Roland Joffé by Thomas Bird

BOMB 18 Winter 1987
018 Winter 1987
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Roland Joffe on the set of The Mission.

Roland Joffé’s first feature film was The Killing Fields, Sydney Schamberg’s account of his relationship with Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist, up to and after the fall of Cambodia in 1975.

The Mission, released last month, takes place in the 18th century. Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro is a mercenary who turns to the priesthood for salvation.

As a Jesuit missionary, he works to convert an Indian tribe in Paraguay. The Jesuits are successful in converting the Indians to Catholicism. Because they do this, the Portuguese lose the Indians as subjects for their slave trade. The Portuguese slave traders go to Spain and complain. Spain, whose colony Paraguay is, goes to Rome and strongly objects to the Pope about the loss of business. The Pope calls the Head of the Jesuits and orders him to close The Mission. The Head of the Jesuits complies and orders The Mission shut. Mendoza refuses to abandon it. His counterpart played by Jeremy Irons obeys. Both priests die.

The following interview took place on October 6, at the Mayfair Regent in New York City.

Tom Bird A little background to get to know about Roland Joffé. Where are you from in England?

Roland Joffe I was born in London in 1945. The London I knew was the Tower Reeves London where a lot of the bombsites were located. There were still ration-books and very much the sense that England had emerged from something extraordinary, out of a dark tunnel. There was a mixture of hope, relief, and a kind of odd thing to chart really … a sense of duplicity throughout the country. People would instruct you in being anti-war but also, their faces would light up when they talked about the experiences they had had. So you knew, wherever there were wars was something extraordinarily ambivalent and rather curious. It was a grey, curious London. And as I look back on it now, very much the last roll of the carpet, the English Empire being rolled up with one last piece sticking out. And even that was moving towards the edges looking for somewhere to jump.

I was brought up by my grandparents in a sculptor’s family. My mother died when I was quite young and my father went abroad. He was a writer and a journalist. I was brought up in an environment where everything was discussed. We used to sit down at the table—as I remember it there were probably 12 people, his assistants, they came from all walks of life and it was a big family in any case—and the discussions were about absolutely everything. In the main, people held positions and would get rather furious and every so often would say to the child at the end of the table, “Don’t listen to what your Uncle Marvin says, he’s a Communist,” or, “Ignore your Aunt Mary. She’s a Catholic, God knows …” Then the same Uncle Marvin would say, “Well, I wouldn’t listen to him. He’s a conservative.” What I began to understand as a child was that it is necessary for people to have beliefs. It may elevate cynicism, but it is necessary for them to have it. And beliefs and personality are absolutely intertwined. They were very passionate, those adults.

TB At that age did you have any sense of “I want to be something.”

RJ I think I wanted to be a novelist. Or as I put it then, I wanted to write good books and I wanted to write stories. That was mixed with another thing. I also wanted to be a conjurer, for various reasons. It was a childhood wish to be able to change everything with the stroke of a wand. And to stop people who were arguing from arguing, magically. I mean I used to sometimes sit at the table and think it would be extraordinary if I took Auntie Mary’s mind and put it into Uncle Marvin’s head. I would conduct imaginary conversations in my own mind as to what would happen if they actually swapped over. If Communist Marvin became a convinced Catholic and what would happen if Auntie Mary suddenly got up in church and preached Marxist doctrines? I wasn’t aware at that age exactly what doctrines were but I had already begun to play with the idea of changing it around. That was mixed up with some friends of ours who in the hysterics of that period of London—ration-book London, decided that they would hold parties once a week, which they’d invite kids around to watch movies. And I went around, a bit unwilling I think, because I loved being outside. My whole life was climbing about bombsites making fancy buildings, finding Germans—there were always Germans hidden in the bombsites, of course there weren’t, but there always were, I and my friends had worked out this whole secret service we were operating. But I went to this house, there were eight or nine kids in the room, we all had cups of rather cold tea, and then this thing went clitch, etc. and the band of light came and The Kid came on, the Charlie Chaplin film. I was utterly, totally mesmerized. For a child, this was magic—the dark room, the flat images on the screen. The story was extraordinarily touching because it was the story of people who had nothing. It was very much connected to life in England. At that time, there was a real sense of sharing. That’s probably why after the war, the Labor Government swept in so forcefully. There was a feeling throughout the country that things had to change; the old ways had to be swept out. There was going to be a new style of country, class barriers were going to break down. And in a way, that was what The Kid was about, human contact. People with nothing who made something emotionally out of themselves. It was an anti-consumer view of the world. And I love that film.

