I’ve never met anyone quite like Richard Beymer. A fascinating man, for sure, who has never been that forthcoming about a lifetime of fascinating artistic output. A true iconoclast. Ever since he left Hollywood nearly twenty years ago, he’s been working away on his films, his art, and… wouldn’t we love to know.
Back in the summer of 2011, Richard did a private screening of his film at the University of Iowa. Realizing this might be my only chance to shake Richard’s hand, my wife and I made the ten-hour drive on a day’s notice. After an excruciating screening that required some serious editing, a small group stuck around to savage Richard with their critiques. I sat silent, in awe of these people tearing down Richard’s labor of love.
The people scattered away, and Richard and his producer, Rob, were winding up microphone cables and closing up shop. I eked my way toward Richard and stuck out my hand, babbling out some nonsense to the reclusive cult hero. Richard seemed shocked and amused that any lurker remained. And then, I shamelessly asked for a picture. It never happened without photographic evidence, right? Richard recoiled, then relented. This always makes me very uncomfortable, he announced, in his best Ben Horne voice.
A few years later, I reached out to Richard to see if he’d participate in Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks. An emphatic ‘no’ was returned. A year later, he turned me down again, when I checked to see if his mind had changed. And then, that same afternoon, we ended up talking on the phone for two hours, laying the foundation for an unexpected friendship.
I last spoke with Richard in the summer of 2020. How are you doing? I asked. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Richard joyfully expressed, I’m doing absolutely fantastic! Richard’s tone surrounding perhaps his most famous work, West Side Story, has tended toward ambivalence. He did reveal he had visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake, and was delighted with the approach they had taken. Remains to be seen if a cameo is in the cards.
Anyway, hop back in the time machine to the summer of 2014, where Richard and I discussed various chapters of his life and art. This was originally published at braddstudios[dot]com.
Richard Beymer may be best known as Tony in the 1961 Academy Award-winning Best Picture, West Side Story, or perhaps as the sleazy and conflicted Benjamin Horne in Twin Peaks, but Beymer has spent decades off-camera indulging many artistic avenues that encompass sculpting, painting, writing, and directing his own films.
Beymer’s just-released film, It’s a Beautiful World, documents a whirlwind trip to India with renowned director David Lynch. As Lynch explores the roots of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the origins of Transcendental Meditation (TM), Beymer is there to film it all first-hand in this guerilla-style road trip video diary.
In most other Lynch documentaries, the director is either promoting TM, engaging with fervent followers, or in the midst of the creative process. It’s a Beautiful World stands as an intimate pilgrimage to a distant land, removing Lynch from the mania that follows him elsewhere as he marvels at the roots of TM. Adventure, humor, and drama are woven together by Beymer to create an ultimately touching and humanizing portrait of Lynch.
I spoke with Beymer from his home in Iowa via telephone last week to discuss It’s a Beautiful World, his future projects, and his storied career in the showbiz… so far.
Brad D: So you just released It’s a Beautiful World this week. What spawned your trip to India with David in the first place?
Richard Beymer: David heard that I had made a film on Maharishi’s funeral [The Passing of a Saint]. It’s quite something, if nothing else just to see how Indians have a funeral, you know? But, it was a very spontaneous thing I did. When he passed away, I got on a plane and didn’t know what I would run into. I was told there would be no hotels to stay in. I didn’t have any entree; I just went and I started shooting. I just told myself: “I will get what I want to get.” It was a huge procession where his body was carried through the streets to a special place where they had the cremation and I made sure I was right there in the middle of it; I just pushed my way in. It was so crowded that if you leaned down to pick up a shoe that had come off, you’d just be walked over.
So anyway, I made the film and played it at an art gallery for a month in Fairfield. David heard about it and asked if he could see it and he had great kudos about the film. A few months later, I heard that David was going to India to look at these places where Maharishi had lived, to get ready to make his film about Maharishi. I got a hold of him and said, “David, if no one’s going to be filming you doing what you’re doing, I’d love to go.” He said, “Come on!” [laughs] So I was surprised in a way. They gave me first-class treatment and paid for my trip over, food, and hotels. I thought that was pretty neat. That’s how it came about.
