‘I always like to push myself to the limits’

John Boorman, prolific artist, ideologist and businessman, is packing his bags once more to attend this month’s 42nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, both as guest of honor and president of the International Jury. I am attending the festival because they are doing a large retrospective of my work. It would be rather childish not to turn up, really, said the director, who has been on the jury of famous festivals such as Venice and Cannes, in a telephone interview with Kathimerini English Edition from his home in Ireland. Boorman, an artist who, though part of the international film scene, moves in a different current, has made documentaries, thrillers, epics, historical social drama, adventures and science fiction. He has directed 17 films, produced 14 and written screenplays for nine, as well as acting in four. He has also worked as a dry cleaner, a critic for a women’s journal and a radio station, and as a director at the BBC. From films such as the chilling Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific and Deliverance, to the cerebral and emotional Emerald Forest, Beyond Rangoon, The General and his most recent, The Tailor of Panama, there seem to be few common elements that would suggest that all these films have been made by the same artist. Yet, in their tightly structured narratives and sensitivity to the subjects they touch upon, there is a sense of continuity. I always try and do something different because I rather hate repeating myself, explained Boorman. As far as critics and the public are concerned, it would have been much easier for them if I had stuck to making thrillers. But I like to challenge myself and try new things. The British director’s ideology permeates his films, obviously at times as in Beyond Rangoon, and more subtly at other times, as in The General. One of the themes that run through his work is man’s conflict with nature and his social surroundings. His characters are complete in the sense that even when taken away from the context of the film, they have a story to tell about themselves. Working with his actors is an intrinsic part of Boorman’s preparation for a film. I think that actors, because of the nature of what they do, push themselves to their limits all the time. You want them to subvert the ideas people have about a character. I push them to their extremes and the more I do so, the more they love it, he admits. Boorman also challenges himself as much as he does his actors or the audience, having filmed in extremely hostile environments, such as the Amazon jungle in Emerald Forest, or a stark island in the Pacific in Hell in the Pacific. I have always liked to push myself to my limits, physically and mentally, he says. Challenging yourself is a way to discover your limits. When you are working in a difficult environment, you discover a lot about yourself. Reflecting these challenges in one’s art is what makes each work unique and in many ways, Boorman feels, artists have an obligation to show their viewpoints through their work. Boorman himself shows a great versatility in the manner in which he gets his point across. On the one hand, he describes his own traumatic experience of London during the German blitz in Hope and Glory with a childlike sensitivity, while on the other, the rape of Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) in Deliverance remains imprinted on the viewer’s memory as a psychological violation of the deepest kind. Subversiveness, Boorman argues, is what defines art. If you don’t change the way people feel about something in the process, then it’s not art. Doing ‘Emerald Forest’ for example, I was trying to highlight the destruction of the rain forest. Nothing great happened after that, it didn’t change anything, but I do think that next time someone who has seen the films reads something about the destruction of the rain forest in a newspaper, they will feel differently, because the film involved them emotionally in the subject. Festivals An experienced festival-goer, Boorman believes that the institution of film festivals has changed a lot over the years, applying – at times – more market-based criteria. Every film festival is different, argues Boorman, and in some cases, festivals have become industries in themselves. All in all, though, they are a good thing because they allow people to get together and see things they would otherwise be unable to see. Last year’s Thessaloniki Film Festival’s greatest surprise, for example, was Iranian cinema, revealed to Greek cinephiles by previously unknown directors such as Marziyeh Mashkini (The Day I Became a Woman), Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) and Jafar Panahi (The Circle). In many ways, the Iranian film industry faces similar challenges to the Greek one. It is a small country on the film map, the language is spoken by few, state funding is lacking and, more importantly, so is the infrastructure to educate current and future artists and technical crews. The real problem, explains Boorman, commenting on the challenges faced by small countries, is distribution. That’s where the cost is. Making a film is not as complex as distributing it… especially since distribution is largely dominated by America. Ireland cannot depend on its own market. A film has to go abroad if it is going to be a success. But Ireland [unlike Greece because of language] has access to more markets. The main point really is to make good films. Take Iranian cinema now, or the Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, the French New Wave, Czech cinema during the Prague Spring. They were extraordinary. Of course, it’s good to have some help. One way for small countries and under-funded filmmakers to realize their projects is new technology. Many young filmmakers, in Greece and abroad, for instance, for their films to travel far and wide are pinning their hopes on the efficiency of digital filming and editing – both image and sound. But there is also a tendency to see films that depend more on technology than they do on basics such as plot, narrative, characters or pace. Furthermore, Boorman argues that the cost and time efficiency of new technology is somewhat illusionary. If you walk into a production studio today, you see that almost everyone is sitting in front of a computer, spending hours there. For example, when they invented the rock ‘n’ roll – that’s where you can roll the sound back and forth in editing – it took twice as long as before. Before, we had to rehearse, set up the scene and shoot it in one single shot. Now, people shoot a lot more film and that means they spend a lot more time in the studio editing. Though Boorman uses modern editing techniques nowadays, he still has a penchant for doing things the old-fashioned way. One project he worked on, Lumiere et Compagnie (1995) – in collaboration with other eminent directors such as Wim Wenders, Peter Greenaway, Bigas Luna, Theo Angelopoulos, Michael Haneke, James Ivory and Abbas Kiarostami, among others – was an exercise in using the oldest of filming techniques. Forty directors were each asked to make a 52-second film using the original Cinematographe invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, without synchronized sound and in no more than three takes. It was a real challenge, says Boorman. It [the Cinematographe] is a beautiful wooden box with a mechanism inside. What was fascinating is that if you take any new Panasonic recorders, behind all the gadgets, its has the same mechanism. The fundamentals, you see, are always the same. The art of versatility John Boorman was born in London in 1933. His early steps in film were taken in the BBC, where he made documentaries and his first feature film was 1965’s Having a Wild Weekend, based on the Beatles’ hit It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night. Boorman’s second film, and the one that launched him in Hollywood was Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin. In 1972, Deliverance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Picture (as the film’s producer), while Zardoz (1974), a psychedelic science-fiction environmentalist adventure, earned him something of a cult status. After Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, which met with widespread criticism, Boorman made a comeback with Excalibur in 1981, The Emerald Forest in 1985 and Hope and Glory in 1987. His most celebrated recent film is The General, a 1998 production based on the Dublin folk-hero and criminal Martin Cahill. Though initially criticized because of its controversial portrayal of Irish politics and society, The General is a smooth and masterful film shot in emotive black-and-white, made especially attractive by the fact that Boorman decided to write, produce and direct it after Cahill broke into his home and stole the gold record for Dueling Banjos from the Deliverance soundtrack in 1981. His last film, The Tailor of Panama, was based on the novel by John Le Carre and starred Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Now, besides preparing for Thessaloniki, the British director and producer is working on a new film about South Africa during apartheid, teaching film studies in Ireland – where he lives and also runs a film production company that launched the likes of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan – fighting to free Burma’s democratically elected president Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest imposed by the military regime, and practicing his passion for trees and nature.

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