Saul Leiter: In No Great Hurry

Above: Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter was a pioneer in the use of colour within photography throughout the Fifties and Sixties who continues to work from his New York studio. Tomas Leach is a London based film maker who wanted to create a documentary featuring the reclusive Leiter. The resulting film as Jim Stephenson discovered is a moving, sensitive record of an icon of contemporary photographic practice.

Jim: Could you give us a little information about your background, to kick things off?
Tomas: I come from a documentary background really, I make my living from making commercials and documentaries. On the side I also run Little Scraps of Paper [Little Scraps of Paper is a series of short documentary films about how creative people develop ideas and thoughts and what they keep them in.]

Jim: The Little Scraps shorts have proved to be really popular.
Tomas: Yes, they seem to have. When I was in discussions with Saul about making No Great Hurry, I decided to start doing that as well. I think I’d drunk too much coffee with a friend and I said that what I really wanted to do was something short and personal about someone great I know. But then we thought it’d be crazy to do just one with no purpose, so we created a series of them. We’ve now made 40 films over the last two years. I’ve done about 32 of them, and seven other directors have done the rest. Other people who are into the series have done the odd one here and there. It’s fascinating to just go into someone’s studio and see their personal sketchbooks and where they work. We setup our own dogma rules for the project as well. Each film has to be about 90 seconds long, or around that. They have to be about the thought process, or the work process, not about any given piece of work or show. It’s artists talking about how they come up with their ideas and where they put them once they’ve got them. Sketchbooks, notebooks, a wall or wherever. That’s it, we just wanted it to be about that, and feature as many varied people as possible.

Jim: This is an ongoing project?
Tomas: Yes, whenever I can find the time, which can be hard. We had an exhibition in March and since then we’ve done one which is great but it’s difficult to find time. Eventually I’d like it to be an online archive.

Jim: You mentioned that you started out working on Little Scraps of Paper when you were first chatting to Saul about In No Great Hurry. How did you first come to know Saul’s work?
Tomas: I can’t remember who it was, but a couple of people said to me that I should check out his work. I buy a lot of photography books, so I bought his book Early Colour. It’s amazing. Suddenly there was this photographer doing this beautiful 50’s stuff but with a really contemporary eye. It was the perfect reference for what I like visually and we were using his work as references for a lot for my commercial work. In the front of Early Colour there is a small article. When you read it you realise that he’s been hidden away, semi-deliberately, and you get a glimpse into his world view. That, coupled with the photos, made me think that I had to go and interview this guy.

Jim: And that ended up being quite a long process of wooing him?
Tomas: (laughs) Yes. I don’t know if that was a bit of naivety of photographers on my part, or just how he is. I was thinking I’d make a short film of an interview with him because when I googled him there was nothing. There still isn’t really, given that he’s had major retrospectives across the world and four books of his work published by Steidl. There’s a major paucity of interviews with him online. I spoke to his gallery and said someone should do a film and they wrote back to say that they’d been thinking the same thing, but they warned me that he is a very sensitive person and that he wasn’t necessarily open to the idea yet but that they’ed speak to him about it. They wrote back again to say they’d spoken to him and that he wasn’t adverse to the idea but that he’d like to see some of my work, so I sent them some of the old films I’d made, I sent him a postcard as well. I also wrote him a letter to explain what I wanted to do and to let him know that I wasn’t planning on invading his place, that I just thought there could be a really interesting interview here. He watched the old work and liked it and said, through his gallery, that if I was in New York we could meet for a coffee.

I went to New York, for the sole purpose to meet him for this coffee! I thought, if it goes well maybe I’ll film the interview that week, right? Well, that was in the back of my mind anyway, but it was a long way from being what actually happened. I turned up at his door and rang the buzzer. He came down and opened the door and just turned around saying, “why do people always want things from me?”. He wandered back into his apartment and left the door open! For a second I just stood there thinking “am I supposed to follow him in?” Of course, I followed him and he started telling me, on the walk up to his apartment, about all of the people I should be making a film about instead of him. We got up to his place, and this sort of became our routine. He sits in his chair he always sits in, it’s beautiful light and he sits there and paints, or reads or marks his photos or whatever and you sit in this much less comfortable chair. I sat there and he grilled me. He asked me questions about my love-life, where I live, my parents. I suppose he found me engaging. I was completely open with him from the start, which I think was important. Finally, he said we could do something. I met him again that week for another coffee and he signed my copy of Early Colour and wrote in it “It will happen, let’s see” and then showed me how he could sign his name backwards! From then I started thinking about it as a more traditional documentary, that I should raise finances for and get people talking about it, but that put him off.

