Created on 10/4/2008
Earlier this week the great film star Charlton Heston passed away in his Beverly Hills home. I want to pay a small personal tribute to the man and a selected few others for their help to me when I was making my first professional film, The Festival Game. I was 19 years old, and together with my producing, directing partner, Michael Lytton, was making this documentary at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the year that Easy Rider was released, and the whole world was going hippy and smoking joints and playing some really great music.
Michael and I realized that it was essential we had interviews with some major stars or our film wouldn’t find distribution. We were let down by a Persian banker who had his office in Paris. He vanished when I went to collect the production money. We were left holding the financial risk. The film was costing us a lot of money we didn’t have. We were desperate.
We drew up a list of “must have” stars that we would somehow get to appear in our no budget movie. Amongst them were Charlton Heston, Omar Sharif, Yul Brenner, Peter Ustinov, Malcolm McDowell, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. By hook and by crook we got the lot.
Sharif took a liking to our chutzpah, in which we had given ourselves Passes made out to ourselves as “The Official British TV New Team” and on which we had stamped, “please allow this crew total access to all areas”. Unbelievably it worked, and we were delighted to attend a very nice private tea that the Mayor of Cannes invited us to attend in his offices.
Yul Brenner, of The King and I fame was a different story. During the day he gave us a good interview and was friendly and polite, but when the evening came he tended to get drunk and aggressive. He threatened my friend with violence so I returned the compliment and he seemed to like that and was fine thereafter.
Most impressive was the genius Peter Ustinov. The man was incapable of being anything other than a brilliant raconteur and wit. He gave us an interview sitting by a sun-blessed table whilst also handling five other interviews, each fluently in a different language. I asked him if he thought that it was important to win such awards as the Cannes Film Festival. His response was magnificent, “I’m not certain if my winning the Golden Crutch at Lourdes, or the Prize of Good Humour from the Buddhist League will make an enormous difference to my career.”
Heston was always surrounded by a coterie of hangers on and PR “handlers” who seemed determined to keep idiots like us away. But I was determined. We were all in the hurly burly of the Carlton Hotel when Charlton marched off with giant and determined strides towards the toilets. I saw my opportunity and followed him. I saw the great man standing by the urinals; I stationed myself next to him. Normally I am not intimidated by anyone standing next to me at such a venue. I am of normal proportion, and with my shoes on am nearing six feet, but next to this God like colossus I suddenly felt like a little boy. It’s also very difficult to strike up a conversation at a urinal without the listener presuming that this might be some kind of attempted pick up. “Hello Mister Heston,” I began, “I’m making this documentary about the Cannes Film Festival and I was wondering…” He turned his steely gaze upon me and I stopped talking, “Can’t this wait until after we leave here?” he asked, and before I could respond he finished what he was doing and left. I couldn’t immediately follow as I was, by now, into the flow of things. By the time I was finished he had left the room. I had failed.
I left the room to report back to Michael, my partner, and our cameraman, Austen Parkinson. Heston was now talking to a bunch of questioners who were huddled around him. He saw me and signalled me over. “Bring the camera!” he called. He had kind enough to forgive my rude interruption of his one moment of privacy and without further prompting gave us a wonderful question and answer session. He was a gentleman and will be much missed, as much for what he was, as for what he could do.
We finished the film and I am proud to say we managed to get our distribution deal for cinemas in the UK, where it went on to become the second most played documentary in Britain. Thank you Mister Heston, and those other legends who gave us a leg up when we needed the help.