John Box

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Work area/craft/role: 
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Interview Date(s): 
9 Dec 1999
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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 Jamal 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").






John Box (JB)

Production Designer

BECTU No.463

Interviewer: Rodney Gielsler (RG)

Date 09/12/1999

3 Tapes

Side 1

00:00:00 – 00:09:30 Introductions; born 1920 in England but moved to Ceylon; father couldn’t get a decent job after WWI so he worked in a number of remote areas of Ceylon to work as a civil engineer; JB was here until 9 or 10 years old; moved back to England where JB went to school in Cumberland and then London, while his father and brother were still abroad; JB started at the Northern Polytechnic on Holloway Road, most students were sons of builders; the rumblings of war had started and JB had a distaste for what was happening in Germany; JB applied to join the army and eventually joined a tank regiment, moving through Europe and ending up in Germany as an acting Colonel; he was asked to stay in the army after the war but went back to studying architecture; JB talks about his tank regiment; JB had always been interested in films so approached a costume designer his uncle knew, who then introduced him to designer John Brown; JB was then sent to Edward Carrick, supervising art director at Pinewood, who gave him names of other art directors he should contact.

00:09:30 – 00:16:20  He received a letter from art director Alex Vetchinsky at Denham studios and started working there in 1947 alongside Roy Walker; JB was confident working with classical forms; his first film was No Medals for Martha, designing a battleship, which Vetchinsky taught JB to design in perspective; JB talks about some of the techniques Vetchinsky taught him; differences between architecture and art direction – JB applied his craft to films, the foundation comes from what is on the drawing board as it is with architecture; dramatic impact is in the timing of the presentation of images which relate to characters.

00:16:20 – 00:17:05 Most of the time you were fighting colour in your designs, as colour has to be dramatic, monochrome was used until colour was wanted – JB discusses Oliver! and Doctor Zhivago.

00:17:05 – 00:29:45 The art department work as a team; JB was lucky to receive the classical training he did at the school of architecture; Carmen Dillon influenced JB, who had also been trained as an architect, and gave JB a broader vision that Vetchinsky; JB was under contact at Rank when he got involved with Independent Frame which collapsed; JB then worked with Carmen Dillon on a Disney film; JB became art director on Million Pound Note alongside Jack Maxsted; The Black Knight with Vetchinsky for Warwick Films, JB had to take over when Vetchinsky fell ill; Warwick offered JB a contract which expanded his opportunities; the Warwick films were more expensive and went out to a bigger market than the Rank productions – their main premise was action, sex and stars; JB made another film for Warwick in Berlin with Mark Robson.

00:29:45 – 00:36:30 Mark Robson asks for JB on Inn of the Sixth Happiness, set in China but filmed in Wales; JB looked at a number of Chinese prints and watercolours which reminded him of Wales; JB looked to Chinese restaurants in Liverpool for the extras; bulrushes were used to stand in for rice fields; the film was immensely successful and JB was now offered more interesting films such as Caesar and Cleopatra but instead went to work with Carrol Reed on Our Man in Havana.

00:36:30 – 00:36:50 They were given the offer to film Our Man in Havana either in colour in Spain or in B&W in Havana, JB came down hard on the side of B&W because of the authenticity.

00:36:50 – 00:46:30 JB arrived in Havana the same week as when Castro came in; Carol Reed was not a fan of location shooting; Havana was disappointing architecturally; World of Suzie Wong shot in Hong Kong and to get the feel of the city he spent a lot of time in bars with the girls who worked there to support their families; Lawrence of Arabia with David Lean; JB met lean in Paris to talk about the project; JB, Lean and Sam Spiegel went to Jordan to recce for Lawrence; 60 or 70 sets were built for Lawrence in the desert and Spain; JB talks about the living conditions in Jordan.

Side 2

00:00:00 – 00:09:50 Lawrence of Arabia; David Lean was the first to call art directors ‘designers’; Lean brought in John Brown as another designer on the film but fell ill while in the desert; JB felt that the film needed a better desert location which he found in Jebel Tubeiq; the mirage sequence – the desert was painted on the edge of the image to draw the viewer’s mind; JB’s team was brought in on trucks from Maan, Jordan; JB talks about logistical issues of shooting in the desert; shooting was done with a minimal script.

00:09:50 – 00:19:40 Derailing the train in Lawrence; JB talks about finishing the film in another location after falling behind schedule; JB scouted Almeria in Spain where it was possible to shoot a train on location in the desert, but David Lean was adamant that he wanted to finish the film in Jordan; Seville in Spain doubled for Cairo and Damascus, and Carboneras doubled for Aqaba; JB is a great believer in using models in production design; a model was made for the Aqaba set which was laid out on location for Lean and Spiegel.

00:19:40 – 00:29:50 Shooting in Almeria; camels had to be imported into Spain from Africa; JB suggested shooting the battle sequence in Ouarzazate, Morocco; JB and David Lean both believed that the beginning of the battle and the consequences are more important than recreating the battle itself; the decision to shoot Lawrence’s death – sound is vital to a designer’s ability to evoke images in an audience; JB discusses shooting the map room sequence; Lean made JB sit through the editing of Doctor Zhivago; JB was more than a designer to David Lean.

00:29:50 – 00:42:00 Film in Ireland with Kim Novak [Of Human Bondage] which he started with the understanding that he could leave if David Lean started a new project; David Lean called JB to Venice to discuss Doctor Zhivago; Lean was unsure about Zhivago as he only truly understood the English character; JB discusses location scouting for Zhivago outside Russia – Yugoslavia, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Spain; Spain worked visually and was cheaper; JB discusses building sets in Spain; there were a number of short location shoots in Finland; JB recommended that David Lean watch Billy Liar which resulted in Julie Christie being cast as Lara.

Side 3

00:00:00 – 00:08:00 JB had ambitions to be a film director given his past experiences; Columbia approached JB to produce The Looking Glass War which he believed would be his way in to directing; the film wasn’t a success and JB decided he wasn’t suited to producing; as a result of his commitments to The Looking Glass War he couldn’t work on David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice; JB wanted David Lean to see the film for the performance of Anthony Hopkins; JB worked with William Friedkin on Sorcerer which didn’t work, they didn’t have the same relationship as JB had with David Lean.

00:08:00 – 00:19:10 A Man for All Seasons and working with Fred Zinnemann; during the first confrontation with Wolsey and More they built a set for Hampton Court to introduce the scene; JB suggested using a small room for the confrontation which was painted red like Wolsey’s room to suggest that he is ‘playing at home’ and to use a small table which made Wolsey look bigger; shooting the River Thames was done in Hampshire; a Tudor house in Oxford was used for More’s house as they didn’t have the money to build a set in England; JB talks about some of the tricks employed using minimum design for maximum effect; JB wanted simple designs for the execution of More suggesting a dungeon.

00:19:10 – 00:27:20 Approached by Columbia to design Oliver!; the director was to be Lewis Gilbert but was later replaced by Carol Reed; neither JB nor Reed had worked on musicals; all of the film was made at Shepperton; colour was important, black Dickensian London; audiences in New York cheered during the ‘Who Will Buy’ sequence which JB wanted to be white; the workhouse had to be really black, taking our rather than putting in; movement was introduced to the set by the inclusion of a train in the background.

00:27:20 – 00:33:30 Travels With My Aunt with George Cukor for which JB was nominated for an Oscar; [JB begins talking about Nicholas and Alexandra before a break in the recording which picks up at a later time/date] Sam Spiegel approached JB about Nicholas and Alexandra who initially refused as he didn’t want to make another film about Russia without actually shooting there and he was just about to begin his directorial debut, a version of Belcher’s Luck; after Belcher’s Luck fell through, Spiegel again approached JB to work with a B unit team on Nicholas and Alexandra; the film was shot in Spain and Zagreb; the original art director Vincent Korda was fired by Spiegel and JB took on this role also.

00:33:30 – 00:42:00 JB convinced Spiegel to hire Janet Suzman as Alexandra; JB states that the subject wasn’t really suited to director Franklin Shaffner; JB won an Oscar for his work; JB talks about problems with snow in Zagreb; working second unit cameraman Manuel Berenguer and assistant art director Bob Laing; JB talks about working with Berenguer on the Leningrad sequence which had a hazy and wintery look as a result of the dark lighting; costume designer Anthony Powell was brought in to replace Yvonne Blake.

