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Rebel Director John Boorman

Rebel Director John Boorman

Articles - Directing

Boorman became fascinated with Martin
Cahill after reading Paul Williams’ book, The General: Godfather
of Crime. During his 20-year career, Cahill organized one of the
world’s greatest art thefts and masterminded a jewel heist that
secured his fame as Ireland’s most notorious criminal. He hated
the Church, the police and the IRA. He lived simply, but in a menage
a trois with his wife’s sister (his headstone reads "Loving
Husband of Frances and Tina"). His ability to elude conviction,
his wit and outrageous disguises for his court appearances made
him a favorite of the media and public before he was killed by
an IRA hitman in 1994. Despite his repertoire of kidnapping, torture,
bombing and cruelty, Boorman does find some of Cahill’s qualities
relatively admirable: his sense of honor among thieves, his iconoclasm,
his loyalty to his family. Although he never met Cahill, Boorman
created a way for their paths to cross cinematically: When Cahill
steals a gold record during a robbery, he becomes angry when he
discovers that it isn’t made out of gold at all, but plastic. In
1981 robbers broke into Boorman’s house and stole his gold record
for "Dueling Banjos" from the Deliverance soundtrack.

In re-creating events that happened in the recent
past, Boorman decided to shoot The General in black and white, a
medium he calls "A parallel world that’s somehow different." Because
he produced the film, there was "No one to tell me I couldn’t." Like
many of Boorman’s other films, The General is about the relationship
between an outsider and a society. In
Zardoz,
for example, this insider/outsider relationship is represented by
the primeval man Zed (Sean Connery) and the society of spiritual
aesthetes that he intrudes upon. Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon,
The Emerald Forest, Where the Heart is and, of course, Deliverance,
are among Boorman’s other films that deal with individuals displaced
physically or emotionally.

Hope and Glory

The General reunites Boorman
with his Deliverance star, Jon Voight, who
portrays Inspector Ned Kenny, a kind of Javert
to Cahill’s Jean Valjean.

MM: Why did you insist
on casting Brendan Gleeson as Cahill?

Point Blank

JB: First of all, Brendan
bears a remarkable similarity to him, but also,
he knows that whole milieu. He was a teacher
and he taught in one of those very tough areas.
He knows those characters. Plus the fact that
he’s just an extraordinary actor. I’ve seen him
do so many diverse, extraordinary things that
once I got him in my mind for him to play the
part, I couldn’t think of anybody else doing
it.

MM: Why did you choose
to shoot The General in black and white?

JB: Because this was about
characters who are still around, and about
very recent events, I wanted to give it a little
distance. Black and white gives you that distance,
and in a contradictory way, it somehow brings
you closer to the characters. There’s an intensity
about it, about faces you don’t find in color.
Orson Welles said that black and white was
the actor’s friend.

MM: Did you start your
career working in black and white?

JB: Yes, I did. I worked
in black and white when I was working in television,
and then my first feature was in black and
white. I love black and white and I regret
its passing. Black and white is much closer
to the condition of dreaming. It links you
to the subconscious and I think that was part
of the great appeal of movies originally-there
was this strange otherness.

Deliverance

Before making The Emerald
Forest I was doing research and stayed with a
tribe in the Amazon. It was very remote-actually
undiscovered until 1947-and you still can’t go
there unless you have special permission. These
people have never seen television or film and
through an interpreter I was trying to describe
to this shaman what I did, what a film was. I
tried to tell him you would move from one place
to another place instantly, you could see people
in close up, and then you could go to another
person a long ways away. He listened and, of
course, his [profession] was to go into a trance
and connect to the dreams, to the unconscious
of his tribe, and connect them with their ancestors
and the animals. And he said to me, ‘Well, you
do the same work that I do.’

MM: What was the impetus
for The Emerald Forest?

JB: My passion is trees.
I plant them, I grow them, I try to take care
of them and I’ve planted 15,000 trees on my
land in Ireland. The horror of modern logging
is clear felling; the guys with bulldozers
who rip out these trees and take out all the
soil and allow it to be washed away by the
rains. Curiously enough, when I was in Burma
[making Beyond Rangoon] which is a very backward
country because it’s been repressed by the
military, they still take out individual trees
with elephants.

MM: Do you think about
what it’s going to look like on television
when you’re shooting a film?

JB: To me, when a movie
reaches video or television, it dies. I have
no interest in seeing it.

MM: Because it’s not the
movie you made?

JB: That’s right. I don’t
like the electronic screen.