TB At any point during this period of your youth were you religious?

RJ No, I came from a mixture: a bit of Jewish, Church of England, my father’s an atheist. But I always had a sense of awe. We used to go to the country when I was very young and I had, which in a way can only come from street kids, the thrill of seeing nature for what it was. I was seven or eight and as I looked at the beauty of the way everything hung together, I wished there was an order. You can feel the pulse of that—feel the trees breathing out what is necessary for us to breathe, this kind of palpable feel. In that same way I can remember years later standing on the deck of a ship in Greece and absolutely feeling myself standing underneath the world. Which is exactly where I was. There was an immense sense of the endlessness of where we were. I think a great awe comes out of that sense of the infinite, because not knowing there’s a God … But sensing there is going to be something out there beyond our understanding … Even civilization a thousand years ahead of us will not understand the Universe. That’s part of our drive.

TB You were saying earlier, that you felt the ’60s in England represented a rediscovery of the potential of the individual, but what went wrong, what turned it into the cliché of the ‘me generation’ was that it became self-fascinated and imploded. Where were you in the ’60s, in school?

RJ I was getting ready to go to University. It was at the same time I discovered class. I wasn’t middle class. I came from a fairly well-off family and it was only, really, my last year in school that I began to discover how class functioned in England. I was exhilarated by the idea of breaking through that and going through something different. I’ve learned that’s more complex than what it seemed at the time. I went to Manchester University which was the nearest big town. And I found to my disgust and dismay, that Manchester was longing to be a part of the class structure as much as any other University. But it was a wonderful place to be because I lived in a very poor district and was able to make all kinds of connections I never made. That was really the beginning of my education. Going down to the jazz clubs and the heavy, dope-smoking black clubs. Manchester had a very powerful black community.

I lived on a street where all the prostitutes hung out. And they’d go backwards and forwards and I got to know all the girls on speaking terms. They’d sometimes come in for coffee, into the student house where we were, four or five of them and just chat. So I began to see a whole other way of life.

TB I don’t think Americans understand the implications of the class structure in England.

RJ Class in England is a very, very strong thing. It is really a mind set, as rigid in England as it might have been in China during the old Empire. What it does is teach people to perceive other people purely externally, nor to only absorb external signals such as accent and dress. Class is social stratification and very difficult to break out of. That’s why English films are not as good as American films. Because American films are classless. They are available to everybody. There is nobody in America who is removed from access to all aspects of life, even if it’s only imaginative. They may be removed from access to money but they can imagine having it. What is not current in American thought is the idea that you can only be born into money. Any man in the street in America can say, “I just have to make my buck and I could be as good as the next man and I could buy a Cadillac.” Class in England prevents that. Class in England suggests to people you’ll never get the money and if you got it you wouldn’t know what to do with it. It teaches people to be obedient. And that, for a country, is self-destructive.

TB How did you discover theatre?

