• Slhero

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

Photography

Exclusive: Tomas Leach explains the effort behind his new documentary about New York street photographer Saul Leiter

Posted by Rob Alderson,

Creative endeavour is famously said to be 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Never perhaps has that phrase been more true than when applied to filmmaker Tomas Leach’s upcoming documentary about legendary New York street photographer Saul Leiter – made possible only after a three-year wooing of Saul and his gallery.

In No Great Hurry: 13 Life Lessons with Saul Leiter is not only a beautifully-shot tribute to this unique talent, his work documenting life in the same area of Manhattan for decades and his outlook on the world, it is also testament to Tomas’ tenacity and vision. Released here for the first time, the trailer should be enough to convince you that the film was worth the wait and we spoke to Tomas about this intense labour of love.

The idea first came to him after he found himself returning time and again to Saul’s book: “I decided to read up on him but at that time there was almost nothing about him, no films, not even many good representations of his pictures online. He has never been into publicity, he just took the photos.

After contacting the gallery which represents Saul in New York they eventually agreed to show the photographer some of Tomas’ old work and eventually Saul said he would meet him for a coffee.

“So I flew to NY for a coffee. I rang his bell and he opened the door and just said, ‘Why do people always want things from me?’ and he walked back inside leaving the door open. I followed him upstairs and he started telling me about other people I should be making films about rather than him.”

Welcomed into Saul’s apartment and amid a “mountain of stuff,” Tomas finally got to speak face-to-face with the man he had been chasing for so long. “He questioned me a lot, asked me about girlfriends about money about life, asked me if I was happy.”

It was a sign of things to come and the two men would go on to develop a personal relationship which formed the basis for much of what ended up on film (the pictures shown here were taken by Tomas during his time with Saul), but there were still obstacles in the way. Saul got “cold feet” as Tomas tried to find finance and he kept his idol onside by sending him “lots of postcards from different places” reaffirming his intentions and reassuring his potential subject.

“I realised that if I wanted to make this film I needed to make some kind of gesture so I wrote an agreement that said it would only be me filming, he would get to see some stuff along the way, I would pay for everything and if either of us was not really enjoying it we would stop whatever stage we were at. I am sure any lawyer would tear it apart but it seemed to work.”

Tomas describes Saul as “a quote machine” and you get that sense even in the two minute trailer that almost his every utterance carries aphoristic overtones. Although he has a distinguished career for directing commercials and a cult following for his creative sketchbooks’ videos curated on Little Scraps of Paper, the chance to film Saul Leiter was clearly much more than just another job.

“Saul’s work is magical to me because it manages to be enigmatic and aesthetically incredibly beautiful, whilst still being incredibly human and touching. That’s a great reflection of him – he’s curious and caring whilst taking great pleasure in the beauty you can find in life.

“Saul’s work is magical to me because it manages to be enigmatic and aesthetically incredibly beautiful, whilst still being incredibly human and touching.”

Tomas Leach

“I started off just thinking someone’s got to film a little interview with him but it became something else. I would bring him coffee in the morning and we would chat for a bit while I set up. Then we’d look through some photos or maybe take a walk, go to his printers, then we’d have lunch and chat some more and maybe do some filming if neither of us wasn’t too tired.”

Not pushing the 89-year-old too hard was a constant concern for Tomas but at the same time he had limited opportunities to head over to New York.

“Between each trip I would have it all transcribed so I could read it like a book. I had been floating the idea for a while that it needed some kind of external structure because he talks in massive long circles. The point was to make it work as a film rather than a collection of interviews. I wanted something that someone who has no interest in photography can engage with and that’s why there’s more of my relationship with him in the film than maybe I had originally planned, him teasing me and that kind of thing.”

In the end the idea of 13 Life Lessons seemed to fit both with Tomas’ professional ambition for the project and his personal engagement with a hero who had become a friend, and during our interview he describes the whole undertaking as “cathartic.”

With the help of an editing team here in london he finally cut all the footage down to 75 minutes and although distribution is still under discussion, more than anything he is just keen it is seen by as many people as possible.

And after all that work, Tomas is clearly energised by working in this longer format. “I think documentaries should be beautiful and cinematic but they can still be personal and quirky. The joy of capturing a long narrative is all-consuming but it’s awesome – I love that process thinking about when to leave it silent or when to cut out my laughter so the audience can laugh.”

A longtime in the making it may have been, but Tomas’ mission has more than lived up to his expectations and the final piece should secure him, and Saul, a whole new following.

  • Sl1

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

  • Sl3

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

  • Sl5

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

  • Sl6

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

  • Sl8

    Tomas Leach: Saul Leiter

Ra

Posted by Rob Alderson

Editor-in-Chief Rob oversees editorial across all three It’s Nice That platforms; online, print and events. He has a background in newspaper journalism and a particular interest in art, advertising and photography. He is the main host of the Studio Audience podcast.

Most Recent: Film View Archive

  1. List

    Imagine turning up to work in the morning, checking your schedule and realising that the vast majority of your time is going to spent creating a zombie horse. That’s what the team at Montreal-based Rodeo FX did for Series Four of Game of Thrones, along with creating the slave city of Meereen, the Unsullied Army, a sequence with the White Walkers and most memorably the final (KIND OF SPOILER ALERT!) battle between Stannis’ army and the wildlings.

  2. Main

    WARNING do not watch this if you are afraid of family members dying and then being messily devoured in front of your very eyes by OTHER members of your own family. Seriously, parts of this video were deemed unwatchable by most of the It’s Nice That editorial team, which I think is perhaps why I love it so much.

  3. List

    German design studio Hort prides itself on being an “unconventional working environment” and a “place where work and play can be said in the same sentence.” In this video by Analog Mensch Digital, Hort’s much-loved creator Eike Konig talks about their work and ethos whilst rolling paint and printing a poster. The camera wanders about the studio past leaning bikes and big white desks, scrolling up bookcases and dwelling on the Anthony Burrill posters gracing the walls. Eike is always worth listening to, whether he’s musing on the differences between international and German clients, traditional and digital work and the morals of design. He says: “Visual language is a strong language. We have responsibility in the use of this power.”

  4. List

    Every time a new music video by Us (AKA Chris Barrett and Luke Taylor) is sent round the studio I find myself stubbornly insisting that they can’t possibly have topped their previous efforts, and every single time the London-based directing duo seem to prove me wrong. Their latest creation for British singer-songwriter and producer Labrinth is potentially the finest yet in fact, combining what is becoming their trademark one-shot effect with a brilliantly simple storyline. The video follows Labrinth through the ups and downs of making a record, from TV interviews and squabbling record label execs to shooting videos in flash cars and performing onstage, exposing a side that usually remains concealed. It’s a natural fit for Us’ pared-back aesthetic, where cameras, ladders and extras are all included in the shot. Have they upped the stakes again? We reckon so.

  5. List

    “Can I email you back on Monday? I’m actually in the desert this weekend,” was the reply we got from Tom Gould when we got in touch to see what he was up to a couple of weeks back. It might sound like the filmmaker’s equivalent of the dog eating your homework, but in Tom’s case it’s a wholly credible excuse, and even more so now that we can see the fruits of his labour.

  6. Main

    How refreshing to see a music video that isn’t three minutes of slowly buffering and ultimately mind-bending CGI. The videos we cherish are always a combination of great idea plus low budget – which is what makes this new one for White Fence so perfect. Why has no one thought about putting a lead singer of a band in a prison for a music video before? I love the idea that no matter how much we worship bands and frontmen, if you threw them in the clanger for even an hour they wouldn’t last five minutes.

  7. Haim

    This is great! Haim have actually had a really great back catalogue of videos so far, proving to everyone that this medium is still mega-important as to how a band is seen (Metronomy also do this well). Now I may not recognise many (any) of the trendy music names that star in this video, but what I do know a lot about is chat shows. The whole video is a pastiche of ubiquitous telly fodder like Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle and Oprah – the gross chairs, beige set-design and on-screen graphics that remind you of Saved by the Bell that we all know and love.

  8. List

    There can be no question that ballet is one of the most enrapturing art forms out there, but I sometimes wonder if the archetypal representation of the dance as graceful, pristine and effortless quite does justice to the physicality of it. How refreshing is it to watch a short film about a ballerina, that doesn’t airbrush over the fingerprints on the mirror, the beads of sweat on the shoulder blades, the tremble of a lip as a dancer exhales?

  9. List

    You know those CDs of whale music you can buy at the tills in garden centres? If, rather than listening to those, everybody in need of a couple of minutes of downtime halfway through the afternoon could just take the time to watch The Ridge, the world would be much, much better place. It’s kind of a spectacular bit of filmmaking; filmed for Camp4 Collective in Denali National Park, Alaska, the camera sweeps across mountains buried in fluffy snow, rocky ridges brandishing over barren expanses of white and mountain faces that look curiously like old men’s faces (watch out for the moustachioed bloke at 1.40).

  10. List

    You know how it is; you’re filming your latest music video, taking instructions from cue cards administered by an overbearing director when suddenly he’s distracted and is no longer showing you what to do. Do you stop what you’re doing and risk looking like a chump or just keep on dancing until the next cue card flashes up? This is the great existential debate at the heart of Ninian Doff’s latest video for Peace, which sees him taking this line of inquiry to extremes; crashing cars and terrorising families in the process. Fun times!

  11. List

    It’s always fascinating to see how different cultures take certain musical genres and shape them into something quite unique depending on what they adopt and what they re-imagine from the original. Scene Unseen is a new video series from Bose and Vice which explores this phenomenon through three examples; indie in Mexico, electronica in India and dancehall in Japan which is the subject of the first film.

  12. Main8

    Is anyone else slightly unnerved by how happy Bill Callahan has been of late? His songs no longer deal with loneliness and somewhat terrifying obsession and now dwell on nicer, every day things such as driving in the car with your loved one as a snoozing pillion passenger. Yes I know it’s nicer to listen to songs about that sort of thing, but I kind of miss wigging out to some of his earlier classics where he would, for example, go into stark lyrical detail about arranging a woman’s lingerie into the shape of a little dolly on the bed while she’s out.

  13. List

    Every friendship has its issues. A mate I used to live with once cooked baked beans in a wok; a culinary move so baffling that I can feel the irritation welling up every time I see him (it’s now seven years after the incident). Maybe we should have gone to therapy, because it seems to be working for Daryl and Joe, the stars of this terrific unscripted web series. In each short clip the pair discuss something about the other person they believe affects their relationship; from drinking to punctuality and a racist dog to an inability to pronounce a sister’s name properly. It’s the kind of thing the web does so well; giving life to content that couldn’t really live anywhere else. It might, might, even help me get over wok-gate.