Whether out of nervousness, or anticipation, or sheer excess of energy, John Boorman can't seem to stay in his chair. Or if he's in it, he moves around restlessly, not squirming exactly, but shifting, sliding his weight backward and forward, at times even perching, deep in thought, high up on one of its fat arms.
One possible reason for all this hyperactivity is that Boorman's new movie, "Hope and Glory," is about to have its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. (Since then, the movie has opened in Washington and around the country.) In all probability, though, this is his natural state, enhanced only by his movie's upcoming release. After all, you can never be sure what will happen when your movie opens.
"The night of the premiere in London," Boorman says, "there was this huge affair which was timed to the anniversary of the outbreak of the war. The press gave it generous coverage -- all the TV cameras were there -- and when my mother walked out they said, 'What do you think about the film?' And she said, 'Oh, it's a very nice film. But personally I prefer a good thriller.' Completely let me down, you know. And, of course, that's the bit they used for television."
"Hope and Glory" is Boorman's fervent, comic recollection of those happy days during the Blitz when the enemy's "friendly bombs" -- as the British poet John Betjeman called them -- tore into the London suburb of semidetached houses in which he and his family lived. "How wonderful was the war," Boorman writes in the preface to the published screenplay. "It gave common cause, equal rations, community endeavor, but most delightful of all a myth, nurtured by wireless, newspaper and cinema, that allowed the semi people to leap their garden gates, vault over their embarrassments into the arms of patriotism."
The movie is a deeply personal work, and in it his approach is more direct, less enfolded by myth and fantasy, than it was in "Deliverance" or "Excalibur" or, most recently, "The Emerald Forest." The movie is steeped in nostalgia -- nostalgia is its substance, its core. The voice at the beginning and the end of the film is Boorman's own. It's there, he says, "not because of any imperative demand for it, but because I just felt that I should use these bookends to put it all into context -- that I should tell the audience that it was not only seen through the eyes of a boy but also remembered. It was a matter of honesty, really -- a matter of respect."
Boorman was 6 at the time the war broke out, and living with his mother, two sisters and an ineffectual father who, between serving as a captain in the Indian Army in the First World War and sitting out a less romantic assignment as a typing clerk up in Cumberland during the Second, worked for an oil company. For a boy left alone in a world of women -- in addition to his mother and two sisters, he had three aunts -- and living a tormented life of "acute, knotted, scarlet-blushing, shameful embarrassment," the war was a liberation.
What we see through the eyes of is what Boorman, whose prize possessions were his toy soldiers, and who, among the flowers and vegetables in his mother's garden staged imaginary encounters between Merlin and the knights of Arthur's Round Table, who craved Rupert Bear and "Superman" comics, remembers of that chaotic, exhilarating time.
These memories -- of secret societies and dogfights and lumps of still-hot shrapnel falling into the front yard -- have the potency of boys'-book fantasies lived out in real life. Part of what he remembers has to do specifically with the fighting. It shows the rush to air-raid shelters and, afterward, the blazing rubble and homeless families. But from the boy's point of view, there's an irresistible magnificence in this. And he's swept away.
"For the children of the Blitz, the war was a wondrous playground," Boorman says. And what he captures here has something to do with a child's feelings about war itself but even more with every young boy's special, casual love of destruction, of seeing things smashed up, blown to smithereens. For him, the war was a period of opening up; if the bombs fell they fell on nothing precious. And what they blew apart was boredom, routine, the tyranny of adults. At least for the boy -- and perhaps, secretly, for some grown-ups too -- it was the best of times.
For a less gifted filmmaker, making such a statement about war might draw jeers and protests but, Boorman says, most audiences seem to find something true in his account. "The picture had a tremendous impact. The people who had shared that experience sort of leapt up in unison and said that the thing had been dealt with so many times and was so overlaid with myth that the truth of what it really felt like to be there has been lost. I actually found, in letters and in person, that there was a sort of relief expressed, that people felt, 'This is what it was to actually be there and how wonderful it was that it had finally been said.' "
The reaction, however, was far from unanimous. "There were some people who felt that war is horrific and awful and not particularly funny. Young people, in particular, seemed to be a bit shocked by it. I was questioned -- taken to task really -- because some felt that perhaps it was immoral to suggest that war could be fun. Wouldn't this encourage people to feel that perhaps war isn't as bad as it's made out to be? And the only answer I could give is that I can't imagine anyone actually thinking that this film is prowar.
"The fact is, it was a particular time and place," he continues, tugging up his uncooperative green socks. "In a sense, it was a reversal of conventional war. Usually the men go off and fight and women and children stay behind and wait. But here, as I tried to show in the film, the opposite was true. The father goes off and sits up there with a typewriter, and sees very little action, while back in the city the bombs were falling on the women and children every night. Meanwhile, with their fathers away, the kids just ran wild."
Centering the film within the perspective of the child is what gave Boorman the license to treat the war as a grand adventure, but the balancing act between what the child knows and what we, as spectators, know was a difficult one to maintain. "This is such a tricky thing," Boorman admits. "It's so difficult to retain that innocent eye.
"As a child I was conscious of all that was going on, but a child doesn't bring a set of moral precepts to a situation like that. He's not judgmental about it; he doesn't know, for example, what the conditions of marriage are. Or war. The adult world of morals is alien to them. And in trying to attain this consistent point of view of a child, I asked all the adult actors in rehearsal to pitch their performances so that they were just slightly exaggerated -- to be a bit louder than they normally would be -- because to a child adult behavior always seems rather ridiculous. And I tried to capture that sense of the embarrassment that a child feels in the presence of adults."
In the presence of adults -- and of women. The film is as much about a release from the world of women as from the drear circumstances of the semis. And it's this sense of being surrounded, outnumbered, lost in femininity, that provides much of the film's humor. In his preface, he elaborates on life "in a house full of women, with no male to curb their female excesses: the inexplicable and sudden tears, then the crass conspiratorial laughter at some sexual allusion in shocking carelessness to their mystery, and the bleeding, and the stifling embraces when a boy's face was pressed into infinite softness, falling, falling, inhaling all those layers of body odour only scantily concealed by lily of the valley."
"I was the only male," he says, thinking back, "and yet, because I was only 7 or 8, I wasn't considered to be a male, so they behaved as if there weren't any males present at all. As a result, I was exposed throughout to the way women behave when there are no men around. I was always acutely aware of all this female behavior and wanted to get away from it."
At the same time, the film is a homage to women, "inspired by my admiration, affection and, indeed, awe for my mother and her three sisters." Boorman, now 54, says that he began to mull over the idea of setting down his memories of that time, of his sisters, and his mother's sisters, of the fire that burned down their house and, afterward, their glorious life on the Thames, about 15 years ago.
The enterprise, he wrote in his preface, "began with stories told to my children at bedtime." "It's curious how these things shape up in your mind over a period of time," he says. "I started thinking about it really when my son was the same age as I was during the war." Initially, Boorman thought of making the film for television, but then, he admits, "I got sort of cold feet about the whole thing. I thought it was completely unmanageable -- I mean, all these relations completely unsusceptible to direction. It would be like trying to organize charades at Christmas."
So he put it aside for a number of years, waiting for a time when he might feel ready to take it on again. Finally, about two years ago, the time was right.
"Actually, I wanted to do it for my mother, who's 86 now and incredibly well preserved, but I wanted her to be able to see it. But then, after all this, she almost didn't. Just a few weeks before I finished the picture, she got run over. She was trying to cross the road and was hit by a car. How she survived I don't know. She was completely covered in bruises. She said when she landed the car tire was right at her head and she thought, 'I can't die yet. I haven't seen the movie.' "
Boorman approaches the making of all his films as a communal family affair, involving as many members of his own family as possible, both in front of and behind the camera, but with "Hope and Glory," this aspect became even more pronounced. (One of Boorman's daughters, Katrine, and his son Charlie -- who starred in "The Emerald Forest" -- have parts in the film.) It was, he admits, a remarkable time. "In the beginning, it was quite intimidating for the actors, having all these family members around. Right before we started shooting, in particular, everyone was very nervous. I brought my mother and her sisters down so they could talk to the actors, and they were a bit taken aback, particularly poor Ian Bannen, who plays my grandfather in the film. Suddenly these four women were telling him exactly how he should speak and behave. Also, out of nowhere, all these old grievances began to arise -- grievances between the sisters and Grandfather -- which they laid at the feet of poor Ian. At the same time we were building the sets, the interiors of the houses and all that, so they'd walk in and my mother would say, 'Oh, you can't have that there. It doesn't belong on the mantelpiece, it belongs on the sideboard.' It triggered so many memories for them; it was like a sort of time machine."
Though making the film and returning to favorite places was enjoyable for them, actually seeing it was a bit of a jolt. "It was, I think, upsetting for them," Boorman says, standing up for a second and adjusting his baggy slacks. "The first time was very emotional. My older sister, who was the model for the Dawn character, just couldn't stop crying afterwards."
"Hope and Glory" is Boorman's 10th film, and if you believe most of what's been written about it, a radical departure for him. And it's true that the film is more straightforward, more humane -- and, most of all, funnier -- than anything he's done before. But "Hope and Glory" is also the film that demonstrates how much of a piece Boorman's work is. "Actually, every time I do a movie, I'm confronted by critics and journalists who say to me, 'Isn't this film completely different from anything you've ever done before?' Then when it's seen from a distance and slotted in, the patterns become clearer. Michel Ciment, the French critic who wrote a book on my films, when he saw it, said, 'You should have made this film first, because it has all the sources of all your other films in it.' "
After watching his pictures, you get the feeling Boorman isn't exactly the sort of guy who's most at home kicking off his boots in some uptown New York hotel. Luxury -- at least luxury New York style -- is not his natural habitat.
Then again, what is the natural habitat of a man who ran off to a remote island in the Philippines to film "Hell in the Pacific"? Or spent two years up the Amazon to make "The Emerald Forest"? Or who ventured deep into the redneck wilderness of the South to make "Deliverance"?