RJ I discovered it in my very early adolescence. I went, with my grandparents to Scotland and my grandfather didn’t like the hotel. It was a very big hotel and very stuffy, full of what he called “lounge lizards” and I could see a row was brewing and my grandmother said, “Run in the garden and just play and I’ll sort him out.” And I went out and saw a game called clock golf. So I picked up this golf club and started playing golf and I heard a yell coming out of the window and it said, “Kitty, the boy’s playing golf! That’s it. We’re leaving. Where’s the station?” He was looking out the window and the sight of my playing golf was too much for him. And we were leaving that day, it was the end of the holiday, he was determined to go back. But my grandmother’s quick wit discovered there was a theatre in the town and said, “Well let’s stay one night. Let’s go to the theatre,” knowing that he liked the atmosphere as indeed, I found I did. And we went and saw a farce called Rookery Nook. At one point in the play an actress breaks a pot and a piece of this pot came whizzing across the stage and landed in my lap. At that point, I was hooked. If this wasn’t a message from the actress, it was a message from whatever God there was that this was my chosen métier. In fact, it wasn’t a message from the actress, I was too young. I got very involved with it. I read drama at the University and I began to work with actors. I thought it would be great fun. It would bind up my endless desire to question things and find out why things happen the way they do with something productive in the end. I could play with form and actually, with actors one can play around with question and meaning. What also began to fascinate me was taking theatre around to schools. When I left the university, we did serials—like TV serials. We would go to a school once a week doing two two-hour sessions with 300 children. We would start off by doing the play, and then very gradually, the kids would start to take over without ever realizing it. Terrible things would happen—murders, melodrama. It was very graphic, but by the last day, hundreds of kids would be doing the theatre and we’d be sitting watching and that was the idea. I can remember doing H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds in a school that was 97 percent immigrant.

I had a fascination with wanting to film all that, trying to catch these instances. Film is about storytelling. It’s also about feeling. And I’ve been to watch films where I felt the form was taking over from the content. This was in the ’60s. Good stories were beginning to disappear, an all pervasive naturalism was taking over. A stultifying cliché was begging to develop which was, “We know that inside every good man beats an evil heart and inside every bad man beats a good heart.” Well, that may be, but on the other hand, some men are purely good. Some men are not good and that’s just the way it goes. There are people—Dan Berrigan’s a very good example, of a good man.

TB That was something I remember from acting in The Killing Fields. You wanted everyone in the story, whether you agreed or not with what they did, to have their own integrity.

RJ I wanted them to have their own language and for that to be expressed. That was always very important to me. Films have to express more than one voice. The fun of going to a film, I think, is not that you go in one end and pop out the other clutching a little slogan. I want people to sit in the film and connect, feel. And in the feeling, be torn a little bit this way, a little bit that way and in the end come to make their own sense; to discover in themselves, an alliance with one side or another. Maybe a surprising alliance too, as things are not always what they seem and everything has a duality. It’s very much to me what The Mission is about. It’s about great heroism, about finding your life at the moment of losing it. Anyway, finding the value of it. And I always felt that that’s what film should be. In that sense it’s close to the 19th-century novel. They are generally very fashionable, but those novels are also wonderful. Those novelists thought about people. They cared for people very much. They thought about the people they were writing for. They wanted to make man accessible to man, for me, that is what filmmaking is about.

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The Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh in The Killing Fields. Inset: Dith Pran, John Malkovich, Sam Waterston, and Timothy Dalton in The Killing Fields.

TB Did you film War of the Worlds?

RJ No, we didn’t have the money at that time. But I knew it was something I wanted to do. At that stage I went down to London and started a place called the Young Vic with a man named Frank Dunlop who is a great producer—a real theatre man who loved the unconventional, loved the idea of everything being turned on its head. It was a great theatre with wooden seats. You paid a set price to come in and yet we used the best actors in England. While I was doing that I got an invitation from an independent company to start learning television, which I thought was a good idea because that’s England’s film school. The thing about television, of course, is that if you go into television to learn about filmmaking, what you really have to learn is television’s failings as a film medium. Television is quite different from film. It tells a story differently. But I felt with a theatre background, if I learned the technique of putting a film together for television and then how television worked but always bore in mind that I wanted to work in features as well, when the time was ripe, I’d come out of that having trained myself pretty much to cope with feature film. So it seems very ad hoc but I always tried to ask myself what I intended to do. I didn’t want to be deflected. In all my professional life, I’ve had to learn publicly. I often made mistakes. Which is the way it goes. But I also wanted to make mistakes with a purpose, with a direction.

