John Boorman Talks Almost Making 'Lord Of The Rings,' Working With Marcello Mastroianni, What He's Doing Next & More

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by Jessica Kiang
December 17, 2012 11:02 AM
5 Comments
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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.

"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."
…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."

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5 Comments

  • Mark | January 2, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    John Boorman, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and more in a documentary on the making of "Excalibur"
    http://indiegogo.com/excaliburdoc

  • Mark | January 2, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    Boorman and the main cast feature in a documentary being released this year- "Behind The Sword in the Stone" a look back at the making of Excalibur. Check this out-
    http://indiegogo.com/excaliburdoc

  • Alan | December 19, 2012 4:32 AMReply

    This guy sounds awesome. There's almost a hint of absurdity in even his greatest achievements as a director, but Boorman always sounds super-intelligent. His relationship with Voight is interesting, too: Voight gave Boorman notes on an early draft of The Exorcist sequel, and came in at the last minute to appear in The General to replace Ciaran Hinds. The two sound tight, and I would like to hear more about their relationship.

  • Rob Roy | December 17, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    Great stories. we need more of this stuff from the old class directors

  • Drew | December 17, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    I wish somebody WOULD ask Boorman about "Zardoz." That movie was so off the wall and truly a lot of fun in a crazy sort of way, it deserves some much needed attention. Heck, even "Kill List" director Ben Wheatley uses the stone head from it as his Twitter profile photo.

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