You are hereFamous Folks and Me / Michael Caton-Jones

Michael Caton-Jones


[[wysiwyg_imageupload:274:]]From 1991 through 1994, I was the New York correspondent for a new film magazine called Empire. What that meant was whenever there was a press junket (a gathering of reporters interviewing multiple stars of a new movie) or a one-on-one interview in New York, the magazine's editors would call on me to supply copy. Usually, this was straightforward stuff -- you'd go with a group of reporters, be taken to a room, and the group would sit in a press conference with a star, or a writer, or a director. Then after 20 minutes of asking questions and listening to other reporters' questions -- and dutifully taking down notes -- the group would be herded into another room where you'd meet another star/writer/director and the process would begin again. Then you'd go home and write up your piece as though you had an exclusive one-on-one interview with the star/writer/director, eve though -- if you so desired -- you could get through the entire interview without asking a single question, just relying on the questions of others to get you the info you needed.

In any event, occasionally I'd get a call from my British editor telling me of an actual one-on-one interview that they wanted. That's what happened with Michael Caton-Jones. Who? That's what I said to myself when my editor said the magazine had set up an exclusive breakfast meeting for the two of us the next day. I, of course, acted as though I knew who he was. I later found out that he  was the acclaimed, rising star director of Scandal, Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood, and the flick he was currently promoting,This Boy's Life. (Years later, he also directed one of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films.)

For some reason, the interview was assigned on short notice. As I recall, I only had hours to prepare, and in those pre-video-streaming days, I didn't have enough time to actually see any of the Great Man's movies, just read brief plot synopses and reviews of them. As it turned out, this proved no hindrance at all because Caton-Jones, affable and self-deprecating as he was, only needed slight verbal cues from me to talk paragraphs about himself, his movies, and his influences. Luckily, I knew a lot about the third part of that equation -- his influences -- and could intelligently discuss The Seven Samurai when he referenced it while talking about his own work. Occasionally, he'd say things about his films like, "As you remember in Memphis Belle," or "that pig in Doc Hollywood was trouble," and I would agree with him and ask a follow-up question that sounded like I knew what I was talking about (something along the lines of, "And what did you do to deal with it?" or "And what happened next?" or simply, "Yes, really?" and that would set him off.

"The compositions in [Akira] Kurosawa's films are just extraordinary," he said at one point. "Extraordinary. And that's something, unfortunately, that's not paid enough attention to in American cinema. They don't compose for emotion. You know, it's an old-fashioned technique. If you look at Kurasawa's compositions, or John Ford's compositions, or at Howard Hawks', they are all stylistically different. It's an art form -- and I don't want to let it die out. It's beholden to us to try and take the past and turn it into the future."

Still only 35, with a stubbly beard and a thick Scottish accent, Michael Caton-Jones seemed to me to be an unlikely character to be talking John Ford, or even to have handled the diverse themes of his first four movies: political drama (Scandal, 1989), war movie (Memphis Belle, 1990), "screwball" comedy (Doc Hollywood, 1991), and Coming Of Age story (This Boy's Life, 1993). It didn't seem unusual to Caton-Jones, however, who appeared to thrive on diversity.[[wysiwyg_imageupload:275:]]

"There's a terrible blandness about Hollywood," he complained. "So many people are terrified of losing a job. I think fear is the most dominant factor in Hollywood: fear of having to take the blame. If you're prepared to say, 'It was me, I'm responsible for this $40 million failure,' then you're ahead of the game from the start."

Not that Caton-Jones, one of the most successful graduates ro emerge from Beaconsfield's National Film and Television School (NFTS), had failed. Far from it. "All of my films have made money," he asserted. "If they make back their cost, they've made money." But then he was on to another subject, talking and talking and talking. ("Michael has a gift of the gab," the actress Bridget Fonda said to me later. "He loves to talk.") He started lambasting the state of the British film industry.

"It's in the toilet," he said bluntly. "It's been on its deathbed since its inception. I've got to say, having gone to Hollywood and made films, that we have no idea of what a resource we've got in Britain. We have some technicians who are without equal. Spielberg and Lucas came to London to make Star Wars and Indiana Jones. They didn't go there by accident, they went there because they could get the best technicians in the world to work on films at a slightly lower tax rate. For a government to start to tax people out of existence is a foul piece of mismanagement."

He added: "People fascinate me, because there is nothing more unexpected than the behavior of someone, you know? You've got to try and understand why they do what they do. Things don't just happen. They happen because of some reason somewhere. But that's the interesting thing, trying to find out. You can know someone for years and they can still surprise you."

Near the end of the interview, as the director sat across from me at a table in his hotel suite where we had been eating breakfast, he said quite casually, "Would it help your article if you could talk to some people who have worked for me?" I nodded my head, downing another glass of orange juice, and said, "Sure."

That was how the phone calls began. It started the Sunday after the interview. Returning home, I flipped on the answering machine and heard an unfamiliar but attractive voice. "Hello," it said seductively. "This is Ellen Barkin. I'm calling reference to an interview I believe you've done with Michael Caton-Jones; Anyway, I'll give you a try back later." Then, another message: "Hey, Tom! This is Eric Stoltz. I'm calling from Vancouver about that funny Scot! Catch you later!

Next up, "Mike Fox," affable and sounding like we were old pals: "I'll try you tomorrow," he said. failing to clarify whether he was, as I suspected, Michael J. Fox of Hollywood. Before I could mull this over for very long, the telephone rang. The woman at the other end of the line seemed very concerned. '"This is Bob De Niro's assistant." she said. "I'm calling because Bob wants to know if it's too late to talk to you. And when is the absolute latest he can call? He has a personal matter that will take him out of town, but wonders if Saturday will be okay. I assure you, he wants to talk to you very much."

As the week passed, my answering machine continued to be clogged with messages from very famous film stars. Take Monday, for instance: "Tom, this is Kelly from Woody Harrelson's office, calling about when he talk to you about Michael Caton-Jones, I'll call back." Then: "'Hi, Tom. This is Bridget Fonda calling. I'm sorry it took s long to get to you. I've been crazed, and I'm trying to think of something nice to say about Michael Caton-Jones. I'm just kidding. We love him, We love the loony guy. Anyway, I guess I'll try you later on. All right, bye!"

Then on Tuesday: "This is Kelly. Cheers is running long today, but I will try to get Woody to call you today, if not by Friday." That was followed by: "I'm calling for John Hurt, who is in Dublin. He wants to know when a good time will be to call you." Followed by a slightly anxious but playful-sounding feminine voice: "Tom, it's Bridget again. Hmmm. When can I reach you?'"

On Wednesday, feeling a bit strange, I left a message for these desperate people, detailing (in those pre-cell phone days) when I would be home to talk to them.

"Hi! It's Bridget calling - Bridget Fonda, I'll just assume that outgoing message was meant for me. If anyone needs to reach you -- that would be me. I guess I will give you call. I'm doing a press junket this weekend. When I have some time, I'll just give you a call. Is that okay? Thanks, and I'm sorry about the hassle. All right; byel"

And so it went. My week as the sought-after phone pal of the stars -- Mike, and Bob, and Bridget, among others. I spoke to them all, but our friendship was brief and my fame fleeting. When, months later, I was at a press junket for some new film starring Robert De Niro, I found myself at a table with five other journalists talking with De Niro. At one point, I reminded him of our brief interview some months ago about Michael Caton-Jones. While he still had fond memories of the director, old "Bob" had no memory of ever talking with me. Ah, how fleeting is fame! Luckily, I never ran into Bridget again. Having her acknowledge that I was nothing to her would have been too much to bear!

April 6, 2010