The story behind The Beatles' landmark film debut

“… by the end of the summer The Beatles might be a spent force…”
Brian Epstein is pitched the idea of a three-picture deal with The Beatles by American studio, United Artists. Goon Show affiliate Richard Lester is approached to direct…

RICHARD LESTER [DIRECTOR]: I first met The Beatles at The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue. They were doing a radio show. This was November, 1963. I’d just finished a film with United Artists [The Mouse On The Moon] and David Picker, the head of production there, had seen the Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film I’d made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He knew that John [Lennon] liked the Goon Show. It seemed a nice fit. UA wanted to make a very low budget black and white film, to start shooting in March, but it would have to be in cinemas in July because they felt that by the end of the summer The Beatles might be a spent force. So I was brought along to meet the band by [producer] Walter Shenson, with whom I’d made The Mouse On The Moon.

DAVID PICKER [EXECUTIVE PRODUCER]: My main responsibilities were working with the filmmakers and deciding what movies we were going to make. I was also responsible for our music and record operation. I said to our London office, if there were a couple of up-coming groups we could sign or make a relationship with, I’d be interested. One of the groups they recommended was The Beatles. I met Brian Epstein and we agreed to consider making some very low budget movies. Then they performed in front of The Queen at the Royal Command Performance and suddenly it wasn’t a little group from Liverpool. It was The Beatles, and we had ‘em.

DENIS O’DELL [ASSOCIATE PRODUCER]: I’d be away filming and I hadn’t much heard abut The Beatles. United Artists asked me if I would do this cheap film with a new pop group. I said I wasn’t really interested, but my children asked who the band was. I said it as some pop group called The Beatles and they all went mad: “You said no to it?” I called back and contracted with UA for six or seven weeks.

RICHARD LESTER: Johnny Speight was my first choice for writer, but he had other commitments. I’d worked with Alun Owen before, in the very beginnings of television. Alun had written No Trams To Lime Street, as John said, “The trouble with you, Alun, is that you’re a professional Scouser.” Alun at least had the courage to say, “It’s better than being an amateur one.”

DAVID PICKER: We shared publishing. We had the soundtrack album. The thing that made United Artists a very attractive place for some filmmakers is that once we agreed on a budget and on a script we left them totally alone. They had final cut as long as they stayed on budget.

DENIS O’DELL: From memory, I think the budget was £200,000 but I managed to bring it in for well under that. From memory again, The Beatles were paid £40,000 collectively. The deal with United Artists and Brian Epstein? I think Brian just agreed to everything that UA said. I’ll give you an example of how you worked with Brian. When we did How I Won The War, I went to see him in his office because we were a bit short on the budget. I said, “Do you think John will play a part?” He said, “Why don’t you go and ask him, he’s in the next office.” So I went and asked John and John said, “Yeah, yeah. I could do it, Denis. Yeah.” That was a deal with Brian.

RICHARD LESTER: In February 1964, we went to Paris with the boys when they were playing with Francoise Hardy at the Olympia. That was a key moment. They took a suite of rooms at the George V. Alun Owen and myself had rooms with them. The film was writing itself as we went. You got that sense of being told where to go, what to do, and being pursued a lot. We watched how they went from the car to the hotel, and the hotel to the Olympia and back and then to a club. We wrote a script to ask them to do things they knew. Messing about in hotel rooms with large blondes. Those elements of being let a bit off the leash and then being tugged back is very much a part of the early sequences of the film. They’re in low rooms, trains with low ceilings, being told what to do and organised.

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