David Trueba's film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed takes its title from The Beatles' song “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which John Lennon wrote while he was in Almeria, Spain, acting in Richard Lester's How I Won the War in 1966.
Lennon may only have had a minor role playing Musketeer Gripweed in Lester's war comedy, yet his presence in the film was the big story; his image used to sell the movie on posters at the time and on the DVD today. It was during the making of the film that Lennon first came to wear what would become his trademark circular glasses. In his only non-music related acting turn, Lennon played a soldier revealed to have once supported Fascist Oswald Mosley.
Trueba's tale starts with news footage, where it's postulated that following on from The Beatles' sell-out tour of America, Lennon was unhappy with the foursome and was considering acting as a career.
The action then segues into a whimsical tale about English teacher Antonio San Roman (a brilliant performance by Spanish national treasure Javier Cámara), who has his students recite Beatles songs as a learning tool. One amusing early scene sees his pupils each relay one line of “Help!” On hearing that Lennon is filming in Almeria, the Beatles fan drives across Franco's Spain in the hope of meeting him. Remarkably the film is based on a true story.
“I read the story in a paper in 2006,” says Trueba. “They were celebrating 40 years of Lennon being in Almeria, and I read about this teacher who made this trip and asked Lennon to make corrections in his notebook. The teacher used to listen to Radio Luxembourg and write down the lyrics of their songs, as he heard them, however he couldn't get the lyrics from the Revolver album right as they started using more psychedelic words. When they met, the teacher gave him the notebook and Lennon corrected the lyrics and filled in the gaps. He also corrected songs written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison – 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Taxman'.”
The real-life teacher Juan Carrón Gañàn is now 88 years old and still teaching English. “The notebook still exists,” says Trueba. “The funny thing is that Lennon used colours when correcting the lyrics. For 'Yellow Submarine' he used a yellow pen, and if he wrote the word 'green' he would use a green pen. You only have to look at the way he did the corrections and you think this guy must have been funny.” After this meeting, The Beatles included printed sheets of their song lyrics with their following albums.
The climactic scenes take place around the set of How I Won the War, and I ask the 44-year-old at the San Sebastián Film Festival if he got in touch with Lester to discuss the shoot. He responds, “I tried. I was passed on an email from someone I know and I wrote to him. I don't know if he's maybe too old, or tired, I suppose he is tired of talking about this Beatles adventure – he directed two movies with them – and probably everyone is asking him about them, or maybe he didn't get the email.
“I didn't push it too hard because I didn't want to be distracted by the Lennon story or the How I Won the War stuff. I knew a guy who worked on the movie – he told me Lennon hated shooting the movie; he was tired, bored, didn't like Almeria and wondered what he was doing there.”
It turns out that 81-year-old Lester didn't get the email. “I've heard of the director,” Lester informs me from his West Sussex home, “but I hadn't heard about this film before.”
Lester retired from filmmaking after making the Paul McCartney concert movie Get Back in 1991. Born in 1932 in Philadelphia, he moved across the Atlantic to London in 1953 and began directing television shows. In between making two films starring The Beatles he won the Palme d'Or in 1965 for his sexual comedy The Knack… and How to Get It. An influential director in the 1960s and 1970s, his career also saw him controversially take over the directorial reigns from Richard Donner on Superman II and make three films based on Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.
The Beatles personally chose Lester to make A Hard Day's Night after seeing his Oscar-nominated short film The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). The director says of Lennon's demeanour on his Spanish set, “He wasn't unhappy, he was bored. There is always boredom on set, but when we did the first two films together there were four of them and they could form a defensive manoeuvre against the rest of the world, which was fine. We all accepted that. Here he was on his own and he was treated normally, as every actor would be. Never in the time that I knew John did I have words with him, ever. I had great respect for him because I thought that he was an interesting and serious young man.”
But Lester admits there were some drawbacks in casting him: “I didn't think, and I should have, that if you put someone like John in a straight acting role and you tell everybody that it's a straight acting role they won't believe you. They think sooner or later he'll play the guitar. I think it did John and I a disservice because people were disappointed and they wanted more.”
The film received mixed notices, but Lester says there are no regrets about his decision to cast the Liverpudlian: “He had a certain quality that an ordinary actor would not have given. It was a small part that I think he did extremely well.” As for the film's assertion that Lennon was considering acting as a career, Lester is less convinced: “In Germany, before we even came to Spain, we shot his death scene. I said to him, 'You know John if you really wanted to do this, you could probably be a really decent actor,' and he said, 'Yeah! But it's fucking silly isn't it?' That took care of that.”
There were other issues that came with Lennon's being “more popular than Jesus Christ”, as he once famously described The Beatles. “We were in a small studio just outside Hamburg and we went to cut John's hair off,” recalls Lester. “As they started chopping his hair, about six or seven people were clearing up, and I remember thinking the Germans are so obsessively neat. It never occurred to me that they were getting plastic bags and his hair was being flogged all around Hamburg for 20 years.”
There is a scene in Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed shot in Santa Isabel, the villa where Lennon stayed during the production that inspired him to write “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Lennon said Santa Isabel reminded him of a Salvation Army garden near his childhood home in Liverpool called Strawberry Fields. Lester says, “I never actually went to John's villa. I know that Neil Aspinall was with him. I'm not sure about Cynthia [Lennon]. I think she came out to visit, whether she was there all the time or not, I don't know. Ringo [Starr] came out with Maureen [Cox, Starr's first wife].”
As for the writing of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Lester had no idea about that, nor did he know about the teacher who met with Lennon. It seems that even Lester is learning something new about his production, 47 years after it took place.
'Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed' will be out next year