The Director's Chair Interviews

Safe Haven
by Charles Taylor
Salon Magazine, December 17, 1998

Click here for John Boorman films, books, and soundtracks


The news that John Boorman had won the best director prize for "The General" at the Cannes Film Festival this spring was one of the most cheering movie events of the year. One of the world's greatest living filmmakers, Boorman has turned out a series of films in the last 11 years that are the best realizations of his visionary, eccentric gifts. From his first film, "Having a Wild Weekend" (1965) -- a pop romp starring the Dave Clark Five, and the great lost British film of the '60s -- Boorman's central theme has been the search for refuge among the discontents of civilization. "Deliverance" (1972) presented the dark side of that quest. But refuge for Boorman has often come in the form of myth and legend, and in the 1981 "Excalibur," he achieved his long-cherished dream of filming the Arthurian myths that have been his greatest inspirations.

Yet it was with 1987's "Hope and Glory" that Boorman began what has been a run of his most beautifully structured and emotionally satisfying films. "Hope and Glory" explored the roots of his fascination with nonconformity, his dissatisfaction with ordinary life and his belief that creation starts in destruction. The film was his reminiscence of growing up during the Blitz. Cutting through the stiff-upper-lip reverence with which that era had usually been depicted in the movies ("Mrs. Miniver" being the most famous example), Boorman portrayed the Blitz as a great national holiday, with Hitler's bombs uncorseting the British. The two films that followed, "Where the Heart Is" (1990), a comedy based on his adult family life written with his daughter Telsche, and "Beyond Rangoon," the story of an American tourist (played by Patricia Arquette) caught up in that country's democracy demonstrations, were both dumped by their studios and, with the exception of a handful of perceptive critics, idiotically reviewed. They remain two of the decade's undiscovered jewels.

The central figure of "The General" is Martin Cahill (played by Brendan Gleeson), an Irish career burglar who became something of a folk hero. Boorman, who lives in Ireland, had long been fascinated by Cahill -- particularly since Cahill had broken into the director's home (an incident alluded to in "The General" when Cahill swipes a gold record during a burglary). Raucous, brutal and tender, the film offers a complex and unresolved portrait of Cahill, neither admiring nor judgmental. I spoke to Boorman in September when he was in Boston to present his film at that city's film festival.

Watching "The General," I could think of several reasons why Martin Cahill would be a good figure for a John Boorman movie. He's a nonconformist. He sets himself impossible tasks, which you've certainly done in some of the circumstances you've filmed under. But there's a real ambivalence about him as well.

Living in Ireland as I do, and have done for the last 30 years, I was very conscious of him. In fact, we have a curiously intimate personal connection. He robbed my house in 1981. At that time, he was really just a cat burglar -- he wasn't doing any of these big things, but he was very audacious then, and provocative. The police recognized his modus vivendi, but also he always wanted to be known when he pulled off these things. He wanted the credit for them. It was also a challenge, you know: "Well, OK now try and prove it. I did that, now prove it." But amongst the things he took was this gold record I had for the music for "Deliverance." So I put that in the movie; that was my revenge.

But the character's fascinating because he also allowed me to say a few things I wanted to say about Ireland. There are various ways in which his activities impinge on society and reveal its various hypocrisies and corruptions. But it was also -- here was this man setting himself up against society, and that intrigued me immensely. One of the things I always do when I'm writing a script, preparing a film, I always use the Arthurian legend. It's always a sort of reference point for me, because that myth has everything in it, you see. And I always say, well, where does this fit in, who is this character?

We talked 11 years ago when "Hope and Glory" came out, and you told me that the Arthurian myth was the myth that, for you, explained what it meant to you to grow up English, as opposed to the Jesus myth, which you described as a desert myth.

Exactly. I felt [the Jesus myth] was so alien to me, olive groves and deserts, whereas I was living with oak trees.

Cahill is also a traditionalist.

Yes. Well, one of the things I feel about Ireland is that it's always been an occupied country, by the British and also by the church. The church has been a very repressive force, very stultifying. But despite the pervasiveness of the church, Christianity is really skin-deep in Ireland, and underneath it is this pagan quality. And from time to time this archetype Cahill belonged to would erupt out of its unconscious. And he's really a kind of tribal Celtic chieftain. You can see that figure emerging at different points. I think that Michael Collins was a very similar figure. You know, the same characteristics of cunning, of organization, humor and irony go with it, and brutality. Did you see Neil Jordan's film "The Butcher Boy"?

Yes.

Well, Eamon Owens, who plays [the title role in Jordan's film], plays the young Martin. The character he's playing in "The Butcher Boy" could easily grow up to be Martin Cahill. They are kind of anti-Christianity figures. And that's what intrigues me very much about this archetype. At the same time, when I'm referencing the Arthurian legend, my guiding character there would be Merlin, because Cahill, in a way, was a magician. He pulled off these astonishing things. He would appear and disappear. He was both good and evil. There was this irony and humor. So that was the sort of template that I was using.

I saw a picture of Cahill and was stunned at his resemblance to Brendan Gleeson. And I was thinking of something you wrote about "Goodfellas" in the diary you published in Projections [a film journal that Boorman edits]. You talked about responding to the film with "detached admiration rather than emotional involvement."

Actually, Scorsese was very upset about that.

Was he?

Didn't talk to me for several years. And it's odd because what I was saying was, I was looking at the dramatic tension between the way the script was written and the way he'd filmed the script. That the script was harsh and absolutely unflinching about the way it saw these characters, and then Scorsese filmed it with his camera sort of dancing around them in admiration.

Seduced by the aesthetics of gangster life.

Yes, and so my point was that this actually made the film very interesting.

I felt you were determined here to avoid that sort of seduction. And I was wondering if one of the ways you did that was by casting Gleeson, whom the audience immediately warms to -- but then they have to watch him do things that they can't incorporate into that warmth they initially feel.

That's right, and I think that, in a way, getting into that character was very, very tough for Brendan. Because he, I suppose in a sense, could recognize that in himself. He's such a warm guy, but he's capable of being quite frightening as a person.

I came across a quote from the Irish Times about the Paul Williams book the film is based on, which talked about the danger of Cahill becoming a Robin Hood figure -- the danger that people would forget, in the paper's phrase, "the terror and misery this man brought to those who were in his way." What was the Irish reaction to the picture?

There was a huge amount of controversy before the picture came out. Television and newspapers and radio were interviewing some of his victims, particularly this forensic scientist that he blew up in the car and who still suffers from his injuries. And so I was being accused of glamorizing violence, or crime. Actually, when the film came out, all that really disappeared, because it was seen as a fair picture of him. The film doesn't flinch from showing his brutality. I think actually that's the interesting thing about the film, the way it does confuse your emotions. Some people find it very unpalatable to have that emotional confusion.

Do you find the inability to deal with that confusion more common now?

Well, yes. Because of the way Hollywood is, people are led to expect that the heroes are people you can root for, they're sympathetic. When I was trying to finance the picture, Americans all said two things. One was, "Well, put a star in there." The other was, "Well, does he have to do these brutal things, and why does he have to die?" They could see it as a kind of Robin Hood thing, but they didn't want the complexity and they didn't want the tragedy. I always said when I was making the film that this has to have a tragic dimension. If it's not seen as a tragedy, it's not going to work.

There's a largeness of spirit and scale to Cahill's story. I have to confess that sometimes, watching Scorsese's films, I wonder why I'm watching these characters.

Yes, well, "Raging Bull" ... I remember John Huston had made a boxing film, "Fat City," and oddly enough he showed me that film in Dublin and at the time Muhammad Ali was fighting in Dublin. And on the eve of the fight [Huston] showed us the film. And about 10 or 15 minutes into the film, Ali started to talk at the screen. He said, "I'm fightin' tonight and you're bringin' me here to see this picture about a loser?!" Then he talked nonstop at the screen. He was all hyped up for this fight and he -- you know how he could -- he just commented on everything in the film, and he was just hilariously funny. And there were only about 20 of us and we were sitting there [mimes trying to keep a straight face] and Huston was just sinking deeper and deeper into his seat. And afterwards, John said [affecting Huston's growling drawl], "In retrospect, I wish I'd recorded it and put it on the film. It probably would have done much better." And I once asked Huston, "What did you think of 'Raging Bull'?" and he said [Huston voice again], "Very fine film. Told me more about Jake LaMotta then I needed to know."

