"How long have you been coming to Cannes?" asks the venerable British director John Boorman, taking in the surrounding scene of tripods and cameras set up in a makeshift photo studio at a beachside restaurant.
It's a rhetorical question.
"I first came here in 1970 with 'Leo the Last,' " Boorman continues. "It was very relaxed then, a lot of fun."
This isn't fun?
In the last three hours, Boorman, 65, has held a press conference for his latest film, "The General," had lunch with non-French European press, spent a few minutes posing for the photograph that accompanies this article, done an hour with the French press, and is now squeezing 20 minutes in for a reporter who's about to ask whether his leaving Los Angeles for Ireland 30 years ago had anything do with his disenchantment with Hollywood.
"I think what's changed Cannes is television," Boorman offers. "We used to come here and talk seriously about our films. Now, it's. . . well, it's different. And the same thing's happened to the Oscars. When I was nominated for 'Deliverance' in 1972, it was hardly mentioned in the papers in England. Nowadays, it's huge news. The cult of celebrity has taken over the movie business."
There's not much celebrity with "The General." Boorman's a star with the critics and Cannes veterans; besides "Leo the Last," which won him a best director award, he's been in competition here with "Excalibur" and "Beyond Rangoon," and accompanied "Emerald Forest," the closing night film of the 1985 festival. But he's the whole show for "The General." Jon Voight, the only name actor in the cast, couldn't make it.
"The General" has received a bit of an indifferent reaction. It's not a political Irish film, though the IRA is nominally represented, and its main character, the real-life Dublin outlaw Martin Cahill (played by Irish actor Brendan Gleeson), is a brutal, mostly unappealing figure. Cahill emerged from Dublin's ghetto with a passion for embarrassing authority, which he did with great success until one of his enemies in the IRA shot him dead in the streets in 1994.
But Boorman stands by his man.
"I think Cahill represents a certain part of the Irish character, a rogue figure much like Michael Collins. He was funny, cunning, bright, and had a lust for life. He could also be very brutal."
"The General," one of the best-looking black-and-white movies shown here in a while, follows Cahill from his childhood to his death, and the film neatly combines the classic British caper film with both biography and social commentary. Boorman says the real attraction for him in profiling Cahill was the subtext of Ireland during a period when the country was essentially criminalized.
"There was this state of flux and change, breaking away from the church and from Europe, and the uncertainty of Irish identity. Because Cahill was opposed to society, it seemed a good way to express that idea."
In any case, "The General" is a marked departure for Boorman, who has, even in exile from England and Hollywood, concentrated on movies done on large, certainly colorful, canvases. He says he decided to shoot it in black-and-white because he didn't want to glamorize the subject--"Color tends to prettify things"--and because he could.
"This is an independent film. There was no studio or distributor looking over my shoulder, so why not? I love black-and-white and miss it very much." Boorman's "Point Blank" is prominently mentioned as one of the seminal films of the late '60s and early '70s in Peter Biskin's new book on that period, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," and Boorman looks back on those days, the days when directors were king, with great fondness.
Today, stars make most of the creative decisions, through the leverage power of their production companies, and, says Boorman in deliberate understatement, "actors aren't necessarily the best people to judge the quality of material."
So why did he leave L.A.?
"I just felt that if I'd stayed, I would have fallen into the system, I would have been making just studio movies," he says. "I've always been a kind of non-joiner. I've always tried to stay out of systems and go my own way. So, I'm quite happy to be isolated in Ireland."
"The General," made on a budget of about $7 million, is being released by Warner Bros. in the United Kingdom, and by Sony Pictures Classics in the United States. The release date is to be determined, but Boorman understands that in the new American film industry, its only real chance of finding a large audience is through a late fall release and some awards.
That's what happened with "Hope and Glory," his 1987 autobiographical film about life in London during the Blitz. Like "Deliverance," "Hope and Glory" was nominated for both best picture and best director.
However isolated Boorman may be in Ireland, he hasn't lost his sense of humor about the business he's in. At the press conference, he was asked if he'd read the script for the upcoming Mel Gibson movie "Payback," which is a remake of "Point Blank," and whether he was flattered or agitated by it. Boorman said he had read the "Payback" script and answered the second part of the question with this apocryphal anecdote:
"When I was trying to get 'Point Blank' made with Lee Marvin, I had the producer send him the script and when I met with him [afterward], I said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'It's terrible, but the character's fascinating.' We had a number of meetings and one night, about 2 in the morning, he said to me, 'Well, here's what I'll do. I'll do the picture with you on one condition. . . .' He took the script and threw it out the window, and it fell to the ground where, apparently, Mel Gibson picked it up."
After the laughter died down, Boorman added: "I take the view that I made the remake and Mel Gibson is doing the original."