‘I didn’t want to be in films– I hated the idea’
What do the Indiana Jones films, Braveheart, Mission: Impossible and MADC’s upcoming panto The Wizard of Oz have in common?
They all feature four-time Oscar nominee Peter Howitt as set designer.
Yet the 84-year-old’s jolly and unassuming demeanour belies the fact that he has worked with the most prominent directors and producers, with a filmography comprising over 50 titles.
His Valletta apartment, though, is lined with mementos of his impressive 63-year career. Vibrant and elaborate scenic designs hang in frames, while many more are stacked against the walls. His wall unit is packed with uncut, original copies of the movies he worked on, many of which were sent to him by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
And the man himself is brimming with extraordinary stories and anecdotes from the years spent intermingling with the rich, the brilliant and the temperamental.
Born in Wimbledon, England, Mr Howitt never entertained any notions of working in the motion picture industry.
“I didn’t want to be in films at all – I hated the idea. I always wanted to be in theatre. I had been working for [renowned dancer and choreographer] Freddie Ashton. I got into movies completely by accident.”
From a young age, Mr Howitt’s passion lay in painting. As a teenager, he began painting at Covent Garden where he encountered a “marvellous little old Chinese artist” who taught him how to paint with watercolours and how to “let the water work for you”.
“I had been to college and got all my degrees but I hadn’t been taught how to earn money at anything. Schools don’t always teach you ways of earning money out of people; to do so, you have to offer them something.
“And what I have is a great deal of imagination – but I didn’t know that at the time,” Mr Howitt reflects.
He was then asked to do an advert for Pinewood Studios. The sight of set construction workmen hammering away reminded him of a factory and he returned to Covent Garden, preferring the different ambience.
“Soon after, however, they rang me up from the studio, asking me to go down. They offered me so much money I couldn’t refuse!” he laughs.
In 1969, he was offered Anne of the Thousand Days, starring Richard Burton. It was the film that put him on the map – and the film where he first encountered the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor.
His eyes sparkle when he thinks of the late screen siren.
“She was the most divine friend in the world. She was such a kind woman. Yes, she was loud and she was vulgar, but she was heavenly. She was incredibly gorgeous and all the workmen liked her because there were no pretences about her, she was exactly as she was. She was vivacious and she could act, there was no doubt about that. And she was so in love with Burton – my goodness, was she ever.”
Mr Howitt first set foot on the Maltese islands in the late 1960s. He subsequently took up residence in Għarb from the 1970s up till the 1990s – something the actress did not fail to remember.
“I recall Elizabeth phoning to inform me she was coming to Malta for a holiday as she had a friend here at the time. She asked me whether she could come over. I didn’t think much of it, knowing film stars and their unpredictability. I was sure something better would crop up and she’d change her mind.
“Imagine my surprise when she appeared at my door, with enough luggage to stay a year! I nearly died.”
He reminisces about the various illustrious friends he made throughout the years, including screen icon Marlene Dietrich whom he met during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, The Muppets creator Jim Henson, Stephen Spielberg, whom he recently bumped into in Valletta and James Bond producers ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and his daughter Barbara.
Yet it was not all glitter and glamour. During scouting for The Mummy in Morocco, he was involved in a bad car accident in the middle of the desert. In spite of his serious injuries, he still cites the film as one of his most enjoyable ones.
“We built this magnificent gold set. Naturally, it was all fake but it looked so convincing that extras were stealing parts of it.”
Despite his age, the octogenarian shows no signs of slowing down. During the past few years, he has designed a number of dazzling stage sets for several of Yada Dance Company’s productions.
His latest work has been for the MADC’s upcoming panto.
Despite his laudable achievements, Mr Howitt does not flaunt his success.
“You’re only as good as your workmen are with you. They become an extension of you. I can design a door but I can’t tell the carpenters how to construct it to make it swing both ways. My job is to fire them with enough imagination to be able to bring it all to life.”