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John Boorman—Queen and Country, Hope and Glory, Point Blank, Excalibur—2/26/2015

/content/interviews/406/1.jpgEnglish filmmaker John Boorman wrote and directed the autobiographical films Hope and Glory and Queen and Country, as well as science-fiction allegory Zardoz, fact-based crime drama The General, and Irish socioeconomic tale The Tiger's Tail. He (officially) co-wrote his films Leo the Last, Excalibur, Where the Heart Is, and The Tailor of Panama, and directed such prominent pictures as Catch Us If You Can, Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Emerald Forest, Beyond Rangoon, In My Country, and Deliverance, Boorman's second film (after Hope and Glory) to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director. The auteur also published the memoirs Adventures of a Suburban Boy and Money Into Light: The Emerald Forest: A Diary, and filmed the 1991 autobiographical short I Dreamt I Woke Up for the BBC (in 1966, he also essayed D.W. Griffith in the BBC documentary "The Great Director"). Boorman's valedictory victory lap, for what may be his final film, Queen and Country, brought him to San Jose, California, where we chatted at the Fairmont Hotel.

Groucho: Queen and Country deals with a new set of growing pains for your alter ego, Bill Rohan, and for England...

John Boorman: Mm-hm.

Groucho: Post-war, pre-'60s. And these include a struggle between the sort of old-guard Establishment...

John Boorman: Mm.

Groucho: And the younger generation of youthful skepticism and rebellion, as well as a class divide that intervenes on romance. So, in shaping the screenplay, at what point was it clear to you what it would be about—or, in other words, what that part of your life and England's history meant to you?

John Boorman: Well, after I did Hope and Glory, I made notes, sketches about that period, of conscription. And at that point, I didn't really know what it was about. And it was only the last few years that, with the perspective of history, as it were, looking back at that period, I could see that that was a period of such tremendous change, you know: when you think that the British Empire, the greatest empire ever, with two-fifths of the Earth's surface, and it was gone. In a few years. It was all over. And England became a completely different place. And it was so—it seemed such a turning point, and I thought it was really worth doing—in that sense.

G: And that intersected with maybe something that writing your memoirs might have helped to unlock—but an understanding of a major shift in your own life.

JB: Yeah. That's right, yes. I think doing the books, it did really make a big difference to what I was doing. The book.

G: The film partly falls into a tradition of war satires.

JB: Mm-hm.

G: Being American, I think of Catch-22.

JB: Yeah.

G: M*A*S*H. What is and was your view of the military, and its approach to demanding discipline?

/content/interviews/406/2.jpgJB: Well, you know, of course, part of my rebellion was [towards] my father, who's a very great patriot who served in the first World War and the second World War. In the first World War, interestingly enough, he was at school. When he was seventeen, there were twenty-five boys in his class, and they all marched down and joined up. And they all went to France, except him. They all became second lieutenants...and some clerk put a tick against his name, and he was sent to India. Which is the reason I'm here, and the others all killed. I think the life span of a second lieutenant in the trenches was about ten days. So my rebellion was partly against him, as well as against the army.

G: The themes that are in common with this film and your oeuvre are this establishment-and-rebellion thing and also the kind of romance: those could also describe your career as a filmmaker, no?

JB: (Laughs.) I see what you mean, yeah!

G: Your films sort of have rebelled against the establishment all the way from, well, Catch Us If You Can and Point Blank, [which] were such statements—they answered conventional cinema...

JB: Yes.

G: But you've also had this romantic, mythical quality that you found your way into—

JB: Yes. That's true. So it all comes together there, in some way.

G: I guess this is sort of a culminative film for you, as well. You started writing the script not that long after Hope and Glory, right?

JB: Well, I started making notes for it, yes. And I mean, I started in the same way as I started with Hope and Glory, which was just to put down all the things I most vividly remembered. And then start to—you know, one rather disturbing thing is that when all those vivid memories I had as a child have all gone, I now only remember the film. The film has erased the original memories it's based on. And I expect the same thing will happen with this one.

G: Well, I think it's the same way that when people tell a story, the way that they've told the story or shaped the story replaces the original memory.

JB: Well, exactly. And I'm very interested in how memory and imagination coincide. There's a mystery about that connection there. You know, in this film, all the incidents in it occurred. All the characters are based on actual people that I knew, including members of my family. When I tested each scene, and writing it and also in shooting it, I always asked myself the same question: is it true? Does it feel true? And that was key to it. So, I mean, there are a couple of exaggerations, for instance the Ophelia girl wasn't, as depicted, a handmaiden of the Queen, but she was at the coronation in the congregation. So I just, you know, that was a little twist because it seemed such a good joke, you know.

(Both laugh.)

G: It's quite a discovery. One of the other things that I learned in my research: in one of your interviews, or probably more than one, you frame cinema as being like dreams, and therefore your films as being more or less projections of your own psyche. And that seemed like an instructive new way of looking at your films, that in a way they're all your own very subjective viewpoint, including Queen and Country. And when you mention Ophelia, I think of that: in some ways that character might say more about Bill or you than about the woman herself.

JB: Yes. Yes.

G: Is that what you had in mind?

JB: Well, I think that from its very origins, particularly when it was black-and-white filmed, film was so closely connected to dreaming. And it's probably why people connected to it so readily. And then with [D.W.] Griffith inventing this grammar, which is like a language...so that everybody had another language, suddenly. And they could disappear into a film. Everything that followed, really—sound and color—rather perhaps diminished that; this diminished that purity of cinema. And the attempts to make it more real, you know—stereophonic sound and color—have the opposite effect, actually. They make it more artificial somehow.

G: Well, you've also talked about how realism is overrated...

JB: Yeah.

G: In cinema, right?

JB: Yeah, because I mean it's actually an oxymoron. How can it be real? It's actually a light flickering on a wall.

G: Yeah.

JB: It's not real.

G: Well, I want to talk about, along those lines, your philosophy about acting or your approach to working with actors. Given your druthers, as with an inexperienced actor—which you've sometimes dealt with, like a child actor in Hope and Glory—how do you like to guide them? And then also, what about actors who come in with a set approach: how do you deal with them? Especially if their approach might not jibe with yours.

/content/interviews/406/4.jpgJB: Yes. Well, you know, with Hope and Glory, I had a lot of kids in that. Most kids can act, actually. (Laughs.) The little boy who says, "Thank you, Adolph!", he not only knew his own lines; he knew all the actors' lines, and he'd mouth the lines. And the adult actors got really pissed off because if they lost the line, he would supply it for them. (Laughs.) But, no, I think what it is: I can best describe my method as that I have seven children. When I had the first child, I developed a theory of bringing up children, you know. And when I'd got a second one came along, I had to modify the theory a bit. And by the third or fourth, I'd given up all theory for just whatever I could. And the same is true with actors, is that actors are very different from each other. And they have different needs. But what they all have in common is the need to feel secure, to feel trust. And if you can do that, if you can give them an environment in whicn they feel safe, then they'll take chances and they'll do stuff. And, you know, somebody asked me who is the most difficult actor I've ever worked with. Well, that was Toshiro Mifune, but that was through a misunderstanding.

G: Right. [Ed.: According to Boorman's memoir, Mifune had been provided with the wrong script draft for Hell in the Pacific.]

JB: But actually, I've never ever found actors difficult. Never.

G: I think you say, in your commentary for The Tailor of Panama, that actually the stars tended to be the least difficult, and it was usually the [lower-billed performers]—

JB: Yeah. Yeah, that's true. It's usually—

G: That's because they're more secure, right?

(Both laugh.)

JB: Yeah, yeah, Yes. And perhaps also the lesser ones, you're giving them less attention too, perhaps. You know.

G: (Laughs.) That may be it. You prefer to have rehearsal time, right?

JB: Yeah. Well, I call it rehearsal. I don't rehearse the scenes; I don't block them out and get the movements and things. I just talk about what we're aiming at with each scene, what it's about and what we hope to achieve with it. Because often misunderstandings with actors occur because they've read a scene and they've interpreted it in a different way, and then you're on the set, and you have to unwind the whole thing, you know. So I make sure that they all know what we're aiming at before we start. That's the kind of rehearsal I do.

G: So when do you think that process has proved the most fruitful, and when do you most regret not having the luxury of being able to gather the cast and get them on the same page?

JB: Well, as an example—when I was learning then—when I made Point Blank, and I didn't have rehearsal, we didn't have time. But we rehearsed every weekend, of what was coming up. I'm trying to think; I'm trying to think. No, I've always tried to do that. And I've said: have a great respect for actors. I think it's very courageous to stand up in front of a camera and simulate emotion, and take risks. It's a very very hard thing to do well.

G: Did you ever study acting yourself?

JB: No, I didn't. I never studied acting. Other than watching actors work.

G: So what was the process like when you made your short film "I Dreamt I Woke Up," in which you had to be in front of the camera; as you say, you had to be courageous.

