Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor Recalls His Adventures Shooting Star Wars and Dr. Strangelove

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 29 2013 12:27 PM

A Long Time Ago …

Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and his wife Dee recall their adventures shooting Star Wars and Dr. Strangelove.

Star Wars: Episode IV
Gil Taylor not only helped establish the visual identity of the Star Wars universe, but also photographed The Dam Busters, the 1955 British film George Lucas patterned parts of his Death Star climax (above) after.

Film still courtesy Lucasfilm

On Jan. 11, the White House issued an official, albeit tongue-in-cheek, rejection to an online petition urging the American government to build a Death Star. “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”

Reading this statement in bemusement, I realized it was time I finally spoke with Gilbert Taylor, the 99-year-old cinematographer of Star Wars who passed away last Friday and was perhaps the last connection to authentic World War II aerial photography and Hollywood magic. A serviceman in the Royal Air Force during the war who later cemented the look of Cold War paranoia in Dr. Strangelove, Taylor’s camera captured some of the great cockpit sequences ever committed to celluloid, a tradition that reaches back to screen spectacles of the silent era like Wings, the first film to claim Best Picture.

Taylor not only helped establish the visual identity of the Star Wars universe, but also photographed The Dam Busters, the 1955 British film George Lucas patterned parts of his Death Star climax after. Long targeted for a remake by Peter Jackson, The Dam Busters charts how bouncing bombs were developed and ultimately deployed by Lancaster bombers to sabotage the dams that provided power for Nazi forces. The similarities in the construction of the Dam Busters finale, in which bombers engage in repeated flyovers to pinpoint a perfect shot in the soft underbelly of a massive target, and Lucas’ montage of a one-man starship reducing the Death Star to dust (“Great shot, kid, that was one in a million!”) is startling. This YouTube mashup that lays the Dam Busters soundtrack over the “Trench Run” sequence from Star Wars is particularly revealing. Taylor was behind the camera for both attacks, and his images continue to soar.

I spoke with Taylor by phone at his home on the Isle of Wight on Feb. 28. It was a snowy day, he told me, before issuing a word of caution. “You can’t really interview a deaf man on the telephone,” he said into the receiver, which his wife, Dee, kept positioned at his ear. “But here I am. I’m almost 99, waiting to be 100.” While Taylor never reached his centennial, his memory that day was tack-sharp. He answered my first question, about whether he recalled his first flight on an airplane, without hesitation. “I was 15 years old and I flew to Paris,” he said. “It was a four-winged plane, and they served lunch on the flight.” The name of the plane, which he carefully spelled for me, was Helsa. I asked if he remembered his first camera. “I was 10 years old, and my uncle was a newsreel cameraman who had a Williamson” he said. “I unfortunately fell ill with fever. I was sent from my home to stay with my uncle. I used to look after his camera and polish it—it was mahogany—and I cared for it. When I was eventually 15, I got my first job as a cameraman.”

During the war, Taylor’s proficiency with cameras was an asset for the Allies. “I flew in a Lancaster bomber in a pathfinder squadron,” he said. “I stayed out of the air until 1942, when they wanted to find out whether somebody could take cine films over Germany at night, after bomber raids. I volunteered to do that. I did, altogether, four operations.”

How Taylor captured these images is a harrowing tale in and of itself. After the bomb loads were dropped, the squadron returned to base, except for the plane carrying Taylor, who was positioned in the mid-upper gunner. He then climbed down from the mid-upper turret to the bomb bay. The bomb-bay doors were opened and Taylor hung out with his camera—not on a static line, just his body alone—and the plane went round once over the target so he could film it. The film was then delivered to Winston Churchill so he could see exactly how much damage had been inflicted. The images now reside in the Imperial War Museum in London.

“How the hell he ever survived, he must’ve had a guardian angel sitting on his shoulder,” Dee said, commandeering the conversation. “By everybody’s reckoning, he should never have come back in one piece. Can you imagine? Going back ’round after they dropped the bomb loads? It’s like putting a stick in a beehive. The big doors opened and he hung out with his cameras. The Pathé newsreel company said, ‘Oh, can’t you take a camera for us, as well?’ Can you take a camera for us? Just unbelievable.”

There was a certain poignancy to Dee’s facilitation of this phone call. When Gil was unable to sustain the conversation, primarily due to his hearing impairment, Dee spoke boisterously on his behalf—a fitting tribute, given her career as a script supervisor. It’s long been her expertise to assure continuity.

