John Boorman’s Life and Times


It’s England, 1952, and Billie Rohan—the disarming protagonist of Hope & Glory—is all grown up and entering military service.  Where Hope & Glory showed us Boorman’s London during the Blitz, Queen & Country draws on Boorman’s life in the National Service nine years later. It’s hard to imagine that a film of such forthright and tender humor could come from the man who made Deliverance and Point Blank, but it did, and we feel honored to have had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Boorman about cinema, England, and his brilliant memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy.

That’s from Judy Gelman Myers’ original intro to her Director Talk Q&A with John Boorman which follows below…

DT:  You’ve said there is always one element that makes a scene into cinema, rather than simply being a photographed scene.

JB:  I was quoting Sam Fuller about that.  It was his idea that there’s one thing that makes a scene into cinema magic.  It can be anything, really.  I remember doing a scene once. It was a linking scene without much to it. When I came to shoot it, it was teeming with rain and wind, so the characters had to shout at each other, and it became something completely different and rather wonderful.  In the story, they do become antagonistic later on, and somehow that scene was like a prescient moment; because they were shouting at each other in the wind and the rain, it gave you an inkling of their antagonism to come.

DT:  That’s fantastic.  Very fortuitous. When you’re in control of that moment, though, how do you produce it?  I’m thinking of the moment in Queen & Country when he sees the back of her head and she’s turning around into that fabulous light.

JB:  In the case you mention, he falls in love with the back of her neck, then he fantasizes about her turning.  The light changes, and somehow you’re within his fantasy. This incredible creature turns around then, and he’s completely done for—he’s lost.

In this case, the scenes with her are really about class. The class system was very strong in England at that time, and she of course was very upper class and he was very much lower middle class, so their relationship was doomed. It could never work. She had all sorts of other problems, but it was class that distinguished them. When he goes running after her, she sees him as a toy to be played with. There’s an element of cruelty about her.

DT:  You’ve spoken about film’s ability to achieve a sort oradiant transcendence.  What is it about film that does that?

JB:  We don’t understand it, really, do we? We all know that feeling of watching a movie and suddenly it ceases to be a movie and we lose our bearings and disappear into the film. We know when a film has reached this stage because we find ourselves saying, “I don’t want it to end.”  Whereas more often than not we’re sitting there with an aching bottom, and we’re saying, “I wish it would end.”  So something happens.  Magic.

DT:  When it works, it’s real.  Many of the characters and situations in Queen & Country are based on real people—your family, the people in the army, your court-martial.  Which came first when you were making the movie—the story or the memories?

JB:  I think the relationship between memory and imagination is very mysterious. What I would try to do with both those films—Hope & Glory and Queen & Country—was look for the truth rather than accuracy. When I asked Sinead Cusack to play the mother—my mother—formerly played by Sarah Miles, Sinead said to me, “Do you want me to do an impersonation of Sarah Miles?”  I said, “No. I cast Sarah because she had the same spirit as my mother, and I want to cast you for the same reason. You don’t look like her and you don’t really look like Sarah Miles, but it works because of your spirit.”

DT:  In your memoirs, you write in great detail about Sgt. Yeomans, who becomes Sergeant Major Bradley in Queen & Country,  as well as many other events and people reincarnated in both Queen & Country and Hope & Glory. Do you ever feel funny about using their foibles as your material?

JB:  I had intended to make this film at an earlier date, but the lawyers were worried about these characters being based on real people—they said these people might take offense, they might sue.  Film lawyers are always terrified of that, and even though I pointed out that I’d already written about these people in my books, they nevertheless made me change their names in the film. But anyway, the older soldiers, like Bradley, who was based on Yeomans, were at least ten years older than me at the time, or even older.  I’m 82 now, so they would be in their mid or late nineties if they’re still alive.  So either they’re dead or they’re too old to be worried about suing.

DT:  In your memoirs, you talk about capturing the state of grace that you achieved as a young man when you walked into the river without disturbing its surface. You also said that that moment sent you on a quest for images to try to recapture that moment.  How does that work for you as a filmmaker—how do you set out to capture images?

