‘Harold and Lillian’ documents a movie-making marriage

April 26, 2017
Lillian and the late Harold Michelson, shown in 1994, are featured in a documentary screening at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Adama Films.

The names Harold and Lillian Michelson may not be familiar, but the hundreds of movie titles they worked on certainly are. He was a storyboard artist and she was a film researcher, with resumés that include “The Ten Commandments,” “The Apartment,” “The Birds,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Scarface” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The royal couple in “Shrek,” King Harold and Queen Lillian, were named after them.

Now, they’re the subjects of “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” which will be presented during the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 1 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. Lillian will receive the Marvin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award and participate in a post-screening Q-and-A with the film’s writer-director Daniel Raim.

The festival is a program of TRIBE Media, the parent company of the Jewish Journal.

Raim set out to pay tribute to the couple’s impressive body of work in his latest documentary. But as the title suggests, it also recognizes a marriage that lasted 60 years, until Harold’s death in 2007.

Israeli-born, Raim met the Michelsons 20 years ago while studying at the American Film Institute (AFI) and making his first documentary, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” about production designer Robert Boyle, with whom Harold worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” As he got to know them, Raim realized that “they had these incredible careers that needed to be talked about,” he said in a telephone interview.

“In 2013, I started making a couple of short films as an homage to their life’s work, but as I did interviews, everyone I spoke with said they were inspired by them as a couple,” he noted. “The challenge was to tell the story of their creative collaboration and their romantic partnership.”

He did that through film clips, Harold’s drawings, and the poems and love letters he sent to Lillian. He also used new and archival interviews with the Michelsons and others, Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito among them. At least once a month for a year and a half, Raim visited Lillian, now 88, at the the Motion Picture and  Television Fund facility in Woodland Hills “and got her to open up her heart, mind and history,” he said.

Her engaging anecdotes about her work include tales of befriending a drug lord for “Scarface” research and probing Russian-Jewish women for information on shtetl-era underwear for “Fiddler on the Roof.” One even made a pattern for her.

“Lillian had a very difficult childhood but went from growing up in orphanages to becoming a very successful self-made woman,” Raim said. “She was born into a Jewish family but was not raised in a Jewish environment. It was a Catholic orphanage. I wish I had that in the movie, but I learned about that after I finished it.”

As for Harold, “I think he was culturally Jewish in a nonreligious way,” Raim said. “He’s buried at Forest Lawn and had a rabbi at his funeral, but I don’t think praying was a big part of his life.”

A pilot during World War II, Harold met Lillian, a friend of his sister’s, in 1945 in Miami. He moved to Los Angeles two years later. She followed, they married, and by 1949, they had their first child, and Harold was working as an art apprentice at Columbia Pictures.

The film details his experiences working there and at other studios, producing storyboards for Cecil B. DeMille on “The Ten Commandments,” Mike Nichols on “The Graduate” and Alfred Hitchcock on the 1963 film “The Birds.”

“‘The Birds’ was a turning point in Harold’s career because it was the first time he was invited by a director to be by his side through the entire shoot,” Raim said. “Up to that point, Harold had never even met a director, so it was a master class in cinema for him. It propelled him to the next level.”

By 1970, he was a production designer and went on to earn Oscar nominations in art direction for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Terms of Endearment.”

But for Raim, it was equally important to depict Harold as the romantic he was.

“Harold was madly in love with Lillian. The honeymoon period never waned for him,” the director said. “It was a true partnership. She provided the research for him to do his storyboards and a home to come home to. He supported her career and buying a film research library in 1969, when they had almost no money.”

Raim can relate to that aspect of his subjects’ marriage: His wife, Jennifer Raim, co-produced and edited “Harold and Lillian.”

“We also have a working relationship. There were times at the editing table, going over the cuts, when I thought we really are walking in [the Michelsons’] footsteps,” he said. “Their ability to work together made their love story possible, and I can appreciate that in looking at my own life.”

Born in Rehovot to an Israeli mother and an American father who was teaching computer science there, Raim moved to Palo Alto, Calif., with his family when he was 5 but returned to Israel on his own at 15 to study at an arts high school in Haifa. “I thrived for three years studying painting and playing in a Russian rock band,” he said.

While serving in the Israel Defense Forces as a cameraman, “It became clear to me that that was my calling,” he said. “In 1997, when I completed my service, I went to Hollywood, looking for a mentor to teach me about cinema. I met Robert Boyle at AFI and the rest is history.”

His next documentary is about “Fiddler on the Roof” creator Joseph Stein, and his first scripted feature is a coming-of-age story based on his experiences during the 1991 Gulf War, “when I was living with a host family and my room was the safe room where we’d go when the air raid sirens went off.”

In the run-up to opening engagements of “Harold and Lillian,” including May 12 in Los Angeles, Raim said he is gratified that people will finally learn about “two unsung heroes who made such an important contribution to films we all know and love. I think it’s inspiring, especially for young people, to see that anyone can come out of anywhere and work in a place like Hollywood. You just need tenacity and talent.”

“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” will be screened May 1 at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 and will premiere at that theater, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center on May 12. For more information, go to lajfilmfest.org. 

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