March 13, 2005|Steeped in a sense of loss and the melancholy of high Romanticism, John Boorman is an artist working in metaphor and Jungian archetype. He uses the Arthur myth as a template for each of his projects, weaving into them themes of people displaced, forced to confront their primal selves in primal environments in order to affect a reunion. His films can seem projections of their characters' interior lives--Excalibur's Arthur tangled in vines at the moment of his greatest confusion, Deliverance's Lewis boiled down to a snarl and a snap of viscera at the moment of crisis. Water is Boorman's solvent of choice, winnowing away the chaff from his subjects, and his films, at their best, are as organic and mean as the curve of a canyon wall. As arbitrarily described, too.
When he's at the top of his game--as he is with Deliverance, Point Blank, The General--there's a dislocating, disconcerting quality to his work, a sense of being transported and a sense that the veneer of civilization has been shifted just enough to let the demons out. Upon the release of his latest film, an adaptation of an Antjie Krog book called Country of My Skull, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Boorman, though only briefly while he was driven from one appointment to another. I resisted asking him to repeat my favourite Lee Marvin story that ends with Boorman being pulled over and the cop asking him if he knew that Lee Marvin was on top of his car; and in respect to Boorman's exceptional memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, I resisted asking him how he managed to pull prints from theatres of Exorcist II and recut them for later shows, or to reiterate for the umpteenth time his run-ins with actor Toshiro Mifune on the set of Hell in the Pacific. (That said, I couldn't resist commenting that I found touching a certain gesture of peace offered by the Japanese legend.) Even if I'm not a fan of his latest film, I'm a big fan of Boorman--so when presented with a mere twenty-minutes to jaw with him, I took it anyway. Here's hoping it's the prelude to a longer conversation somewhere down the road.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Am I wrong in thinking that your films all deal, at some level, with intrusion and interlopers?
JOHN BOORMAN: Well, I'd put it perhaps another way, slightly, in that I've always been interested in people put under stress--the strain of unfamiliar circumstances. People who are tested. It's a subject that's always interested me and I suppose it stems from my childhood during the Blitz in London when I saw people reacting to being bombed. I remember vividly once seeing an uncle of mine panicking and even as a seven-year-old child, I recall feeling this strong fascination with how people dealt with fear and stress. Perhaps rather cruelly, I've been putting actors into stressful situations, on and off the screen some would say, for the past forty years.
Hell in the Pacific seems the quintessence of that on-screen/off-screen parallel tension.
No question. That's right, yes. There you had a kind of ultimate situation--a hostile environment and two people who didn't share a language or a culture and were enemies and so they played out the war in miniature. I have to say that in phrasing it that way, it's hard to know if I'm talking about the movie or filming the movie. (laughs)
I was touched to learn that despite your differences, Toshiro Mifune placed you on a standing list of people who were to get a free dinner at his restaurant.
That was really a wonderful moment for me. It all, on the film, had to do with a misunderstanding, you know. I had a Japanese writer, Shinobu Hashimoto, translate the screenplay into Japanese for Mifune and he did it in a way that made Mifune's character into something like a buffoon--the kind of character he played in Yojimbo, you know, and it wasn't at all what I had in mind, so I had to spend every day correcting him in front of his Japanese crew. It was a considerable loss of face for him, I think, and every day he would do what I asked after some fighting and then the next day we would have to go through the whole thing all over again. He was a ferociously proud man--a consummate professional. He knew every word of that script, he was completely prepared but it was the wrong script.
You still sound wounded by the experience.
I've never fully gotten over it, I confess. Even 35 years after the fact. The funny thing is that we got so far behind and then I was injured on the coral reef one day--I got coral poisoning in my leg and they almost had to take the damned thing and I thought for sure that this was the big chance for the studio to replace me, the time I needed to take off the film. But Mifune, and he really hated me and that was genuine, refused to work with a different director because for him, we had done a tea ceremony together and had agreed on this project, and for him it was a matter of honour that he see it through with me. I remember the producer said to him, "But Toshiro, this is Hollywood, there's no such thing as honour." But he saved me and I knew about it and thought that when I got back that we'd be allies then--but it was exactly the same as before.
And the restaurant?
Yes, years later I was in Munich with some friends and went to Mifune, the restaurant that he owned, and I was on the list of people who never had to pay. I have to say that I was very touched by that as well.
A quote in In My Country says that "the earth is the colour of blood, the colour of blood is the earth," and you play it as a joke, but to me it encapsulates a lot about the primacy of the story of place of your films.
I do have a very strong, as it were, relationship to landscape. In Hope and Glory--and in Deliverance of course--the river is the landscape. I find that when I'm shooting a film that if I find the right landscape, I'm halfway there. In Deliverance for the rape scene, a lot of people have asked me if it was difficult to film, but for me I knew that if I found just the right spot that the scene would shoot itself. So I searched and indeed eventually I found this place covered with laurel--this acid green light on a sloping surface--there was a kind of luminous, how shall I say? Acid, acidic. Once I got there I knew how to shoot it and for me it has to start that way.
Who were the good guys in Deliverance?
(laughs) There weren't any. There were the dark spirits of the wood and the interlopers, wanting to despoil nature to power air conditioners in Atlanta.
We talked about a personal wound that hasn't healed, but in a broader sense, your films, inasmuch as they're patterned after the Arthur myths, also incorporate that sense of wounds that never close.
