John Boorman

The Avonmore River divides my land from that of my neighbour and good friend. He delights as I do in the joys of bucolic living, but unlike me, he has another life; one that takes him all around the world, even up the Amazon, and most recently to the jungles of Malaysia. He is the film-maker, John Boorman.

He is attached to Ireland not just as a resident and inveterate planter of trees, but because he has been pivotal in establishing a film industry in this country. It was he who persuaded the government of the day to keep Ardmore Studios going – for seven years he was its chairman. He brought ‘Zardoz’ and ‘Excalibur’ to Ireland. It was Boorman who got Neil Jordan started on his career with ‘Angel’; he has advised on scripts for Jim Sheridan; and with his partner in Merlin Films, Kieran Corrigan, persuaded the government to accept the innovative section 35, a financing provision for film, largely designed by Corrigan, that has jump-started the Irish film industry. His company, Merlin Films, exists to promote and finance Irish films.

He is tireless in promoting the industry both in Ireland and elsewhere. For the past four years he has edited ‘Projections’, a yearly show-case published by Fabers for directors to write about directing, movies, screenplays and life. This year ‘Projections’ will have an off-shoot, celebrating one hundred years of movie-making.

Perhaps the best illustration of his view of film-making is his dictum ‘Making movies is turning money into light and light back into money again. If you end up with more money than you started with, you get to make another.’ His book on the making of ‘The Emerald Forest’ is called ‘Money Into Light.’ I asked him to elaborate on his dictum.

“This is why it’s so difficult to get money for a film, because you take money and turn it into sets, you use vehicles, equipment, cameras and lights, you use resources, everything that life offers – people – and what you end up with is light flickering on a screen. That’s all you’ve got at the end of it.

“When I made ‘Point Blank’ in America I stayed in this hotel that had just been built and was close to MGM, which is why I stayed there. They proudly explained in their brochure that it had cost $2,400,000 to build, which was exactly the budget of ‘Point Blank’. Every time I go back, I still see the hotel standing there, still earning money.”

So why make a movie instead of a hotel? “Because myths are important. I think film inherits the mantle of the old myth-tellers. Myths contain all the knowledge of human nature and the relationship of men to the gods. Somehow all those myths have crept into film. When you can touch on those myths you can reach an audience in an interesting way, touching their subconscious. American movies work all over the world. There are reasons for this. When a film is shown in America it’s seen by a huge audience with few cultural points in common. To succeed a film has therefore to address only those things that a mass audience can connect to. ‘Forrest Gump’ is a good example. Genre movies, like gangster movies and westerns, picked up on the old mythic stories from Europe, and re-shaped them into simple stories of good and evil and rites of passage. Because these myths are such common currency, the films can travel readily to other countries – much more readily than sophisticated stories. It’s both good and bad. It makes American films simplistic, but if they work at the mythic level, they can have great power.

Anyone who has followed Boorman’s career will know that myth has played its part in his movies: the Cain and Abel story in ‘Hell in the Pacific’, the rite of passage in ‘Deliverance’, the Grail legends in ‘Excalibur’. Nature, and its pantheon of gods are real presences for him. He delights in druidism, in earth magic, in shamanism. It’s no accident that his film company is called Merlin. As we talk it occurs to me that Boorman’s speech is as rich and informative as his prose. But I’m puzzled. What happens to multi-layered stories?

“The sophisticated stories, what I would call for want of a better phrase art cinema, is getting further and further apart from the mass-audience commercial cinema. Art cinema is going into a ghetto, where it’s seen by fewer and fewer people. Popular cinema is dominated by the marketing men. It’s becoming more cynical. Power has shifted from the directors to the marketing men and their previews. When people talk about the interactive films of the future maybe they don’t realize we already have them. I make a movie, the marketing men show it to preview audiences who fill in their cards to say what they liked and didn’t like, then the marketing men try to get me to change the movie to suit the audience. That’s interactive.”

