Michael-Caton Jones has directed Hollywood’s biggest stars. In a candid interview, he reveals: I loved working with Leo but ended up hating Sharon Stone
From Broxburn to the film studios of LA: Michael Caton-Jones
Scottish Daily Mail February 15, 2016 Monday
Edition 1; Scotland BYLINE: Siobhan Synnot
SECTION: FEATURES; Pg. 18,19
‘I’d rather direct EastEnders than give up now’
MICHAEL Caton-Jones has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He persuaded Liam Neeson to romp through Scotland in a kilt for Rob Roy and gave Titanic heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio his first leading role opposite Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life.
He was also responsible for the face-off between Richard Gere and Bruce Willis on The Jackal and failed to fall under Sharon Stone’s spell when they worked on the follow-up to Basic Instinct.
‘Leo’ DiCaprio remains a pal: after a bit of prodding, Caton-Jones pulls out his iPhone and shows me a picture of him and The Revenant’s star a couple of months ago, hugging each other and beaming. Drink may have been present.
‘The difficulty is that I remember him before he was Leo DiCaprio,’ says Caton-Jones in his warm West Lothian burr. ‘I don’t see this movie star thing. To me, he’s the kid who used to call me up when he was doing scenes on other films and say, “Listen, what do you think of this?” and I’d rehearse with him over the phone.’ DiCaprio is hot favourite for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor but when he met Caton-Jones he was one of 400 boys auditioning to be a rebellious teen in This Boy’s Life. Future Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire was up for the same role but DiCaprio stood out.
The studio and Robert De Niro had to agree that DiCaprio was right for the film. ‘So I spent a weekend coaching him and filming an audition. Then I found some really bad auditions by other boys and put them either side of Leo’s best takes. When I showed the tape to De Niro, he said, “Oh, I like the blond boy in the middle, he gave me chills.” And the studio agreed.’ Caton-Jones shoots me a cheeky grin. ‘And that’s how you get Hollywood to see things your way.’ He says he is most proud of instilling ‘good habits’ in DiCaprio. ‘While we were filming, he kept asking what size of trailer he’d get next time. Eventually, I said “Look Leo, if you don’t know the lines, you’re not going to get a trailer, and you’re not going to get a job!” ‘Later on, I saw him doing an interview on TV and he said: “Some kids just wanna know what kind of trailer they’re going to get, but what I think is important is that you know the lines, do the work, turn up on time.” I thought, good man, Leo!’
Growing up in Broxburn, West Lothian, Caton-Jones was expected to become a miner like his father. Instead, he fought his way to a life few in his home town would have imagined, making hit movies and discovering stars.
He left school as a 15-year-old before moving to London at 18, where he worked as a stagehand. For five years he shoved scenery and lights about, but he also watched the productions. ‘If that’s directing,’ he thought, ‘then I can do that.’ He started writing short stories, took night classes and then won a place at the prestigious National Film School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, with a grant of £2,000 to support himself, his wife and their baby. ‘Everyone who was at school with me then will tell you that I was broker than broke,’ he says.
However two short films, Liebe Mutter (Best Film at European Student Film Awards) and The Riveter, convinced Channel 4 he should direct its Glasgow-based mini-series, Brond, starring a young John Hannah.
Next, a TV drama about the Profumo scandal was lined up. When the funding fell apart, the producers reworked it so that Caton-Jones was now directing his first feature film, with Ian McKellen as Profumo and John Hurt as Stephen Ward. Scandal became one of the best-received films of 1988, and Hollywood invited the hot new director to take on Memphis Belle, about an American bomber’s last mission over Europe.
But it was Rob Roy that made everyone sit up and take notice. Caton-Jones was handed the script at the Edinburgh Film Festival and was instantly smitten. He knew Liam Neeson from his film school days and told the 6ft 4in Irishman: ‘You’d better do this with me.’ The role of Mary McGregor was initially offered to Blackadder star Miranda Richardson but: ‘She didn’t want to go and hang out with all these guys in Scotland.’ So they signed up American actress Jessica Lange instead.
Alas, at the same time Mel Gibson had signed up to write, direct and star in a movie about another Scottish hero. In the summer of 1994, after years without a movie, suddenly Scotland had two big budget crews chasing each other around the highlands, defying the changeable local weather and midge bites.
Caton-Jones says he sent Gibson a note wishing him well with Braveheart, telling him to ‘get in touch, if he needed any help. I meant it. Then I saw him on TV, saying: “Some people think that Scottish history is all about guys running around with chequers on, but it’s not.” That was a swipe at us.’ There was also some jostling to secure Scottish actors under exclusive contracts for each film: ‘I wanted to use Peter Mullan,’ says Caton-Jones wistfully. ‘But it couldn’t happen. The only actor to appear in both films was Brian Cox and he was only allowed in Braveheart if he was completely unrecognisable with a wig and a fake eye.’ In any other year, Rob Roy would have been the first Hollywood film written, directed and produced by Scots. But Braveheart’s flashy retelling of history and Oscar sweep the following year overshadowed Caton- Jones’s enjoyable swashbuckler.
