With such diverse movies as Deliverance, Hope And Glory, The Emerald Forest, Point Blank, and Hell In The Pacific to his credit, John Boorman has ensured his reputation as a filmmaker who won't be pigeonholed. But he's also been responsible for some ambitious failures—The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Beyond Rangoon, and Zardoz, to name a few—which means Boorman retains an alternate reputation that also looms large. Fortunately, if there remains any doubt as to which is the real Boorman, his new film The General, a brilliant and vivid portrait of Irish gangster and folk hero Martin Cahill, allays it. The Onion recently spoke to the director.
The Onion: Martin Cahill is not very well-known in America.
John Boorman: Well, he's a very well-known and notorious figure in Ireland. I first became aware of him in 1981, when he robbed my house! Amongst what he stole was this gold record I had for the music from Deliverance. He obviously thought it was made of gold when he took it. That's why I put that scene in the movie. I sort of followed his career thereafter, when he started doing these big robberies. He had this strange mixture of being elusive and an exhibitionist. He became a very well-known figure, but I couldn't have done a movie about him while he was alive, because he wasn't convicted of any crimes. So it was only when he was killed that the thought came to me [to make a movie]. This guy Paul Williams, a crime reporter, wrote a documentary account of [Cahill's] activities, and I bought the rights to that.
O: How closely does your film stick to Cahill's life?
JB: All the incidents occurred: the robberies, the crucifixion of the guy [on a pool table]. Then the relationships with the gang and the women in his life, obviously all that dialogue I invented. But I had done so much research into his gang and all these people that I felt I knew them pretty well. The big problem was really to make a balanced picture of him, because he was a complex character. He was funny and cunning and outrageous and brutal. I had to try to weave all those things together. And, of course, he made so many enemies; he just took on the world. I think in the end, that's what makes him a sympathetic character. He stood up against everybody: the church, the IRA, the police, the government. He just defied them all, and they were all determined to bring him down. And, of course, they did in the end.
O: Why did you choose to depict his life in black-and-white?
JB: I love black-and-white, and since I was making the film independently—I borrowed the money from the bank—there was no one to tell me I couldn't. If I had made [The General] for a studio, they wouldn't let me do that. The other reason, the main reason, was because it was about recent events and people who were still alive. I wanted to give it a little distance. Black-and-white gives you that sort of parallel world. Also, it's very close to the condition of dreaming, to the unconscious. I wanted it to have this mythic level because I felt this character was an archetype. All throughout history, you find this rebel, this violent, funny, brilliant kind of character. I wanted to make that kind of connection, and black-and-white film helps. Up until the middle to late '60s, it was a choice to film in black-and-white or color. But then television became so vital to a film's finance, and television won't show black-and-white. So that killed it off, really.
O: The black-and-white medium doesn't really seem to hinder it.
JB: I think it doesn't in the theaters. Schindler's List was made in black-and-white and people accepted that. Woody Allen makes one then and again. But the resistance to [black-and-white] is huge, in the way that you have to sell the film. It's difficult to distribute around the world.
O: How difficult was it to get The General made, then?
JB: It was very difficult. A lot of people liked the script but said I had to get a star. And I wanted Brendan Gleeson to play the part, so that was a problem. In the end, we had to borrow the money and take the risk ourselves. Fortunately, once this picture was made, people were impressed by it and it was bought. So, we're almost out of hock.
O: Again, Americans may be at a loss as to the film's resonance in Ireland. Why was it so controversial?
JB: For a number of reasons. There was something in this picture to offend everybody. The police weren't very happy about it being made. We were nervous as to how the criminal community would take to it, or not take to it, and whether they would take action against us. It attacks the church, and the government, and corruption, and hypocrisy. So there was a lot of controversy. Then the press started to dig up victims of [Cahill's] crimes, people who felt offended just by the act of us making the film. This was all before it came out. When it came out, all the controversy disappeared. All the bits I was being accused of, like glamorizing crime… Clearly, the film doesn't do that. It's a balanced picture of the guy. I show the consequences of his actions, like the jewelry heist that costs 100 people their jobs. You see the kind of misery he brings down on his whole family because of what he does. But it was a huge success in Ireland. Everyone went to see it. People thought it was important and had something to say about contemporary Ireland. The subject has entered into the folk memory now.
O: Do you find it disturbing that so often controversy precedes movies, and that the most outspoken opponents often don't even see the films they complain about? It's kind of frightening.