JB: Yes. I wasn't very good, I don't think. But in that case the film was partly documentary, in which I was just describing my environ, my place where I [lived], and partly—when it became mythical, or spiritual, I had this alter ego, which [was] played by John Hurt. And so—

G: You were in good company.

JB: Went back and forth. And sometimes he appeared next to me, and we conversed. It was quite mischievous.

G: Sounds like you had fun. So what kind of challenges were posed, if any, by shooting a sequel twenty-five years later that takes place nine years later. I think particularly of shooting at Pharaoh's Island, which sort of magically looks as if no time has passed there.

/content/interviews/406/5.jpgJB: Well, yeah, I was lucky about that. Some parts of the island have changed quite a lot, but one or two bits remain the same. But one of the problems of course was I couldn't use the same actors, except for the father. And so when I asked Sinead Cusack to play the mother, and she said, "Do you want me to do an impersonation of Sarah Miles?", I said, "No, no, no. You know I cast Sarah because she has the spirit of my mother, and so do you. You have the same spirit." And I'm not concerned about the externals of appearance or quality of voice. It's always to do with the spirit. And what I was saying earlier, about a certain kind of truth. Discovering that truth.

G: One of the surprises of the film, for me, was to see this Texan actor, Caleb Landry Jones, playing a Brit. I know you also were developing a film with him in mind for the lead—

JB: That's right.

G: "Broken Dream." How did you discover him and make the leap to cast him in Queen and Country?

/content/interviews/406/6.jpgJB: Well, he was pointed out to me, and I met him, some quite a few years ago, you know. And I was entranced by him. And I wanted to do this film "Broken Dream" with him. We didn't get the money. "Broken Dream" is perceived as an art film, but it needs a budget more than an art film gets these days. So anyway, so when I started looking for these boys, and I met and tested and auditioned a number of them, quite a large number of them, and I never could find—I found two, three actors who could have played Bill, but I didn't find one who could do that Percy character. And so I went back to Caleb. And I took a chance on it that he could do the accent and everything, but he managed okay. He's actually—always does much too much, and you have to constantly reign him in. By the end of the film I felt I'd been nagging him all through the film, you know. "No, you can't do that. No, no, no." But I think he did contribute an awful lot. He got that character.

G: You at one point contemplated a third film in this trilogy, one that would explore the relationship between you and Lee Marvin. Is that right?

JB: Yeah, yes. Where'd you hear that? Did I ever talk about that?

G: Amidst my research.

(Both laugh.)

/content/interviews/406/7.jpgJB: Yes. Well that was, you know, kind of very fascinating because I'd had this documentary background, and I made a lot of documentaries about people. I would meet someone and decide if I wanted to make a film about them. And then I would penetrate their lives. And I would always point out the contrast between what they said and what they did, and build a portrait. And when I met Lee, we were both given this script [for Point Blank], which was really a feeble affair. And Lee said, "Well, what are we talking...?" And I said it was the character that was interesting. And we talked along and fed up this character. And Lee connected to it because Point Blank's man, he's shot, left for dead, comes back looking for his money or his soul. And Lee was brutalized, traumatized by the Army. He was in the Pacific War. He was a sniper. He killed a lot of Japanese. And acting for him was his way of trying to get back, recover, his humanity. And so he really connected to this. And I think that's what gave the film a lot of its power was that: his connection to the character.

G: And he's also really, in some ways, largely responsible for the career that you ended up having, I think, in that he empowered you on that film.

JB: Yeah. He did.

G: He gave you something close to final cut on Point Blank.

JB: Yeah. He knew, better than I did, that what I was trying to do with Point Blank was, in Hollywood terms of the time, kind of radical. So he wanted to protect me, and he did that. He called a meeting with the head of the studio and the producers and he said, he reminded them that he had cast approval and script approval, and then he said, "I defer those approvals to John," and he walked out. And you've never seen such malicious, angry looks as these guys gave me.

(Both laugh.)

JB: And he did another thing. Right towards the end of the shoot, we'd come up from L.A. We were in San Francisco. We were shooting in Alcatraz, and I was exhausted. And I just sort of—I couldn't figure out this scene. And Lee came across, and he said, "Are you in trouble?" And I said, "Yeah, I can't—I'm just trying to figure this out." And he went off, and he acted being drunk. He started roaring. And falling over. And the production manager came up to me and said, "You see the state he's in? There's no way you can shoot him like that!" And as soon as the pressure was off, you know, I could fix the problem in minutes. Once the pressure was off my back. I didn't have a hundred people looking at me, waiting to say, "What do we do?" (Laughs.) And then Lee made this incredible recovery, from drunkenness to sobriety.

