Director John Boorman on Young Christopher Walken, Lord Of the Rings, and Violence in Film

Photo: Dominique Charriau/Getty Images

If the movies of Irish filmmaker John Boorman have a common theme, it’s their shared interest in the restorative value of violence. That central theme, of finding rebirth from the ashes of destruction, isn’t easy to swallow, but it’s at the heart of many of Boorman’s most notable films, including Point Blank, Deliverance, Hell in the Pacific, and even Exorcist II: The Heretic. Boorman was honored at MoMA recently with special screenings of two of his most radical films: Leo the Last, a comic allegory about class warfare starring Marcello Mastroianni; and Excalibur, Boorman’s spectacular reimagining of the Arthurian legend. Vulture talked to Boorman about his science-fiction film Zardoz, young Christopher Walken, and Lord of the Rings.

Of the two movies you’re presenting at MoMA, Leo the Last is unfortunately the lesser-known. It’s striking in that it’s like several of your other films in its concern with destructive rejuvenation. It’s also a comedy! I wondered if you could talk about your memories of that film’s production, especially talking to your actors about tone, and effectively taking over a little cul de sac in London …
Sure. Let’s step back a bit: That part of London was predominantly West-Indian. The West-Indian immigrants came there in the ‘50s, and they were very badly treated, particularly by a landlord named [Peter Rachman,] who was renting rooms out, ten to a room. The idea I had was to have this character — Mastroianni — who has inherited wealth, and has no idea where the money comes from. The street where we shot was set to be demolished. They were rebuilding, so I was able to have access to it. The houses were all there, but the people were all gone — except for one man who stayed. So I repainted the street [black and white] because I had this notion to shoot everything in black and white, save for the characters’ skin tones.

There are a lot of influences in that film. I was very influenced by T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The character of Leo was very much a Prufrock figure. And the film’s music, by Fred Myrow … Myrow’s father [Josef Myrow] was a Hollywood songwriter. One of his songs was “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Fred studied music, and he was so ashamed of his father’s songwriting that he wrote the most dreadful, atonal music. When I got him to do the score, I told him that we needed something to tell the story. And [it] was partly because the film is kind of a silent movie. You’re seeing life through a telescope, so you can’t hear what’s being said. That was something I really enjoyed doing.

Mastroianni’s presence is one of the biggest influences on the film. You cast him after seeing him in Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer. How did he first respond to his character, and how did you work with him toward creating his character?
His English wasn’t full-cooked, so he’d often say, “Show me.” In that way, he would get me to play him, and he would then do it. But he was a Stradivarius: You could play any song on him, and it would sound beautiful. He was extraordinary. His sense of communication was so fine-tuned that I was constantly cutting dialogue because he’d convey what I was trying to say without the dialogue.

Like you did with Lee Marvin and Point Blank.
Yeah, to some extent, yeah.

Both Leo the Last and Zardoz end with tremendous scenes of destruction. And Zardoz just celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year. For that movie, you referred your cast to an article about a colony of mice, which you used an example of the kind of societal breakdown your film anticipated. What kind of questions did you get from your cast and crew about the making of this film?
At the time, it was becoming clear that the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged was getting greater, and that the well-off were living longer, and the poor just weren’t living at all. So I told them that if that gap kept getting greater and greater, the privileged would have access to medicine and food. And if they kept living longer and longer, why not become immortal? That was my starting point.

I had two great people working: Tony Pratt, who did the [production] design, and the great cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth. Geoffrey invented this style of lighting where he would put a fog filter at the back of the camera to diffuse the interiors. And then he shot all his shots with the lens wide open. A lot of people tried to copy his method, but they missed out. In the end, major studios banned his method because high-speed printing wasn’t strong enough to stand up to Unsworth’s process. But after that point, there were a number of films done in that method that have survived.

It was very difficult to communicate the kind of picture I was trying to make, but I had those two allies, and they really helped me through it.

If I may ask a silly question: What conversations did you have with Sean Connery about his wardrobe or lack thereof?
Well: This is what you’ve got. This is what you’re going to wear. So he’d put it on and say,  “Okay.” There was never any argument. He was a very explosive character. At the end of the film we shoot a scene where his characters ages rapidly, and with the makeup, that scene took a whole day. So we’d shoot a bit, take him out, put on more makeup, shoot a bit more, and so on. When we finished it, we sent the film to the lab, and the lab scratched it. So we had to do it all over again the following day. Sean hated makeup, hated anything touching his skin. He was very grumpy the whole day when we shot the scene. So when I told him that we had to do it again, he was absolutely enraged. Enraged!

