Journalist Kevin Maher was born in 1972 in Dublin and headed over to London in 1994, where he wrote about film for The Face, The Guardian and The Observer. While his debut novel The Fields explained 80s Ireland, his latest, Last Night on Earth (Little Brown, £14.99), gets to grips with millennium London in a dizzy, fizzy rush of words as a young Irish man reveals himself to be at the mercy of his own unwise impulses in the heady, druggy world of TV. Eithne Farry
My screen alter ego is Alisdair Stewart, the 46-year-old English planter from The Piano. Fact. There’s no contest. It’s always been that way. From the moment I saw the film, in Dublin in 1993, I knew that he was the man for me. Or, at least he was me. Or, maybe better still, he was us. For, as played beautifully by Sam Neill, he is the real-time alter ego to all of us, us men. He is the great tentative, unsure, lip-trembling, confidence-faltering, error-prone, angst-ridden reality of modern man in an increasingly phony and delusional world of fake-fronted masculine yawps. I’m talking here about Harvey Keitel’s George Baines, the other male protagonist from The Piano, and a character that I’ve always loathed, and done so with the same degree of passion with which I feel my love for Stewart. For Keitel’s Baines, with his muscles, his tattoos and his pervy surety (‘There’s things I’d like to do while you play!’), comes from a long line of specious romantic heroes that include everyone from Achilles to Heathcliff to Ryan Gosling to the swarthy berk in TV’s Poldark. These are masculine phantasms, governed by ancient codes that exist only in story books. They are, to paraphrase Yeats, men who are but a dream, men who do not exist.
Stewart, on the other hand, is painfully real. He is the Lockwood to Baines’s Heathcliff. He is gorgeously fragile and noticeably vain (proud of his achievements as a planter, careful about his appearance, he assiduously combs his hair before the ‘wedding’ photograph). He is sexually unsophisticated (Ada’s hand to the buttock gesture almost blows his mind). He feels the pressure of providing (he’s land-grabbing from Baines). He’s complying to social norms (as exemplified by the snooping Aunt Morag). But mostly, simply, he’s trying. He’s trying so hard to understand who he is, and what’s expected of him, in the specific context of the world around him. And for that reason alone I can’t ask for a better alter ego. Naturally, I could’ve done without the axe-wielding finger-chopping finale. But, hey, nobody’s perfect.
Cantopop star, record producer, Hong Kong fashion designer, actor and writer: the multifaceted Juno Mak makes his directorial debut with Rigor Mortis, an elegant dramatic horror film that’s both a melancholic story of bereavement and a sombre love letter to Ricky Lau’s hopping vampire classic Mr. Vampire (1985).
Mark Player talks to Juno Mak about reuniting the cast of Mr. Vampire, working with J-horror icon Takashi Shimizu and, of course, hopping vampires.
Mark Player: You first began your career in the music industry before branching out into acting. What made you then decide to transition to directing?
Juno Mak: I never went to university; I started working when I was 18. Fortunately, I got signed under Universal Music and when I was 17, I spent a year in Japan doing all sorts of training – signing, dancing and speaking Japanese. Then I started working as a singer. But to me, I guess, throughout all these years, composing a melody, singing a song, or producing music, writing a script, being an actor, or being a director and a producer all goes back to being creative. It’s just a different way to express creativity; sometimes through music, sometimes through visuals.
Even before Rigor Mortis you seemed keen to start to writing scripts for films, for instance, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), which you also starred in.
Revenge: A Love Story was a great experience. I was very lucky because that was my first script and I wrote it without knowing whether it would be made into a film or not. There wasn’t such a genre in the market at that moment, so I just wrote it out of curiosity. Luckily we found a producer and investor who were interested in such an extreme, depressed, heavy genre film. It was done with a very low budget and we shot only for 19 days, I believe. Being able to make Revenge: A Love Story was very surprising for me, as was the film festival circuit after we finished production. We got invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. That was my first time attending a film festival and we were fortunate to get the Screenplay Award; the director, Wong Ching-po, won Best Director as well. We also attended the Puchon International Film Festival in South Korea and won another award for Best Actor. Soon I was approached by different producers. They were looking to do a sequel to Revenge: A Love Story, which was difficult for me because I’ve never really believed in doing sequels. Other producers asked me what kind of genre I would like to explore if I could write something of my own will,? That’s when I brought up the hopping vampire (jiangshi) genre, which was very popular during the 1980s but has been gone for almost 30 years. They were willing to let me explore this genre and that’s how Rigor Mortis started.
Rigor Mortis explicitly references – and even subverts – tropes from that Golden Age of jiangshi films you just mentioned, specifically the Mr. Vampire series. It’s very self-referential and very… meta, let’s say. Where did the idea for this approach come from?
At first, it’s about my childhood. I grew up in Vancouver and Mr. Vampire played a big part in my childhood. Renting it on VHS, I watched it so many times that I guess it just got stuck in my mind. I am very familiar with the hopping vampire genre and when I was approached to create Rigor Mortis, I started giving it a lot of thought again. I don’t believe Rigor Mortis is a remake of Mr. Vampire. Since the original film was so popular and great, I didn’t think it was necessary to do one. Approaching this genre, I felt that I had to have a different point of view. Mr. Vampire is more of a comical horror type of film and Rigor Mortis became a heavier, more humane type of film. But by reuniting the original cast of Mr. Vampire, I believe that there’s a certain homage. Sadly, some of the main actors from the film have passed away and others have retired.
Yes, I noticed that you pay tribute to those that have passed in the end credits (Ricky Hui and Lam Ching-ying). But you did manage to reunite actors Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Richard Ng and Billy Lau from Mr. Vampire. How did it feel to work with these childhood heroes?
It was beautiful. Again, I don’t believe in remaking such a classic, but by reuniting the cast, I felt I got a cast that was much older and more experienced. Most of them are now over 50, and seeing the wrinkles on their faces was just so beautiful. I wanted to make the film about people who have entered a certain age and are quite confused or uncertain about the future. They are broken, basically.
Chin Siu-ho plays a washed-up version of himself, and is also suicidal and mentally disturbed. What was his reaction when you first gave him the script?
We had worked together before. He played a role in Revenge: A Love Story, and that’s how I first met him. He’s always been an action figure, even in the original Mr. Vampire. So when I told him the idea for Rigor Mortis, it was a huge challenge for him because I’m not in for the action, or the stunts; I was more into the idea of him as this fictional character. He lives very happily with his family, so the whole depressive, washed-up side of him is my fictional point of view.
It took me quite a while to get him to open up about his feelings and how he could be more emotionally naked in front of the camera. He’s very healthy and very into sports, and he’s very happy with his family. So I had to make him look depressed as quickly as possible because we only had about three weeks of pre-production. I feel really sorry about it now, but we basically had to torture him to make him very depressive. We consulted three different doctors on the fastest way to break down a person and they all came up with the same solution, which was to not let him sleep. So during pre-production, we had to break up his sleep every two hours. We’d call him and have him stay on the phone for at least 10 minutes before he could get back to sleep, and then we would call him again two hours later. He also went on a diet so the whole process was definitely a torture. But it turned him into what he looks like in Rigor Mortis within three weeks. It was a cold-hearted decision, but he understood.
There’s a scene right near the start of the film when he is unpacking old film costumes that his character has kept over the years. Were they the genuine article?
Some, yes. Some I had to remake because they didn’t keep a lot of the costumes from the original Mr. Vampire. So some of them were the originals and others were the result of my own interpretation from the films I remembered seeing him in as a child. When it came to the hopping vampire, we ended up doing a whole new costume design.
Because horror films tend to be very transnational in their appeal, was it a case of trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making a film that was rooted in Chinese folklore and, on the other, making something that a modern international horror audience aren’t going to scoff at or find a bit silly? There’s certainly a lot less hopping in Rigor Mortis than in Mr. Vampire.
I believe it’s definitely more towards the drama side as opposed to the horror side. I didn’t make this film intentionally to be horror. I’m not really into the blood, the gore, or making you jump in your seat. There are moments like that in Rigor Mortis but those are not my main concern. My main concern is about this group of people. For example, I wanted to see how Nina Paw’s character [the widow who wants to resurrect her dead husband in the film] transforms from a really friendly person into a really evil one. Even with Anthony Chan’s character, you can see they are all about the fear of losing, or not knowing what to do about their lives. So definitely Rigor Mortis is about drama and these lost souls instead of just horror thrills.
Having said that, you co-produced the film with Japanese horror cinema veteran Takashi Shimizu, perhaps most famous for Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and its various permutations. How did he get involved, and what did he bring to the project?
Takashi Shimizu got on board right after I finished shooting the film, so as a producer he joined us pretty late. He worked mostly on the post-production with me. I met him in Japan. I guess the reason he was interested in the project is that the hopping vampire genre plays a big part in Japanese pop culture as well, so people there recognise it too. With Ju-on, he has become a popular name in the horror genre, but deep down I believe he tends to want to work on a more character-driven story that’s heavy on drama. So when he read the script for Rigor Mortis, he saw the elements in it that are more than just thrills, blood and gore. I believe he’s always wanted to make films that are more than just horror. And of course with his experience and insights, he assisted me with things like sound design, the colour tone and the CGI.
So, I guess Rigor Mortis is a revival or sorts for jiangshi films?
The genre has been gone for a long time. It used to be a very commercial and popular genre in Hong Kong. Why did it disappear? That was my main question when I was working on the script. When we were in post-production, we got the announcement from the Venice Film Festival that the film had been selected to play there. That was a big triumph for the team because it had been a very long shoot. We had shot for 70 days, and post-production was almost a year. We never really expected it, and from there the film had a life of its own. It went from Venice to Toronto, then to Tokyo and Taiwan, and then it came back to Hong Kong for the premiere. I guess what connects this film to the audience is more than just the hopping vampire genre, it’s also the characters, the love among these older people. I guess it’s a very universal topic. Of course, at the same time it has a sort of mythical essence to it that got people’s attention.
The film is incredibly stylish and features a lot of special effects sequences. Was this daunting, considering that you were directing for the first time?
Yes… I guess it was like a mission, or a goal for me to achieve. During pre-production, that’s what I wanted, even with the minor details. We’ve seen at lot of hopping vampires from those original films and we absolutely understand the way they hop, but is there another way that we could show it? For our film, we put the hopping vampire in a water tank because I really wanted that slow-motion effect for his clothing and the way he moves. It was a very difficult moment, and because no one had ever done something like that in Hong Kong cinema before, we had to design and build our own tank. But since you can’t really hop in water, we had to use eight wires and four scuba divers to push the stuntman forward in order to present that hopping visual. That’s just one example, but there are lots of minor details like this throughout the whole film. The concern I had as a first-time director was that I wanted people to tell the difference between this film and the other hopping vampire films that came before it. I had plenty of ideas for the visuals and, fortunately, my producers were very patient with me. It was an experiment for all of us because a lot of the things that I wanted to do hadn’t been done before in the Hong Kong film industry. So I am very grateful for having such a great team.
Another element to the film’s style that shouldn’t be overlooked is the apartment block that the whole story takes place in. Was it a real location?
It was based on an actual place. We went location scouting and looked at a lot of housing compounds in Hong Kong, and that was fascinating to me. However, there were technical issues to consider and although these places looked interesting, there wouldn’t be a lot of space for the camera, lighting or the wire rigs. So we had to build our own corridor and all the apartments along it. I guess what you see in the film is about 20% real housing compound and about 80% on set.
What’s next for you? Are you looking to continue directing?
It’s kind of funny, in a sense. When travelling with the film to festivals, I was approached to do a Rigor Mortis sequel. That’s when I realised that I don’t have much more that I want to express in this genre. I want to move on to a different genre, so I have started work on a new script that has nothing to do with Rigor Mortis, or ghosts, or vampires; it’s more of an epic crime thriller. The first cut we did of Rigor Mortis was three hours long and had a lot more character development and extra scenes. I got many people asking if they could see this longer cut. At a certain point it became a pressure for me because I felt like I needed to take a break from it. I may revisit it later, after directing some other films, and maybe I’ll get a different perspective on it. The script I’m working on now is going to be a long shoot. The scale, the budget, the cast, the story, the shooting days, and the technical difficulties I think will be 10 times heavier than Rigor Mortis, so that’s my main focus at the moment. The working title for it is Sons of the Neon Night.
