Exclusive interview: Director of ‘U.S. vs. John Lennon’ and ‘Who is Harry Nilsson’, John Scheinfeld, discusses John Lennon, Yoko Ono and his new film on Elvis
Posted by Daytrippin'
Writer/director John Scheinfeld wrote, directed and produced the acclaimed documentaries The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?.
RLF Victor Productions Ltd. recently pegged the Emmy and Grammy nominee to direct Fame & Fortune, an adaptation of the 2007 best-selling book Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business written by Sonny West, (Elvis’s bodyguard and confidant) with biographer Marshall Terrill. Fame & Fortune is slated for theatrical release in 2012 to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death.
In this exclusive interview with Daytrippin’, Scheinfeld discusses working on the John Lennon and Harry Nilsson films, his dealings with Yoko Ono and how the greatest rock ‘n’ roll summit in history between Elvis and the Beates will be the centerpiece of his new feature film.
Q: What made you want to do The U.S. vs. John Lennon and why did you zero in on that one aspect of Lennon’s life?
JS: It is very rare to find a largely unknown story about someone as famous as John Lennon. When the information was de-classified in 1997 I remember thinking, “I had no idea.” The reason, of course, is that what the US government tried to do to John Lennon was done in secret. Due to the efforts of Jonathan Weiner, a professor at the University of California – Irvine, we have a very full picture of what happened. I was totally fascinated as was my colleague David Leaf. We did a treatment and for seven years we tried to sell this as a theatrical documentary and got a lot of “Who cares?” That surprised us and then we put it on a shelf for a while. Then it turned out that in a post 9/11, post-Iraq world, people began to see the relevance of a story which, at its heart, had an unpopular war…a president who lied to the country…and that if you protested the government came after you. Does that sound familiar?! Although ours was a story rooted in the past, it had a great many parallels to what was going on in the new Millennium. We had meetings set up at numerous studios to start pitching it again. Our very first one was with Lionsgate and, literally, they did not let us out of the room. They said, “We want to make this.” We were an example of good things come to those who wait. The working experience with Lionsgate was tremendous and we got to make the movie we wanted to make. It’s a project of which I am really proud.
Q: How were your dealings with Yoko Ono?
JS: We first reached out to her attorney, Jonas Herbsman, and told him what we’d like to do and this is how we’d like to do it. He liked the idea and set up a meeting with Yoko. She gave us her blessing after that initial meeting, but not her complete participation. I think she needed to see from us that we had integrity and that we were going to do what we said we were going to do. I believe she’s had some experiences where that was not the case. I knew that she had an archive of very rare material, including film and photographs, and I wanted access to it. In all of my documentaries I want to present the most rare and little-seen audio-visual material possible, not just the stuff you’ve seen in dozens of other documentaries.
So we went to see her at The Dakota and showed her more of a rough cut than we ordinarily would have. It was running obscenely long, close to three hours, and there were lots of holes in it where it said, “Photo here” or “Film clip here.” As you know, when you walk in, you have to step over the place where John Lennon was shot and killed, which is a bit creepy Then we were ushered up to the apartment, had to take our shoes off when we got inside and went into the kitchen. There was a big 50-inch TV up on the wall and Jonas Herbsman is there, who is a great guy. We were chatting and then Yoko walks in. She doesn’t really say hello or good morning, or offers us any coffee or tea and sort of says, “Lets go.” We put in the DVD and it plays. All the way through, she’s taking notes on a little pad. My heart is dropping into my stomach and I’m convinced she hates it. When it finishes, nobody says a word. Then she turned to me and said what she later said publicly, “Of all the documentaries made about John, this is the one he would have loved.” From that moment, the doors opened and we were given access to the archive. I don’t think a day or two would go by where Yoko or one of her staff would call and say, “You need to see this” or “Yoko wants you to have that.” There was so much cool stuff in the archive that really helped make the film special. Also, it was really gratifying to have earned her trust.
Q: What are some of the materials you are referring to?
JS: Well, from 1969 to 1972 it was, in effect, the John and Yoko Reality Show. They had a camera crew following them around capturing their various activities, concerts, meetings, protests, even just walking around New York City. That provided a wealth of great material for us. There’s also a wonderful moment in an interview segment in which Yoko describes her favorite moment during the Bed-In. She recalled that it was late at night, all their handlers had gone, the press had gone, it was just John and Yoko alone in the hotel room together. It was a beautiful night, there was a full moon in the sky and John turns to her and says, “Isn’t this great? Here we are promoting world peace and love and we have both.” And I turned to Jonas and said, “That’s in the movie!” and we all laughed. The reason I’m telling you this is that we needed some footage to illustrate the story. John and Yoko had their own camera crew at the Bed-In and they shot some lovely, lovely footage of them in bed together. It was tender and so sweet and showed that the love affair between them was so strong. But it was in that archive that we found that footage to illustrate that moment.
There was some also some footage of them dancing alone on a street in lower Manhattan and we found a way to use it creatively. There are many similar moments in the film, but it could not have happened without Yoko opening up her archive to me. She also had dozens and dozens of rare photographs that had never been seen before. We augmented all of this with our own treasure trove that found by casting a wide net around the world.
There are two pieces of film we found that I’m really proud of: one is from Vienna in 1969 when John and Yoko came there to do an event. The press turned out in full force and entered a room to find John and Yoko in a white cloth bag. We read about this but had never seen it. An Austrian TV network found a roll of footage that had never been developed in their vault. I think we showed it for the first time. Then there was a piece of footage that eluded us for a very long time. After John won his case against the U.S. government, he was interviewed on the steps of the New York courthouse in July of 1976. I knew what he said because the New York Times quoted him, but we couldn’t find film or video anywhere. All the archivists at various news organizations told us that it didn’t either exist or had been destroyed a long time ago. I’m fairly relentless when it comes to tracking down material and wouldn’t accept no for an answer. I knew what day the immigration case ended, so we went back to the archive and asked what footage they had shot that day. Bingo! In a far corner of the CBS archive was a 20-minute roll of film that had been developed, but was never used. There was John receiving his green card in an office and then there was footage of him being interviewed outside the court. In answer to a question he offered up a typical Lennon witticism that ended up getting one of the biggest laughs in the movie (I won’t tell you what it was – go see the movie!). Lennon knows he’s saying something funny and he winked at the camera, so I froze on the wink. Our film wouldn’t have been the same without that moment. It’s these little pieces of footage that you don’t expect to find that make all the difference in the world.
Q: What were on Yoko’s notes?
JS: Funny you should ask – she never shared them with me. She could have been making up a grocery list for all I know (laughs). Over time she had a few notes, but nothing major. She was extremely supportive of our vision. I remember at one point she said, “I think you have too much of me in the film.” This was great – she wasn’t your typical Hollywood star who would say, “There needs to be more of me.” I do remember, sometime later, that I was struggling with how to end the film. I was talking to Yoko about something unrelated, when she started to speak about how it felt to have her husband there one minute, she turns, and then he’s gone. His murder was so sad and unexpected – they never had a chance to say “Goodbye.” I thought it was a very poignant and emotional thing for her to share. This was a very profound moment for me…and gave me the idea for a new ending that would be emotional and yet inspire.
Q: Yoko has historically been a closed off person who rarely shows any emotion, but you could see in the clips of her and John, there was a great affection for one another.
JS: It’s interesting you say that because, when we started, we didn’t intend the John and Yoko love story to be a significant part of the film. However, the more time I spent with her and with people in her world, it became so clear that this was truly an extraordinary love story. You can see it, hear it, you can feel it and it was very clear it needed to be a more important part of the movie. It added so much emotion and heart to the film…and touched me deeply…to see just how much they really and truly loved each other.
Q: To me, the real star of the film was Lennon’s immigration attorney, Leon Wildes. He was so poignant and told the best anecdote in the film. Tell me about him.
JS: I conducted the interview in New York where Leon still practices. Here’s what I found most interesting – John and Yoko didn’t go to a radical left-wing lawyer – they went to a very conservative attorney whose specialty was immigration matters. The U.S. government wanted to deport him and they went with the attorney who they felt best could deal with that situation. At the time, Leon only vaguely knew who John Lennon was, but as things progressed, he developed great respect and a special relationship with John and Yoko. Early on John asked Leon, “So what do you think? Can we win?” Leon told him, “I think this case is a loser.” John asked why and Leon said his opinion was based on his prior experience in similar cases. But Leon had found some interesting wrinkles in the case and in the law that enabled him to formulate a creative strategy. Eventually, he filed suit against the government and, amazingly, won. I think it was his brilliance as an attorney that took what should have been a routine case and found a way to score a big win for his clients. Nice man and a very good memory for the atmosphere of the times.
Q: What kind of reaction did the film receive?
JS: When you make a film, you spend far too many hours in a small dark editing room hoping you’re doing good work, but you never really know until it’s released and people see it. From the premiere at the Venice Film Festival, to debut screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals there was a buzz about the film. People were responding to it and it was resonating with them in a powerful way. It wasn’t just a story about a rock ‘n’ roller – the issues we were dealing with – freedom of speech, government abuse of power, the futility of some wars – plus the courage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to stand up to the government as a true life David and Goliath story — all of these things hit a chord with people. And not just in the United States. The movie played in theatres all over the world and it has proven to have a strong afterlife on DVD. To this day, I still get emails and Facebook messages from people who are just now discovering the film, which I find very gratifying.
