John Boorman has never been one to mince his words. His films cover a vast range of genres and subjects, but all contain emotional impact in the service of ideas. Boorman has a distinctive relationship to landscape and how a social milieu effects the individual. Unlike many Hollywood films, his movies have a strong sense of place… the Amazon rainforest in “The Emerald Forest,” World War II London in “Hope and Glory,” Appalachian back water in “Deliverance,” Burma’s military junta in “Beyond Rangoon,” post-Apartheid South Africa in “In My Country” and contemporary Ireland in his latest “Tiger’s Tail.”
It is a black comedy about an Irish magnate whose life is turned upside down when he discovers his “double” … actually a twin brother. Both parts are played by Brendan Gleeson, who worked with Boorman on “In My Country,” “The General,” and “The Tailor of Panama.” In the context of the Irish Miracle, the good and bad, the two characters try to get a grip on their identity.
I spoke with the director in San Sebastian, Spain on the occasion of the film’s World Premiere. “I wanted to make a film about contemporary Ireland because it has changed so violently in the last few years,” Boorman says. “It has gone from being a poor country to being a rich country, but it has produced a new underclass as well as jammed traffic, hospitals that are all a mess, and a life with great tensions. At the same time we have thrown off the yoke of the church. Its almost gone, so quickly.”
“Due to Globalization and rabid capitalism there is a loss of identity,” Boorman says. This is particularly true for the boy, Liam’s son, who goes back to Marxism. In a society where there is no ideology we are customers, we are consumers, we are statistics but we don’t any sense of community… nor do have any sense of our identity,” according to Boorman.
“We have lost a sense of identity, searching for a new identity. I had this idea of the double. I have twins and I became very interested in the idea of twins. In England about 25 years ago they passed a law that said you could find your birth parents. I saw this documentary about all these identical twins who found each other. Some met for the first time at the age of 50. Very powerful. So I harbored the idea of twins separated at birth meeting up again. A “Have” and a “Have Not” meeting up. So I put together the two ideas.
“This film is about a country that has lost its identity and about a man who looses his identity through his success, through his large house, his possessions,” Boorman says. “It has separated him from his roots; we see what he came from when we see his mother. We see how rooted she is and how he has no roots. He has been ripped up. He is searching for his identity, just as Ireland is searching for its identity.”
The portrayal of Ireland today is quite paradoxical. On the one hand there is great progress, and on the other we see great inequities. We see a hospital that is in complete chaos. “I reconstructed the scene in the hospital from several visits I made on Saturday nights. Actually, I toned it down. It is much worse, because of all the drug wars going on. Ireland was so friendly before,” the director laments.
“A lot of things are better now, but a lot are much worse. Everything has sort of broken loose. It’s a very oppressive society. Everything is exploding. There are no limits. No one knows who they are. That’s not particular to Ireland, it is all through the developed world, a form of globalization. People have all turned into consumers and statistics. Therefore a sense of identity is critical I think. We depend on stories to know who we are, whether it is a novel, a play, or a film. They are so important.”
“Its paradoxical,” the director says. “More independent films are made than ever,” he says, “but controversial or meaningful films are harder than ever to get financed. And the more prosperous Ireland gets, the more difficult it is to get films made, it seems. Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan – two of my protégés I helped get started – even they have trouble getting financing.”
On Brendan Gleason:
It took a special kind of talent to play the main characters in “Tiger’s Tale” and Boorman selected one of his most favored actors to play the twins, Brendan Gleason.
“I first saw Brendan in a tv series playing Michael Collins and he was extraordinary.” Boorman states. “He absolutely transformed himself. When he played ‘The General’ – the Irish gangster he made himself look like the character. He is very quick as an actor, very honest. What I love about him is his honesty; and he keeps me honest.”
Boorman continues, “When we come into a scene he responds to it very honestly. I just think I will shoot the scene as I wrote it. But he looks at all of the circumstances and responds. For instance, that scene in the Hospital. I wrote that speech as an apology to the boy, but Brendan noticed something else. ‘You’ve got to keep living, come on…’ is what Brendan intuitively said. What Brendan realized was that the scene was about trying to talk the boy into life. That’s the way we work.”
“The way he did the two characters was extraordinary, Boorman praises. “He was completely different… playing two different people. Even when I was talking with him on the set off camera, I knew exactly which of the two characters he was. I mean, they had to be identical twins, but different.”
On Capitalism and Humanity:
“Capitalism is about winning and loosing; competition and the kill, winning out at all costs. This is the issue throughout Europe… how much control, and how much socialism for the good of the people in general should be in effect? You take Sweden on the one hand and the UK on the other where the market is everything. And its brutal on people. And its very difficult. How do you do it?,” Boorman questions.
“Its a pity that communism started in Russia, rather than in Germany which is how Marx felt it should in a more developed country. It never really worked, sadly, because its a great idea, isn’t it?,” he asks.
“My own view is that its a pity that socialism is discredited because I think it is much more suitable to the human condition than capitalism,” Boorman says emphatically.
Boorman hopes that his film will stir debate. His films include psychological drama, black humour, and social commentary, blending these into a single whole.
“I remember the moment in ‘8 ½’ when Fellini’s surrogate Mastroianni says to a critic ‘I suppose you like films where nothing happens. Well in my films EVERYTHING happens.’ Well, I like to put as much into my films as possible,” Boorman states, “and I like to mix things up and challenge the audience and amuse myself.”
This approach is not new to the director. In 1995 his film “Beyond Rangoon” premiered in Cannes with thousands of media focusing on its subtext: the plight of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been duly elected but was being kept under house arrest by the military junta. After all of the exposure in Cannes in May she was released within a few months. Does Boorman think that cinema can effect social change?
On Cinema and Social Change:
“Yes, I do,” he says. “Television and film is how people get their information and emotional experiences. I think the effect is much greater than people think. I don’t think people’s ideas are changed, but how we FEEL about things changes. For instance I made this picture “The Emerald Forest” about the destruction of the Amazon. This tribe became the personification of the forest and so it became much more real to people because it was personified rather than being just an abstraction. And it had a huge effect. The next time people read something about the rainforest they would recall their emotional experience and really care about it. I think that is what film can do.”
“Film festivals are marvelous things because you have got films from all over the world,” Boorman states. “They connect us to other countries and cultures. The help us discover who we are.”
Stephen Ashton lives in Northern California and writes about cinema, culture and cuisine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org