This past week I was given the opportunity to participate in a collection roundtable sessions with John Boorman, director of the soon-to-be released In My Country, as well as its two stars, Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson. The first of these interviews I’ll be presenting this week is Boorman, the man behind such classics as Deliverance, Hope and Glory and The General. And of course there’s Excaliber.
Listening to Boorman speak was akin to hearing a college professor. He rambled at times, but his comments also reflected an insight of a man who doesn’t just read books, but travels and experiences things. I respected him as a director and enjoyed hearing him talk about his craft. The following are questions and answers from that roundtable session.
Question: How did you get involved in making In My Country?
John Boorman: Well, it’s a bit of a long story. I’d been to South Africa in the 1970s during the worst time of apartheid. And I traveled around to the townships, and it was a very moving experience. I became friends with a lot of people, both black and white, who were struggling against apartheid within the country, at great risk of being incarcerated and tortured. They were very brave people. And so I kept up with these people, and of course I was very excited when Mandela managed to pull this thing (the end of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) off without a bloodbath. And then Antjie Krog wrote the book,“Country of my Skull”, which was about her coving of the TRC. She, herself an Afrikaner, had to confront the horrors that were done in the name of her race. And the human drama in stunning proportions were detailed in this experiment, the TRC, which had never occurred in human history. Offering amnesty to perpetrators, providing they confronted the victims and they told the truth. These guys had to tell the truth, because if it was discovered that they hadn’t told the truth then they wouldn’t get amnesty. It was an extraordinary drama. But the amnesty thing wasn’t the most important thing of the TRC, it was about giving the people the opportunity to tell their stories. Because everything had been hidden for so long, everything had been suppressed, particularly truth. So the TRC traveled to wherever these things had occurred and people came forward and told these stories. It was really powerful how this all came about.
Q: I was wondering about the love story between Anna and Langston. Was that in the original novel, or did that become important in the screenplay?
JB: Well, in the book, (Koge) describes her feelings about covering the TRC. She had to confront the horrors that were done in the name of her race, even though she had always been outspoken about apartheid. And in the course of this she’d had an affair, which came out of a kind of “fellow emotional sufferer” kind of relationship, where the affair was more of a release than anything else. So with (the fictional) Langston we wanted to introduce someone who came from the outside who would, basically, share the ignorance of the audience who may not know much or anything about the events. And the idea of the relationship between the two of them, what we wanted was for their relationship to mirror what was happening between blacks and whites in South Africa.
Q: Was this movie’s focal point supposed to be on the relationship, or the atrocities. Because it felt like the relationship got more attention.
JB: We didn’t simply want to have a series of testimonies, we needed to have some kind of shape to connect them all.
Q: What is you’re approach when it comes to making films?
JB: I like to rehearse a lot, and I make my decisions about where the camera goes and the angle, and I don’t shoot a lot of takes and I don’t shoot a lot of coverage. I make my decisions early on.
Q: Does it take a long time for you to shoot a film?
JB: Well, it does take me two to three years to make a film. I either write it myself, or work very closely with the writer, and we work on many, many drafts of the script. And I rehearse for a long time, and then I also spend a lot of time in the cutting room. Then we have to do things like this, which takes time.
Q: Can you talk about the casting a bit, particularly why you chose Juliette for the role of Anna?
JB: A lot of actresses wanted to play this part, particularly Charlize Theron, who is herself from South Africa. In fact, she comes from an Afrikaner background, and it’s her first language. And I know her very well. I talked with her about it quite a bit, but I just felt that the fact that she was South African really just wasn’t enough. The emotional thing is the most important, and Juliette has this extraordinary ability. Just like Krog, she’s strong and vulnerable. And she has a way to express pain and grief that is in no way self indulgent. She’s extremely serious, and she was right for the part. Emotionally and spiritually she was the right actress to play the part… Sam Jackson, who himself is a very dedicated actor, and prepares well, he was looking at Juliette’s script. And on the blank side she would write notes. She let Sam borrow her script once. He was astonished, because she had all these columns of notes, and references to audio tapes. For each scene she would have references to all her research. In another column, she had information that related to herself and her own life. Then when we were shooting the scene, she’d have the notes and listen to certain sections of her tapes. He was astonished by her depth of research.
Q: Do you put a lot of focus on casting? How important do you think it is?
JB: Casting is so important. If a film works, there’s often a bit of luck involved. But if you get the right cast, it’s all about how they connect to each other. I find casting very difficult. I never have an actor in mind when I write. The only time I ever did that was with Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, because he was the starting point. I was writing it for him. I’d been making documentaries about people, and in a wayPoint Blank was really a study of him, Lee Marvin. When it comes to casting, I find it all terribly, terribly difficult because each time you cast a role then you’re giving that character away. You’re essentially giving that actor the character, and he has to make it his own. And it changes. And so what I’ve learned is that it’s futile to try and force the actor into the character, you have to go with the character the actor makes it, how it changes. That’s the key to it, to allow the character to change to fit the character, not the other way around.
Q: Were any of the actors or stories during the TRC scenes in In My Country real South Africans?
JB: The stories that we told were representative of many testimonies. They tended to fall into different groups and types. The only one that absolutely followed, word for word, a real story was the one that a lot of people find preposterous. It’s the one where the little boy embraces the killer of his mother, which is exactly what happened. I just reproduced it. But all of the actors who were South African had stories from that time.
Q: There may be comparisons, partially because both films take place in the 90s and in Africa, between this film and Hotel Rwanda. Do you think that helps this movie?
JB: I don’t know. Rwanda is not South Africa, and in Rwanda it’s one black tribe against another black tribe, so it’s different. I think (Hotel Rwanda)’s a wonderful film. But I suppose that in the sense that it’s in Africa, there’s a similarity. If it helps, I suppose that would be good.
Q: Does this film have a special place for you, considering your connection to South Africa and bringing together the personal and political?
JB: I just felt very lucky to make this film, and to go there and witness what was going on, and in a sense to pay back those people that I met in South Africa that I met in the 70s as a kind of tribute to them.
Q: Was it a difficult film for you to make?
JB: No, it was an easy film. It was emotionally very difficult. I was emotionally drained after I finished shooting it, because everyone involved, all those extras, had their own tragic stories. After the testimony was heard during the shoot, they would all start to tell their stories. It was just an emotionally overwhelming experience.
Q: What’s you’re next project?
JB: I’ve been working for a year or so now on a film based on a book called,“Memoirs of Hadrian”, which is by Marguerite Yourcenar. It’s very difficult, because he was a Roman who didn’t fight. It’s a story about the Roman Empire without a battle. But what drew me to it was because it’s about the nature of an empire. Just like capitalism, it only works if its getting bigger. And if you’re not growing, you’re declining. The Roman Empire was always expanding, which was based on the army and the army. When you retired from the army you got land, but you needed more and more land for that concept to work. But what Hadrian did was to say that we’re expanding too much, we can’t control it, and he pulled back, much to the shock of the army. And that’s why he built that wall, Hadrian’s Wall, to separate England and Scotland. And he’s a fascinating man, so that’s why I’m working on that.
Q: What message would you like American audiences to come away with from this film?
JB: I would say two things: First, that torture never works. It’s degrading to the people who perpetrate it, and the people who receive it. Second, that forgiveness is possible, and is probably the only way forward for the human race.