denham, where he was shooting. But they took pity on me. I was 17, and pretty green, with straw in my hair, as it were. So the accountants said, “Look, we represent Michael Powell, but since you have come all this way, there is a film company around the corner, a documentary company run by Sidney Box, and we also look after them. Why don’t you try your luck there?”
That was Verity Films, wasn’t it?
That’s right; I got a job there at 3 pounds 7/6 a week. I started as a trainee in the script department, because theoretically I was a journalist. But I was just running errands for the script department, carrying film cans and stuff like that. Then Ken Annakin, who became quite famous later on, was a young assistant director there; he sort of took me under his wing, and I switched to being a runner and errand boy in the assistant director’s department.
So basically you were working on documentaries as an assistant director?
Yes. How to put out a firebomb, and stuff like that. It was a lot of wartime work, of course, and most of it was civil defense stuff, films for hire.
Did you work on any films for the GPO, for the General Post Office?
Yes, the Ministry of Information. We did a sort of copy of Carol Reed’s The Next of Kin (1942, UK), called Jigsaw (1942, UK), which was a naval version of how to keep secrets and so forth. I did a film called Old Mother Riley at Home (dir. Oswald Mitchell, 1945, UK), with Arthur Lucan, which was drag comedy, very simple stuff; oddly, Lucan came from my hometown, and his whole drag act as Old Mother Riley was very, very popular with working class audiences. I was a second assistant on that, and so I kept working, and gradually moved up to first assistant. I think the first one was a film called The Loyal Heart (dir. Oswald Mitchell, 1946, UK); it was about a faithful sheepdog, shot very quickly at British National. The cinematographer on that was Arthur Grant, who later went on to do a lot of work for Hammer in the ’60s; he was very, very fast on the set. We shared a bedroom in Cumberland for about three or four months during that period. Percy Marmont and his daughter Patricia were in it, but it wasn’t very good. I think it ran for about three days in two cinemas and they took it off.
I think at that time I seemed to waver between first and second assistant,
which happened a lot. I was still very young then, only about 18 or 19. But it was a great apprenticeship; it was incredible. So I kept working on small budget films, and then I got a shot at working on Boys in Brown (dir. Montgomery Tully, 1949, UK), a very famous British film about a prison for boys, what we call a Borstal. That had a really top-flight cast, all of them at the beginning of their careers: Sir Richard Attenborough (who wasn’t a “Sir” then), Dirk Bogarde, and Jack Warner, who was a fixture in British crime dramas, and also in the Huggett films, which were family comedies. Later he had a big success playing one character over and over again: Sgt. George Dixon; Dixon of Dick Green.
Did you have any particular feelings that these people were going to go on to be major names?
Well I think people had their eye on Dirk, because he had begun to get quite a good reputation in the theater. He was known to be a talent, but he was a little reserved, a very nice guy but very private. One never got to know him. Dickie Attenborough knew him very well. Dickie used to give me a ride up and down to the studios every day, and Dickie came from Leicestershire, which is quite near where I came from. And so we had a very, very slight affinity.
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Boys in Brown was shot using what they called “the independent frame system,” which nobody remembers, but which was just crazy. It was the third and last film made with the independent frame process, which was devised by a production designer. The idea was that you could prefabricate the set off the stage, and wheel them in on rostrums, so you didn’t occupy the stage for too long. And you’d shoot most of it with front screen projection or rear projection. You’d go out and do all the exteriors, when the weather was good, and then you’d come in and shoot the rest of the film against a bunch of projection plates. They shot one more film with the process after that, The Astonished Heart (dirs. Antony Darnborough and Terence Fisher, 1950, UK), a Noel Coward vehicle, which he wrote and starred in, but then they only used elements of it. The process was just too constricting.
You can clear something up for me here. Terence Fisher and Antony Darnborough are credited as co-directors on The Astonished Heart; a somewhat unusual arrangement. But did they really co-direct it?
Yes. Terry Fisher was really an editor; he was graduating from the cutting room, and moving into the director’s chair. And of course, like Arthur Grant, Terry also wound up at Hammer, making lots of horror films, which made his reputation. Terry had made some smaller films before that, but this was a Noel Coward film, so it was a big deal.
So how did they collaborate on that film?
Well, Antony Darnborough was a very nice guy, but he was a sort of high-flyer, kind of a toff [aristocrat]. Antony did most of the direction of the actors, and Terry worked on the camera setups, because he knew what would cut together, being an editor. Antony was a very decent guy, but he was actually better off as a producer. He did one more with Terry, So Long at The Fair (1950, UK), which I was also first AD on. That had a pretty stellar cast, too; Jean Simmons, Dirk Bogarde, David Tomlinson, Felix Aylmer, André Morrell, and a young Honor Blackman. Again, Antony directed the actors while Terry tended to the camera setups, but after that, Antony vanishes from cinema history, while Terry’s career took off. Terry was a very quiet, very determined director; chain smoked all the time; always kept on time and on schedule.
Yes. So do you have any memories of So Long at The Fair? That was an “A” picture, of course.
Yes, it was a big movie. We went to Paris for about four weeks to do the location stuff.
Really? I thought the whole thing was shot in the studio.
No, we did a lot of location work at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Of course, we then went back and shot a lot of the film in the UK; we had a mock up of the base of the Eiffel Tower in the studio, and used that for a lot of the dialogue work. I don’t remember exactly how much we shot in Paris, but you know in those days, things were more relaxed.
How many set ups would you do in a day on something like So Long at The Fair?
Well, on an “A” movie, probably about 8 to 10 setups. If it was a quickie, more like 15 to 18 setups.
Next comes Trio (dirs. Ken Annakin and Harold French, 1950, UK), which is a portmanteau film, with three stories all written originally by Somerset Maugham, who also appeared in the film. You were really going from one film to the next very rapidly.
Yes, I certainly was. I worked on only one episode of that, “The Verger,” which was directed by my old friend Ken Annakin, who by now was moving up very rapidly. James Hayter and Michael Hordern starred in that; it was a nice short piece of work. Geoffrey Unsworth shot that; he was a fine cameraman. It was produced, oddly enough, by Antony Darnborough, who by this time had decided to step back from direction and work strictly as a producer.
There was really quite a vogue for these Somerset Maugham “anthology” movies at the time; there was Trio, Quartet (dirs. Ken Annakin, Arthur Crabtree, Harold French and Ralph Smart, 1948, UK) and Encore (dirs. Harold French and Pat Jackson, 1951, UK).
I worked on Trio and Quartet; both times with Ken. We did one episode of Quartet, “The Colonel’s Lady.” Cecil Parker, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Nora Swinburne were in that; Reginald Wyer shot it, a very fast and efficient cameraman. It was a beautiful segment, about a very tough nosed colonel who couldn’t live with the fact that his wife had written a book of erotic poetry. That was shot at Gainsborough Studios in Islington. It was a very small studio, one stage built on top of the other. In fact, it was a converted factory.
Next up is the crime thriller The Clouded Yellow (1950, UK). That was directed by Ralph Thomas. What was he like as a director? Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard were in that.
Ralph Thomas was okay. He was an awful snob. His brother, Gerry Thomas, was much more amusing, much more fun; he was much more approachable. Ralph took himself quite seriously. You had to call him “Rafe,” not “Ralph.” I remember that he was very proud of the fact that he was a member of The Cavalry Club, which was a very exclusive London men’s club. Supposedly he had a long affair with Betty Box.
Gerry directed all the Carry On films, right?
Absolutely. I didn’t work on any of those, but I knew him slightly. Both Ralph and Gerry were editors who became directors. They were what we call working directors; they got the film in on time and on schedule, but they certainly weren’t mainstream talents.
Next I have a film called Meet Mr. Callahan (1954, UK), directed by Charles Saunders, based on Peter Cheney’s character of the slightly down-at-the-heels private detective Slim Callaghan. The Slim Callaghan novels were wildly popular in the ‘50s, but now nobody seems to read him except for Jean-Luc Godard, surprisingly. What was that like?
That was fine; a small picture, but easy to make. Charlie Saunders again was an ex-editor. Those kind of guys like Charlie, Ralph Smart, and Ralph and Gerry Thomas were what I used to call meat and potatoes directors. They knew how to cut up the script, and how to choose the right setups to get it in the can as rapidly as possible. Charlie’s brother produced the long running Agatha Christie play The Mouse Trap, which opened in 1952, is still running to this day; some 24,000 performances!
The next picture that I have for you, though, is a distinct step up, Sir Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955, UK). You’ve been essentially working in “B” films and on smaller “A” films, but this is quite a promotion. How did you get the job on that?
Well, I was working on The Divided Heart (dir. Charles Crichton, 1954, UK) at Ealing Studios, which was based on a true story, published in Life magazine. It was a really good picture; very solidly told. It was about a little boy whose entire family, including his mother, was presumed killed by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, the boy is adopted by a German couple in the Bavarian Alps, where he grows up, and considers the adoptive couple his real parents. But then, out of nowhere, his birth mother suddenly reappears, and fights tooth and nail through the courts to get the child back. Really well done; Theodore Bikel, Yvonne Mitchell, Geoffrey Keen, Alexander Knox and Liam Redmond were all in it, and they were first rate.