Q: Let’s discuss your follow-up film, Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him…)? How did that idea come about?
JS: The attorney for the Nilsson estate, Lee Blackman, had seen some of my work and asked if I’d be interested in doing a documentary about Harry. Now, I’d known Harry’s music since my college days — I’d play his records on my morning radio show at Oberlin College. The interesting thing is that the first song I’d heard of Harry’s was “You Can’t Do That.” It took me by surprise because I was expecting just another bad cover of a Beatles song. I was wrong! It turned out to be Harry’s brilliant creation – a song of his own that wove together the titles of many songs by the Fab Four. On his early albums, you can hear a very strong Beatles influence. In fact, as far as Harry was concerned, the Beatles were the only band of consequence. So imagine Harry’s delight when his heroes bring his music to the attention of the world and, later, become his friends.
So…after doing a considerable amount of research I felt that Harry’s was a compelling story that needed to be told. Lee found independent financing for the film and went on to become our Executive Producer. We made it betwixt and between other projects. There was a rough cut ready around Christmas 2005 and the head of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Roger Durling, heard about it and after seeing it said, “I’ve just gotta have this and show it at our film festival.” We liked the idea as a way to test the film in front of an audience and to build some buzz. So my editor, Peter Lynch, and I finished a cut just for the festival. It turned out to be a wonderful night. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was there as was Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, and May Pang, who hung out with Harry and John Lennon during “The Lost Weekend” period, flew in from New York. We got great reviews in Daily Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Leonard Maltin loved it, and all of a sudden, people were talking about our little movie.
We planned to release it theatrically in late 2006/early 2007, but we ran into some unexpected issues regarding the master recordings in the film. There are bits and pieces of 60 songs in the movie – a lot for any film much less a documentary. As a result, the film was in limbo for a few years. Eventually, everything was resolved and Pete and I went back into the editing room and properly finished the film. The world premiere was at the Cinema Village Theater in New York in September 2010 and we played there for three weeks, which for a documentary is amazing. Even more exciting, we got seriously great reviews from most major publications and influential critics. Icing on the review cake was a full-page column in Entertainment Weekly by Stephen King. What an honor that he would pay attention to our “little film that could,” not to mention rave about it!
Q: You’ve got some big names for Who Is Harry Nilsson? but Ringo Starr’s absence is felt. Why did he not grant you an interview?
JS: We tried every which way to get Ringo to talk on camera. What came back to us each time was that there are three people he just does not feel comfortable talking about in person: John Lennon, George Harrison and Harry Nilsson. It’s just too emotional for him and I totally respect his feelings on the matter. Ringo was, however, tremendously supportive of the film including providing us with photos and making it possible to use Son of Drac, a film that Ringo and Harry made in the early 1970s but has been locked away in a London vault since 1974. At the end of the day, we were happy to have his support and understood the decision he made. Sometime later we had heard that he saw the film and liked it but thought some things were missing from the story. And I said to myself, “Yeah, Ringo, you were missing…” (laughs).
Q: Fame & Fortune, the first ever big screen biopic on Elvis Presley, will be your foray into features and continues your examination of pop culture icons. What drew you to this particular project?
JS: I had been approached by the producers, Ricki and Cindy Friedlander of RLF Victor Productions. They had optioned the 2007 book called Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business written by Sonny West and Marshall Terrill. I saw it as a “buddy movie” – about the extraordinary friendship between two guys that played out over a 16 year-period and how that friendship was impacted by fame and fortune. This was of great interest to me. I like to use the analogy of “The King’s Speech” – a film that was about many things, but at its heart is about a journey taken together by two friends. In addition, I really liked the idea that this would not be an Elvis biopic – that’s been done many times on television – but, rather, was a unique window into the world of Elvis Presley as experienced by someone who was there. The Friedlanders had developed a script and were looking to bring on a director to bring a filmic vision to the material and to rewrite the script to match that vision. I understand that they talked to a lot of directors, most of whom had far more feature film experience than I did. But, as Ricki says, they kept coming back to me because they believed that I had a real affinity for rock icons and everything that comes with it, that I really understood the rock and roll experience, the pressures and temptations affecting a young man eager to express himself creatively, the roller coaster ride of fame and fortune and personal excess that can overwhelm an artist. And I do. I feel very comfortable with that world and so began many long conversations during which Ricki, Cindy and I discussed the changes I wanted make in the script, how I saw the film, how I saw casting, how I saw the story playing out and how I would treat the characters and character arcs. Happily, we were on the same page creatively. I believe they also made a lot of calls to all kinds of people asking what it was like to work with me and finally they took a leap of faith and brought me onboard. I couldn’t be more excited and appreciative.
