In town to plug what he says is his last film, 25-time Cannes veteran John Boorman takes Donald Clarke on a four-decade Riviera reverie, and reveals a few long-kept festival secrets along the way
‘Iwas first at Cannes in 1970,” John Boorman reminisces. “Since then I have been back maybe 25 times. “I have had films in competition. I have had films out of competition. I have been on the jury a couple of times. It has been very much part of my life.”
It’s true enough. There is no better man to ponder the Cannes experience than Boorman. Now 81, he has won the best director prize at the festival on two occasions – for Leo the Last and The General – and, in 1981, received a Best Artistic Contribution citation for Excalibur. They like him here and he likes them.
This year, Boorman’s Queen and Country, a kind of sequel to 1987’s Hope and Glory, plays in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight strand. He has threatened to retire (though some backtracking will be done later in this conversation) and, if this really is his last time at Cannes, then there is a neatness to the experience. In 1970, following up Hell in the Pacific and Point Black, the young British film-maker secured a place in the main competition with the angular satire Leo the Last. That film starred Marcello Mastroianni, the great Italian actor, whose face, with delicious serendipity, adorns the 2014 Cannes poster that currently occupies every flat surface.
“Yes, that’s right. That’s right,” he says. “I loved that man. He was a wonderful, charming man. He was like a factory worker. He would come in on the morning, you’d turn on the camera, he’d put on the costume and you’d shoot all day. When the whistle blew at six he’d get into his own clothes and never think about the film until the following morning.”
A characteristic chuckle rises in the Boorman throat.
“He was always in a love affair. But every day, without fail, he would phone his wife. He was as devoted to her as he was to all his lovers.”
John Boorman has always had a good way with an anecdote. Then again, he’s accumulated plenty of fine material down through the years. After starting out in TV documentaries, he began his feature career with a barmy –but still watchable – comedy starring the Dave Clark Five entitled Catch Us If You Can. Then came the peerless US thriller Point Blank, starring his great friend Lee Marvin, and, bringing Marvin together with Toshiro Mifune, the tense Hell in the Pacific. The journey continued with Deliverance, Excalibur and
The General. Along the way, Boorman moved to Wicklow and became an ornament of our own nation. Co-produced by the Irish Film Board,
Queen and Country takes us back to his time serving in the British Army during the Korean War. Like Hope and Glory, which dealt with life during the Blitz, the film is awash with autobiographical flourishes.
“It was a weird period – the 1950s,” he says. “Rationing was still going on. It was a bleak period. But Britain still had all these garrisons that had to be manned: Kenya, Cairo, Germany. We got by on humour. I was a little concerned about the characters being so close to the real thing. I am just hoping they have all died and that they can’t sue me. Ha ha!”
It is worth remembering how close the Swinging Sixties (which only swung for a select few) were to the grim years that preceded the Festival of Britain. What a pleasure it must have been to emerge from all that fug, plunge into the buzzing contemporaneous film world and, ultimately, make it to Cannes as the era was grinding to a halt. How has the festival changed since then?
“It was much more modest at that time,” he says. “The grand hall had not been built. It’s got a little pompous and grand then. But it adds gravitas which didn’t exist at that time. It was just a smaller event. Then it grew and grew. It’s madness now.”
Of course, Boorman has experience on both sides of the fence. In 1992, he served on the main jury under the presidency of one Gérard Depardieu. Also on the squad that year were Jamie Lee Curtis and Pedro Almodóvar. I assume, when it comes to details of the deliberations, that he is sworn to eternal secrecy. I wonder if Depardieu was a harsh master or if he tended towards the laissez-faire.
“I think laissez-faire is the right phrase,” he laughs. “At eight o’clock in the morning, the screening lights went down and he would fall asleep. As you might imagine, the snores got quite loud. My job was to wake him up. He was wonderful, of course.” Were there fights in the jury chambers? “What happens to jurors is that they live in this bubble,” he remembers. “They can’t really connect, so they become introverted and inward looking. Things get distorted. Very often there’s a divide between the two best films. Half go one way and half go the other. There’s a fight and very often a third film wins. It’s a democracy and democracy is a very impaired system.”
Interesting. In that year, Bille August’s Best Intentions, a respectable choice, edged out pictures such as Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun and Robert Altman’s The
Player. Is Boorman suggesting that the Palme d’Or winner was something of a compromise? “Yes. I think you could say that.” Other mysteries need to be revealed. The festival stretches over 10 long busy days. Yet, even if their film screened a week before the closing ceremony, the winners always seem to be at the podium when the gongs are handed out. Some sort of secret message is obviously transmitted through the cinematic ether.
“I was there when we won for The General,” he says. “I also got that prize for the Mastroian- ni film. I was there with Brendan Gleeson and then we went home. They phone you up and say: ‘You’re getting a prize,’ but they don’t tell you what it is. I asked: ‘Is it a major prize or a minor prize?’ They said it was a major prize, so I said I’d come. I got caught that way before.”
He is referring to Excalibur, we assume.
“I was a victim of that compromise thing,” he says. “It got a prize for best ‘artistic contribution’ or some bloody thing. That’s like a pat on the head rather than a prize.”
Boorman is one of several British veterans screening films this year. Over at the main competition, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both former Palme d’Or winners, will be battling it out with, respectively, Mr
Turner and Jimmy’s Hall. There’s history here, I imagine.
“Interestingly enough, Ken had a film, Kes, here in 1970. We were both there then and now here we are as these decrepit film directors.” Now, interestingly, Loach suggested that
Jimmy’s Hall might be his last film, but, in recent interviews, he has backed away from that statement. Could Queen and Country really be the last-ever John Boorman film?
“Well, I certainly said it would be when I was making it,” he says. “The idea of making another was so exhausting. But one is tempted. But there are a few things I’d like to do. We’ll see how it goes.”
See The Irish Times for daily coverage from Cannes, plus irishtimes.com/culture and Donald Clarke’s Screenwriter blog
Queen and Country (2014)
Leo the Last (1970)
The General (1998)