Dr. Zhivago: The Making of a Movie

Filming of MGM’s DR. ZHIVAGOis currently under way in Spain, where director David Lean and actor Omar Sharif, playing the title role,are at work together putting into pictures the screenplay of writer Robert Bolt. In a scries of on-location. interviews with these principals. ATLANTIC editor R. S. Stewart focuses close up on the anatomy of a big movie and its lavish production.

by R. S. Stewart

GUADALAJAKA: The set is a flat stretch of terrain, eaten dry by the wind, the road to Mesones running clear up the center and dead level to the horizon. It is warm; the sun defies the script: Russia the war winter of 1914. (There is no longer any snow; acres of ground have been covered with marble dust.) Shooting here today is the last sequence of a big scene, the meeting near the front lines of Yuri Andreievich Zhivago and Larisa Feodorovna.

The scenario, adapted by Robert Holt from the Boris Pasternak novel, indicates a large sweep of action: Extreme long shot: a flank of soldiers, straight back on the road to the farthest possible point in the field of vision. (The costume for these reinforcements is elaborate: storm coats, caps, Im boots, heavy packs, guns.) Close-up: a Red Cross wagon in the foreground of the troops, young Zhivago seated next to the driver. Long shot: head on, from the other direction up the road, a herd of men, deserters, battle-brown like buffalo. Foreground close-up: a Red Cross wagon of wounded men. Lara, a nurse, on the left side of the wagon behind a team of white horses.

The sides move toward each other, the road becoming a hothed of bolshevism. (Extras are recruited from the regular Spanish Army and from the nearby pueblo at El Molar, where the inhabitants have built up a booming business out of being in the movies. Franco, who enjoys the economic windfall of Hollywood film production in Spain, willingly grants permission for the military to be used.) At the site of confrontation: the camera zone. From this point of focus the approach of Zhivago and the troops will be filmed first, that of Lara and the deserters next in sequence.

Preparation for the first take is a feverish procedure. It is as much a scene in itself as the lineup swarming on the road. Working out of a caravan of dozens of trailers and trucks, twenty feet from the shooting site, is a crew of several hundred - Spanish, English, and American. The caravan, like an oasis in the desert, is the source of supply: wardrobe, makeup, props, sound equipment, spotlights, power cables.

The crew shuttles between the caravan and the camera zone. At the wagon, a makeup team works over Omar Sharif, who plays Zhivago. In the foreground, more snow is needed — a unit of men rush from the trucks to the road with a wheelbarrow of marble dust. It begins to look more like winter. (The first sections of this sequence were shot earlier in the village of Soria, where there was real snow. Matching up shots from one location to another is one of the peculiar techniques of film production.) Cries go up and down the road for the soldiers to button their coats and look cold; they prefer sunbathing to standing straight and bearing arms. The cameramen meter the light. The camera rolls back on its track: the shot will be close in on the wagon, eye-level with Zhivago, the troops stretched out behind.

To the left of the troops is the director, David Lean, architect of all this activity. He moves slowly, but decisively indifferent to the sun. It is the same sort of fortitude that he brought to his last picture, Lawrence of Arabia. Despite temperatures of over one hundred and thirty degrees, Lean kept up the shooting on Lawrence in the middle of the desert for weeks on end.

He in fact likes this kind of combat with the natural elements it is a source of great gratification. He is known, too, for letting no detail of a film elude him. from the first stages of the screenplay to the final editing in the studios. Since the start of shooting here in Spain, a single vision has been fixed in his mind, that of Pasternak’s revolutionary Russia and the love story of Yuri and Lara.

At the moment, after two hours of rehearsal, he is ready for the first take. The camera rolls back on the track. The wagon starts forward left, right, left up the road. The soldiers advance, sending up dust. Lean moves back with the camera. He watches with steady eyes: the sky, the light, the troops, the wagon, Zhivago. The deserters approach. Zhivago rises from his seat. Lean motions to him with a braking action of the hands to do it more slowly. The wagon lurches forward a few more feet. The camera rolls back to the end of the track and stops grinding. Lean talks with Zhivago. He jumps up onto the wagon to show him how he wants him to take the rise. It is a movement from the knees. The wagon is dragged back to the starting position for the second take. The makeup crew mops the sweat from Zhivago’s brow.

