The Quiet American


In the summer of 1984, the day before my 33rd birthday, I found myself standing nervous and alone in the foyer of the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, I had been there two years earlier to collect the best Drama Series award for Brideshead Revisited, this time I was there to meet the actor Richard Burton to discuss plans to make a film of Graham Greene's novel 'The Quiet American' set in Saigon in the early fifties. It had been over a year since my first film 'Runners' had been shown at Cannes, no... not in the Festival, in the Market which meant being screened in a back street while I had to pretend to be Bill Douglas when going to the actual Festival (because he had 'Georgy Girl in Competition'). Since then I had directed commercials for Lowenbrau Beer, Birds Custard and Timotei shampoo which amazingly kept me alive for a year, and a video of 'New Order's 'Confusion' which was more fun but definitely did not contribute to the staying alive side of things.

So when I was approached by first time Producer Dan Perrelli and writer Peter Palliser, with a script of 'The Quiet American' I leapt at it. As I walked cautiously towards Burton's penthouse suite, I heard the sound of boisterous laughter which seemed both incongruous and intimidating. I knocked and entered a smoke filled room, more rugby club than Park Lane posh, with what seemed like a gang of human giants. Of course they were not all enormous and Burton who stood up to greet me was really quite short, but the second to shake my hand was Andrew McLaglen, director of 'The Wild Geese', who was 6'7" followed by Brooke Williams, son of the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams, and three or four other men whose names I did not catch. Burton indicated that I should sit near him and having explained to the company that I was there to discuss a film, he then proceeded to ask me questions. I was not quite sure how to deal with the concept of a public presentation so asked if we could talk privately. 'Of course', he replied, changing tack without effort but starting an elongated series of goodbyes and arrangements to meet for dinner that evening which seemed to take a very long time. Finally the room fell silent and we were alone. 'No mirrors', Burton said and gestured around the room (it is hard to do justice to his voice which was an exceptionally deep Welsh growl) I looked around and indeed there were none, 'I have them removed, every one'. I never went to the bathroom to check how far this refusal to be reflected went but it was somehow both a chilling and at the same time intimate first exchange. As well as removing all mirrors from his life he also banned newspapers and magazines, nothing it would seem that in any sense might offer him a view of himself.

The previous year, while I was directing a bowl of custard, he had made Michael Radford's version of Orwell's '1984' with John Hurt, he had also married his fourth wife, Sally, a 36 year old BBC production assistant, which seemed potentially to mark a momentous step towards the real world and away from the old one where one could demand the removal of mirrors and newsprint from hotel suites. He was 58, born in 1925, the same year as my father but he looked twenty years older, I noticed he was nursing his left arm which was thin, almost emaciated and his right hand trembled slightly as he smoked. But despite this seeming frailty there was something incredibly powerful about his presence which resonated from the extraordinary potency of his voice and the fact that he seemed to want to talk. Far from the 'new man' I was expecting, he wanted to talk about the past, about Elizabeth Taylor and diamonds and love. Not in a way that was boastful but with a mix of fondness and wonder at epic quality of his life. While he was both gentle and considerate as we talked, I had the same feeling that I'd had working with Laurence Olivier three years earlier, of sitting in a cage with a tiger, not because of ant fear of injury but because you could feel how easily the purring voice beside you could turn into a window shattering roar.

We talked about about Greene (he had met him while working on the Comedians two decades earlier) and he had read the book when it came out. We discussed how it presciently reflects the r history of Vietnam in the love triangle of the cynical British newspaperman in his 50's, a young Vietnamese street girl and and a lethally idealistic American CIA agent. There is a moment in the first encounter of director and actor when your hackles literally rise as you catch the first scent of the possibility of performance, and Burton's mix of power and sexuality, the new young wife in the wings, the sense of instinctual political suspicion, all seemed to fuse into the possibility of creating Greene's Fowler. When he got up to show me to the door the frailty seemed to fall away and he was excited, by himself rather than me, but as he shook my hand he growled, 'Let's get started then' and I excitedly went back to my producers and told them that he was interested and we all knew that this would trigger Studio interest and suddenly the film seemed to be real. Less than two months later, on August 5th 1984, Burton died of a brain haemorrhage in his home in Switzerland and despite having known him for less than two hours there was a moment of powerful loss, not the loss of a film but because that fierce unruly energy had left the world at a point where a new and original work seemed suddenly possible.

