Walter Shenson Interview
(Remembering the Beatles)
In 1964 United Artists approached Walter Shenson with the idea of producing
a film about rock 'n' roll's newest phenomenon - The Beatles. "I knew
who they were, he recalls, "because my 2 young sons were playing Beatles
records, but I wasn't a Beatles fan." Nevertheless, Walter Shenson assigned
Richard Lester to direct the feature and A Hard Days Night became an international
hit, receiving 2 Oscar nominations. In 1965, Walter Shenson, Richard Lester,
and The Beatles teamed up again for the movie "Help!"
We spoke with producer Walter Shenson about his days on the set with the
Fab Four and what it was like filming "A Hard Days Night" and "Help!"
Q. As producer of both A Hard Days Night and Help!, what did your job entail?
A. Well, as a producer you make everything happen. Nothing happens without
a producer. That's how films get made. It could be the director, the writer,
or the star, but it must be a producer as well. If it's a hyphenated job that's
fine too. But without the producer whether he has another hat on or not the
job doesn't get done. Somebody’s got to say, 'Lets make a this film.'
And that's what I did. In both cases. And that means that I then have to get
a script, cast it, get a director, have to get the money to make it. That's
what you do when you're a producer. You do everything.
Q. How did United Artists come to select you as the producer?
A. I had been living in London, and I had made 3 modest budget comedies that
they liked. One was 'The Mouse That Roared' with Peter Sellers. They knew me.
They asked me if I would do a modest budget comedy starring The Beatles. Since
they were not a producing company, merely financing and distributing, they
left all the creative details up to me. So I employed Richard Lester to direct
the film because I had known him and worked with him before. Then we got a
very good writer named Alan Owen, who was from Liverpool, to do the script,
because we felt he could write in the idiom of The Beatles. And, we made a
very good movie.
Q. A Hard Days Night was made for $500,000. How much money has it grossed
A. Maybe $20 million dollars. But, that's considering those were 1964 dollars.
That's a lot of people. Don't forget kids went to the movies for 50 or 60 cents,
at the time, and adults probably 2 dollars. So, in today’s terms it was
Q. You became the owner of A Hard Days Night after 15 years, is that correct?
A. Yes, I have the copyright to A Hard Days Night and I share the copyright
with The Beatles company on Help!
Q. How long did it take to shoot A Hard Days Night?
A. Six week.
Q. And Help!?
A. Six weeks.
Q. And how much has Help! grossed?
A. About the same. Everything’s about the same except Help! cost a
little bit more, a million and a quarter dollars.
Q. Whatever happened to Wilfred Brambell, the gentleman who played the grandfather
in A Hard Days Night?
A. I don't know. He was a pretty well established actor when we started with
him. So, I guess he continued his career. I heard he passed away, but I'm not
sure. He wasn't that old when we started, because he was probably only in the
Q. What was your impression of The Beatles when you first met them?
A. I'd heard them, and I'd seen them on television in London. They were extremely
polite. Very nice and obviously talented, and very decent young men. I had
great affection for them all.
Q. Did one member stand out among the band?
A. Well, John was more or less the spokesman, but not wholly. Paul had a
lot of input, and so did the others. But John was primarily I guess the spiritual
head of The Beatles. They all had enough to say about it, and they're all very
Q. What kind of man was their manager, Brian Epstein?
A. He was very decent. Very honorable. Very busy. I think he probably didn't
expect to have this kind of tremendous worldwide success happen to him and
The Beatles in such a short time. It was difficult for him to get an organization
together to cope with everything. But I think he did alright considering the
fact that he was not a so called 'manager', before this. It takes a certain
kind of personality. I knew I wouldn't want to do it. He seemed to do it pretty
well. And the boys had great affection for him. They liked him. Don't forget
they all started as kids together. So there was a nice feeling among them.
It was a very successful association until he died.
Q. At one point United Artists was prepared to give The Beatles 25% ownership
of A Hard Days Night...
