Ossie Morris talks about working with Franco Zeffirelli on "The Taming of the Shrew"
The British Entertainment History Project is deeply saddened to hear of the death of the great Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli. Our collection of interviews includes one recorded in 1987 with Ossie Morris who worked with him as Director of Photography on the movie "The Taming of the Shrew" starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In this transcript of the interview Ossie talks about working with Zeffirelli on the movie. You can listen to the complete six hours and forty three minute interview at: https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/oswald-ossie-morris . The section about working with Zeffirelli is on Side 8.
Let’s talk about Zeffirelli.
Zeffirelli was very talented very talented. A bit , how can I say a bit , he seems to be a bit bewildered when he makes a film. You're not quite sure whether he knows what he wants.
But eventually you do find out what he wants and it's usually something pretty terrific. If you've seen any of Zeffirelli films, artistically they're absolutely beautiful. We were going to do Taming Of The Shrew and I said Franco do you know how we're going to do this film because you know we've got to do something. It is a wonderful chance to do something. He said “Well I think we should make it look like some of the Venetian paintings of the period”. So we went to Italy. They do these most wonderful art books mostly books published in English in Italy these days. We went and we got a whole lot of the paintings of the period I've got it upstairs now .We made three loose leaf copies of the various paintings of the period we thought should be the style of the film. Zeffirelli had one , Mongiardino the designer had one and I had one and that was virtually the bible for the film. So each of us knew what was expected of the other one. And we used that and I tried to photograph the film on the lines of these paintings .l Zeffirelli cast in the same way. The costume designers designed the costumes in the same style of the painting so everybody knew what everybody was doing. And it's the one film where that's ever been done. And it really was necessary with that film because it was such a visual film, apart from being Shakespeare, it was visual and we have those three books . Now that’s fine you think but there is always a snag We have two very powerful people in it.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth insists on having her own costume designer because Elizabeth by then is beginning to put on a lot of weight and Irene Sharaff who was the designer had to do this corset type of bodice that Elizabeth needed to keep her stomach in a bit, because Elizabeth was beginning to eat rather heavily. And liked a lot of good food ,Irene Sharraf obviously had got preconceived ideas of the colours that suited Elizabeth and they didn't always fit in with our pattern of Venetian paintings. So there was a problem. So Franco said to me “Ossie what are we going to do about it Elizabeth does not look good. The colours are wrong. And Richard does not look good. The colours are wrong”
Zeffirelli was a bit scared of Richard and Elizabeth so muggins once again becomes the middle man. He said “Ossie you know Richard and you know Elizabeth will you go and talk to them and see if we can alter their costumes”? I said “well Franco I will try but I don't guarantee to be successful”. Well I knew their American production manager very well Dick McWhorter. I said to Dick “Look we've got a problem here. Zeffirelli doesn't like the costumes”. He said, Well I will think about going to get a change. I said well look can you fix it that I go and see Richard on my own I'll talk to Richard first. So that was arranged for me to go and see Richard and I explained to Richard what had happened and I said Zeffirelli is not happy with your costume Richard and he's a bit nervous about coming out speaking to you about it. I said but more important he's not very happy with Elizabeth’s. He said “Well I don't see how you're going to get anywhere with that because she's had Irene Sharaff all this time and she's not about to change” .
“Well maybe we could get together and maybe have a meeting with Irene Sharaff “. Well to cut a long story short , in the end we got everybody together Irene Sharaff, Elizabeth, Richard myself, Dick McWhorter, Zeffirelli and the wonderful Italian custom designer Danilo Donati and we finally agreed that he would be allowed to make a set of costumes for Richard and if we all thought the costumes were better than Irene Sharaff’s , Richard would wear the Italian costumes. Well there's no question they were marvellous and they were hilarious and they were brilliantly hilarious costumes. Richard had no hesitation in saying that he would wear them. But they did some designs for Elizabeth. She gave them to Irene Sharaff but you know it's where a question of personal pride comes into it , Irene Sharaff is a quite a well-known American designer . She's not about to be told how to design a costume by Franco Zeffirelli. So sadly we didn't get anywhere with that. Elizabeth had her own costume. I think it shows slightly in the film ,maybe not as much as it might have done. But right at the very end when the picture was looking so stunning. When what we called the epilogue, the big costume scene, the costume she's wearing in that picture over there . That was in fact designed by Danilo Donati so she did allow that one to be designed by him. It's a big cloak which went over Irene Sharaff’s costume so Irene Sharaff thought she designed it but she really didn't. The cloak was designed by Danilo Donati. And so there was a compromise. But again it's dealing with people .
Was Zeffirelli easy to work with?
Oh yes. A bit cunning, all Italians are cunning. He insisted that I had an Italian crew . Well I agreed to have an Italian crew because to help the finances. There was a lot of lira put into the picture and they were a bit short of dollars and I had to be paid. I didn't want to be paid in lira but to be paid in sterling which was dollars really. So they were keen to have an Italian crew. I used to find there was a lot of dialogue went on between him and the Italian camera operator and I couldn't always understand what was going on. I had to put a stop to that. I did and I got on very well with them. Franco is a lovely man to work with , a very gentle man, very talented, full of ideas and they come out at the last minute. You know like you’re sitting there and he comes out with a wonderful idea. And you've got to quickly implement it. But no it was a wonderful film to be on. I was very thrilled to be on that one.