HE TRUSTS HIS OWN INSTINCTS : A DIRECTOR WHO TRUSTS HIS NATIVE INSTINCTS
“The problem today,” said John Boorman, “is that the film-marketing people want stories that can be sold in a 30-second TV spot. A shot of Sylvester Stallone covered in mud and holding a gun--that tells it all. But where does that leave me. . . ?”
Where that leaves the highly individualistic British director is a long way up the Amazon with a complicated story that defies telling in 30 seconds. But, briefly, his new movie “The Emerald Forest,” opening citywide Wednesday, is about a construction engineer working in South America whose 7-year-old son is kidnaped in the jungle. When finally located, the boy is a 17-year-old Indian warrior and the future chief of his tribe.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 07, 1985 IMPERFECTIONS & RECANTATIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 7, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Roderick Mann incorrectly gave director John Boorman credit for coming upon the true story upon which “The Emerald Forest” is partly based (June 30), but agent John Gaines wrote to defend the honor of his client Rospo Pallenberg--who read the original news item story 13 years ago, developed a story around it and wrote the screenplay that Boorman shot.
How do you wrap that one up quickly?
“You don’t,” says Boorman, resignedly.
Boorman, 52, has never made run-of-the-mill movies. They don’t interest him. And so, from his hand, we have had films like “Deliverance,” “Zardoz,” “Point Blank” and “Excalibur.”
Some did well. Some foundered. One (“The Heretic,” the sequel to “The Exorcist”) was actually booed off the screen. All were different. But none exacted from Boorman the patience and persistence needed to bring “The Emerald Forest” to the screen.
He first came across the story in The Times 13 years ago. A Peruvian engineer working in South America had lost his son in the jungle. When found, he was living with a remote tribe. Boorman was at once intrigued and, with scriptwriter Rospo Pallenberg, set to work.
Interestingly, the studios in this venture proved more difficult. Four studios turned it down flat. Someone pointed out that a recent survey showed that 25% of college graduates didn’t even know the Amazon was in South America. One young movie executive said: “Who gives a damn about Indians?”
In his diary, written at the time and soon to be published as “The Emerald Forest, A Diary,” Boorman noted cynically: “This lack of enthusiasm from Hollywood encourages me that we are on to something good.”
“I like films about exploration,” he said in Los Angeles the other day. “And so I was not deterred. And I was intrigued at the idea of filming in the Amazon rain forest in areas which were not explored until recently. It was a bit like stepping back into a time machine.”
Before setting off to visit the remote tribes, he was given a very involved medical examination in Brasilia.
“The tribes in the rain forest cannot cope with our illnesses,” he said. “They have no immunity. And so, when I finally arrived and accidentally sneezed in front of some of them, they leaped away angrily and began rattling their bows. The common cold is highly dangerous to them.”
Boorman soon realized that he could not use the jungle tribes for his movie. It would prove too destructive and, anyway, it would be difficult to get them to do what he wanted. Instead, he recruited de-tribalized Indians in Rio and Belem, natives who had wandered into the towns and were easier to handle.
He then decided to take a big gamble and cast his own son, 17-year-old Charley Boorman, as the engineer’s son who is eventually found in the jungle living with a native tribe.
“It was a difficult decision,” Boorman said. “But I’d tested dozens of youngsters and none was right. And because Charley suffers from dyslexia and couldn’t even read until two years ago, he had a simplicity which I hadn’t found in other actors. He’s worked with me before, of course (the young Mordred in “Excalibur”), but he didn’t want to do this one. He felt it was too much responsibility. So I found myself in the odd position of pleading with my own son.”
Boorman admits that he likes working with his family. His wife Christel was costume designer on “Excalibur” and two of his three daughters had roles in it. On “The Emerald Forest,” his wife again did the costumes.
“It’s quite simple,” he said. “I like working with them.”
Once they got going, some of the horror stories they had been told about the diseases awaiting them in the jungle proved to be true.
Surprisingly, Boorman found the jungle invigorating.
“There’s so much oxygen there that you feel absolutely wonderful a lot of the time,” he said. “I’d go out running with the Indians--who never eat during the day when they’re hunting--and get a terrific high from that highly oxidized air. I found I had a lot of energy.”
He could do with some of that extra energy now that he’s moving around promoting his picture. He hasn’t a clue how it will do and, wisely, refrains from making forecasts. He’s been wrong before, as he’s quick to tell you.
“I was offered ‘Rocky’ to direct,” he said. “I turned it down and for a long time Bob Chartoff (who co-produced with Irwin Winkler) kept the letter I wrote him framed on his desk. It ran something like this: ‘Not only do I not want to make the film, I don’t think you should make it. Audiences will never accept it; it will get laughed off the screen.”
He admits that he also turned down “Dirty Harry,” “Alien,” “Quest for Fire” and “The Exorcist"--to which he made the much-reviled sequel.
“I should never have done it,” he said. “It was a traumatic experience for me, that one. People were actually throwing things at the screen and ripping up their seats. After that, I felt I really was out of touch with public opinion. It took me a long time to restore my confidence.”
Chartoff and Winkler were the first producers to bring Boorman to America. He had made a small English musical, “Catch Us if You Can,” when a script came his way as a possible vehicle for Lee Marvin, then at the peak of his career. Marvin was at that time in London making “The Dirty Dozen,” so Boorman went to see him. Marvin said yes and “Point Blank,” produced by Chartoff-Winkler, came into being.
“Lee was wonderful to me,” Boorman said. “He knew nothing about me but he deferred all his approvals to me and contributed tremendously to the story of ‘Point Blank.’ Many of the things I got credit for are actually his. He taught me so much.” He later worked with Marvin again on “Hell in the Pacific” with Toshiro Mifune.
In a couple of weeks’ time, his promotional chores finished, Boorman will return to his Georgian mansion set amid the green hills of Ireland’s County Wicklow, a place where he can sneeze to his heart’s content without scaring the natives. Sometimes, he tells friends, he fancies retiring there and living the lazy life of an Irish gentleman. The mood rarely lasts long.