Veteran director John Boorman, president of the Jury at the Marrakech International Film Festival last week, has had an interestingly checkered career of era-defining highs (“Deliverance,” “Point Blank“) and baffling, outlandish lows (“Zardoz,””Exorcist II“) and all points in between. Now nearing 80, the director, in addition to his presidential duties, was the subject of a “Conversation with…” evening, during which time he reminisced and curmudgeoned in a profane, often hilarious manner, following a showing of his daughter Katrine‘s documentary about him, “Me and Me Dad.” Unfortunately we missed the film, but heard good things about it, and the “Conversation with…” went a long way to making up for that in sheer entertainment value. Essentially as often in his career, Boorman gave the audience exactly what they wanted: lots of gossipy anecdotes about the people he’s worked with, and plenty of Billy Wilder quotes. Here are a few choice findings from the evening.
Boorman can be really funny/mean when disgruntled.
The host of the “conversation” (who also hosted all of the masterclasses), is a French-speaking journalist whose tortured English and rather stiff interviewing style is something most of his interviewees politely overlook. Not Boorman, who we heard was originally supposed to be having this conversation with his daughter, which perhaps might have made more sense. The last minute substitution clearly was not to Boorman’s liking and we almost ended up feeling sorry for the poor interviewer, who became the butt of Boorman’s frequent acidic asides to the audience (“Who is this guy?” “I have absolutely no idea what you’re saying,” “Next question… the suspense is killing me”).
Later, when questions were opened up to the floor, Boorman listened politely while one audience member explained at great length his issues with the end of “Deliverance” before quipping drily “That’s very good advice. I’ll go and cut the end off.” He also signaled the end of the event at just under the hour mark, via the novel tactic of simply standing up and saying “I think we’ve all had enough of this, haven’t we? Thank you all very much.” Legend.
Boorman insists, though with a slight twinkle, that “filmmaking has completely ruined my life”
“One time in Cannes, I arrived with Billy Wilder, and the woman who was running it was flustered and said ‘I hope you don’t mind waiting’ and Billy Wilder said ‘Do I mind waiting? I’ve spent my life waiting, waiting for the actors to read the script, waiting for the money, waiting for the sun to go in, waiting for the sun to go out, I did two movies with Marilyn Monroe!’ And I asked him ‘Did you mind waiting for Marilyn?’ and he said ‘No, I always wanted to read War and Peace.’ In 50 years of filmmaking do you know how long the camera was running? Maybe two weeks. So did it make me happy? No…I started out making very simple documentaries, then bigger ones, then I started to dramatize them, and then I found myself actually trapped in this awful profession.”
He’s grateful for actors and believes they’re all different…
“I’m always astonished and grateful that actors are prepared to get up in front of camera and express emotions — it seems an extraordinary brave thing to do. Of course they all are different — it’s like, I had 7 children and after the first child I had I developed immediately a theory about raising children. And then I had a second child and I had to modify my view because it didn’t quite work, and by the time I’d had 3 or 4 children I’d abandoned all theories. And the same thing is true of actors, they way they work differs from one to the other,” Boorman said.
“Leaving them alone I’ve often found is as good a way of getting a good performance as anything else. [There’s a single, enthusiastic clap from the audience] That’s an actor!” Boorman added.
…but all actors should fall somewhere on the spectrum between John Hurt and Daniel Day-Lewis.
“I did a film with John Hurt called ‘Two Nudes Bathing.’ I sent him the script, I didn’t hear from him, so I called him up, and he said ‘John, it’s embarrassing: I lost the script.’ He was getting a divorce at the time and he was rather frazzled and drinking a lot, but he said ‘Look, I’ll do it, it’s only a week’s work’ so I sent him another script and a ticket for Paris, and the train to Angers, where we were shooting in a chateau. And he went to airport clutching the script and the plane ticket, but he’d left his passport in the house, so he rushed back to get the passport, but left the ticket and the script, and had to buy another ticket. We were in Angers to meet him, waiting on the platform, train comes in, people get out, people get in and then the train leaves. Suddenly a door is flung open and John Hurt crashes to the platform and his suitcase is thrown out after him. So we took him back to the chateau. I said, ‘He has to stay drunk, if he sobers up I won’t get a performance.’ So we got him up out of bed in the morning, he had a glass of beer for breakfast, and we put him in his costume. Now he hasn’t read the script, he doesn’t know the name of the character he’s playing, so we get him onto the set… ‘What do I have to say in the first scene?’ So I give him his two lines and then when we’re setting up the next shot, he learns his next two lines.
And John says to me, ‘This is the way to make movies! All this bullshit about rehearsal – it’s so spontaneous, I feel so alive.’ ‘Oh do you?’ I said. We went on for three or four days and he left.
We made the film for Showtime, and they have these awards, and he won the award for the best dramatic actor that year. And he had the temerity to go and pick up his award even though he couldn’t remember being in it. And it is quite a good performance..
Then my friend Daniel Day-Lewis — he works in a different way, you may have noticed. He immerses himself so much in the character that it takes him about a year to recover his own identity – he’s haunted by these parts he plays. These are the two extremes of acting, and I hope that most actors will fall somewhere between the two.”
But the person who taught him most about film acting was Lee Marvin.
“He had this ability to communicate an idea or a thought or emotion, with a gesture. He never wanted to talk about a scene, he would show me something, just do it. And I could either take it or not, he would offer it.”
“There was one occasion during ‘Point Blank’ where Lee Marvin is looking for his wife who has betrayed him with his friend and he bursts in and he shoots the bed, but of course Reese, the former friend, is not there,” Boorman continued. “And he sits down and he’s completely emotionally spent. And then there’s a scene with the wife — a completely conventional scene where he says ‘Where’s Reese? When did you last see him? Who brings you the money for this place?’ — very conventional stuff. And we run through the scene, and the actress says her line and Lee doesn’t respond. So she says her next line, and he still doesn’t ask a question, and of course it was clear [the character] wasn’t in a condition to ask all these questions, so I quickly rewrite the scene so that she was answering unasked questions, so she’d say ‘Reese? I haven’t seen him in months’ ‘The money? A guy brings it’ and it turned the scene into something emotionally true and interesting from what was really a conventional scene that I had written.”
Marcello Mastroianni was maybe the most laid-back actor he’s worked with.
“Mastroianni, he could do anything — the most malleable actor you’d imagine, he could do anything you ask. He’d constantly make dialogue irrelevant, and he’d make a gesture an expression, you didn’t need the line — marvelous,” he said about the actor he worked with on “Leo The Last.” “One occasion I’d said, ‘Can you manage to get around to the other side of the actress without making it look awkward?’ and he said ‘Can I do that? I made four movies with Sophia Loren. She only wanted to be photographed on one side of her face, I was constantly dancing around her.’ And he was so relaxed! I did this scene where he was in bed, so we put him in the bed and set up and we’re ready to shoot and he’s fast asleep. And I wake him up, ‘Marcello? Marcello, can we shoot the scene?’ ‘Oh sure.’ I change the angle for another shot and he’s back asleep again. I had to wake him up to act being asleep.”
And Jon Voight credits Boorman with saving his life.
“When I was trying to get [Voight] to do [‘Deliverance‘], he was very depressed, he’d just made a film called ‘The All-American Boy’ and they couldn’t put it together. He’d been working with the director for months trying and he was so depressed and was considering giving up acting. And I was trying to persuade him to come and do this film. It went on for so long, that finally, I was on the phone to him and I said, Jon, look you’ve got to give me a decision, I’m going to count to ten, and you’ve got to say yes or no at the end of ten,” Boorman said. “And he said ‘Why ten? Why does it have to be ten? Why not 30?’ So I said, ‘fine, thirty.’ And I start the countdown but he’s saying “this is not the way to make decisions…” he’s talking all the way through my thirty ‘…twenty nine…’ ‘John, this is not the way to do it…’ ‘thirty…’ bang! [he hangs up]. So ten minutes later he phones up and I say ‘I’ve got someone else.’ And he says ‘What, in ten minutes?’ and I say ‘There’s always someone waiting behind you…’ And suddenly he’s all ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’
Boorman added: “He always told people afterwards, ‘You know, John saved my life. I was suicidal. John saved my life by putting me in this film and then spent eight weeks trying to kill me.'”
The contrast between Voight and Burt Reynolds was startling.
“Seeing Voight and Burt Reynolds together was interesting. Jon’s a very method actor; Burt is the type of actor who just looks at it and says ‘I know how to get through to the end of this scene without making a fool of myself… I’ll chew a match or something.’ So Jon, of course, wanted to talk every scene to death and Burt just wanted to do it and get through to the other side. In a way they actually worked together well because he forced Jon to be quicker and Jon make him think a bit. At the end of it Burt said ‘I’m in this film under false pretenses … I can’t act.’ I said ‘You can’t? Well, what were you doing out there then?’ And he said “I was faking it.”
Someone else who owes him a great deal is Peter Jackson.
“I was always very interested in Arthurian legend, the Grail legends, and I went to United Artists in 1969 with this idea, and they said ,’Well, we have ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ why don’t you do that?’ because Tolkien drew on Arthurian legend quite heavily,” Boorman revealed.
“And so we went off… devising techniques for miniaturizing Hobbits because there was no CG back then, but by the time it was ready UA had run out of money,” he continued. “So I went to Disney with it and couldn’t get it made. And really I’m so pleased we didn’t because if I’d made it, rather clumsily at the time, it would mean that Pete Jackson‘s fantastic trilogy would not have been made. So he owes a lot to me.”
He may be pushing eighty, but he’s not hanging up his directorial spurs yet.
“One project I have is called ‘Broken Dream‘ which is 25 years old and every time I finish shooting a picture I bring this script out and I rewrite it and start to try and make it and I can never get it off the ground. But I always look at it – it feels like a lost film…It’s a comedy about the end of the world, and I can’t say more than that because you’ll only steal my idea,” he said. “[Next] I’m making a sequel to ‘Hope and Glory‘ which was about my childhood during the Blitz in London, set ten years later when I went into the army at 18 for two years, and I won the Korean War and fell in love.”
As acerbic as Boorman is about many things, he is similarly unsparing when it comes to an assessment of his own work and talents.
Asked what his greatest asset as a director is, Boorman replied self-deprecatingly, “Getting the picture in on budget and in time. That’s my reputation. But to quote Billy Wilder again, whoever went to the box office and said ‘Give me a ticket for that picture that came in on budget’?”
At the conclusion of the talk Boorman gets reflective for a moment, almost rueful. “A lot of people I grew up with were more talented than I was, but they didn’t have the drive or tenacity you need to make films. It’s a very tough business to put a picture together and to make it work is hard, and it probably needs tough people to do it. Whereas the more sensitive, delicate characters can’t put it all together…” With his trademark impeccable timing, he undercuts the melancholy of the sentiment. “… eh, fuck ’em,” he says, and brings the house down.