By Michael Gray
An Englishman long-resident in the stately environs of the Wicklow mountains may seem an unlikely candidate to bring inner-city Dublin criminals to life on the screen. But 25 years of living in Ireland, and a talent for diversity that has already produced "Point Blank," "Deliverance" and "Hope and Glory," have equipped director John Boorman to tackle the subject with consummate skill. The resulting film, "The General," written, produced and directed by Boorman, is a gritty urban drama shot through with Irish humor, and is his most accomplished feature in years. It stars up-and-coming Irish actor Brendan Gleeson in the title role, and Jon Voight as a Garda detective.
"The General" is a biopic of real-life gang leader Martin Cahill, who built up a reputation over 20 years for pulling off ingenious robberies under the noses of the gardaí. He stole more than $60 million worth of jewelry, paintings and cash, playing practical jokes on the police to taunt them, until his luck ran out at the hands of the IRA in 1994.
Boorman’s interest in Cahill started when his house was broken into by the eccentric gangster. Cahill had been a skilled cat burglar since his early teens, and continued his housebreaking activities as a sort of hobby even when his criminal operation was generating revenue in the millions.
"It happened back in 1981. That’s where I got the idea for the scene where Cahill steals that gold record in the film," Boorman said. "He stole my gold record that I’d been given for ‘Deliverance,’ for the ‘Dueling Banjos’ theme. He thought it was made of solid gold, I suppose. That was the first time I heard his name mentioned because the police said, ‘We’ve a pretty good idea who did it.’ I followed his career with great interest after that."
Boorman went on to acquire the film rights to a biography of Cahill, and developed a screenplay, which he filmed on the streets of Dublin, Cahill’s domain. Boorman shot it in black and white, a choice that goes against the garishly colorful life that Cahill led, and the perceived wisdom among distributors that black-and-white films are a hard sell at the box office. Boorman defended this choice on ‘sthetic grounds.
"There were a number of reasons, really, for using black and white," he said. "Perhaps the most honest reason is that since we were making it independently there was no studio involved, so there was no one to tell me I couldn’t. Had I been doing it with studio backing, they probably would have balked at it, because there’s a great prejudice against black and white. But I love it. It’s more expensive, and it’s slow. You can’t do high-speed printing. There are a lot of counts against you, and there’s a reluctance that distributors have about it — they feel it puts people off.
But because it’s about real people and recent events, I felt black and white would give it a bit of distance. And, paradoxically, when you take away the color, it’s like peeling away a skin. Somehow it brings you closer to the characters. It’s more intense."
Boorman’s choice for the soundtrack is similarly idiosyncratic. He steered clear of Cahill’s favorite music (having added Boorman’s ‘Dueling Banjos’ disc to his record collection, Cahill also enjoyed blaring ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ at the Garda surveillance squad surrounding his house), and opted for a moody jazz score composed by Richie Buckley.
"The starting point for me was Van Morrison, particularly that song ‘I Once Had a Life.’ It seemed to me to be about Martin Cahill. I always felt that Van was the voice of this man. If Van had been a criminal instead of a musician, he would have been Martin Cahill, and if Martin Cahill had been a musician instead of a criminal, he would have been Van Morrison. There was a such a wonderful connection between them somehow.
"That was the starting point. Van doesn’t score anything, but I brought Van in early on and we talked about it a lot. And Richie Buckley, who did the score, is Van’s saxophone player. Richie’s music, like Van’s, is American music, with an Irish tilt to it."
In the course of his criminal career, Cahill amassed a fortune comparable in value to that of his mob counterparts in the U.S. But he was no dapper don, and preferred T-shirts and jeans to Armani suits. He was renowned for wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts and boxer shorts in real life, but in the film the Cahill character sports a variety of pig motif T-shirts. Boorman made the change after consultations with legal counsel for the cryogenically frozen remains of Walt Disney.
"I got on to Disney to ask for permission," Boorman said. "They said don’t even think about it, unless you want to spend the next 10 years in court. They didn’t want their Mickey Mouse associated with a criminal. You can buy a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and wear it, but if you use it in a film you’re immediately involved in copyright issues. We just came up with the pig idea as an alternative, really. It was because Cahill was a great man for symbols. The Mickey Mouse thing was him saying it’s a Mickey Mouse world, and the police are a Mickey Mouse outfit. That was his message. The pig theme seemed to be closest in a sense because of the connotations of police and all that."
Fans of ‘Deliverance’ will notice a famous quote from Boorman’s earlier film on one of the General’s pig-themed shirts. Boorman brought in Jon Voight, one of the stars of that film to play the role of Ned Kenny, a fictional character based on several gardaí who had pursued Cahill for years. Though Voight came to the project as an old friend of the director, ‘The General’ was their first project together since ‘Deliverance.’
Voight reflected on the changes in Boorman’s directing style in the intervening time.
"We’ve mellowed over the years," Voight said. "Things are a lot more calm. John asks a lot of his people on the set, he always has, but he’s more calm about it now. I can’t remember if ‘Deliverance’ was a five megaphone or a 10 megaphone movie, but John would shout at us through a megaphone when things weren’t going right until he got exasperated, then he’d throw the megaphone in the river and walk off the set. They’d have to get him a new one, and we’d all have to wait ’til he calmed down and came back."
Voight came to Ireland well aware of the strong acting traditions of Irish theater, and had some reservations about his suitability for the part.
"Lots of actors in Ireland could have done that role, and what right did I have to come in and play that part? But everyone was very friendly and supportive, and they made me feel right at home as soon as I got there."
Voight found the perfect voice coach in one of Cahill’s real life enemies, Detective Inspector Gerry O’Carroll. O’Carroll had been one of three Garda detectives that Boorman had used as the basis for Ned Kenny.
"Gerry O’Carroll is one of the great storytellers, and a man who commanded the kind of respect that lets him walk into tough neighborhoods by himself, unarmed," Voight said. "I wasn’t sure if I could learn his accent in such a short time but he helped me a lot with it. And I asked him if he’d be there on the set for some of my scenes too, to make sure I got it right.
"I went on his rounds with him and even sat in with him at the station when he was interrogating a criminal. He told the guy I was a visiting commissioner down from Belfast."
Boorman had written the part originally as a balance between the three real-life cops to avoid lawsuits, but the rapport between Voight and O’Carroll soon changed that.
"O’Carroll was certainly in the writing when I wrote it, he was one of these three that I based the character on," Boorman said. "But when I brought Jon Voight in, he based his character completely on this man. So in the end I got Gerry to sign off, acknowledging that his character was based completely on him, and agreeing not to sue us."
The prospect of other law suits against Boorman kept a bevy of lawyers busy checking the script for possible libel issues.
"All the lawyers said that the police are the people that you’ve got to fear," he said. "It’s difficult for criminals to sue for defamation of character. All they can claim is that they’re much more vicious criminals than we’ve presented them, and their reputation is going to suffer because we’ve shown them as nice guys. So it’s impossible for them to sue. But the police were very litigious. The police were the dangerous ones for us."
Circle of fiends
Faced with the prospect of lawsuits on one hand, Boorman had to deal with a range of controversies on the other, in filming a script that he describes as "having something in it to offend everybody in Ireland."
Cahill’s victims in particular were not too impressed with the prospect of Boorman making a movie about the thug who destroyed their lives.
Among them was Dr. James Donovan, head of the forensic science lab at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park in Dublin. Cahill planted a bomb in Donovan’s car in January 1982 to make his death look like the work of paramilitaries. Donovan was badly injured but survived to testify against Cahill’s gang in court.
"There was a lot of controversy about the film before it came out, and I was accused of romanticizing violence and glorifying crime," Boorman said. "Donovan did a number of interviews and he said he wasn’t amused by Cahill’s sense of humor. The point is that I show the bombing in the film. If I said I won’t show that because it’ll make Cahill unsympathetic, I could understand. But I show him blowing up this guy, and I show Donovan’s heroism in testifying in court despite this. Whatever he feels about Cahill, I don’t think he can complain about the film."
The response to ‘The General’ from Cahill’s family, and the circle of fiends in which he operated, was more difficult to gauge, because of the traditional wall of silence they presented to the outside world.
Cahill’s wife, Frances, with home he had five children, and her sister, Tina, with whom he had four more, were central to his life, but in the tradition of Mafia families over here, they were not involved in his criminal activities.
"I sent Frances the script and she didn’t respond, and I invited her to see the film before anyone else did, and there was still no response," Boorman said. "Martin refused to have anything to do with the conventional world, and out of loyalty to him, they take the same line. The word we got from our probes was that they wouldn’t cooperate, but at the same time they wouldn’t do anything to stop the film being made. I’m sure they’ve seen it. As someone wrote about the film, the day it opened in Dublin there were a lot of cops and robbers in the audience."
Jon Voight has worked for three decades in an environment where inflated egos are the norm. But he downplayed the importance of his role in ‘The General’ and showed a marked reluctance to steal any of Brendan Gleeson’s thunder in what is without a doubt the best performance of Gleeson’s career.
An Oscar winner himself for his role as a disabled Vietnam vet in "Coming Home" and twice nominated for "Midnight Cowboy" and "Runaway Train," Voight signed off our interview with generous praise for a younger actor on the way up.
"It’s not my movie, it’s Brendan’s and he deserves every award going for his performance," he said. "What he does in that film is incredible!"
Brendan Gleeson’s authoritative lead and Voight’s stalwart supporting performance can be seen currently at The Angelika and Lincoln Plaza cinemas.