But here’s the thing. Ealing Studios were grooming me to be a staff member there, which I didn’t really want to be. I didn’t realize that at the time, but I didn’t care for Ealing Studios. They were a bit snobbish, you know? They were quite nice, but there were all university guys, and they were a bit kinky. So I didn’t really fit in. But I made one good friend; the cameraman on that was a lovely guy named Otto Heller. He was a Czech refugee, and his English was appalling. He was a very funny, very sweet guy but he couldn’t read the scripts, so that was a real problem! The Ealing people didn’t really care for him, but they hired him for the very good reason that he was fast. Really, really fast on the set. But Otto couldn’t read the script, so I used to tell him what the scene was every day. Each scene. Charlie Crichton was a bit standoffish; he “couldn’t be bothered” to tell Otto what was going on, you know. So that’s why we became quite good pals, Otto and I.
And then Otto came to me one day, and said “Gerry, what is this Richard III?” And I said, “well, it’s Shakespeare; it’s a play about a very cruel British monarch.” That’s as best as I knew, you know, since we hadn’t studied Shakespeare at school. “Why do you ask?” I wondered. “Well,” Otto said, “I’m going to speak to Mr. Olivier tonight”—he called him “Mr. Olivier—“because he wants me to shoot a film for him.” Larry was playing at the Phoenix Theatre in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince with Vivien Leigh, and he wanted Otto to drop by after the performance for a job interview. Otto was beside himself; he really wanted the job, but he had no idea what Richard III was about! So he asked me, “could you find out for me what it’s about, what the plot is, so I don’t look like an idiot?” “Sure” I said, so I sent for one of Michael Balcon’s trainees, Michael Birkett, who later became Lord Birkett; a very nice guy.
Anyway, I called Michael on the set, he was only about 18 or 19 years old at the time, and said “look, I want a ‘once upon a time’ version of Richard III, only a couple of pages long, and I want it by 5:00 tonight.” And Michael did it. Otto and I went to a coffee bar after day’s shooting. I told him the story, and he went to see Larry. Larry wanted Otto because he was fast; he had a much-deserved reputation for doing great work really, really quickly. Larry had worked with some of the great cameramen of the British cinema in his earlier films, but they’d taken up the lion’s share of production time getting the set lit, with the actors waiting around, and he didn’t want to do that again.
So somebody had told him that Otto was quality and quick, and after a very brief interview with Larry, he got the job. But as Otto was leaving the dressing room, he said “there’s just one thing; I need an assistant on the film. I have difficulty reading, and this boy Gerry O’Hara really helps me with the script.” So Larry said “send him in tomorrow night.” So I went back stage the next night, spoke to Larry, and got the job. Otto really did me a favor there; he made my participation in the film essential. I was first assistant on that film, and it was a hell of a break for me.
Richard III was shot in a very kind of “book of hours” manner; very stylized. The sets look like they came from a medieval illuminated manuscript, very theatrical, and I also noticed that Olivier and Heller used banks of colored lights on the set, lots of colored gels during shooting. Am I right?
Yes. Ninety per cent of the film was shot inside, on the studio floor, and for the scenes of the castle ramparts, we would have a hell of lot of light pouring down on the set. We shot the battle sequences in Spain, which was a nightmare, but most of the film was shot very quickly in the studio, in long takes, which Larry loved because they got so much done so quickly. He had quite a good editor on the film, Helga Cranston. We had a very good camera operator, Denys Coop, who, of course, went on to being a very good DP. He had all these guys from the theatre, very good production designers, and a wonderful art director called Carmen Dillon. Sir William Walton did the music, which is one of my favorite scores for any film. So it was top notch all the way around.
How long a schedule did this film have?
Well, as I said, it all went well until we went to Spain to do the climactic battle sequence. It took forever, and didn’t really come off. It seemed to me that he was trying to redo the battle scenes from his own film Henry V (1944, UK), but it didn’t work. The battle scenes for Richard III were shot in the same kind of stylized way as the rest of the film. We went over the battle ground some days ahead and tried to plan everything out, but the weather was terrible, and in the end, we didn’t really get what we wanted.
A very young Stanley Baker played Henry, the Earl of Richmond in the film, who finally brings about Richard’s downfall. What was Baker like on the set? Would you tab him as somebody who was an up and comer?
Yes, you would. Unfortunately, he was very arrogant, because he knew he was an up and comer, too! And there was a terrible moment on location when Larry got shot by an arrow during the battle sequence. It accidentally hit him in the chin. So it was a tough shoot during the Spanish location work.
What was Olivier like as a person?