A. Twenty-five per cent of the profits of production.
Q. And Brian Epstein walked in and said he would settle for nothing less
A. Yeah, but at the time, as I said, he wasn't experience. I think he was
talking in terms of music record royalties. That seemed to be a number they
all worked with until it was pointed out to him that The Beatles deserved much
Q. So you didn’t t think any less of him as a
A. Oh no. we just realized he was inexperienced. More than the money, he
was always concerned about The Beatles welfare, and the right people to make
a film with them. I would think his Number One concern was keeping The Beatles
happy, not so much how much money will they keep. There was enough money to
go around so I guess the amounts didn't mean much to him. It might've meant
something to someone with more of an accountants mind. But, I think Brian's
role in life was to make sure the boys were happy. I was very flattered when
he told me when we were starting the second film how relieved he was the boys
were working with me and the crew I put together because they never once complained
to him and he could get on with his other work.
Q. In Help! were certain members of The Beatles more cooperative in learning
how to ski than others?
A. I'm not aware of that. I know they were all having fun out on the slopes.
I don't remember if we had a problem with The Beatles. When we needed good
skiing we just hired the doubles.
Q. Compare the two Beatles films for me, and why is A Hard Days Night considered
the better of the two films?
A. Well, it depends on what basis one calls it better certainly Help! is
a better looking movie. It's more of a film. It's a movie movie. It's color.
Its pretty locations, more plot. If there weren't A Hard Days Night you wouldn't
be asking me these questions. A Hard Days Night was so reflective of The Beatles.
The world was waiting to see what The Beatles were like on screen. Don't forget,
they'd only seen them doing concerts. We captured their personalities with
a very fine screen play and a very talented director. So, even those members
of the audience who were not Beatles fans through their music, were won over
by their personalities. You can't keep doing that over and over again. You're
not going to make another exaggerated day in the life of The Beatles. So we
did Help! Some people have liked A Hard Days Night better, and some like Help!
better. It's a matter of taste.
Q. Why wasn't there a third film?
A. We had one story that everybody liked, but the script didn't turn out
well, and by that time I guess they just didn't want to do another film. The
third film to fulfill their obligation was 'Let It Be', which they just employed
a camera crew and a director and they just recorded on film the recording session.
That was not scripted. It was just edited and shot. That unfortunately showed
the breaking up of The Beatles.
Q. How about Magical Myster Tour that got bad reviews...
A. Well, it's a lousy film and it deserved to get bad reviews.
Q. Could you have come in and saved it?
A. No. No way. I wouldn't have started it. I mean you don't make movies without
screen plays. I guess because of our technique, the way Dick Lester directed
the movies and the camera crew, and the good writing we had, I think The Beatles
didn't realize this takes an awful lot of talent and experience. They thought
well, this is pretty easy and they go out and do it themselves. And, it doesn't
work that way. Their music is always good but as a film, it just wasn't a film.
Q. Albert Goldman, the author of the book on Elvis, will be releasing a new
book this fall on John Lennon. Did he interview you? Did you reveal anything
new about the filming of The Beatles movies?
A. He interviewed me a few times. I just answer the questions people ask.
There's nothing else. Don't forget my experience with The Beatles pretty much
ended before 'Let It Be' was made. I still consider myself friendly with them.
Someone was in London recently and met George Harrison who told this man to
send his regards to me, that he thinks of me fondly and remembers the fun we
had, which I was very happy to hear. And I ran into Ringo recently in Los Angeles
and it was very nice seeing him. Through mutual friends I know about what Paul
is up to. But, just mainly because of the distances and the differences in
our work and our age, there was no reason to keep up. And also I wanted to
get on with my own career as a movie maker. I wasn't one of those producers
who wanted to horn in on the t-shirt rights and things like that. A lot of
people who worked with The Beatles seemed to try to make a career out of The
Beatles. I was very thrilled to produce the films and I think I did a good
job and I'm glad the pictures are good and people still like them. I have very
pleasant memories of them.
Q. Did the Beatles smoke marijuana on the set of Help! or during the filming
of the movie at any time?
A. No. They never did that on the set I think at a party one night, a private
home, we were all having a few drinks. It was a nice social party. But, it
never go on to the set. I was with them constantly during the making of both
pictures, and I can assure you I n ever saw an y marijuana smoking or drug
taking, or anything lik e that.
Q. And what are you doing these days?
A. Oh, I'm always doing something. I always keep busy. A few years ago I
made a very nice movie called 'Reuben, Reuben’ with Tom Conti, who got
an Oscar nomination. I made a nice little movie called ‘Echo Park' with
Tom Hulse and Susan Dey, whose career took off after that film, 'cause she's
in ‘L.A. Law’, and won an Emmy recently, and is a very good actress.
And now I'm preparing a couple more films.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved