I've been lucky enough to spend a big part of my professional life meeting my heroes from the world of film, music and public life. John Boorman has been one of those people for me since childhood and I've had the privilege of sitting down with him twice, first in 1998 for his biographical drama "The General" and earlier this year for what might be his cinematic swan song, "Queen & Country," the sequel to his lauded autobiographical film "Hope & Glory," from 1987. Both conversations are reproduced below. "Queen & Country," which was partially financed by the British Film Institute's fund using money from the UK's National Lottery, was greeted with warmth by audiences young and old on both sides of the Pond. Let's hope for the sake of film lovers everywhere that Mr. Boorman hasn't hung up his viewfinder just yet.
JOHN BOORMAN: FIVE-STAR GENERAL
It's Fall of 1979, and I'm living in forced exile with my parents in Vancouver, Canada. This was before the time of cable TV and VCR's, and therefore were dark times for adolescent geek movie buffs like myself who had little else to look forward to but a dark movie theater on a Saturday afternoon where we could spend a couple hours forgetting how pathetic we really were. On those days or evenings when a ride down to the movie center of Granville Street wasn't available, the TV would have to do. But Canada had a dark little secret: French TV. The French language network showed movies of all nationalities, uncut and without commercials. The only catch was the flicks were dubbed in French, of which I didn't speak or understand a word. Language barriers aside, the French channel was great place to catch some graphic violence or a hot babe nuding up for your viewing pleasure. One such Saturday night, they featured a double bill of two movies by this guy John Boorman. Their French titles made no sense to me, but WOW, what movies! The first one had Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (nude! Yeah!) in a two-fisted tale of revenge, violence and just general all around sex and smashing things up that made my head spin, not to mention some truly eye-popping camerawork. The second featured Marvin again and Toshiro Mifune as two guys duking it out on an island somewhere. Very minimal dialogue in this one, anyway. Cool. After both films were over and it was bedtime, something struck me: about ten minutes into the first film, I forgot that I was watching movies that were dubbed into French. Both were so well made, acted and shot, that their stories were completely coherent visually and made perfect sense. I decided that I had to find out more about this guy, this Boorman.
John Boorman was born January 18, 1933 in Shepperton, near London. After an inauspicious start in the dry cleaning business, and writing film reviews for a girl's magazine and for radio, he entered British television in 1955 as an assistant editor. He worked his way up through provincial TV studios into the BBC , where he distinguished himself as an innovative documentary director. In 1962 he became head of the BBC documentary unit in Bristol. He made his debut as a feature director in 1965 with the sleeper hit Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend), starring the British pop group The Dave Clark Five. Originally conceived by its producers as a way to cash in on fertile territory carved out by The Beatles in Richard Lester's films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the film proved to be the only other rock-oriented comedy of the period that stood up to Lester's work, and was a critical and commercial hit in its own right, noted by many for its darker, more cynical take on corporate values specifically and the world in general than either of the Beatles films were. After doing additional work for the BBC, including a highly-regarded documentary on cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith, Boorman came to Hollywood to direct two films with Lee Marvin, who became a lifelong friend. Point Blank (1967) is now regarded by many as a seminal film of the 60's, notorious at the time of its release for its graphic violence and (albeit brief) frontal nudity, Point Blank foreshadowed the edgy, minimalist thrillers that the 70's were made of, such as The French Connection (1971), Get Carter (1971), and Marathon Man (1976). Boorman and Marvin followed Point Blank with Hell in the Pacific (1968), a brilliant metaphorical drama about an American (Marvin) and Japanese pilot (the great Toshiro Mifune) stranded on a desolate South Pacific island together in the waning days of WW II. Boorman returned to England to direct Leo the Last (1970) which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, then came back to the States for Deliverance (1972) the white water thriller about man's primal nature which made stars of Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty, and burned itself a place in the world's consciousness as one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences ever put on film.