It WAS cooler back at the big studio in Madrid where I spoke with Lean later that day. “Making movies is a kind of falling in love,” he said. “It’s almost entirely emotional. For instance, when I read Zhivago my common sense told me that it was a terribly difficult thing to undertake, but I was so moved by the book that I thought all this must make a marvelous movie. I’ve done two films now with no women in them [Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai], and I like love stories very much. I found this a superb love story. Cod knows how I’m going to do it, but if we’re clever enough, it’ll come out.

“ The one stipulation I made was that I’d do it if Robert Bolt wrote the script. I have done quite a bit of scriptwriting myself, but this was completely beyond me far too difficult. It requires somebody with a certain classical background and a real expert. I think Robert is that.

“The script is the most important thing in the film. If you haven’t got a good script, you cannot make a good film. You can mess up a good script and make a bad film, but I don’t think you can make a good film out of a bad script.

“I remember when I first worked with Robert on Lawrence of Arabia. I said to him that he was the person I most wanted to please. He didn’t believe me. I think he does now. I have an enormous respect for the writer. He’s the man who gives the actors their words; he gives them their characters; he gives them really everything. He also gives me what I have to interpret from the visual point of view.

“In the case of Zhivago, Robert and I spent a couple of months, ten weeks, doing an outline of the screenplay. We changed certain things from the book, you know, but at least we had a beginning, a middle, and an end. We knew what characters were going to be in, what scenes were going to be in, what was going to be cut which was more difficult still and the points we were trying to make en route. Then Robert started writing, and he wrote a complete script with dialogue. Then we started again, and went through that with revision after revision after revision until we were, both of us, I think, pleased.

“After all that is finished, I do myself what’s called a shooting script. I type it all out on two fingers, the whole script, and I sit down and try to imagine how I would like to see it appear on the screen when to cut the close-ups. when to have long shots; if it’s to be a low angle, if it’s to be a high angle, and so forth and so on. I sit there and I try to translate the script into pictures, very definite pictures. There are seventeen hundred and thirtynine shots in the picture, and so this takes quite a long time.

“What I do is prepare, as it were, a blueprint. Then I go to the set, having this behind me, and I feel at perfect liberty to alter it. I don’t mean the dialogue or the intention of a scene, but the way I shoot it. In action scenes I follow the script very closely. I copy the shots as I’ve written them in the shooting script. In a dialogue scene I won’t take as much notice of the script. I’ll get the actors on the set, and we’ll rehearse the scene, and when the scene seems pretty good to me, I try to think of howto photograph it. If the scene is well rehearsed and it’s a good scene and it’s played well, the curious tiling is that it falls automatically into camera angles. If I can’t photograph a scene, I very often suspect that there is something wrong with the rehearsing or even something wrotig with the writing. If the scene is well conceived, it acts well and it photographs well. It’s one of those little mysteries I don’t quite understand, but it is the case.”

Lean stopped for a moment and then went on: “It’s all rather a dreamlike imagination. I could tell you that I imagine Zhivago walking into a room and sitting down in a chair, and if you said to me, ‘Where is the window?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, rny goodness, I hadn’t thought of any, of there being a window.’ But of course there must be a window. And so that’s why I call it dreamlike, because there are certain parts of it that are absolutely blank. But I have how should I say it? — a smell of what a scene should be like.

“Let me put it another way: It’s as if I’ve got a negative, talking of negatives and positives in a photographic sense. I’ve got an imaginary negative in my mind, and when I get on the set, I try to make a positive which will match that negative. I’ll find myself very often saying to an actor, ‘No, not that, do it softer.’ And if he said to me, ‘Why?’ I wouldn’t be able to tell him. I just know it wasn’t as I felt it should be in my original feelings about the scene. It’s a kind of mood tiling, I suppose. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.

“Other times I won’t say a word, and we’ll shoot right away and that’s it. And I just haven’t got anything to say, because it works well, you know. It seems to fit in with my imagination of the tiling. I ‘m really, I suppose, trying to please Robert and better him, as a matter of fact.

“I have a sort of game, lake a long shot: Zhivago leaves the front door of the house, runs across the street, and jumps onto a tram: then cut, interior tram. Now, if I can make that long shot of him running across the street better than Robert and I visualized it in the first place by having a little bit of something extra, something in the composition perhaps or another bit of action in the street, I’m absolutely delighted. And I have a kind of game like that. I call it ‘beating the script.’ And if I beat the script, I’m very lucky. Most of the time I’m quite a way behind our dreams of scenes.

“One of the most difficult things in Zhivago is the character of Zhivago himself, because he’s not a typical screen hero. He is an observer. He doesn’t do anything, really: events happen around him. and this doesn’t happen on the screen. The hero’s always the doer. It’s a very, very difficult part because one’s got to resist the temptation to make him heroic in the ordinary sense. Of course, the risk is that one makes him dull.

“And so one’s got to keep one’s nerve and say, ‘Now, that’s not so, don’t glamorize it, don’t glamorize it, play it down, play it straight — that sort of thing. The other great difficulty is that it’s a love story about a very, very good man who has two women in his life, and he loves both of them. Now, this obviously can happen in real life, but in the movies it doesn’t. Generally, a man’s got a good wife and he’s in love with a bitch whom he can’t resist, or he’s got a bitchy wife and he’s in love with the good girl round the corner. This isn’t the case in Zhivago. Both women are marvelous, you know, and I don’t know how film audiences will take it.

“I hope I’m doing it right, actually. I hope it’s wild enough, primitive enough. It’s one of the reasons that I’m very glad Omar Sharif is playing Zhivago, because he’ll give a certain foreign ness to it. I think the film would be a failure if it were a story of a lot of polite English ladies and gentlemen in Russian clothing. I think Omar has a certain Oriental something which should be in Zhivago.

“Everybody asks me why I make large movies. I love traveling. On Bridge on the River Kwai I spent a year in Ceylon, which was fascinating. On Lawrence I spent the same tittle in the desert living in a caravan, seeing things that very few people are privileged to sec. On Zhivago, for instance. I’ve just come back from Finland having seen a completely different part of the world. We’re doing most of the movie in Spain, which I like very much. Now, when you compare that with working down the mine in London somewhere. I don’t think you’d be surprised at why I choose these large movies. I mean the idea of doing a studio picture now — a completely studio picture is horrible to me. I don’t mind doing certain scenes in the studio, but it’s a tiling i’d rather like to do in about ten years’ time if I’m still at it.

‘ You see, when I was young I used to go to the movies a lot. and movies used to show me a world that I thought I’d never be able to see. I think this went out the window when the talkies came. They moved into the drawing room, as it were, and the films were interesting enough, some of them, but I lost a lot of my keenness for the cinema. What I’m really trying to say is that I think the wonderful thing about the movie medium is that it can show people various parts of the world that they’ve never seen. They can’t be seen in any other medium.

“ The only thing that ever interested me as much as directing is cutting. I was fortunate enough to be a cutter for many years. I started off on feature films, and then I went to newsreels. I cut newsreels for three or four years and then went back and did feature films again. You learn more in the cutting room, I think, than in any other department of a studio because you see all that’s being done. You see it there on the screen. When I was a cutter, people always used to say to me. ‘Oh, you’re a cutter. You’re the one who cuts out the naughty liits, are you?’ Everybody thinks that a cutter is somebody who cuts out stuff. That is not the case, of course.

“When one sits in a movie theater, half the effects, whether the audience knows it or not, are caused by the juxtaposition of pictures, and as a cutter you select what the audience will look at and when. The film is, as it were, the material from which you make the finished picture. You’ve got yards and yards of cloth —like making a suit. The exact shape it will have depends on how you cut it.

“For instance, take a very simple scene of me talking to you. I would do a shot which showed both of vis talking all the way through the scene. I’d also do a close-up of you and a close-up of me. Now what arc you going to start the scene with — on your close-up, my close-up, or the two-shot? Three choices. Now, you probably haven’t got the nerve to start on a close-up, so you start on the twoshot, and the audience knows exactly where they arc. It might be effective to start on a close-up of you asking me a question and then cut to tny close-up answering it. But if I use a two-shot, as I said, at the beginning, obviously your close-up is being cut out and my close-up is being cut out at that point because the scene was done, as it were, three times in the two-shot and the two close-ups. To that extent the cutter is cutting out stuff, but he’s not throwing the material of the scene away.

“Still, it’s incredible the various misconceptions people have about cutting and about the making of movies. No doubt they always will. Let me tell you a story about Lawrence of Arabia. When I was in America in a certain town, a lady came up to me and said, ‘You know, Mr. Lean, I’ve seen your picture, and I think it’s just beautiful. What beautiful scenery.’ Then she said, ‘I want to ask you a question. Were you there?’ ”

OMAR SHARIF is a dark-eyed Egyptian. His eyes are, in fact, so big and restless that for his part as Yuri Andreievich Zhivago they have been pulled back with tape to make them less startling and more broodingly Russian. We talked about his work in the picture.

“I must do nothing. This is the great difficulty of Zhivago, he said. “If I do something, it’s all wrong. That’s why I’ve paid a lot of attention to my physical appearance in this film. I want to look striking so that even if I do nothing, my presence will be felt. I’m hoping that what will happen is that no one will be greatly impressed by any one scene of Zhivago’s, but when the film is all finished and the lights come on in the theater, everyone will say, ‘God, wasn’t he a wonderful man.’

“The Russian aspect is tremendously familiar to me really. I have been to Russia, but that’s not the determining factor. It is that all the Russian people I know and also the people I met there are very much like the people I was brought up with. They’re more literate, if you like, but emotionally they are exactly the same. It’s amazing how Oriental they are emotionally.

“Physical details are extremely helpful. Suppose I am preparing for the scene we did today: I get my script and read the few scenes that arc before it and the few scenes that are after it to see exactly where it comes in the picture. Then I make up my mind what the physical condition of Zhivago is at this moment in the film — tired, shaved, unshaved. Then i try to understand why the scene was written altogether, what it brings to the film, what it adds, what it links with, why we have this scene in the film.

“I know that David Lean will talk to me about it and say what he thinks. The rest is sitting there on the wagon and really trying to feel as Zhivago would feel, knowing him so well, you know. What would he be thinking of sitting there in that cart?

He sees the deserters coming. Obviously he’s going to watch these people in quite ragged condition and coming back from being in the war. first of all,

I think Zhivago disapproves of war anywhere and of killings, and he would sympathize with them. And at the same time he would be sympathetic to the soldiers he is with who are going to the front.

I think there would be quite a lot of interesting thoughts along those lines going on in his mind. Absolutely fascinating things are happening there, so that he would have blocked off all his past sitting on that wagon, and he would be living that moment intensely.

“The main thing is to watch and listen carefully all the time while you are acting. The moment the camera rolls you’ve got to imagine that you are Zhivago and think as he does, all sorts of thoughts. You see that he might be attracted by one man in this crowd, and that’s what you can do, you know. I just decide that I’m going to be taken up with this person at this particular moment, and it helps.

“There’s also your own physical thing which you invariably bring, because every person has got a physical thing that he brings to a character — his own qualities, his own magnetism or not magnetism or intelligence or lack of it. When I’m young in the film, I try to think as a young man and try to feel in good physical condition. You feel that you are healthy and athletic and can run and can jump, and so it gives you a gait, a whole different thing. If you think that way, then you are young.

“Now, when I play the older part I don’t feel all that good, which is very easy to do because I don’t. You don’t feel you could jump these eight feet really if you had to. You think more maturely; you’ve got more weight, and you’re less quick to notice something. And it’s by these things that I think the part is achieved in the best way.

“There’s something in the eye also. It comes from thought, I think. In the movies you can’t fake any expressions. I think you can put over quite a lot of fakery in the theater because people aren’t close enough to see what you’re thinking. But in a close shot you cannot put on an expression; you’ve got to be thinking right because each of your eyes is about fifteen feet large and the audience can sec what’s inside, behind the eye. You cannot look sad, you know; you’ve got to be sad. And that’s the part of it that is the actor. That’s the actor.”