At any rate, we did it all over again, all day long, the whole process. And the assistant camera-loader opened the camera and exposed the film. So we had to do the process again. Sean wouldn’t believe me; he thought I was teasing him. When I convinced him that we needed to do it for the third time, he went after this camera-loader and nearly killed him. It took three grips to restrain him. [Laughs.]

Was the camera-loader okay?
What happened was … that was the last time I’d heard of him until years later. He’d changed his name. This had become such a famous story in the film business that this guy couldn’t get a job or anything. So he changed his name and is working as a commercial cameraman now.

Certain key images recur throughout your films. In Zardoz, the image of Zed’s gun emerging from the corn early on is parallel to the presentation of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake in Excalibur. But if Zardoz is most like any of your films, it’s like Point Blank, since both follow these catalysts who try to fulfill an alienated society’s death wish. Talk a little about that image of Arthur’s sword … it seems to serve as a symbol for a paradoxically destructive element that helps its user find his place in the world.
I was very much influenced by Jung at the time, and Jung’s notion of the archetypes. So in Excalibur, the archetypes are more clearly and openly presented: the Merlin figure and Arthur. They’re very fine archetypes. This notion you mention of renewal through destruction is also in Leo the Last, which ends with a character saying, “We didn’t change the world: We changed our street.” And in Zardoz, the destruction of society was necessary for life to continue. Of course that film was very unsuccessful, you know. It never did well in any territory … France. Leo was not a successful film, either, but it was successful in France. Zardoz was never successful anywhere.

When I made Zardoz, I thought it had enough elements to engage an audience. But I think the notion of these immortals [being] rather effete was off-putting. The protagonists were rather effete, and not easy to identify with. So that left Zed as the figure you could identify with. But he was perhaps too much of a [brute]. [Laughs.]

It’s always shocking to see the “20th Century Fox” logo at the start of Zardoz given how radical the film’s ending is. It’s more accessible than, say, El Topo, because your film is a science-fiction narrative. How did you feel about Fox’s release strategy? You’ve previously said that distributors were scared of the film’s subject matter …
They didn’t do anything with it. They lost heart very well. At the time, when it opened, it did attract quite a number of disciples. In fact, Zardoz lovers would sometimes rent a bus and go to some outlying place to watch [the film]. Remember the green bread in the film? Whenever I’d visit the States — whenever I came to Los Angeles — a loaf of green bread would always be waiting for me.

Do you know who’s sending you the bread?
Yes, I have had correspondence with the guy. It went on for several years, then it sort of petered out.

In an interview with Michel Ciment, you sympathetically related a quote from Lee Marvin with regard to his role in Hell in the Pacific: “I’m sick of killing people to gratify millions of spectators. From now on they can kill each other.” Do you think that there’s an inherent self-loathing quality to Americans’ fascination with violence in films?
Yes. Violence has always been a primary color of the cinema. Our fascination with it is to do with our fear of it. Now, Lee always said that America was founded on violence, like the destruction of the Indians. So he could only express himself through the violence in the cinema. I think you can take that position. There’s something cathartic about destruction. Though it’s always very easy to blow something up in the end. [Laughs.] But that’s much more basic: It’s really based on the Hindu notion of birth coming from destruction. That’s always my guiding principle.

Going back to the notion of Jungian archetypes: The Exorcist II has one of the most amazing scenes in your filmography, the synchronizer hypnosis scene. I wondered if you could tell me about filming that scene. Did your initial conception of that scene change as you shot it or edited it, given the involvement of your actors or editor Tom Priestley?
There are two or three scenes with the synchronizer. I think you’re probably referring to the scene where she dreams of the boy. This was quite fascinating: We shot that scene of the locusts on Stage 16 of Warner Brothers, the biggest studio stage. And we had … the locust effect, the swarm of locusts was done with glass and metal filings. We moved a magnet underneath, and it made the filings swirl around. As for the intercutting during the hypnosis scene: That caused people to have seizures. You know how on TV, they warn you about strobing? Some people were affected in that way by that sequence.

Actors like Marvin and Connery convey their respective movies’ tones so wonderful. Early on, you thought to cast Christopher Walken as Richard Burton’s priest in Exorcist II, though Walken wasn’t given the part because he was an unknown at the time. What was Walken’s audition like and what attracted you to him?
I never wanted Richard Burton, really. The studio kind of imposed him. I thought his character would be much younger, so I wanted Jon Voight to play the part. He prevaricated for a long time and finally decided he didn’t want to do it. He had a big problem … he was in the seminary. He was going to become a Jesuit priest. So he had a very complicated relationship with this spiritual world. It would have been a much different film if he had done it. But that’s the way it goes.