Boorman's next two films, Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) were resounding flops. He left the States and returned made his new home in Ireland, scoring big with the now-classic King Arthur epic Excalibur in 1981. This was followed by the fact-based adventure The Emerald Forest (1985) about an American businessman's hunt for his young son (played by Boorman's own son, Charley), kidnapped and raised by Amazonian Indians in the Brazilian jungle. Boorman was named Best Director by the National Society of Film Critics for Hope and Glory (1987), an autobiographical story of a young boy's adventures in blitz-devastated London during WW II. It was also nominated for Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. Boorman also recently completed work on Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait by John Boorman, which premiered November 17 on American Movie Classics and paints a vivid picture of the late actor, one of Boorman's closest friends. Boorman's latest film, The General, earned him a second Best Director prize at Cannes and ranks with some of his finest work ever. The General tells the true story of Irish crime lord Martin Cahill, whose 20 year career netted him over $60 million and managed to keep both the police and other underworld organizations at bay, until his assassination by the IRA ended his prolific, and often comical reign of crime. The General stars Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (last seen by U.S. audiences as 'Hamish' in Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995)) as Cahill, who was also known as "The General," and co-stars Jon Voight as the Irish police inspector who always seems to be one step behind Cahill and his capers. Rock legend Van Morrison supplies the soundtrack's music. The film opens December 25 in New York and Los Angeles for much-deserved Academy Award consideration.
John Boorman doesn't look like your stereotypical film director, but has the kindly eyes and reserve that you might expect to find on a favorite college professor or man of letters: a good conversationalist and an even better listener who makes the other half of the talk feel completely at ease. Mr. Boorman, who resides full time in Ireland, sat down recently to talk about life, movies and the ever-mysterious Martin Cahill.
How did you first hear about Martin Cahill?
John Boorman: (laughs) Well I'll tell you: in 1981, he robbed my house! That was the first time I heard his name. He wasn't really notorious at that point, but was a well-known cat burglar. Amongst the things he took were a gold record that I have for the music of Deliverance, "Dueling Banjos." He took it, thinking it was really made of gold. And I put that episode in the movie. Even then, he was always boasting about his conquests and went on in that style for many years. None of these crimes that I depict in the film, he wasn't convicted for any of them. I wouldn't have been able to make the film, had he not been dead.
Had the IRA not gotten him, do you think Cahill would still be working today?
I think someone would've gotten him in the end. He did have a sense of recklessness in which he sort of invited his own death. His sister told me that (Cahill) always said he'd be killed with a bullet. That's why in the film he's got that slight smile on his face right before the hit happens. It was inevitable. He just had too many enemies, but lived as long as he did because he was so outrageous, he just disarmed people. There's something in this film to upset pretty much everybody (laughs).
Judging by the production notes, this film was a real labor of love for you.
Well, before I started writing the script, there were two fixed points for me. One was Brendan Gleeson. I knew his work. I knew him personally and just knew he was the guy for this. He even had a strong physical resemblance to the real Martin Cahill. And the other starting point was Van Morrison. I felt that Van's voice was the voice of this character, that raw energy and roughness...with Jon Voight, who's brilliant at accents, I knew I had to have an actor who could stand up to Brendan's power. And Jon's been a very good friend over the years, a close friend, really. I originally had an Irish actor cast in Jon's role, a guy named Kieran Hines, then he had a scheduling conflict and wasn't available. There wasn't another Irish actor available who could've played the part. So I called Jon up, told Jon I was in trouble. He said "When do you need me?" I said "How about tomorrow?" (laughs) And the next day, there he was. I introduced Jon to this Detective Inspector Carrol, who was the advisor to the film. And Jon just completely took his accent, his personality, everything.
It sounds like there were a lot of other problems getting it made as well.
The problem was, when I was trying to finance it, everybody said "Well look, we like the script, but we need a star." And that was a sticking point, because I wanted Brendan. So at the end of the day, we didn't get any backing but we managed to borrow the money from the bank, and it was great. I probably wouldn't have been able to shoot it in black & white if I'd done it with a studio.
I really liked your choice of black & white.
Thank you. It's a real thrill to see black & white on the screen again, for me.
One of the things I loved about it was that you didn't shoot it like a traditional gangster movie. It was more like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) or Look Back in Anger (1959). It had a real "kitchen sink" feel to it, almost like you were eavesdropping on real people.
People have said that a lot, that it was like watching real people live their lives, particularly in reference to Brendan Gleeson.
The other thing I liked about it, was that it took its time, which a lot of filmmakers just aren't doing anymore.
Yes, everything's MTV, chop-chop, isn't it? They'll make a cut if anything lasts more than five seconds.
Even with Having a Wild Weekend, which was a pre-cursor to rock video, you took your time to frame an interesting shot and let that shot happen.
Well you don't necessarily get pace out of fast cutting. You can get pace out of movement within the frame, but I notice that even in mainstream movies now, people use these sort of MTV techniques, which is alright if you've got a music beat to hold it together, but it's disorienting. What I always try to do is put and leave the camera where it ought to be. If there's a close-up here, there's a reason for it being there, and I hope that engenders a kind of trust in the audience. They feel that there's nothing arbitrary about it. I seldom move the camera, unless it's to follow action. I never move the camera for the sake of moving the camera, and that's so you strike up a relationship with the audience. It's unconscious, but every film does that. When you go to see a film, after about 10 minutes you know whether there's a vision there, an intelligence at work. It's about building a relationship with the audience so they suspend disbelief and sort of drift into the film. When you see a film like that where you just drift into it and become lost in it, it's so marvelous! That's the joy of going to movies, isn't it?
I found (a big summer blockbuster) completely uninvolving because it cut so fast and furious that I didn't have time to be involved in one scene before it cut to another.
I think that those kind of movies bear the seeds of their own destruction. I think people are getting a diminishing return from that. People will look at those things, think it's come from a computer and say "Well, that's great. Next." (laughs)I saw What Dreams May Come recently and thought the effects were just extraordinary. It was wonderful to see computer generated effects used to create beauty, rather than for blowing things up.
Let's talk about some of your earlier films, staring with Having a Wild Weekend.
Well, the Beatles had just done A Hard Day's Night, and they came to me and asked if I wanted to make a film with the Dave Clark Five. I wasn't terribly interested, but they said "Look, you can do whatever you like, just as long as they're in it." So I got my friend Peter Nichols, who's a wonderful playwright, and we wrote the script in three weeks. It involved characters and locations that I'd encountered during my documentary days with the BBC. So we sort of threw it together and I shot it. There weren't any scenes of people actually singing or playing instruments. It just used music as part of the soundtrack. To my astonishment, Pauline Kael gave it this rave review. So again, to my surprise, this led to offers from Hollywood, which eventually led to Point Blank.
One thing I found interesting about Having a Wild Weekend was how heavily The Monkees copied from it in their TV show, especially the layout of their "pad."
You know, actually Bob Rafelson (creator of The Monkees, Five Easy Pieces) said that very thing to me in Telluride this year: "I ripped off your movie!" (laughs)
Let's talk about Point Blank.
This producer, Judd Bernard, gave me the script, then gave it to Lee (Marvin). We met over lunch. Lee said "What do you think of the script." He said "I think it's a piece of shit." (laughs). So he was over in London doing The Dirty Dozen at the time and had a lot of time on his hands, so we met many times and I got to learn a great deal about him, and I could see that he'd been in WW II, had been shot, had killed people and had this compulsion to play out this violence. That's why his on-screen violence was so compelling, because he'd been there. It was coming from a real place. So in many ways, Point Blank became a film about him. In the end, we met a final time and he said "I'll do this picture under one condition." And he took the script, and threw it out the window! (laughs) He committed to a conversation. You could never image that happening today. So I came over here, to L.A., with Alex Jacobs, another friend of mine, and worked with Lee throughout the process. Lee called a meeting with MGM, with the head of the studio. He'd just won the Best Actor Oscar (for Cat Ballou) and was very hot. Lee said "I have script approval, right?" They said "Yes Lee, of course." "I have cast approval?" "Yes Lee, you do." "I defer these approvals to John." And he turned around and walked out! So I had this kind of extraordinary power on my first film in Hollywood, which Lee knew I'd need, because the film was quite daring and avant-garde for its time. There were two other bits of luck that got the picture through to the end. O'Brien, who was running MGM at the time, called me in and had a copy of the script and said "Look, we want to do a picture with Lee Marvin, but I'm not sure this is it. This doesn't resemble a movie in the way MGM defines a movie." At that point the phone rang. He picks it up, says "I said no calls...oh!" It was David Lean in Spain where he was shooting Doctor Zhivago. He stood up, almost at attention, he was so in awe of Lean, saying "Yes! David, of course! Another 1,000 extras, fine! The dailies are amazing! We're so delighted to be working with you. Whatever you want, I'll fix it!" He put the phone down, looked at me, and clearly had forgotten who I was! (laughs) He said "Well...go off and make a good movie, kid." So I got out of there very fast! When I'd finished the picture, I showed it to the studio heads. Margaret Booth was the supervising film editor and head of post production at MGM then. She was Louis Mayer's film editor, had cut Gone With the Wind, had been there for years, and years. She was greatly feared because she re-cut everything. So the lights went up with all the executives mumbling about re-shoots and re-cutting, and she looked up and said "You touch a frame of this movie over my dead body!" (laughs) And that was it! I saw Point Blank recently for the first time in years at the New York Film Festival. And what struck me was the amount of silence on the film's soundtrack. I think what we're seeing in films today is a proliferation of soundtracks dominating the visuals. They're leading the film and the audience is getting used to the idea of sound effects, music and dialogue forcing the picture and they rely on that, rather than the visuals leading the attack. It's very odd.
Were you concerned that Point Blank would be taken away from you, due to its sexual and violent content?
I was. And to combat that, I shot what was, at that time, the lowest ratio of film in MGM's history. I think I shot 70,000 feet or something. I was determined to just shoot the shots I was going to use, so there would be nothing anybody could do about it. (laughs)
Tell us about the genesis of Hell in the Pacific.
What happened was, someone came to Lee, who was a tremendous admirer of Mifune, about doing a film with Mifune. This producer had a short story about this Japanese and American who were stranded on an island together. Lee came to me and asked me if I thought it would make a good movie. I had my doubts, but said "Okay, let's have a go." I worked with a Japanese and an English writer on the script. It was the toughest script I ever worked on, due to the language barriers...the filming itself was very tough, as well. Mifune spoke very little English and I spoke no Japanese. Mifune had this interpreter working for him. This was a largely Japanese crew, except for Conrad Hall, the cameraman. So I would say something to the interpreter, if I didn't like what Mifune had done, which was a loss of face for him in front of the crew. The interpreter would say "Please don't ask me to say that to him." "Just translate it!" So he'd translate it, and Mifune would scream at him, then turn around and smile at me, as though I had nothing to do with it. (laughs) It was really weird!
Watching Mifune and Marvin work together is interesting because they have very similar styles: both are very minimalist, very physical.
Very, yes. You know Lee saw himself as a sort of samurai. He had that balletic way of moving and the way he used his hands.
Mifune was a WW II vet also, wasn't he?
Yes he was. Do you know what his job was in the war? He was a quartermaster and one of his jobs was to hand out sake to the kamikaze pilots before they flew off on their missions! Can you imagine?!
To me, the sign of a great film is you can have seen it dozens of times, know it like the back of your hand, but if you walk in on the middle of it, and then can't stop watching it, that's a great movie, and Deliverance is one of those films for me. One thing that always strikes me is your use of the real Appalachian people in the film. How did you get them to be in the film and how, if at all, did you direct them?
Well, oddly enough those people in Clayton, Georgia, their isolation is due to the fact that they intermarried with Indians. So they were unacceptable to the whites and unacceptable to the Indians, and that's how all this inbreeding started. I just went up there to talk to these people and they were very suspicious, hostile. But when you got to know them, they were okay. They had such fascinating faces and we eventually just got many of them to (appear in the film). The boy, for instance, who "plays the banjo" just had this extraordinary face without any eyebrows or eyelashes...and he couldn't play the banjo, so I had another kid behind him with his arm through the arm of the shirt actually fretting the banjo while the kid we all know strummed it. We did that scene and I thought it was a good scene, but I never guessed it would have the kind of effect it has on people today.
The other shot that stays in my mind is the one of the old woman sitting with the child who was a basket case.
That was extraordinary. That woman was in her 90's at the time. This child had been born retarded and looked after it for the parents. It kept her alive, really, this having to care for the child. The juxtaposition of this old lady and the child, it summed it all up really, the horror of it.
How did Deliverance avoid getting an 'X' rating in this country?
Well, there was a huge controversy about it. They wanted to cut stuff. Do you know what they particularly wanted to cut? When Burt Reynolds shoots the guy and he falls onto the limb of the tree and takes a long time to die, they wanted to cut that. And I argued that, saying "What I'm trying to show is the consequences of what they've just done. You can't just have it be 'Bang!' and he goes down dead. The Burt Reynolds character has this romantic notion about killing, when in reality it's this ghastly, ghastly thing. So I fought that tooth and nail, then of course there was the rape scene. Then Barbara Streisand phoned me up and said "I want to see a guy get raped. I'm tired of seeing women get raped in movies. I want to see this before you have to make any cuts." So I showed it to her, then started showing it to other people in the community, and there was such an outcry of people objecting to it being cut, that Warners eventually left it alone.
