Speaking for the Quiet Beatle: Olivia Harrison Discusses the George Harrison Film
By DAVE ITZKOFF, The New York Times
Friday, September 23, 2011
Olivia Harrison. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)
The four men who made up the Beatles are, to the vast majority of us, larger-than-life figures who made a tremendous and lasting impact on music, film and fashion and in numerous other arenas of popular culture. But to a select few, they are just Ė or are also Ė people: friends, siblings, parents, husbands. Among the members of that exclusive club is Olivia Harrison, who married George Harrison in 1978 and remained with him until his death in 2001. Ms. Harrison, who is the mother of Harrisonís son, Dhani, does not consider herself a celebrity and does not fully embrace the spotlight, but she has become a guardian of her husbandís legacy and of the mementos and artifacts he left behind at Friar Park, their sizable estate in Henley-on-Thames, England.
Many of these letters and recordings Ė along with the lives of the people behind them Ė are revealed in a new Martin Scorsese documentary, ďGeorge Harrison: Living in the Material World,Ē which will be shown in two parts, on Oct. 5 and 6, on HBO. It is a film for which Ms. Harrison serves as an interview subject as well as a producer, and a project with which she is still trying to get comfortable. For an article about the documentary in this Sundayís Arts & Leisure section, Ms. Harrison spoke about the development of the project, her life with George Harrison and how she learned to share it with the cameras. These are excerpts from that conversation.
Q.How did you and Martin Scorsese first become connected on this project?
A.I went to see ďNo Direction Home,Ē which I thought was brilliant. And some production companies were approaching me to do a documentary on Georgeís life. And I had so many requests, eventually, I thought, someoneís going to do this. Two months after he died, somebody wanted to do it. I really didnít want someone who didnít know George, who wasnít involved with the family, to take on the project. Marty was approached, and he was very interested in George and interested in his journey. Martyís really looking for the journey and the man.
Q.Had you already started organizing Georgeís possessions and archives in preparation for a film?
A.I had started gathering things, but it was always after the fact. It doesnít usually happen that way, where you have an archive and then you do a project. I mean, normal people do that. People who are on top of life, I donít know how they manage. George had wanted to do his own anthology, from the time the Beatles had their anthology in 1995. When four people do a story, itís ďRashomon.Ē He had a series of cameras from the time I met him. Movie cameras, 8-mil cameras. DVs, Hi-8s, Super VHS, U-matics. He said once, ďIím stockpiling all this material for when Iím dead,Ē but this was 20 years ago. He just wanted to share what he loved with people and his friends.
Q.When he would talk about his own death so matter-of-factly, was that just his morbid sarcasm?
A.There wasnít a real divide between life and death for George. Even though, yes, he was human and he wanted to live, he didnít see it so defined. He saw similarities in the sacred and the profane, in life and death. But it wasnít morbid at all. He wanted to make something fun. I decided to do what I knew he would have done.
Q.So all these items of his Ė were you just keeping them in a vault in Friar Park?
A.No vault. Lots of drawers, cupboards, roof space, basements. Just everywhere. Always cassettes, there were a lot of cassettes around. And one of them said, ďSitar lesson.Ē And it was 1966 and it was his first sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar. And you hear Ravi saying, ďNow, for our first lessonÖĒ To me, thatís just fantastic.
Q.Were these items organized around the house in a deliberate way?
A.I think it was thoughtful, but at the same time, there were so many drawers and so many rooms that he would just throw things in there and thatís what would stay. Occasionally I would find something and go, ďWow, look at this, what I found in the drawer.Ē And heíd say [stolidly] ďI know itís there. I put it there.Ē And Iíd say, ďOh, O.K. So thatís why itís there.Ē
Very often he wouldnít unpack a suitcase, so thereíd be like a time capsule. And youíd find a local currency, and souvenirs and Polaroids. He left Ė and I think this came from his motherís house Ė a rusty tin box, and in the box was football cards and lyrics written in a very young hand. I didnít want to disturb any of it.
Q.Was it hard for you to part with all these personal items so that the movie could be made?
A.Now, in hindsight, I see that they were very patient with me, because I couldnít let go of anything. The production team came over, spent a lot of time and slowly pried things from my hands. We figured out a way to transfer all the home movies. I didnít want to send them out anywhere. It was my life. So, we did that in the house. And one of my sonís school friends, whoís become our archivist and who knew George, he was around a lot of the time and transferred all the DVs.
Q.Since George is no longer with us, do you feel you have an obligation to tell his story in his absence and to carry on his legacy?
A.Honestly, I have an overdeveloped sense of duty, I think. Itís not what I want to do. Itís not a carrot for me, at all. In fact, this film is really making me want to go hide somewhere. Itís my life. Everybody says, ďGeorge, he was such a private person, why are you doing this?Ē And he was, but he was out there in the world. I know that he would have done his own story. By default, I have to be the one. Iím talking to you but Iím not talking to everybody and Iím saying, no, I do not want to be on television. Iím not a celebrity.
Q.Is there a moment at which you have to overcome your desire for privacy and put yourself out there, if only for the sake of this documentary?
A.The moment youíre talking about is now. I canít say Iím really prepared. I almost donít want people to see it. Itís like showing everybody into your most private place. But at the same time, I think itís important. If thereís going to be a film made about George, then the most important thing was that his essence be represented and the truth be represented, and that is what Marty has done. And I know itís truthful because it makes me squirm. [laughs]