Lean locations

David Lean's long-time friend and collaborator Eddie Fowlie talks exclusively about working with the director.

by James Gracey

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago

The films of David Lean are renowned for their sumptuous and striking images fully utilising raw and real locations, which essentially become characters in their own right. The director had an undeniable talent for lensing truly awe inspiring, iconic and provocative shots associated with what great cinema can offer in the hands of a masterful film maker; Omar Sharif emerging from the shimmering mirage in the desert in Lawrence Of Arabia; the exploding bridge at the climax of The Bridge On The River Kwai; the "ice palace" and Yuri's lengthy quest home through the snow covered Siberian countryside in Doctor Zhivago and the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, to name but a select few memorable and astounding scenes that look as captivating now as they did then.

Despite his reputation as a director of films of monumental scale, Lean’s work is also imbued with an intimate and deeply personal resonance. Regardless of all the scenes involving hundreds of people, vast action sequences and breath taking camera work; his films are peppered with hauntingly quiet moments when we are invited to share the inner thoughts of the characters and take contemplative respite to come to terms with unfolding dramas.

Of all the people Lean worked with over the years Eddie Fowlie became a close friend and collaborator. Fowlie’s keen eye for detail and unfailing dedication to Lean’s vision mark him as someone whose contribution to Lean’s work undoubtedly helped realise the distinct look of the director’s films. Fowlie worked on Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's daughter and A Passage To India. He was responsible for seeking out desirable, distinctive and appropriate locations for Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage To India and he created the special effects (including that mystical looking ice palace) for Doctor Zhivago.

Now retired and residing in a sleepy town on the southern coast of Spain (featured briefly in Lawrence Of Arabia), the indomitable and fiercely eye-browed Fowlie, a gentleman from a bygone era of film making favouring hard graft and old-style craftsmanship, recalls with serenity and calm collection, his days spent with Lean working in various locations dotted around the globe, and he recalls how he first became involved with film making.

The Marabar Caves in A Passage To India
The Marabar Caves in A Passage To India

"Years ago people got a job in the film industry because they didn’t know what else to do," reminisces Fowlie. "Nowadays when movies are made, you’ve got rooms and rooms full of people working on computers. Computers and blue screens. The actors have to react to something they can’t even see. You could superimpose a petrol refinery blowing up behind them and they’d have to react to it. I had the best of it. I started in 1943. I walked up to a door at Warner Brothers Studios, I had just been discharged from the army, and I asked if they needed help. I was told they needed a boom operator. I was also told they needed a set dresser. Say no more!"

Although firmly set in Russia, Doctor Zhivago was filmed in Spain and Fowlie was responsible for making this illusion a believable reality.

"Doctor Zhivago was shot in Spain. All of it. The snow isn’t real, I came up with that. It’s white marble dust. Thousands of tons of the stuff. It was surprisingly cheap. I didn’t use marble dust for the ice palace. Many critics picked that out as one of the highlights of the film. With Doctor Zhivago, the whole film is a special effect. I always maintained that if people can see the special effects and comment on how good they are, the effects have failed. If you know it’s a special effect, it’s failed. MGM asked me what credit I wanted in the film, I said I didn’t give a fuck about the credit as long as the money was in my account! They insisted on giving me a credit. So they said they’d put me down for special effects and felt certain I’d get a nomination for my work. I wasn’t even nominated."

Fowlie recalls how he came to realise that Dingle in County Kerry would make the perfect location for Lean’s "little gem", Ryan’s Daughter.

"It was a beautiful part of the country. Cumulus clouds climbing up like castles. You can’t exactly go there and sunbathe on the beach, but if you enjoy the drama of it all and the mists and look at it through artists’ eyes, there’s just nowhere like it. I was thinking about Ireland and how it rains a lot there and I thought I’d try and find somewhere else with similar locations, north of Spain and Bay of Biscay or somewhere. I looked and it was too green. The sea was too blue and the sky was too blue and it wasn’t right to put the story in this context. Ryan’s Daughter is not a green, Emerald Isle, Leprechaun type story, it is pretty grim, grey stuff.

"The first thing I always did was get maps so I could see all the contours of the land and the shoreline and the water of wherever we were considering for a location. I’d try to get reports on wind direction and things like that. Because of its landscape and the weather and the shape of the land and the mountains in the background, I decided to go to Dingle, County Kerry. I was driving through the town, not much of a town at the time, but there they were building with prefabricated material, a hotel. I thought this was an omen: they’re building a bloody hotel for the crew! I photographed everything as I went. I thought I’d continue looking along the rest of the west coast, so I drove up to Donegal, but it was a total bore. No rugged beauty. County Clare was good and pretty in places, County Mayo too. I thought Galway was flat and boggy and not of much interest to me.’

Fowlie travelled all over Ireland searching for hidden places with a natural, untarnished charisma to capture with Lean‘s camera.

"Miles and miles of little narrow roads that just went to nowhere. Sometimes I found I had to back the whole way out again because the road just didn’t go anywhere. I needed to find woodlands for several scenes. There was an ancient estate with fine big woodlands. One big area of woodlands there used to belong to an Irish American, when he died he left the estate to his secretary and she guarded over it fiercely, like a treasure. The woodlands were full of bluebells. Beautiful. You won’t believe this, but I saw a fox with a salmon in its mouth running through the bluebells. You couldn’t even write that into a script because it’s too dreamy.

"Returning to Kerry because I needed a long beach with a cave and this, believe it or not was quite hard to find, you don’t always get caves on the beach. I got as far as I could on the coast road and the car couldn’t get any further, so I stopped, got out and walked the rest of the way. I was greeted by the view you see in the film: glorious.’

"I considered using the Cliffs of Mohr in the storm scene but, to be honest, I didn’t find them that interesting. In those days you could go and stand on the very edge, now they’ve got it fenced off. It’s full of tourists and buses and hamburger stalls. Back then there weren’t many people around. You could go to the edge of the cliff and lean out to where the seagulls were; they would just sit there in the wind.

Finding the beach for Ryan's Daughter was a tricky business
Finding the beach for Ryan's Daughter was a tricky business

"I went further south from there to where the Shannon reaches the Atlantic. I found some really impressive, sculpted, flying buttresses and such dramatic cliffs. We shot in some extreme weather. Not only were the waves crashing all around us but the rain when it came to fall over the cliffs from the land and the wind took it all the way back again! You can see it in some of the publicity pictures, it’s wonderful.

"Part of the cliffs were shaped in such a way that the sea would rush along it and the resulting wave would have been about 30 feet high and it was absolutely phenomenal. I used to go and sit under the rock with the water gushing over them. I drilled into the rocks so the equipment could be securely attached. We filmed in real storms."

Fowlie recalls that Lean was stressed out because he still needed to complete filming the love scene in the woodlands, but winter was setting in and the landscape was changing too much.

"I rented a ceilidh dance hall in a small town nearby," Fowlie reminisces. "I covered the floor with roofing felt and soil and planted seeds and took plants from the woodlands and I had them put into a cold storage. After a while I took them out and put them into a hothouse. And they thought they’d had their winter and started to grow. There was grass in there too and when the plants were ready they were put into the dancehall, the place looked lovely.

"I got a load of butterflies and put them into the hall, too, and some birds and a lace curtain over the door to stop them getting out. There was a humidifier there, too, and the air was warm and damp and everything continued to grow, it was marvellous. One night when we had finished filming for the day David and I were driving back to base and I convinced him to go another way as I had something to show him. We went past the dancehall and I pulled back the lace curtain and there was this enchanted place… He was able to complete filming the love scene."

Although renowned for his sprawling scenes of epic grandeur, Fowlie notes that Lean was also keen to approach certain scenes with a subtle, more intimate touch. "David had wanted a good entrance for the character of Randolph in Ryan’s Daughter’ recalls Fowlie. "When he gets off the bus and it drives off and leaves him behind and he’s just standing there with his own reflection in a puddle. A lonely man.

"David liked his subtle suggestiveness. Like when Rosy goes to meet Randolph. She leans over a fence and gets pollen on her dress from the big stamens of the flowers. David wanted images that would seep into people’s brains. Wild romantic things. People don’t always know what they are looking at or hearing, but their subconscious does. It’s those things that matter. Those things are in peoples minds forever and ever. People die still remembering those things."

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