FILM / Home from the Hollywood hills: Michael Caton-Jones left Broxburn for a London squat. A few stops later he's in Hollywood. From slate pits to snake pits, Sheila Johnston reports QBY: SHEILA JOHNSTON

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Michael Caton-Jones grew up in a council house in Broxburn, near Edinburgh. His dad worked in the slate pits. Michael would deliver movie posters to the local shops in return for a free cinema pass. He left school at 15, went on the dole, dug ditches, worked in a chicken factory. Went to London, did the right, alternative things. Worked as a stagehand. Lived in a squat in Stoke Newington (before it was fashionable). Became a punk, dyed his hair. Joined a video workshop, made a film for pounds 400, with a cast of professional actors including Maureen Lipman, about the plight of the unemployed.

Eventually he made it to film school and shot two well-regarded features in Britain, Scandal and Memphis Belle. And since then, he has been missing, presumed lost in Los Angeles. He was briefly sighted in the television documentary Naked Hollywood telling tales about shiftless agents and the sweet and gentle graft of Lotusland (free crates of Guinness). And this week he crackled down the phone lines from the coast, saying: 'My agents called. They figured out my whole life, they said. For today.'

All this could be seen as ever so slightly ironic, given that Caton-Jones's first American film, Doc Hollywood, was a comedy starring Michael J Fox as an ambitious plastic surgeon who jacks in a job reconstructing the cheekbones of LA's rich and famous in favour of the picket fences of a small town in the deep South. So is this a case of 'do as Caton-Jones says, don't do as he does'?

'While I was making Memphis Belle I spent some time in Hollywood,' he argues. 'The film gave me access to the studio system because I was casting and meeting a lot of people. No one knew who the hell I was, so I was treated as less than anything. And then Scandal came out there and I saw the whole thing turn 180 degrees. I became a huge, flavoursome piece of meat. But I had already seen the downside and knew that this was transparently bullshit.

'So when I picked up the script for Doc Hollywood I liked it because it was exactly what I had been going through. I realised that Hollywood was this Holy Grail and Heaven forbid that you ever find it because you're finished if you do. You take working here entirely seriously, but if you don't also laugh at the absurdity of it, you ain't gonna last long. Making that film fitted in with what I wanted to say, but it was also a long- term decision. I realised that to get your first crack at a decent project you have to be able to make money. Doc Hollywood was a fairly populist piece of entertainment. And it went down extremely well. In a summer when all the films went belly-up it made dollars 50m- dollars 60m ( pounds 33m- pounds 40m).'

Not everyone was impressed. 'Mechanical, predictable and formulaic,' was one British critic's not untypical verdict. 'Its reception in Britain was hilarious - pieces were written about how I had sold out immediately. It was a huge misunderstanding about the way Hollywood is structured. I would say that I am a local boy made good . . . by selling out. But I'm simply trying to get into a position where I can make the kind of films I like.

'You could transplant my stories anywhere in the world - if I were still in Scotland, I wouldn't be making them exactly the same, but I'd probably be making similar kinds of films, or trying to. I'm simply being pragmatic - if you make American subjects you get the money to make them. If the money was in Britain I'd be there. I ain't gonna hang around and wait for it. But This Boy's Life could have been made about Scotland. It was only an accent away.'

This, Caton-Jones's new film (budget: dollars 20m-ish, about the same, he reckons as for Memphis Belle and Doc Hollywood), is based on the autobiographical memoir by Tobias Wolff about his experiences as a young teen growing up in the Fifties - sullen, rebellious and headed straight for Brando-esque delinquency.

Panicking, his flaky divorced mother (played in the film by Ellen Barkin) rushes into the arms of her current suitor but, the minute they've moved into his house, the man's awkward charm falls away and he stands revealed as a semi-sadistic crazy. As the wicked stepfather, Robert De Niro does battle with the Max Cady factor - in Cape Fear that character was a psychotic in spades, with whole-body tattoos, torpedo-sized cigar, a mile- wide leer. In This Boy's Life, he's subtler, a man trying clumsily to reach out, but unable to; a man rigid with weakness, self-loathing and failure behind a facade of bluster and brutality. The film (which, by the way, is a black comedy) got mixed reviews - a number of critics praised it, like the man from Newsday who said it made 'the period come alive in subtle, emotional ways that we're simply not used to getting from mainstream Hollywood movies', although Variety called it 'excessively bland'.

To boost it in Britain, Caton-Jones is back on his old stamping-ground next week, on a brisk trip to Edinburgh. 'I don't go back to Scotland much; my parents emigrated to Canada and I have nothing much there. But I make a point of going to publicise my pictures, because Scotland does get the thin end of the wedge from tours that anyone makes to Britain. I feel it incumbent on me to encourage kids like me. If they can see someone who could kick their way out . . .

'Since I left, I've gone through a process of reinventing myself, by slashing and burning and moving on. But I am still making Scottish films. One of my great heroes is Alexander Mackendrick, who's as Scottish as get- out. I've met him out here a bunch of times and there is a shared background. I can't put my finger on it, it's a myriad of tiny things. But you're making so many unconscious decisions while you're shooting a film that it consists completely of who you are and where you come from.'

'This Boy's Life' plays in the Edinburgh Film Festival on Saturday 28 Aug at 6.00pm. Michael Caton-Jones will be giving a Celebrity Lecture that evening at 8.45pm. Details on 031-228 2688. 'This Boy's Life' opens in Scotland on 3 Sept and in London on 24 Sept.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments