The sun shines bright on the homely Victorine film studios in Nice. Meet Pamela is poised to go. Director Ferrand, however, is case-hardened; he knows that, on even such a straightforward programme-filler as this, compromise will be inevitable. Sure enough, the cat is disobedient. Increasingly dependent on the bottle, the actress playing the hero’s mother forgets her lines but stands on her dignity: ‘With Federico it was just – One, two three!’ The lab ruins a crowd scene. The producers grow fretful. An unexpected pregnancy disrupts the schedule and a fatal accident skewers the script. Of all modern films about the business of film-making, none catches its farcical absurdities and its universal atmosphere of overheated desperation so well, or so affectionately, as François Truffaut’s Day for Night. As a double-edged reminder that it is on the director’s broad shoulders that the success of the enterprise ultimately rests, and that it is only in his head that the complete formula is held, Truffaut cast himself as the abstracted but notably phlegmatic Ferrand.
Today, 12 years after Truffaut’s tribute to cinema – the grind of production and the pleasure of spectatorship – the urge to expose the process of film-making has grown more compelling than the desire to celebrate it. Hollywood best-sellers, fiction and non-fiction, have never been slow to dish the dirt, but few books have equalled the misguided obsessiveness of Bob Woodward’s recent life of the drug-addicted comedian John Belushi, and, it should be added, few have been so telling or so readable as Indecent Exposure, David McClintick’s relentlessly documented account of the scandalous behaviour of the unsinkable executive David Begelman. Film and television documentarists have also been vigorously elbowing their way forward. A team from The South Bank Show, it is said, filmed more than six hours of location interview with David Lean during the production of A Passage to India: though the resulting programme on Lean’s career still left one wondering why it had been necessary to spend quite so many millions of dollars adapting this novel. When Ran or ‘Chaos’, a Japanese version of King Lear, opens in London next year, it will doubtless be accompanied by A.K., Chris Marker’s documentary on its veteran director Akira Kurosawa.
The plum documentary on the toils of film-making remains, however, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a record of the Amazonian shoot of Fitzcarraldo (in an attempt to bring Caruso to the Indians, a possessed white man decides to haul a river steamer over a jungle hill). A notably phlegmatic man, judging from his quintessentially Californian celebration Garlic is as good as ten mothers, Blank had the good fortune to be stranded in exactly the right place at exactly the right time: up river with the single-minded director Werner Herzog and his bewildered cast and crew – everyone talked – during a particularly trying stage of the production. Among several unforgettable images, the one which seems most effectively to encapsulate the folly of filming tricky subjects in inaccessible places – a folly which sometimes pays off – is that of the more than usually ashen Klaus Kinski, in the title role, skidding across the deck of the pilotless steamer as it careens downstream, thudding against the sides of a rocky gorge.
In June 1982, the scriptwriter Rospo Pallenberg fished out of his ideas file an old cutting from the Los Angeles Times about the abduction of a seven-year-old white boy by Brazilian Indians. He showed it to his colleague, the director John Boorman, and sat back to observe Boorman’s reaction. In March 1985, The Emerald Forest, the film which grew from the seed sown by Pallenberg – the boy’s father, it transpires, never abandoned his quest – was successfully previewed in Washington and Dallas. Between these dates, John Boorman, who had been tested in fire by such pictures as Deliverance and Hell in the Pacific, kept an irregular diary, which is now published as Money into Light. As a record of the persistence and subterfuge necessary to make a moderately expensive feature film (give or take $17m) on treacherous locations in the 1980s, it is unrivalled: frank, amusing and amused, vivid and, above all, even-tempered. A passionate man whose project was beset by vicissitudes, Boorman nevertheless admits to only one spectacular and cathartic loss of temper.
Everyone in the film business, Boorman recognises, has his reasons: even perhaps Pallenberg, who late in the day turns alarmingly nasty when Boorman, not without misgivings, casts his own son Charley as the now grown-up boy. The commonplace villainy is for the most part more comical than heinous, despite the sums of money at stake, or perhaps because of them. In Hollywood, no one will ever say ‘no’ to an idea. Someone else may be fool enough to pick it up and develop it. It may become, at some future date, desirably hot. The closest a person comes to ‘no’ is ‘I pass.’ Rarely wishing to show his hand, everyone with power in the industry plays a part; and Boorman, who repeats a delicious story of Sir Richard Attenborough rumbled in a restaurant playing the part of the sober producer by his fellow-actor Nicol Williamson, throws himself with a will into the diarist’s role. The material is shaped and worked-up to considerable effect.