I have never been to India, but would love to go. What are the best and worst parts of traveling there?
Well, you can go [the] backpacker way where you’re not in five-star hotels and they give you a bucket of water and that’s your shower. That’s where I like to stay. If I’m going to be making a film, I want to be in those situations. You’ve got to watch what you eat; when you eat the wrong thing you’re on all fours in a toilet for a while. That’s not too terrific. But on the other hand, [there is] some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had. It is exquisite with all the spices. Here, we put ketchup and hot sauce on things. The subtlety of all sorts of tastes and spices and herbs – it’s a musical potpourri in your mouth. [laughs] You never eat anything that isn’t cooked. You don’t eat salads or things where water has been washed on it from God knows where.
What compelled you to want to document David like this?
I love India and the thought of David Lynch traveling through this ancient civilization seemed like a paradox of some sort, where it would be really interesting to see how they mix. But, as it turns out, I had a fantasy of what David wanted to do and it didn’t quite match. I thought we would see the India that I’m used to seeing. Maharishi wasn’t in five-star hotels, he was down and dirty. [laughs] He walked from one end of India to another. He took buses and things, but he was not driven by a chauffeur. I guess we’ll call it the backpacker’s version! We went to little temples where you see what it’s like, but we didn’t sleep in those places, they were just places we visited during the day.
When they were telling me where I was going to be staying (when I arrived in New Delhi) I asked if I could stay at this place that I usually stay at in a place called Paharganj. It might be described like the [Greenwich] Village in New York. It’s more artisan; things happening like that. They talked to the guy in India who was setting up all of our hotels. He e-mailed back and said, “Oh my God! He can’t stay there! It’s full of drugs and prostitutes.” But it’s a beautiful world with a lot of great people who end up there – people from all over the place like backpackers – just joyous! They thought it was the pits, so I acquiesced and realized we better all stay at the same place, and them not trying to find me in hell. [laughs]
I know you’ve been editing this film quite a while, as I attended an early screening in 2011 and it has changed quite a bit. Tell me about the editing process.
It’s interesting. When we finished shooting, we were at the airport and David said to me, “How much footage did you shoot?” I had a camera where you could use an SD card or a hi-def cassette, so I shot thirty-three hours and he said, “Ouch.” I said, “I will go through the footage and cut out all the shakes and narrow it down for you.”
After I edited every twenty minutes of footage, I would send it to him and he would say, “Thumbs up, looks great.” I think the version you saw was two hours and forty minutes. David at that point gave hints of “Who would want to watch this?” I said, “Are you kidding? There is some great stuff here!” Rob and I went to the Bijou Theater at the University [of Iowa] to screen it, and it ended up being during summer vacation. I really didn’t get the audience I wanted.
As you know, it wasn’t a great success that evening. About halfway through the film, I couldn’t take it any longer. I said, “I just can’t watch this. It’s terrible. This is not happening.” I got up and walked around for twenty minutes. People were disoriented: “Where are we? I don’t get it.” Rob [Wilson, Producer] said, “There’s a film here, there’s other things we can do.” I was hoping that just people talking in the film would indicate where it was all going.
Rob made some great suggestions – we took out some big chunks of things when David was sick and we went out on our own. The movie fell apart when David was off the screen. It started getting tighter and tighter, and I put the narration in to tell people who I am and all that. I also added in a part where Maharishi is very simply talking to Merv Griffin about the TM process and what he was about. It was a whole new opening that introduced everything.
People have asked me about the film, “What’s it all about?” It’s really about watching David Lynch. When David’s at the radio show in the beginning, he reaches down with his hand and he touches this dog. I follow his hand and I just leave it on the dog, this wonderful Golden Retriever who just loves to be petted. And it says so much about David. As he was discussing his career, a whole other part of him was in tune with what was happening around him. To me, it says a lot. The film has a lot of moments like that where you get a sense of a person and what they’re like without a crowd in front of them. There’s adventure, it’s a great background in India, and you’re having fun with him. [Cockney accent] “See what I mean? Know what I’m talking about?”
