James D. Cooper’s captivating documentary, Lambert & Stamp, captures the zeitgeist of an era as it explores the complicated creative partnership forged between Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two ambitious men from distinctly different backgrounds in early 1960’s London. While working as 2nd assistant directors at Shepperton Studios, they set out to direct their own underground film. Their search for a subject led them to discover four young musicians with raw talent performing at the Railway Hotel, one of the most important clubs for Mods outside the West End. The synergy of personalities, talent and energy led to the creation of one of the world’s most iconic rock bands, The Who.
In an exclusive interview, Cooper talked about directing his first feature with the support of his longtime friend Chris Stamp, why the theme of transcending the constraints of your own circumstance to create something bigger than yourself appealed to him, how two would-be filmmakers with no music business experience became the visionary managers of The Who, why Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend wanted the story told, Cooper’s collaboration with editor Christopher Tellefsen, how they cut on performance to make the living emotional reality work via the combination of period footage and present day recollections, and his upcoming projects including a couple of untitled feature films.
Check it all out in the interview below:
How did this project first come together for you?
JAMES D. COOPER: I knew Chris Stamp for many years, and I found him to be one of the most fascinating, captivating, articulate, entertaining individuals that I’d ever known. We had more of a contemporary relationship. He wasn’t somebody that sat around and talked about his rock and roll days. I was starting out my film career, and he was very interested in me and my journey into film. I approached him with my partner and producer, Loretta Harms, and we went to him with the idea for the film, which was to do a film on he and Kit. Chris had a practice of never obstructing any creative process. It was just a thing that he felt he’d never do. There are people who go out of their way to say, “I don’t want this or that to be done.” He was somebody that was always open and available to be a part of any creative process that was coming within his viewpoint, and he would never, never obstruct. When we went to him with the idea for the film, he started to go into a little bit of a state of shock (laughs). He didn’t say, “No,” but it was like a bit of a “Well…” because he’d always wanted to be a facilitator of any process. While his years with Kit and The Who were brilliant and cathartic, parts of it were obviously painful and emotionally charged. Knowing what I know about him, he’s somebody that didn’t go through the motions of doing something. He wouldn’t agree to do anything unless [he was fully committed]. I mean, knowing what he knows about creative process and his own relationship to the story and the levels that he would have to be involved in emotionally, not only to live up to what he thought my standards would be but to represent the essence of he and Kit and The Who, was I would imagine probably a pretty daunting thing. We got a call a couple months after posing this question, and it was very typical of Chris. He said, “If you are willing to put yourself through this, I’ll go in there with you.”
What was it about this story and the relationship between these two men that appealed to you and made you say I’ve got to make this film?
COOPER: First of all, I think it’s the greatest untold story in rock. It’s not quite unknown, but it’s certainly untold. For me, it’s a love story. It’s like a classic, almost traditional love story. It’s told through a fabulous, fantastic set of circumstances, but it’s a love story. Knowing him and knowing the type of character he was, for lack of a better word, I had a fabulous leading man to make a film with that was a love story, and it also at the same time was sort of the greatest untold story in rock. It was also a formal challenge. How do I make a story about two men in the shadow of the deity that they created? Also, one’s living and one’s dead. The other thing that really attracted me to it as well was it’s a fabulous set of circumstances. It’s a theme that’s present in everybody’s life. You know, you’re transcending the constraints of your own circumstance to make something bigger and better for yourself and to feel as though you’ve had some sort of impact on the world. When you’re born into the world in the docks of the East End of London, you’re not really told that you’re going to be able to do that so much. Kit Lambert, in the net result, also felt marginalized in his circumstance because he was handed a daunting legacy. He was a descendant of the aristocracy, the son of Constant Lambert, and the grandson of Margot Fonteyn. He was born into a bit of a thing around that as well. You’re very much defined by that. So there was a simpatico. I think anybody moves through the world thinking, “What kind of impact am I going to have? How am I going to transcend my circumstances? How am I going to risk relationships in order to create something that leaves a mark, that makes an impression?” So, it was that drive that I saw in their relationship with one another that was universal. I think the combination of all those things really attracted me to it.
These guys came from distinctly different backgrounds and shared a powerful bond, but they had no money, no connections and no knowledge of rock and roll.
COOPER: None whatsoever.
What do you think drew them into this unlikely and complex creative relationship where they started out wanting to make a film and wound up managing The Who?
COOPER: I think when they met, there was a certain feeling. There was a certain chemistry that the two of them had. It’s like a love story. When you meet somebody and you fall in love, you want the world to know. You want the world to feel your impact. They met as filmmakers. They were working within the British film system. I think that the idea of making a film was sort of what was at hand for them to work with within wanting to have a shared artistic dream. They were aware of film. They wanted to make a film like François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. They started with themselves, like “Okay, what are we thinking and feeling? What is it about post-war London and youth and this situation we’re in that we can make an underground movie about?” It’s just a practicality that they’re working in film. They want to be film directors and they think about the type of movie they can make and a way to do it. They go out and they search for a suitable vehicle, and they find something that even perhaps speaks more to their shared creative dream than the thing that they thought it was. They thought it was making a movie, and then when they find these four individuals, obviously what happened was that was even more of a vehicle to play out their creative ambitions than what they thought it was going to be.
What do you think they contributed, individually or collectively, to the early success of The Who?