TB Were you directing or acting at the Young Vic?

RJ I was directing. Never, I was a terrible actor. I never acted.

TB You made the transition from theatre to television. You did how much television?

RJ I worked in television for about ten years.

TB Did you do any documentaries?

RJ I did documentaries. I had a problem when I did documentaries because … Well, I’ll illustrate this by a story. I did a documentary which purported to be about an autistic girl who had been cured by her father, who had discovered that through violence, he could communicate with her. What he essentially did, is he wacked his daughter out of autism. And now, if this story is true, it is absolutely remarkable. And it had, what appeared to be, a foundation in fact. Some quite eminent psychiatrists said, “Yes, this is a method that’s been used and it’s something that’s been tried in America as a way of breaking through this glass that autistics hold between themselves and the world.” I started working on the film, and the girl was remarkable. I mean she was a little odd, but she was learning to drive and she could iron and she could cook. This was a girl who virtually two years before had just sat totally incommunicado. She had never spoken to anybody. She got a job with a modeling agency, very attractive girl and her parents were very proud of her. One day I was struck by something. I was driving with her in the car and she got very agitated because I began to change the route. I turned off and went a different way. She wasn’t frightened, just agitated. I was thinking about this, and I thought, something very interesting is happening here, this girl isn’t cured at all. This girl has switched her state. She’s still autistic. If you took the root of autism which appears to be the desire to avoid any kind of stimulus; if she gets beaten for being autistic there comes a point at which her technique for avoiding stimulus—which is to remain totally within herself—produces such stimulus that she changes technique. So in fact, what she does is she develops a technique of pleasing everybody. You iron, you drive a car, you go to a modeling agency, you say hello, you say your name. But actually, you are not doing it to communicate. You are doing it to disengage yourself. I was so startled by this. It was very moving if this were the case. I went to the mother and I explained what I thought to her and she just burst into tears, and she said, “Don’t tell Jack,” who was the father. “Don’t tell Jack. It will kill him. And what good would it do?” Well, I thought about it. I could not destroy that couple with a documentary film. I could reconstruct the whole situation with actors—get actors to play the parts so it wouldn’t be about that particular family. It would be about autism. I’d redo the whole thing and do it so we wouldn’t be bringing the full and rather cruel weight of a cold documentary camera to bear on a situation that was filled with peril for the family. That led me to question documentaries a lot. Then, of course, I was becoming more and more aware of how people played to the camera. People don’t lie to the camera, but they act according to how they think the camera will approve of them. So, in a curious way, what you get from that “fly on the wall” technique is people marking themselves, as if they were tracing their outline in very thick pencil. You might be finding out about their attitudes but you’re not really finding out the truth as to how they respond to situations. I would rather go to fiction, which claims to be subjective and is that much more free to be objective.

TB When did you meet David Putnam, who produced your last two features and is now head of Columbia Pictures?

RJ It’s a curious thing. I did these films in England and one won the Pris Italia in 1978, I think. The Pris Italia is sort of television’s Oscar and the film went to Hollywood. Now, this is a film about a woman bringing up her child in England, a Mongol child. It’s very much about English social concerns and here I was, getting telephone calls from Hollywood, where it was being watched in movie moguls’ studios. What they made of it, I don’t know, but it certainly affected them. And I started to get scripts sent across. And one or two people would ring me up fairly regularly and say would you come and make films here. But the scripts I got, I could have done better on television to be quite honest, and they were subject matters which really didn’t charge me that much and I felt there was no point. No point in going to Hollywood, no point in just making a film for film’s sake. And I began to think maybe that was the way it was going to go. But it was a calculated risk and one I felt was worth taking. I knew that if I was going to make film, it would have to absolutely stretch me in every way, really test me, that would have to be the fun of it. That’s what I’d said when I went into television and that’s what I said when I did theatre. And so it happened the Colin Welland who had acted in a film I did in England, knew David Putnam. They had just done Chariots of Fire together. And he was talking to David one day and I guess pressed a few phrase buttons because the next thing I knew, David was saying to me, “I’ve admired your work for a long time,” which I guess he had. “Would you read a script for me. I’m a bit at sea with it and I’d love an objective view.” I read the script which was the first version of The Killing Fields and I was very shocked by what I was reading—but hooked. I knew that this was going to be a great project to work on. I knew that there was going to be a real confrontation with truth. It was going to ask really difficult questions and yet it was very loving of human beings in the end. I wrote David what I thought about it. I never thought he’d ask me to do it, it was too complicated. Just before we eventually decided to shoot the film, David produced the letter and said, “This is what you first wrote me. This is the reason I’ve asked you to do this film.” I was under no pressure whatsoever because I didn’t think I was going to do it so I wrote entirely from the heart. That’s the measure of David’s skill and that’s really how we came together.

TB David has always said that he likes to work with hungry artists. If he has an instinct for a material or an artist he goes with it. For you, what was the step like, to go from television to The Killing Fields?

RJ Well, it was scary. It’s like going out on your first date. I knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get there. David said to me one day when we were in Bangkok, “You know, you’re going to take to this like a fish to water.” And it’s true, from the very first day we started shooting I knew that I loved it. I knew it was flying out of my imagination. I knew I could do it in a way that didn’t manipulate people, that what I could do on film is what I had done in theatre, that is, allow people to be. And that in their being, I can invite the audience to share something really special.

TB You worked with real Indians and not actors in The Mission. What was the result of letting the Indians be?

RJ Some critics who know very little about Indians, said to me, “You idealized the Indians, of course there are no people like that.” And I said, “If that’s the way you feel, that shows the limitations of your prejudices, that you cannot believe that there can be such good, simple people.” Those Indians in The Mission are exactly in the film as they are in life.

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Jeremy Irons in The Mission.

TB In The Killing Fields, which takes place in Cambodia during and after the fall of Phnom Penh, you had all the actors prepare for the roles by reading Shawcross’s book, Sideshow, watch documentaries, and you cast a number of Cambodians in the film. Their presence brought a whole sense of reality to all of us that was very special. Was that your goal in using the Indians in The Mission?

RJ What I did in The Mission was to make the Indians play the same role that Pran played as the Cambodian journalist in The Killing Fields. The Indians signify all kinds of things, but it’s about the innocent. The Indians are innocent. The film is about what happens in the world … what that innocence brings out in us. You would sit in a cinema in New York, or in Tokyo, or Paris, and for that point of time you would be joined with your companions on this planet. You would come out with a real sense of a network. And I thought that’s worth paying for. To have that sense. But I couldn’t do that by having only actors. I discovered very rapidly that we couldn’t use a primitive tribe because culturally it would have been too much of a shock. I couldn’t use Indians who live in modern day society because their confidence has been destroyed. I just couldn’t have done it. It turned out there were some tribes who live in Columbia who still keep their tribal structure but do have contacts with Europeans. Some of them have even been converted to Christianity. I got in a small plane and a boat for three days and I went to visit them, went to say “hello,” just like that. And we got drunk together and played around. And all that we put in the film. My present to the audience was to say what I felt here, I’m going to show to you on the screen—just that sense of joy.

TB During the filming of The Killing Fields, the cast was amazed at your intensity of concentration and your energy. What can you attribute that to? I’m sure you also had it for The Mission. Is it your love of the material, your love of the story you’re filming to tell?

RJ It’s absolute enjoyment, Tom, the concentration of complete enjoyment. It’s watching the disassembled assemble. And I adore it when I find it has a life of its own. That, to me, is absolute, pure joy. When it’s there and it’s alive, it’s nobody’s creation anymore and what the cameras are doing are just recording life. You don’t have to use artificial camera angles or cutting techniques. You can just record, it.