G: That's a friend you want in your corner, yeah. On the set. So when you start with Point Blank, it's got to be sort of liberating in terms of your style as a filmmaker. The style of that film was so limber, it seems like you could do anything after that in terms of the spectrum of realism to vision or dream.

JB: Yeah.

G: I guess the material dictates the style...

JB: Yes.

G: But even in some of your more realistic films, you'll have a sort of "Boorman moment," perhaps—

JB: (Chuckles.)

G: Where someone will have a visionary moment or something like that. Is that something you look for that opportunity in every story?

JB: No, no, just the situation occurs, and somehow an image arises that takes you out of the real and into somewhere else. Sam Fuller always used to call it "the one thing." That makes a scene into cinema. That lifts it out of its prosaic words into a cinematic moment.

G: And it's difficult to plan for those, I take it; they tend to be lucky accidents?

JB: Yes, yes, exactly, yeah.

G: To discover those on the set. So there's a couple of mythic stories in particular that have a looming presence in your work. One, obviously, is the Arthurian legend—

JB: Mm.

G: Most clearly: Merlin Films is the name of your company; we see Billy Rohan playing with a Merlin toy in Hope and Glory, and all that. [Ed.: "All that" includes, of course, the Warner Brothers feature film Excalibur.]

JB: (Laughs.)

G: Can you talk about your first memories of being exposed to that story, and what it means to you. And the other story is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which you've touched a couple of times in your career as well.

/content/interviews/406/8.jpgJB: Mm. Well, when I started to prepare Excalibur, I asked people if they remembered when they first heard or read or were told about the Arthurian legend, and almost nobody could tell you . It's always been there somehow.

G: It's that collective unconscious; it's Jungian!

JB: Yeah. Exactly! It's always been there. And everyone knows about it. And so I set out to make the whole span of the story, which was—most people take some section of the story, but I wanted to go from the birth of Arthur right through Camelot and unto the quest for the Grail. And because the whole span of it, if you tell the whole span of it, it has much more power. And meaning! And oddly enough, I just read—the book is not out yet; it's out shortly. By [Kazuo] Ishiguro. Called The [Buried] Giant. And what he's done: he's told a story that takes place after the death of Arthur. In England. Between the Saxons and the Picts and so forth. Very interesting. And there's one knight left over. This old guy. (Laughs.)

G: Interesting. With Wizard of Oz, too, I mean Zardoz obviously touches on that story—

JB: Yes.

G: But I read, I don't know if it's true or not, that at one point not so long ago you might have been developing a sort of a redo of The Wizard of Oz. Is that true, or no?

JB: Yes! An animated version. So this French company wanted to do it. And I wrote a script. And I was brave enough to solve some of the mysteries of Wizard of Oz. For instance: why was she an orphan? What happened to the parents? You know. I dealt with that. And also Toto—of course, since it was animated, Toto was able to talk. So you had another character there. (Chuckles.) It was a lot of fun. Anyway, I wrote the script, and also storyboarded the whole thing. So every shot is done. It just requires animators. And a lot of money.

G: (Laughs.) Right. One of the lessons of your memoir, and it's true of any career in film as illustrious as yours, is that it's going to be littered with the corpses of films that aren't realized.

JB: (Laughs.) That's right!

G: And you've professed not to be precious about screenplays. Once you make the film, you say the screenplay's of no use. But what about the unproduced screenplays? Would you ever be interested in publishing any of those?

JB: Well, oddly enough I have those, where, you know, some university was asking about my archive. And I said, "Well, I really don't have much of an archive because—" "Well, your screenplays." And I said, "Well, once I've made a film, I throw the script away. 'Cause it's served its purpose. I don't need it anymore. It's been superceded by the film." Whereas the films I haven't made, I have those scripts, 'cause there's always a chance I might get back to them and do something about it. But it's true that, like most directors, I'm sure I've spent more time on ones I haven't made than ones that I have.

G: One of the other things you've talked about is the importance of landscape in your work and, indeed in your life. And again in that short film, "I Dreamt I Woke Up," you walk the grounds of your home in Ireland. But I also wonder—choosing the right landscape, you've said, is very important, as in Deliverance, right?

JB: Yeah.

G: Finding the right riverbank made that scene for you, you said.

JB: That's right, yes. That's true. Finding the appropriate element of landscape to a scene is—and it's always somehow—when I find the right landscape, I know how to do the scene. They're very well connected. And, of course, water, rivers, running rivers goes very deep for me. And I've always felt that the way that moving water reacts to film emulsion is very mysterious and magical. And I've seen it so many times: that when you see a shot of moving water on screen, people move into a kind of trance watching it.

