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General Practitioner:
An Interview with
John Boorman


March 12, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the March 12-18, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
 
John Boorman is one filmmaker who is not known for playing it safe. The 66-year-old Englishman has a long career of making gutsy movies. Deliverance shocked 1972 audiences with a male rape scene, and the 1995 film Beyond Rangoon attacked the brutality of the Burmese government when few news organizations, much less filmmakers, were willing to deal with the subject.

His latest, The General, is no less risky. The title character, Martin "The General" Cahill (played by Brendan Gleeson from I Went Down) began as a cat burglar and eventually became a Dublin crime lord. He led several daring heists, including one in which he stole the only Vermeer painting in private hands. Cahill irritated the police, the Catholic Church and even the Irish Republican Army because he often committed crimes just to annoy them. Adding to the embarrassment, Cahill shrewdly managed to simultaneously escape punishment and flout authority.

Cahill died in 1994 at the hands of paramilitaries. Because his death is so recent, feelings about "The General" are still strong. Speaking from London, Boorman explains, "I was expecting much more of a furor because there's something in this film to offend almost everyone in Ireland: the Church, the IRA and the police."

The film was actually more controversial before its release. "There were a lot of people who thought I shouldn't have made the film at all. The press sort of dredged up some of the victims of Cahill. For instance, there was this man named James Donovan who was the forensics expert he blew up in a car. Donovan did a lot of interviews saying that it was wrong to do the film. These (criticisms) were directed by people who hadn't seen the picture. When the movie came out, you see Donovan heroically testifying on crutches. I tried to show (Cahill) for what he was," Boorman recalls.

Boorman may have been fascinated by Cahill's exploits, but he understands the plight of those The General wronged. In fact, The General may have actually robbed Boorman. The filmmaker says, "In 1981, the police said, 'We know who did it, but we can't prove it.' One of the things he stole was this gold record which I had for the music from Deliverance. He thought it was made of gold. He didn't know much about record companies. I put that in the film."

Because of his personal experience with Cahill and because he has been living in Ireland and has been active in the country's film scene for almost 30 years, Boorman and his film have become celebrated there. "Once it opened, the controversy just disappeared. Oddly enough, Ireland being a small country, there was a great deal of pride when it won at Cannes (Boorman was awarded the 1998 festival's Best Director prize) and got all those great reviews," he says.

The movie also captures an important era in Irish history. Cahill rose to prominence because he and his gang outgunned the cops. Boorman explains, "In the late '80s, the police weren't carrying any weapons. The thing has completely changed as a result of what happened after Cahill was killed. He more or less controlled things and never dealt with drugs and was very much against them. Once he went, the drug thing became very big and very violent. There was a journalist named Veronica Guering who was killed by criminals because of her investigations. As a consequence, the Irish police have heavily armed squads, and there has been the same kind of overkill that you find sometimes in the States, shooting down unarmed men and all of this."

Boorman, who also wrote the script, said that studios had expressed an interest in the movie, but he chose to produce the movie independently. "I've never made a film since 1970 where I didn't have final cut," he states. "Even with that, the pressures from the studios are insidious. I was on the line for the money and all that. I thought, 'Fuck it. I'll do it the way I want to do it.' That's why I did it in black and white. I love black and white, and there was nobody to tell me I couldn't do it.

"I cast it the way I wanted to. That was one of the differences I had (with studios). I wanted Brendan Gleeson to play this role. People liked the script. When I was trying to set it up, people were saying, 'If you get a star, we'll give you the money.' I was determined to do it with Brendan because he's an extraordinary actor, and he gives a marvelous performance." Boorman's confidence in his leading man was warranted. The Boston Film Critics Society awarded him Best Actor, and he was a runner-up at the Cannes Film Festival.

Although Boorman's efforts scored well with other American critics, the Academy Awards passed on The General. Boorman doesn't demonstrate any bitterness over the phone. "We've had wonderful reviews. It probably wasn't widely enough seen by Academy members. There were a lot of good films this year, a lot of competition. I'm not too concerned about that," he says.

If Hollywood has ignored some of Boorman's best work, one if its top players has been following in his footsteps. Mel Gibson starred in and produced Payback, a loose remake of Boorman's 1967 classic Point Blank. Gibson has also been preparing a film about Martin Cahill, with Kevin Spacey in the lead. "He's haunting me," Boorman chuckles.

Boorman did have his share of hurdles during the making of The General. "It's not much different than any of the other pictures I've ever made. The obstacles are just different, larger or smaller, but they're always there. It's something I'm inured to."

When describing the making of his Arthurian epic Excalibur, his science fiction cult film Zardoz or the adventure The Emerald Forest, the word "difficult" keeps popping up. "I've still got another couple of pictures in me," he says. He later says, (laughing) "I'll try to find something easier to do now."

 

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