The writer and critic David Thompson has described Boorman as ‘artistically unpredictable and commercially unreliable.’ When I asked did he think that a fair assessment he replied “Yes, absolutely. I have to agree with that.” I said, “But you’ve always brought your movies in on time and within budget. I would have thought that that was commercially reliable.” Boorman pauses a while and then quotes Billy Wilder – ‘no one ever went up to a box-office and said ‘gimme a ticket for that movie that came in under budget.”

“But it is true that my films have been patchy in how much money they’ve taken at the box-office. However, I do bring them in on budget, and that is a certain comfort to the men with the money. Even though I go to these remote places, I can still bring the picture in.

“Did you see Robert Altman’s movie ‘The Player’? It’s about Hollywood. There’s a scene in it when a studio executive is discussing a movie they want to make. It’s set in the jungles of Chile, so the executive says ‘Send for Boorman.'”

Boorman’s new film ‘Beyond Rangoon’ opens at the Cannes Film Festival on the 19th of May. Much of it was filmed in the Malaysian jungle. It is a film that was hard to get started, hard to make, and will cause ripples in the Pacific Basin.

I suspect there are few people who could name Yangon as the capital of Myanmar, or who could even place it on a map. But then it has only existed since 1989, when General Saw Maung renamed Rangoon and Burma. In the years preceding 1988 the pro-democracy movement had been growing in strength and demonstrations were becoming commoner. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founder of the modern state Aung San, became the focus of the opposition. By 1988 General Ne Win’s Burma, once the richest country in the region, was in economic shambles after twenty-six years of international isolation and dictatorial misrule by the military. General Saw Maung, an ally of General Ne Win who had ruled Burma since 1962, seized power in 1988. Convinced that he would win an overwhelming popular mandate, and believing that it would legitimize his regime, he allowed elections to take place in 1990. Despite blanket state-controlled media propaganda, the opposition won nearly 90% of the votes. Presumably the ten percent the military dictatorship got were the army votes. The military declared the election null and void, and the successful candidates were thrown into jail. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, is still under house arrest. ‘Beyond Rangoon’ takes place against this backdrop.

It is the story of an American doctor, played by Patricia Arquette, who has just qualified. She has spent years of study and internship prior to qualifying. Then her husband and child are murdered by intruders in their home, leaving her life in ruins. Not only has she lost her family, but she has lost the chance to catch up on the time she had been unable to spend with them during her studies. Her sister takes her to the Far East to help her come to terms with her feelings of guilt. In a state of numbness and grief she finds herself stranded in Burma, a country rife with terror, death and torture. Here she meets the other main protagonist, Aung Ko, who plays a Burmese professor who has also suffered deprivation and tragedy. The film explores how they each deal with their personal grief.

There is a scene when she tells Aung Ko her story. She says ‘I was brought up to believe that if I was good and worked hard, that I had a right to happiness. I was a fool wasn’t I?’ He replies ‘We are taught that suffering is the one promise that life always keeps. So that when happiness comes, we know that it’s a precious gift that comes only for a brief time.’

As the story develops she comes slowly back to life, re-discovering her vocation for healing. The film traces her evolving relationship with Aung Ko, as all around them the horrors of the insurrection continue to unfold. This historical backdrop has been carefully recreated; the massacre outside the hospital by government troops; the legendary moment when Aung San Suu Kyi faced down armed troops by herself after they had been given the order to fire. As she slowly walks towards them, none of them can pull the trigger. For the Burmese this was a symbolic event of great importance, a physical manifestation of her strongly held belief that the conquest of fear is empowering. To this day she remains a heroic figure, a lone frail woman under house arrest who defies the military dictatorship simply by existing.

