Harold and Lillian Michelson are two unrecognized pillars of the American film industry whose contributions to cinema come to light in Daniel Raim’s documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.
If you saw The Graduate, Scarface, The Apartment, The Ten Commandments or West Side Story, then you saw the incredible work of storyboard artist Harold and researcher Lillian. Yet throughout their long careers working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, the Michelsons went, by and large, uncredited. Raim’s documentary helps set the record straight, and reveals the difficult challenges the couple faced both in moviemaking and in their marriage.
Israeli-born Daniel Raim is a producer, director, writer, and the president of Adama Films. He once served on the Education Corps of the Israeli Defense Forces as a documentarian, and later received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for his short film “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.” Now that Harold and Lillian has hit theaters (see dates and venues for screenings throughout the summer here), Raim is working on a series of short films that focus on art and design for the Criterion Channel. We caught up with him for the brief conversation below.
Francesco Da Vinci, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’m not going to try and be objective about Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story; it was one of the most beautiful, humanistic love stories I’ve ever seen. It seems more than just about Harold and Lillian’s work; it seems the film is just as much about the spirit of their love. Your own wife, Jennifer, was co-editor. How did you collaborate on the film, and how did you handle it when the two of you had major differences?
Daniel Raim (DR): Harold and Lillian are people you want to know and spend time with. My film reveals the tension between the couple’s life and their work—we learn about their triumphs and their struggles. To me, they are a true inspiration.
You stay focused on the story. We needed to be patient and listen to each other. When you have a collaborator, you need to give others a chance to articulate their thoughts. Trust is very important too.
MM: What is your objective as a director?
DR: I wear so many hats: as a writer, director, editor and producer. My second passion is editing. In a documentary, editing is where I often write the story. The post-production process is very important; turning the raw footage into a narrative that conveys meaning and emotion. But documentary filmmaking is about building a synthesis with your crew and subjects. It’s the feeling of going into battle with a vision. Your crew has to fight for the same basic purpose.
What I try to do when I make a film is find empathy. Albert Maysles often spoke of the importance having empathy for your characters. That’s a very important quality to have as a director. And when the audience can see the humanity of another person’s life, they often see the humanity within themselves.
There’s an insecurity I sometimes feel, like, Who am I to tell this story? I remind myself that I can either call my insecurity a weakness or a challenge: “There are no weaknesses; only challenges,” I tell myself.
MM: Run us through the basic process you undertook for this film.
DR: Number one was capturing the interviews and then cutting about 50 hours of footage into a five-hour assembly cut. Second is the rough cut stage, which took about a year. While I’m cutting a film, I will likely still be filming. New material will come in along the way.
MM: And what was Danny DeVito’s role in the making of Harold and Lillian?
DR: I interviewed Danny DeVito on-camera because he is a close friend of the Michelsons; they worked with him on just about every film he directed. Danny also lent his name to the film as executive producer in the late stage, and was very supportive by looking at the rough cuts and offering suggestions. We had one big story meeting, and several phone conversations.
MM: What were some of your favorite movies growing up?
DR: Superman. When I was five I could identify with Superman landing on Earth as a young boy. The 400 Blows blew my mind. It dealt with life experiences that I shared. It conveyed profound and intimate emotions that I didn’t know you could put on the screen at that time—so it became a very important, life-changing film for me. I admire Truffaut, especially his early films; also Ross McElwee, the Dardenne brothers and Yasujiro Ozu.
MM: One of my all-time favorite movies is The Graduate, which has one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema: the storyboard drawing that came to life where we see Ben through the raised leg of Mrs. Robinson. Harold did a brilliant job with that film and yet he wasn’t credited for his work in the film.
DR: That’s right. I’d love to see Harold and Lillian, and other below the line artists, honored by the Academy for their contributions.
MM: Lastly, what’s your best advice for aspiring documentary moviemakers?
DR: Trust the creative process and be patient. Start small and work your way up. Don’t assume that your idea is going to work as a feature film; test it out. Be willing to do short films shot in only two days, for example. As the films get longer, be willing to make the commitment to the long-term process, meaning that it can take years to complete a film. Tenacity is very important.
Don’t wait until you have the entire budget for a documentary. Films are often made piecemeal. Get a camera and start shooting, maybe on something like a Canon EOS Rebel with a kit lens and a very good mic. You can get amazing footage and audio with that. Consider getting a fiscal sponsorship to help raise money through grants, foundations and donors. For example, the International Documentary Association will give documentary filmmakers fiscal sponsorship. The Film Collaborative is also one of the best resources for new filmmakers. MM
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is currently in theaters, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Francesco Da Vinci is a photojournalist, documentary filmmaker and cosmologist. Top photograph by Francesco Da Vinci.