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Speculation: Michael Gothard and Don Levy: Herostratus and afterwards

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Oct. 6th, 1973 | 08:00 pm

Interviewed by Clare Spark, in February 1973, Don Levy stated: “It’s not necessary for the actors to know what they’re doing. What they’ve gotta know, is – what they are. In fact, that’s all I require of them."

The audition process for ‘Herostratus’, described in the BFI booklet as "intense", was perhaps designed to find out whether the actors who auditioned (including, per. Amnon Buchbinder, John Hurt as well as Michael Gothard) possessed what Don Levy considered that essential knowledge.

Evidently, Michael Gothard did, because he was chosen to play the lead role, Max.

In “Sight and Sound”, summer 1965, an unnamed reporter says that “Levy spent a good deal of his time testing artists: having decided that this was to be a film developed entirely by improvisation around a firm narrative, he wanted a particularly malleable and intense type of player. After the extensive improvised auditions, he settled on Michael Gothard, then a drama student, for the lead …"

As to why a young actor would put himself through a tortuous audition for a reportedly unpaid role – per Philip Ward: "This is Art, with a capital ‘A’, which may explain why, challenging as the film’s contents were, actors were keen to get on board. When the British film industry was turning out generic pap like the Carry On series, the prospect of a home-grown arthouse movie must have been enticing …"

It is easy to see how, having been cast in his first prestigious film role, Gothard could have been temporarily mesmerised by Levy, and regarded him as some kind of mentor: possibly letting himself be put through experiences and processes that were more demanding and revealing than he might have liked, or otherwise have tolerated.

In “Sight and Sound” (1965), Levy says: “The film has several long takes up to four minutes. Some people are afraid of these, but I feel I need them here as the actors require space to reveal their deepest states of intensity ..."

Richard Whitehall, in 1972, spoke of: “Long takes, through which the actors improvise brilliantly … as Levy explores the ramifications and resonances of his theme: the revolt of a young failed poet against the horrors and corruption of society, and the means he takes to make his protest known."

According to Philip Ward: “… the filming, which extended from summer 1964 to spring 1965, took a huge toll on those involved as Levy, by his own admission, drove his cast to confront unwelcome truths about themselves.

Gabriella Licudi, the lead actress, suffered a breakdown during filming and retired from the business not long after … The resulting film gives a vivid idea of what it would be like to crack up mentally. Gothard’s derangement is expressed both as outward violence – in one frightening early scene he trashes his rundown bedsit to the sound of loud choral music – and in inner turmoil ...”

Drewe Shimon also mentions mental problems allegedly suffered, this time by Gothard himself:

"As the actor – Michael Gothard in his first major role - embarks upon this odyssey of wanton destruction, we are dragged into his psychosis in a way we wouldn’t have imagined when, five minutes earlier, proceedings commenced in an admittedly abstract but comparatively restrained manner. ... Gothard’s performance … is a revelation, a spitting, snarling yet suave diatribe on legs, and proof of what a performer can achieve when stretched to his outer limits (Levy would later claim that Michael had at least “two breakdowns” during filming)."

The source reference for these supposed breakdowns among the cast have so far not been found, but Levy himself said that Michael Gothard had “been going through these incredible convolutions …”

In “Sight and Sound” (1965), Levy says: “Details of characterisations and dialogue were all developed during a very complicated process of improvisation and recall, designed to produce through various psychological methods a peculiar emotional state whereby the acting became behaviour. The improvisation was not based on their own characters … but was used as a technique for freeing and distorting action and reaction and enveloping the characters of the play.”

In other interviews from the BFI library, Don Levy seems to have no shame in describing his treatment of the actors, which is at best unreasonable, and at worst, downright cruel.

Of Gabriella Licudi, he says: “In the final scene I had to get something very difficult out of Gabriella – difficult because she didn't want to give it, to admit to this in herself. I stood and shouted at her (that's my voice you hear on the film right at the end) until eventually she broke down.

She kept switching from herself to Clio and back again – she couldn't separate her own guilt as an individual from that in the part she was playing.

The camera crews had to stand and watch this in silence for an hour and a half. They were horrified, and argued fiercely about the morality of it. But I got the response I needed.”

In “Sight and Sound” (1965), Levy says that sometimes the actors appeared to be in a state akin to hypnosis, during which they were able to operate by drawing directly on the subconscious. In connection with one scene ... where the girl, posed in the corner of the screen against a white wall, goes into a long hysterical outburst, he commented: “The actress was not informed of the end result required. The scene was gradually built up by a violent actress-character conflict during the recall and preparation which took about two hours. When it finally occurred, two members of the unit were not able to watch and one was unable to work.”

One can only imagine what effect watching this treatment of Gabriella Licudi might have had on her co-star, but Michael Gothard wasn’t spared either. Levy says: “Everything was shot on location and they didn't have to pretend it was cold or raining or dangerous. Mike Gothard, the leading actor, can't stand heights. But we had him standing on the edge of the roof of an 18-storey block, with no safety devices and in a howling gale. He was terrified, but he did it.”

And in another interview:

“At one point in the film Max has to stand on the edge of a high building in a howling wind. The actor who plays the part, Michael Gothard, is terrified of height – but I made him do it. Most scenes really happened like this. The love scene is an act of love.”

Even if the talk of mental breakdowns is exaggerated, Levy very obviously relished the feeling of superiority and power over his actors, and had little care for the possible consequences of what he put them through.

One might suspect that, in making this experimental film, Levy was not only experimenting with techniques, and with his audience, but on the actors: seeing how far he could push them, while dispassionately filming the results, just like any scientist observing his "experimental models" – rats in a maze.

In an interview with Don Levy for “Cinema”, March 1969, Bruce Beresford asked Don Levy “what’s true about actors improvising someone else’s life?”

Levy replied, “The point is that the actors in Herostratus are quite close in real life to the people in the film. That’s why I chose them for the parts.

The arrogance Don Levy demonstrates here is breath-taking, firstly, in his assumption that he knows his principal actors inside and out, and secondly, in the obvious conclusion that he considers Michael Gothard a deluded egotist, Gabriella Licudi as someone who would prostitute herself to oblige her boss (and here, the line between reality and fiction really starts to blur, because it is Levy who is employing her) and Peter Stephens, (perhaps best considered as a stand-in for Levy himself) a manipulative pimp.

Philip Ward describes Levy as “one of a rare breed of artist-scientist … he made educational documentaries on scientific subjects for the Nuffield Foundation …”

From 'The Experimental Psychologist', a review of 'Herostratus' by Stuart Heaney, published in 'Sight and Sound' magazine, in September 2009:

"In his notes accompanying the film, Levy cryptically referred to 'a special form of improvisation … exploiting the subconscious', but although he did not reveal the specific technique he used to direct the actors, it was clearly psychotherapeutic in intent. The performances were all improvised on scenarios and suggestions provided by the director-therapist, sometimes with disturbing results. Levy referred to 'peculiar events' that occurred 'both during and outside filming'; occasionally crew members refused to work owing to the intensity of the experiences being filmed.

… Levy wanted to deprogramme his actors, the better to reveal to the audience the programming within themselves through witnessing the actors’ experiences … The crucial moment that foregrounds this strategy occurs in the closing scene of the film, evidence that Levy may have been using some form of primal scream therapy, inducing trauma in the actors … Convinced they have provoked Max into committing suicide, Clio becomes hysterical. As she leans against a blank wall she wails, 'I can’t get out!' Levy’s strident voice can be heard offscreen, replying, 'YOU CAN GET OUT!' The whimpering of Clio-Gabriella is the last thing we hear as the image cuts to black."

For all the critical accolades heaped on Don Levy for 'Herostratus', it is perhaps fortunate that he did not make more films, and trap yet more vulnerable young actors in his amateur psychology laboratory.

Drewe Shimon observed: “Indeed, it seems he [Don Levy] only gave ‘Herostratus’ what linear narrative it has to ‘throw people a thread.’ This attitude demonstrates not only a contempt for cinema audiences (and a feeling of intellectual superiority to them), but cinema itself, and possibly even humanity in general ...”

Levy was an admirer of the poet Rupert Brooke, whom he – somewhat presumptuously – credits as an “assistant” on an earlier film, ‘Ten Thousand Talents.’ Brooke was: "A young Apollo, golden-haired …” (Frances Cornford), who was beset by mental anguish, and travelled around Europe trying to find himself: a narrative which might also have fitted Michael Gothard in his early years. Perhaps Don Levy saw this similarity, and picked Michael for the role of Max because of it.


Following his work on ‘Herostratus’, Michael was unemployed for 18 months, a time which he described as "too depressing to think about." Per a 1973 TV Times article, “It was this taste of unemployment that determined his practical attitude to his profession.”

In an interview that appeared in ‘X’-Films on an unknown date in 1973, Michael said of 'Herostratus': "I played the lead in it and I was on the screen from start to finish, so you could say it was a big part. The film didn’t have any success. It was experimental, a very strange thing. It had many qualities about it which just didn’t seem right. I spent a long period out of work after that, so I really started with a great flourish. It was a helluva way to enter into oblivion."1

Whether or not Michael Gothard and Don Levy kept in touch, Levy clearly continued to follow Gothard’s career.

In Levy's 1973 interview, he said of Michael: “The lead actor, for a year or so, held out, waiting for a role – really good work – finally said … recognised, to himself, at least, that a … there wasn’t any such thing as good work, and so he just accepted everything that came along. Really. He’s played in ‘The Devils’ of Ken Russell. He’s played in ‘Scream and Scream Again.’ So he’s just a … working actor, but he does this with incredible reluctance.”

It’s hard to tell whether Levy regarded ‘The Devils' and 'Scream and Scream Again’ as extreme examples of good and bad work, or whether he considered both equally unworthy; neither does he suggest what, in the supposed absence of “good work”, he expected Michael to do for the rest of his career.

Michael Gothard appears to have been aware of Don Levy’s opinion. Things he said in the "Petticoat" interview in October 1973 could be seen as a rebuttal of Levy’s criticisms:

“In order to survive, you must compromise. If not, how can your ideals remain on a high level? I don’t like the glorification of violence and materialism, but I realise that I cannot just sit at home waiting to do a righteous, moral film. It may never come along.”

He also said: “You see, my work is an extrovert thing, performing publicly – but I approach it in an introvert manner. I’m quite happy to show myself as the character I’m portraying but I’m not at all interested in doing it as a direct revelation of myself.”

This is the exact opposite, in terms of performance, to what Don Levy sought to extract from him, and from Gabriella Licudi, in ‘Herostratus’; Michael is clearly rejecting Levy’s approach. He must have recognised that, while ‘Herostratus’ was a big break for him, Don Levy was not the most helpful director he could have worked with.

Michael Gothard with Don Levy with Gabriella Licudi

Image from the BFI booklet, showing Gabriella Licudi, Michael Gothard and Don Levy. Gabriella appears to be wiping away a tear.

Articles referred to:
Review by Philip Ward

Review by Darius Shimon

TV Times interview, 8 February 1973

"Petticoat” interview, 6 October 1973

'X'-Films interview, 1973

Sight and Sound 1965, on location:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Sight and Sound 2009: The Experimental Psychologist

Clare Spark’s interview with Don Levy, in February 1973 can be heard on the British Film Institute DVD of ‘Herostratus.’

Interviews found in the BFI Archive.

1 According to A.S., who knew Michael well, “helluva” was not in his idiom.

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