JB: I think you're right to be frightened about it. There are always forces at work in a society, certainly in [America], which are really forces of censorship—either religious bodies or zealots who are always putting pressure on things, whether it's books or art or film. And all art is fundamentally subversive, because it upsets people's perceptions, their notions about society. Therefore, art is dangerous, but good art is always making us reassess our thoughts and feelings about how we relate to other people. There are always people who fear that and want to suppress that.
O: Would you say one of the greatest challenges of The General was the moral ambiguity of Martin Cahill? He's friendly, but he's not beyond nailing someone to a table. Do you think that's what upset some people?
JB: What I tried to do is draw the audience into that character so you are in a sense becoming him for that period of time. When he does these things, you feel somehow that you're doing them yourselves. That makes some people very uncomfortable because it confuses the emotions, but that's the intention, and I think it's very good. Some people find that too disturbing and are repelled by it. I think people are conditioned by the simplicity of most movies, where you have a hero you root for, the good guy, and that's it. But the flawed characters, and characters who are capable of evil, are much more interesting. All the great tragic figures, like Macbeth, are fascinating people. You always get this thrown at you: "Who should I root for?" I always saw this film as a tragedy, and that's why I put his assassination at the beginning: It casts a shadow across the picture. You know that he's going to be killed, so you know that he's fundamentally a tragic figure. I think that an extraordinary number of people, when they get to the end and they see him going out of his house and they realize he's going out to be shot, feel deeply moved by that, because they have come to know him and be involved with him.
O: Someone once said to me that many of your films seem to be in love with the color green.
JB: [Laughs.] It's true. I do love green. Green is the color of nature, trees. I'm a tree freak. I spend a lot of my time planting trees, nurturing them, and studying them. It's one of the colors I couldn't live without.
O: But your more personal films, movies like Hope And Glory and The General, have scenes that are mostly filled with brick and concrete, and not a lot of foliage.
JB: Yes, they're very urban. The General is about people who are very disconnected from nature; they're marooned in this sort of nightmarish urban jungle. They're captive. That was one of the things in the back of my head, the oppressive nature of this lower-class, urban place where these people are.
O: Are you still involved with the Young Irish Filmmakers group?
O: Have you had many opportunities to work with some of the younger Irish filmmakers?
JB: Well, I produced Neil Jordan's first film [1982's Danny Boy] to help get his career started. And I helped Jim Sheridan get going. For a long time, I was running the Irish National Studios, the film board, trying to get people's movies going. In fact, we succeeded. The filmmaking industry in Ireland is very vigorous, so now I step back and let them get on with it. They don't need me any more.
O: Do you find it a privilege that your name can help get a film financed or discovered?
JB: It's nice to be able to do that now and again. In the case with Neil Jordan, it was Channel Four starting up; they wanted to make films. They approached me and I said, look, Neil Jordan has this script. So they said they would do it if I produced it, since Neil Jordan hadn't made a film yet. I kind of nursed him through it and it all worked out well. It was nice to be able to do that.
O: Do you think one of the reasons bleak films portraying blue-collar life in the U.K. are making their presence felt is that Margaret Thatcher is no longer holding the purse strings?
JB: There's been more money available to make films in Britain, and that's why so many are being made. Some of them are very good. You're thinking of Trainspotting-type movies?
O: Well, just films centered on working-class people. Drugs, alcohol.
JB: There's always been this strand of filmmaking in Britain which is like socialist neo-realism. That's always been there. I've never been part of that, really; I've been much closer to fantasy. I don't know why, but I think there are some really remarkable movies being made in Britain right now. Love And Death On Long Island, that was very good. I think if you look back historically, you'll see that when a group of films comes out [that are somewhat similar in theme], there's something else going on. For instance, you had the Czech films that came out during the Prague Spring, when suddenly Czechoslovakia set itself free and all these wonderful movies came out. And you had the Japanese films at the end of the war, when Japan was remaking itself. There was a spate of Australian films, or the French films of the New Wave. These movements occur, usually because of some underlying figure in that society.
O: Do you think the somewhat recent political changes in England have been radical enough to inspire this return to neo-realism?
JB: No, they're not radical enough. I think that's something that's just carrying on a long tradition. The Labor government that has come in has not been at all radical, really, in terms of social changes. What we need is someone to abolish the House Of Lords, get rid of the Royal Family…
O: Good luck.
JB: [Laughs.] I think it was a great relief to get rid of the Tories, who were so corrupt, but these new people came in and they're not radical by any means. In fact, it's kind of the reverse. I think they're decent enough, but my feeling is that something more is needed.