By this point it’d been three months of wooing him, just to meet him and then about a year of talking about it. In the end we wrote this agreement between me, his representative at the gallery and Saul that said that I’d pay for everything. It would just be me and him and if either of us didn’t like it at any point then we’d just stop, there was to be no outside party dictating what the film would be. That made everyone feel a bit more comfortable so we started filming. When I first met him I found him to be incredibly charming. He’s got this amazing apartment full of stuff that I thought I could include as it’d make amazing visuals. I thought about including interviews of people who were inspired by him as well, that kind of thing. But it shifted through the process of meeting him, filming him and also in the edit to being something much more personal. Not only personal for him but personal for me.

Jim: Watching the trailer it seems as if the film is as much about the relationship the two of you have as it is about him?
Tomas: That’s definitely one of the threads.

Jim: Did that surprise you?
Tomas: Yeah, it did. I don’t really like that kind of thing necessarily. It certainly wasn’t what I set out to do. The realisation during the editing that I’m a character in this was a surprise. He teases me a lot and tells me all the way through that he might not let me use the film, he calls me the forces of evil, he criticises my style. It’s all in a very warm manner, it’s all fun. I went to see him a lot to film, and we became close, we had a bit of routine. In the morning I’d buy coffee for us both and head over to his place, lumbered with kit. I’d take him coffee and we’d sit a drink it while I slowly put the camera together. Then we’d go and have lunch and I’d either take the camera or I wouldn’t, then we’d chat for a bit more after lunch. We became very close. It’s a two way thing, he was very influential in what I was going through in my life, or what I thought about life at the time. In making the film, in the edit, we saw that our relationship said something about him. This modesty and reticence to be famous comes through that relationship we have. At one point I was describing the film as a conversation between an old man and a village idiot! That’s not fair to either of us, but that was a bit of my persona to draw him out a bit. Although, I’m sure he was in control the whole time!

Jim: How much active control did Saul have over the process, with the edit especially?
Tomas: Very little with the edit, although he was always very much in control of what he was saying. He’s got an incredibly good memory and a very lucid mind so if I were to bring something up that we’d talked about months before, he’d just say “we talked about this in February, why are we going over this again?”. He was very much guiding what was being talked about, because that’s what the film is, him talking. He’s a great raconteur. You sit down and have a conversation him and he’ll talk non-stop for an hour. In circles. Which aren’t always that necessarily easy to follow in a film sense, which is why the film became structured around these life lessons. We could have done 100 life lessons, easily. Or we could have done a very straight biography or something like that. But what we did felt right, it felt the best way to show what we’d been talking about. Some of it is his opinions, some of it is biographical and some of it is observational of him talking about people he’s lost in his life. I wanted it to have that mixture, I didn’t want it to be a straight biography. I wanted it to feel like a fair reflection of what he is like as a person. We filmed maybe 45 hours of talking and interviews, plus a set of other footage around that. Well, they’re not really interviews, they’re more like long conversations. It’s a fair amount and all of it is usable, you could cut into any of it.

Jim: It seems apparent when you watch the clips of Saul talking that his conversation consists of a constant barrage of gems.
Tomas: And that’s just him speaking, but also physically there’s some great stuff. One day he came out of the apartment to meet me and he was pretending to be a really old man with me, he’s was always teasing me and laughing at me. It’s difficult to work out how to fit it all in. Very little of his painting is in there, and painting is a big part of him. He can go on about art for days, especially French art, that’s his real passion. The first filming trip, I was only there for five days as I was in the middle of a commercial. I just thought I’d film for the whole five days with him. I filmed for the first two days and on the third day he phoned me up, through the gallery, and said he didn’t want to do anymore and he was all talked out. I thought “shit, all my equipment is in his house and I have to fly back tomorrow night!” But then the next day he was much chirpier, and chatty.

