British writer-director John Boorman has been making films since the 1960s, and has said that Queen and Country — a sequel to his autobiographical World War II-era story of childhood, Hope and Glory (1987) — which opened on Friday, will be his last. Set nine years after Hope and Glory in 1952, our hero Bill (Callum Turner) is now a man of 18, still living in the country with his family after his London home was destroyed in the Blitz, waiting to be called up for military duty in the Korean war.
A cinephile, rebel, and hopeless romantic, Bill is ill-suited to army life, where he finds himself assigned to teach typing rather than sent into battle, and to contend with a martinet superior officer who served in the second world war. He bonds with his best friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) over a love of “Casablanca,” spends his days off chasing an unattainable icy blonde (Tamsin Egerton), even though there’s a much more wonderful nurse waiting (Amy-Ffion Edwards) waiting for him to take notice. He starts by seeing the world in rose-colored glasses, but by the end of his army service, learns that there’s more to everyone than meets the eye, and is finally ready to get behind the camera himself.
Few directors have assembled as diverse a filmography as Boorman’s, which includes the the thriller Point Blank, the King Arthur tale Excalibur, and the cult classic Deliverance: the final image of Queen and Country pays homage to the last two. He’s been toying with the idea for a sequel to Hope and Glory since he made the film almost thirty years ago, but it was only recently that the timing and funding all fell into place. Boorman was honoured at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose on Thursday, and in town on Friday for a Q&A on opening night. I sat down with Boorman to talk about Queen and Country. Here are eight pieces of advice about directing that Boorman has amassed over the course of his long and fruitful career.
1. Make sure actors understand their characters and each scene before the shoot
I always rehearse before shooting starts, but I don’t block out the scenes. My rehearsal is all about defining the characters, and then also communicating to the actor and discussing with them what the scene is about and what the aim is of the scene. Where do we want to get to, in terms of the narrative of the story? From the beginning of the scene to the end, what have we gained? Where has that left us?I always rehearse before shooting starts, but I don’t block out the scenes.Click To Tweet
2. Manage the pacing of each scene during the shoot, taking into account how the preceding and following scene will flow
I always time each scene, and then I have the continuity or script coordinator do the same, and we go over the timings. And as soon as we finish a scene, I say how long was it? And if it was over-length, I shoot another take faster.I always time each scene. If it was over-length, I shoot another take faster.Click To Tweet
Sometimes, I say to the actors, “I need another take. I need it a lot quicker.” And they say, “Well, but it felt right like that.” I say, “Yes, I know, but the scene preceding it, and the scene following are both very fast-moving scenes that will make this scene feel slow. We’ve got to increase the pace to match the flow of the whole film.” That’s something that you have to be very careful about.
3. “Kill your darlings” and be brutal with paring down your script before the shoot
Having written a scene, I play it in my head with a stopwatch, and then that’s the length. When I’ve timed all the scenes, I add everything up and see what it comes to. If it comes out at two-and-a-half-hours, well, I have to cut something. I edit as I go along, and one week after I’ve finished shooting, I’ve cut the film together. I mean, made a cut. Then, there’s a lot more work fine-tuning and so forth.I edit as I go along, and one week after I’ve finished shooting, I’ve cut the film together.Click To Tweet
I always tell students this: if your first cut comes out at three hours, and you’ve got to cut it down to two, it means that a third of the time you were shooting, you wasted, and if you’d timed it better, you could have spent that time on the scenes that were going to remain.
Time is always at a premium when you’re shooting a film. The most expensive part is how many days you shoot. If you eliminate all those scenes that are not going to be in the film right at the beginning, then you’re half ay there. It’s a funny thing how an awful lot of directors won’t face up to it, that the script is too long. It’s so much easier to cut a script than to cut a film once you’ve shot it.It’s so much easier to cut a script than to cut a film once you’ve shot it.Click To Tweet
4. Be economical with what you’re shooting when on set
There’s a lot of good films made where directors shoot each scene from many angles in many sizes, and build the scene in the cutting room from having multiple angles. I prefer to just shoot what I’m going to use.
If you do too many takes, too many angles, the actor is saying, “Well, this one won’t be in the film.” And I always say, “Everything we shoot is going to be in the film. So you better be ready and you better be concentrating.”If you do too many takes, too many angles, the actor is saying, 'this one won’t be in the film.'Click To Tweet
Because a film is so stop-start, it’s very hard for actors to switch it on and switch it off again and be ready, and holding your concentration is very, very difficult. I try to make it a bit easier for them by doing it quickly and not wasting time.
5. Come to set prepared. What actors really want is a director who knows what he wants.
If you’ve planned your shots for a sequence — you’re confident, you know how to do it — [then] if something comes up on the set, if an idea comes up, you can absorb it. Because if it doesn’t work, you can always go back to your plan.What is very difficult for actors is if a director says, 'Let’s play around with this.'Click To Tweet
What is very difficult for actors is if a director comes on and says, “Let’s play around with this. Let’s see what we can do.” They get confused. Although actors will tell you that they like to have the opportunity of improvising, what they really like is if you put a chalk mark down and say “Stand there. Hit your mark. And then move to over there. Hit your mark over there.”What actors really like is if you put a chalk mark down and say, 'Stand there. Hit your mark.'Click To Tweet
6. Use the time you’ve saved from only shooting what you need to focus on lighting.
When a director says, for instance, “Oh, I did 70 setups in a day,” I say, “Oh you were stealing the time from the actors and the cameraman.” It means that each take was only done in 10 minutes. Depending on what the scene is, how complicated it is, placing the lights, fading them, bringing them up, is very complicated, and can take a lot of time. All you have to work with is light.When you’re looking for locations, you always want to be facing South so you get some backlight.Click To Tweet
For me, it all starts with light. Looking for locations or selecting sets, it all starts with light. Where the light comes from, what shadows are casting, you build around that. When you’re looking for locations, you always want to be facing South so you get some backlight or half-backlight, whereas if you’re facing north the light is flat.
7. Use the editing room for fine-tuning not building up from scratch.
[The editing processes involves] fine-tuning, polishing, and then of course, you are laying up all the soundtracks. I also go through, with the actors, and post-sync a lot of the dialogue. Sometimes, you have to do it, because it’s bad quality. But also I give them the opportunity of looking and improving it, if they want to.
8. Make the beginning and ending of the film count.
[In Queen and Country,] I wanted a shot to show a little boy becoming the bigger boy, and also to show that he was still living by the river as he had after moving out of central London. When he finishes his army [time], and he comes back to the river again, that was also easy to come to that conclusion. It becomes a little symbolic — in the sense that you see the mother coming out, and she goes to wave to Mack [his mother’s former lover to whom she used to wave], and there’s nobody there, and on that shot, we hear Bill’s voice saying “everything was different now.”
In the previous scenes, he went back to see Sergeant Major Bradley [David Thewlis] to kind of apologize and discovers that his rigidity came out of this way of holding himself together, so we find him learning things and growing up a little bit. And then you see the girl in the water, and see her arm and hand above the water looking for help.
And that rather echoes the end of Deliverance, where his hand comes up out of the water, and the hand that brings the sword in Excalibur out of the lake. That’s always been a very significant symbol for me. Under the water [represents] the unconscious, and the hand that comes up is somehow focussing the dreams, the unconscious. Then, we see Bill filming [at the beginning, he was watching someone else filming a film while he was swimming in the lake], which is what he then did for the rest of his life [laughs] and then the camera stops, which was my way of indicating that this was my last film.
Queen and Country is now playing available on VOD.