ROBERT BOLT was in London. I met him there at his flat on the embankment in Chelsea. He talked about his work on the screenplay: “I did a certain amount of preliminary work on the political background,” he said. “I read all the obvious Russian classics in order to try and get into my mind that very special flavor which they have and which the dialogue has. I find that if I read a lot of one poet or one novelist I begin writing in a kind of pale pastiche of that man’s style.

“That was how I started. Then came the actual writing. Of course the first thing you do if you’re working with someone like David Lean is to go and talk to him, and talk to him in great detail. After that you prepare a treatment, which is, as it were, a precis of the finished thing. Now this again I thrashed out with David in some detail. It took us about six or seven weeks, I think. Then I went away and prepared a screenplay, which you have to do more or less on your own because it is a matter of detail — new ideas, actual lines of dialogue. Then I went back to David again. There are things that you’re not satisfied with, and there are things that you are satisfied with but the director is not, and then the arguments and the discussions begin, the sheer hard day-by-day grind, and you go backwards and forwards over it.

“You then almost certainly find that you’re overlength, which we did this time, and you think, well, there’s nothing that we can cut out of this, it’s all pure gold, and of course you find that there’s lots of it that can go, not only without harm but beneficially, and so you gradually arrive at your final screenplay.

“I know this is open to all kinds of rather romantic misinterpretations, but in dramatic work the characters do exist for you, independent of yourself. That is to say, you have to imagine them so intensely that when you put them in the situation, in your mind they do begin to speak. I don’t mean that it’s some kind of automatic writing, but they must speak the dialogue. If you have got to arrange the dialogue coldly and logically, you can see it dying as you write it on the page. The characters must speak for you.

“What fascinated me about Yuri was that his actions are in fact very reprehensible. He has sins of omission and commission, mostly omission, and yet you feel not merely that he could do no other but that in some way he was right and that the only thing under these circumstances that a man of his supcrcultivated sensibilities could have done was go with tiie tide wherever it took him. All the characters are peccable, and yet there is the strong feeling not merely that they could have done no other but that they reacted in these very ordinary and unheroic ways with a kind of special intensity. They were ordinary people raised several notches, and this, of course, is difficult to get across dramatically.

“The way to make a man have stature dramatically is to make him do things which have great stature. The whole point about this book is that Yuri does nothing that has great stature except write poetry; and how to make the writing of a poem, particularly if the poems are like Pasternak’s, seem to a cinema audience a heroic justification of what looks like a rather useless sort of life was a very considerable problem.

“We did it,” Bolt explained, “by calculating as carefully as we could the climax of his relationship with Lara. Everything is knotted together in the desperate situation at Varykino, where the revolution is closing in on them, where the natural conditions, the fearful cold, are closing in on them. What they are doing is in practical terms nonsense, if not indeed highly irresponsible. The only justification of it is the intensity of their love for each other. We hope we have shown by this time in the film that they are unusually mature people. We are hoping that the audience will now assume that this is a kind of Tristan and fseult situation, a great grand passion. And then we have tried to arrange the actual sequence so that the climax of it shall be the writing of Zhivago’s poetry. And in that way we hope to make the poetry the crown of the film.

“I don’t use a word of Pasternak’s dialogue. Not a word. You see, you don’t refer to the book that closely. You don’t sort of flip over the pages and write a scene. You simply have to have faith that the woman in your mind is the right woman, is the woman that Pasternak wanted. You’re a bit in love with her yourself; you are passionately interested in Yuri; and you put them together in a diilicult situation, and they just have to begin to talk, that’s all. The dialogue in the book is unusable for dramatic purposes; but in any ease, quite apart from that, you arc committed to telling the story in one fifteenth of the length. This means that you are distorting wildly just by mere compression, and therefore you’ve got to take a very high hand.

“It’s very different when you’re working on the stage. The difficulty there is to be sufficiently conscious of the visual because the visual is so limited; and yet my own feeling is that it’s not used sufficiently on the stage, so I’m always trying to remember that these people are on the stage with lights and things that can be brought on, carried off, and so on. On the stage, of course, your dialogue does proceed very logically, and you cannot let a gap exist between one line and the next from the start of the play to the end. It must be continuous in thought or emotion, mood, rhythm. This is not the case with a film. In fact, the dialogue in the film is really a last resort.

