Q&A with Richard Torné, co-author of David Lean’s Dedicated Maniac - Memoirs of a Film Specialist
1. How did you meet Eddie Fowlie?
I was working as a reporter for an English-language newspaper in Spain and found out that there was a hotel near where I lived that had been built by a retired film specialist - Eddie. I looked into it and the hotel El Dorado in Carboneras was notable for displaying film memorabilia, including part of the décor from the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra, which forms part of the dining hall’s wooden paneling.
I made enquiries and was granted an interview with Eddie.
2. What was he like?
What instantly struck me about him was that he was affable and charming but also a deeply private person. When I asked if I could take photos of him at his home for the feature interview he refused point blank. I could have left it at that, but my curiosity was piqued. He had a lot more to say about his life in film and his relationship with Lean, but it was obvious that he was not going to reveal all in one interview. Our friendship grew, helped in part by the fact that he was now a close neighbor. A second interview took place many months later and one day he suddenly asked me if I wanted to help him write his memoirs. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.
3. How did you both go about writing the book?
I reckon it took no less than five years to complete, from the moment I first met him to getting the manuscript finished. It was not easy. In the beginning Eddie was not keen to talk about his personal life at all; he just wanted to explain the technical aspects of making a movie. I had to convince him that the reader needed to be invested in him as a person too in order to make the book accessible to a general readership, otherwise it would become another niche publication, of interest only to film buffs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there was an opportunity to cover much more. Those who knew Eddie will tell you that he was a hugely interesting and complex character – he could be irascible but also incredibly charming when he wanted to be.
He gradually opened up and we started having more conversations on a regular basis. However, we hit a bit of a brick wall, maybe because of his age (he was in his 80s), so he understandably got tired after talking for an hour or so. We came up with a more practical compromise – I asked him to jot down his thoughts and experiences in chronological order as and when he felt up to it. He handed these notes to me and I revised the text. If I felt something didn’t scan or if he left a hole in the narrative, I would go back, re-interview him on tape and take it from there.
On the whole, this process worked. His memory was still great - he had a meticulous eye for detail - and he could be very witty. It was a lengthy process, and in retrospect I would have done some things differently, but it worked quite well.
4. What fascinates you about films from Eddie’s era?
There’s a timelessness about the films he worked on. I wouldn’t say that about many of today’s offerings. There are great film makers around today, certainly, but you get the impression that there are too many conveyor-belt productions, weighed down by predictable or dumbed-down plots, absurd CGI effects and unbelievable characters. It’s all aimed at overwhelming the viewer both visually and aurally. There’s a lack of originality, too, as evidenced by the number of pointless remakes. By contrast, Lean’s films in particular have an enduring quality. Critics may have been unkind about some of his later films, accusing him of being unadventurous and rather old fashioned, but they miss the point. His lavish, sprawling epics were also intimate portrayals of flawed individuals; his movies said something about the human condition. A Passage to India is a prime example of this. It’s a beautifully subtle piece of filmmaking – and terribly underrated, in my view. It addresses colonialism from the standpoint of two very different characters, and it does it without bludgeoning the spectator to make a point.
5. It appears his relationship with Lean was based on mutual respect.
The two got on like a house on fire for many reasons. Eddie was as devoted and committed to making movies as Lean was, and Lean realized that. Eddie also believed that Lean was the greatest director he ever worked with, but he knew how to handle him. While Eddie came up with solutions to technical problems, he always used a light touch with Lean, especially when it came to making suggestions. They came from totally different backgrounds, too, but that may have helped to hone their friendship.
6. Aside from David Lean, which other directors did he work with?
It’s a good question, because I tend to forget that he also worked with other legendary directors, including Howard Hawks, Richard Lester, Tony Richardson, Raoul Walsh and Robert Siodmak. That’s not a bad list to have on your CV. And as you can imagine, he had a lot to say about each of them.
7. Did he have any favorite actors?
He appreciated professionalism above all, so he had a lot of time for Burt Lancaster, Omar Sharif and William Holden. He also had a soft spot for Jack Hawkins.
8. Do you have a favorite Lean film?
Many film buffs will no doubt refer to Lean’s earlier period as his greatest, and there’s no doubt that some of his best work was made before A Bridge on the River Kwai, but you simply cannot get away from mentioning his epics.
I watched Lawrence of Arabia again some months ago, fearing that it might feel a bit dated, but it still leaves a lasting and positive impression - it’s simply a masterpiece. I have no doubt it will still be talked about 50-80 years from now. How many of today’s films can you say that about? I love A Passage to India, too. He needed that win after Ryan’s Daughter, which was badly miscast.
9. Eddie Fowlie died in 2011 – did he leave a lasting impression on you?
Absolutely. I think about him a lot, and also his lovely widow, Kathleen, whom I’ve kept in touch with. Aside from what I mentioned Eddie was a free spirit.
I only tapped into a section of his life. He once told me with a wink in his eye that he had enough material for another book. Alas, we’ll never see it, but at least we have this wonderful glimpse into his life, and the reader is able to join him in this wonderful rollercoaster ride, full of hilarious anecdotes.
10. Can the reader expect some juicy revelations?
He was Lean’s closest friend and confidant, so he was almost reverential in tone when he spoke about him. However, I was also surprised at how candid and forthright he could be, especially regarding people he did not hold in high regard – and there are quite a few of those in the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but what he has to say about Oliver Reed, Michael Winner and Robert Mitchum is worth the book’s price tag alone!