As there is in "The General," there's a mixture of nonconformity and traditionalism in your recent work, especially in "Where the Heart Is," which came out at a time when family had become a buzzword for a rigid set of social and political beliefs. But here was a film in which family became a haven for nonconformity. That must have reflected your experience.

After I made "Hope and Glory" -- and that was an enjoyable experience -- I had the idea of taking another aspect of my own life and exploring it. This was very much about my own kids, and not only my own kids but their friends and other families. I wrote it with my daughter. It was originally set in London, and Disney said, "Well, would you transpose it to New York?" And we did that, a little reluctantly. But it was stimulating to do it that way. I think Francis Coppola once said all good films are about families [laughter]. Certainly ["Where the Heart Is"] was, and, of course, I think "The General" is to some extent. It's certainly about [Cahill's] enlarged family, in the sense of a tribe really. Again it's an element of tribalism, and "Where the Heart Is" was about the ambiguity between discipline, the values that hold a family together and the notions that can pull it apart. And that's, I think, an interesting subject. I mean, what you're looking at today is disintegration of family. You can talk as much as you like about family values in a political sense, and the reason these politicians insist on this so much is because of the insecurity. Everyone's afraid of the way families are disintegrating now and nobody knows what replaces that or what they do about it. Everyone is aware of the misery and unhappiness that comes about through that, and yet it just seems to be inevitable somehow.

In "Where the Heart Is," the family is strengthened by making the bonds more flexible.

Yes, and it's also about art, isn't it? It's about the liberating nature of art, somehow.

This might seem like a weird notion, but in some ways it seems to me to be the sequel to "Point Blank" (1967). In that film, Lee Marvin is trying to act as a free agent but finds out he's being manipulated by an organization. And in "Where the Heart Is," Suzy Amis plays an artist who takes on an assignment from an organization but goes about turning it into a means of personal expression. That must have had particular meaning for you as you've tried to work within the movie business while Hollywood has gotten more and more rigid.

Yes, the sadness of it is ... you know that scurrilous book by Peter Biskind ["Easy Riders and Raging Bulls"], which I read with fascination and kept throwing across the room because he's so insistent about all this nonsense? It's like reading the Starr Report.

It's as if he's asking how these bad people made such great movies.

Yeah, but he made some very good points in it, and certainly it was true what he was saying about the '70s. Before Spielberg and Lucas revealed to the studios that the real audience was 14-year-old boys, we were allowed to make these movies in that middle ground, which has disappeared completely. That middle ground has disappeared. You've got mainstream movies -- 2,000, 3,000 prints, and massive advertising -- and then [whistles] a huge gap. [Affects voice of studio chief] "Gonna make a film? It's gotta be under $10 million." You're down there in the ghetto.

And it doesn't even matter to the studios if you can work cheaply if they have no idea how to sell it.

That's right.

They'd rather risk losing $7 million than $70 million.

Yeah. I suppose, in a sense, "The English Patient" was a throwback. It was a serious movie that cost $25 million and sat there in the middle ground.

Would you speak to the recurring idea in your movies that creation comes out of destruction? There's the Blitz in "Hope and Glory" and the demolition of buildings in "Where the Heart Is." There's also "Beyond Rangoon," in which Patricia Arquette plays a woman whose identity has to be shaken to the core before she can find out who she is.

Well, I do think that it's part of this notion of extending people to their limits. There is a sense in which, I think, we can only really redeem ourselves -- even if you accept the notion of original sin -- through some enormous effort, through the labors of Hercules. You have to risk everything, you have to test yourself through a kind of destruction before you can emerge with a kind of purity, with a kind of renewed life. I think that's really central to my philosophy of life.

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