G: The stream of consciousness.

JB: Yes.

G: So when you don't have landscape on your side, and you have to work out a set that's going to be conducive, how do you approach that or how do you work with your production designers to get the set that's going to be right?

/content/interviews/406/9.jpgJB: Yeah. Well, there are always a number of elements involved, color being obviously one of them. You know, I've just been—I was in L.A. And I went—Fox are doing a restoration of Zardoz, and this was made—the cinematographer was Geoffrey Unsworth, and he developed a style of lighting which only—several other cameramen copied it. And it only lasted a few years because the studios stopped it. Because it was a way of—

G: Diffusion.

JB: Yes, diffusion, really. But done in a certain way. And these negatives wouldn't stand up to high-speed printing. And they just collapsed. They wouldn't—they were too delicate for it. So the studios outlawed it.

(Both laugh.)

JB: So this was —I had this astonishing experience. I never thought I would see those beautiful colors again in my life. And last week at Fox, I saw them. Restored the whole color. So that was wonderful.

G: What's the most purely happy moment you can recall on a film set?

JB: I've never had a happy moment on a film set.

(Both laugh.)

G: That's right: you've talked about while you're making the film, you think, "I never want to do this again," right?

JB: Yeah, that's right.

G: But then once the film is over, you probably get restless for the next one, right?

JB: That's right, yeah. Particularly when you've got—money is always a problem, and time, and all that. It's so stressful, the shooting element of a film. I mean, when people say to you, "Are you making a film?" they usually mean, "Are you shooting a film?" whereas the shooting part of the film is the shortest period of the whole process, you know, by far. It's much shorter than post-production. It's much shorter than the writing process. It's much shorter than the pre-production, and the designing of sets and so forth. And also even this process, of promoting your film, is—

G: Endless!

JB: (Chuckling:) Much longer than the shooting! It's always so pleasant when you finish the picture and you can sit down quietly and start editing it, and without pressure, it's lovely. But no, it's not a place for happiness. It's a place of an intensity where—of white hot— (Chuckles.)

G: Yeah, stress. If indeed our hopes are realized, and you make Halfway House, is the intention still for Brendan Gleeson to join you?

JB: Yes, yes. He's getting a bit old for it, but he's such a wonderful actor. Did you see Calvary?

G: Oh yes, Calvary, yeah.

JB: It's very good, wasn't it?

G: Yeah.

JB: He was fantastic in that.

G: Yeah, he didn't make it into the awards conversation, but yeah, it's quite a performance. Can you tell a little bit about the notion for Halfway House?

JB: What it's about?

G: Yeah.

/content/interviews/406/3.jpgJB: Well, it's sort of loosely based on the Orpheus legend. And so he's deeply in love with this woman, and she dies. And she dies in tragic circumstances, [in] which [she] appears to have committed suicide or maybe she was murdered, and it was very hard to—nobody quite knows—but then he follows her, to the Halfway House. And the Halfway House is a house with lots of corridors and rooms, where people go when they first die. And they go there: the conceit is that you arrive there, and you're given a tape of your life. And you're required to edit it down to three hours before you can move on. And that you edit it down, then you have to show it to an audience of other dead people.

(Both chuckle.)

JB: And if it's not entertaining enough, you have to go back and recut it. So it's about the confluence of movies and life and death.

G: Well, it sounds like it would be a lovely bookend to Point Blank, as well.

JB: Yes!

G: A similar kind of post-death journey. Anyway, it's been lovely talking to you. Thank you for taking the time.

JB: Well, it's a pleasure to talk to you. And I 'm flattered by how much research you've done there, and how much you know about it all. You probably know more about it than I do!

G: Well, hopefully this wasn't like the interview in your short film—

JB: No.

G: Where you say something akin to—

JB: (Laughs.)

G: "I may rather be dead than endure this interview."

JB: You know, when I made Emerald Forest with my son Charley, he was seventeen at the time. And we set off on a world tour to promote it. And I said to Charley, "Look. I've written down these six questions here. They're the sort of questions they'll ask you. So think about your answers," you know. And so he had this on a piece of paper, and he went and did his first interview, and he came out. And I said, "Did they ask you those questions?" And he said, "Yes, and in the same order that you wrote them down."

(Both laugh.)

G: That's great. Well, hopefully I got off a little bit [from] the program.

JB: You certainly did. You certainly did!

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