Michael Caton-Jones: “Pain is temporary, film is forever”

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Jun 2016

Michael Caton-Jones is back later this year with Urban Hymn, which the Rob Roy director describes as "a sort of Ken Loach musical." Ahead of his "In Conversation" at XpoNorth, we speak to the Broxburn-raised filmmaker about his fascinating career

Some filmmakers know they want to make movies from when they’re in short trousers. Michael Caton-Jones took a bit longer, but he remembers the day clearly. He was in his early 20s, had moved from Broxburn to London with the hopes of beginning a writing career but found himself instead working his way up the ladder in West End theatres as a stage hand. Through his theatre connections he got a well-paid gig doing similar grunt work on low-rent slasher The Last Horror Movie. The film was nothing to write home about, but being on that set changed Caton-Jones’s life.

“It was a quantum leap,” says the 58 year old filmmaker down the phone from his home in Hammersmith. He enjoyed the graft of the theatre work but saw film as a way of combining all his passions. “I realised a film was something that was a blend of physically using your body, using your intellect and every shot was telling a story, which fitted in with the writing that I was doing. So everything kind of crystalised by working on that film set.”

Scandal (1989): Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler and Ian McKellen as John Profumo

Over the next few years he took night classes at the National Film School, cajoled friends into making shorts with him using borrowed equipment and was a runner on early Channel 4 shows. “I would do anything,” Caton-Jones recalls. “I just wanted to learn and make things.” The hard work paid off. His first student film won best film at the European Student Awards. His second brought him to the attention of the BBC. And within a decade of that epiphany on that horror film set he had made Scandal, a gripping drama based on the notorious John Profumo-Christine Keeler affair that rocked Harold Macmillan's Conservative government in the 60s.

Scandal was most notable for its knockout performances from the likes of John Hurt and Joanne Whalley. Caton-Jones had realised early on that he'd a knack for getting the best out of actors. “Because of my theatre work I had been hanging out with actors for about four years, so I could talk to them,” he recalls. “Everybody else is terrified of actors but for me I just thought they were good fun. I would treat them like normal people and get a performance out of them.”

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He followed up Scandal with old-school war pic Memphis Belle, which he describes as “a step towards America within the safety of the UK system.” And then Hollywood came calling proper with Capra-esque comedy Doc Hollywood, starring Michael J Fox and Bridget Fonda. Add to this swashbuckling historical adventure Rob Roy, tough coming-of-age movie This Boy’s Life and the upcoming Urban Hymn, a story following two girls involved in looting during the London riots that manages to be both gritty and inspirational. Caton-Jones clearly doesn’t like to tie himself down to one genre, but that’s perhaps why some of his films haven’t received the credit they deserve. “People have never known how to pigeonhole me,” he says. “You can’t be an auteur if you don’t make the same film five times.”

Is that frustrating?

“It’s just the reality of it,” he says. “Critics like to think that the director is this God-given genius about every aspect of filmmaking, but it’s not true.” Caton-Jones prefers Alexander Mackendrick’s analogy that a director is like the hub of a wheel, facilitating all the other spokes. This isn’t to say he thinks the auteur theory is bunk. “You should be able to look at a film and see a director’s soul, because the amount of choices that you make as a director are so many that it can’t help but reflect you in some way.” His message to critics is clear: “If someone’s films don’t open themselves up easily to thematic interpretation, then do more work,” he laughs.

Trailer: Urban Hymn (2015)

This egalitarian approach doesn’t exactly chime with Caton-Jones’ reputation as one of the most exacting directors in the business, although “exacting” might be too kind a word. Liam Neeson preferred “belligerent” when they were making Rob Roy together. Caton-Jones, however, reckons any misunderstandings he’s had on set are cultural. “If a Scotsman swears they sound more aggressive than everybody else for some reason. It doesn’t mean that I feel aggressive. I’m a boy from a mining town; that’s how everybody talked. So if I see someone being stupid I’ll say ‘Fur fuck sake stop it,’ and that scares the bejesus out of genteel people.”

His mantra onset is “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” One actor who certainly took this to heart was Leonardo DiCaprio, who got his first lead role with Caton-Jones in This Boy’s Life. “I was more mean to him than I was to anybody,” the director says of the then 16-year-old actor, “but that was mainly because the age he was at he was full of it, and that was the way to deal with him. It was like messing about with your younger brother. He was like, I’m going to do this and do that, and I would physically grab him and rub his hair and say ‘You’re getting nothing.’”

Trailer: This Boy's Life (1993)

This daily ribbing may sound sadistic, but it was Caton-Jones’ way of keeping DiCaprio loose in front of the camera. He didn’t want the young actor to freeze up while working opposite his legendary co-stars, Robert DeNiro and Ellen Barkin. “I couldn’t tell Leo that the film was totally dependent on his performance,” he explains, “so I had to say to him, ‘Nah, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to be looking at you fur fuck sake, they’ll be looking at DeNiro.’ The lucky thing I had with Leo was I got him right at the point where he was a sponge, and he was willing to learn.”

DiCaprio seems to have appreciated this tutelage. When he picked up his Oscar for The Revenant (a film where Caton-Jones' “pain is temporary, film is forever” quote must have come to mind daily), the actor mentioned three directors: Iñárritu, Scorsese and “from the very onset of my career, Mr Caton-Jones.” The namecheck wasn’t too big of a surprise. “I saw Leo before Christmas when he was out doing the rounds for the Oscars and we talked about it for a bit. He’s very generous. He said he couldn’t have done what he did without me giving him those lessons very early on. Well for me that’s far more rewarding. I mean, fuck the Oscars! Who cares about that? The fact that this kid grew to a man realising that was far more impressive to me.”

In Conversation with... Michael Caton-Jones, La Scala Cinema, Eden Court, 8 Jun, 3pm

Urban Hymn is released in October