I know filming on the river must've been a nightmare. Any stories come to mind?
There was one really frightening moment when Ned Beatty got sucked under by a whirlpool. We waited, and waited and Ned didn't come up. So I sent my two divers in after him and they finally brought him up in the nick of time. I asked him what went through his mind when he was going under. He said "My first thought was 'How is John going to finish the movie without me?' My second thought was 'He'll find a way,' and that's when I became determined to live!" (laughs)
Burt Reynolds tells a story where Bill McKinney, who played one of the mountain men, was really going to try and rape Ned Beatty, then Burt saved the day. True?
Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. You know Burt wrote his autobiography, I saw it on a bookshelf, I didn't buy it. And in the book he tells a story about how I screened the film for the actors and a few friends and went afterwards to my lawyer's house for dinner and everyone was telling him "Oh Burt, Burt, you're going to win the Academy Award for that one scene where you make that big speech." So he tells that I then came over to him and said "Look Burt, I'm going to have to cut that scene, because it unbalances the picture." He was living with Dinah Shore at the time, and tells how on the way home in the car, Dinah tells him "Burt you're to win the Academy Award for that speech you made in that one scene." Burt says "John just told me he's going to cut it." And then the book goes "And we wept all night." (laughs) Well, there was such scene in an early draft of the script--and I never shot it! I never shot it! So he fantasized this whole thing! (laughs)
Let's talk about Excalibur, another one of my favorite films. To me, it's one of the only films that takes on Shakespearean proportions without having actually been written by Shakespeare.
That legend is something that I'd been obsessed with since childhood. I was educated by Catholic priests and to me, Christianity was always so remote, whereas the Arthurian legend was all about forests and oak trees and rivers and things that were around me that I could relate to. It always stayed with me and as I got older I started reading T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland , and I had tried to get it done in different versions and different aspects. I had one that was all about Arthur's childhood and another that was all about Merlin. Then I thought that I really wanted to do the whole thing, the whole legend, the whole span. I've always gravitated towards that scope more out of the feeling that unless I've extended myself to my limits, I'm not really doing justice to the picture. So much of those films I've made involve every sinew strained to the limit. Excalibur was a picture I made completely within myself, in a kind of relaxed way. It was the first time I've been able to not feel guilty about not driving myself into the ground, or others for that matter. I'd always had this theory that people work best under those conditions. I think to some extent that's true, but there's other ways of getting there, as well.
With Hope and Glory did you find it difficult to write autobiographical material, since you were so close to it?
No, because I wasn't that close to it, since so much time had passed. What did astonish me, is that when I started writing it, how it triggered memories of things I hadn't thought about for 40 years, or had nearly forgotten. Just the act of writing brought them back. It was extraordinary how vivid it all was. When we were designing the film, Tony Pratt our designer came up with wallpaper designs for the house. Going through the samples I found one and said "That was the wallpaper in our house!" So we had it all made up, which was quite expensive, and when we'd finished the set I got my mother and three sisters to come down and look at it. And they were just astonished by how well we re-created the house. Then one of my aunts said to me "You know it's remarkable how you got everything so right, and you've got the wrong wallpaper!" (laughs) The tricks of memory.
How long do you rehearse before you shoot?
Generally about 3 weeks. I like to rehearse in the afternoons, then in the mornings do all the other preparations for the picture. For The General, we only had two weeks to rehearse. I also always do another draft of the script after we rehearse, after I hear the actors read their lines. That's the most important part of the preparation, because that's the time I let the actors experiment and play around with things, because by the time we're shooting, we're locked in. I never go on the set and say "Let's play around with this scene." The actor comes in, hits his mark and we start. I don't shoot master shots, I just shoot whatever's in the shot, and that's it. I find that actors like that, being given a structure. They're very reassured by it. The function of the director is to establish an environment of trust for the actors. That's a great gift for the audience when the actors open themselves up.
Any advice for first-time directors?
Planning is so important, trying to visualize the films. One of the most important things is to try and time your script, honestly. So many people evade that, then the script's too long, and the film comes out to be four hours and you have to lose so much of it. If you can get your script down to length, then you'll be spending all your time and resources on stuff that'll be in the picture, rather than have it not be in the picture! It forces you to visualize it, analyze it and time it in your head, to feel the rhythm of it. The other thing is, when you've done all that, make sure you and the actors know that the intention of the scene is clear and that you agree on that. And there it is.
