Looking Into the Future of Cinema with Director John Boorman
The iconic Academy Award-winning director John Boorman discusses what may very well be his final masterwork, Queen & Country.
John Boorman's big break came when he was offered the opportunity to make a film meant to emulate the phenomenon that was A Hard Day's Night, the resulting film about a Beatles-esque band called The Dave Clark Five was called Catch Us If You Can. While it did not go to become as famous as Night, it nonetheless showcased Boorman's talent behind the camera, receiving praise from the elusive Pauline Kael, which had Hollywood studio heads showing interest in the young filmmaker. Now almost five decades after Catch Us If You Can Boorman has become one of the most renowned filmmakers in the world, having earned five Academy Award nominations and winning Best Director honors from the Cannes Film Festival on a remarkable two occasions.
Boorman is also the rare auteur who has evaded coming up with a distinctive visual style, instead the themes that haunt him often have to do with men at odds with the world, which can be seen in films like Hell in the Pacific, Point Blank, and The Tailor of Panama. One of his most famous works is the beloved '80s classic Hope and Glory, which saw him revisit his favorite theme (growing up during WWII) but added an autobiographical element that made it a truly precious story. The 1987 film evoked classics of the era and seemed like a departure from the man who just a decade before had created the ultimate male nightmare in Deliverance.
In 2014 Boorman released Queen and Country, the highly anticipated sequel to Hope and Glory which has us revisit the beloved characters of the first film and takes place roughly ten years after. Tenderly observed and directed with ingenious technical prowess, it's also being billed as Boorman's last film. On the eve of Queen and Country's Stateside premiere we had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Boorman who was generous enough to share anecdotes about his longevous career, as well as looking into the future of cinema.
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You shot Queen and Country in digital, while Hope and Glory was shot in film. Was that an easy switch?
I couldn't wait to get to digital, film has caused me so much pain in my life. Between the lab scratching it or going into a dirty bath, I have bribed lab technicians to put my rushes on first because if you go on the end you get all the dirt. Then they lose shots! Don't you find it wonderful that you go and see a movie these days and you don't see any scratches, you don't see any dirt?
I actually miss the scratches! They remind me of classic movies.
[laughs] Film is a 19th century invention and I made a film once together with some other directors, with the original camera of the Lumiere brothers. The idea was to make a film in the conditions and restrictions that they had, so the film lasted one and a half minutes, you couldn't move the camera and you couldn't stop, it had to be one shot. Fundamentally the camera today is the same, a claw pulls the frame down, the shutter opens and closes, the claw brings down another frame, it's exactly the same. This is technical stuff, so I'm sorry if I bore you.
No, I find this fascinating.
There have been attempts to change this, instead of a claw there have been devices similar to a revolving prism, so each face of the prism corresponds to each frame of the film, so the film never stops moving, it never caught on though. Now of course with a digital camera that's gone, you don't need a claw or any of those things. Once you've recorded the image digitally, you're able to manipulate it in a way you never did with film. One of the problems with Kodak film was that it was designed the skin of white movie actors, it was much too saturated, we were always trying to find way to reduce the saturation, usually unsuccessfully, and now we have complete control over the color and the density. It's like a painter suddenly being given a whole other set of brushes and colors. My friend, Joel Coen, and I are constantly arguing about this. He's sticking to film and claims that you can tell the difference.
When you were casting the actor who would play Billy in Queen and Country, were you looking for an actor who would bring the same qualities Sebastian Rice-Edwards brought to the part in Hope and Glory?
It was a factor in the casting of him, I felt the character needed to look like the kid when he grew up, so when I made that initial dissolve it would look credible. Oddly enough though, Sarah Miles played the mother in Hope and Glory and Sinead Cusack plays her in Queen and Country, and when I asked Sinead to do it, she asked "Do you want me to do an impersonation of Sarah Miles?" and I said "No! [laughs] I cast you because you have the same quality and the same spirit."