Following their acclaimed Grindhouse and Video Nasties compilations, Nucleus Films have put together a collection of erotic trailers from the 1960s to the 1990s in response to the success of the bland and comparatively unadventurous Fifty Shades of Grey. Focusing on arthouse erotica, the selection combines well-known films such as In the Realm of the Senses and Emmanuelle as well as more obscure titles including The Libertine and The Frightened Woman.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Marc Morris of Nucleus Films about Pop Art Italian erotica, the importance of soundtracks and the taboos that remain.
Virginie Sélavy: Why was it important to you to respond to Fifty Shades of Grey?
Marc Morris: We’d done several compilations of grindhouse trailers. You could say it’s a shameless cash-in, but when I saw this film coming out, I thought it was going to be really tame, and a lot of people going to see this probably don’t know that there’s this underbelly of erotic cinema that was made a long time ago. And I thought it’d be nice to make people aware that there was other stuff out there way before this. A lot of people said, why didn’t you make a ‘Grindhouse Trailer Classics – Erotica’ version? But I didn’t really want grindhouse sleaze, I wanted more arthouse erotica. So that’s what drew the line for me. I wanted it to be more upmarket, more world cinema erotica. I did go see Fifty Shades of Grey and I didn’t think it was that bad, although I thought the soundtrack was dreadful, that was the worst thing about it.
Yes, it’s awful and it reminds you how amazing the soundtracks to these classic erotic films are, and how important the music is.
The film was mediocre, but it’s refreshing to see a film that’s rated 18 for an adult audience.
But there’s nothing in it.
I know. I guess it’s the whole S&M theme that gives it an 18. There’s no nudity – all you see is a flash of pubic hair, her top off, buttocks, that’s it.
The presence of pubic hair was one positive thing for me about the film.
Yes, that was refreshing, a throwback to the 70s.
But in comparison to all the films on your compilations, it is incredibly tame.
There’s more nudity in most of our trailers than there is in the whole film.
Exactly. There are actually very few sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s not really about S&M.
Most of the people who are seeing it, the kids who have grown up on Marvel blockbusters and PG13 Harry Potter stuff, the women who have read the books, probably think it’s really racy. I remember when I was a teenager my mum went and saw Emmanuelle. That was the cause célèbre at the time, back in 1974-5, I remember all her friends talking about it. Emmanuelle, compared to Fifty Shades of Grey, is way racier.
Absolutely. The end still feels a little edgy, even now.
When I was watching Fifty Shades of Grey I was thinking about The Story of O. It’s the same kind of relationship, the woman proving her love by doing whatever her lover wants, giving herself to him and his desires. And even now that pushes boundaries. There’s full-on nudity, whipping, it’s really strong! And I can’t believe that’s an 18 and so is Fifty Shades of Grey! You look back at those films and they are ground-breaking and confrontational, but you don’t get that anymore. I’m hoping that because of Fifty Shades of Grey we’re going to have more filmmakers out there coming up with something a little edgier. I know you had The Duke of Burgundy but hopefully there’ll be more.
The Duke of Burgundy and Nymphomaniac are more the equivalent of the 60s-70s films, not Fifty Shades of Grey.
Oh I forgot about Nymphomaniac, I can’t believe it showed in mainstream cinemas as well. We tried to market the DVD with the Fifty Shades of Erotica title specifically so that it’d be sat in DVD racks next to Fifty Shades of Grey and people would thumb through and see it, and it might educate them into seeing that there were better and racier films that were made back in those days. And it might make them realise that a lot of these films refer back to Marquis de Sade and Krafft-Ebbing and lead them to the books. I got into it through the books – I collected them as a teenager.
What’s your favourite trailer on the compilation?
The first one, The Libertine, from 1968. I love the soundtrack. The film itself is so European and visual, it’s stunning, it’s like Pop Art on film, it’s the equivalent of Diabolik in a sex film. And The Frightened Woman is another really good one. It’s like a companion piece to that film. Everything about it is so beautiful, the set design, the soundtrack, the acting.
This is what’s direly missing in something like Fifty Shades of Grey: those films are wildly inventive not just in the way they depict sex, but also visually and sonically. You said earlier that you deliberately picked films that were on the arty side.