Jim: One of the remarkable things about the film is your dedication to it. 18 months just to get to the point where you can begin filming, and then the process of you becoming friends and working together. Had you ever done anything before that had required such a long process?
Tomas: No not really. I’ve done two, one hour long documentaries, but I’ve never done anything where I’d shot it all myself and had to be one of the editors. I’ve never done anything this complex in terms of a story that I was so worried about doing justice. It is probably going to be the only long film about him in his lifetime and I want him to like it, or at least be comfortable with it! It was also physically exhausting to shoot, since I was doing it all on my own. There’s a shot in the film where I’m operating the camera, holding three cups of coffee, I have cake tucked under my arm and I’m trying to open a door! That sort of thing was incredibly challenging, but in a very fun way. Sometimes I’ll do commercial shoots that are quite big and there’ll be 50 or 70 people there. It’s quite slow, but this film was very immediate, very personal. More like writing a book, you know?

Jim: Did you like that level of control, of it just being the two of you?
Tomas: It wasn’t so much the control I liked, I liked the crafting of that kind of story. I mean, although they’re conversations I was still trying to guide some themes through him. If you wanted to, you could make a book out of our conversations. Just thinking about that kind of depth, I’m really excited about that and I’m looking forward to working in that manner again. Whether I’d like to take on all of the logistics again? I wouldn’t necessarily mind doing the filming on my own again, but all of the logistics is tiring. Things like backing up all of the footage for two hours every day. Booking flights, booking equipment, getting the coffee. It’s the only way this film could have been made. But, I’m not sure I’d take all of it on again. It depends on the subject I suppose.

Jim: There’s also the fact that this wasn’t a commercial job, it’s a personal project. I know you’ve got a crowd funding system set up (through Indiegogo). How much has that helped?
Tomas: I paid for the production myself. I saved some money from every commercial shoot I did, and borrowed a lot along the way. Now that the picture is locked and the edit is locked the plan is to take it to distribution companies to see how they’d get it out there. At the same time, I don’t want it to just go to sleep while we’re doing that, so we’re trying to raise some crowd funding to get the final mix and grading done. That’s as much of an experiment for me as anything else, to see how much you can raise by rallying friends, supporters and people who are interested in Saul and his body of work.

Jim: In the last year or so it seems that people have had great success with crowd funding.
Tomas: Yes. Sean Dunne, a friend of mine, the US documentary maker, has just raised a great sum to put together a feature documentary. His shorts are really popular, they’re really really good. The crowd-funding package is really well put together as well, so you get a good reward for pledging money. He’s now raised his money and can go off and make his film. It’s amazing.

Jim: So, you’re now looking to get the film out there.
Tomas: Yes, my ambition for the film is to get it seen as much as possible. Whether that be a small cinema release, festivals, direct DVD or via direct download. We also made a ten minute cut of the film that goes to galleries everytime he has an exhibition so that they can show that alongside his work. We license the short to them and raise a little cash, plus it generates interest in the film as well.

Jim: Have you had anyone working with you on the edit, providing a second opinion?
Tomas: One of the things I’d say, other than self-discipline, that helped get it made was that I told as many people that I could that I was making this film about the photographer Saul Leiter. This meant they’d ask me about it, and I’d feel like I had to do it. It’s like a self defense mechanism, if I hadn’t told anyone, I could have quietly let it slip away! It became a concrete thing that way. I’ve also had two editors. The first one did the first chunk, the second the rest and I finished it off.

Jim: Do you find working with two different editors presented a problem in maintaining a continuity of vision and narrative?
Tomas: No, not really. It was a necessity as they both had to go off and work on big feature films at different times. I always knew that would happen with both of them and they were both very generous with their time. One of them cut all of the themes and the scenes (and cut the 10 minute version), whilst the other arranged it into a two hour film, then I polished it off. There’s so much footage, that we needed to do it that way. It’s a full week’s work just to listen to the interviews. Another week’s work to watch the footage. Two weeks just to watch everything! That kind of time-scale can be overwhelming. It can quickly dwarf you. But it’s a really interesting way to work, that whole process. One of the things which I came to terms with along the way was that I would have been happy making the film as a cathartic and enjoyable process for myself, even if I hadn’t been filming. Chatting to Saul was a privilege and fun. If I’d not been filming it would still have been worthwhile. If the film gets seen, then that’s even better! I want the it to be seen because I’m proud of it and I think Saul deserves to be seen more, but it’s almost secondary now. The process was amazing, I’ve already got what I needed out of it.

© Jim Stephenson 2012


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