But what attracted you to Walken?
To Christopher Walken? [Pauses.] There was something brittle about him that I found interesting. You always felt that Walken could break at any point, that he could snap. And that was something that could be used.

Do you still believe that “the occult and the cinema are natural companions?”
What I should have said was “magic.” Magic and the cinema are natural partners. When I was preparing to do The Emerald Forest, I had the great privilege of living with an indigenous tribe. They didn’t know that anything else outside of their tribe existed until I arrived. And I tried to explain to their shaman what I did for a living. They had never seen television or films before. So it was extremely difficult to explain what I did. So when I explained to him that through your film, you could see a whole landscape, or a face, or travel in time using flashbacks, he said, “When we’re in trance, that’s exactly what we do: We travel over the top of the rain, we go back and meet with our ancestors.”

I think film is very much connected to dreams, to dreaming, and the unconscious. That’s where its real power lies. Film has really been vulgarized by Hollywood. You can’t help but feel [Hollywood] has lost its way. Really good films get made, somehow or another, despite this tendency towards vulgarity and mindlessness.

There’s a truism about how a filmmaker’s unrealized projects always wind up expressing themselves somehow through their other work. Has your Lord of the Rings film seeped into the groundwater of your other films?
Oh, yeah. United Artists had the rights. And Rospo Pallenberg, who worked with me from time to time, and I spent months breaking down the Tolkien books. But there was no point in writing stuff that we couldn’t make, so I had to devise special effects that would work. I spent a lot of time researching special-effects methods … this was before CGI, of course. And all that effort went into Excalibur. All the effects for Excalibur were done in-camera. That was what I got out of Lord of the Rings. But had I made the film at that time, [Peter Jackson] couldn’t have made his trilogy, which is an astonishing piece of work, wasn’t it?

You know, Tolkien never really wanted a film to be made of his books. He said to me, “You’re doing as live-action or animation?” I said, Live-action.” He said, “Good, because I have this nightmare of it being turned into an animated film.” Which it eventually was, by Ralph Bakshi. Then again, Tolkien died before then. I think Peter Jackson did an astonishing job. I think it’s one of the great artworks of the 20th century. I don’t know how he did it. I said to him, “I have one question to ask you: How did making those three films not kill you?” And he said, “You know what? That is the key question. I can’t answer it. I escaped death by a hair.”

There’s been a lot of speculation about how you recently commented that Queen and Country would be “a good film to end on.” Please tell me it’s not your last film.
When I made it, I had that intention. In fact, the last shot in the film is the main character filming his girlfriend with a 16mm camera. And they’re by the pool, and she’s acting like she’s drowning. But he soon thinks she is actually drowning, so he leaves the camera rolling and he dives in to save her. But she’s only kidding. So we cut the camera, this wind-up camera. And it stops. I put that shot in as my intention to stop filming.

But I think there’s one more script I’d like to do, called Halfway House. It’s a kind of variation on the Orpheus legend. I’m going to do that.

Can you tell us a little more about that project?
This guy is a physicist, a particle physicist. He has this woman he deeply falls in love with, and she dies. He’s so consumed with grief that he somehow manages to find her in this halfway house, which is where people first go when they die. In the story, this is a house where you’re given a tape of your life. And you’re required to edit it down to three hours so you can pass on. And you have to make it entertaining. You show it, and if audiences don’t enjoy, you have to come back and work on it again.

At this moment in time, what’s your favorite of your films?
Of my films? It’s hard to say. I have great affection for Hope and Glory because it’s about my family, and about something I experienced. I made Point Blank in a state of grace. It was a journey I made with Lee Marvin, and Lee was prepared to do anything. He was absolutely courageous, and he was capable of doing anything. I think that film … there are things in that film I don’t quite understand how I did them, or how we did it.

But the most complete film is Deliverance. When I look at that film, there isn’t one shot that I would change, which is not the case with most of my other films. [Laughs.]

You would change something in Zardoz?
I tell you what I would do: I would have done much more with the scene where Charlotte Rampling watches Connery remember raping that girl. I didn’t push that to what it should have been. At the time, I felt making it more violent, more sexual would have distorted the tone of the film. But I should have gone further with it.

Director John Boorman on Violence in Film