Yes, because I thought that if I put edgier stuff in there it might frighten people off. I just wanted it to be slick, arthouse cinema erotica – sophisticated erotica.
But you still have a good range in that you go from Night Porter to more light-hearted comedies like the Tinto Brass stuff.
Yes, it was difficult because I wanted to keep it S&M themed, but there weren’t enough movies for that. So I thought I’d keep it to erotic film classics, some things that people wouldn’t have heard of, German stuff, like Seduction: The Cruel Woman. Night Porter is actually a very rare trailer. It’s not on any DVD or Blu-ray. That’s the original UK theatrical trailer. There were loads of trailers that I would have loved to have included but that I couldn’t find.
What is not on there that you would have really liked to have?
Definitely The Slave. But there’s no trailer for it. Madame Claude, lots of Italian films. I have a whole wish list for trailers I’d have liked to have included but I just couldn’t find them. We collect trailers on 35mm and I’ve got a whole archive of them and a whole network of people around the globe who have trailers, and you ask around and they say, no we’ve never seen it. They’re hard to find. There’s some very rare stuff on there, like The Libertine, you try and find this trailer anywhere.
Obviously some directors feature heavily on this compilation, Radley Metzger, Tinto Brass, Jess Franco. Are they the most important erotic directors for you?
Yes, I think they are. I was aware there are a lot of films by them, but they were known for producing erotic movies. They’re like the Russ Meyer of Europe. I was going to put in a few Russ Meyer, but they’re not quite the same, they don’t have the same slickness to them. They push boundaries, Vixen does, and so does The Immoral Mr Teas, but they’re very early. They don’t seem as boundary-breaking as some of the other stuff. And I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with some of the Tinto Brass stuff, make it a bit wittier. It’s difficult balancing it out.
Did you feel that you should include some of the big sex films of the period like Last Tango in Paris or Deep Throat?
For Last Tango in Paris I had a trailer but I didn’t include it because it was so boring. It’s just a selection of stills, there’s nothing in it. Deep Throat is a hardcore porn film and the trailer is hardcore so I didn’t want to include that. The only film that we’ve included a trailer for that was hardcore is The Image, and that’s the soft version of the trailer. I didn’t include any hardcore stuff apart from that one because I think it’s an important film. I’d like to have included The Story of Joanna as well, the Damiano film, but I couldn’t find a trailer for that.
What about Robbe-Grillet?
I looked at those but I didn’t want any black and white stuff. I did consider also including the trailer to Quiet Days in Clichy, but it was just a load of old ugly blokes shagging young girls, it’s a bit unreasonable, isn’t it. It didn’t seem to fit. So with that in mind, Jake [West, the other Nucleus Films producer] and I decided not to include any black and white trailers.
The trailers go from the 60s to the early 90s, why did you go into the 90s?
Because I couldn’t find enough trailers. People have said to me, why don’t you do a Volume 2? But it was hard enough to do that volume. I could do something that wasn’t as arthouse, I could do a sexual roughie one, but the BBFC probably wouldn’t like that. I think the most roughie-ish stuff I put on there was the Joe Sarno stuff, like Female Animal.
Was the BBFC a consideration when you were putting the compilation together?
I thought that it wouldn’t really fit with the rest of the stuff. America at the time, and a lot of other countries, put out a lot of roughies, with rape and things like that, and I didn’t think that was very erotic. I wanted to keep it consensual.
There’s one film that stands out in there in the sense that you don’t have much Japanese stuff but you have Blind Beast.
I love that film. I could have put more in there but I worry about owners of rights. Some studios are a bit difficult. There were hundreds of pink movies made but it’s difficult where to draw the line.
So why did you include that one particularly?
Because it’s a favourite of mine. It’s beautiful, it’s a bit like the Italian Pop Art stuff, it’s a Japanese Pop Art film. Everything about it is so mesmerising. It’s like The Frightened Woman Japanese-style. It’s a film people must see!
When you put together the Video Nasties trailer compilations you made two excellent documentaries that put the film in context. Did you think of doing the same thing for this one?
We did, but we couldn’t think of anybody who could talk about it. We needed someone well-known, and it took
me so long to put this together I didn’t have time to go and film anybody, so we thought we’d let the trailers
speak for themselves. We couldn’t find anybody who would do it justice. There’s such a hang-up about sexual material.