So, you’ve been making your own films since the sixties. How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
When I was under contract with 20th Century Fox, I would bring my still photography into the cinematographers and ask them about lighting and I would go up to the editing room and watch them a lot. I was fascinated. They would give me little tasks –not editing – but clean-ups of rolls of film or something. I understood ancient devices like the Movieola and how they worked. Did you ever see a film called Mississippi Burning? About the three boys that were killed?
With Gene Hackman? Yeah, a long time ago.
I was a part of that group where the three boys were killed. There were about a thousand of us that went to Mississippi to register blacks to vote. When I was down there, it was called the “Mississippi Summer Project,” and it was to gather northerners to come down and help with voter registration in something called Freedom Schools. So I went down… and that’s a whole story we can get into another time.
There was an orientation period where we went to a college in the state above Mississippi. It was a black college because the whole thing was [about] non-violent resistance, like Ghandi and all that. So we learned what we were going to get into: not fighting back, all that business. I got there and heard there would be a “Mississippi Winter Project.” I thought, “Weeellllll, it might be nice to make a film of what’s happening this summer so the crew that comes down in the winter will know what they’re getting into.”
I had never made a film before, but I had been making a lot of stills. So I called the photography store that I dealt with and they sent me a wind-up Bolex. It was the workhorse of cameras, sixteen millimeter. All college students used it in film school; it’s what everyone used to make movies in those days. It’s a Swiss-made thing; it’s like a tank. It had a wind-up key that gives you a thirty or forty-five second take. It has three lenses on a turret and it holds a one-hundred foot role of sixteen-millimeter film… so it’s not like a video camera. You’ve got to set your own exposures, focus yourself, wind it up, and you can’t just leave it on forever. And there’s no sound. It makes a lot of [rumbling noise].
I shot it all on this film called Tri-X; it’s a very fast film that works good under low light. He sent me one kind of stock that should cover everything. So I had a little bag; I put it over my shoulder and would pull it out and film things. I came back to LA and got it developed, sat down by myself one day and turned on the projector and I watched about two and a half hours of stuff. I was thrilled. It looked good! So I spent the next nine months with a Movieola editing machine and created soundtracks and made this film.
A few years ago, I read your book Impostor. It is quite a piece of work, it is so unique and ambitious and I think it would translate really well to the screen, especially in the vein of something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Have you ever entertained that idea?
I think I’m the only one that could pull that off, but it’s nice of you to ask. I think in the beginning of the book I said, “These pages will have to serve as a screen,” because I don’t have the money to pull it off. Maybe it could be one of those Kickstarter things if there was enough interest. I would like to offer an e-book version sometime soon, though.
You talked about walking out of the screening of your film a few years ago, but I’ve heard that you actually walked out of the theatre the first time you saw West Side Story. Is that true?
I didn’t walk out. I crawled out. I tend to walk out of my films, I guess. [laughs] I was in Paris finishing a film called The Longest Day, and they were having a premiere in London – a command royal performance where you meet the Queen. She comes in and bla-bla-bla, tuxedos, the whole thing. I hadn’t seen the film; I hadn’t seen anything. Now, the rule is when you’re at a command performance, [elegantly] “You don’t get up and leave until the Queen leaves, so please do all your peeing before you sit down, because those are the rules.”
So I was at the screening, and it was like watching a young actor who probably could have been very good, but became better later in his life (and really enjoyed it). But at that point, it would have been great if this young actor had done summer stock, small parts here and there, and really got into his craft. I was too raw for that, to really give justice to that role.
I think a lot of people would disagree with you there. I mean, I’ve never heard much criticism toward you in that film.
I think what came through – what works – is there’s a certain innocence to life, a romantic ideal of life. But most actors, they do off-off-Broadway and little plays and summer stock and you get your craft together – you study. There were many times when I was totally confused how to play the scene. I asked the director and he gave me no help; he gave me nothing. He’d say, “Well, pick up the pace.” I knew that something was missing. I could feel that I wasn’t really on it, you know? [laughs] It had more depth than I was giving it.
So decades removed, you still feel that way?
