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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.

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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.

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