John Box

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
9 Dec 1999
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs

Interview notes

                                                                            The full interview appears below this summary



Summary BEHP 0463


Interviewed by Rodney Giesler on 9 12 99




Born 1920. Spent childhood in Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. Father a civil engineer. A good cricketer but not allowed to play cricket against Singhalese teams. Mother died. Sent to school in England. Lived with an uncle. Studied architecture at North London Polytechnic. Hatred of Nazis. Volunteered for the army. Spent the war in a tank regiment. Fought from Normandy to Germany. Wounded twice. Commanded a battalion. Only colonel not awarded a Military Cross. Left army and qualified as an architect. Found life dull. Always interested in films. Introduced to John Bryan. Sent to see Edward Carrick. Then taken on by Alex Vetchinsky at Denham in September 1947. Started with Roy Walker.  First film No Medals for Martha. A lesson in set design. Vetchinsky’s skills as an economic designer. Definition of film design. Draughtsmanship the beginning. The contribution to the final images. The drama of colour. The importance of location. Art department works as a team. Carmen Dillon a great  influence. Assistant to her on The Importance of Being Earnest. Got involved with David Rawnsley’s Independent Frame as an assistant. Took over Malta Story. Next on The Million Pound Note with John Bryan as producer. He had developed false perspective on Great Expectations. Took over The Black Knight from Vetchinsky for Warwick in Spain. Given a contract with Warwick. Expanded vision. To Berlin with Mark Robson for Prize of Gold. Ingredients action, sex and stars. Robson takes him on for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Turning Wales into China. Influenced by Chinese prints. The importance of logistics. Recruited Chinese extras from Liverpool. Bullrushes standing in for rice. Taken on by Carol Reed for Our Man in Havana. Arrived in Havana during the same week as Castro. Disappointing architecturally. Havana’s essence in the studio. To Hong Kong for The World of Suzie Wong.  Getting visual ideas during the recce.  The bar girls’ etiquette.  Studio work in UK. Invited to meet David Lean in Paris. Offered Lawrence of Arabia. Recce Jordan with Lean and Sam Spiegel. Liaison men Aloosh[?] and an Anglo-Arab oil man. Terrible hotel in Aqaba. Awed by the desert. Seventy sets to be built on locations. (46’14“)


End of Side 1.




Lawrence of Arabia.- Responsible for the tented camps. John Bryan visits, but falls sick. Felt something lacking in agreed locations. Taken to see Jabal Tuwayq. Shows it to David Lean who is smitten by it. Tough logistic problems, and how they were solved. How "the mirage” was designed. Memories of Peter O’Toole. Realises the limitations of Jordan. Aqaba not dramatic. Looks at Spain with its huge film resources. Decides on Almeria. Laying a railway track. Seville doubled for Cairo and Damascus. Sets built inside National Exhibition building. Builds Aqaba in river bed at Carboneras. Had to import camels. Spaniards superb horsemen. Great believer in models. Everyone can see what’s needed from them. Long hours worked, but relaxation essential. Had to move to Morocco for Battle of Damascus. Ouarzazate The most effective way of shooting a battle, and a motor cycle accident. Getting the audience to forget they paid money. Sound a vital ingredient. Editing as part of the film’s design. Summoned to Venice by Lean to work on Dr. Zhivago. Solving the logistic problems. Looked at Jugoslavia, but atmosphere was wrong. Tried Sweden and Finland. Logistics bad


and no film facilities. Looked at Canada. Atmosphere not Russian. Once again Spain is the answer. Built Moscow sets in Madrid. Soria the setting for Zhivago’s country house. Shaping the house for snow. The film’s great success. Logistic problems had to be solved before the script was written. A close relationship with David Lean. (41’58”).


End of Side 2.



Ambitions to be a director. Produced The Looking Glass War for Columbia. Not a success. Missed working on Lean’s Hobson’s Choice. Discovery of Anthony Hopkins. Back to designing. Sorcerer with William Friedkin and shot in Dominican Republic. Why good writers don’t make good directors. Designed A Man for all Seasons. Working with Fred Zinnemann. Economic but effective sets. Connecting widely-separated sets. Showing the passing of time. Setting Sir Thomas More in a "bullring". Minimum design for maximum effect. Went on to work on Oliver! with Carol Reed. Johnny Green the musical expert. Honor White the choreographer. The designer’s input. Colour control. Film’s marvellous reception. Travels with my Aunt with George Cukor. Offered Nicholas and Alexandra by Sam Spiegel.(28’40“). Persuaded him to make it in Spain but then moved to Zagreb. Art Director Vincent Korda fired. Designed and directed a large amount. Franklin Schaffner credited director. A good art department. Manuel Beringer a brilliant cameraman. Nightmare of filming with snow. Anthony Powell on costumes a great find. More on The Sorcerer. Directed by Billy Friedkin. Based on "Wages of Fear". South America too [?] for filming so Dominican Republic was chosen instead as Paramount owned it. (45 mins).


End of Side 3.



Problems with piranha infested river. The rains that failed. The strain on the director. Cutting a new road. The failings of the film. Lean’s Mutiny on the Bounty: the film that never was. Eddie Fowlie’s idea. Meetings at Tahiti. No facilities there, and realises that a film can’t be made there and tells Lean so. A bitter time. Pulls out. Project collapses. Next film The Keep directed by Michael Mann. Finds a "castle" in Wales. Had to impose a style on it. Alex Thompson photographed it. Approached by John Brabourne to work on Passage to India. Reconciled with Lean. An affinity for India. Finding the cave location in Bangalore. A

  • Maharajah’s palace converted into a production centre. Impossible to shoot in a real street. Good cheap labour. Reimposing the British influence. Lean’s ending unsatisfactory. Toning down erotic sculpture. The girls who "sewed” the lawn. Childhood memories revived. Courtroom scenes shot in British studio. Relationship with Lean restored and asked to work on Conrad’s Nostromo to be produced by Spielberg. Preproduction starts. Recces Mexico. Christopher Hampton writes the script. Completion problems in Mexico. Think of Spain. Returns to Almeria. Problems with the script. Spielberg pulls out, Serge Silverman takes over. Bolt returns to script. Build sets in Nice. Lean falls ill. Production cancelled. (44 mins)


End of Side 4.















Lean’s funeral. Thoughts on Lean and Carol Reed.  The end of an era. Bob Shapiro offers him a remake of Black Beauty. Director Caroline Thompson. Locations limited by budget. Recreating London in studio with one ever unchanging set. Using the stables at Blenheim Palace. Last film The First Knight: a revamp of King Arthur. Director   Jerry Zucker.  Back to Wales for locations. Camelot built on an atomic power station. Wrong subject for the director. His last film. How a film is designed. Fluid thinking. Atmosphere and style. Integrating all the elements: characters, colour, sound, editing, architecture, logistics. A team effort. Understanding the director. Psychological harmony. The actor becoming the part. The nature of the design team. Production designer, art director, draughtsmen, sketch artist, juniors, set dresser, buyers, property master, standby props, construction manager, carpenters, plasterers, painters, riggers, stagehands, special effects, costumes, hair styles, makeup. Julie Christie and the red dress. The importance of story boarding. The importance of lens choice. The “mirage” arrival of Ali in Lawrence of Arabia. Filters. Colour is a challenge. Study the masters. The cameraman makes your dreams come true. Very keen on set models. All crafts can study it. English cameraman puts his soul in it. Advances in cameras and lights. (45’25").