Both of these movies were based on your memories growing up. Did you use to keep journals or are the screenplays based on random recollections?
I kept journals since I was 16, I had piles of them. I seldom went back to look at them, but I did when I made both these films. As usual I felt very frustrated that I wasn't more specific, I was writing ridiculous generalities about most things. It was helpful. I've also published a couple of memoirs, so those were very useful too.
Would you fill these journals with movie references too?
Oh yes, quite a lot. In Queen and Country a number of films are mentioned and they are the pictures that opened at that time, such as Sunset Blvd., Strangers on a Train, and of course Rashomon, that had a big influence on me.
You've professed your love of Rashomon in the past, which made me wonder how surreal it must have been for you to get to work with Toshiro Mifune?
It was very surreal, yes. [laughs]
But before getting to Mifune, I wanted to ask about your relationship with critics, especially since you've mentioned that the reception to Catch Us If You Can inspired you to keep making films.
It was Pauline Kael actually, she gave it a rave review, much better than the film deserved. She was always so unpredictable, so suddenly after that people in Hollywood woke up and went "Oh, this guy must be good, if Pauline Kael says so."
Photo: Sinéad Cusack, John Standing, David Hayman, Caleb Landry Jones, Vanessa Kirby and Callum Turner in Queen & Country
Did you continue to read critics?
Yes, of course, the only reviews I remember really are the bad ones, they stick in your mind they never leave you. The good ones are very nice, but the bad ones, I remember Time Magazine's review of Point Blank which was one line and said "Point Blank is a fog of a film", that was it.
I remember the first time I saw Point Blank it was late at night and they were showing this colorful movie on TV with very dark themes, that was your first color movie right?
It was yes, and I didn't know how to deal with color. I wanted the film to be very minimalistic and stripped away, stark. I actually made quite a study of color and the way we react to color, I found out that certain colors take longer to decay in the retina, so I became obsessed with this idea that if you make a cut between a scene with some red in it and cut to one with blue, it becomes in a sense a color jump cut, because the red stays in the eye until the next scene, so it disorientates the audience. Since the film was about a man coming back from the dead, I started shooting with very cold colors and going up through the spectrum, each scene was in a very bold color. The head of the art department at MGM wrote a note to the head of the studio saying that the film would be unreleasable and used as an example a scene with several men in an office. The office had green walls, the men all have green suits, shirts and ties on.
It was like watching a Technicolor film noir!
That's right! It was the first color film noir. It was extraordinary that a man who was running an art department didn't understand the way in which color affects emotions. No one ever noticed how the greens in that scene for example seemed to turn into different colors. No one ever got that. Also, Lee Marvin's suits in the film kept changing color, and he wasn't carrying anything with him [laughs], nobody noticed it. But it gave the scenes such a homogenous quality that you didn't question it because it looked right.
You don't wonder about plot holes ...
Right after working with Lee Marvin you worked with Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific and then Marcello Mastroianni in Leo the Last, three men who represent ideals of masculinity for three very different cultures. How was it like to work with them?
The reason I worked with Mifune was that Lee admired him so much, so this story came to us and Lee said he'd love to make a film with him. Before I made that film Kurosawa said to me "It's impossible to direct Mifune, all you can do is point him, he's a force of nature, you just point him." But you're right, there you have the American, Japanese and Italian cultures. Mastroianni was an icon of Fellini, Mifune was the icon of Kurosawa and Lee was his own man.
Queen and Country too feels very much like your own Amarcord.
That's a wonderful film, isn't it?
I've always found it fascinating that right after these three back-to-back films with these men, you did Deliverance and Zardoz, which take two other masculine icons in the shape of Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery, and then you proceed to emasculate them or turn them into objects of desire. You shoot Connery in Zardoz like he's Raquel Welch which I think is wonderful!