Oh, he was great. Everybody called him Sir Larry. We got on
tremendously well. He was a very solid, professional person; working on that film was a real eye-opener. You could make top-flight stuff, and still be a rather down to earth personality.
How long was the whole schedule on the picture?
Quite a long one, about 18 weeks.
So all in all, this was a huge jump forward for you.
Yes, it was, and after that, offers of work came in droves. Anatole Litvak wanted me for Anastasia (1956, UK), Ronnie Neame wanted me for The Man Who Never Was (1956, UK), Robert Rossen for Island in the Sun (UK 1957), Muriel Box’s The Truth About Women (1957, UK), Carol Reed’s The Key (1958, UK), which nobody seems to remember now, and I did them all. It was a really great time to be working in the industry. Anastasia I remember because I loved working with Anatole, but the star of the film was Yul Brynner, and he was a bastard, he was a pain in the ass. Ingrid Bergman was another matter altogether; lovely to work with, but very, very private. But she used to tease Anatole because he would shoot take after take; that was just his style. He would say “cut, go again” and one day she finally said “why, why should we go again?” and he just said “again, Ingrid.” But she was a real professional. Island in the Sun was a rather daring film for the time because of its interracial love aspect, with Dorothy Dandridge, James Mason, Joan Collins and Harry Belafonte. I remember we were specifically told not to try and get fresh with Dorothy Dandridge, because her boyfriend was in the Mafia. And it all came from working on Richard III.
And then, in something of a switch, you worked on Third Man on the Mountain (1959, US), a Disney adventure film about mountain climbing. This one is also somewhat forgotten, but it’s a rather rousing adventure film, and much of it was shot on location in Switzerland, scaling the Matterhorn. Ken Annakin directed it, with a cast that included Michael Rennie, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, and Herbert Lom. That must have been a difficult film to shoot, because a lot of the footage was shot on the mountain itself, and not in the studio, if I remember correctly. Was there a lot of location work on that project?
Yes, there was, but we also shot a lot of it on a small mountain halfway up among other mountains. There was also a great big clump of rocks that stood just outside the railway station where we were shooting, and we had it scaffolded so we could do all the close-ups. Ken did send me off one day with the French Mountain Unit to do some second-unit shots with doubles, and I did actually get hauled up on a rope a fair way up the Matterhorn, so yes, it was a bit challenging.
What about Our Man in Havana (dir. Carol Reed, 1959, UK)?
Oh, that was a lot of fun to work on, but it didn’t really turn out all that well in the end. We shot a lot of it in Cuba, right around the time of Castro’s revolution. Of course, that was based on Graham Greene’s novel, and it had a lot of star power going into the project.
The main character, James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman who’s recruited as a spy for the British government, was played by Alec Guinness. What was he like to work with?
Well, unfortunately that didn’t work too well between Carol and Alec; not that I was aware of anything being said, but Alec was a cold fish. Again, he was a very private man. He took us all out to dinner one at a time. I had dinner with him one night in Havana. But he didn’t open up at all; it was like “so tell me about you.” So he was more or less inspecting you in a way.
What about Ernie Kovacs?
Oh, he was wonderful, we all loved him, he was great. It was really, really sad when he died so young, in that car accident (on January 13, 1962). Who knows what he could have done?
And what about Noel Coward, who plays Hawthorne, the British secret service agent who taps Alec Guinness’s character for spy duty?
Noel Coward was talent personified. When he turned up, you knew he was there; he sort of dominated the whole thing effortlessly. He didn’t work on the picture that long, but he was a delight on the set; a very dry sense of humor. He was very fond of Carol, but, as I say, it didn’t quite work as a film.
Next I have you as AD on The L-Shaped Room (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1962, UK), which is something of a change of pace for you, with Leslie Caron, Tom Bell and Brock Peters. It’s a kitchen sink drama, about some lonely misfits in a London boarding house. That’s a different kind of film, compared to the other work that you were doing; all interiors, a small cast.
Well, yes. I got into a muddle there. Before that, I was in Rome on Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963, US). But before I went up to do Cleopatra, the producer Jimmy Woolf had picked me to do L-Shaped Room. I didn’t want to do it: it was the wrong kind of film for someone like me, because it was really just a small affair, and I think anybody could have done it, you know. But I signed up for it.
And you liked working on big pictures?
That was it, because I was having a wonderful time in Rome on Cleopatra, where I was first AD on the second unit. But then my time was running out. I was going to have to go back to London and shoot L-Shaped Room, which, as I say, anyone could have done. Walter Wanger, who was producing Cleopatra, wanted very much to keep me. Cleopatra was a huge picture, and he wanted me to keep a firm hand on things. He pleaded with Jimmy Woolf to release me, but Jimmy wouldn’t, which was annoying. And so I had to come back for it. But you know, on Cleopatra, I was originally supposed to be Joe Mankiewicz’s assistant, but it turned out that in fact I was actually first assistant on the second unit, which was directed by Ray Kellogg …
I didn’t know that!
