A good film should be comprehensible with the volume off, says Oscar-winning cameraman Walter Lassally

Walter Lassally with his Oscar, photo: Christophe Dupin, CC BY-SA 3.0

German-born cameraman Walter Lassally worked on some of the greatest films produced in the British New Wave of the 1960s, including classics such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and A Taste of Honey. The recipient of an Oscar for Zorba the Greek, he also has some Czech connections, including shooting the movie The Clown with his friend Vojtěch Jasný. Lassally (88), who was in Prague last week for the Cinematographers Days festival, made documentaries early in his career as part of the ground-breaking Free Cinema movement – so I asked him what he had taken from that form to his work on feature films.

Walter Lassally with his Oscar,  photo: Christophe Dupin,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“It wasn’t straightforward. I actually started as a clapper boy in Riverside Studios, in feature films. Then 10 months later the whole studio group went out of business and all the studios closed for something like 18 months.

“Then I looked for work elsewhere and I found a job in a company making small documentaries on 16mm. Eventually I got back into bigger companies making documentaries.

“Then I was given the chance to photograph my first documentary at the very end of 1950. That was a fire prevention film called Every Five Minutes [laughs]. But it [his career path] was quite complicated – not straightforward.”

One of your first films was Momma Don’t Allow, which was co-directed by the Czech-born director Karel Reisz [and Tony Richardson]. Did he ever speak about his Czech background? I know he left quite young – he was on one of the Winton trains.

“Not a lot. But we had a similar history, because we were both refugees from Hitler in England. We talked a little bit about it, but not a lot, no.”

It must have been a hugely exciting period to work in cinema in the UK.

“Well, I’m amazed that people are talking about Free Cinema now, 60 years later. They talk about it like a milestone in British film history and I certainly don’t see it like that. Because at the time it had no effect on anything in the main industry at all.

“It was not started as a movement. It was started as an umbrella title for a programme of films that had nothing in common except that they were independently made.

“But later it became more and more talked about as a movement, so I suppose it was the start of something. Karel and Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson all wanted to make feature films.

“Again they say it [Free Cinema] was a stepping stone but it was a very small one.

“Tony Richardson, who was the first to get into feature film production, went via the Royal Court Theatre. His work with the Royal Court Theatre was a much more important factor than anything to do with Free Cinema. The same is true of Karel and Lindsay. ”

Last night here [at the Cinematographers Days festival at Ponrepo cinema] you presented The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner [1962, directed by Tony Richardson]. It’s over 50 years since it was made, but people still love it. What do you think makes it such a great movie?

“I’m not very good at answering questions like that, but what it has in common with other good movies is that it has a very good story, it has good actors and it’s just very well made.

“The story is very well told and is told with a large visual element, which to me is very important, because to me cinema is visual.

“In a good film you should be able to turn off the soundtrack and still get the story. Nowadays it’s the other way around – most of the information tends to be in the dialogue and not in the pictures, and that’s not cinema for me.”

Do you have any standout memories of the making of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner?

“Yes, little anecdotal things. Most of the actors in that film were real borstal boys – borstal being the name of the correctional institution.

“And one thing I remember is that they were always hungry. Whenever we had lunch if anybody left anything on their plate they’d go, Can I have that? I said, Don’t they feed you in your borstal? [laughs].

“I also remember that I was once invited to show the film in a London prison, because there was a programme… We were taken in to see the governor and he asked what film we were showing, because he didn’t know.

“When I told him he it was The Loneliness he said, Oh my God! Because the first words in that film are, Running has always been in our family, especially running away from the police [laughs].”

That great period in British cinema coincided to some degree with the French New Wave and the Czech New Wave. Was there much interest on the part of UK filmmakers in what was happening here?

“No, but with the French New Wave a lot, yes. It was sort of parallel. It can’t really be said that one influenced the other. It was not all one way, it was a two-way communication.

“I remember talking to Raul Coutard, the French cameraman [Jules et Jim, Le petit soldat], and he said he started to use Ilford film instead of Kodak because he knew that I used Ilford film because I preferred it. Little things like that. There was a certain amount of cross-talk.”

The Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček worked on a couple of those British New Wave films with Lindsay Anderson. Did you have any communication with him?

Miroslav Ondříček,  photo: David Sedlecký,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Oh yes indeed. We often talked to each other, because he more or less took over from me… After my work with Lindsay was finished, Mirek took over. He didn’t do Lindsay’s first feature film, but he did I think the second or the third [Ondříček shot If… and O Lucky Man!].

“So yes, we sort of casually saw each other every now then, because of the connection with Lindsay.”

You came here to Prague in 1968. What brought you here?

“My memory’s not that brilliant any more [laughs], but it was almost certainly something to do with Vojtěch Jasný. Because I was asked to be the cameraman on an American production of a [Russian-born writer] Sholem Aleichem story and I said, Who’s the director? And they said, We haven’t actually got a director yet.

“I recommended that they find an Eastern European director, which seemed to me more suitable. I’m not quite sure how, but that brought us in contact with Vojtěch.

“I remember coming to see him in Prague and not so much Vojtěch himself but his wife was very worried about the events of that time – she foresaw that something very bad would happen.

“I remember that, there was quite a lot of tension. Vojtěch wasn’t really all that worried but his wife was very worried.”

How would you characterise him as a filmmaker?

“Brilliant! I told him more than once that if I had made one single film like the film that’s called All My Good Countrymen in English, then one could die happy [laughs].

“That’s a marvellous film. I have it on DVD and I look at it at least twice a year.”

I saw an interview with you in which you were talking about the making of Zorba the Greek and you said that the film had to be sent away to be processed and you couldn’t see the rushes for four days. Today it’s very different with digital filmmaking. Has the job of the cameraman changed with the advent of digital?

'All My Good Countrymen'
“Well, not a lot, and not for the better – for the worse, if anything.

“But what you just said isn’t true. The usual thing was to see the rushes every day if there was a studio nearby. But that was only true if you were working somewhere where there was a studio or a cinema nearby.

“So in the case of Zorba and some of the other films that I made away from the big studios we saw the rushes maybe once a week, maybe once a fortnight.

“In the films I made in India we only saw the rushes once in the middle of production, which lasted for 10 weeks. So I am quite used to working without seeing the rushes.

“But the coming of digital hasn’t made that any easier, except that it’s now easy to see them in your hotel room on television. But that’s been around for quite a while.”

You acted for the first time in your 80s in Before Midnight [by Richard Linklater]. How was that experience?

“Very strange [laughs]. That came about by pure coincidence. A girl that I knew who is an assistant director and producer’s assistant recommended me to play that part. Why she did that I have no idea, because I’d never done anything like that before [laughs].

“At the time I was in England [Lassally lives in Greece, where the film was shot] so they contacted me and we had some interviews via Skype. And they said, Yes, if you’re willing to do it we’ll do it.

“So I did it and I went through the whole process in a state of astonishment, mainly at the size of the crew. Because there were 50 people on the crew and it was a very simple film – it’s virtually a long conversation.

“I told them that Zorba was made with 32 people – and Zorba of course is a much bigger and more complicated film.

“And the early Greek films, which were relatively simple, were made with a crew of about 12. Some of the crew played small parts. Those films are every bit as good as the films made with more people.

“You need experienced people in the five or six key jobs, like director, cameraman, art director and later editor and composer.

“If you have competent people in those jobs – and they usually have an assistant each – then you can make a very good film. You don’t need 50 people.”