Cannes: John Boorman Talks Filmmaking Memories From a 50-Year Career (Q&A)

John Boorman
John Boorman
 

It's been 27 years since John Boorman shot Hope and Glory, his Oscar-nominated 1987 film about life on the British homefront during World War II. Queen and Country, which screens in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight on May 20, moves the semi-autobiographical story forward to the Korean War, and brings back David Hayman from the original film, as well as a slew of other British talents (including David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant). The legendary filmmaker, 81, spoke with THR about topics ranging from his first trip to Cannes (in 1970, for Leo the Last) to the acting idiosyncracies of some of the stars he’s worked with, such as Richard Burton (“Everything below the neck was kind of inert”) and Jon Voight (“One of the few American actors who can do accents”).

Is Queen and Country a passion project for you?

At 81, I don’t feel much passion anymore. (Laughs.) I made Hope and Glory some years ago and this is set nine years later, when I had to go into the army at the age of 18. I’d always intended to do it and I finally did.

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There’s quite a time gap between your films. Do you spend that time developing films?

During that time I’ve written and directed several radio plays, a stage play and two or three film scripts. I don’t know when I’m going to make them at my age. I thought Queen and Country was going to be my last one, but I’m being urged to make another one; people seem to like this one.

Was it different making films in Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s?

When I was making Point Blank and Deliverance, there was almost no pressure from studios in terms of giving notes. But the studios became more corporate and in a sense they designed a formula for mounting pictures. It involved a great deal of notes and you knew before you got a green light you had to constantly make changes to suit the studio. That’s when I moved away from the studio system.

Is having complete control important to you?

I feel whether it’s right or wrong, I’ve always had final cut and I have always insisted on it. For me it’s the only way of driving through a concept, an idea and a vision.

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When does your control impulse kick in?

At script stage I find it difficult to introduce other people’s ideas. Making films is a collaborative thing. I’m very fluid with actors and I welcome their contributions tremendously.

Queen and Country mixes old friends, established actors and fresh faces. Is that the ideal mix for your films?

I was very lucky to get David Thewlis, who I admire as an actor. His range is like nobody else really, maybe Daniel Day-Lewis. And Richard E. Grant is an old friend. I was very happy to have him on board. Richard can be quite explosive. With Richard you are riding an untamed horse. I think we’re quite similar in many ways. He’s very wicked.

Who has been the most difficult actor to work with?

I never find actors difficult. The ones who cause the most trouble are second-rate ones, but I have not had them in my films. Of the well-known ones, I was a little disappointed when I worked with Richard Burton on [Exorcist II:] The Heretic. He wasn’t a good film actor in the sense that he couldn’t use his body very well. It all came from the voice and the head. Everything below the neck was kind of inert.

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Who has been the best talent?

I learned an enormous amount from Lee Marvin about film acting, about the way in which you relate to the camera and his physicality; he was like a ballet dancer. And he was very daring as an actor. He would try anything. He never held back. Jon Voight I admired enormously — [I did] two films with him, Deliverance and The General. He was one of the few American actors who can do perfect accents. Whereas most English actors can do them, American actors tend not to be able to do them.

You’ve been on the jury, you’ve won two director prizes and had your films selected for all the different sections of Cannes. What does the festival mean to you?

I always enjoy Cannes. If you are making independent films, it is a great place to sell films. You get a good screening and all the distributors are there and it’s just about the best place to sell your picture. And I always enjoy seeing many old friends and love the mixture of serious cinema and tacky marketplace with a bit of glamour thrown in. It’s a potent mix.

What are your hopes for Cannes this year?

That we sell the film. We made the film on borrowed money and we hope to sell it to pay the money back to the bank. French co-producer [Le Pacte’s] Jean Labadie — he’s bought France and non-English rights — is selling it to the rest of the world.

You came here for the first time in 1970, with Leo the Last, which starred this year’s Cannes poster boy Marcello Mastroianni. What was he like?

I love Mastroianni. He was such a joy to work with. He was very simple in his approach and he could make things work. I remember saying to him, “Could you work your way around to this point without it looking forced?” He said, “You know, I’ve made six films with Sophia Loren and she only wanted to be photographed on one side of her face, so I was always having to get around to one side. So no problem.”

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