Yes, he was an ex-Marine, a bull of a man.
Yes, he was really a special effects guy, but later he directed stuff like The Giant Gila Monster (US 1959), The Killer Shrews (US 1959), and The Green Berets (US, 1968), which he co-directed with John Wayne, who starred in the film, and also Mervyn LeRoy, who came in and directed some scenes.
I never met John Wayne, but Ray was of that ilk. A really tough customer.
So how long did you work on Cleopatra?
I was on it for about three months. But then I got a break, and got out of the second unit and sort of promoted, in a rather odd way. One of the extras in the cast was embarrassed, because they wanted her to appear nude in a scene, and she was an Italian actress who didn’t want to do that kind of stuff. I sort of interceded with Joe, who I only knew really because we used to have dinners from time to time. I got it resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so they pulled me off the second unit, and made me kind of a special assistant, sorting out problems. What they call a “trouble shooter” for Joe. And that’s why Walter Wanger asked Jimmy Woolf to let me stay with them.
But he wouldn’t let you so, then you wound up going back to do first AD chores on The L-Shaped Room.
That’s it. It wasn’t fun. I wish I could have stayed. But I was under contract, and I had to do it.
Now what about Tom Jones (dir. Tony Richardson, 1963, UK)? You were first AD on that, and it was both a huge film, and a period piece, and of course, it won many, many awards, both in the States and the UK.
Oh, that was wonderful. It was a big picture, but it was the happiest film I was ever on. I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning. Tony was a delight. It had a great script by John Osborne, and Albert Finney was superb in it, as was Susannah York. And you’re right; it did amazingly well. It won all kinds of awards. Oddly enough, Albert Finney was a friend of mine, you know; his father was a street bookie, just like my father. So was Peter O’Toole’s, but I never worked with him.
Jumping back a bit, during your career, you also drew an assignment with the notoriously, how should I put this, volcanic …
Yes, Otto Preminger; first on Exodus (1960, US), and then on The Cardinal (1963, US). Now, The Cardinal was a big picture, but not a particularly good one. I don’t know if you would agree with that.
Well, give me Exodus any day. That was a really huge production.
Probably the biggest picture I did, physically. I was the first AD on it; I worked on that with a bunch of people, one of whom was the Israeli AD, Yoel Silberg. He and I are still friends. He is now the senior director at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv. Another guy who worked on that, in an uncredited capacity, was George Cosmatos, who wound up directing Rambo: First Blood Part II [US] in 1985, and Tombstone [US] in 1993. The production of Exodus went on forever and forever; it was an enormously complex project in every respect; locations, cast, crew, everything. Just look at the cast: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Lawford, Ralph Richardson, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, John Derek, Hugh Griffith … the list goes on and on and on. We were in Israel, and then we went to Cypress.
What was Paul Newman like to work with?
He was, again, very private. All he would ever say was, “Hi, Gerry” and that was the end of the conversation. Lee J. Cobb, though, I thought was wonderful. I loved him.
But after Exodus, I have a gap. And during this time, it seems that you turned down the job of first AD on Lawrence of Arabia, amazingly enough. What happened?
Well, I’ll tell you, but it’s complex. Two or three years or so after Exodus, I was in Paris, working on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962, US) with Vincente Minnelli. But after about six weeks the picture was in trouble, and we were miles behind schedule. Vincente was a lovely guy, but he was very difficult at times; he took forever to set things up, and then he would change his mind. He was adorable, but nevertheless he was taking forever. Anyway, he came to me one day and said, “look, they’re pulling the picture, we have got to go back to Hollywood. But they won’t let me take you with me, because the Hollywood union won’t allow it, so you’re off the picture.” But then he said, “look, I saw Sam Spiegel [the producer of Lawrence of Arabia] last night in the hotel and he wants to see you.” Now I had already turned down Lawrence of Arabia, because I had a feeling it wasn’t going to work out for me, but I was suddenly out of work as it were, and it would have been silly not to go, so I went to the hotel and saw Sam. And Sam said, “look, you know, whatever your problems, if it’s about money, call our guy in London and tell him what you want. I’ll see you in Jordan.” And foolishly I went along with it.
