Life & Culture

After 15 years, my film’s on screens at last

When the star of his film died, Joshua Newton despaired. But as he tells James Mottram, the tech came through in the end


Filmmaking takes grit and determination at the best of times, something British writer-director Joshua Newton clearly has in spades. In 2008, he went behind the cameras to shoot a film in Poland with Roy Scheider, the legendary Hollywood star of Jaws and The French Connection. Then entitled Iron Cross, it told the story of a retired cop who seeks revenge on an elderly man he believes is the Nazi who killed his family during the Second World War. Scheider had been attached from the very beginning, even when it was a short and the character was an estate agent. He’d even helped raise finance for it.
Problems began, however, when a camera experienced a technical fault, rendering footage shot for two scenes virtually unusable. Scheider had also made a promise to his wife Brenda to help move house, meaning he had to leave Poland — always with a view to coming back for reshoots. “Unfortunately, during the move, Roy tripped on the garden step and the wound got infected,” explains Newton. With the actor already in remission with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, the disease returned after the accident, leaving Scheider hospitalised. He died, aged 75, shortly afterwards.
For Newton, distraught at losing someone who had become a close friend, he was also left with a film that couldn’t be finished — with two damaged scenes unwatchable. He was even in the process of shipping a truck to America from Poland, so Scheider could complete another missing scene, when he passed away. But he was determined, somehow, to finish the film for Scheider, even changing the title to Beautiful Blue Eyes, a suggestion the actor made shortly before he died. “Roy…he wanted this so much,” says Newton. “He thought this was going to be his comeback.”
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Newton had already been inspired by his own father when writing the script. “Holocaust survivors fall into several categories,” he says. “You’ve got those who embrace life. They thank God [for not being] one of the victims. And so they approach life with open arms and try to appreciate and love every moment of it. That was not my late father. My late father was someone who was so affected by the Holocaust. He was to some degree of family man, but he was very quiet. He never spoke about it. He probably needed therapy.”
There were even curious parallels between Scheider and Newton’s father, a former estate agent who also suffered from multiple myeloma. He remembers the time when his father was admitted to London’s Royal Free Hospital before he died. “I said ‘Dad, I’ve got Roy Scheider on the phone.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, the guy from Jaws!’ So I put him on the phone. And they had a little chat and Roy said he was just so happy to be doing this movie and appreciates where it came from — it was just really, really a magic moment.”
With all this, Newton knew he had to finish Beautiful Blue Eyes come what may. He expanded flashback scenes for the younger version of Scheider’s character Joseph, played by Newton’s son Alexander, and began showing a rough cut. “Even in that rough version, a lot of people liked it,” he says. And yet despite an offer from a distributor, he held back. “I said, ‘I think we should just put the thing on hold. The technology at some point in the future is going to change everything. It’s going to enable the film to be properly completed, the way it should’ve been.’”
Over the intervening years, as film technology developed, Newton visited “some of the top people in film restoration”, but nothing could be done. He even went to Industrial Light & Magic, the famous visual effects house, and asked if they could build a 3D model of Scheider (in much the way the late Peter Cushing appeared on screen in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One). The price? $3 million. Way over his budget.
The solution came with AI technology that was able to fill in missing elements of the frame, not unlike what Peter Jackson used on his First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. “When we did this, it was breathtaking. We didn’t just restore the two missing scenes into scenes that actually look like they were shot on 4K [digital],” he explains. “But I converted the whole film using the AI technology to 4K. And you wouldn’t believe that I actually had shot it on an early HD camcorder. It’s phenomenal.”
What it means is that a lost Roy Scheider film — his very final performance — will now be seen. In America last, it premiered alongside a re-release of Steven Spielberg’s shark classic Jaws. It feels apt, given Spielberg himself directed one of the great Holocaust movies in Schindler’s List. “There’s such a need to tell these stories,” Newton says. “And we can’t forget … this is the world’s darkest period. If we don’t make films like this, to remind people that this has happened, it will happen again, because people forget. I think that if history is anything of value to us, it’s that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Newton, who briefly studied law before moving into the film business, didn’t grow up in an Orthodox home. “It was as traditional as my mother could make it because my father, as a result of the Holocaust. He wasn’t observant at all. But my mother was. She kept a kosher home.” As a boy he remembers sneaking out of bed and peeking through a crack in the TV room door. “I saw footage from Auschwitz: masses of bodies being bulldozed into a pit. That has stayed with me since that day.”
It sent him “on a journey for answers”, he adds, from Beautiful Blue Eyes and into his next project, The Will to Resist, a story that combines what happened in Nazi Germany with the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It’s a great story about the power of peaceful protest,” he notes. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another 15 years to reach our screens.

Beautiful Blue Eyes was released in the US earlier this month A UK release will follow

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive