Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story not only portrays a devoted 60 year marriage in an industry where many marriages last anywhere from a few days to a few years if they are lucky but a creative partnership between the ace storyboard artist Harold Michaelson and his researcher wife Lillian Michaelson.
Many movie fans know the work of this symbiotic pair but working in the uncredited Hollywood system their names were known only to those few whom they worked with and even then many directors had no idea who did the detailed research and sketches which helped bring their films to life. Yet they have left their mark on movies as The Birds, Marnie, Fiddler On The Roof, Chinatown, Rocky movies, Annie Hall, Titanic, Manchurian Candidate, The Graduate, Ben Hur, Spartacus and many many more. It was only after Alfred Hitchcock saw the detailed scenes that Harold created for The Birds and realized that Lillian had examined not only sizes and habits of the various birds, their method of flight, and mating habits needed to make the story realistic.
Mel Brooks said that no matter how good the story was Harold had ideas that made it better. On Spaceballs it was Harold who suggested the round helmets. “He could see what you were doing and improved on it.” Shortly after he began working with Hitchcock, Harold was promoted to production designer who creates the atmosphere and tone of the movie.
The researcher and storyboard artist are at the heart of the concept. Being a storyboard artist takes technical wizardly. One needs to know not only how to draw but the detailed math and precision of angles from which various cameras will see it and the area that the camera will focus on. It’s an innate ability that not every possesses. They are directing the story visually, deepening the character’s emotions, the tension, conflict and suspense. What does each scene really mean? What is it trying to say? What is the emotion behind that scene? The smallest detail is crucial to create an image that will stand out. Reading the script is only the first step. A good storyboard artist must understand the character’s needs and journey so that he can make the scenes more visual than just “talking heads.” In the Graduate rather than have Anne Bancroft verbally seduce Dustin Hoffman, he drew her with her legs slightly apart. Within the open angle of her legs we see the confused young man and know without words what is going on. The best story is not dependent on the dialogue but on the visuals. Something crucial for every writer and filmmaker to understand.
As a researcher, Lillian first job was Rosemary’s Baby where she had to learn about witchcraft through the ages and all things supernatural through the centuries. Once she had to provide intimate details as what the underwear of the young girls in Fiddler On The Roof would have worn – something that very little was written about. Until she met a Russian immigrant at Canter’s Restaurant was she able to get a sketch of what these clothes would look like. Fr any story she needs to understand costumes (especially if they are period,) weapons, settings, props (as she wouldn’t show a Wedgewood vase before the artist had made them), background and skyline of a city, the exact structure of columns for a Grecian temple, the folds on the tunic, the construction of the wheels on a chariot. Sometimes she had to find things like the number of hallways in the CIA – she had a contact for that, or what the inside of a drug lord’s mansion looked like or a cocaine lab. For that Lillian called some of her contacts on the wrong side of the law. Considered a petite force of nature, Danny DeVito said she was “like a pit-bull who grabbed a hold of your leg and wouldn’t let go until she found her answer.”
Despite the obstacles that they faced, including the restrictions women faced in the 50’s and 60’s, an autistic son and pressures of family, the Michaelson’s survived and flourished. “Staying together as a couple depends on sharing experiences and being in the same locations,” Lillian said. “Too often one actor would go off to shoot and film for several weeks while the wife would stay behind with the children or have other issues. That is what would tear them apart.”
As an established writer of books and scripts, I knew storyboard artists were used in the production of a film but until I saw the movie I never realized the crucial importance of a good storyboard artist and researcher but yes, details and research as well as excellent visuals are what draws a viewer or reader in.
Harold and Lillian’s story humanizes Hollywood—an industry sustained by numerous hard-working cinema artisans; master craftsmen and craftswomen who give their lives, their genius and their hearts to the movies. Beyond Harold and Lillian’s contribution to cinema, their story can’t be told without weaving in their 60-year marriage—a creative, challenging, and profoundly loving partnership. HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY spans the Golden Age of Hollywood through New Hollywood and beyond. It’s a portrait of a time, and an intimate chronicle of their epic journey of life, love, family, and making great movies.
You’ve never met anyone like Harold and Lillian. Produced by Zeitgeist Films and Adama Films, written and directed by Oscar nominated Israeli Daniel Raim the film opened nationwide mid May. Anyone interested in Hollywood, writing or filmmaking not to mention the story of a devoted marriage will want to see this.