“It’s a terribly lonely job, writing for the stage. It’s alarmingly lonely just sitting month after month writing away with nobody to egg you on or bully you or encourage you —just yourself. But on the other hand, there’s the feeling that it’s entirely yours, which you can’t, of course, have in a film. By far and away the most important contribution is made by a director in a film, if he’s a good director. You see, David contributes to the screenplay, to the camera work, to the art department. In addition to having made a very big contribution to everybody else’s work, he then makes the enormous contribution of bringing it all together and actualizing it when he gets behind a camera.

“I don’t enjoy writing now as much as I used to, except occasionally. I don’t know why. I suppose when I was first writing, the chances of success seemed so remote for so many years that it was obviously something which f was doing for myself. Yow it’s become my profession among other things. It’s still a compulsion. I still wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I weren’t writing, but some sort of innocence has gone out of it. Partly, of course, it is that you get to know so many more ways of going wrong that it becomes alarming and a bit of a chore, like walking through a minefield. But it’s something deeper and simpler than that which takes the sheer enjoyment out of it, some kind of loss of innocence, I think.”

He went back to Zhivago: “I don’t, you sec, think that Pasternak was a very accomplished novelist. I don’t think that this is so much a novel as it is an enormous disguised poem. He’s either amateur or else indifferent to narrative development and even, here and there, psychological plausibility. You will come upon an obligatory scene, and if Pasternak is not interested in that scene he simply leaves it out. For example there are many examples Yuri is passionately devoted to his wife and family and passionately in love with Lara, f his dichotomy builds and builds, and you want to know how he is going to resolve it, how he is going to hop from one to the other, since that is clearly what he is going to do, and you are simply not told. In fact, the very start of the actual love affair with Iara takes place in the blank space between two chapter headings. In a dramatic form, of course, you can’t do that. You have to show it, and so we had to close up the gaps. Of course my heart was in my mouth doing it because I felt that perhaps Pasternak would simply go mad if he read this, and say, ‘Good God, no, it wasn’t like that at all!’

“But what can one do? You just try to get the characters as he drew them, and then you must go forward. Far and away the hardest thing was at the end when they go back to Varykino. The police are closing in on them, and so Yuri and Lara go to Varykino for a final climactic lovemaking. They come back in a sleigh with Katia, the little girl. We’re told in the book that it’s winter, that wolves have been seen about. The wolves are not a physical threat; it isn’t to be the wolves rushing the stockade or anything like that. They’re a symbol of the inhumanity of the landscape, one takes it, and the feeling is that it’s a kind of mad fairy tale which they’re going to use the last fortnight of their lives for.

“This we’ve attempted to do in the film simply by very vivid tracking shots of them in the sleigh all laughing — nothing to laugh about, the situation’s desperate, but they’re all laughing — and the snow is flying and the sun is shining and it’s magnificent and it has this febrile excited quality. Then there is a panning shot from the sleigh as they come to the house, and the house itself is absolutely buried in snow in the sunshine with icicles ten feet long hanging off it, so that it is exceedingly beautiful, fanciful, fairylike.

“ The house is clearly uninhabitable. It’s clearly madness to go into it and try to set up house there. So that with this one vision we try to say all that about the nature of what is happening and what they’re doing. By the sudden change of mood — this is a thing you can do without dialogue, you sec we take them into the house, and the laughter dies as they bash open the door and see a sort of subaqueous light filtering in through the frozen-up windows, the empty rooms with their odd objects. Then they start laughing at one another again and getting a hit spooked and then encouraging one another, lighting the little fire so that the spirits begin to rise.

“Pasternak rarely describes things in that way. You may get some hints from the novel, but he tells you only the overall effect of the landscape and the feelings it inspires in the people. Then you have to dream up what kind of landscape you think this is specifically and hand it over to the art department, who then say, ‘Well, look, we’ve got a better idea; we’ve found a place over here that looks like this and we think that photographed in such and such a light will give an effect of so and so,’ and so you say, ‘Yes, that’s even better.’ ”