The story came to Boorman as a draft from Bill Rubenstein, who had spent time in Burma and had written about an American woman caught up in the 1988 insurrection. The screenplay of ‘Beyond Rangoon’ is a result of their collaboration. When they first started work on the screenplay it had already been rejected by the major studios. “That was a very good sign.” Boorman notes wryly. After several drafts working with Rubenstein, Castle Rock became interested. Boorman went to Burma and Thailand, spent time with Karen rebels, a minority Burmese ethnic group who told him much of what he needed to know.

After another major re-write the problem became that of casting the lead, which unusually for a Boorman film, is a woman. The studio felt the film needed a major name, such as Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer or Meryl Streep. None of the bankable names seemed in a hurry to suffer hardship in a Malaysian jungle. Patricia Arquette had just finished a tough and courageous role in ‘True Romance’ and both Boorman and the studio liked her work. She agreed to take the part, so the next problem was to find a Burmese actor who spoke English to play the professor. After a long search Aung Ko, who had fled Burma, was found teaching in Paris. Boorman worked intensively with him for two weeks and then they shot screen tests which Castle Rock liked. ‘Beyond Rangoon’ could now be made.

It was decided to make the film in Malaysia for a variety of reasons. Penang, once Georgetown, has similar colonial architecture to that of Rangoon; the Malays, who would be needed as extras, were physically similar to the Burmans. Thirdly, because the film was bound to be politically sensitive and was deeply critical of the Burmese government, Boorman believed that Malaysia, as a Muslim country, would still be resentful of Burma expelling hundreds of thousands of Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh.

“What happened in effect was something rather different. We got permission to shoot there, they saw the script; but when the Burmese government found out what we were doing, they started to make representations to the Malaysian government to stop us making the film.”

Global politics started to impinge on the making of the film as well. Just as shooting was about to start the Australians offended Dr. Mahatir Mohammed, prime minister of Malaysia. Their prime minister called Dr. M’s refusal to attend an Asian conference ‘recalcitrant’. Dr. M, clearly believing that recalcitrant is synonymous in English to ‘gobshite’ retaliated at once with sanctions against all things Australian. Boorman’s crew was Australian.

“Suddenly no Australians were allowed into Malaysia. Even Australian TV programmes were taken off the air, people were instructed not to buy Australian goods.” Thankfully Australia apologised sufficiently for good relations to resume. Then Boorman had to deal with the aftermath of the Pergau Dam affair. The Malaysian government had still not forgiven the Sunday Times and consequently Britain, for suggesting that their administration was less than scrupulously honest. British companies were forbidden to trade in Malaysia. It became necessary to turn a British film company into a Hong Kong one before they could proceed. Then the Burmese government began to apply pressure.

We were sitting in his drawing room as we spoke. Occasionally two-year-old Lola wandered in with a casual “Hi guys!” From where I sat I had a clear view across the river, straight through the stands of trees that Boorman had planted, to the little bridge below Castle Kevin. As a pastoral scene it was hard to beat. This is the territory where I know John Boorman, here in the hills, where village life touches and is touched by both of us. How far from here seemed Malaysia. It was a sensation like talking to traveller who has been where you can never go; someone at ease in two places. Throughout the filming we’d got the odd post-card from him, but it was only when we spoke for this article that the enormity of what he had overcome began to sink in.

“They got to hear about what we were doing. We had a lot of Burmese working on the film, some of whom must have been reporting to SLORC, a sort of Burmese Gestapo. Like any fascist country they have an immense network of secret police and informers. There are a lot of illegal Burmese in Malaysia, and we were using them on the film. There were heavy penalties for employing them. But when the Burmese government objected to us doing the film the Malaysian government said ‘We’re withdrawing permission. The film has to stop.’ Because now they were cosying up to Burma to make new trade deals.”

At this point Boorman decided to call their bluff. His response was simple. “Throw me out, and I’ll raise such a stink that no one will ever make a film here again.” It worked, but the constant threat of closure hung over Boorman like a sword of Damocles throughout the filming.