JB:  I put that image of the boy walking carefully into the river in Hope & Glory, and I’ve hardly ever made a film without a river in it. I’m very fascinated by the way water reacts to film emulsion, and I think actually magic, God even, exists somehow in that relationship. That’s a really magical thing, and it does something to an audience.  Audiences recognize it right away.  You see flowing water, and the way it reacts to film is right at the heart of things.  Water is a mystery anyway, and the way we’ve found  of capturing these images and reproducing them is rather mysterious.  When I was living with this tribe in the Amazon before I made Emerald Forest, the shaman asked me what I did. I found it incredibly difficult to describe a film to someone who had never seen television or film. I said, “You can see somebody very close up and you can see them far away and you go back in time and you can go forward in time, and you can see a landscape or you can see a blade of grass.” The shaman said to me, “You do the same work I do.  That’s what we do when we go into trance—we’re able to travel in time and see our ancestors.”  It was extraordinary. And perhaps that’s the power of film: it awakens an atavistic memory of Stone Age tribal life.

DT:  You were so fastidious with the accuracy of the set in Hope & Glory that you had your mother and sister come to the set to make sure that everything was right, like the radio being on the right side of the room.  Were you that fastidious with Queen & Country?

JB:  The army camp and all the objects and accoutrements in the camp all came out of memory. Tony Pratt, who was the production designer on this and Hope & Glory as well, did his army service, too, so between us we could recapture everything exactly right.  That army camp is very, very much exactly as I remember it.

DT:  You’ve said that when you think about the real-life events that Queen & Country and Hope & Glory are based on, the scenes in the film have replaced your memories of those events.

JB: Well, yes, and there’s a kind of tragedy in the sense that vivid though my memories were of the London Blitz, for instance, I can’t remember them anymore.  I can only remember their depiction in Hope & Glory.  So making Hope & Glory rather destroyed my memories, and the same thing is happening with Queen & Country. I can no longer see Sgt. Yeomans. Now I can only see David Thewlis playing him, and David Thewlis is much more vivid to me than the character he’s based on.

DT:  How does that make you feel?

JB:  It feels like I’ve betayed myself in a sense. On the other hand, what I was always looking for in both those films is not appearances so much as spirit and truth.  Somehow if it felt true, I would say, “OK, we’ll do this.  This feels true.” Who knows?  The tragedy of memory is that by definition we can’t know what we’ve forgotten.  If we put all our memories end to end—the memories of a lifetime—they would probably only last about two weeks. When you think of what we’ve forgotten, it’s horrifying, because without memory, there’s no life.  I mean, every plant has a memory, knows what it’s supposed to do, when to come into leaf, and bud, and bloom.  And that’s the great tragedy of Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?  That the memory goes, the personality disappears.

DT:  Was it weird finding someone to play yourself?

JB:  I did it twice, didn’t I?  I saw a lot of boys for Queen & Country, and what I was looking for was the spirit of the person I was at that time. I was shy, and diffident, and also very much an observer, on the fence, not committing myself, and, I think, very much influenced by having had our house destroyed in the Blitz. We were left with what we stood up in, me, my parents, and my sisters. Clothes were rationed as well as food, so everything was gone. We had nothing. And I remember a feeling of great lightness at the time. I thought it was great. And ever since, I’ve never owned anything I’d be concerned about losing. I think I was detached at that time, and that’s what I was looking for in this boy.  And Callum Turner [who plays Bill, John Boorman’s alter ego] had a truth about him in the way he responded to things.  There was nothing fake.

DT:  No. He was wonderful.

JB: So probably a lot nicer than I was.

DT:  I’m sure that’s not true.  In your memoirs, you’ve described the Arthurian legends as being “an England laying under the numbness of suburban life.” Does that Arthurian England still exist?

JB:  No, it’s become much more cynical.  The Arthurian legend was a kind of underpinning of British culture. When I was making Excalibur, I asked people, “When did you first hear about King Arthur?”  Nobody could tell me.  It was always there.

DT:  It’s like they were born with it.

JB:  No one could remember a time when they first heard about it. It ran so deep into the culture, this notion of Arthur trying to bring harmony and peace to a nation.  England is much better now in many ways, but it also has lost that mythical underpinning that always existed there.

DT:  In Queen & Country, like Hope & Glory, I feel like the real pain that you and your family experienced is transcended by the grace of your memory.

JB: That’s a very nice way of putting it.  Yes, that’s true. The ending of the film, where Bill goes back to apologize to Bradley, his tormentor, and the apology is not welcome, and it brings him into contact with some of the boys he trained who’ve come back from Korea, there’s suddenly the reality of war. Everything impinges on what has been the often lightheartedness of army life and the ridiculous nature of it and all of that. It brings it home to him, and suddenly it’s a growing up, it’s a maturing of his life at that time, and Callum Turner, who plays Bill, plays that with a great sense of grace.