‘Bruce Willis and Richard Gere acting like kids’
Still, it established him at the beginning of a wave of exciting Scottish filmmaking and brought him to the attention of Hollywood. In The Jackal, a reworking of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of The Jackal, the director had a lot of fun playing Richard Gere and Bruce Willis against type, discarding Willis’s trademark smirk for the cold-blooded gaze of an enigmatic assassin, while Gere attempted an Irish accent and gave up his blinking-shows-I-am-thinking squints. What Caton-Jones didn’t know was that the two men were off-screen rivals too: as unknown actors in New York, Willis had been Gere’s understudy in a play. The two stars were also at opposite ends of the political spectrum, as Caton-Jones realised during a lunch with arch-Republican Willis and arch-Democrat Gere.
Recalls Caton-Jones: ‘Bruce said “Yeah, well, why shouldn’t the film have guns?” And Richard would say: “Well, speaking as a liberal, I’m not sure what I think of that.” Which meant I had to tap dance between the two. It was a fight for daddy’s attention and at the end of the longest lunch of my life, I thought “Thank f*** they’re not in any scenes together.”’ The two shared one showdown scene, shot at night in a real Montreal subway. Both men vied to be the last to leave their trailer for the film set — a classic power play in Hollywood — then tried to unnerve each other before takes, until Caton-Jones had had enough.
‘I exploded at both of them and told them they were acting like a couple of kids,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘Both of them pretended they had no idea what I was talking about.
‘But I like Richard enormously. He is one of the smartest actors I’ve had. He always wants to know what size of camera lens you were using because he knew how that could affect what was onscreen. I think his best performance is still ahead of him and I’d love to work with him again. In fact, we talked about doing something else together.’ Caton-Jones spent years in Hollywood making films in a variety of genres, until 2006 brought a most unusual circumstance for any director: two films, both by Caton-Jones, and released on the same day.
The first was Shooting Dogs, a movie about the Rwandan massacres of 1994 that Caton-Jones made for BBC Films and felt so strongly about that he took a cut in salary to film in Rwanda for five months. Yet it was overshadowed by a big glossy Hollywood movie he also directed. Basic Instinct 2 was no labour of love. ‘I didn’t make a penny on Shooting Dogs and I was broke, so I agreed to do Basic Instinct 2,’ he says bluntly.
Sharon Stone had been persuaded to return as bisexual femme fatale Catherine Tramell but Michael Douglas chose to stay at home.
British actor David Morrissey was drafted in as her new love and sex interest but if their attraction was tepid onscreen, the chemistry between the director and his diva was even worse.
‘The day we finished shooting was the last day I spoke to her. By then we hated each other,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t even pretend any more.’ The film also flopped at the boxoffice. ‘Stone appears to have had so much work done that her face resembles a tautly made bed,’ sniped the Boston Globe.
Caton-Jones may talk tough but he was bruised by the Basic Instinct experience and retreated to directing TV dramas such as Spooks and mini series for Ridley Scott. ‘Basic Instinct 2 turned me off filmmaking for a long time,’ says the moviemaker, then adds thoughtfully: ‘On the upside, David Morrissey got a house out of it.’ Ten years on, he has found a film to make him fall in love all over again. The 56-year-old even sounds like a giddy young swain. ‘At first I was nervous but once I got started I found that if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, your energy and enthusiasm sweep things along.’ Set against the backdrop of the 2011 summer street riots in Britain, Urban Hymn was shot on a tiny budget, but helped by friends of Caton-Jones who supported him behind and in front of the camera.
His cameraman is an old friend from Glasgow, while the careworker trying to bond with a troubled teenager (Letitia Wright) is Shirley Henderson, who got her first break from Caton-Jones on Rob Roy long before Trainspotting and Harry Potter made her a star.
Screen International called her performance ‘captivating’, while the London Evening Standard said the film was ‘a serious career move for its director Michael Caton-Jones’.
‘I’m really chuffed it’s coming to Glasgow for its first UK screening,’ he says shyly. ‘The cameraman’s Scottish, the lead’s Scottish and I’m Scottish — there was an entire Scottish sensibility about it.
‘Shirley embodies the kind of mad, strong, mouthy Scottish women I grew up with,’ he grins.
‘In a way it’s my love letter to Scottish women — to Shirley, Nicola Sturgeon and my mum.’ It’s also fired him up with plans to come home to Scotland, maybe for good this time with his American wife, producer Laura Viederman, and their two young children in tow. He enthuses about setting up a writers’ room in Fort William to foster good scripts, and he’d love to mentor young Scots in the way he has helped Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and other talents.
‘I think a studio is a red herring,’ he says bluntly. ‘Look at Scandinavia — they have a collection of people who can say here’s £500,000 to make a film. And if you can’t make it with that amount, then tough, you can’t afford it.’ That is also the cost of Caton-Jones’s own Scottish passion project. Some years ago he fell in love with The Sopranos, Alan Warners’ novel about an Oban teenage choir who embark on a drinking spree in Edinburgh.
Caton-Jones bought the rights to the story, in perpetuity, which he says without regret has left him ‘broker than broke’ once again.
However it is now looking like a wise investment: last year the Scottish National Theatre toured a stage version of the novel. It proved such a hit in Scotland and London that the likes of Trainspotting producer Andrew McDonald and veteran British director Stephen Frears are now keen to get their hands on the property. Is Caton-Jones tempted to sell take the money and run? ‘Noup, take the money and run? ‘No, this is the film I’ve wanted to do, and I’m the right man for it. I’d rather direct ten episodes of East-Enders than give up now.’
Urban Hymn has its European premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on Friday Feb 19 at 8.20pm.