Boorman is a man defined by action -- and by place -- and here at the Sherry Netherland he seems profoundly out of place. So where is there a place for John Boorman?
The answer is Ireland. But it took him a while to get there.
After leaving the river idyll of his boyhood, he lived for a time around London making documentaries for television. Between 1956 and 1964, he says, he made hundreds of them, some quite audacious for their day. But after a while, the restrictions of factual reporting, even in the experimental style he employed, became too restrictive. "You get to a point in making documentaries where it becomes very frustrating that you can't penetrate the characters. You feel always on the outside, and that the private areas are forbidden."
From documentaries, Boorman went on, in 1965, to make his first feature, "Catch Us If You Can," starring the Dave Clark Five, and, riding the wave of good response to that film, headed for California.
The California experience for Boorman can be summed up in one story. At one point in 1967 during the making of "Point Blank," a violent thriller starring Lee Marvin -- which along with "Bonnie and Clyde" helped blow out the cobwebs in American filmmaking -- the producers at MGM, after watching the rushes, brought in a psychiatrist to make sure exactly what kind of fellow they were dealing with. "He asked me a number of questions," Boorman says. "About perfectly innocent things, my political views, things like that. Then, out of nowhere, he fixes me with a look and says, 'So tell me Mister Boorman, what do you think of Franz Kafka?' "
Boorman claims to have had tremendous great luck in Hollywood -- some of which he attributes to Marvin -- but after making "Hell in the Pacific" in 1968, he and his wife Christel felt the need to pack up their daughters, who were "sun-soaked, marinated in Coca-Cola, and blanding by the day," and flee to Ireland. In Ireland, Boorman set down roots and later wrote about the experience.
"Convalescent from L.A. future shock, we fell back together into myth ... I was once again, as I had been as a child, living out a family life that shut out the world, that turned in on itself. Not a nuclear family, but a solar family, all bodies turning in harmonious orbit, the tensions equal and opposite: All were free to move but none could escape or break away without shattering the house, the valley, the family and sending fragments scattering into the present world and beyond ... So I had found my way back, into a place of women, dancing to the steps of Isis, recreating the conditions of childhood."
"I feel myself very sensitive to the spirit of place," Boorman confesses. "At my house in Ireland I just planted 6,000 oaks, trying to reproduce the conditions of the primeval oak forest, with the underplanting of holly and hazel and so forth. And I have a river that runs through my place. Being there amongst those things is something I need very much."
The forest, the river, the liberation through violence -- these are the themes and symbols in Boorman's personal mythology. Time after time, they turn up in his films, giving them structure and resonance. And over and over again he attempts to work out his relationship with them, in both his work and his life. "The thing of escaping from civilization and the quest for some kind of harmony with Nature -- which I suppose began with this magical connection I had as a child with the river and coming out that city and all that destruction -- is something that I have been looking for. It's something I've been trying to rediscover all my life."
Where these obsessions come from Boorman can't quite say -- though "Hope and Glory" provides us with some clues -- but he does admit that making movies is his way of working them through. "While you're creating a film -- that is when you're writing it -- you don't think in intellectual terms. I never think, 'Oh, I must get a river into this.' It's just that I'm drawn to doing scenes in a certain way and that's how it emerges.
"But I don't really know why I make films," he says bluntly, moving back a bit in his chair. "It is a compulsion. I don't really enjoy it that much really. I certainly don't like shooting them. I enjoy preparing them, writing them. But there's too much pressure during the shooting. And because I've planned it and visualized it, it always falls short of what I intend. Each day ends in disappointment. So the shooting is always ... painful."
What he'd like to be able to do, he says, is make films as effortlessly as the late Spanish director Luis Bunåuel did. "They just sort of flowed out of him. I'm sure he worked very hard, but his films just seemed like a part of him. Jeanne Moreau said to me, 'All directors are liars. When you meet them they're completely different before they make the film than they are while you're making it.' The only one who was consistent, she said, was Bunåuel. And he was the only one who never seemed to be trying at all."
For Boorman, coming to the end of his quest may be as simple as learning to follow the beat of his own imagination. "When you're writing a film," Boorman explains, "you forge it in a certain pattern. Then when you actually start to shoot it, the movie gathers strength and takes on its own voice. And you listen to this voice -- this song, this tune -- and you have to respond to it. You end up serving it. You catch the rhythm and follow it, and you become a kind of servant to the picture. You start out as the master, and you end up as the servant."
At various places in almost all his movies, song has overwhelmed sense. Over the course of his career, his movies have been marked by a loopy brilliance; it's as if they had been made by a mad Jungian apostate with the movie-making disease. His work has been exuberant, visionary and half out of its gourd. But it has never been predictable or stale. "The only films I want to do are the ones where I'm not sure what they're about. I always see them as a kind of adventure, a quest, in some way a journey of discovery. You begin not knowing really where you're going and you find out as you go along. And I suppose that's a process of self-discovery, too."