TB I’ve read the script of The Mission and one could feel from reading it and having seen The Killing Fields, that both movies deal with man in a struggle between his spiritual and temporal forces. Do you, as a director, struggle with that within yourself?

RJ Oh yes, I think that’s the exciting thing about us as human beings, because we’re cursed or blessed as you’d like to look at it with a certain consciousness. We’re part of nature and we’re also trying not to be a part of nature. That’s why I set The Mission in that jungle. We’re natural beings and yet there is a side of us that wants to be more than natural. We aspire to all kinds of things and those aspirations lead us into some of the most terrible traps—they lead us up blind alleys, they lead us backwards, they lead us into great destructive acts, they also lead us to moments of great heroism. In a way, one has to look at all life as a test. What’s happened to us in Western Europe is that we’ve become so obsessed with the idea of being happy that we become angry if life itself is a problem. Well, there is such a state. It’s the last moment they bang the nail in your coffin. That’s the moment when all problems cease. I guess. But there is an older view of life which I think is more interesting which is that life itself is a problem. The point is what you do with the problem. So happiness is not found through having a life with no problems. It’s actually coping. I would apply that to movies in exactly the same way I would apply that to living. That’s not to say I get things right. I get them wronger than most people, but I’ve learned never to mind the problem being there.

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Robert DeNiro in The Killing Fields.

TB I remember the situation dramatized in The Killing Fields actually happened on the set while we were shooting in Thailand. The imaginary reality started to occur. The English and American crew and actors in the film came in and took over. And the Cambodian actors began to feel like second-class citizens. Did you have that same experience with The Mission?

RJ In a rather patronizing, but not unpleasant way, I thought bringing them this film will help restore their confidence. But what they gave to us in terms of their sense of freedom—their, in the best sense, simple sense of what it was to be a person, the simplicity of their demands, which were so beautiful—showed us the complexity of ours. In a curious way, we were all replaying the film.

TB In the beginning of The Mission, De Niro’s character is a mercenary who, after the killing of his brother, goes through a major life transformation. I remember discussing it with you and Daniel Berrigan one day, the process of regret through remorse and then the cleansing. De Niro’s character, at that cleansing point, becomes a Jesuit priest who eventually, in order to protect the mission and to protect his flock, takes up arms again. Do you know what Liberation Theology is? (Absolutely) Is The Mission a contemporary metaphor?

RJ Absolutely a contemporary metaphor. It’s a metaphor for South Africa, where exactly the same thing is happening, where priests are standing up against the Church. It’s absolutely a metaphor for Central America and the problem of commitment. What I wanted the story to be was two things: in one sense, as a modern metaphor for what is going on in Central America where the forces are exactly the same—a certain element of racism, commercial pressure, ideological struggle, the imperatives of commerce—with a much older story which is just a story of redemption and love. Even people who have done things they regret deeply, caught in situations through their own fault or not, but who have actually confronted themselves, are glorious if through that they can come to love. De Niro’s character thinks he knows about love and he doesn’t. He kills his brother who he actually thinks he loves but he doesn’t. He’s confused possession, he’s confused anger, with love. At the end of the film, he’s a man who has totally become himself. He would give his life for other people. Of course, it’s a metaphor, there are all kinds of ways of giving your life but he is able to do that. At that point he’s successful. Some American said to me, “This film will never go over in America, because these guys aren’t successful.” And I said, “Ahh, but they are probably some of the most successful people you can think of because Rambo is going to be tied to that machine gun for the rest of his life. These guys are free.”

TB What was it like to work with De Niro?