In Point Blank also there's a scene where Lee becomes almost pathetic, we see him suddenly turn into a child. I've always been fascinated by the helpless child who is always there. Remember in Point Blank there's a scene where Lee comes to a penthouse and Reese (John Vernon) is in bed with a girl, so he comes holding a gun and drags him out of bed. So going over this scene, he asks "How does he react to this?" and I said "He faints, he passes out," he said "Hey, I'm a hard boiled gangster!" so I said "But look at the situation he's in." [laughs]
Were actors terrified of the things you'd put them through?
I think that good actors are always ready to try anything, they have courage. You have to be very courageous to be an actor and to be a good actor, that is to say exposing your emotions is very brave. Somebody asked me the other day who was the most difficult actor I'd ever worked with, and well Mifune was a special case because it was a complete misunderstanding, but I've never found any actor to be really difficult. Actors only become difficult if they feel insecure.
So do you stay out of their way or what is your directorial approach?
First of all, I try to make them feel safe. Secondly I learned early on that we had to rehearse, but my rehearsal isn't doing the scene, but to talk about the scene, what its intentions are, where is it going, what are you trying to get to at the end of the scene. Most misunderstandings come through that, the actor reads the scene and gets a different idea of what the scene is about. Once you talk about that there's no dissension.
I love that in the '70s something like Deliverance became a box office hit. That would probably not happen nowadays and it made me wonder what your perception is about how audiences have changed throughout the years.
Studio films nowadays feel overcooked. That was a time when Hollywood still hadn't come to terms with television, they didn't know what to make so they thought maybe the young directors knew something they didn't, so they gave us liberty. Making Deliverance, I never got a single note from the studio, the only thing was before the shoot the marketing people came to me and said that there'd never been a Warner Bros. movie without any women in it, that had made a lot of money, and so they lost heart in the film from that point on. They kept asking me to cut the budget down and they lost confidence in it completely. Even with the music, I went to the Warner Bros. record division and they told me something like "Dueling Banjos" could never become a hit because it needed to play on the radio, and nobody would play that. It wasn't country western or rock and roll. Nevertheless they put the record out and it played on every station.
At some point you were attached to making your own version of The Lord of the Rings. Did you talk to Peter Jackson about his trilogy?
I thought the films were fantastic! Had I done it, since it was before CGI, I'd planned to have the hobbits played by nine year old boys dubbed with adult voices, with hair stuck to their feet. It would've meant that Peter Jackson wouldn't have made his trilogy, which isn't only one of the great films, but also one of the great art works of the century. I said to Peter, "I have one question, how is it that this trilogy didn't kill you?" and he said "It nearly did."
Did any of your own movies almost kill you?
I could've died making Deliverance; it came close. I could've killed myself making Hell in the Pacific with Mifune.
What attracted you to making The Emerald Forest?
I've always been very attached to forests and rivers, and the plight of the rainforest was what attracted me to that. It's very hard for me to make a film without a river in it [laughs], it's such a symbol of life, the way it flows. The relationship between moving water and film in motion is magical, you put that onscreen and it's beautiful.
At one point you were making a film called Broken Dream with Caleb Landry Jones, is that still happening?
I made several attempts to make it, but the problem with that is that it's perceived as an art movie, but it needs a budget that's much higher than what you get for an art film. I've been close to making it three times and the money's fallen through. I've been trying to do it for 30 years. It's a dystopian film about the end of the world but it has a lot of comedy in it. By now of course there have been many films about the end of the world so it wouldn't have the same kind of originality it would've had if I'd made it when I originally wanted to.
You ended up using Caleb anyway in Queen and Country, and he brings to the screen a quality that reminded me of someone like Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain.
Yeah, that's right! He's very interesting, he's very lost, he doesn't really know where he is, but he has that extraordinary ability some film actors have which is to just bring things to life.
You've done films in pretty much every genre, is there one that you'd still like to try out? Maybe a musical?
[laughs] I'm much too old.