Friday, 14 June 2013

Catch Us If You Can

 
Quotes from John Boorman on the making of a film
 
Plus some additional notes of my own
 
 
"The first Beatles film had come out and was a big success.  Nat Cohen [Anglo-Amalgamated Films] leapt on the bandwagon and sold Warner Brothers on doing a film with the Dave Clark Five.  He got a price from Warners for the States that would more than cover the budget, and the rest of the world was his.  Would I be interested in making it?  David [Deutsch, producer] said that to have a feature under my belt would help me to get the Glastonbury film made.  The real lure was that I would have carte blanche.  As long as Dave and the band were in it, I could make whatever film I wanted.  Since the film was already in profit, in a sense, Nat didn't care what the picture was like as long as it cost less than Warners were paying for it.  But it had to be done right away, to be shot before the band's next American tour."  (p111)
 
"I was still unsure.  Could I devise a story that would fit?  I decided to enlist the help of a writer.  Charles Wood was busy writing the second Beatles film.  I went to another of our circle, Peter Nichols.  I proposed the Dave Clark idea to him.  He was gloomy about the prospect and reluctant to take it on.  Nevertheless, he agreed to meet Mr. Clark, and we went together to the large suburban house he had recently acquired in North London."  (p112-113)
 
"When we arrived, we had some fragments of a story, but in conversation I began to improvise and surprised myself at how interesting it got.  A trip across England, a roaming couple, encounters with, well, I wasn't sure yet, but the hypocrisies of the sixties ripped open, laid bare, the lies, the exploitation.  Nonsense of that sort.  Dave said, 'We want to be stuntmen.'  He claimed to have done this work before his musical career took off, though in the event, he was too clumsy and slow to do anything of that nature in the film.  I proposed that the band would not be seen playing their instruments, that their songs would be on the soundtrack only.  They would play characters."  (p113)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"We sat in a room for three weeks and we wrote the script.  The Dave Clarke Five were stuntmen making a commercial promoting meat.  At the time, there was an advertising campaign for milk featuring a sprightly girl, Zoe Newton - 'drink a pinta milka day' - and we invented a variation on that.  'Meat for Go' was our slogan."  (p113-114)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"The Meat Girl is manipulated by an Ad Executive (a Merlin surrogate) and she feels trapped.  Dave Clark is disgusted with the situation and he and the model run away together.  They are pursued across England by the advertising people and encounter a swathe of types from the burgeoning sixties, mostly drawn from my documentary experience.  Marian Knight and her friends played beatniks squatting in an abandoned village on the Salisbury Plain that turns out to be an army training ground.  (I had seen this place during my military service and stored it for future use.)  They meet an elegantly depraved middle-aged couple in Bath (the Glastonbury experience)."  (p114)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"They had in mind a haven, an island off the coast of Devon to which they flee.  The final disillusionment comes at low tide when it ceases to be an island.  Their dreams shattered, the girl goes back to the Ad Man and Dave drives off with the lads.  We drew a portrait of a shallow materialistic society, controlled and manipulated by advertising, where youth was a commodity.  It was a bleak picture, but expressed as comedy; Peter's pessimism was tempered by his comic gift." (p114)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"Three weeks to write it.  Three weeks of pre-production.  We called it Catch Us If You Can.  David Deutsch helped me put a crew together.  It was Tony Woollard's first picture as a designer.  David Tringham's first time as a first assistant director.  Manny Wynn was an Israeli who had worked with Tony Richardson.  It was his first outing as a Director of Photography.  He was fat and prickly.  He was scornful of my television background.  He argued about my choices of camera set-ups.  For long periods, he refused to cooperate.  'You work out what you want and when you're ready I'll give you the stop.'  He was sure I would have to beg him for help.  When I was ready, he would step in with the light meter."
 
