John Boorman Talks QUEEN AND COUNTRY, Directing Marvin, Mifune, Merlin And Mirren

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
John Boorman Talks QUEEN AND COUNTRY, Directing Marvin, Mifune, Merlin And Mirren
At a retrospective at New York's Film Forum, including the baroque thriller, Point Blank, the Appalachian nightmare, Deliverance, the bizarre, sci-fi adventure, Zardoz, and his epic Arthurian legend, Excalibur, Director John Boorman premiered QUEEN AND COUNTRY, the sequel to his semi-autobiographical 1987 opus, Hope and Glory.  In a short but sweet chat, Director Boorman spoke with us about the magic of Lee Marvin, directing Mifune, and wrangling the sexual tension between Merlin and Morgana Le Fay.

The Lady Miz Diva:  You're here for the Film Forum's retrospective of your work, but also for the premiere of your newest film, QUEEN AND COUNTRY, the sequel to your 1987 film, Hope and Glory.  What brought you back to that autobiographical story now, nearly thirty years later?

John Boorman: 
Well, I had in mind to do it right after Hope and Glory.  In fact, I had the idea of doing two or three.  I wanted to do the story of my mother and her three sisters.  My grandfather had this gin palace on the Isle of Dogs on the docks in London, and when the First World War started, the zeppelins had come over and were dropping bombs.  So, he then got this bungalow on the Thames River, on this island, Pharoah's Island, and my mother and her sisters spent their childhood on that river.  So that's where my mother took us when we lost our house; she took us to the same place, so there was a very strong connection.  They were flappers in the 20s.  It was all about the story of the men who came back from the war, and you know there was all unemployment and everything, it was a difficult time.  

It was very close, really, to after the Second World War, which is where we started QUEEN AND COUNTRY, so I had that in mind.  But I suppose like most directors, I've probably spent more time on films I haven't made than ones I have.  Certainly, I spent time writing the script about my mother and her sisters, and after Hope and Glory, I started writing this story; but it's always been very difficult to get money to do this kind of film.  Very difficult, and it still is.  You know, if you make films like The Emerald Forest, which is much more dramatic, it's easier to get those kind of films off the ground.

LMD:  It's interesting that you mention a trilogy around Hope and Glory, because after QUEEN AND COUNTRY, I was still curious as to what was going to happen with Bill.  How were you considering continuing his story?

  Well, the other story I was thinking about after QUEEN AND COUNTRY was about Lee Marvin.  I thought about that, but it's all too late now.

LMD:  As both HOPE AND GLORY, and now QUEEN AND COUNTRY are semi-autobiographical, can you tell us what made Callum Turner the right person to play your alter-ego, Bill?

  I auditioned and tested a lot of boys, because you've no history to go on, you can't look at their work and see what they've done.  He looked like he could be the boy Hope and Glory {Sebastian Rice-Edwards} grew up to look like, that was one factor.  Secondly, he was watchful, and he had a sense of irony and there was something truthful about him.  And when I'm dealing with actual characters and the events from my history... for instance, when I asked Sinéad Cusack to play the mother in QUEEN AND COUNTRY, and she said to me, "Do you want me to do an impersonation of Sarah Miles {Miles played the mother in the 1987 film}?"  I said, "Not at all.  I'm casting you for the same reason as I cast Sarah, is that you have the same spirit as my mother."  So it didn't matter what they looked like, really.  That's what I was always looking for.  And somehow, in every scene, I always ask myself, the same question; 'Is it truthful? Is it true to what happened?'  Not necessarily the details, but fundamentally is it true, and that was my guiding principle.

LMD:  I love that the people Bill connects to can all talk with him about cinema.  Is that how you connected with people as a young man?

I think after the War - 1945 to 1950 - those five years were fairly bleak, and so I think it was the cinema, particularly American cinema that brought life and light into our world.  It was very dominant, the cinema was very dominant in our lives.  And of course living in Shepperton, where the film studios are, that I saw film units on location - in fact, at the end of Hope and Glory, there's a scene where his {Bill's} grandfather is driving him to school and they pass a film unit by the Thames, and in this film, when he starts swimming, he sees a film unit.  So, yeah, film is very integral to this story.