John Boorman: Memories of Queen and Country
By Alex Simon
John Boorman first made his name as a filmmaker to be reckoned with upon the release of 1967's Point Blank, one of the seminal films of that decade. Classics such as Deliverance (1972), Excalibur (1981) and The Emerald Forest (1985) followed, with 1987's Hope and Glory, Boorman's personal memoir of growing up in WW II London during the Blitz, being one of his career high points, garnering five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, as well as winning a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (comedy) and sweeping that year's BAFTAs in every major category.
2015 finds John Boorman, now 82, releasing what he says might be his swan song as a filmmaker, Queen and Country, the long-awaited sequel to Hope and Glory. The film finds Boorman's alter ego Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) serving in the British army during the Korean War, but landlocked in the UK on a grim military base, presided over by a martinet sergeant-major (David Thewlis) and an indifferent commanding officer (Richard E. Grant). Only his bunkmate and best friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) can help Bill keep his sanity with their carefully orchestrated acts of rebellion. Bill also falls for a mysterious, aristocratic beauty (Tasmin Egerton) and must keep his libidinous older sister (Vanessa Kirby), who's visiting from Canada, out of the clutches of eager men, including Percy. Queen and Country is a sweet and touching slice of nostalgic storytelling, a cinematic love letter to a bygone era and the universal experience of young adulthood, just on the cusp of trading childhood innocence for real-world cynicism. The BBC Worldwide North America release hits theaters in California and New York City February 27, then goes wider in March.
John Boorman sat down with Alex Simon to discuss his latest cinematic outing. Here's what transpired:
Hope and Glory was one of my favorite films of the eighties. Queen and Country left me with the same feeling at the end: I wanted more. I think you should do a third chapter, about your entry into the British film industry in the 1950s.
John Boorman: Well, at the end of the picture there's that final shot of the camera that stops, and that was a metaphor for the end of my career.
I heard rumblings that you might be retiring. Please don't. We need you now more than ever.
(laughs) Well, thank you. We'll see.
I imagine it's difficult now more than ever to get the sort of films made that you make.
Yes, it much more difficult now to do daring things. I noticed particularly watching the Oscars, the foreign language category, there were these terrific movies: Timbuktu, Leviathan and Ida. By contrast, the American films that were up for Oscars, some of them were good, but they lacked the kind of daring that these other films had. I think there's an element of fear generated by the studio--a fear of the audience. Any nuances or ambiguity have to be ironed out in case (the audience) doesn't understand. On the one hand, it's a fear of the audience and on the other, a fear of the corporate machine.
And the added factor of how will it translate to the Chinese and Indian markets.
Yeah, that also comes into it. It's so different now.
Did you conceive of Queen and Country while you were writing Hope and Glory?
Yeah, when I finished Hope and Glory, I'd conceived of doing at least two more autobiographical films about my family. I wanted to do this one, about my national service and I wanted to do one about my grandfather. He had a pub, a gin palace really, in the Isle of Dogs, which was a very tough area in the East End of London. He had four daughters and when the German zeppelins were coming over and dropping bombs on the London docks, he built this bungalow on this island off the River Thames, which you saw in both Hope and Glory and Queen and Country. My mother and her three sisters spent their childhood away from World War I on that island. They grew up in the twenties and were flappers. It's referred to in Hope and Glory, about the parties they had with Chinese lanterns. When we lost our house in World War II, my mother took us to the same place. So I wanted to do that story, but never got 'round to it. I did make a film for the BBC, called I Dreamt I Woke Up, a one hour film. I was asked, along with several other directors, to make a film about their own environment. It's partly a documentary in which I show people my home and all that, and when I want to deal with the spiritual or transcendent elements, I have this alter ego, played by John Hurt. Gradually my alter ego becomes more and more intrusive in my life. So doing autobiographical themes is something I enjoy. There's also this character of a female journalist, and every bad thing that's ever been said about me and my films comes out of her mouth. (laughs)
One thing I really appreciated about Queen and Country was that you kept the identical story structure and stylistics you established in Hope and Glory: an episodic structure with scenes that fade to black, with the first half taking place in a special world. In Hope and Glory it was London during the Blitz, and in Queen and Country, it's national service on a cloistered army base. Then both films spent their second halves in the cottage on the Thames, your grandfather's house, where there's this tranquility and free-spiritedness in the air. I thought about it, and I wondered if you used that episodic structure because memory is episodic in nature.
