IN DOC 'HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY'
In the trailer (above) for Daniel Raim's new documentary, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, there is a brief tease featuring Lillian Michelson, Hollywood researcher, recalling what it was like telling her husband, storyboard artist Harold Michelson, that she was going to Ecuador "in a drug king's airplane" to do research for Brian De Palma's Scarface. I haven't seen this documentary yet, but here are some review excerpts mentioning the Scarface anecdote:
Andrew Wright at The Stranger
Utilizing celebrity interviews and cute (but-not-overly-so) cartoony sketches, the film tells the story of the late storyboard artist/production designer/Hitchcock fave Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian, whose dissatisfaction at being stuck at home led her to become the go-to researcher for filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Stanley Kubrick. Tom Waits liked to hang out with them, which speaks multitudes.
Director Daniel Raim doesn’t neglect the couple’s sometimes chaotic home life, including their struggles with raising an autistic son. Still, the focus here is largely on The Movies, offering fascinating looks throughout at how Harold’s illustrations helped create the look of classics such as The Birds and The Graduate, as well as the intriguing suggestion that his experiences in the nose of a World War II bomber made him uniquely suited for the job.
The film’s real ace in the hole, however, proves to be Lillian, an endlessly quotable interview subject whose pixyish presence can’t mask the sense that she knows exactly where all of the industry bodies are buried. (A brief aside about contacting a Bolivian drug lord while researching Brian De Palma’s Scarface demands a 10-hour miniseries, at the very least.) Together, the stories of this unlikely Power Couple make for a terrific corrective of the idea of filmmaking being a singular vision. Orson Welles’s quote about the movies being the world’s biggest electric train set gains even more resonance when you consider the folks who keep the transformers humming.
Monica Castillo at The New York Times
Their behind-the-scenes influence on filmmakers was far-reaching. Mr. Michelson’s storyboards show sketched versions of memorable scenes, like the parting of the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments” and Anne Bancroft’s raised leg overshadowing Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” Mrs. Michelson excitedly recalls interviewing women at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles about traditional costumes for “Fiddler on the Roof” and questioning a drug kingpin for “Scarface.”
Scott Tobias at NPR
Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they're not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late '40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early '60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.
Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold's talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master's most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson's leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold's sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn't start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.
For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a "time machine" that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.
Lillian's voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold's extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.