I left before Lawrence started, during pre-production, because I had been told that it was going be just a few weeks in Jordan, and the rest shot in the UK, but then they said “no, it’ll be three months in Jordan, and then the rest of it in England.” Well, I had a Jewish girlfriend, and she couldn’t come to Jordan. So when I met up with David Lean in Jordan, I mentioned the schedule to him, shooting some of it in Jordan and the rest back in the UK, and he said “oh no, we going to do it all here, the whole thing right here in the desert.” And I thought, “Oh, fuck. That lets me out.” And I’m afraid I left the picture. I just didn’t like the way things were going on the project, but it was still my biggest mistake. I should have taken the job. It put me in big trouble. Columbia put the word out that I was unreliable.
When I went back to London, and I couldn’t get work. I did get a short job as first AD on a really small British comedy, Maid for Murder (dir. Robert Asher, 1962, UK; originally titled She’ll Have to Go), starring, believe it or not, Bob Monkhouse, Alfred Marks, Hattie Jacques from the Carry Ons, and, of all people, Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard’s wife! Then somebody offered me a little picture, a three-week shoot as a director.
That Kind of Girl (1963, UK).
That Kind of Girl. And I think the guy who offered it to me, Robert Hartford-Davis, thought he was going to direct me! It was an exploitation picture, pure and simple, about venereal disease. I shot That Kind of Girl, and it was a three-week shoot, 17 days. The night that we finished, I went back to my flat and I was absolutely exhausted. We had no money, so we just had a few beers in a pub, and that was the end of the picture party. They didn’t even want me to edit it, or do any of the finishing stages. I think I got 750 pounds for a three-week shoot. That was probably about two years after Exodus.
So the night I finished it, I was at home having a drink when Otto Preminger phoned me from New York, typical Otto, right to the point. He said, “Gerry, what are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I just finished directing a film. Otto said, “OK, I’ll drink to the film’s success. But let me ask you, are you going to go on directing?” I said, “No, no, they don’t even want me to edit it. I’m through.” Immediately, he jumped on this. “Good,” he said, “I want you here in New York. Go to Columbia tomorrow, get your ticket.” And that’s how I got on The Cardinal; he put me on as a second unit director. No one else would give me a job, but Otto came through, in his own unusual way.
And then you wrote and directed The Pleasure Girls (1965, UK), which has now come out on DVD and Blu-ray, as you know, as part of the BFI’s Flipside series.
Yes. It was shot for something like 30,000 pounds; it’s about a group of young women making their way in 1960s London. I wrote the script, and we shot in on location. Probably our biggest star was Klaus Kinski, who got 900 pounds for 10 days work in the film, just before he went off to appear in Dr. Zhivago (dir. David Lean, 1965, UK); the entire shoot was only 20 days. But then we also had Tony Tanner, Ian McShane, and of course Francesca Annis, so it was an excellent cast. It was shot in a house in Kensington; we didn’t have the money for a studio. Plus, it made the whole thing that much more realistic. Michael Reed shot it; he was very fast, very good, and also wound up working as a DP for Hammer! The original title of the film was A Time and a Place, but that didn’t last long; the producer, Michael Klinger, saw to that. Michael had a great deal of movie sense; he’s the one who gave Roman Polanski a shot at directing his first English language feature with Repulsion (1965, UK), which certainly launched his career in the UK. I hated the title, and I hated the title music. It had nothing to do with the film! But they didn’t consult me about it, so that’s what happened. Still, I think the movie is rather good.
The title music is ghastly, yes, it’s true. But you can’t be held responsible. But the thing that strikes me about the film is that it’s a very feminist movie. It’s really about a group of young women, told from their point of view, and it really gives you a sense of what the ’60s were really like in London. You also have a very sympathetic gay couple in it.
Yes, which was quite intentional. That was the first gay kiss in the movies. They did a program on the BBC, a whole bit on it, when it came out. It was the first time anyone had seen two boys kissing in a film.
This was your script; how long did it take you to write?
Well I’ll tell you how that happened. I started writing scripts on “spec,” or speculation, hoping to get one of them financed. Looking for work, in other words. I had written four or five scripts and gotten absolutely nowhere. I would send them out to everyone I knew, and they all wound up in the slush pile, and no one was paying any attention to them. But luckily for me, Raymond Stross, the producer, was in the hospital having an operation, and to take his mind off his problems, he had his secretary send over a stack of scripts to read. I had no knowledge of any of this, but one morning around 7:30 the phone rang and it was Raymond. He said “listen, I read your script” –(which wasn’t The Pleasure Girls, it was another spec script I’d written)—“and I don’t want to buy it, but I like the dialogue. Do you have anything else?” I said “yes, sure.” So he said “well, bring it around to the hospital, which is just around the corner, and I’ll read it.”
So two or three days later I got another phone call from him, with the same verdict: “I like the dialogue, but I don’t want to buy it. You had better come and have tea with me when I get out of the hospital and see if we can’t fix something up.” So I went to have tea with him, and he said “look, why aren’t you writing about Chelsea? You live in Chelsea, you obviously hang around all the Chelsea clubs and things, the discos and all that sort of stuff. Why don’t you write about that? That sounds more interesting to me than the rest of this stuff you’ve sent me.” I went back to my flat.
Now at that time, I shared my flat with a young guy who wasn’t in the film business at all, but he had a lot of common sense. He said, “are you stupid, or what? A producer takes the time to talk to you, and tells you what he wants to see, and you don’t want to do it? Write the damned thing!” And I was so annoyed, I sat right down there with the typewriter and banged the script out. And then they bankrolled it, and it turned out very well. Apart from the title and that damned theme song, I pretty much had a free hand. And the notices were very good, then, and now, with the DVD release, which was a pleasant surprise.
Now let me touch on some other work you did. You directed a couple of episodes of The Avengers; The Hour That Never Was (1965, UK) and Small Game For Big Hunters (1966, UK) with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. These were two of the black and white filmed episodes, which I think were the best of the series.
What was Diana Rigg like to work with?
She was a very shrewd, very amusing girl. She had Patrick in her pocket. Patrick was just an amiable sort of David Niven kind of character. They knew exactly what they were doing; they used to rehearse in their dressing rooms, and they would come down with a scene already worked out. And if you had any sense, you went along with it. We took about 10 or 11 days to do an episode; it was quality television. But then Diana found out that the cameraman was making more money than she was, and she quit. And I was hired to shoot a day’s test with six women for a possible new partner for Patrick’s character, John Steed.
You were the one who was stuck with that?
Yes. I directed Linda Thorson’s test, and she got the part.
Now your next film as director was Maroc 7 (1967, UK); what can you tell me about that?
Not a happy experience. Sidney Box had put me under contract after The Pleasure Girls. He saw The Pleasure Girls and he also saw The Avengers episodes I did, and liked my work. He rang me the night that The Avengers went out, The Hour That Never Was, and said “Gerry, you know a few years ago, we would have made a movie out of that, and made money with it. Come and see me.” So he put me under contract. I was under contract to him for a couple of years. But nothing ever happened! Whatever we tried to set up didn’t come off. And then Leslie Phillips, who was quite a good comedy actor, had seen Pleasure Girls and was about to produce his first feature, Maroc 7. So he went to Sidney, and Sidney loaned me out to direct Maroc 7. I had nothing to say about it; I was under contract, and I had to do it. Gene Barry was the star, after another German actor, whose name I forget, pulled out, along with Elsa Martinelli, Cyd Charisse, and Leslie Philips, of course, acting in his own film. Not only that, but I went over budget. There were lots of problems.
What about Amsterdam Affair (1968, UK/Netherlands)?
That was part of my Sidney Box contract, with a company called London Independent Producers. While I was with them somebody brought along the book by Nicholas Freeling called Love in Amsterdam. Freeling was a British crime novelist, and it was a solid piece of work. So they asked me if I would do the script. But although I was under contract to them to direct, I wasn’t under contract to them to write. I played this very close to the chest. I went to Amsterdam and met with Nicholas Freeling, he agreed to work with me for ten days. He wouldn’t put a word on paper. He would only talk. And so we talked for ten days.
I went to Amsterdam twice. I laid out the locations, got ready to direct the film, and then they called me in one day. Sidney by now had gone from the company, and the guy who took over said, “Gerry, I’ve got some bad news for you. The completion guarantors won’t accept you as the director, because you went over budget on Maroc 7.” I had been waiting for it to happen. I’ve always had a kind of slightly book-makerish cynicism. I knew somebody was going to pull the rug out form under me because of that, so I said, “Look, what are you going to do for a script?” And the guy said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, you don’t own the script.” He said, “We own it, we own the book.” I said, “Sure you own the book, but you don’t own the script. I own the script. I did it on spec. I’m not under contract to write, just to direct. So if you want my script, you’ll have to let me direct.” I had them over a barrel, and they knew it.
So I went to a meeting with the completion guarantors. They were very heavy characters, accountants with attitude. So, this was my one chance, and I took it. Essentially I said, “Look, I’m the best possible person to shoot this movie, because I have got to get off the hook with you. I guarantee to shoot this film bang on time, possibly under time. Give me a shot at it.” So they sent me to Amsterdam with their own man, a very heavy production manager, and he revised the schedule. He broke the script down into A, B, and C scenes; scenes that were absolutely essential to the film, subplots that could be excised, and then insert shots for added production value. The plan was that I would be allowed to shoot A scenes, and I could shoot B scenes if I had time at the end of the day. C scenes would be shot by the second unit. Well, I shot the whole thing, A, B and C, and came in on time and under budget. By the end of the last week, I could have finished it a few days early, but I used up the time just to make this movie as pretty as I could. I’m very fond of it. It’s a film I like enormously, but I can’t find a copy of it.
