Boorman in conversation at the Irish Film Institute. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
By John Exshaw
While the Irish Film Institute’s recently concluded French Film Festival (18-28 November) provided a number of interesting divertissements for those seeking a respite, if not deliverance, from the seemingly endless catalogue of corruption, cronyism, clerical criminality, and chronic incompetence that has engulfed the country in recent times, the highlight of the programme for the discerning cinéaste was undoubtedly the joint appearance on Sunday 21st. of director John Boorman and eminent French film critic, Michel Ciment, for a Q&A session following the screening of Phillipe Pilard’s 2009 documentary, John Boorman: Portrait.
Boorman, of course, is that relatively rara avis, a British auteur, one whose body of work (or oeuvre, as they like to say in France) has tended, as is often the way, to command greater respect abroad than at home. Ciment has long been an influential supporter, collaborating with the director on the book ‘John Boorman’ (Faber & Faber, 1985), originally published in France as ‘Boorman: un visionnaire en son temps’, and also conducting the interview which comprises Pilard’s 52-minute film.
Now 77, and looking dapper in suede jacket, blue shirt, and rust corduroys, Boorman opened proceedings by remarking, “I haven’t seen it [the documentary] before, and I have to say I was very embarrassed at how inarticulate I am. It reminded me – you know, Michel wrote a book about my films, a wonderful book, and the basis of it was an interview I did with him after each film, and he then translated my stumbling, inarticulate words into good French. Later, the book was published in English, and Gilbert Adair, who’s a very stylish writer, translated it from the French back to English. So between Michel’s very fine writing and Gilbert Adair’s stylish writing I was astonished how witty and articulate and clever I turned out to be. It was rather like James Thurber – once, you know, a woman came up to him who was very proud of her French and she said, “Oh, I read your book in French and I have to tell you it was hilarious in French.” And Thurber said, “Yes, it loses something in the original.” In the case of Michel’s book, on the other hand, it actually gained an enormous amount in English. . . .”
Ciment and Boorman discuss the director's long and distinguished career. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
Ciment, who, from certain angles, bears quite a resemblance to the late Dennis Price, and who was himself the subject of Michel Ciment: The Art of Sharing Movies (Michel Ciment, le cinéma en partage, 2010), shown the previous night, then listed some of the diverse locations chosen by Boorman for his films: the Amazon (The Emerald Forest, 1985), the Pacific Islands (Hell in the Pacific, 1968), South-East Asia (Beyond Rangoon, 1995), Central America (The Tailor of Panama, 2001), South Africa (Country of My Skull, a.k.a. In My Country, 2004). Contrasting Boorman’s apparent wanderlust with his more stay-at-home compatriots, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and Peter Greenaway, he then asked, “How come this interest in shooting in such exotic places?”
JB: Well, I think I’ve always been a kind of adventurer, and I’m drawn to other places, explorations. And I think it’s an extraordinary privilege to make a film in another country, where you penetrate that country and its culture in a way that you can’t possibly do as a tourist. It’s extraordinarily lucky to be able to do that. And that’s what I’ve always done.
MC: While English writers have tended to travel widely, in cinema it is not so common, with the exception, maybe of David Lean . . .
JB:Yes, he certainly moved around, didn’t he? But I suppose, you know, a lot of English cinema is very insular. If you look at Mike Leigh, he has ploughed his furrow and done it beautifully and has stayed that way. So I think it’s just a matter of temperament, a matter of what you want to do.
MC:Most English directors either stay in England or go to Hollywood but you went back and forth: Catch Us If You Can [1965, a.k.a, Having a Wild Weekend] in England, then Point Blank  in America, you make Leo the Last  in London and then you make Deliverance  in America, and so on. And of course, this makes it difficult for people to pigeonhole you . . .
JB: Good. . . . That’s good. I wouldn’t like to be a pigeon and certainly not in a hole.
MC: Well, there are pigeons in Leo the Last . . .
MC: There are pigeons in Leo the Last.
JB: There are. That’s a good point.
Ciment then managed to extricate himself from this conversational cul-de-sac by explaining that he had subtitled his book ‘A Visionary in his Time’ because, while there is a visionary tradition in both Irish and English painting and literature (e.g., Blake and Yeats), it is less common in cinema where, exceptions like Michael Powell aside, the school of realism is more prevalent. He had included the phrase “in his time” in the title to emphasise that, while Boorman’s films are not directly “political-realistic” movie (like, for example, those of Loach) and are about poetry and mental worlds, they nonetheless deal with real political issues, like the Mafia in Point Blank or Aung San Suu Kyi in Beyond Rangoon, the rain forest being devastated in The Emerald Forest, or with Jamaican and West Indian immigration in London in Leo the Last. “So,” he then asked, “how do you combine these two things?”
JB: Well, it’s not in any conscious way. As I was saying in the film here, an idea occurs, on a subject or perhaps from a book, and it excites me and I follow it. One of the things is, I try never to repeat myself. That’s not for any other reason except that I get bored. And, you know, most of filmmaking is very boring – it’s tedious and repetitive and it’s only the excitement of the subject that keeps you going. So, for instance, after I made Point Blank, I was pressed to make other gangster films. And, having done that one, I think I’d said all I needed or wished or was able to say on the subject and I moved on. And that’s always been my way.
MC: The two films you made that were set in Ireland deal with a certain reality of Irish life, especially The Tiger’s Tail , which anticipated the economic crisis. So, while people would not qualify you as a political director in the way they do with Loach, I think that while your films have a rich texture, they also deal with present problems as well as mythic issues. . . .
JB: Yes. When I made The General , about the Dublin gangster, Martin Cahill, I saw him as coming out of a tradition of fierce Irish chieftains, and that with that anarchic quality, there was something very fundamentally Irish about that story and that’s what appealed to me. I suppose the more I became involved in Irish life and politics, the more I was responding to that.
MC: You were criticised in some quarters for The Tiger’s Tale, but it was really speaking about the future.
JB: Yes, as you saw in the film there, I make that comment as to how I was ridiculed for suggesting that a property developer could over-reach himself and bring down a bank. Sadly, it came to pass.
At this point, having got the ball rolling to everyone’s satisfaction, Ciment invited questions from the floor. The following examples have been edited in thematic order.
Q: I was reading on Wikipedia that you were actually robbed by Martin Cahill . . .
JB: Yes, that’s true. That’s what got me interested in the subject.
Q: Yet you didn’t seem to hold any animosity towards him; he’s kind of the hero of the piece.
JB: Well, yes, when he robbed my house, he took these gold records of ‘Duelling Banjos’ from Deliverance. They were framed, Warners had sent them to me, and he stole those because he thought they were gold. Of course they were just vinyl sprayed with gold paint. And so I put that scene in the film, where he’s disgusted when he finds these gold records that aren’t really gold. . . . He’s a hero in the sense that he’s the central character, and all the larks he got up to I suppose were amusing but there were also some horrific things that he did, like nailing someone to a pool table . . . But he was a fascinating character.
Q: There was another movie about Martin Cahill [Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Ordinary Decent Criminal, released in 2000] at about the same time. Were you aware of that?
JB: I was, yes.
Q: Were you gratified that it wasn’t as critically acclaimed?
JB: Very gratified.
Q: How do you choose your music, and is working with composers a part you enjoy when making a film?
JB: Yes, I do very much enjoy working with composers. And I always find it very difficult because, in a sense, when I’m shooting a film I never leave any space for music. So when I put the film together then I have to look at it from a different perspective, think about it in musical terms. What I do do, however, when I’m writing the script and preparing the film, is to think of it in musical terms. I always think of it in terms of rhythm, and pace, and change of pace, and melody. So I have that structure, and when I finish the film then I reapply it in musical terms.
I’ve worked with some very good composers – Ennio Morricone [who composed the score for Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977] is one, Hans Zimmer [Beyond Rangoon] another . . . Hans Zimmer was very interesting. He’s a very successful composer but in a sense he’s not really a composer. He started out contributing to films with his synthesiser; he was very good with a synthesiser and with musical sound effect elements. Nowadays, composers have samples for all the instruments and they can put up a trumpet or a trombone or a violin on the keyboard and play that instrument. But in the past, when we were doing a score with the composer, he would try to indicate what he was doing. He would play the piano and make some noises with his mouth – parm, parm, parm! – and try to give you an idea. Do you like that? Would you like me to go this way or that way? And now, of course, the composer can virtually play the whole score. In fact, most film composers today do complete the whole score in synthesise, so you can hear it back, and then they give it to the musicians . . . Hans Zimmer, he would always say to me, “Just show me what you feel, what you want on that.” And so I would tap it out on the keyboard, and then he’d feed it some more instruments and then we’d go with that. It was a wonderful experience.
Morricone’s fantastic because he records every instrument separately, so you never have an orchestra. He might bring in three violins together or he might bring in a couple of basses together but all separate because he likes to mix, and he makes the music in the mix, and that’s a fascinating way of working. And you have to trust him a lot. At that time, he did the whole thing of it beating it out on the piano and singing it, but you still didn’t know how it was going to turn out really. But when we got into the mixing studio, then you could make anything of it. He’d say, is that a bit rich for you? And I’d say, well yes, I’d like it to be a bit thinner. And then he’d take some instruments, move them out, and it was a fascinating experience. You could make almost anything of the score in the mix.
(Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
Q: Looking back on Excalibur  and thinking about the way marketing and trilogies have created franchises, do you sometimes regret that you didn’t expand Excalibur further?
JB: Well, as I said earlier, when I’ve finished a film my first thought is, I never want to make another film; and my second thought is, well, maybe I will make another film but I’m not going to make another film like this one. So I would be horrified at the thought of having to make a franchise, at making the same film over and over again.
Q: Do you feel these franchises are driven solely by marketing?