“The first thing we had to do was make a phoney script, taking out all references to Burma or Rangoon, which we gave the Malay government. Of course, they didn’t believe it for a minute, but it would have been an embarrassment to have closed us down. Besides, they liked the money we were giving them. Their Military intelligence photographed the sets, where all the signs were in Burmese, and they said to us quite openly ‘We’ve got all the evidence we need against you, but we will only take action if it appears in the press. If that happens we’ll have to act.’ So we had to make contingency arrangements to film somewhere else, just in case. We went to a lawyer when we were threatened with expulsion by the government and asked what recourse we had. He said ‘None. If Dr. M says you go, you go. If he says you stay, you stay.’ It really is government by edict.”

Closure would have been catastrophic. Both Boorman and his designer Tony Pratt had been in Malaysia for months before filming began, since everything other than the landscape was built. Every set – towns, streets, huge pagodas and a reclining Buddha the head of which was twenty-five feet high – all were built. Leaving this behind and starting again was not an attractive option. The Buddha and the Buddhist icons caused problems with the Muslims.

“We had to get people to shave their heads to be Buddhist monks. No one would do it because their priests said it would be a sin to dress up as a Buddhist monk. We then increased the price that we were prepared to pay and suddenly vast numbers were ready to defy the Islamic law. There’s a terrible hypocrisy there. The laws are so rigid. There’s a huge quantity of alcohol consumed there, even though it’s illegal. There are whore-houses everywhere. The police make spot fines which get more frequent just before holiday time, since they need the pocket-money. We were shooting during Ramadan and had four thousand extras. Despite the fact that during Ramadan Muslims are supposed to fast between dawn and dusk, we served three thousand eight hundred lunches.”

The strict laws also apply to drugs. In Malaysia a conviction for drugs carries the death penalty. Had the Burmese really wanted to close the film down it would only have needed something planted in Boorman’s hotel room and the film would have been over. You don’t get far with a director on death row. It was a thought Boorman had to live with. Apart from their usual duties the production crew were concerned to keep the Burmese angle of the film out of the press, since that would have led to instant closure. By carefully managing the stories they fed the local press, they were able to keep them happy.

The filming was gruelling. Hot and humid, the jungle was home to a myriad biting insects and the rivers filled with ravenous leeches. Removing bloated leeches from the inside of socks was a daily occurrence. It was in Boorman’s words, “an arduous film to make.” But it does promise to be powerful. Recently it was screened in Paris for French journalists. This hard-bitten audience gave it a standing ovation, some of them with tears running down their cheeks.

‘Beyond Rangoon’ is not Boorman’s only film in this year’s Cannes festival. Uniquely he has two on show. ‘Two Nudes Bathing’, a half-hour film is entered in Un Certain Regard – the alternative category. His brief from Showtime, a cable TV network was simple: make a film about a famous painting. He chose ‘Gabrielle D’Estrees and one of her sisters’, an anonymous painting which hangs in the Louvre, attributed to the school of Fontainebleu. It’s that one of two young girls in a bath, looking fixedly outward, with the girl on the left holding the right nipple of the other with great delicacy between forefinger and thumb. Boorman’s film solves the mystery of how the painting came to be, why it depicts this bizarre pose, and even explains the odd background in the painting.

“Having done ‘Beyond Rangoon’ which is a huge picture – a vast number of extras and a crew of 120 – I made this film with the same crew that I used in ‘I Dreamt I Woke Up’ which was Seamus Deasy on camera, his brother Brendan on sound, Seamus’ son Shane as assistant cameraman, an Irish electrician and grip – an entirely Irish crew – we were only eleven including me. The actors were Charlie, my son, John Hurt, Angeline Ball and Britta Smith. We made it in ten days in Chateau Brissac, where the wine and food were good.”

This year ‘Two Nudes Bathing’ is the only Irish entry in the Cannes festival. Since both films were edited in Annamoe, I like to think of them as Wicklow entries.

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