Like the tropical nightmares of Joseph Conrad, the
films of John Boorman lead us down rivers-real and imagined-into
the heart of what ails us, and the quest for a remedy. Hell In
The Pacific, Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, The Emerald Forest, Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon, The General: in one form or another, Boorman’s films are about
the quest: for restitution, identity and, most importantly, redemption.
In his timeless, mythic universe, to go against nature is to court
disaster; all attempts to subvert the natural order amount to living
a lie. Man against man, man against nature, man against himself:
these are the roads to hell. His characters are looking for a way
out. Boorman’s latest picture, The Tailor of Panama, adapted
from the novel by John Le Carré, takes us back to the wasteland-this
one of the tropical, urban variety-where Geoffrey Rush, a bumbling,
middle-aged Perceval, is sleepwalking into a tragedy mostly of his
own making, taking career advice from a ghost and churning out lies
faster than he can possibly defend them. Slay the truth, and the
gods will have their revenge. Co-starring Pierce Brosnan as the
anti-James Bond, The Tailor of Panama returns Boorman to the multiplex
with a rip-roaring yarn that dishes up spy games and wry, political
commentary with equal finesse. In a conversation with MM,
Boorman talks about his latest film, his directorial tactics and
pushing the audience to the limit.
Phillip Williams (MM): The story of The
Tailor of Panama feels like the underside of the Grail myth;
it felt like Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter) was a rascal Merlin.
John Boorman (JB): Yes [laughs]. I always have
one of those.
MM: Are you always looking at the mythological
dimension of a story?
JB: Yes, that’s like a security blanket for
me [laughs]. I look at the story, I look at the idea and just try
to think of it in terms of that whole body of myth and see where
the characters fit in and what they ought to be doing-all those
archetypes are there to play with.
MM: Is there a specific process you employ
when working with actors?
JB: My method is to do quite a lot of rehearsal-finding
the characters and figuring out the scenes with the actors. Before
I start shooting I have all the actors know where we are going with
every scene, what the intention is and where we are trying to get
to. I don’t shoot a lot of takes-very few takes and very little
film altogether-but what I do is create an environment-a context
in which they feel safe and are able to take risks. [It’s] an atmosphere
of trust, really: when actors are being defensive and defending
their position, that is when you get less than good acting. It’s
when they feel that they can go beyond themselves and take risks
and that they are in safe hands, that is really what it comes down
MM: Do you do any storyboarding?
JB: I only storyboard scenes that require special
effects, where it is necessary to communicate through pictures.
MM: How precise do you get with the design
of your films?
JB: The design of the sets and the choosing
of locations are vital to me. Sometimes I don’t know how to play
a scene until I’ve found the setting because, obviously, there’s
always a relationship-a kind of tension between the setting and
the foreground. Case in point, people often ask me if it was difficult
to do the [rape] scene in Deliverance. But in fact the difficult
thing was to find the location, for me. And I searched and searched
until I found this place-which was sort of undulating with these
very twisted laurels and with this sort of acid green light coming
through these laurel leaves. Once I found that, I knew how to do
MM: What about the design of The Tailor
JB: There were these contrasts in Panama itself,
of wealth and poverty, and I wanted to try to get that sort of sweaty,
sickly quality. That’s not very specific, but that’s what we went
MM: Did you have a sense of the style you
were going for with the camera?
JB: First of all, I wanted to work in anamorphic,
which is the format I’ve shot many of my films in. The reason being
that, because many of the scenes were between (Osnard and Pendel,
played by Geoffrey Rush), I wanted to have them in the same frame,
and it allows you to use the space between them-either to bring
them close to each other or to separate them, depending on the emotion
MM: Do you have any preferences as far as
lenses are concerned?
JB: It has to do with whatever the scene is
and what you’re trying to achieve. For instance, in Point Blank-which
was also anamorphic-Panavision had just produced this 40mm lens,
which is a wide angle lens. It was the first one they made and,
with it, I shot perhaps 70 or 80 percent of the picture because
it was wide and I was trying to get this spatial feeling of bleakness,
MM: What was the writing process like on The Tailor of Panama?
JB: This was rather unusual for me because
Columbia had a script written before I came into the picture. They
bought the rights to this piece and they had a script done by a
man called Andrew Davies, and no one was terribly happy with it,
least of all the studio. Le Carré certainly wasn’t. Then Le Carré
went and wrote a script himself, which was about 180 pages. It was
sort of halfway between a novel and a film script really, but it
was wonderful-it had all kinds of fascinating things in it. I then
talked to Le Carré; we talked about the whole thing. He was just
then writing a new novel so he couldn’t really be involved, but
he said ‘You do the script and just call on me whenever you need
me,’ and that’s what I did. I wrote and faxed the scenes to him
as I went along and he’d write notes on them and sometimes he’d
just rewrite the scene completely himself or he would come up with
another idea. That’s how we went along.
MM: The image of the mentor keeps coming
back in your films.
JB: You’re talking about, in this case, Uncle
Benny. Well, that sort of Merlin character-who is always the advisor,
who is at the elbow, who himself is not able to do anything but
knows more than anyone else and gives advice, which is what Merlin
always did-that was his role.
MM: Who were your mentors?
JB: I did years and years of documentaries
at the BBC and [worked with] Hugh Welm, who was an extraordinarily
brilliant man and I learned a lot from him. Then I suppose the two
people I learned a lot from in film were, first of all, Conrad Hall,
the cameraman. I did Hell in the Pacific with him and he taught
me an awful lot about the camera and its possibilities. The other
one who taught me about film-about the use of the metaphor-was Lee
Marvin, because Marvin had this extraordinary ability to find a
metaphor for any given scene. The gesture: he would be always searching
for the gesture.
MM: Can you cite a typical Lee Marvin gesture?
JB: I will give you an example: when we met-a
producer gave me the script [for Point Blank] and [also] gave it
to Lee. Lee asked ‘What do you think of script?’ I said ‘It’s not
good, but the character is fascinating.’ We met a number of times
and one night in his apartment, which was on the sixth floor. it
was summer and the windows were open and we had a few drinks. and
he said to me, ‘I will do this movie with you on one condition.’
And he picked up the script and threw it out the window. That was
a Marvin gesture.
MM: Going back to Hell in the Pacific:
that film is kind of a dream for a moviemaker-to make a film with
essentially no dialogue.
JB: Well, it was also immensely difficult.
Not only because of the absence of dialogue-but with just two characters,
you are subtracting so many of the elements that make film interesting.
I was in Japan, and my assistant director had worked with Kurosawa.
I used quite of number of Kurosawa’s crew. Well, we were still struggling
with the script at this point, so I asked ‘Are you going to see
[Kurosawa] while we’re here?’ and he said yes. So I said ‘Tell him
the situation and see if he’s got any ideas.’ So he went to see
Kurosawa and he spoke about these two men on a ship who get marooned
on an island, and they’re enemies. He told him the rest of the story
and [Kurosawa)] thought long and hard and then he said: ‘Ah, they
meet a girl…’ [laughs]. I probably should have taken his advice.
MM: How far do you want to push your audience?
What can you afford to subject them to without losing them?
JB: Well, what they always said in Hollywood
was get close to the love scenes, and give the audience a little
cover for the violence-always shoot through something so that the
audience can feel they are protected. (laughs).
MM: But you don’t always want to do that.
JB: No, no, it all depends on what you want,
what effect you’re trying to get from it. Also, it’s so easy to
manipulate an audience, but it’s nearly always clear that you are
being manipulated. I think even people that are not critically attuned
are aware of cynical manipulation in film.