Q: You said something very profound in an earlier interview that summed up Presley in a sentence, and that was, “What do you do when all of your dreams come true by the age of 20?” Is that the premise of the film?
JS: I don’t think that’s the actual premise of the film, although it will be an aspect of Elvis’ character that will be portrayed. I’ve seen a number of the made-for-television movies about Elvis, going back to the Kurt Russell miniseries in 1979. In my opinion, they have tended to concentrate on the more sensationalistic aspect of Elvis’ life and, more often than not, he comes off as a caricature. I think that does a real disservice to a great artist. What I want to do with this film is take Elvis out of the tabloids where he’s been for far too long and show him as a fully-realized, complex, three-dimensional human being. I want to recognize the remarkable achievements without apologizing for the man. Sonny’s experience with Elvis allows us a very unique window into that world and enables us to present stories that are largely unknown to the average person. To be sure, it was a roller-coaster journey for Elvis, personally and professionally. There were demons he was battling his entire life as well as a streak of self-destructive behavior that eventually contributed to his untimely passing. But none of that should undercut the remarkable achievements of the man, and that’s what we will show in our film.
Q: Will you chronicle when the Beatles met Elvis in August 1965?
JS: Absolutely! Many rock ‘n’ roll historians don’t even pay attention to this meeting, but to me, the night the Beatles came to meet Elvis, was a very significant event. And the reason why I believe it’s a significant event is that it was the past (Elvis) colliding head-on with the future (The Beatles). This to me was a pivotal moment in which he came face-to-face with the artists who had replaced him at the top of the rock ‘n’ roll ladder. That had to be an extremely humbling experience, not to mention causing him to do some serious self-examination. That, in my opinion, makes for great drama.
I have read at least six different accounts of what happened that night…and they don’t all agree. How could the people who claim to have been there remember things so differently? Some thought they jammed on rock oldies, others said they didn’t. Some remembered Elvis greeting the Beatles at the door, others say that never happened. So where did the truth lie? Then I came across an interview with John Lennon in which he described in some detail…and with great enthusiasm…what happened that night. Having spent so much time in the world of Lennon, I know that he had a tendency to pooh-pooh things, to downplay their significance. So, for him to speak of this event in such detail and with such excitement, I had no doubt his was the true account. Then I went back and read Sonny’s book and, what do you know, his account, while not identical, is very close to Lennon’s. So, to my way of thinking, this shows that Sonny has a great eye for detail, a good memory, and is a reliable teller of the truth. I am loving writing this scene. The result, I hope, will be truly magical and joyous moment in which the audience will be a fly on the way watching the interaction – personal and musical – between Elvis and the Beatles.
Q: Did you find it mildly amusing and ironic in your case, that it was John Lennon’s imitation of Peter Sellers, (Editor’s note: Scheinfeld directed The Unknown Peter Sellers in 2000) that eventually broke the ice with Elvis?
JS: You know, that was one of the great things that I had learned while doing the research. I had no idea! (laughs) I knew the Beatles loved Peter Sellers and listened religiously to his avant-garde radio show in England, The Goon Show. How cool, therefore, that Lennon and Elvis find common ground in one of Sellers greatest characterizations – Dr. Strangelove. And not just the unique voice, but the hysterical moment when the good doctor is strangled by his own gloved-hand. According to Lennon’s and Sonny’s account, once the ice was broken, these great artists appreciating each other, having a good time, sharing some stories of what it was like to be on the road, dealing with fans and a pressure-filled career to the point where they could relate to each other in a way that few others could. Some writers tell of mutual animosity as a result of this rock and roll summit meeting, but I do not believe that was the case. From my point of my view, Elvis was thinking more in terms of what was happening with his career and the choices he made…or the choices thrust upon him.
Q: What’s most interesting is that it’s taken almost 35 years for Elvis’ story to make it to the big screen. Why do you think it’s taken that long to get to this point?
JS: I think the first thing to make clear here is that we’re not doing The Elvis Presley Story. We are doing Fame & Fortune, which is the Sonny West story. In so many ways, that’s what really intrigued me because we have a very distinct point of view of Elvis. I like the notion of someone being off to the side and seeing everything through his eyes. That to me will make for very compelling drama. I don’t know why there hasn’t been a feature film about Elvis in the 34 years since his death. That’s a question that only Elvis Presley Enterprises can answer. At the end of the day, I want to make a powerful, emotional and highly entertaining film that transcends mere biography, one that celebrates one of the most important musical legacies in pop music while staying true to the spirit of a rock icon and the love his fans have for him.
For more information about the movie, check out the Fame & Fortune website at http://rlfvictorproductions.com/index.php?p=fame
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