Well yes, absolutely. The relationship between memory and imagination is very mysterious. If you tell a story about something in the past, you apply imagination to it. In Hope and Glory when I went back to the street where I was born, Rose Hill Ave., it was nothing like I remembered it. It was a very mean street, and I remembered it being rather idyllic and stretching all the way through London to St. Paul's Cathedral. So I built the memory rather than the reality. In a way, making these films is kind of a betrayal to the memory, because now I remember the films and the memories themselves have gone.
Family affair: the Rohan family in Hope and Glory, above, and Queen and Country, below.
"When legend replaces truth, print the legend," right?
(laughs) Yes, exactly. It's almost impossible to say how much of both films are factual memories and how much is creative license. In both cases, when I started writing Hope and Glory, I just wrote down my most vivid memories, then I considered them and put them in order. I did the same thing with Queen and Country. Every incident in Queen and Country happened and all the characters were based on real people. For instance, the Ophelia character, although I did have this girlfriend who was aristocratic and at that time, a lower middle class boy like me was kidding himself if he thought he could have a relationship of any standing with someone outside his class. She wasn't a handmaiden for the Queen, however. That part was creative license. (laughs)
I really liked Callum Turner, the young actor you cast as yourself. He was so natural, like you pulled him off the street.
I was always sort of sitting on the fence at that age, unlike the Percy character, who is very impulsive and just dives into things. Callum has a calm quality and, as you said, a great reality to him, an honesty. In every scene as I wrote it and as I shot it, I always asked myself 'Is it true?' Not 'Is it real?'
In an emotional sense, you mean?
Yes, always an emotional sense. In the purest way, I was able to be quite detached while I was shooting it. It was like it was about someone else. The only thing in Queen and Country I found very difficult emotionally to deal with was the scene when he sees his mother waving to someone across the river, and he realizes it was her lover from WW II, who you might remember as the character Mac in Hope and Glory. I was ten when that happened, and when I found out, I thought 'Do I betray my father or betray my mother?' That was a huge thing for me, and it's a memory that still hurts.
There was one notable absence in this film: the character of your younger sister.
(laughs) Yes, my sister Angela, who's two years younger than me. She'll turn 80 in May. She said "Where was I?" I said, 'Oh, you were away at boarding school.' (laughs) I couldn't fit her in.
I can understand that, especially considering the character of the older sister, Dawn, was so big and bright.
(laughs) Yes, there was that, as well. You know, two or three years ago I got a call from Montreal, from an agency, who asked if I was the brother of Wendy, my older sister. And they put this guy on the phone, who turned out to be her son. At the end of Hope and Glory, she has the baby and marries at 17, moves to Canada. During the year her husband was away in the army, she produces another child, out of wedlock, and gave it away. Then I found myself talking to him on the phone. I said 'You've just missed her. She died two years before, but if you want to know what she was like, rent Hope and Glory." Then when I did this film, I called him again and said, 'If you want to know a bit more about your mother, you should see this film, as well.' (laughs) So he came down to New York last week to see it. In the Q&A afterward, I told the story and had him stand up.
It struck me while watching this film that Wendy, Dawn in the film, was twenty years ahead of her time: she would have been a perfect hippie in the sixties.
Absolutely. She was.
I saw the documentary your daughter Katrine made about you, Me and Me Dad, and thought it was terrific. You allowed yourself to be portrayed, warts and all.
Well, she wanted to do it, and I agreed. I don't want anything to do with the editing or any approvals. That's all up to you. I must admit, it made me cringe quite a bit. I only saw it once. (laughs) People seem to like it. It's very emotional and deals particularly with my eldest daughter, Telsche, who died of ovarian cancer in 1997.
Your 1974 film Zardoz is currently being restored for Blu-ray release. I'm a huge fan of it and have probably seen it seven or eight times, but still don't completely understand it.
You're in good company, I think. (laughs)
I've always wanted to ask, were there just massive amounts of marijuana involved in the making of that film?
I get asked that constantly.
And do you ever answer?
Let's talk about something else, shall we? (laughs)