Release date: 5 June 2015 (London), 12 June 2015(nationwide UK)
DVD release date: 24 August 2015
Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye
Director: John Boorman
Writer: John Boorman
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Vanessa Kirby, Richard E. Grant, David Thewlis
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
In 1987 John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank) gave us the sweet, funny and happily (as well as sadly) nostalgic Hope and Glory, the autobiographical journey of Bill Rohan, a young lad growing up in London during the Blitz and his subsequent adventures when moved out to the country for safety. One of the strangest and most delightful aspects of Boorman’s picture was how it focused on a boy and his chums discovering that their bombed-out city had been transformed into one big playground. Tempering this were the more sobering realities of life, love, family and yes, even the realities of war, seen through a child’s eyes.
It’s now 25 years later that the 82-year-old Boorman delivers a sequel, Queen and Country. Bill (Callum Turner) is now a young man and he’s been called up for two years of mandatory military service to dear old Blighty. Much to the chagrin of the regiment’s commanding officer (Richard E. Grant), Bill forms a veritable Dynamic Duo with his cheeky, irreverent chum Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), and the lads wreak considerable havoc in the barracks, from basic training through to the end of their short military careers.
The lads’ chief nemesis is the humourless, mean-spirited, borderline psychotic Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), who proves to be the bane of their existence. But the boys turn those tables quite handily and indeed become the even bigger bane of Bradley’s existence – pilfering the beloved regiment clock, ignoring protocol during typing lessons (YES! Typing lessons!) and eventually using ‘the book’ to gain an upper hand over their superiors.
The humour and events are mostly of the gentle and good-natured variety, from Bill courting Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a beautiful icequeen with a dark secret, to Percy wooing Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), Bill’s sexy sister, during a happy leave in the country, where the entire Rohan family joins in the thrill of unboxing a television set, madly attempting to get the roof-antenna reception just right and gathering round the flickering, monochrome cathode-ray images that capture the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth.
There is darkness to Boorman’s tale, however, and though our characters are far away from the explosive Hope and Glory rubble of the Blitz, the very real and scary prospect of being called up for active duty in Korea looms large. The horror of war also creeps into the character of Bradley, when eventually the shenanigans perpetrated upon him reveal why his mask might not be as firmly affixed as everyone thinks.
The final third of the film is imbued with one emotional wallop after another, including a court martial, harrowing trips to a veterans’ hospital, military prison and finally a very sweet and deeply moving tribute to both love and cinema.
Queen and Country is a lovely, elegiac capper to the long, illustrious career of a grand old man of the movies. That said, I desperately hope Mr Boorman has it in him to produce one final installment in the early life of Bill Rohan. We’ve been treated to the Blitz and post-war England, and I do think an excursion into the Swinging 60s is in order.
And now, my brief, but lovely, conversation with this great man whose lifetime of films have delivered so much to the art of cinema.
* * *
Greg Klymkiw: I was tremendously moved by Queen and Country, and not only because it continues the adventures of Bill Rohan from Hope and Glory, a film that was very special to me when it was first released. It has, in fact, continued to resonate within me as a film that fueled memories of my own childhood, at a time that was 20+ years after the events of the film. As a child growing up in Canada, which, in the early 60s, was still very much the Dominion of Canada, I recalled feeling a kinship with the Queen and England, but also World War II, which Canada participated in, both as its own entity, and also as a subject of the Crown. The war did not, at least in early childhood, seem that far away. As a young man in my early 20s, Hope and Glory plunged me back to the early 60s, rekindling the odd feelings of how war, as a kid, seemed, well, fun. But, interestingly, because the new film focuses upon Bill at an age I myself was when I first saw Hope and Glory, I was able to respond this time on a similarly strangely nostalgic level. Seeing Bill’s character in Queen and Country, not only did I relate to his sense of fun and irreverence, but, most importantly, his questioning of authority during the 1950s was not unlike my own experience as a young man during the 1980s. Authority? Conformity? Be damned, will you! It’s strange how everything old becomes new again. Post-war must have been a huge time of change, as I feel now about the 1980s, what with the era of Reagan and Thatcher.
