Film director Bruce Robinson talks about sex and booze and village halls with Graham Young.
Actor turned screenwriter and Withnail & I film director Bruce Robinson lives in a rural Herefordshire idyll, a mile from his nearest neighbour.
To keep warm, the 65-year-old rebel has to ignore the freezing cold to carry armfuls of wood back indoors.
As a great friend of the ultra-rich Captain Jack star Johnny Depp, this is a very British reinterpretation of that old shipmates’ phrase: ‘Shiver me timbers’.
But then Bruce, who directed Depp in last year’s film The Rum Diary, has never led a conventional life.
He left school unable to write and still can’t spell, yet he was Oscar-nominated in 1985 for The Killing Fields’ screenplay.
The biggest disadvantage to his acting career in the late ‘60s was being too handsome too soon.
As a disillusioned actor who wanted to move into writing during the ‘70s, he discovered he was still too good looking to be taken seriously even as a scribe.
“I was,” he says, “a pretty bastard.”
Married to Upstairs Downstairs star Lesley-Anne Down for a decade from 1969, he has a daughter called Lily India and son Willoughby by children’s book illustrator Sophie Windham, whom he married in 1984.
Now old enough for a bus pass, Bruce feels less inclined to want to rock the world, and more likely to sit back and watch everything from the railways’ debate to the latest NHS ‘crisis’ go round again and again.
The contradiction of being a filmmaker living so far from a multiplex metropolis makes Bruce an ideal star attraction at the tenth Borderlines Film Festival, especially as Bafta has never put on a village hall event before.
Billed as the ‘UK’s biggest rural film festival’, it’s also now the Midlands’ largest of any kind with 14,358 patrons last year.
It opened in Shropshire, Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches this week, and runs until March 11 and then returns for several days in May.
From barn to pub, village hall to town hall and from stately home to aircraft hangar, there will be 260 screenings across 27 days in 42 venues, most of which are temporary cinemas.
Bruce has concluded that there’s no single better day than one spent reading books, but he’s eager to bang the drum for films, too.
“We must preserve and protect film,” he urges. “It’s the greatest medium for artists that has ever existed, whether you’re an actor, writer, singer, musician... it’s limitless.
“I became a writer, my sister an artist, yet we didn’t have a book in the house. Just lino.
“I am really lucky and privileged to have been involved with films.”
A product of the old secondary modern system, Bruce says he never dreamed that he would ever travel to the United States.
“My grandmother was born before flight and died after Concorde. That is how the world has changed.
“You were lucky if you came out of my school able to read and write.
“Being a writer wouldn’t cross your mind. I couldn’t write. I had to force myself. I still can’t spell.
“I was in plays and good at them so I thought I would go to drama school and be an actor.
“Even though I couldn’t write, my friends called me The Bard.
“Slowly, I thought, ‘I can write’. It’s something I was driven to do.
“I read an essay by George Orwell once and he was saying the same thing.
“That people used to laugh at him and he’d say: ‘I can’t do it yet but I will do it’.
“Today, I would be very happy if I could just spend my life reading, but I can’t afford to do it!”
As an actor in The Story of Adele H (1975), he learned how a director like François Truffaut, could be really caring and gentle.
“I thought: ‘If I could ever be a film director I would hope I could be like you’,” says Bruce.
By then, his performer’s confidence had been long damaged, thanks to being cast in the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by the openly gay Franco Zeffirelli, now 89.
“He taught me everything I didn’t need to know,” says Bruce. “It was the most gruesome, dreadful experience I’ve ever been through and he ****** me up as an actor.
“It was like, at the end of that, oh my God... did I really want to be an actor?
“I was just getting hit on all the time and I wasn’t even homosexual!
“ It was an obscenity to try use people in that kind of sexual way.
“When we were making The Rum Diary I would look at Amber Heard and think: ‘We should worship you like a 50s screen goddess’.
“But the thought of using that to say ‘We must have dinner’ couldn’t have been further from my head.
“Zeffirelli really did me in as an actor. I became defensive and terrified of the whole thing, expecting to be hurt.”
Stunted as an actor, Bruce has not been prolific as a director.
Withnail & I (1987) took off thanks to video; How to Get Ahead In Advertising (1989) was ahead of its time; Jennifer Eight (1992), with Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman, a disaster.
Two decades later, the The Rum Diary production notes tell of Johnny Depp ‘dragging’ Bruce out of retirement to direct it.
“Yes with leg irons... and a wheelchair screeching to a halt,” laughs Bruce.
Friendship and a mutual admiration for the source novelist Hunter S Thompson won him round.
“Johnny is such a huge star, you acquiesce to his judgement because it was going to be his face on the screen and Hunter was his friend,” Bruce explains. “Johnny could have had any director on earth and he wanted me.
“‘You have got to do this’, Johnny told me.”
Today, Bruce is unsure whether he will ever direct again.
“I never retired from being a writer, that’s what I do, I’ve continually made my living as a screenwriter.”
He is, though, full of admiration for those who do it repeatedly – men like Martin Scorsese (‘the greatest’) and Britain’s own Ridley Scott.
“I’ve never though of myself as being like them,” he says modestly.
“I’m a writer who has a go at directing.
“But I do enjoy working with actors and the coming together of the slog and the craft and the amazing skills they have.