COOPER: First of all, probably the same thing that contributed to the power of their own relationship, which I think is recognition of the other individual and unconditional acceptance. So, it’s identification. When they had that with one another and they came upon these four guys, I think they brought that in. In a way, it was this combustive relationship with the two of them. When they found these four individuals, they conveyed that same thing to them, which is very compelling and very alluring. It’s sort of these two guys bringing everything they had towards these individuals, which provides one with a lot of front, a lot of back up. It’s like Roger (Daltrey) said, “Hey, it was the first posh guy that ever spoke with me. It was like, ‘Fuckin’ yeah!’” I mean, that’s contributing a lot. It’s like saying, “There’s so much in you, and we’re going to put something around you, and we’re going to do everything in our power, because we so believe in what is possible with all of us.” Whether there were other things and circumstances along the way, that initial thing is probably the biggest thing.
Was it hard to get Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the remaining members of The Who, to be a part of your film?
COOPER: Once Chris Stamp agreed to give his blessing to the film, from there we went to both Pete and Roger, and they very much wanted the story told despite the complications, which I think speaks volumes. It really truly speaks volumes. We had lunch with Pete. You have to go in with a good idea, but you also have to go in with a way that you want to do it. I went in and I said, “I want to make this. I want to look at the relationships here as the essence of what made The Who thing work.” And he said, “Yes.” For them, that’s the living emotional reality. If I went in and said, “I want to talk about your record deals,” he’d have probably said, “You don’t really need me for that.” Roger was like, “Well, the story of Lambert and Stamp is the story of The Who.” Having Chris’s complete trust and openness to doing this, I certainly without hesitation can say allowed them to come into it as well.
How did your experience as a cinematographer and a fashion photographer inform your approach to directing your first feature?
COOPER: I was a fashion cinematographer and I had a lot of experience as a cinematographer for 25 years. It helps you with approach. It helps you with communication. It helps you with consistency. I knew the challenges that I was going to have, and I was able to design the production around that. I didn’t run around a lot and film a lot of things that I didn’t need. But also, in shooting what’s basically an intimate, revealing story, my experience enabled me to create an environment and a tone that allowed for something. I guess I’m saying I knew how to go about it. I knew how to create the environment and the situation, and I knew how to have the production implement the needs and set the right tone. Even if it starts with an email, a communication, it has to be the right tone. When you sit in front of somebody, what are you communicating that is going to allow them to communicate back, even if there are lights and stuff like that? So, that experience as a cinematographer was invaluable. It was also with the problem solving, because everything on the set and everything in moviemaking is problem solving. I have a lot of experience problem solving.
Can you talk a little about your collaboration with your editor, Christopher Tellefsen, and how the two of you worked together?
COOPER: First of all, I was fortunate to have chosen well in working with Chris Tellefsen who is absolutely first rate and in love with the film that we were making. We really had a great connection, not just over the filmmaking, but as people. He was somebody who I was really able to work with and bring around to my way of thinking about the film. Basically, we had some conversations. I’ll try to make it succinct, but it’s an interesting question. We talked about certain things and certain approaches. It was important that the film didn’t have any tense in order to have the living emotional reality work when we we’re making a historical piece. We tried to work with support material in a way that wasn’t representative, but was a character, so that it didn’t have like, “Okay. Here’s a picture of what we’re saying that represents the point.” It was like a living character. It’s also that we did more of a feature film thing. While I did spend a lot of late nights going through transcripts and getting a plan together like, “Okay, this is an interesting thing that’s said here” and you have an assemblage of ideas, we really cut on performance, which is unusual for a non-fiction film. If something didn’t have the right emotionality or the right tonality or whatever, we were very conscious of working with – what would I call it? – a vibe, a performance. With as much as there was stuff that was informational, there were also takes. Not that I shot takes, but we really only wanted to. Also, because you’re telling a relationship story, how do you keep Kit Lambert alive throughout? And then, how does he start to recede the way that he did in the actual story? These are all very conscious things. Also, the other thing that we worked on that I very much wanted to have present were the subplots. There’s the subplot of the character development of Roger Daltrey going from somebody who was the lost one. His journey kind of runs throughout, because he was a little bit not kicked aside, but Pete was worked with as the writer. Roger had to make some hard choices for the good of the band. Everybody seemed to have their thing that grounded them and that Roger was still finding. At the end, his story is just amazing. He becomes the star. So there were narrative things like that that we really worked, but you have to be [careful]. It’s really a trick to find how they land and how to keep them alive. Also, the other thing that Chris and I were challenged with that he did an amazing job with was the fastening of editing so that there was a living dimension to it. It has this sparkly, cathartic quality, and we worked very hard to have a language that was living and not just informational.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
COOPER: I know enough from being in the processes of film that all of your planning and all of your preparation and everything that you think about serves you in that you’re able to adapt and improvise if things don’t go according to plan. (Laughs) It’s not necessarily creative work as much as it is problem solving. The original film that I envisioned wasn’t so much one that I thought rather than felt. I know that I and everybody that I had the honor and privilege of working with did our absolute best to represent what we felt was important about the story, and whether or not it was, the end result was honesty in the making of it. It was as honest and forthcoming as it could possibly be and that’s what I wanted at the origin.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
COOPER: I have a couple of feature films that I’m working on. They don’t have titles yet. A couple of them are of my own idea and a couple of them are being brought to me, but they’re features. They’re not documentaries. It’s not non-fiction. And then, I have other artistic processes that I’m involved in. I’m working with rehearsing a band with one other person that is strange and experimental and avant garde and beautiful and Dadistic and everything. I’m also continuing my own artistic processes of photography and other art forms.
Lambert & Stamp is now playing in Los Angeles and New York.