John Boorman: Well thank you. That makes me very happy to hear when people respond so positively and personally to the film.
I respond that way not just to Queen and Country, but all of your films. From Having a Wild Weekend onwards, I feel like I’ve grown up from childhood to middle age with all of your work.
That’s so kind of you to say. I also appreciate your thoughts regarding the periods in which both of the Bill Rohan films are set. With Queen and Country, it’s set during a time of great change. After two world wars, England was completely broke, so heavily bombed that massive reconstruction needed to take place. Churchill was tossed out and the Labour Party came into power. It was a very reforming government.
Well, of course, my only experience with the postwar period comes from the movies – mostly American cinema for me, mind you. Both film noir and the strangely expressionistic melodramas of Douglas Sirk were fraught with a weird amalgam of new beginnings and ennui, though the new beginnings seemed loaded with compromise, conformity and authority.
That’s so true, and it’s fascinating how all art reflects history, all the more so with cinema.
Come to think of it, though, British cinema had its own reaction to the period, what with the Ealing comedies and their emphasis upon industry, labour relations, etc.; those weird, low-budget British noir-knock-offs that Hammer was doing, and, a bit later on, the kitchen-sink angry-young-man work. What precisely were the changes and reforms in England that populate Bill Rohan’s world in Queen and Country?
It was a time of great upheaval. These were, after all, the beginnings of the National Health Service and, very importantly, the 1947 Education Act, which positively transformed the youngest of that generation in ways that yielded genuine personal exploration. Up until that time it was grammar school or being shunted into a trade, but now, every child was taught music, literature beyond mere grammar and, of course, art. When you pitch all that forward, those kids in the postwar period who started to learn so many new things, as well as the emphasis on personal expression, those same kids in the 60s became The Beatles.
Ah yes, and in Queen and Country we find young Bill in the middle, burrowed deeply between the early reforms and, uh, The Beatles. He’s got the benefits of reform, but is smack up against authority, just before things explode for his generation.
The monarchy played an odd role in Canada during the early 60s and certainly, to this day, we are still, at least on paper, subjects of the Queen. My Lord, we still have pockets of die-hard monarchists occasionally rearing their heads in the strangest enclaves here and there across our Dominion.
Yes, I’ve never understood how or why certain progressive countries within the former Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia, held on to the traditions of the monarchy, if only in name only.
I’ve always felt like the monarchy became an especially important thing for the middle class in England. Certainly Queen and Country places a fair degree of emphasis upon the backdrop of royalty. There is, of course, the whole gentle set-piece revolving around the king’s death and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Oh yes, the scene where the family is watching the coronation certainly captures the generational differences. Though Bill’s father is a loyalist, Grandpa pooh-poohs the whole thing and Bill is somewhat indifferent, save for feeling that there’s no real context for the monarchy in the modern world.
I loved the scene where the whole family rallies together to set up the new television and the complex machinations of getting the antenna just right to receive the best reception.
People responded emotionally to a young queen, though most of the younger people at the time were opposed to the aristocracy and wanted it all to be swept away.
And yet, the monarchy survives.
It’s only survived because Elizabeth has been on the throne for 63 years and through sheer longevity has kept the whole thing afloat. There’s no place for it in the modern world. The objections of those earlier generations probably didn’t go far enough. We should have gotten rid of the aristocracy.
Privilege continues, as does the aristocracy. We’ve never been able to make it disappear. As for class, money has taken over from class.
The character in Queen and Country who fascinated me was Bradley, the antagonistic force played by David Thewlis. He’s a stiff-upper-lip, strict rule of the law, by-the-book military man, and though he refuses to buckle under, I kept sensing a considerable degree of humanity in him – so much so that I often pined for even just a moment when his shell might crack and allow him to connect with Bill’s character.
Bradley is based on a real-life person who was very much like that. David is a remarkable actor. Given the autobiographical nature of the film, I was still able to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and quite successfully separate myself from the events and characters I was shooting. In the case of Bradley, though, David managed to reproduce this person he himself had never met, so that every single time he came on set I got a frisson of fear from this actor, this beautiful man who is normally one of the sweetest, kindest and gentlest of men. What David accomplished seems to go beyond acting.
