John Boorman has always savoured myth and legend. Deliverance, released in 1972, ended with a hand rising from the waters like the protector of King Arthur's sword. In 1981, with Excalibur, he abandoned contemporaneous analogy and gave us the definitive cinematic take on Arthurian lore. Even his classic 1967 thriller Point Blank has to do with a quest.
You get a more detailed sense of his spiritual adventures in a delightful new volume titled (with a poignant pun) Conclusions. Comprising memoir, nature poetry, advice on film-making and saucy anecdotes, the book has much to do with his home in deepest Wicklow. For many who have followed his extraordinary career – from childhood in suburban London to back lots in LA to a gaggle of Oscar nominations – the house in Annamoe has itself taken on mythical status. He’s been here for ever. Daniel Day-Lewis lives over one neighbouring hill. Paul McGuinness lurks across a nearby field. To pass up the long, leafy driveway is to approach a more friendly Xanadu.
Boorman waves a hearty “hallo” as I am ushered into a large room that stretches all the way across a wing. His feet are causing him discomfort and he is currently moving with a walking frame, but the 87-year-old brain seems as sharp as ever. The thoughts take a little longer to percolate from the depths. They are, however, still worth waiting for.
What a room. Here is a drawing of Christopher Isherwood by that writer's partner Don Bachardy. Bachardy's paintings of Boorman's children stretch along a neighbouring wall. There are books on Ennio Morricone and George Melly. Hang on. What's this lurking in the corner next to his computer? Is that the actual Excalibur?
Boorman has pottered back in. “Yes, yes. That’s it. We had it made by Wilkinson Sword. Would you like to hold it?” he says.
Would I? I gently slide out the blade and somehow resist the temptation to fling it into one of several nearby lakes. While I pull myself together, Boorman lowers himself on to the sofa and ponders the many years he has spent in this impressive pile. He was making the film Leo the Last in London and the post-production houses were all full. Someone had the bright idea of going to Ardmore Studios. That seemed to go well. So, he thought about buying a holiday cottage or something.
“Then someone showed us this house on a Sunday, and it was being auctioned the following day,” he says. “I didn’t think any more about it because there wasn’t time. The next day I was in Dublin and I walked past Adam’s auctioneers, and there was a picture of it in the window. I wandered in and the auction had already begun. I sort of felt myself hovering over the ceiling, looking down on this auction. And there were two people bidding for it. And one appeared to be me. I bought it and thought: what am I going to tell my wife?”
This was 1969. He has been in Wicklow for half a century and, if he is to be believed, he has never thought about leaving. Three wives have shared the house. He has raised seven children. Some of his larger trees are less rooted in Wicklow soil than Boorman.
“No, I never thought of leaving. Not really. With something like Deliverance, I never had to go back to LA. I made a film in the south, came back here and never went to LA. There is something dispiriting about Los Angeles. It never suited me.”
Still, there must have been some practical difficulties. In 2020 he can be on “the coast” in a matter of seconds. Not then.
“Oh, we had a telephone you had to wind up,” he says. “You’d eventually get to an overseas operator and ask to speak to Los Angeles. They’d say: ‘I can do that call for you on Wednesday at six o’clock.’ Two days hence. But that suited me very well.”
He is now alone in the big house, but some of the brood live nearby and his third wife – the book suggests Boorman and his ex-partners have remained amicable – comes over every other weekend for a chat. He has time to watch movies. He prepares notes for the classes he teaches. And he gets to write books. Conclusions could be seen as successor to his memoirs Adventures of a Suburban Boy and Money Into Light, but it is more discursive, more introspective, more engaged with mortality.
"If the studio has had a hard time, it's difficult to get them to do a picture," he says. "It's like that in publishing. Look at Faber & Faber. They've just got this book by Sally Rooney and it's a huge hit. Their attitude completely changed. [Editor] Walter Donohue, who is an old pal, went in to talk to the new head of Faber and he was nervous about my book. He had only got a few lines out and the guy said: 'I love Point Blank. We'll do it. We don't need to read it.' "
That was one hurdle cleared. Then there was family to be consulted. This is not to suggest that he is in any way cruel about children or former partners. The book swells with warmth and kindness. But not everyone wants their childhood placed between hard covers.
“Well, Lola, my daughter, just completed her PhD in literature. I said, ‘Please read this and tell me if there is anything that’s not acceptable.’ She had it for about a year and never read it. So, I said: ‘It’s being published. It’s your last chance.’ She never got round to reading it. So, she’ll just have to accept it.”
The most moving sections of the book concern the death of his daughter Telsche from ovarian cancer in her mid-30s. Boorman talks about her having a near-death experience as a child, when she almost drowned, and about her rehearsing the children in his lovely 1987 film Hope and Glory. She was buried in Paris on St Valentine’s Day, and he notes how, when he returns for the anniversary, the city is always teeming with loving couples. “Did love bring you to Paris on this day?” they ask him.
Boorman swallows a little when I ask him about this. I feel he has written most of what he wants to express publicly.
“It was very important to me to make concrete what I felt about it,” he says. “Rather than have it just hang there as grief. I needed to write that. I needed to define my feelings. Whether I should have shared them or not is another matter.”
Conclusions is not a formal autobiography, but the skeleton of the life is all there. Boorman was born in Shepperton in Surrey, and started out with plans to become a writer. The opening chapter sketches boarding house scenes that might delight connoisseurs of the form, such as Patrick Hamilton. He somehow found himself working in the newsroom in Southern Television and then making documentaries for the BBC. He tells me how, like Ken Russell, he was a favourite of legendary Beeb producer Huw Wheldon.