The Emerald Forest

MM: Do you cut on film
or on an Avid system?

JB: I used Avid on The
General. I didn’t much like it. I like to handle
film. For me, it’s not much of a problem, since
I shoot very little film anyway. I have a plan
and I never shoot masters anymore. I only storyboard
sequences where there are special effects or
comlex action sequences.

MM: How do you generally
work?

JB: What I do is that
at the beginning of each week, I give out a
list of shots that we’re going to shoot for
the whole week. They are detailed so that what’s
involved with each shot is tracked: the lens
that’s going to be used in that shot, diagrams
related to the light source and to the actors.
Of course, I change things as I go along, but
everybody knows what they have to do, so everything
goes smoothly and quickly.

MM: Do you rehearse beforehand?

JB: I find that I rehearse
a lot with the actors beforehand. I never come
on the set and say, "Let’s rehearse this
scene, play around and see what happens." I
say, "This is the first shot in the scene,
you stand over there on that mark and you lean
forward; as you say the second line you turn
your head." I find actors like that because
it gives them a structure. When actors know
exactly what is expected of them, they feel
completely secure and they’re able to create
within that framework. If their invention is
good and they move outsidethe framework, that’s
fine, too.

MM: Have you always worked
like this?

JB: Yes, but I’ve become
more and more detailed. I learned something
from Kurosawa (see MM #31-ed.) when I made
Hell in the Pacific. I was working with his
crew and they told me about his methods. Sometimes
in the cutting room he regretted not getting
more coverage. So he devised a plan: He had
a camera operator, known as "The Monkey" because
he could climb into any situation, who had
a brief to shoot every scene. Kurosawa didn’t
want to know what he was shooting or even view
it or even print it, because he didn’t want
to be deflected from his plan. Then, when he
was in the cutting room and got stuck or needed
something, he’d say "Print up monkey’s
stuff" and he’d pick something that was
useful to just drop in. What he was trying
to get was the balance between the absolutely
detailed planning and the spontaneity.

MM: What brought you out
to Hollywood and to making Point Blank?

JB: A meeting with
Lee Marvin. He was shooting Dirty Dozen in London
and a producer gave me this script and also gave
it to him and we met. Lee asked me what I thought
of the script and I said, "Well it’s absolutely
terrible." He said, "I agree, so what
are we talking about?" So, we had a number
of meetings and talked and talked and eventually
he said, "I’ll do this picture with you
on one condition: that you throw the script out
the window." So he committed to a conversation.
That would never happen today. He had just won
an Academy Award, he was hot. So I took this
friend of mine, Alex Jacobs, and we sat down
and wrote the script in three weeks. It was a
Donald Westlake story about this man Walker who
got involved in a crime and was betrayed by his
friend and his wife and then went looking for
them, looking for the money. It was very simple.
It was all to do with style, really. Lee was
very adventurous and very intelligent and was
ready to do anything. He was fantastic.

MM: Is that why you worked
with him again in Hell in the Pacific?

JB: Oh, yes. I wish I’d
made more films with him.

MM: How much of the Deliverance
script was you and how much was James Dickey?

JB: Well, Warners hired
me to write the screenplay from the book. Then
I collaborated with Dickey and wrote a draft
and he revised that draft and we went back
and forth with it.

MM: Did you enjoy collaborating
with Dickey?

JB: Interestingly enough,
we did the whole thing by correspondence, because
whenever we met, Jim would get very drunk.
In correspondence, he was wonderful. He wrote
the most beautiful letters and made wonderful
points about the screenplay and I’d write back
to him and we had this tremendous relationship.

MM: You once said that
you’d rather have an argument with James Dickey
any day than a conversation with anyone else.
Is that still true?

JB: [Laughs] He didn’t
understand the relationship between a film
and a novel. Our big point of departure was
he felt [it was important to show what was
in] the first third of the book, where there’s
an account of these four men’s lives, their
families and their work, and that sense of
dissatisfaction with their comfortable lives.
It’s a brilliant novel. I started the film
with them arriving [at the river] and Dickey
hated that because he thought we needed to
establish them. My point was that when you
cast these four characters, the audience knows
who they are just by looking at them. I mean,
nothing could have been more boring than seeing
them sitting around with their families mooning
away, looking out the window. Instead, you
learn who they are in the course of the action,
and that’s what movies are about."

MM: You live in Ireland,
but you’re British?

JB: Yes, I mean I’m a
quarter Irish.

MM: Do you still feel
like you’re an outsider?

JB: All the time, I’m
glad to say. MM

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