Of course I suspect my need to experience a shell cracking in Bradley to allow him even a solitary moment to acknowledge Bill is rooted in my own occasional desire to give way to clichéd and/or sentimental elements of storytelling, but as frightening as Bradley is, this tiny part of me was almost pleading with him, ‘Please, crack, just a bit. Let in some sunshine, please!’
[Laughing] I understand completely. That’s David Thewlis, though. When David is, for example, looking at the flag after the king has died, waiting for it to go half-mast, this is on the heels of feeling like his whole cosmos is threatened. One can understand this and the reality of it is palpable. Ah, David’s such a magnificent actor and he achieves a high degree of reality with this role.
Certainly so many of your films pulsate with a reality that seems to send us into the kind of thrilling places only movies can take us – unless of course we actually experience them for ourselves. I find the almost ‘documentary’ approach to Deliverance – real people, in real canoes on real rushing rapids – something that I can’t shake. The sense of reality Thewlis brings to his role is surely different from that, isn’t it?
Both are recreations of reality. Yes, they’re different, but it’s still achieving a reality for your audience. However, plunging into that powerful river with a skeleton crew and the reality of filming real actors on those dangerous rapids in Deliverance still doesn’t have the same effect upon me as delving into my own personal memories and putting those on film.
And your previous thoughts about maintaining objectivity in recreating dramatic renderings of your life in Queen and Country?
Maintaining objectivity is one thing and very important in presenting a dramatic work, but there’s the very reality of what one feels as a director, on set, a reality, a personal reality, that you must work hard at so it is not affecting the final outcome of what you put on film – trying to maintain balance at all times so that the drama does indeed work as such.
Other than Thewlis, was there anything else in Queen and Country that challenged this objectivity as a filmmaker?
The scene with my ‘mother’ waving to her lover from the affair she had in Hope and Glory was the only other time in the process of making Queen and Country that I was not able to maintain complete objectivity. In life and as portrayed in both films, my mother’s affair devastated me as a child, and even now those feelings of deep sadness are with me. Having to recreate that simple moment, that simple connection between the mother and her long-ago lover with a gesture as simple as a wave, was tremendously affecting to me on a personal level.
I can’t help but think, then, that all of your best work is infused with you personally. Aside from the incredible skill and craftsmanship you bring to bear, there must also be elements of who you are that affect the final outcome, yes?
I do think it occasionally manifests itself in the kinds of films I’m compelled to make, the stories I feel the need to tell. My mother’s love affair with my father’s best friend had an enormous impact upon me as a child and that certainly carries over into some of my films. Point Blank, on one level, is a brutal crime film, but on the level of character it’s driven by a similar love triangle that’s haunted me for so much of my life. Excalibur is derived from the most well-known love triangle in the narrative of Britain’s royalty, that of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Indeed, these things in one’s own life creep in, you’re not always even aware of them as you’re ultimately in the business of creating works of imagination.
Well, Mr Boorman, I’d certainly be interested in knowing what elements of your life and indeed, your innermost soul, were roiling about within you when you chose to make Zardoz.
[Laughs heartily] Oh, indeed. We don’t want to go there.
I love that movie. For the two or so weeks it played first-run in my old hometown, I obsessively sat through multiple screenings. Lord knows, for my own sake, in conjuring what manner of psychoses roiled within me as a teenager, it is a place I certainly don’t want to go to either.
Fox brought me to Los Angeles recently and I actually supervised the colour restoration for a major home-entertainment release. I queried the Fox people on why they were going to this trouble and expense. They informed me that Zardoz has a lot of admirers and considerable interest. So here we are with a film that went from being a failure to a classic without passing through success.
Queen and Country ends with the early beginnings of Bill as a filmmaker. The final shot is both breathtaking and deeply moving.
I’m glad you responded emotionally to it. The camera stopping is my way of saying that my career as a filmmaker has stopped.
Queen and Country was released in Canada on 27 March 2015 by Search Engine Films, following it’s US release by BBC Worldwide North America.
Surely not in the 50s?
[Laughs] I am, at present, 82 years old.
Well, I for one, urge you to make one more movie about Bill.
Thank you so much. We’ll see what we can do about that.
Interview by Greg Klymkiw
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews