Roland Joffé: Why the director is a victim of his own success

The director Roland Joffé tells James Mottram how The Killing Fields and The Mission are albatrosses around his neck

Friday 05 October 2007 00:00 BST

A few kilometres west of Moscow's city centre stands the Badayevskis beer plant. Long since abandoned, this relic from pre-Communist Russia today plays host to a little bit of Hollywood glamour. Two upstairs rooms have been restyled as the lurid lair of a drug-dealer in a new film titled You and I, a tale of adolescent angst starring Mischa Barton, formerly of the popular TV teen soap The OC. The man dressed in a white polo shirt and jeans, whispering to Barton, is Roland Joffé. Once heralded as the saviour of British film, it's as if destiny has brought him to a building that appears as crumbling as his own career.

I'm reminded of what the late Spalding Gray said after he collaborated on Joffé's award-winning 1984 debut The Killing Fields: "He has the demeanour of Christ, the eyes of Rasputin and the body of Zorro." Now 61, he may no longer possess the latter, but it's not hard to see that mixture of piety and madness still burn inside him. Likewise, his intellect has not dulled. As his conversation zips between quantum physics and Paris Hilton, it's evidence of just how influential his early days living among London's Bohemian intelligentsia was: his father left his mother to take up with the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein. From dining with Charlie Chaplin to briefly sharing a house with Lucien Freud and his wife, it led to a rarefied and privileged existence for Joffé.

This year, Joffé released Captivity, his first movie in seven years since the overblown French period-piece Vatel. Arriving on the crest of the so-called "torture porn" wave alongside Eli Roth's Hostel II and the Saw franchise, Captivity is the story of a Manhattan model (Elisha Cuthbert) who is kidnapped by two brothers and subjected to all manner of unpleasant psychological torments. It seemed below a man of his cinematic ideals.

Joffé must wonder how his career has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. After a successful period in television, he was taken under the wing of David Puttnam, who produced The Killing Fields. This was nominated for seven Oscars, including Joffé for Best Director. Two years later, The Mission was equally well received. Again picking up seven Academy nods, with Joffé again up for Best Director, this story of Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America won the prestigious Cannes Palme d'Or.

Joffé was expected to go on and conquer Hollywood with more of the same. "The first two movies I made, The Killing Fields and The Mission, I loved making, but in some ways they've been an albatross round one's neck," he reflects. "Everybody thinks that's what you're supposed to doing." He remembers meeting Orson Welles in New York shortly after The Mission was released. "He looked at me for quite a long time, then he said: 'So now what do you do?' And he laughed like somebody who knew. My answer to that was: 'What I do is not have a career as a director.' My job is not to go around repeating myself."

Joffé moved to Hollywood at the expense of his marriage (his second, after a nine-year union with actress Jane Lapotaire) to Cheri Lunghi, who had starred in The Mission. There, he made 1989's Shadow Makers, a contentious story of the development of the atom bomb, starring Paul Newman. Lambasted by conservatives and liberals alike in the US, the film flopped – partly, says Joffé, because it was dealing with a guilt-riddled period of American history.

The 1990s were a decade of disappointment for the director. His 1992 adaptation of Dominique LaPierre's Calcutta-set novel City of Joy tanked in the States. Then, after producing the woeful Super Mario Bros, he delivered his much-maligned 1995 version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which almost single-handedly derailed the career of its star Demi Moore's . He continued the trashy tone with 1998's Goodbye Lover, a modern-day storywhich made less than $2m at the US box-office.

Yet nothing quite measured up to the spectacular failure of Vatel, a sumptuous yet substance-free tale set in the time of Louis XIV. Filmed on a lavish – by French standards at least – $36m budget, the end result was shot down in a blaze of publicity as it opened Cannes in 2000. It never recovered, earning just $49,000 in the US. As if Merchant/Ivory had directed La Grande Bouffe, it was everything Joffé's early films were not: bloated, excessive and – worst of all – uninvolving.

Now living in Amsterdam – although he rather pretentiously notes, "I'm based in my head in some respects" – Joffé evidently has little time for the British film industry.

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"I understand that there should be a British film industry, and I think it's great, and I think Britain has an awful lot to say. But Britain has never really loved its film-makers much. It likes them when they win things. But it's never really supported them particularly. There is no film industry in Britain. There are just individuals who've managed to do well."

Joffé maintains that, with the exception of the work of Ken Loach, an "ironic cynicism" has "crept into the style of British film-making". You might say he and Loach are – or at least were – kindred spirits. After enjoying a brief spell directing theatre, following a time studying English and drama at Manchester, Joffé joined Granada television as a trainee director in 1973, where he was soon helming episodes of Coronation Street (just as Loach directed Z Cars over at the BBC). Joffé went on to team up with Tony Garnett, who had produced Cathy Come Home and Kes for Loach, to make the prize-winning The Spongers. Written by another Loach regular Jim Allen, this highly improvised story of a poverty-stricken mother who commits suicide was a prime example of Joffé's early, conscience-driven, work.

All the same, later in our conversation he distances himself from Loach, accusing him of often directing the same movie, "again and again making the same point. Ken is proving a political thesis," he says. "I've never really wanted to do that."

It seems that Joffé has tried to remain fashionable. Take Captivity, which according to Joffé, takes on that terribly trendy idea of what it means to be a celebrity. "Look at Paris Hilton – in many ways, she is captive and she's being brutalised," he argues. "It's not Paris Hilton's fault that she's a little ditzy and it's not her fault that she's rich. What's fascinating to me is the odd way she's in a public prison. So the question I suppose is, 'Who's the captive here?' Is Paris Hilton a captive? Or are we captive of some need to obsessively own other people."

Captivity was produced by the Russian American Movie Company (Ramco), which is also backing You and I. Originally called Finding t.A.T.u, in reference to the popular Russian singing duo who were presented by their manager as lesbians, it tells of a love story between a rural Russian girl (played by Barton) and an American ex-pat (newcomer Shantel VanSanten) who meet at a concert. Joffé sees this story of two teens trying to decide who they are as a metaphor for modern Russia, "an adolescent country trying to work out exactly how it might grow up".

Joffé says that he has other scripts ready to roll, all of which he wrote during the seven-year hiatus between Captivity and Vatel, and they sound more like the Joffé of old: a story about Opus Dei, one on Mata Hari, and even an Indian-set tale of reincarnation. Yet when I ask if he still considers The Killing Fields and The Mission as his finest hours, he seems taken aback, affronted even.

"Well, they weren't that fine when I was making them," he grunts. "I think it's a very dangerous thing for anyone to decide if there was a point when one was good, or that one may be good now. Each movie is a chance to do something different and interesting. That's what I mean by not having a career. I've not tried to be a 'something'. I've just tried to live."

'Captivity' is out on DVD on 29 October. 'You and I' is out next year

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