The big break in features came with – of all things – the Dave Clark Five's attempt to make their own Hard Day's Night. Catch Us If You Can (1965) deserves its cult status, but it was Point Blank two years later that made his name. The film starred Lee Marvin as a hoodlum tracking down a lost stack of loot, and marked out its own territory in the hard-boiled genre.
“I realised that Lee had been deeply affected by his war experience – the Pacific war,” he says. “The film was really about a man trying to come back to life. He was shot and left for dead and then comes back. That was a metaphor for his own experience.”
I determined that I would never interview an actress without someone else in the office. Completely the opposite of Harvey Weinstein
Boorman and I talk a lot about how much film-making has changed since then. He is optimistic about Netflix's commitment to films – Martin Scorsese's The Irishman most conspicuously – that nobody else would finance. As an Academy member, he has a vote in the imminent Oscars, but, still discreet where it matters, he will give no clues as to where his first preference lies. He likes Joker (who would have guessed?). He thinks Greta Gerwig did an excellent job with Little Women.
Asked about Marriage Story, the thrice-married director winces and replies: “Erm … A little too close to home.”
That perhaps means it works?
“Ha ha! Well, yes, maybe.”
Thoughts on Weinstein
The great change in film culture over recent years has been the readjustment in the wake of the Weinstein affair. Boorman has been following this closely.
“When I was preparing Point Blank I was sent for by the head of the studio and he said: ‘We have had a complaint against you by the Screen Actors Guild,’ ” he says. “An actress says you chased her round the office. Luckily, I had an alibi in that I had spent the entire day in the art department with other people. Someone claiming to be me had done this. I got a real shock and I determined that I would never interview an actress without someone else in the office. Completely the opposite of Harvey Weinstein – he always tried to find a way of getting them alone. I was never tempted to have an affair with an actress.”
I wonder if he was shocked by the revelations concerning Weinstein and others. Boorman is too old and experienced to feign astonishment.
“Well, I must say I have to probably take a measure of blame for Harvey Weinstein,” he says with a sigh. “We knew that’s what was going on and we probably should have spoken out more. I always found him a ghastly character. He wanted me to do a film and I said: ‘Harvey, I only do pictures if I get final cut.’ He said: ‘No. I have final cut.’ I said: ‘You go off and make your pictures and I’ll make mine.’ ”
I love working with Irish crews. They are much more flexible than English crews. They are more interesting and more inventive
No such scandals have attached themselves to Boorman. But there were a few punch-ups in his adopted country. When the owners of Ardmore Studios went broke, he and several others approached the government and offered to buy it. The authorities agreed on the condition that Boorman became chairman. “So, I was stuck with that for a while,” he says. He lobbied the government to introduce tax breaks and was eventually appointed first chairman of the Irish Film Board.
The controversies surrounding the development of Neil Jordan’s Angel in 1982 are too complex to list here. In short, some film-makers were annoyed that half of the of the Irish Film Board’s annual budget went to a picture directed by an inexperienced associate of Boorman. There were pickets outside the Celtic Film Festival in Wexford. There were attempts at a boycott. It’s hard to make sense of it now.
"I had only good intentions," he says. "I had been working on a script with Neil Jordan, and Channel 4 had just started. Jeremy Isaacs was running it and he asked me to do a picture. I said I couldn't. I told him Neil had written this very good script. Jeremy said he'd no experience, but said: 'If you produce it we'll make it.' That's what happened and it made Neil's career."
Did he feel vindicated that Angel got such good reviews and established Jordan?
“Yeah, I think I did. I felt that I’d done it because it was good. Then I was accused of diverting funds of the film board to something of ‘mine’. It wasn’t mine. I was helping it along. I was quite hurt by that. But it didn’t last.”
Flexible Irish crews
Did he ever regret getting involved in the artistic politics of this small nation? Few emerge from such conversations without a bloody nose.
“Well, I did, but on the on the other hand I was meeting and working with very good people,” he says. “I made very good friends and I love working with Irish crews. They are much more flexible than English crews. They are more interesting and more inventive.”
It involves no hyperbole to argue that John Boorman was one of the handful of visionaries who created the contemporary Irish film industry. A host of young guns – including his neighbour Paul McGuinness – got early breaks in the entertainment business on Boorman movies such as Zardoz and Excalibur. In 1998, with The General, he presented Brendan Gleeson with his first movie lead and delivered the most resonant take on Martin Cahill's grim legacy. Conclusions suggests that the negative response to The Tiger's Tail in 2006 caused him to "lose [his] nerve". He remembers that he heard a "radio presenter" wondering if his satire on the Celtic Tiger might be "the worst film ever made".
He was slammed for Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, but he shook himself and marched on towards Excalibur. Zardoz was not well received in 1974. The kicking that came the way of The Tiger’s Tail seems to have been different.
“Well, Tiger’s Tail was just before everything went under. ‘Why will this English man not honour Ireland’s great success?’ I made a film about a property developer who brings down a bank because he over-reaches himself. When that started to actually happen, I was not praised for prescience. It was a question of ‘kill the messenger’.”
He shrugs his characteristic shrug. One notable aspect of the new book is its lack of spite and lack of regret. He chortles about turning down Rocky. Complaints are invariably followed by some variation on “Oh well”. The Tiger’s Tail knocked him back, but, eight years later, he charmed Cannes with the autobiographical Queen and Country. When I wonder if he might make another movie, he says it would be hard work for a man his age, but he doesn’t exactly rule it out. There is certainly no sense that he is retreating into bitter rumination or festering regret. He’s too much fun for that.
“You can only do what you can do,” he says. “I haven’t really been successful. The only films of mine that have made money are Excalibur and maybe Point Blank and Deliverance. Let’s say, I’ve made five that have made money out of 15. That’s better than the ratio at the studios.”
He laughs heartily at the notion.
John Boorman's memoir, Conclusions, will be published by Faber & Faber on March 31st