LMD:  There's a sweet, sly moment of self-homage in the film when Bill and Ophelia are talking about RASHOMON.  We've only got a little bit of time, but I did want to ask about two actors that you've collaborated with; one would be Toshiro Mifune, because you are one of the few Western filmmakers that he'd worked with.  And actually, we can kind of tie it in, because the other actor I wanted to ask about was Mr. Marvin. {Both Mifune and Lee Marvin starred in Boorman's HELL IN THE PACIFIC}

{Laughs} Yes, that's right.  I was fortunate to meet and get to know {Akira} Kurosawa, and he said to me when I was in Tokyo - I went to see him when I was casting Mifune - and he said, "You can't direct Mifune, all you can do is point him." {Laughs}

LMD:  Was that kind of like Lee Marvin, then?

  No, Marvin was the subtlest of actors.  He was extremely intelligent and he had this ability to express things through gesture.  He would always find a metaphor.  He was always looking for metaphor to express himself, it was extraordinary.  He made a huge contribution to Point Blank.  

And the great thing about him, what I'm really indebted to him is, we met in London, spent a lot of time in his flat there talking about what I wanted to do with this character and idea, and he was shooting The Dirty Dozen at the time.  It started when we were both given this script, which was really bad, and Lee said, "What you think of this script?"  I said, "It's just awful."  Lee said, "Well, what you talking about? "Well, the character, you know."  So, eventually, he said, "Okay, I'll do this flick with you" - he always called them "flicks" {Laughs} - "on one condition," he said, and he picked the script up and he threw it out of the window.  {Laughs}  That was a classic Marvin gesture.  In other words, rewrite the whole thing.  

And when I went out there, he knew much better than I did how difficult it was going to be to make a film that was as abstract and strange as that, and so he called a meeting with the head of the studio and the producers, and he reminded them that he had script approval and cast approval, and he said, "I defer those approvals to John," and he walked out. So, my first film in Hollywood and I had control.  That was incredible.

I'll give you another example of how he helped me; right at the end of the shoot, we were shooting in Alcatraz and we'd come up from Los Angeles, and I was exhausted, and I just got stuck.  I couldn't get my head clear about how to do the scene, and Lee looked across at me and he came over and he said, "Are you in trouble?" I said, "I'm just trying to sort this scene out."  So then he walked away and he started to act drunk; he started to shout and sing and fall over, and the production manager came over to me and said, "Look at the state he's in.  You can't shoot on him like this, you know." So, the pressure was off me, and once the pressure was off me, it took me five minutes to sort the thing out.  And I said to Lee, "I'm ready," so he made this incredible recovery from being a falling-down drunk to okay.  Nobody knew how he did it

LMD:  As QUEEN AND COUNTRY continues the fictional account of your real family life, your older children (Katrine, Charley, Daisy, Lola) have acted in your films {Boorman also co-wrote Where the Heart is with his late daughter, Telsche}. What's the importance to you of bringing your family into your work?

  I've two litters, really, in the first one there were four of them, and the second litter, three of them; the youngest is 16, and 19, and 22.  I use everything around me, really {Laughs}.  So in these autobiographical films, it seems quite natural to include members of the family.  My son, Charley, of course, played in The Emerald Forest at age 17, and he also played in Hope and Glory as a pilot who parachutes in {Laughs}.

LMD:  We haven't much time left, but I must ask one obligatory EXCALIBUR question.  It's pretty well-known that at the time EXCALIBUR began shooting, Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson hated each other.  Did that play into your choice to cast them as enemies Morgana Le Fay and Merlin?

Well, I wanted Nicol to play Merlin, and the studio was Orion, who were formerly United Artists people, and they'd made three or four films with Nicol that all failed; and they said to me, "You can cast anyone in the world that you like, but not Nicol."  So I tried to think about it, but he was so stuck in my head, him playing this character, I couldn't do it.  And finally, I was having lunch at a restaurant with Mary Selway, the casting agent, and I said to Mary, "You know, I'm going to cast Nicol, I don't care what."  

At that point, he walked into the restaurant by chance, so Mary called him and said, "Nicol, John is gonna cast you."  So he said, "Who's playing Morgana?" I said, "Helen." And he said, "Well, there's no way I can do it."  "Why not?"  Well, they did the Macbeth together and it was kind of a disaster.  Anyway, he said, "I couldn't possibly do it.  She wanted me to fuck her, and I wouldn't."  So, I go to Helen, and she says, "Oh who's playing Merlin?"  I went, "Nicol."  "Oh, I couldn't possibly do it."  "Why not?"  "Well, we did that play, it was a disaster, and then he wanted to fuck me, and I wouldn't."  So I cast them both and it kind of worked.

Anyway, it was more or less her first film and she'd been a great stage actress.  And it was Liam Neeson's first film, Gabriel Byrne's first film, and it was Ciaran Hinds' first film.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY opens in NY on Feb 18th, and in LA on Feb 27th.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

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