The film however did not die, Burton's interest had inspired all of us and a few weeks later on October the 30th, I was on an Air India flight to what was then Bombay with producer, production designer and writer to look for locations. India may not immediately seem the obvious destination for a film set entirely in Vietnam and more specifically, largely in the French Colonial city of Saigon, however in 1984 there was no possibility of shooting in Vietnam itself which, over a decade after the end of the war, was still considered beyond the pale to US Film Companies. Dan, our intrepid and well travelled producer was convinced that Cochin (now Kochi) on the South West coast of India had the right mix of Colonial building and jungle to play the part of Vietnam and the recent success of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi had increased the sense of India's viability as a location. So we arrived in Bombay on the morning of October 30th and I still remember shuffling down the aisle to stand for a moment in the doorway of the plane as the heat and astonishing mix of smells hit me with the force of a frying pan in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, announcing my arrival on the continent. It was like that moment in a cinema when there is a whirring sound and the screen transforms from a neat rectangle into the thrilling letterbox of the wide scree. There was something instantly and literally epic as I stood at the top of the open steps that led down to the concrete expanse below where a muddle of busses and luggage carts, porters and fuel trucks awaited. It was one of the most exciting seconds of my life and I was instantly in love, a thunderbolt of excitement which seemed to be the definition of cinematic.

We were due to fly to Cochin the following morning but meanwhile had a few hours to 'kill' in Bombay where we were to meet some production representatives and collect two assistants who would act as researchers and translators on our trip to the South. The drive into the city was almost as exciting as that first second, again the scale and the energy of the country seemed out of proportion to anything I had ever experienced before, an arrival at LA seemed like entering a sleepy Dorset village in comparison and what was more extraordinary was that everyone talked to us because of course everyone, it seemed, spoke English. So although I had never been anywhere which seem more exotic and strange at the same time there was an instant familiarity that was both open and welcoming as we arrived at the Taj Mahal Hotel which seemed, and indeed was, the largest and grandest building I had ever seen. We had a few short hours to look round the city and our two researchers acted as guides but all too quickly we were back at the airport for the early morning two hour flight to Cochin.

Thus at around 10am on 31st October I found myself clutching my hand luggage and shuffling in a slow procession towards the door of the departure lounge. We were only a few feet away and passed an open office door where the queue ground to a halt for a few seconds and I was stopped level with the doorway and heard the teletext machine, a pre fax messaging system whose golfball shaped head tapped out text letter by letter at a machine gun pace. Unthinkingly nosey I leant slightly into the empty room where the machine, pressed to the wall next to the door was typing and for a moment I could see quite clearly what was being typed. Before I could think however, I was pushed forward by the now moving queue with the words I had read seemingly burnt into my brain: 'Mrs Gandhi hit by a hail of bullets'.

I could not speak, clutching my bags and propelled by the queue I could not even turn round to my companions behind me. As we passed through the departure lounge doorway a man looked cursorily at my ticket and I looked urgently for signs of alarm. Not far away a policeman, with a revolver strapped to his side, stood, eyes staring idly into the middle distance. So brief was my glance at the text I began immediately to doubt what I had seen, clearly there was not sense of alarm or outrage anywhere in the room, just travellers dumping their bags before the final journey to the plane itself. It was not until we were all seated, Dan, Peter, Simon the designer and the two girls that I could bring myself to speak and I whispered to Dan what I thought I had seen, qualifying it immediately with the likelihood that I was mistaken, as demonstrated by the lack of reaction around us.

In a whispered huddle we agreed that there was nothing we could do except wait and see. The sight of armed men in airports was to a European unusual then, intimidating rather than the norm we would expect today. But the armed police, (customary in India) looked as bored as everyone else, although it still did not seem sensible to start a conversation with the phrase 'Has your Prime Minister just been shot?' and a few minutes later we were boarding and stuffing our bags into overhead lockers.

I sat with Dan and Peter and the two girls now whispering urgently together sat behind us. It seemed even less practical in a locked aircraft preparing to take off, to make any sign referencing something that by now seemed like an imaginary incident exisitng only in my own head. Unspoken was the sense that by the time we landed in two hours, even though the passengers of a plane in flight might be unaware (no phones, no internet) whatever it was that had happened would be in the public domain. However, when we arrived in Cochin and shuffled through another set of lounges we found the same armed police with the same bored stare with no sign of anything unusual as we were met by our taxi driver to be ferried to the hotel.

Sitting, squeezed together in silence, we still did not know how to process or advance this still presumed imaginary event. Eventually one of us, which I remember as me, but may not have been, asked tentatively: 'Has anything unusual happened today?'. The response was startlingly animated: 'Yes!, said the driver excitedly. Six provincial governors have been assassinated and they are closing down the bus services. We sat in silence after this, not even able to speak to each other, as strangers in a strange land with a job to do, this did not exactly seem like good news.