Those stories--the Arthur stories, the contributions by the Rose poet, all those things have been a guide for me. When I write a script I look back at that myth. Archetypes, seen one way, are templates for stories, aren't they, so what better, more appropriate place to look to structure and inspiration than to myths like the Arthur story. When making a film like The General, for instance, I found myself often measuring the progression of that tale with the Arthur myth: It's the story of men if you tell it right, you know, and we're all haunted by this notion of regret.
I want to mention two scenes from The General: when he drives into the country to his buried stash--and when he steals the gold record for "Dueling Banjos" from your house.
That idea of buried treasure--and here's the story of place again, this notion of buried gold, hidden in the forest or the mountains, under green--is a very strong Arthurian image. And the gold record, Cahill did burgle my house some years before so of course I had to put it into the film. Touched by greatness.
You share with Martin Scorsese the notion that film is like dreaming.
Absolutely--it is, isn't it? Very closely related. When I was making The Emerald Forest, we went into the Amazon and I lived with this tribe as we were preparing to shoot the film, up in the Shingu. And when I tried to explain to these people what film was like, how you move from place to place in it, geographically and metaphorically, how you can see people from different, impossible or detached angles: front, back, above, to the side and below... I was groping, searching for a way to articulate what film was to a people who had never seen a film, and the shaman, Tacuma, said to me, "That's what I do. My visions, when I go into a trance, I move in just that way." When film first occurred, you know, it was basically just a camera set up to film a thing--but when Griffith and his cameraman Bitzer devised a notion of close-ups and intercutting and the grammar of film, its power and its familiarity was owed to the fact that it felt--looked--exactly like dreaming.
More so, even, in black-and-white.
Quite right, exactly so, we tend to dream in black-and-white, don't we?
How do you apply that notion of dreaming to your own pictures?
For me, there's two things. There's the idea that what you see on the screen is my dream and it need follow only that logic and immediacy--and the other is that often what I write in my scripts or shoot into my films are the interiors of my characters' thoughts and fears and desires.
You credit Pauline Kael's affection for your Dave Clark 5 film for part of what broke you into Hollywood--and you've commented recently on your disdain for modern blockbusters. Relate for me if you can how film criticism in the United States has taken a dramatic downturn at the same time and in the same way.
(laughs) Well... I dunno. I think when Kael gave up, well there were health issues, but really I suspect that it was because the films that were being made weren't, in a sense, worthy of her kind of criticism. I think that you need great films--a period of great films--to produce great critics and, very much so, it's true in the reverse as well that great critics can do their part in shaping the conversation and the culture around which great films are possible.
I was told in so many words by a certain editor of a major daily that they weren't looking for a film critic, they were looking for an "entertainment writer." So it's not just the critics, it's the opportunities that are drying up--and the audience for serious criticism is, essentially, gone with it.
(laughs) Can't say I'm terribly shocked. When you have both parts working in sympathy towards a positive goal, you can have something like a golden age--like in France with the CAHIERS DU CINEMA into the New Wave, and then in the United States with Kael and a Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris. But both sides can work in sympathy towards a bad goal and, yes, in answer to your question, I'd have to say that as the quality of film has declined, so, too, has the quality of its critics.
Tolkien indicated to you before his death as you were working on a live-action adaptation of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, that it would be a nightmare scenario for him for the film to be animated. Did he indicate why?
He just didn't like the idea and of course what happened was [Ralph] Bakshi did animate it, but he'd died by then and didn't have to suffer that.
I know that Kubrick told you that the only way you could make Exorcist II work is if you gave them more gore. Now that Paul Schrader's suffered a similar fate with his Exorcist prequel resulting in a terrible Renny Harlin film that does, indeed, layer on the gore, do you feel vindicated in your choices for your film?
Ah, more wounds opened. It all comes down to audience expectations. The film that I made, I saw as a kind of riposte to the ugliness and darkness of The Exorcist--I wanted a film about journeys that was positive, about good, essentially. And I think that audiences, in hindsight, were right. I denied them what they wanted and they were pissed off about it--quite rightly, I knew I wasn't giving them what they wanted and it was a really foolish choice. The film itself, I think, is an interesting one--there's some good work in it--but when they came to me with it I told John Calley, who was running Warners then, that I didn't want it. "Look," I said, "I have daughters, I don't want to make a film about torturing a child," which is how I saw the original film. But then I read a three-page treatment for a sequel written by a man named William Goodhart and I was really intrigued by it because it was about goodness. I saw it then as a chance to film a riposte to the first picture. But it had one of the most disastrous openings ever--there were riots! And we recut the actual prints in the theatres, about six a day, but it didn't help of course and I couldn't bear to talk about it, or look at it, for years.
|Boorman (right) on the set of In My Country|
On a similar track, was the title of In My Country changed from "Country of my Skull" because it sounded like a horror movie?
(laughs) That's exactly why we changed it. It was the name of Krog's book, of course, but even she wasn't able to fully explain the title. The notion of the skull, I think, was that this love of Africa was something bred in the bone and that was what she was trying to express.
This is the third time you've worked with Brendan Gleeson--he mentioned some time ago that you may be working with him a fourth time.
Yes, I've written a script for him but we've had a hard time finding financing for it. It's not your usual thing, I guess, it's a reworking of the Orpheus myth.
So Gleeson would play a musician?
No, actually a scientist, a physicist who is interested in subatomic particles and his wife kills herself and he goes to this halfway house--the film is called "Halfway House"--in his dreams, in his sleep where people go when they die before passing on to wherever it is they're going. And he explores this house in an attempt to find his wife and find out from her why she killed herself. That's the story of it. Sounds a bit like a John Boorman film, doesn't it? (laughs)