"It was the best thing that could have happened to me.  The camera was my tool.  I had lived with it, day in, day out, for years.  I taught myself how to design feature scenes, to break down sequences into set-ups.  The choices of where to put the camera are infinite, but I always knew exactly where to place it and how it should move, and if I didn't, I learned it was a sign that something was wrong with the scene itself.  Solve the problem and the camera would find its proper place."  (p116)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"Inevitably, I was having problems getting a performance from Dave.  I cut his dialogue to a bare minimum.  I had to play him silent and taciturn.  Often this came off as sullen.  There was nothing light-hearted about him, nothing youthful, nothing graceful or rhythmical - and he, a drummer.  I used Barbara [Ferris, lead actress] to get us through the scenes.  This made him resentful.  He thought I was favouring her at his expense.  Barbara, in turn, was insecure about how she looked.  With the right make-up and lighting and the correct angle, she could achieve moments of beauty that real life denied her, but her voice was thin and would not carry emotion.  Her face and eyes were expressive of subtle feelings, but she lacked the effervescence, the exuberance that might have coaxed something from Dave.  So I had to play her as somehow in thrall to the Ad Executive, and therefore unable to respond to Mr. Clark's saturnine presence."  (p116-117)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

"Just before the film opened, I gave a press interview in which I said Catch Us If You Can was not a great film.  The wrath of Wardour Street [centre of the British film industry, at that time] fell about my head.  Nat Cohen was in paroxysms of word-groping rage.  David Deutsch said, 'Don't you know that every film is great before it opens?  In fact, great is the very least you can say of it.'  But I knew it was not.  However brilliantly Peter and I had decorated the surfaces, it had a hollow centre."
 
"Four months from the day Peter and I sat down to start writing, the picture opened.  It was greeted with kindness by the critics.  Although it was sucked along in the wake of the Beatles movie, the young audience was perplexed by its pessimism.  It opened shortly after in the States under the title Having a Wild Weekend.  Pauline Kael praised it inordinately in The New Yorker, which gave it and me a degree of credibility in Hollywood.  I returned to the BBC and my family, remorseful and a little wiser." (p117-118)
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

All quotations taken from Adventures of a Suburban Boy, published by Faber and Faber, © John Boorman, 2003
 

 
For me, the key scene in Catch Us If You Can takes place quite early in the film, towards the beginning of its adventure.  Having broken free from the production - from the shackles of the commercial and its professional responsibilities - the two main characters hit the road.  After tearing a path through the busy London streets in a white E-type Jag that they stole from the location, the characters first engage in a variety of random activities (each intended to illustrate how supposedly youthful and rebellious they both are) before eventually finding themselves, uncharacteristically, at a botanical garden.  Here, Boorman's camera frames a lone apple on a delicate branch, turning the object, through the significance of the shot, into a symbol: the forbidden fruit?  The characters, in this sense, are surrogates for Adam and Eve, but their Eden is an artificial creation.  Nature as a manufactured space, existing in a glasshouse, hermetically, like in a bubble.
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:
  
The characters themselves are also trapped within a manufactured environment of their own.  They live and exist - as even the most two-dimensional of characters do, to some extent - but without any real sense of freedom or spirit.  In leaving the 'commercial' (the production) mid-shoot, the characters are also in a sense escaping from the snare of fiction.  They're breaking the fourth wall of their own existence; leaving the unreality of the film - the location with the camera and its crew - and emerging into the reality of the world itself.  Here, the fake glamour and the play-acted exuberance of the advertising industry ("Meat for Go") jars against the grim actuality of sixties Britain.  The cold wintery landscapes, the despair and hostility; the scars of war and commerce, all captured in desolate black and white.
 
Although these characters embark upon this journey in an attempt to escape the confines of a (social) scene and situation that is both lifeless and restricted (more a prison sentence than an actual way of life), their ultimate dream of freedom is no less hollow or self-absorbed.  While the characters converse in a disconnected call and response that illustrates their inability to co-exist, the girl, Dinah, talks of a life of solitude, only punctuated by brief moments of grandeur and decadence.  She cites The Great Gatsby as a point of reference and talks of "parties that go on for days."  "On the mainland" she adds, "people would watch the lights [and] sometimes, they'd hear a snatch of music and laughter on the wind."  The dream - the great pursuit that drives these characters to the end of the earth - is no less empty and superficial than their own imprisoned existence under the control of the Ad Executive as they go about replacing one form of isolation - one "bubble" - for another.
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:
 