Boorman’s instincts, however, are not those of a Woodward or McClintick, investigative reporters who assiduously applied themselves to books. Not for him the catalogue of call numbers and departure times of intercontinental flights: rather, the frayed end of a non-existent seat-belt on a light aircraft headed heaven knows where into the Brazilian interior – and at one point he raises a glass, like an excited schoolboy, to Adventure. He has learned to tell stories not in newspaper offices but in executive suites. Their occupants – those men who may, just possibly, lend him the money to turn his ideas into ‘light’ – have only a limited attention span, and will, unless one is very sharp, start taking telephone calls. He balances a tendency to philosophise about ecology, spirit travel and native wisdom with the unexpectedly fascinating specifics of foxing bureaucrats and trading dollars for cruzeiros without falling victim to 200 per cent inflation. The Brazilian director Hector Babenco was enlisted for a huge fee to square the authorities – he would have done it for nothing, but he, too, is trying to get a project off the ground. Babenco explains that for the sake of his country’s honour a few changes will have to be made when the script is translated and submitted for approval. Boorman will not be allowed to shoot at Tucurui if the dam there is shown breaking. The director protests that this deception can hardly be maintained. ‘You don’t understand,’ Babenco says. ‘If they found out, they would be flattered that you were gracious enough to want to spare their feelings.’ Boorman has the showbiz habit of casually overpraising his colleagues, but those who figure prominently in the saga are deftly characterised – as in his anecdote of how the charming and flamboyant Lew Grade tried to persuade him to make a fantasmal picture about Livingstone in Africa. Taken though he was, Boorman found himself weakly protesting that he couldn’t possibly do the movie; he was considerably disadvantaged, however, by a huge cigar pressed into his hand and by Grade’s personal cheque for a quarter of a million dollars – which he had tried to refuse – between his backside and the chair on which he was seated. Visual, suggestive, memorable – in short, a film sequence which plays.
While he was gently edging the slowly-developing script of The Emerald Forest towards the starting-line (Goldcrest backed the project first, spent $2m and then dropped out, whereupon Embassy Pictures stepped in), Boorman was also helping a young French director, Arnaud Selignac, on an entirely different type of picture, Nemo, a fantasy being shot in a huge inflatable dome in Paris. As Philip French notes in a foreword to the diary, Boorman has made it his business to offer arm’s-length help on the set to young film-makers – the novelist Neil Jordan was a protégé – and to foster the film industry in Ireland, where he now makes his home; and from time to time in Money into Light one detects the teacher’s voice. In Paris, in July 1983, he explains step by step how a $10m film which does well at home and abroad can still fail to profit the people who actually made it. He does not go quite as far as Jean-Luc Godard who, on visiting the Nemo set, impishly claims that the mark of a film-maker’s standing can be defined by the percentage of the budget he can spend on himself and his friends. ‘It is impossible to make a film today,’ Godard said, ‘but it is possible to go through the motions.’ Boorman tips his cap to this notion, but Money into Light is an account of his dogged attempt to resist it.
And what of the film itself, how did that turn out? To say that the jungle defeated Boorman and his valiant crew would be unjust. But somewhere along the line, the purpose of the story, its arching moral – father is saved from death by long-lost son; fails to convince him that life in a high-rise block is preferable to the freedom of the jungle; detonates the dam on which he has been working for ten years to save the homeground of the boy’s peaceable tribe – becomes tangled with all manner of yarn-spinning and cross-purpose devices. Director Ferrand would have understood. As a postscript, consider this. In August, after years of preparation, Stanley Kubrick, the world’s most painstaking film-maker, began shooting his new picture Full Metal Jacket. Boorman reported in his diary that, for Barry Lyndon, Kubrick photographed every field in Ireland to find the one with exactly the right tree in the middle. Full Metal Jacket is a Vietnam movie, with full authenticity promised, adapted from a novel by Gustav Hasford. The location? A top-secret set in a disused gasworks in Beckton, South-East London.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.