DT: I was thinking about your movies and what ties them all together.  How can the man who made Deliverance and Point Blank make a film as tender as Queen & Country? I was thinking, What’s the key to his cinematic art? It’s funny, but I discovered it in your writing:  it’s your incredible ability to evoke atmosphere.  This is a silly question, but how do you do that?  What do you hone in on, to create, for instance, the fear of that banjo scene in Deliverance?

JB:  I don’t know how to answer that because each situation requires something different, but it comes back to your first question about making a scene into magical cinema. There’s always a different solution. To give you one example, in Deliverance, the four men are going down the river and eventually come upon these mountain men who torture them. Up until that point, the cutting had been very rhythmic, and there’s a rhythmic quality about the camera movement as the canoes go down the river. The audience gets used to that movement and that cutting rhythm.  So when they meet the mountain men, I had the camera locked off so it didn’t move. The actors moved in and out of frame with the mountain men, and what that did was unconsciously create a tremendous tension in the audience. Suddenly, from the camera being flowing, it suddenly stopped completely.  It wouldn’t move.  And it didn’t matter if the actor went out of shot—the camera didn’t move, it waited for him to come back in again.  And that was how I solved that particular problem.  So one’s always looking for those solutions when you come up against these scenes and how to do them.

DT:  How did you solve those problems in Queen & Country?

JB:  In a very simple way, take the scene where Bill falls in love with the girl he saw at a concert.  He’s in a café and he sees her running past. He runs out after her, and he’s embarrassed, and he apologizes.  She just walks on, and he’s always slightly behind her.  That’s very important.  The distance between characters has to reflect their degree of intimacy or antagonism. That’s always very important in staging a scene, the relationship between characters and how close they are and how far away they are from each other.  She walks straight on, she doesn’t look left or right, he’s hovering around her, and the camera is moving with her and he’s trailing in her wake all the time. It was just the design of the shot. Had they been standing still talking to each other, it would have been a completely different scene.  She’s walking away from him the whole time, and he’s trying to catch up with her. So that’s what I always try to do:  see what is at the heart of the scene and try to design it in such a way that it reflects that relationship.

DT:  There was a scene in Hope & Glory where the father is going off to war, and there’s a lot of bustle on the street, and suddenly, far in the background, the father and two other men come together and you see them walking off—

JB:  And they start walking in a military way, don’t they?

DT:  So fabulous.  It was like everything just fell into that one moment. On another topic, can you talk about how you use music in your films?

JB:  The relationship between film and music is a longstanding one. In the early films, when they started adding live music, they followed the circus. When the trick was about to be done, you’d get the roll of the drums, the final Chum! and he would leap into the air. That’s how film music began….the scene became more vivid by music. Of course Prokofiev wrote the music for Eisenstein’s films, and Prokofiev really invented incidental music for films. That was picked up, and we see it in some of the great masters.  Music and film are like a marriage. Sometimes it works harmoniously and beautifully, and sometimes marriages fall apart, and people have rows and it doesn’t work.

DT:  You have a lot of input into the use of music in your own films.

JB:  I do, yes. A lot of people engage a composer before shooting the film, and they talk about it from the beginning. I’ve never been able to do that. I wait until I’ve cut the film together before I think about the music.

DT: Really?

JB:  The exception to that was probably Deliverance, because I always intended to use these dueling banjos as a theme. Warners was always beating me up over the budget. I eventually had nothing more I could cut. I had money budgeted for a composer and orchestra for the score, so I cut them both and decided just to do variations on dueling banjos. I got two musicians into a room for two hours and recorded it. That way I got the budget down to a point where Warners felt it was a sum of money they could afford to lose.

DT:  Kind of like going to Vegas.  One more question.  What was your favorite moment making Queen & Country?

JB:  The most moving moment for me was the very simple scene with Bill and his mother. Bill has seen his mother’s lover waving to her from across the river, and he says, “Was that Max you’re waving to?”  And she says, “You saw it.”  He responds, “I was nine years old.  Do I betray my mother, or do I betray my father?”  Well, that was my dilemma at that time, so that really was the most emotional scene for me, because if I didn’t tell my father, I was betraying him, and if I did tell him, I was betraying my mother. That was the dilemma I had when I was a child.

First thanks Judy Gelman Myers for permission to reprint this Q&A which originally appeared online at “Director TALK”: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk/

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