The ‘swinging sixties’ are back on the big screen in My Generation, a new documentary produced by Sir Michael Caine and Simon Fuller, and narrated by none other than Caine himself. One of the biggest archive-driven productions of the year, the film sets out to give viewers an immersive journey through the 1960s as lived by Caine – a decade that would revolutionize everything from pop culture to politics as we know them.
We had the chance to catch up with the film’s Archive Producer James Hunt – who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers – to learn more about what went into this epic homage to the Sixties.
Making the most epic documentary feature on the 1960s
“[The film] is essentially the story of pop culture,” Hunt said, “It’s about the first time in history that the popular classes could influence culture as such.”
From the beginning, Hunt – who got his start in the archival world working at Image Bank, which would later be acquired by Getty, and later as a video librarian at Sky News before shifting to archive production – knew that telling this story in an engaging way would be a massive, and massively expensive, undertaking.
“When I saw Simon Fuller’s name and the title of the project, I rang the director, David Batty, immediately and said, ‘I must have this job,’” Hunt said. “Simon Fuller, who is obviously very well-known and respected, asked us, ‘What would it take to make the best feature documentary that’s ever been made on the 60s?’ I replied, ‘Three years and a whole lot of money!’”
Independently funded and with Fuller and Caine as producers, the film took five years to produce – and for good reason. It took years to track down all the archival material – from unearthing the rarest of 16mm archival gems and carefully scanning them in 2k to working with hundreds of sources. Putting together and financing possibly the only soundtrack to include tracks from the Stones, the Beatles, and The Who was also a significant undertaking on the part of the films music supervisor Tarquin Gotch.
“We think it’s the first film to have the Stones, the Beatles, and the Who in the soundtrack,” Hunt said. “The music was more expensive than the archive footage actually! They’re the three biggest British bands of the time after all. Simon knew it was very important to have the soundtrack play an important role in the film and be perfectly done, so a lot of time and money was spent on making sure that soundtrack was well done. The birth of pop music was obviously very important to the story.”
“The film took a long time in general. It was quite painful to make, but worthy in the end. It’s a good, fun film and I’m proud of the end result. It’s 95% archival footage, archival audio and archive still images. You have a bit of Michael Caine to camera, but for the most part it’s all archive.”
In order to track down the over 1,500 hours of footage, 500 hours of audio and tens of thousands of still photos the film was edited from, Hunt muses he probably reached out to over 500 individuals and companies.
“I have the most amazing hard drive of 60s footage you’ve ever seen,” Hunt laughed. “The budget was big, but we had to be careful with the money as it’s so easy to go over budget. We licensed from about 85 different sources in the end. Some of them were sources like Apple Corps (The Beatles) and Abkco (The Rolling Stones), and that just doesn’t come cheap.”
Hitting the archive footage jackpot
Throughout the film, Caine interviews some of the decade’s biggest stars and most iconic figures. Some of these interviewees included Joan Collins, Roger Moore, Roger Daltrey, Sir Paul McCartney, Mary Quant, David Bailey, Marianne Faithful as well as many more done by the director, David Batty.
“MC interviewed a lot of the stars in the film, but you only hear them in audio,” Hunt says. “From those interviews we tell the story with archive. We really had some jackpot moments…”
One of those jackpot moments came when researching footage to bring to life an interview between Michael Caine and Twiggy, who is considered by many the first supermodel.
“Twiggy’s old manager and boyfriend was a called Justin De Villeneuve,” Hunt recalled. “He’s an elusive character. I found out there were 3 films films shot in the United States in 1967 by Bert Stern, the famous photographer. They were shown once on ABC in America and were never seen ever again.”
“It took me two years to persuade Justin to do an interview for the film – he owns the copyright to them. I schmoozed him for two years, and he finally said he knew the films were somewhere, but just could not find them. He got divorced, eventually, and one separation later, whilst moving out of his house, he found the films: three colour 16mm prints… And they were beautiful. Before this there was only really one or two pieces of color footage of Twiggy in the ‘60s, and we really wanted to tell that story. It’s the first time this lot is being seen in the UK really.”
“There were so many eureka moments to tell the truth,” Hunt says. Of course, the film uses some material from BBC, ITV and the other usual sources, but beyond this, Hunt scoured the world for years to find material for My Generation.
Another one of those ‘eureka’ moments was discovering that director Peter Whitehead, who directed Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London had kept all the rushes from the filming of the movie, and being able to work together to produce incredible scans for use in My Generation, but also for generations of filmmakers to come.
“Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London was kind of the swinging 60s film from the era,” Hunt said, “and Peter is a very interesting man. It took two years to interview him. Eventually when we did interview him, at some point I kind of asked, ‘Do you have any rushes?’”
“He was like, ‘Yeah I’ve got them all.’ Half was at his house, and half was at the BFI We ended up licensing through Contemporary Films, his agency, and agreed to scan the film to 2K from 16mm. Now he has them saved, and he doesn’t have to open them again. So of the reels, half went back to Peter, half to the BFI, and he can now license the footage to others.”
“I obviously got a good deal on the license,” Hunt said, proudly.
This happened several times, throughout the production, but of the 85 sources, the film ended up using between ten and fifteen minutes of Peter Whitehead’s footage. As London was the other character in the film, this footage was an essential find that really sets My Generation apart aesthetically (one can get a glimpse of this in the trailer!).
“London in the 60s seen through Peter Whiteheads lens was just incredible,” Hunt said. “You had to blink and ask yourself, ‘Is that modern, or is that old?’ and it’s over 50 years-old.”
But perhaps the most unlikely find of the production took Hunt across the pond to LA and New Mexico on the trail of rare footage of Vidal Sassoon – hairstylist and fashion icon of the ‘60s.
“‘[David Batty] said, ‘James there’s a film made in ‘66 called Dolly’s Story made by Robert Amram,’” Hunt recalled.
In the ‘70s, Amram won two Academy Awards for natural history films, but Amram’s first film, Dolly’s Story remained a lesser-known work.
“For years I couldn’t track this one or him down,” Hunt said, “but after two years, through a friend in LA, we were able to watch the film. Eventually I was able to get a copy scanned to 2K in New Mexico.”
“Vidal Sassoon was very much part of the fashion scene in ‘60s London,” Hunt said. “I recall David Batty sating, ‘In an ideal world, we’d have Vidal Sassoon in color in his salon doing all these crazy hairstyles.’ It didn’t exist, we thought. But there it was – basically the exact scene – in Amram’s film. It was Amram’s first film, but he had never released it before. The footage is just incredible. He apparently thought no one would ever be interested!”
Getting the scan right
With this treasure trove of 16mm finds, the question of how to scan the film was a serious consideration. The film’s post supervisor Tom Jones and Hunt initially wanted to scan everything up to 4K, the most common resolution for digital cinema today.
“Tom Jones, and I really wanted to do the film to 4K,” Hunt said, “but with 16mm film, you just can’t tell the difference between 2K and 4K. With 35mm you can really tell the difference because it’s twice as big. It goes up to 4K beautifully. But due to the nature of the decade, most people were filming on 16mm. 35mm cameras were heavy and thus couldn’t go everywhere. 16mm were heavy too, but that’s what makes Peter Whitehead’s film bonkers good. He was really able to make London a character.”
“Wherever possible, where the film was available, I transferred it personally,” he said. “It took months, and it’s a hard job. Some of the footage comes on tape – on Beta SP even – but we had the budget, so we scanned the original film whenever possible. The overall quality of archive in the film is incredible.”
Beyond the research project of a lifetime, Hunt spoke of the unique pleasure of working with such legends as Caine and Fuller on such a project.
“Working with Michael Caine was great,” he said. “The stories were just incredible. You know, you can’t really beat it. The writers, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais – both very famous sitcom writers in the UK from the 60s – were great to work with, but obviously, with Simon Fuller and Michael Caine being the producers, I was like, ‘Wow.’ A kid in a sweet shop, as they say.”
Hunt is currently archive producing a feature doc on Bill Wyman – the ex-guitarist for the Stones – called ‘The Quiet One’ using all his personal archive from his Stones years and beyond. It is set to come out this year.
My Generation hit theaters in the UK on March 14. If you’ll be around London, a special screening is being held on Saturday March 17 at the Bertha Dochouse in London followed by a recorded Q&A with Michael Caine and director David Batty, hosted by Edith Bowman. Click here for more information.