Distinguished filmmaker John Boorman grapples with why directors are so willing to put themselves through hell time and time again. This is an extract from John Boorman's book 'Adventures of a Suburban Boy.
Why are people so drawn to movie-making? Why are they so ready to endure long hours, privations of cold, heat and boredom? Why do actors and crews embrace the harsh discipline of starts and grinding workloads? I believe it is the same impulse that made my father welcome the war. We are escaping the vague dissatisfactions of safe and comfortable lives. We want to be extended, tested. We need to find the ends of ourselves. When a film is over, you return to your life like a sailor home from the sea. All the little domestic problems have been set aside in favour of the larger fictional ones. In the case of Excalibur, I had lived at home and my children were involved in the film, as they were in Zardoz, so it felt like an extension of family rather than an abandonment; Christel’s seductive cooking had bonded cast, crew and kin. Now Telsche and Katrine had returned to their studies in
Christel and I were face to face. I needed another movie to make, to escape my life, to find invented problems to replace the real ones. I started making notes towards what would become Hope and Glory – about the boy that I was caught up in the London Blitz, the dull suburban street torn apart by bombs, and my own family thrown into turmoil. It was a way of looking at personal mythology.
I went back to LA and tested the idea around town. No interest. I pitched Broken Dreams again. Futile. Everything had changed in
All that was yet to come. Nevertheless Star Wars had set a new agenda. Nothing would ever be the same. The power of the director would decline. Significantly, Lucas hired directors to make the subsequent episodes while he functioned as a controlling producer, implying that it was possible to be the ‘author’ of a film without directing it.
While I was in LA I had dinner with Rospo and we bemoaned these new trends in
Rospo could see that I was tempted. His real name is Robert. Rospo was a corruption by a mad aunt on the Roman side of his family. It means ‘toad’ in Italian – a manic insight, for so he looks. He sits with his hands folded across his large middle, a knowing smile on his face while I tour the studios and each of my projects founders. He knew that I would be fatally drawn by such a wild and dangerous enterprise. He called it The Emerald Forest.
Jake Eberts was in town for the opening of Gandhi, which he had helped to produce. He was then running Goldcrest, the great hope of British film-making. We pitched the story to him. Before we got to the end, he had to rush off to get his photo taken with Dickie Attenborough in front of a huge billboard on Sunset Strip. This was just as well, since our ending was sketchy, to say the least. Jake, euphoric with the success of Gandhi, agreed to finance the script and research. Rospo and I thrashed the draft, I set out for the great Amazonian rainforest. All my life I have loved rivers and trees, and here at last I came to the greatest river and the greatest forest of them all. It was perhaps the most profound experience of my life.
Jake, having persuaded the board of Goldcrest to finance our movie, was lured away to join a new
Jake was mortified, felt he had let me down. Had he stayed at Goldcrest he would have seen it through my daring, or recklessness, touched a chord in him. He found it irresistable. Embassy had already bought the whole thing before it collapsed. Embassy was reluctant for all kinds of reasons. It was a new company. They were felling their way. They reasoned that Goldcrest must have had good reasons for pulling out. Not least, their bank insisted that they must carry a completion bond on all pictures that they made. There was simply no time for a bond company to tour the locations and study our budget and schedule unless we delayed our start. Since we were carrying a full complement of crew, delay would be costly. There were also weather and contractual factors that compelled us to start on time. For instance, the climax of the film occurred at a dam which we could only shoot at a specified date.
Enbassy was the plaything of Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio. Both were successful entrepreneurs with strong nerves and deep pockets, tsars of capitalism. Example: Jerry and his wife took their private plane to
Norman and Jerry had wooed Jake away from Goldcrest to run their new company. They felt obliged to follow his judgement despite their reservations. When it came to negotiating a deal with Embassy, I was in a hopelessly weak position. They took everything. Jake solved the problem of the completion bond. He said to the bond company, you can take it on and Embassy will undertake not to call on you under any circumstance. Nobly, they agreed to a reduced fee.
I cast my son Charley to play the kidnapped boy. Rospo was bitterly opposed to this and told me that if I insisted he would advise Embassy to abandon the picture. I had auditioned dozens of boys and they were the pick of hundreds seen by my casting directors. I tested four of the best on film, including Charley. I sent the tests to Embassy without revealing the names. They all voted for Charley. Nevertheless, Rospo's call unnerved them. They sent people down to check up on me. Our equipment was stuck in customs and we could not find out whom we had to bribe to get it out. We started shooting with just a camera and a tripod. Disastrous weather put us behind schedule in the first week. The Indian village we had built was destroyed by a storm. We were attacked by a particularly voracious species of mosquito and several crew members could not endure the welts and fevers and had to be shipped home. It seemed that Goldcrest’s fears were justified.
Why do I relish this kind of adversity and thrive under it? What unconscious impulse makes me court danger? Why do I drive myself and others to the edge? Does it go back to my childhood in the war? Am I somehow contriving to repeat the conditions of the Blitz when I was in the middle of chaos and fear and falling bombs?
Somehow or other, after enduring every kind of hazard imaginable, we finished the picture and actually came in under budget. I cannot take the credit for this. We were cash-flowing the movie by buying ‘frozen’ Brazilian cruzeiros, profits made in
‘Well, that's not so bad,’ I replied, trying to console him. ‘But it makes a mockery of everything I stand for,’ he said, shaking his head.
We took The Emerald Forest to the Cannes Film Festival where it was the closing film, out of competition. After Leo the Last and Excalibur, this was my third picture at the Festival. In other years I had taken part in seminars, hunted for finance or tried to raise money from distributors. For the fortieth anniversary of the Festival they gave a special prize to directors who had been honoured in the past. Billy Wilder and I walked down the Croissette to the Grand Salle for a rehearsal of the ceremony. He had just finished shooting what turned out to be his last movie, Buddy Buddy. I asked him how it had gone. He said, ‘John, our pictures are our children. When you have a kid you hope he will grow up to be Einstein, but sometimes they turn out to be congenital idiots.’
We were the first directors to arrive. The flustered lady organising the event asked us if we would mind waiting. ‘Do I mind waiting?’ said Billy. ‘I spent my life waiting. Waiting for the money, waiting for actors [two pictures with the notoriously tardy Monroe], waiting for the lighting, waiting for the sun to come out, waiting for the sun to go in. in fifty years of movie making, you know how long the camera was running? Maybe two weeks.’ We were to come on stage in alphabetical order: Antonioni, Bergman (didn’t show), Boorman – so Wilder, of course, was the last man. He said, ‘I’m always last unless Fred Zinnemann is there.
The year after The Emerald Forest there was a tribute to David Lean at
Source: Direct Magazine Winter 2004-2005