I had a lot to learn. I couldn’t do it physically now, but boy, I’d like to try that one again. In the artistic process – particularly for actors – you learn how to go for stuff and make mistakes. You can do that in a smaller venue, but I was doing it in Cinemascope. So when I was in the theater and seeing myself, I wasn’t seeing the fantasy of what I thought I was doing. It was a bit forced. At the time, it was just embarrassing. As I said, you’re not allowed to walk out on the Queen. I was sitting on the aisle, so I inched down to the floor and crawled up the aisle to the door. I think I spent the rest of the movie sitting in the men’s room. [laughs]
What draws you to Iowa now? Why did you leave the West Coast?
I got kicked out [of Hollywood]. Everything started falling apart. [laughs] Don’t you find that sometimes in life, everything is piling up and wonderful and you don’t even have to go after it? And sometimes, after a while, it equally just crumbles. Something says, “This is over, quit hanging on.” My friend got me connected with some agent in the valley. He wore a panama hat and a white suit from the fifties. He had pictures of fifties stars all over his walls. He didn’t have a cell phone, he didn’t have a computer… you had to fax him… I sat in that office and he said, “Yeah, we can handle you.” I’m sitting there in this room with all these old stars on the wall and I’m thinking, “My God. This is what happened to me? There’s a signal here, Richard. Someone is trying to say something.” [laughs]
I had this place in this very wonderful old thirties apartment house. The city condemned it because the wiring was so old and the plumbing was so bad. [laughs] In the meantime, I had been coming back to Iowa and I had met people here and I was writing with my friend Rudy. Somewhere in 1995 or so I bought some land and a little cabin and I would come back to that. It was just a series of events. My parents died, my career died… my apartment died, my agent died! [laughs] A lot of signs out there: “Riicchaaard!”
What was really calling me was a beautiful place to live. I was delighted to get out of the traffic and the whole scene in L.A. To be perfectly frank with you, I haven’t been this creative in my whole life. The paintings I’m doing, the explorations with found art, the films I’m making – it’s just remarkable. I’m very pleased. With the internet you can do anything from anywhere and I’ve got a film coming out that I think a lot of people will like.
This is my final question. What is next for Richard Beymer?
I have been making a film, I started it in ’91, I think. Maybe ’92. Somewhere in the eighties, when video cameras got relatively small, I started filming it. I didn’t realize what I was doing, then it became this thing I was always doing. I was filming my life – where most people write a journal or diary – I was filming everything. I wouldn’t go anywhere without my camera. I had a little bag and if I went to the grocery store, I took the camera because I didn’t know what was going to happen and I wanted to capture it. It became an obsession for about close to fifteen or twenty years. If I was still doing that, I’d be bugging the phone right now.
There is a TM center here in Fairfield, Iowa, so I would come here for two or three weeks and cool out. During one of my adventures here in the nineties, I was introduced to Rudy Wilson, who had written a book called The Red Truck. I liked him when I met him. He was real, charismatic, a rapper – but not in the musical sense. I said, “I really like your book, let’s make a movie out of this.” So we tried to write a script. Since I was in this mode of always filming my life, I would film our writing conversations. I would put the camera on a tripod and we would talk and talk and talk.
I’ve only met two people in my life that are so charismatic, who I found so interesting to watch. Even if they were just staring out a window, they just pull you in. One is David Lynch, and the other person is Rudy. He’s just an interesting human being. In 2001 or so I had this idea – I could put together Rudy’s life along with us writing his film that we never finished, and I could work it all together into some sort of a narrative.
I’ve got a lot of stuff on Rudy and it has gone to some straaange places. We’ve got all this incredible footage on him. What I want to do is put it all together… and with my life too, because I’m introduced to it in a very interesting way, also.
We never finished it, but we’re filming the scenes that we actually wrote together. That’s what I’ve been filming for the last year and a half. Rudy and I appear in the 4:3 format, but when you cut to what we’re talking about, we’re in 16:9 format, hi-def. So it’s like “Whoom!” We’re into the movie. I’ve got footage on him as of a few months ago. We actually see someone age twenty years in this film.
It’s a Beautiful World does not seem to be streaming anywhere anymore, but it’s a pretty good idea to pick up a copy of Richard’s unauthorized auto-biography Impostor: Or Whatever Happened to Richard Beymer? at Amazon.