“Everyone says they don’t read reviews, but they do. One American criticism of Rum was that I ‘write radio plays with pictures’. I just love dialogue. I wouldn’t know how to begin making a Spielberg type film.
“I adore words and their potency and how they can be manipulated.”
When Bruce writes, it’s on one of four old IMB typewriters – ‘they’re like clapped-out cars in Cuba’ – serviced by a chap from Wolverhampton.
His office can be as noisy as an old mill as he bashes away at the keys ready to tear out, scribble all over or screw up each page.
“A typewriter is a living tool. A device which makes a magnificent sound. My friend, Will Self, has gone back to using one.
“Computers have spellcheck which keep asking you: ‘Do you want to spell it like this?’
“**** off! I can type very fast but can’t spell anyway. I leave all that for later.
“And the number of times I’ve pulled the first sheet back out of the bin!”
Age has now caught up with Bruce’s considerable appetite for drink. Apparently.
“I’m too old and too ugly,” he laughs. “All those days are dealt with.
“I’ve typed with my nose in the past. Nobody knows the difference.
“If I had been a pilot, people would’ve just **** themselves and tried to get off (the plane).
“As a writer, you can be whoever you want, locked in a room however you want.
“I was a pretty bastard when I was a young actor.
“Then people didn’t take me seriously as a writer because they expect to see tufts of nose hair and a bald head.
“It didn’t gel, ‘that guy can really write’.
“I’m so grateful to David Puttnam for getting behind it when I couldn’t get anyone to read it.
“Sydney Schanberg (whose book inspired The Killing Fields) said of me ‘Don’t be put off by how he looks’. That’s because I was like a long-haired choirboy doing that film.
“I’m a shagged out old bugger now.”
At this point, he introduces the term ‘climacteric’ to illustrate how he felt he’d changed, first at 50 but especially at 60.
“Getting to 60 is a bigger switch,” he explains.
“That is a reality check. You suddenly realise you are moving into the red zone on the tank.
“Three miles left, 30 in reserve. You start expecting death. I would feel ****** off to die now.”
Reality-tempered optimism, then, is essential.
“I feel at the top of my game in a sense and have had no diminution in intellectual capacity,” says Bruce. “My writing is as good as it ever has been and I’ve spent ten years on a history book about the Whitechapel Murders, aka The Ripper.
“The amount of time and money that has taken is almost breathtaking. I do need to finish that before I stop.
“But what do you do if you write nothing for nine months. I haven’t felt like making a commitment.”
Getting older has, he believes, left him with a ‘diminution of rage’.
“How To Get Ahead In Advertising was a film I made because of my rage with Margaret Thatcher,” he says.
“But I can’t get it up again for people like Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne and Nick Clegg.
“Let them just do it, but in ten years’ time we’ll have even more brutal policemen enforcing it.... ‘if you are earning under £150,000 you’ll have to be in by 10pm!’.”
To his outsiders’ mind, Birmingham is ‘the alphaville of concrete’, though he admits he has never properly ‘wandered round’ here.
Not even when he recently saw Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life at the Electric Cinema after dropping his son off at a rock concert.
Prejudice, he admits, is ‘the stupidity of the closed mind’ and immigration ‘fantastic’.
“Though at a certain level you can’t have any more people,” adds Bruce. “That’s not racist. Just a reality. You can’t invite 80 people if you’ve only got a table for ten.”
He isn’t bowled over by the current crop of movies, even picking holes in Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated Hugo saying: “I didn’t get Sacha Baron Cohen’s character.”
The best film he’s seen recently is A Separation, Iran’s best foreign Oscar contender.
“Very depressing,” says Bruce. “But a great piece of cinema.”
His real treats are books, like an Orwell first edition.
“I’ve no interest in other things, material stuff,” he reveals. “I don’t care about watches and Ferraris, but Sothebys will be in my house before the undertakers.
“Me? I’d get a Dylan Thomas book with a letter in the front. Johnny (Depp) would buy the original manuscript by Thomas. “He’s extremely wealthy, but never makes you feel uncomfortable in the way that I would if I was travelling with Prince Charles.
“You are not made to feel awkward because you can’t afford it and he can.
“Johnny has got pretty much everything that he wants.He’s a painter, a brilliant guitarist, a very, very fine actor and smashing company. I’ve had really good days with him.”
Our conversation has lasted one minute for every year of his life.
Now it’s time for Bruce to put some more wood on the fire at his borderland home where ‘the beauty of Wales has crept over into this part of England’.
Sparks fly in more ways than one as he explains his attitude to the recent cold snap.
“My wife is an English country lady,” says Bruce.
“She hugs herself to that and how ‘people love the seasons’.
“You can stuff them as far as I’m concerned.
“It was minus seven when I went out this morning. I just like heat.
“I like waking up and seeing snow that’s virginal.
“But one day and that’s it. I want it to start to melt.”
* Bruce Robinson is taking part in Bafta’s historic first village hall event. He will be in conversation with Radio Four film presenter Francine Stock at Moccas Village Hall HR2 9LQ (between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye) from 7.30pm on Saturday, March 3 (75 minutes). Tickets £7. Borderlines Film Festival: Tickets available from venues or via the Festival Box Office at The Courtyard, Hereford, tel 01432 340555. Borderline’s full February/March schedule is online at www.borderlinesfilmfestival.org