At the hotel we did not even bother to ask any questions as there seemed again to be no sign of anything unusual and as it was by now around 4pm we decided to take a walk around the town where at least we could speak more freely. By this time the two girls were bursting with theories about what I seen and what it might mean. There was immediate talk of civil of war, of the country being split in half, Sikh against Muslim, both were politically very knowledgeable and as we listened to their swift analysis the prospect of a movie recce seemed to dissolve, and yet there was still not a single visible sign of alarm and as time went on the conviction that I must have just made some insane error became in my mind more inevitable.

Then, imperceptibly at first and the streets seemed to empty until we were almost walking alone. There was no commotion, still no alarm but we suddenly seemed to be in a ghost town. The time was exactly 6pm and the evening news was starting. As we reached the hotel we learned as we walked into the foyer from other shocked tourists that 33 bullets had been fired at Mrs Gandhi at 9.35am of which thirty had hit her. She had been pronounced dead at 2.35pm that afternoon but the first public announcement was not until the six o'clock evening news. Both before that evening and since I have been present at moments of national crisis but I nothing compares with that feeling of having been pregnant (that's what it felt like) with a piece of information which I had have no right as a stranger to possess at all. I literally felt as though something had been pulled out of my stomach.

Later we sat in a deserted restaurant and tried to work out what to do, the girls made it clear that even if there was no war, which they still felt was possible, the country would be paralysed with the funeral and state mourning. It would be impossible to reach any element of the civic authority for weeks, let alone engage them with the challenges of a Vietnam set, US financed movie. We had to leave and leave quickly before the airports were closed. Dan as every had a plan, we could not return empty handed but at the same time we could not stay in Indai, another place we had considered was Thailand and we already had a contact there, one Santa Pestongi who had worked on Roland Joffe's 'The Killing Fields', we called him and told him we were on our way.

Twenty fours hours later we landed in Bangkok feeling like political refugees in some alternate reality but also focussed on the need to progress the possibility of the film on which we all depended. We had lost the brilliant girls and their streams of information as they had returned to Delhi to be part of whatever happened next, so we were now on our own. Thailand proved immediately problematic, we had done no preparation, we were reliant of translators and permission to do anything seemed both complicated and expensive. Three days later we were on another plane this time to Penang in what was then Malaysia. I had an Asian friend in England whose father I knew was a powerful politician and whose uncle, a distinguished architect and she helped arrange some introductions. The fact that as an ex British colony it was suddenly much easier to communicate with officials was also energising and we found that the old customs building in the harbour bore a striking resemblance to the Majestic Hotel in Saigon. We could not shoot there of course because it was in the bonded area of the port, but then with more discussion perhaps we could and the engine of the film began to start up again. In a few days location were found, a base was agreed and we started to sketch out a production plan. As we came to check out of the hotel, producer Dan beckoned me away from the others. He was clutching his American Express card, 'We never expected to be here' he said, 'in Penang. The card is empty' I have nothing to pay the hotel bill with. I had been paid £5000 to go on the recce, and the bill as I remember it was £4900 although I know that sounds too convenient. Anyway I thought 'Easy come easy go' and I handed my card over and our exit was covered.

We arrived back in the UK still excited by what we had found and Dan announced that we had a meeting that week with Arthur Krim at Orion, the most prominent of the Independant studios who would be able to potentially greenlight production. He could not afford to finance me as his Amex was still grounded but such was my level of excitement I not only agreed to finance myself but I decided that as the meeting was in effect only hours away I would pay the extra £2000 and fly on Concord so that I would arrive refreshed and ready to pitch ( was single, and stupid but had only myself to consider and felt very pleased as I was strapped into a minute bucket seat with a very small dish of caviar set in front to me. There was a delay before takeoff which meant that 30mins of the three hours difference I had paid £2000 pounds for was shaved off, but I was making a movie and I did not care.

The film however never quite recovered it's momentum and I was too new to the game to fully understand how that worked, also pitching a story in America where the American role was that of the joker, if not the actual villain was not as simple as it had seemed in London. There was talk of Sean Connery but he wasn't so excited and, of course, not so right, I had a meeting with Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) to play the American, Pile, but I was only beginning to understand that putting a film together is a slippery mix of physics and chemistry and we never quite got the formulae right. Two months later I was casting my first West End play, Chekov's 'The Seagull' which was eventually to star Jonathan Pryce and Vanessa Redgrave with her daughter Natasha playing Arcadina and Nina. Twenty years later Michale Caine at 68 played Fowler in a version directed by Philip Noyce. By then Vietnam had opened up and they were able to shoot there and Caine was nominated for his Oscar. I sort of saw it much later in a plane, metaphorically between my fingers, I wanted to hang on the the film in my head a little longer.

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