The Bondman of Alcatraz

 

GETTING into Alcatraz without an invitation for last week's world premiere of The Rock was almost as difficult as getting off the island without a parole in the days when it housed the most secure prison in the United States - and such notorious criminals as Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud, before it was closed down as a prison in 1963 by the then attorney general, Robert Kennedy.

Today it ranks as a morbid tourist attraction and the biggest in the San Francisco area with over 4,000 visitors a day.

Much of The Rock is set and was shot on Alcatraz. Sean Connery plays a fictitious former inmate who escaped from the prison and is called upon by the FBI when a decorated but disgruntled US military hero (played by Ed Harris) takes over the island, holding 81 tourists hostage and threatening to fire chemical weapons on San Fransisco.

Undeterred by the logistical problems in mounting a high profile jailhouse rock premiere on an island which only generates enough electricity to meet the needs of its daily tours, the organisers shipped in a barge load of equipment which included 18 trucks, two cranes to offload the goods, and a vast tent which was erected to house the once off cinema for the premiere. They hired ferries to transport the 500 guests on the 15 minute journey out to Alcatraz, where park rangers took the guests on a tour of the forbidding cells before the screening.

Afterwards there were drinks in the former prison library before moving to the old mess hall to dine on the vast quantities of food shipped in for the evening: two and a half miles of fresh fettucine noodles, 150 lbs of red snapper, 192 lbs of beef tenderloin, 1,800 mushrooms for the pasta, 4,800 asparagus tips and 140 lbs of grilled vegetables. A very far cry from the old prison menu of gruel and mouldy bread.

Connery, Cage and Harris were there along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay and the guests included Star Wars creator George Lucas, director Philip Kaufmann, producer Gale Anne Hurd, actors John Cusack and Cary Elwes. Cage brought his wife, actress Patricia Arquette and Connery wao accompanied by his wife, the French Moroccan painter Micheline Roquebrune, with whom he divides his time between their homes in Marbella and the Bahamas.

No figures were available for the cost of the premiere, but the budget of The Rock itself was in the region of 70 million, of which $13m went to Sean Cannery, who, at 65, is the only actor of his generation to command such a fee in movies today.

Connery himself inserted several self effacing remarks about his age into the screenplay for The Rock. During an action sequence, his character sighs, "Maybe I'm getting too old for this," before getting down to business. At another point he notes that gang rape is a problem he encounters less and less in prison these days.

"Maybe I'm losing my sex appeal," he suggests coyly.

Janet Maslin, the chief film critic for The New York Times is just one woman wh9 would disagree. Reviewing The Rock when it opened in the US last weekend, she described Connery's character as "the world's most attractive escaped convict" and said he lent the material "immense class even when delivering facile wisecracks".

Meeting Connery for the first time the attraction is obvious. A tall, imposing figure with a thin moustache, he is effortlessly charming, sharply intelligent and utterly unpretentious. He famously does not suffer fools. "Sean is a very professional actor," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "He usually arrives early on the set and he's always prepared. Actors who have scenes with him better know their lines and better be on time, because he always is. He's been in over 60 movies and he knows every scam in the world. When you do a close up of him in the film, he doesn't have to say a word. With one eye movement, he expresses so much."

Despite nursing a heavy cold, Sean Connery was as professional as everyone says he is when we met at the conservative Huntingdon Hotel perched atop the steepest of San Fransisco's steep streets, California Street. Having made his name playing James Bond three decades ago, Connery could easily have been typecast for life.

That he has survived so successfully and for so long in the world's most precarious profession is testimony to the risks he chose to take, to his versatile range and to that now rare ingredient of star quality which be oozes.

Crucial for him, he says, is control, which is why he takes a second credit on The Rock as executive producer. "I've actually been doing that for 20 years, but I hardly ever took the official title," he says. "As you progress along through your career, your contractual arrangements give you the right of approving your writer, director and cast - so many factors that you have a real interest in the whole film from pre production to post production.

"I decided to take the official position of executive producer because it makes it much easier. With The Rock I had to insist on replacing scenes which were shot for the film and had been taken out scenes that developed my relationship with Nic Cage in the film. You can make these action pictures, but if they don't have any kind of character development or a reasonably dramatic storyline, I don't find them interesting and I think a lot of people are of the same opinion. Those films just become mindless to me - just stunt after stunt and all you wait for is the next stunt."

THERE were no surprises about working with Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage said when we met later that morning. "We would get together and sit in the trailer and go over where he was going with his character and me with mine, and we developed a synchronicity we both were comfortable with. Sean is a very straightforward man who does not like to be BS-ed (bullshitted) and as long as you don't do that, everything's fine."

It was a different story four years ago when Connery was starring in John McTiernan's jungle movie Medicine Man when "at a certain point it reached a totally unprofessional, unacceptable level".

Never one to mince his words, Connery cleared the set and had it out with McTiernan. Afterwards he famously said: "You have to give direction for someone to take direction".

On the day of the San Fransisco premiere, I raised this with Michael Bay, the 32 year old director of The Rock, who said that John McTiernan is a friend and neighbour of his. Bay recalled how one day in a break between shooting, he met McTiernan's wife out walking the dog and she asked, "How's Sean?," and Bay said "He's fine, why?", and she went, "Oh, just wondering.

Bay points out that he is a year younger than Sean Connery's actor son, Jason. "I'm making movies for my generation and we all remember Sean as James Bond and we haven't seen him in that role for a long time. This picture shows that James Bond can age and he can still be mean. One day when we were filming, Sean came up to me and whispered, `You know what I'm doing, I'm getting to be James Bond without being called James Bond, You know, it's kinda fun to kick some ass again'."

An hour or so earlier Sean Connery, who shot from nowhere to international stardom as the cinematic incarnation of Agent 007, was rolling up the sleeves of the tweed cardigan he wore over his dark green turtle neck, revealing two tattoos on his right arm. One was a heart with a dagger through it and the inscription, "Scotland Forever", and the other was a scroll saying "Mom and Dad".

Asked about the tattoos, Cannery says he had them done about 50 years ago when he was in the British navy. "It was very fashionable in the navy at the time," he says. "Now it's very fashionable again with women. I remember a Wren having a butterfly tattooed on the side of her arse while I was waiting to have my tattoos done. I was happy to wait."

Thomas Sean Connery was born in Edinburgh on August 25th, 1930, the son of a truckdriver and a charlady. He left school at 13, joined the navy three years later and left at 19 with ulcers. He worked as a horse and cart driver, a builder and a lifeguard before taking up weight lilting and at 20 became a professional soccer player, because there was no money in that at the time, he joined the machine room of the Edinburgh Evening News.

In London to represent Scotland in the 1950 Mr. Universe contest, he heard of auditions for a stage production of South Pacific and landed a role in the chorus with the show which played at Drury Lane for three months and toured Britain for a year. Turning down professional terms at Manchester United, he made his film debut with a bit part in Lilac in the Spring in 1954, moving up the credits to star with Jimmy O'Dea in Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People five years later, to 1962 he landed the role of James Bond in Dr. No and never looked back.

Why does he keep up such a prolific output nowadays? "Well, I don't like it when I'm doing it all the time," Connery replies. "Nothing is ever that wonderful, but I've, kept all that appetite and enthusiasm for films and if and when I lose it, then I would have to do something else. At the moment I enjoy the actual filming and getting it right, hopefully right."

The week before The Rock was released in the US, Dragonheart opened, this time featuring Connery as a medieval dragon with a difference. The dragon's features were moulded from his own by George Lucas's company, ILM (Industrial Light and Magic). "They took reels from about to of my films and had them run at ILM to give the dragon attitudes and characteristics of mine. With effects like that, they won't need actors soon! The dragon stuff alone cost $29 million, I think, so you can imagine the cost of the whole movie."

But surely actors are still cheaper, even nowadays? "It reminds me of when calculators came out first and they used to cost a fortune," Connery comments. "Now they give them away with green stamps. I suppose, they'll advance just as quickly with actors, turning us into dragons and whatever else. But they can reproduce the actor. They can do that now."

I TURNED the subject to Dustin Hoffman, with whom Sean Connery starred in another Sidney Lumet movie, Family Business, and asked him for his views on Hoffman's comments at Cannes last month that screen violence has to share part of the blame for the recent massacres in Dunblane and Port Arthur. "I happened to fly into Scotland on the day of the Dunblane massacre, he says. "I had been on a plane all day and even though the airport was full of journalists and photograghers from all over the world, I didn't know why. It was only when I sat into a taxi and the driver, a woman, was crying, that I learned what had happened."

Connery had read what Hoffman said in Cannes. "I don't agree with it at all," he says. "The fact is that both those men should never have been allowed anywhere near guns. Guns are a nightmare and I never understood why there is such easy access to them, especially here in America. There are people who don't know their arse from a hole in the ground and they can get a gun.

"It should start in schools. Children should be put beside a side of beef and they should see what happens when a bullet goes into that side of beef, so they can get an idea of what happens. Instead, we have this situation of children aged 11 and 12 carrying guns around. There is a responsibility on the parents, There's no, question about that."

So how does he react to the cheering which greets the most gratuitous violence in The Rock when the villains suffer extended deaths by impalement, for example. "When I read that in the script it seemed totally unnecessary, but they had their test previews and they had a terrific response. Well, I thought that response meant a terrific intake of breath and now I hear they applaud at that scene. That's quite a dangerous response, I think, to something like that."

Connery is unambiguously supportive of the dynamic and controversial Scottish movie, Trainspotting, which he describes as "wonderful" and "should be seen by everybody".

While in Ireland for two weeks recently, Connery says he explored the opportunities for filming here compared to those in England and Scotland. "Ireland looks to me the most promising in terms of understanding, especially with Section 35," he says.

"Combining the tax with the film making is the way to make it a proper business, like something in the City - which is something I was trying to get them to do in London 25 years ago. I think Ireland is much more progressive than Britain in terms of understanding and, I would adore to do a film in Ireland again.