RJ Pretty much as exhilarating as climbing the waterfall. He’s more than an actor. He really, truly is an artist. Some thing happens there—and it’s an artistic enterprise. I’ll give you an example. There’s a moment at the end of the film where he sets up a trick to defeat the Spaniards and it goes wrong. De Niro played the realization that he’d come to the end of the road. It wasn’t shock or horror, just a sense that every card was played. At that point, although he’s still alive; he died: and it’s written in his face. I think it’s his most remarkable performance. It’s going to live on for a long time.

TB How was Daniel Berrigan. We brought his name up before and then didn’t get around to him.

RJ Daniel was part of the yeast in a way—like having Cambodians in The Killing Fields. I suffer from the same cynicisms I criticize and there’s a whole side of me that says, “Yes, but a man can’t really be good. What’s the downside?” I didn’t want that to come into the film because it’s the least interesting side of myself. It’s fine for it to be there but it’s also a speech impediment. And I began to talk to people to find out a little more about goodness—about commitment to people, not to an ideology. And the name Daniel Berrigan kept cropping up. If the job of a director is to create a role for people in which they can grow, then my job as a director had to be to put Dan Berrigan in the film so we could help to make that world real. His authenticity is something no director can hand to an actor as a note. He became a kind of lodestone. Just through his being, the way he was, stopped any tendency towards piety in the film. This is a committed, full-blooded adventure story. We had an English Jesuit working with us as well, Tony Lawler. Very interesting man, but much more militant. He’s been a soldier and I don’t think I’m misquoting him when I say he believes in the death penalty for murderers. Quite a tough man, likable, but very authoritarian. And they used to have great arguments over the meaning of obedience because Loyola wrote a letter saying that all Jesuits had to obey. Now Loyola wrote this letter on command of the Pope. And Tony Lawler used to say—this is a kind of Trotskyist view almost, a very radical view—obedience above all, obedience to the Church or obedience to the Party, but above all, you must be obedient. Even if it goes against your conscience. And Berrigan would say, “No. The skin of his letter is that Loyola knew obedience was the least important thing, so he’s perfectly happy to write the letter because he’s saying, ‘What do I care? They want me to write a letter about obedience. I’ll write a letter about obedience.’ ” So you have these two opposing—one absolutely visionary and one absolutely conservative—which is what’s going on in the church. The other moment, that was very sweet, was Tony Lawler was talking to Dan Berrigan about working with prisoners … and Dan said, “I haven’t really worked in a prison Tony, I’ve only been imprisoned.”

TB It’s a big movie. What was the most hair-raising adventure in terms of the demands placed upon you as the director—the spectacular staging of it?

RJ The most scary … I know this is not good copy—we didn’t have that much money for it and we had to plan it like a military operation. Suffering from the lunacy of all generals, I knew we would come out alright. Which was the truth, we came out alright. I think the crew was far more terrified. We were doing shots up to our necks in water. We had to build three miles of platforms just to get the camera crews into position. We had to put camera crews on the top of the Falls, we used helicopters to get our equipment there. We had to take cameras three hour journeys up river in canoes and unpack them. So the scariest day of all was the day I outlined to the crew at the first production meeting what I wanted them to do. I’ll never forget the row of totally white faces even under their tans when I outlined what we proposed to do in 12 weeks. The only sound was the chirping of the cicadas outside which was dominated by the clattering of teeth. I think, rightly, that each day we ticked off, the more confident we would get. For them, the scariest thing was that first hour.

TB How was your collaboration with Chris Menkes who won the Academy Award for Director of Photography for The Killing Fields and was DP for The Mission as well?

RJ I worked very closely with Chris. I draw everything myself. I do my own storyboard. I’m the only one who decides the way the camera will move and I think that comes from the way I work with actors. Everybody has to be very free and therefore I cannot be pushed into positions because the lighting looks better that way. And then Chris’s job is to transform light and make it have that strange quality that I wanted. What we had to do was rediscover South America. We went off to museums and looked at paintings to discuss the color light we wanted to use. Then Chris’s most difficult job was to discover the light and make it work. He did that wonderfully.

TB Who inspires you the most in life?

