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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards

by director Michael Roberts

For many years—since our first encounter in 1971—I felt the character of master shoemaker Manolo Blahnik would make great cinema. Cultivated and multi-lingual. Idiosyncratic with a quicksilver mind and a drive to be creative 24/7. The possessor of courtly old-school manners and a legendary sense of personal style that has him permanently enshrined in The Best Dressed Hall of Fame. And, as one of the film’s list of fashion luminaries reminds us, someone who also happens to be “the greatest shoemaker of the 20th and 21st century.”

Despite his fame and his agreeing to make the film, Manolo was, at first, vehemently opposed to any cameras crossing his threshold. He also doubted anyone would be remotely interested in him or his story. Meanwhile, my only problem was that I have rarely seen a fashion movie I didn’t dislike. Most documentaries appear under the categories “unbearably tedious” or “self-serving vanity projects.”

But once I committed various scenarios from Manolo’s life to paper he began to see the filmic possibilities if it was shaped by our mutual love of cinema and its great movements like Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave, not to mention inspirational auteurs like Visconti, Kubrick, Von Sternberg, and Buñuel.

My first inspirations for Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards were in fact maverick director Ken Russell’s TV biopics for the BBC arts programmes in the 1960s, exquisitely visual paeans to composers such as Delius, Elgar and Mahler and the expressionist dancer Isadora Duncan. Yet I also admired the gritty forthright tone and conversational style of journalist John Freeman's series of confrontational interviews “Face To Face,” which aired on British TV around the same time.

Some of the cinematographic quirks in Manolo seem perfectly natural to me, such as the regular moving from black and white to colour both saturated and desaturated. Also, placing the interviewees on a neutral grey canvas backdrop was not only a satisfyingly graceful nod to the great photographer Irving Penn (one of Manolo's heroes), but also a way of isolating the subjects from their surroundings, often an unnecessary distraction when something pertinent is being said.

Otherwise, the filming was pretty straightforward, the only agenda being to make something true to Manolo’s unique life that would be interesting, humorous, literate but not pretentious and rich in content without having to resort to CGI, dumbing down, or a single explosion.