Anderson, the award-winning director, critic, essayist and anarchist, cast McDowell in his first starring role as the rebellious “Mick Travis,” in his film, IF…., winner of the Palm D’Or, Cannes (1968). Their working relationship continued through five additional film and theatre productions spanning several decades, including O LUCKY MAN! (Cannes, 1972) and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (Cannes, 1982).
McDowell: “Lindsay definitely changed me forever. This film is an evocation of his life and also signifies an era of intellectual movement in England. He’d be delighted to have NEVER APOLOGIZE in Cannes for he loved coming to the festival, which he covered for many years as a critic before becoming a filmmaker. All of his major films had their international premiere in Cannes.”
Directed by Mike Kaplan, whose friendship with McDowell began on Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and who produced Anderson’s last feature film, THE WHALES OF AUGUST (Cannes, 1987), NEVER APOLOGIZE combines McDowell’s personal reminiscences with his readings of pieces written by and about his friend and mentor. These are brought to life by the actor's often hilarious and moving impressions of not only the provocative Anderson, but also the notables in their circle, including Alan Bates, Bette Davis, John Ford, John Gielgud, Lillian Gish, Richard Harris, Laurence Olivier and Rachel Roberts. We visit a group of colorful personalities and witness the cultural, social and political climate of the period.
NEVER APOLOGIZE had its first incarnation as a theatrical evening to help commemorate the 10th anniversary of Anderson’s passing at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004 and was subsequently performed at the National Theatre, London. In transforming NEVER APOLOGIZE to film, the challenge was to maintain the impact of McDowell’s live magnetism so that the cinema experience would be as potent as being with him at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre or the National’s Cottesloe Stage.
The material McDowell and Kaplan drew upon was rich and varied. Lindsay Anderson was a trenchant critic and generous friend so his published writings of John Ford, Lillian Gish, Bette Davis and Rachel Roberts were insightful and bristling; his diary entries about Richard Harris during the filming of THIS SPORTING LIFE (Cannes, 1966 , “Best Actor”) revealed a tragic vulnerability; the entries of the final scenes of O LUCKY MAN! showed his vanity and fears; and his description of the World Trade Center had a startling prescience.
And then there was the title letter to Alan Bates, in which the apology evolves into an assessment of Anderson's career and the state of the world. The letter was only discovered a few months earlier, in Scotland, at the University of Stirling, where the Lindsay Anderson Archives are held.
When McDowell and Kaplan first discussed the material around McDowell’s dining room table, they knew that the luncheon hosted by director Clive Donner and his designer wife Jocelyn Rickards had to be included. Both had been guests at that explosive afternoon and over the years it had taken on a surreal stature. McDowell sets the scene, first as the jovial, then the astonished raconteur, before transforming into Anderson at his most complex -- acerbic, sardonic, defensive, playful, painful.
Equally important were McDowell’s memories of the man who changed his life. All of his friends know McDowell as a consummate storyteller and mimic. As he recounted his many stories in full throttle, Kaplan took extensive notes to prepare the roadmap that McDowell would more or less follow. An organization emerged, with key lines and phrases highlighted between the written pieces.
Kaplan: "It was apparent from the beginning that this could be a tour-de-force and an absorbing entertainment. Malcolm conveys a wide range of emotions from his first diplomatic teasing with Lindsay at the auditions for IF... through the heart wrenching scenes at John Ford's bedside and at the site of Lindsay's passing in France. There was a genuine dramatic arc amid the laughs and cries. Plus his uncanny impressions are embodied with gusto and relish. The audience expects a one-man show’; it's often an inside look at an all-star extravaganza."
The stage set was simple. On the right, a podium and lamp. On the left: a Union-Jack as tablecloth; water pitcher and glasses; several chairs, one draped with Lindsay’s leather jacket and the Anderson tartan scarf. The actor would be centered between the two areas. He held forth between the podium and stage center for the first half, moving to the table during the latter part. This second location offered another focus.
Blow-ups backed the two areas, one of Lindsay as a 5-year old; the second of his directing Malcolm during O LUCKY MAN! These were the only visuals.
Eighteen months after the London shows, McDowell offered to do a benefit performance for the Ojai Film Festival, which he had long supported. He called Kaplan.
The venue, Ojai's 40 –year old Mantillija Junior High School auditorium, created some problems. Unlike the open thrust stages at the Traverse and the Cottesloe, where McDowell and the audience were at the same level, this was a traditional proscenium with a high rise. The contact with the audience would have a barrier space. The lighting would also be more difficult. And McDowell would have less room to move about on the narrower stage.
One of the perks of doing the benefit was having it properly recorded. There had been videos from Edinburgh and London but from a static bird’s eye angle.
Thanks to a local Ojai entrepreneur, Kaplan found himself with five cameras at his disposal. He gave the video crew the single-camera videos from London and Edinburgh to familiarize them with the blocking and McDowell's movements. Cameras were placed on either side of the stage, one in front; one backstage. The last watched from the rear, the bird’s eye shot.
Halfway through NEVER APOLOGIZE, McDowell describes the scene in a London screening room with Anderson, composer Alan Price and producer Michael Medwin. They are looking for cuts in O LUCKY MAN! Warner Bros. has refused to release the film at its nearly three-hour length. By accident , the projectionist jumps from reel 8 to reel 10. For Malcolm, it’s a great cut, knowing it will satisfy the studio’s demands. Lindsay balks vociferously then reluctantly agrees.
Five years later, Lindsay bamboozles Warner Bros.into restoring reel 9, but the negative has been lost and when the dupe negative is printed, reel 9 looks a little grainy, unlike the rest of the film.
Lindsay, however, loves the textural difference. He tells Malcolm,
This emerged as the motto for NEVER APOLOGIZE.
Looking at the rough footage, Kaplan knew that McDowell’s electric performance before the sold-out audience had been sufficiently captured. But there were some mishaps –not all of the cameras were working all the time; several sequences were covered by only one angle and the static bird’s eye camera, which would have been useful for transitions, was blank. There had been no budget for video monitors.
With the exception of the Richard Harris-Rachel Roberts clip from THIS SPORTING LIFE, McDowell is either seen or heard throughout the film’s 1 hour, 52 minute length. Actor and cinema audience are never separated, while the theatre audience retains a strong presence through their responses. Visuals had to be added but not overused. Kaplan didn’t want to trick up the film with anything that would distract from the performance: Kaplan: "Malcolm has a commanding physicality: his movements and voice rhythms are inherently cinematic.”
For McDowell, Anderson was always the powerful professor, a teacher as much as a dedicated artist. We discover through him, the fascination of Lindsay Anderson -- gifted, grumbling and giving --“in some of his sins and most of his graces” – (to steal from J.P,. Donleavy, whose classic novel, THE GINGER MAN, Anderson once wanted to film.)
Finally, as NEVER APOLOGIZE closes, we hear Lindsay Anderson’s warm rendition of “Red River Valley” from John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It blends into the image of Lindsay visiting Ford’s Monument Valley before dissolving into Lindsay and Malcolm smiling together in Russia.
“Perhaps one will feel” says Kaplan, “ the emotional bonding of fathers and sons…
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