Below are portions of Dee’s recollections on that February afternoon.

ON DR. STRANGELOVE

Gil and I did 28,000 miles with a French aircrew. We went right across the Arctic to shoot the background plates for Stanley Kubrick. Stanley couldn’t fly. He was absolutely petrified—he wouldn’t get into the plane. So we did all the stuff. I did the continuity for all eight cameras onboard. Gil and I were in the nose cone of a B-57, which is underneath the pilot, and Gil was directing on Stanley’s behalf. They had a French pilot and a French navigator—an absolutely brilliant aircrew. We were doing incredible things.

When we left the Eskimo outpost, we flew over an Eskimo with his dog team who was fishing in a hole in the ice. Because the plane was so low, the shadow of the plane frightened the dog team away and they went roaring off into the distance. There was a lot of laughter on the plane. Then we thought, “Oh, Christ, he’s going to be stumped, isn’t he?” So we lifted the plane up and overtook the dog team and were able to chase the dogs back, because otherwise, this Eskimo would never have gotten home.

When we first started shooting, Stanley sent messages to say we couldn’t watch the stuff, because we were too close, it was terrifying. Then he’d send a message a little further on saying, Oh, can you get close again? We were flying down caverns where we had five-foot on either side of the wings. The French aircrew was absolutely miraculous. This crew normally did the mapping of the world, and the changing state of ice. They were absolutely brilliant at doing all this and keeping a low level. We got the most incredible material for Stanley.

At one point we were buzzed by American fighters on either side of our plane, because we strayed into some sort of secret airbase in the Arctic, which we didn’t know about. The French pilot said to me, “What’s the matter with these people?” The American fighters were putting their thumbs down, telling us to go down. I said, “I think they want us to land.” He said, “How can we? We’ve got nowhere to land.” [In background, Gil Taylor adds, “They thought we were Communists!”] Right, they thought we were Communists—Russians, you see?

So we landed on an ice shield. We all had to lay flat on the base of the plane, because once you hit, you’ve got no breaks. We stopped three or four feet from the bloody rock face. These Americans opened the door, and I jumped down first and left my script and everything with Gil. They said, “Come on, little fella!” and caught me as I jumped off the plane. I thanked them and they said, “Jesus Christ, it’s a dame!” They then put me in a wagon and tore off across the fiord and Gil was absolutely petrified. Kubrick’s last words to him were, “Take care of her, look after her, because you’re going into uncharted territory.”

So they put us under surveillance for about 15 hours. And of course, when you’ve been flying for 10 hours and have very limited oxygen, you feel very tired. I would’ve said anything just to go to bed. They tried to reach the studio in America, and the time difference was such that everything was locked down and they couldn’t get through. They thought we were lying, they didn’t believe for a minute we were making a film in such a godforsaken spot. Finally, the next day they reached the studio and then said they’d let us go. But by that time, all the film we’d shot the previous day was now reduced to dust, because they wouldn’t let us have any heated muffs to keep the film warm overnight. They took away all the electricity and everything, so 10 hours of shooting was completely null and void. The negative was dust because the temperatures were so low, and we had to shoot it all over again.

We were taken to the officers’ mess and [the Americans] said, “You’ll have to have a drink with us.” They had their bloody Johnnie Walkers all lined up. Well, we’d been on oxygen starvation for quite a long time, and the alcohol went straight in and we were drunk as lords. When the food arrived—reindeer steaks served on lumps of wood—I took one look and went flat out into the steak.

I came to with the French aircrew standing over me in my bunk saying, “Oh, I think she’ll be all right.” Because of the lack of oxygen and having a drink when you have a low tolerance, I went out like a light, because I’m tiny. It was three days before my levels came back. The floor was coming up and hitting me all the time. The French aircrew was wise and said we couldn’t fly until I was all right. After that, we were very careful about our oxygen.

When we arrived back at the London airport, they actually never thought we were going to make it, because we didn’t have any deicing equipment on the plane and the thing was icing up all the way back. Chunks were breaking off and smacking against the wing. We had to keep dropping our altitude to get rid of the ice, and then go up again. We finally got back on Christmas Eve, and when we arrived, we were all fired. The studio said we were spending so much money and hadn’t got a foot of film on the floor yet, so we were all fired. We’d risked our necks for 20-odd days and then we were out of the job. I thought that was the biggest load of rubbish I’d ever heard of. Of course I went off and did another film. I was so disgusted with the production after that. Gil stayed with it, obviously, and went on to do the film. Gil and Kubrick got on terribly well together and had a great relationship.

ON THE WAR

Gil has no nerves at all. My God, I don’t know how he survived the war. He never blows his own trumpet or anything. This is a guy who was the first person with a camera in the most terrible prisoner-of-war camps. He couldn’t talk about it for about 25 years. There was no effort helping people get over it, you just came out of the war and went straight into a film and just carried on working.

The last film Gil and I did together was in 1993, I believe. It was a co-production between Germany and England. Where do you think it was sited? Cologne. Gil was on a 1,000 bomber raid over Cologne. The next day, after the raid of Cologne, he was ferried in to be with Patton, because he was Churchill’s envoy. Gil walked into Cologne so he could then see on the ground what he’d filmed from up above. He walked into a cathedral, which was the only thing still standing. It was pitch black, because it was all sandbagged. A voice came out of the dark and said, “Good morning, my son. What can I do for you?” It was a padre who had been sleeping in the crypt, because he said if he didn’t, he felt the cathedral would not have survived. It’s the most wonderful, truthful story.

So we were going back there with a German and English crew in the 1990s. Gil said to me to not mention the war. So we get there and we’re staying at a beautiful hotel that’s walking distance to the cathedral. We go to the cathedral and sit down for communion. Gil said he wanted to take me and show me the crypt and have coffee with the padre. I said, “How wonderful.” It was very moving for Gil. Because of course now, the cathedral is all lit up and you can see the wonderful stained-glass windows. We came down the steps of the crypt, and halfway down there’s a plaque on the wall that describes exactly what happened, where without the padre’s faith, that it would have had a direct hit. The spire of this cathedral is 400 feet high, and every single thing around it was flattened.

ON STAR WARS

With Star Wars, we were farming at the time. We had 250 head of pedigree jerseys. Gil was out filming in Tunisia, in the desert. We were keeping the home fires burning and running a bloody great farm. I just had a dairymaid as my help. Between the two of us, we ran the farm. My two boys were with me while Daddy was out there keeping George Lucas afloat.

Gil was often waiting for George to make decisions and get to the set-ups. Out in the desert, George wanted to heavily diffuse everything, and Gil said, “You can’t do it, George, because you’ve got a lot of special effects to lay in, and you won’t be able to if you diffuse it.” [Diffusing the lens would create a soft-focus effect.] Also, they had terrible bad weather when they got out to Tunisia, and there was no definition between the sand and the sky. Gil said if it was diffused on top of that, George would have been absolutely fucked when it came time to do the effects.

Gil said he’d always viewed space with the utmost clarity, and that’s how he wanted to shoot it, and then George could do whatever he wanted afterward with the special effects, and he’d have a clear negative to play with. George didn’t have the wonderful experience that Gil had. Gil said that if George wasn’t happy, he was quite prepared to get on a plane and go home. Poor old Gary Kurtz [producer of Star Wars] was trying to pour water over any trouble areas, and said, “No, no, we should go with Gil.” George went to 20th Century Fox with it, and Gil had just done The Omen for them. So they said, “Go with Gil Taylor, he know what he’s talking about.”

We went to the premiere, where they shut down the Dominion Theatre in London on a Saturday morning and had an invited audience of hundreds from all over the world. My sons were 7 and 10, and Daddy was out in Afghanistan with Peter Brook filming Meetings with Remarkable Men, which was absolutely incredible. He was out there with all his crew that he’d had on Star Wars.

When the images came up on the screen, my youngest son especially was absolutely poleaxed. He never moved the whole time, and I thought, “My God, we’ve got a hit.” If you can hold a 7-year-old for that length of time, you’ve got something incredible. There was a standing ovation. And of course I couldn’t call Gil in Afghanistan, I had to go via Paris. I had to book the call, and there’s a two-hour window from Paris to Afghanistan, which the army uses. Finally I get through to Gil and he says, “How was it?” I told him it was absolutely wonderful. The producer then grabbed the phone and said, “Never mind about Star Wars! Get off the bloody phone and see how the rushes are for our picture!”

Correction, Aug. 29, 2013: Due to a production error, the image in this article was originally from Return of the Jedi. Gil Taylor was the cinematographer for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

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