What about All The Right Noises (1971, UK)?
Well, I love that film. That was Tom Bell, who was in The L Shaped Room. Olivia Hussey was in that, as well. Tom had become a friend of mine, and I wrote the script with him in mind. I gave it to [director and cinematographer] Nicolas Roeg, whom I’ve known forever, and said, “Do me a favor Nic; and tell me what you think of this. It’s been going the rounds, and everybody’s turned it down.” Nic read it and said, “It’s great, I like it very much, let me see what I can do.” A few months later Nic rang me up at half past 7 in the morning; he said, “Now listen Gerry, and listen carefully. A guy is going to call you, a guy named Si Litvinoff. I had dinner with him last night; he’s the guy who produced my film Walkabout (1971, UK). Si told me that he’s looking for something to do in England. I told him you had a great script, All the Right Noises, ready to go. He wants to buy it.” And so it got made. Now that’s only because Nic told him the story. How lucky can you get?
What about Jackie Collins’ film The Bitch (1979, UK)?
Well, that was a kind of cynical affair. I was hired to do The Bitch, to write it and direct it on the condition that I did it for the same budget as The Stud (dir. Quentin Masters, 1978, UK), which was made a year earlier.
And these were Joan Collins’s “comeback” pictures, weren’t they?
Yes they were. As a result of The Bitch, she got the role on Dynasty, and it ramped up her career all over again.
Now, how did you become involved with the notoriously cost-conscious producer Harry Alan Towers?
Well, when things were bad, my agent would scour around and try to get me work. And one day she got me to meet Harry in the late ’60s, and he and I established a kind of working friendship, which lasted until he died last year. But he was a real pirate, make no mistake.
Was your version of Fanny Hill (1983, UK) one of his productions?
That’s right. He produced it; he wrote a kind of half hour script for it. I didn’t even use the script. I had a pretty good cast, though; Oliver Reed, Wilfrid-Hyde White (who died about a year later) and Shelley Winters, who was wonderful. She talked the whole time, and then when you said “action” she went right into character.
And what about The Mummy Lives (1993, UK/Israel)?
The less said the better. That was produced by Yoram Globus, with Tony Curtis in the lead. It was supposed to be Chris Lee, but he wisely bowed out of the project before it went forward. We shot it in Tel Aviv.
Looking back at your long and involved career, you worked with so many people. You made such a great beginning with Pleasure Girls, but then after that, luck seemed to run against you. Why didn’t you make the jump to a full-fledged directorial career in your opinion? What prevented you?
Well, in the ’60s, people like Richard Lester and those guys were all the rage. I didn’t fit in with that set. My real problem was that when Sidney Box retired, I didn’t have a producer. I didn’t have an advocate. I had Harry Alan Towers, who used me, but that wasn’t the same. You know, he was a very tough guy, and he used to phone me up and say “Gerry, come and see me; I’m going to cross your palm with silver.” But that’s all it was; silver.
He was a real operator. That was basically it. But I’m so glad for you that The Pleasure Girls has come out and has found a new 21st century audience.
That, and All The Right Noises. It’s certainly a better picture, at least in my opinion. More money was spent. It was a nine-week shoot. And, of course, it’s my own script, and I had pretty much total creative control, which is very rare. As I told you, Nicolas Roeg helped set that up for me, and I think it’s probably my best film. Some things I did simply for the pension fund. But I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of, that really still hold up for me, and for that, I’m grateful.
Bottin, Josephine. “Gerry O’Hara,” booklet, DVD release of The Pleasure Girls, BFI Flipside, London, 2010: 14-15. Print.
Galloway, Chris. “That Kind of Girl,” Criterion Forum, January 3, 2010. Web.
Harper, Sue. “Getting on with Their Own Happiness: The Pleasure Girls,” booklet, DVD release of The Pleasure Girls, BFI Flipside, London, 2010: 1 – 5. Print.
“Swinging London,” in Sixties British Cinema. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 1992: 139-160. Print.
O’Hara, Gerry. “Gerry O’Hara Recalls Writing and Directing The Pleasure Girls,” booklet, DVD release of The Pleasure Girls, BFI Flipside, London, 2010: 7 -10. Print.
____________. Letter to Wheeler Winston Dixon, unpublished, November 16, 2010.
____________. “You’re Fired!,” The Veteran 97 (Winter, 2002): 3-4. Print.
____________. “Critic’s Choice,” The Veteran 99 (Summer 2003): 7-9.