RJ There are two people. Well, there’s more than two, there’s a kaleidoscope of people really but of the people who come to mind—on the one hand, in film, Jean Renoir because he had such compassion and such a deal of happiness. He didn’t confuse art with suffering. Which I think is a wonderful thing. Corazon Aquino for her remarkable courage. I’d put Joseph Conrad because he didn’t refrain from asking questions and he wanted to travel, and saw the world as an adventure—saw the effects of the world as an adventure. He saw how it changed people as well as people changing it. And because he was a man who loved ambiguity. Because ambiguity is the truth and the terror of ambiguity, to try to run from it, diminishes our horizons enormously. Dith Pran for his dignity and style and Haing Nor, both brothers, another man with immense style.

TB What are your hopes for The Mission?

RJ I hope that it is a popular film because I love popular cinema. I think popular cinema is extraordinarily important. It gets underrated and played down. But I hope this film plays to the highest common denominator not the lowest.

TB What do you think is the number one talent a major film director has to have?

RJ Mental resilience. The resilience to transmit your ideas to enormous numbers of people and keep it coherent while allowing them to share in it. So what you don’t require are puppets to fulfill your image. It has to do with having a visual-narrative mind that embraces people and puts them into the picture so that ideas get passed backwards and forwards. It’s the ability to seduce everybody, in a way, into sharing a world.

TB St. Thomas Aquinas said, “To begin to know God, you have to imagine the greatest thing you can possibly imagine and just beyond that is where God begins.” Now earlier on you were mentioning something very similar. When you were in Greece, and you felt you were on the other side of the earth, the bottom and that all infinity was beneath you. You felt that that might be the beginning. So, using Thomas Aquinas’s definition of imagining the greatest thing you can imagine and then one step beyond that; what’s out there?

RJ What is out there I think, would be a sense of fusion that we probably get to when we make love—a kind of intimation, which is instant because that’s a creative process too. That is the most wonderful, the most complete thing I can think of. That’s probably what’s out there, that sense of unity—being completely in tune, harmonic—the grand harmonic if you like. Whatever it is, if it’s out there, mindblowing wouldn’t even begin to describe what it would be like. For me, it’s something to do with space. It’s only by understanding the vastness of that discovery and our relative smallness that we’ll understand we also have a universe. It’s somewhere in the understanding of that that our most remarkable perceptions and experiences will lie.

TB Do you see yourself doing a movie about space?

RJ I’d love to—I’d absolutely love to.

TB What are you working on now?

RJ Oddly enough, I’d like to do a film on the birth of the atomic bomb, just how it came to be. It was a wonderful enterprise when they came to do it and it just slipped through people’s fingers and became something else.

TB You’ve been talking all day.

RJ Pretty much, yes.

Thomas Bird is an actor and producer. He is founder of VETCO, Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theatre Co., a professional producing and development company. He’s currently producing a documentary for HBO, Executive Producing a feature film with HBO-Orion and producing the first Performing Arts Cultural Exchange between the USA and Vietnam. He acted in The Killing Fields and worked as a consultant during the casting of The Mission.

Willem Dafoe by Louis Morra
Dafoe 01
Looking Back on 2017: Film & Television
Looking Back 2017 Film

Featuring selections by Jaime Manrique, David Grubbs, Molly Surno, Lynn Melnick, Lucio Pozzi, and more.

Algiers Killings by Janny Densmore
Janny densmore 01

In the aftermath of Officer Gregory Neupert’s fatal shooting, four Blacks were killed by the New Orleans Police. They were: Raymond Ferdinand, Reginald Miles, Sherry Singleton, and James Billy, Jr.

On Animal Empathy: Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Reviewed by Conor Williams
Gunda Still1 Courtesyof Neon

An elegant portrait of a mother pig.

Originally published in

BOMB 18, Winter 1987

Martin Amis, Gretchen Bender by Cindy Sherman, Charles Henri Ford, and Roland Joffé.

Read the issue
018 Winter 1987