The shooting of David Lean’s latest film, The Road to India, was a nightmare for all the members of the team. In question ? The behavior of the director himself, uncontrollable.
The story begins in 1979. It had been ten years since filmmaker David Lean filmed when he was contacted by two producers willing to finance an adaptation of EM Forster’s novel titled Road to India. Demoralized by the poor reception of his latest film, Ryan’s Daughter, David Lean, 75, is interested in this project, and has known the work for many years.
Contrary to the expectations of the producers, Lean does not base his screenplay only on the novel but also on its theatrical adaptation by Santha Rama Rau. Moreover, something new, he signs the story alone, and grants himself freedom with the two supports on which he relies.
He wants to tell the story of Miss Adela Quested, who in the 1920s left to marry a young magistrate living in India, then a British colony. Adela discovers with horror the nationalism and the arrogance reigning among the colonists and prefers to discover deep India. His meeting with a young doctor will change his career.
With this strong subject, tinged with romanticism, Lean leaves to shoot on the spot, in India, during the month of November 1983. But once there, things get complicated. First, he hasn’t toured for nearly fifteen years and has forgotten certain codes. During the filming of the first scene, for example, he forgets to shout “Action” so that the actors know when to start the scene. The board is appalled.
Then he gradually regained his bearings, thanks to producers who first entrusted him with simple scenes to put in a box so that he could reacquaint himself with directing. Except that Lean is still in a foul mood.
“David has committed the crime of growing old”comments Ernest Day, director of photography on the film*. “At his age, we manage the pressure much less well and he had a lot on his shoulders”. La Route des Indes is indeed endowed with a large budget, 17.5 million dollars, but that is not the only concern. Day continues:
The shooting was very tense. David had changed a lot, he had big budget problems and had to compromise. And he thought everyone was against him.
From 1983 to 1984, the actress Judy Davis, then inexperienced in shootings of this scale and who interprets the heroine of the film, suffered the wrath of the director, as she has told many times since:
It was a King Lear figure, very frightening. He had an incredible reputation but was physically out of shape and I think there was a lot of tension about that. (…) And when David tensed, I tensed. (…) I put myself in self-defense mode.
“Entire days of filming were canceled because he decided the set had to be redone”, she adds. “When he just didn’t feel ready to shoot.”
The cast as the film crew begin to no longer support David Lean: “he was an autocrat” remembers Peggy Ashcroft (who plays Mrs. Moore) and “put pressure on Judy”. A fact confirmed by John Mitchell, the sound engineer: “Judy Davis and David Lean have not developed any affinity”pointing out that their reports were “at loggerheads”.
James Fox (Richard Fielding) drives the point home: “He was pretty intolerant of actors somewhere; they were just instruments of his great work.”
An anonymous technician also confides that Lean considered himself the only master on board:
[Il] was looking for ‘yes-men’ who would always agree with him, which we weren’t. You can do a million things in the editing room, but you can’t do anything that you haven’t shot.
In this explosive atmosphere, relations between the other star of the film, Alec Guinness, and his favorite director, with whom he is filming for the sixth time, also deteriorate. Indeed, the actor must play an Indian, dye his skin and speak with an accent. Already hasfter accepting the script, Alec Guinness had developed doubts about his character, and thought it was not for him. Lean then convinces him otherwise.
On set, the filming script, annotated and very well informed of all the upstream research carried out by the filmmaker, becomes a Bible to be followed to the letter or risk being reprimanded in front of the whole team. Guinness will get angry on several occasions about this, Lean using the scenario to evacuate any questioning.
In the final cut, many of Alec Guinness’ scenes are cut, including a long “typical” dance scene. Years later, Lean will comment :
“[Guinness] was terrified of playing an Indian like a Peter Sellers [acteur britannique qui avait joué un Indien en se grimant dans la comédie The Party, NdlR]. But I’m afraid that’s exactly what he did. We had to cut a lot [de ses scènes]”.
Despite these terrible conditions, Alec Guinness as part of the team will underline a posteriori the quality of Lean’s work on this film and his very clear vision of what it should be. La Route des Indes will be a critical and commercial success that will garner 11 Oscar nominations. He won the statuettes for Best Supporting Actress for Peggy Ashcroft and Best Original Composition for the music of Maurice Jarre.
*Quotes in this article (except Lean’s letter) are taken from Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean written by Gene D. Phillips, published at The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.