Harold and Lillian Michelson are the two most important people in Hollywood that you’ve never heard of. His work as a storyboard artist and her career as a research librarian greatly shaped such films as The Ten Commandments, The Birds, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, and much more. This doc is about their life together, at work and at home.
When did you know they would make a compelling doc?
I was a student at the American Film Institute when I first met Harold and Lillian. They were legends and some of the most nurturing and selfless people anyone starting out in the film biz could wish to meet. I interviewed Harold in 1998 for my first documentary The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. These encounters resulted in two career-spanning interviews with Harold, and for several years I was ruminating on making a film about Harold and Lillian.
In 2013 I began in earnest to make this film when some never-before-seen documentary footage of Lillian working at her Paramount Studios research library came to my attention. This footage was shot in 1992 and is extremely cinematic — unexpected considering the subject is a film researcher in her library surrounded by hundreds of reference books and clippings. But Lillian is a fascinating character with a movie star caliber screen persona. She is a great storyteller and she lights up the screen.
Were you surprised no one had told their story yet?
Yes and no. Other filmmakers filmed interviews with Harold and Lillian over the years, but those films were never completed. We were blessed that the filmmakers agreed to let us use some of their footage, resulting in a much richer film.
Were you worried about finding enough footage of Harold when he was alive?
The tension between having a life and raising a family and doing something you love is at the heart of this film, so I definitely needed to find a way for the audience to connect to Harold’s side of the story. Particularly the love story aspect, as well as how they raised an autistic child in the early 50s.
Harold passed away in 2007, but we were fortunate to come by some amazing archival material. Lillian gave us permission to use Harold’s love letters to her, as well as drawings and poems dating back to 1947 when they first met and Harold fell head over heels for Lillian. She was a beautiful 17-year-old orphan at the time they first met. It really is an amazing story how they met and the obstacles Lillian had to overcome in order to elope with Harold and move to Los Angeles.
It’s these beginnings in life, and the fact that they were married for 60 years that somehow manifested into two extraordinary careers. Two voice actors play the role of a young Harold and Lillian which gives the film a deeper dimension and insight into their love story.
What draws you to telling Hollywood’s behind the scenes stories?
I want to help preserve the legacy of these cinema artists who I came to know and admire from the time a was a student. My goal was to capture their personalities, their creative philosophies and passion for storytelling. They really are a dying breed of cinema artists, and through them we are passing on the torch to the next generation. Also, their work is completely under the radar in terms of appreciation for their contributions. Harold’s imaginative storyboards for films such as The Birds and The Graduate are entirely uncredited. Harold and Lillian worked on hundreds of classic American movies and their story deserves to be told.
Is there is a broad audience for these films?
One of my goals in making these films is to humanize Hollywood and the behind the scenes artists who live and work there. There’s so much more to it the just the glamour of movie stars and even well-known directors. Apart from anything else, these docs are first and foremost human stories, and Hollywood is the backdrop. These behind-the-scenes artists were the pioneers, the Grandmasters of their respective crafts, and what interested me the most is their passion for storytelling, their wit, and their love their work and for one another.