The characters in the film aren't really interested in the reality of the world, as it exists, away from the façade and the false exteriors of the commercial industry, but to create an ideal; a place where their narcissism and distorted vision of the world as reflected through the influences of music, films and literature can be nurtured, without work or responsibility.  They cling to this dream, this end goal, while continually being reminded of the struggles and the suffering of the human condition (of real-life) as it unfolds as a rolling montage through the Jaguar's refracted windshield.  The smog of London, the dirt and decay, the swathes of burnt-out "drop-outs", hounded or rounded up by armed soldiers in what appears to be the start of a civil war, and the marked landscapes of nuclear winter, dead trees, drifts of snow, floods and ruined vehicles, ambush these characters with a vision of reality, exaggerated for the purposes of metaphor and creative critique, but no less intended to strip away the lie of the "swinging" sixties, where every character - from the decadent middle-class couple, with their 'film-buff' fancy dress, to the stuntman's former mentor, now living as a would-be John Wayne on a dilapidated mock cattle ranch - are presented as people hiding behind a pretence or fabrication (a "dress-up" culture where everyone plays a part).
 
It is through this Adam and Eve symbolism and the obvious representation of an artificial Eden (in contrast to the more devastated natural landscapes seen later in the film) that Boorman and Nichols are able to present the notion of advertising (and the influence of the pop-culture in general) as the new religion of the twentieth century.  As characters, Dinah and Dave both find themselves unsatisfied with the world that has been given to them, and through the rejection of this world, must suffer the indignities of a world outside of their own self-contained setting; a world where people actually have to fight and struggle to survive.  Their eventual surrender - their retreat into the controlled, heavily mechanised world of the entertainment industry - is in many ways a retreat into the world of illusion; a return to what Boorman calls the "shallow materialistic society, controlled and manipulated by advertising, where youth [is] a commodity."
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:
 
The comments of the director may paint the film as a decorative failure, but Catch Us If You Can strikes me as a quintessential Boorman project, and remains, in my opinion, a good introduction to the filmmaker's oeuvre.  It establishes not only the anti-corporate/anti-establishment satire of later films, such as Leo the Last (1970), Zardoz (1974), Where the Heart Is (1990) and The Tiger's Tail (2006), but also offers the first of Boorman's visual contemplations of the landscape; where the setting, or the contrast between the noise and the squalor of the inner city and the calm and serenity of the countryside, becomes an almost mythical quest to rediscover the essence of existence.  The journey of the film - which takes its characters literally to the end of the earth - is also a journey into the past; into a part of the world untouched by civilisation - untainted by fashion - and existing almost out of time.  In this sense, the emphasis on the landscape (or the natural landscape) is consistent with the elemental/environmental concerns of films such as Deliverance (1972), Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985) and Beyond Rangoon (1995), where the atmosphere of a place (the location) is imbued with a kind of energy, or a living spirit, as much a central character as the figures on-screen.
 
 
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:

What Boorman categorises as the film's major failings - the lack of exuberance or youthful vigour, the coldness of its central characters - are for me its greatest virtues.  The emptiness of these characters, where their rebellion is less an act of revolution than a brief moment of self-aware panic, gives a greater weight to the film's critique of the shallow decade; where the protagonists - despite having their every wish and whim catered for by a management of dedicated svengalis - are left wanting more.  The lack of vitality and the insecurity found in the performance of Barbara Ferris for instance, gives her character a feeling of sadness that is entirely overwhelming.  She may not charm or seduce her stoical companion as the screenplay entailed, but instead offers a portrait of a young woman more or less imprisoned by the nature of the "scene", the environment.  The sadness of this character is the sadness of all characters who, having been turned into icons - not just by the advertising industry, but by the presentation of the film - are robbed of their own identity, becoming simply "the girl", the symbol of this pop culture of glamour and hedonism that is at odds with her own feelings of loneliness and isolation.
 
Through the development of the film, the hopeful Dinah finds that the real world is even less forgiving than her own manufactured existence.  In her life under the guidance and control of the Ad Executive she is used and exploited, but she is also shielded from the poverty, the ruin, the violence and the discontentment of the modern world.  She realises through the course of her journey that those outside of the bubble are as desperate to get in and she was desperate to get out; that their own lives, in many ways, are an attempt to create a bubble of their own; that her life - which to Dinah is cold and cruel - is from the outside something to aspire to.  Faced with the ultimate disillusionment, she accepts the lie that's been sold to her, and embraces it.  This feeling of cynicism, of the characters seeing through the façade of a world created to protect, imprison and ultimately exploit them, is a theme that Boorman returns to in his later films, Zardoz and Leo the Last, but it is really the film's brutal and satirical depiction of the pop "industry" and the commoditisation of the youth culture that for me gives the film its lasting relevance.