00:42:00 – 00:47:10 Approached by William Friedkin to work on Sorcerer; JB went to Peru and Venezuela, but settled on Ecuador; the studio were unhappy with shooting in Ecuador so the location shifted to the Dominican Republic.

Side 4

00:00:00 – 00:10:50 Shooting Sorcerer in Dominican Republic; the bridge sequence was an issue as they needed high water in the river so it was moved to another location; William Friedkin became a different person shooting the bridge sequence; The Bounty with David Lean, an idea from Eddie Fowlie, which was not completed but shooting started on Bora Bora.

00:10:50 – 00:15:50 JB’s next film was The Keep with Michael Mann who had been working in television; JB decided the film should be shot in Wales due to the country’s timelessness; cameraman Alex Thomson.

00:15:50 – 00:25:24 Approached by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin to work on Passage to India with David Lean; after a location recce JB returned home to find out Lean no longer wanted him; JB received a message later asking him to join them in India; shooting in Bangalore at Maharaja Mysore’s palace where a lot of building had to be done; shooting in real India streets was impossible; the railway was important so they chose a station outside of Bangalore; the original British bungalows were gone so they had to rebuild them; money went a long way in India; the relationship between Lean and Alec Guinness.

00:25:24 – 00:35:00 Kashmir was another important location on Passage to India, the timelessness of the lakes; JB discusses other locations on Passage and working with the locals; the courtroom scene was the only scene shot in the UK on a studio set; JB’s relationship with David Lean improved during shooting.

00:35:00 – 00:44:30 David Lean was approached by Spielberg who offered to produce a film for him and Lean suggested Empire of the Sun; JB had read Nostromo and recommended it to Lean as an alternative project to work on with Spielberg; JB began looking for locations in Mexico where they encountered problems during preproduction; JB suggested shooting in Spain; Spielberg left the project and French producer Serge Silberman took over; David Lean was taken ill and passed away shortly afterwards.

Side 5

00:00:00 – 00:11:30 David Lean’s funeral and service at St Paul’s Cathedral; Bob Shapiro, who was now an independent producer, wanted to remake Black Beauty with director Caroline Thompson; recreating Covent Garden at Blenheim Palace; First Knight with Jerry Zucker; Camelot was built in Wales in front of a nuclear power station and other scenes were shot near Pinewood.

00:11:30 – 00:29:55 JB talks about his craft and how certain decisions are made, the relationship between the designer and director, how sound and editing are used to accompany design; working with actors; Ralph Richardson immersed himself into the role of Lawrence’s father; JB talks about the various roles in the art department; JB mentions Rollerball and a party sequence set in the not-too-distance future which was a challenge for costume design; period must be respected in when making period films.

00:29:55 – 00:32:00 JB talks about working with costume designer Phyllis Dalton on Doctor Zhivago and Julie Christie’s refusal to wear a red dress in film; JB had to provide Christie with the motivation for wearing the dress during this sequence.

00:32:00 – 00:34:40 JB talks about storyboarding and sketching ideas; David Lean couldn’t stand storyboards but had to use them on A Passage to India because of the complexity of the film.

00:34:40 – 00:41:35 David Lean took inspiration from Casablanca for Great Expectations using longer lenses which created a close atmosphere and used forced perspective; the mirage in Lawrence of Arabia, Freddie Young started with a 400mm lens to photograph the mirage itself and altered the lenses accordingly; fog filters on Oliver! which Carol Reed was not keen on as he was focused on the actors; they didn’t want a severe filter as they sought to maintain the look of the period rather than everything being beautifully etched; Freddie Young used fog filters on the snow scenes in Doctor Zhivago to blur the images; B&W are more dramatic than colour films, colour is a challenge; Oliver! had all the colour taken out of it until the sequence in the square; Zhivago was kept ‘B&W’ until the red flag was seen; you have to study light as a designer and study art hanging in galleries; British watercolours are important for exteriors and skies.

00:41:35 – 00:45:45 JB’s relationship with cinematographers.