Ronan Doyle caught up with John Boorman at the commemoration marking the 30th anniversary of Excalibur.
I vividly remember seeing the Arthurian epic Excalibur for the first time in 1992. As a Sword and Sorcery obsessed 7-year-old the film emblazoned itself upon my cinematic psyche with images of knights in radiant gore-dappled armour, blood red sunsets, fog shrouded eyries, and verdant forests. John Boorman’s panoply of retina-rotting eye candy set to the brooding strains of Wagner and Orff was intoxicating. Allegorical undertones be damned, I was lost in the sheer spectacle of the proceedings.
Indeed, some three decades after its 1981 release the films oneiric potency has not diminished. Unlike other childhood favourites whose shortcomings are obscured behind a haze of affectionate nostalgia, Excalibur’s virtues are still plain to see. There’s grit beneath its nails; a refusal to shy away from or sanitise the brutal nastiness of medieval combat as characters heave and hew ankle-deep in battlefield sludge yet at the same time it’s a world in which magic and myth abound.
It eschewed traditionalist genre-notions of black and white moral dualism, a healthy shade of grey prevailing instead. We find no paragons of virtue; rather our protagonists possess feet of clay which crumble beneath the weight of noble ideals, succumbing as they do to pride, lust and vanity. In Boorman’s vision legendary figures are brought to life through their human frailties rather than mythic virtues. The balance struck between the grimy and sublime, the earthy and the ethereal is what makes the film so special to this day.
Excalibur defied convention. A Sword and Sorcery movie that wasn’t necessarily for kids; one which revitalised a genre long descended into cliché and ushered in the golden era of 1980’s fantasy cinema. Thirty years on I spoke to director John Boorman about one of his most enduring works.
Can you tell me how you developed the distinctive look of the Excalibur; were there films or materials that served as aesthetic inspiration?
Well what I was trying to do was to evoke what I remembered of the legend as a child, when I first came into contact with the subject – illustrated versions of the tale.
As in those found in children’s storybooks?
Yes, that’s right. Very often when people interpret the legend they take the line that period realism is essential, situating the drama in the pre-Roman era for example. For me what’s important is the myth, not the reality. It’s those fundamental issues of the human condition and heart contained in the myth that have stood the test of time. The myth is much older than the 12th century and yet that’s the period I chose to set Excalibur in simply because it’s what people are most familiar with. You’d don’t want to be too radical when dealing with the subject, you cater to peoples preconceptions and take it from there. I think you have to respect the legend, respect the myth and be humble about it; be true to how people see and remember it.
Excalibur is a fantasy film yet one not necessarily for children. Did you feel you were perhaps taking a risk with a darker, more mature treatment of the legend?
The distributors were very concerned about that at the time. They thought it was too violent and the sexuality too strong for kids. But I had made it plain from the very beginning that this was not going to be a children’s film but rather a very adult one. I set out to tell the story as I saw it.
The contrast between the earthy and the fantastical is striking and seems to be the key ingredient to the film’s success…
They’re both part of it really; you can’t have one without the other. You must respect all aspects of the story. For me what was paramount was how to devise visual metaphors for the internal psychological and spiritual struggles of the characters. For example when Lancelot has that dream in which he’s fighting against himself, awakening wounded upon his own sword or Perceval removing his armour to prevent himself from drowning, the grail searcher needing to strip away everything to become pure. It’s these metaphors that give the film its power. Excalibur is about internal conflicts expressed in very physical terms.
In our CGI age Excalibur’s practical effects lend it a great deal of charm, what challenges were encountered when designing the films special effects sequences?
All the effects were done in camera except for one or two. Camelot itself was a model which we took out on location with us and set at right angles to the camera with a mirror before jiggling it around until we found the right spot in the landscape. For Excalibur coming up out of the lake we rigged the sword underwater with a charge, causing it to shoot upwards. I then shot that scene at 125 frames per second so we could slow it down. The most difficult technical problem really was that it rained every day during the shoot.
The perils of filming outdoors in Ireland…
Yes, we seemed to be constantly waiting for the rain to stop and then had to mop the water off the armour between takes. That was the biggest struggle. Other than that we solved any problems as we went along.
If the opportunity arose would you engage in some retroactive tinkering with the film a la George Lucas, perhaps spruce up some of the matte work, or would you regard a film as sacrosanct once it’s done?
(Laughs) When I complete a film I have no desire to go back to it. I very rarely watch my films once I’ve finished them. I’d much prefer to spend my energy on the next one as opposed to going back to fuss and fret. Of course there’s always things that you’ll regret, things that you could have done better but I think in a way there’s a certain energy contained in a film once it’s been completed. A lot of directors like to do reshoots; something which I’ve never done, for instance building it into the budget for an extra week of shooting so you can go back and correct things. It’s often been said that the first week of shooting should be reshot because it’s always very difficult. I just can’t face that. However when I do re-watch Excalibur I think it has enormous power and this power essentially comes from the myth. I see myself as a servant of the myth, I was there to retell that story, one in a line of those who have reshaped that myth according to their own times.
And perpetuated it in the process. I don’t remember being read storybooks about the legend as a child so in many ways Excalibur was my first introduction to story, a cinematic introduction…
Well here’s the interesting thing! When I was making the film I’d ask people “Do you remember when you first heard about this story?”, and almost nobody can tell you, it’s so much in the culture somehow, so deeply ingrained.
Can you remember when you first heard of the tale?
Well if you look at the opening of Hope and Glory, the little boy, my surrogate, is playing in the garden with a Knight in armour and a Merlin figure. I had those figures when I was a child and distinctly remember reading a comic book version of the legend.
Excalibur showcases the beauty of Ireland and County Wicklow in particular, were there ever any other countries as contenders location-wise?
No. Ireland and the hills and forests of Co. Wicklow in particular possess a certain wildness compared to say England where everything has been rather tamed. It was this wildness, this primal nature that I found so appealing. With the exception of a few scenes filmed in Kerry and Tipperary Excalibur was shot within a mile or two of my house. It was one of those very rare shoots where I made a film sleeping from my own bed. The great thing about Ardmore is that within half an hour of the studio you’ve got sea, lakes, mountains, forests and rivers – a tremendous variety of landscape.
The film was also a great launchpad for Irish acting talent…
I saw Gabriel Byrne on stage performing at the Project Theatre and Liam Neeson playing the role of Lenny in a production of Of Mice and Men – neither had done any film work prior to Excalibur. Ciarán Hinds also made his debut on the picture. What I wanted to do was cast it with young actors who weren’t familiar to audiences.
Now I understand the original cut of Excalibur was turned it at three hours, is there any chance of this version ever being released?
No, I’m not planning to. The original cut of Excalibur was really only bordering the 3 hour mark in the region of 2 hours and 50 minutes. There were two or three scenes that I left out simply because I had to get the film below 2 and a half hours.
Diehard fans would love to know the nature of those scenes…
Well during the sequence before Arthur comes to power there were some additional scenes of knights marauding around the countryside, burning villages and killing people. I wanted to express the confusion and turmoil of a land without a king but they weren’t really essential. Often necessity is the mother of invention and with Excalibur I found the more I paired it down the stronger it became because everything in the film then meant something, there was no flab. What’s important for me when I watch films is that after a few minutes one begins to realise everything in that film is intended by the director – it then assumes great power. This is the quality which the films of Kubrick possess; everything within every frame is important and intended, there’s nothing extraneous and this is what I tried to achieve with Excalibur.
We can rule out a ‘Definitive Edition’ on Blu-Ray then?
Yes, because I think what’s left out is just as important as what’s left in. You make your decisions and you have to stand by them.
With the awarding of the 2003 Best Picture Oscar® to The Return of The King the awards-ceremony glass ceiling was finally broken for the Fantasy Film, why do you think there’s reluctance to recognise the qualities of genre pictures…
Well if you look at the history of the Oscars® they don’t have a very good record really. They tend to go for the serious human dramas and genre films are often neglected and thought of as inferior even though they are usually more successful. It’s just the way it is. I mean it’s only recently that the Oscars® have taken on such importance in people’s minds. For instance in ’72 when I was nominated for Deliverance, I didn’t bother to go.
How’s the Excalibur remake shaping up?
I doubt whether it’s going to materialise because the studios are becoming more and more conservative about what they’re making, I can’t see it happening really. At the end of the day I don’t have copyright on the legend, anyone can make it and good luck to them – I hope they do something interesting.
Now moving away from Excalibur, you’re about to make your first foray into the realm of CGI animation with The Wizard of OZ, what’ can you tell us about the project and how you’ve found working in this new artistic space?
Well I wrote the script, which I enjoyed doing very much, and also storyboarded the whole film but presently there’s no money there to make it. It’s stalled. Overall I didn’t find the process that much different than planning for live action as regards devising scenes and story structure etc. CGI is another weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal, another device that can help. I’ll tell you what appeals to me very much now is digital. I shot The Tiger’s Tale on the Genesis camera and after that I would never go back to film again; I’ve suffered too much with film over the years with scratches and lab problems, losing scenes and so on. Nowadays you can do a digital grade of your footage, that’s incredibly liberating. When your shooting nights you usually have a cherry picker set up with a big Brute giving you a back light, a sort of simulated moonlight and when you shoot against that light at night there’s endless flares – the hours I’ve spent at night with electricians putting up flags to eliminate these flares, its 3 o’clock in the morning, everyone’s exhausted and just waiting for all this to be done. Now you can just paint those flares out in seconds! It saves an immense amount of time.
You’ve witnessed huge technological upheavals in movie making throughout your career, the most recent being the rebirth of 3D, what do you make of this new trend in cinema?
I don’t like it at all. I think there have been one or two good examples of its use, Avatar did it very well. You know, when making a film we’re constantly trying to give the illusion of 3 dimensions. Film is 2-dimensional; it’s a light on a wall, but through composition and depth of field you give the illusion of 3 dimensions and I think that’s fine. 3D is having the same effect as when sound came in first. When the old film cameras had to be blimped they became very heavy and couldn’t be moved without a lot of effort, films became rather static at that point and shooting on location was difficult due to the need to utilise these big studio cameras. I think the same thing is happening with 3D, when shooting you see something like 12 technicians around the camera trying to figure out things like the point of convergence and any kind of spontaneity is lost.
Thank you John for your time.
A pleasure, thank you.