JB: Well, I think audiences do like to see something that’s familiar. And of course, and in particular in Hollywood, originality is the enemy because you can’t market it. . . . I was once pitching a story to the head of a studio in Hollywood and he said to me, okay, what’s the thirty-second TV ad.? I couldn’t tell him. Then he said, that’s how we sell our films, with thirty-second TV ads., and if it can’t be expressed in a thirty-second TV ad. then we shouldn’t make it, because that’s how we sell it. . . . And so everything has to filter down through that thirty-second TV ad. And if you have, say, a film like Twins – in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito are twins – you don’t even need thirty seconds to get that across. But then of course you have to make the film . . .
So, if they’ve got a star that is recognisable and it’s another Bond film or it’s another Harry Potter, people know what it is and they can promote it very, very successfully indeed – and very easily. With many films today, more is spent on marketing than on production, and it’s not unusual for a film to spend fifty, sixty million in America on marketing. I remember I once said to a marketing man at one of the studios that it seems the marketing tail is wagging the production dog, and he replied, what? That dog doesn’t take a piss without us giving it permission! So marketing does do that.
Q: With reference to franchises, it was mooted in the 1970s that you were going to make The Lord of the Rings . . .
JB: Yes, in 1970. At that time, United Artists owned the rights to The Lord of the Rings and they asked me to do it, and I spent a year writing it with Rospo Pallenberg and figuring out how to make it. We then got a budget together but by the time it was ready, United Artists was in financial difficulties and they couldn’t raise the money. It was just as well because if I’d made it at that point, Peter Jackson probably wouldn’t have been able to make his marvellous trilogy – with all the assistance of CGI that wouldn’t have been available to me. I was disappointed at the time but . . . During that period, I corresponded with Tolkien, and he never wanted it to be filmed. But he had sold the film rights in order to pay for his grandchildren’s education, sold them for £40,000. And he said to me, are you going to make it with actors or as animation? And when I said with actors, he was very relieved about that. He then died before Ralph Bakshi made his animated version in 1978 – so I’d say that he died at an appropriate time.
Later on,J.K. Rowling asked me to do Harry Potter, and I was horrified by that thought because I realised there were going to be a lot of them, and if I’d made the first one and made it successfully I’d probably have been forced to do the next one. And it was a prison sentence that I wasn’t prepared to do.
Q: In the documentary, you mentioned a project called Broken Dream. Could you tell us something more about that?
JB: Well, I was saying in the interview that film is about taking material things and turning them into light. Because whatever all the efforts that go into making a film, what you have at the end of the day is a light flickering on a wall. I wrote a book called ‘Money into Light’ which was partly about that, and I went on to say that, with great films, some deep transformation takes place that’s quite mysterious – that the light turns into spirit. And this film, Broken Dream, which I’ve been trying to make for a long time – in fact I’m hoping to shoot it next April, finally – it could well be my last film because it’s about a man, an illusionist who discovers how to make objects disappear, completely disappear, so that everything material becomes a spirit. And that’s about as much as I’m going to tell you about this film.
Q: The documentary we’ve just seen seemed a bit short and ended a bit abruptly. I’m sure you’ve got more to tell . . .
MC: You want to do a franchise? [General hilarity ensues.]
JB: Well, you know, for the last two years my daughter Katrine has been making a film about me – well, about our relationship, really. I see that as a kind of a ‘Revenge of a Daughter’. She seems to be delighted when I stumble or do silly things, so I don’t know how that’s going to turn out. But I don’t think it’s going to be a sequel to this one . . .
And so it went. Boorman appeared to enjoy the inquisition (at least in so far as any Englishman of his generation may be said to enjoy such an experience), handling the various questions with his customary intelligence, underscored by a dry and self-deprecating wit that will not readily be apparent in a verbatim report such as this. Whether it was good manners, good luck, or a combination of both that prevented anyone pointing out that Exorcist II: The Heretic did constitute an involvement on his part with a franchise of sorts, who can say? Otherwise, the only minor point of issue one might take was with Ciment’s insistence on bracketing Boorman with the likes of Leigh, Loach, and Greenaway. Compatriots and near-contemporaries they may be, but unlike Boorman, none are obvious candidates for the D.W. Griffith seal-of-approval, reserved for film-makers who understand that cinema is about more than jumped-up TV plays projected on a big screen. John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, and indeed Michael Powell, would, one feels, have been better choices. Be that as it may, however, Ciment proved, naturellement, to be an informed and urbane master-of-ceremonies, and of course no one can invest the word cinéma with quite the same sense of reverence, bordering on religious devotion, as a Frenchman . . .
Other points of interest in the IFI’s season included Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1928) and the late Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1970), along with a welcome and surprising return from the deep of the great Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s earliest underwater documentaries, Le Monde du silence (1956) and Le Monde sans soleil (1964). There was also the latest offering from Jean-Luc Godard (Hero or Fraud? Answers on a postcard, s’il vous plaît.), grimly entitled Film Socialisme, which your correspondent avoided like the plague – or la peste, as Albert Camus would have said. Vive le cinema!