Roland Joffé: “I try to take the audience to an emotional place where suddenly something happens and they’re stuck”

Often referred to as the man who made “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986), some of the most poignant dramas of the mid-1980s, two-time Academy Award nominee and filmmaker Roland Joffé (b. 1945) has a habit of making fascinating films that are touching and make you think or reflect. First directing for television for a decade, beginning with four episodes of UK’s longest-running TV soap ‘Coronation Street’ (in 1973-74) which began in 1960, “The Killing Fields” marked Mr. Joffé’s debut as a filmmaker for a worldwide audience. Over thirty years later, he has made about a dozen feature films—not too many, but, just like “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” or as, for instance, contemporary film director Jim Sheridan’s inspiring work, each film has its own identity: the theme is always relevant, and the films are well-crafted, at times emotionally devastating and classy. They do make a difference; they matter.

Actors Haing S. Ngor and Sam Waterston with director Roland Joffé on the set of “The Killing Fields” | Film Talk Archive

“The Killing Fields” is a frighteningly realistic depiction of Cambodia during the Kmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and was based on the memoirs of The New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg who remained in Cambodia after the evacuation of the Americans, and on the experiences of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and Schanberg’s interpreter.

His second landmark film, “The Mission,” set in 18th century South America, with Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit priest and Robert De Niro playing a mercenary and a slaver, earned Mr. Joffé’s the Cannes Golden Palm, among others. Both masterpieces were produced by David Puttnam.

Mr. Joffé was introduced to Puttnam through Collin Welland, an actor he had worked with for television and who was also a screenwriter—he later wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay of “Chariots of Fire” (1981, produced by David Puttnam). One day Mr. Joffé got a call from David Puttnam and asked him to come over. When they met, he gave Mr. Joffé the screenplay of “The Killing Fields,” written by Bruce Robinson. ‘Just read it, if you will, and tell me what you think about it,’ he said.

Producer David Puttnam and Roland Joffé | Film Talk Archive

Mr. Joffé did. He wrote him a letter, telling him it was a wonderful and extraordinary project, and he explained to him what his approach would be. ‘I wrote to David saying that whoever made the film would have to be careful because it wasn’t just a war story: it was about human connection, how friendships are born and what they do to us.’ So, that was it. When they met again much later at an awards ceremony, Puttnam told Mr. Joffé he had met many film directors but hadn’t found one who really understood it. Then Puttnam said, ‘Do you remember the letter you wrote me after you had read the screenplay? If you haven’t changed your mind about the project, I want you to direct this film.’ Mr. Joffé said to him, ‘David, I have never directed a feature film before.’ ‘I didn’t ask you whether you had, I only asked if you wanted to. Your work needs to be seen on a bigger screen than the TV.’

“So I owe David a lot, I’m sure you can understand that,” Mr. Joffé said. “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” became classics, and since then, Mr. Joffé made more movies, although his later films are lesser-known than his early work. But with “The Forgiven” coming up, starring Forest Witaker, who plays Archbishop Desmond Tutu—a film scheduled to be released later this year—Mr. Joffé might very well and once again make an inspiring film with a powerful statement.

A very modest and patient man to talk to, I met with Mr. Joffé at the 2013 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, where he was the guest of honor, and I sat down with him in a salon at the Brussels Bozar to talk about his approach and his views on filmmaking.

Mr. Joffé, what standards do you use now to accept a script and turn it into a film?

To me, the most important thing is living my life. I only have one that I know of, although I may have many that I don’t. So I wait until I find a story that compels me. Usually, I’d like to find the idea in a developed screenplay. So, for instance, I might just by chance discover that the role of science changed radically during the Second World War in a way that affects us radically today. That might drag me into a subject, and that is what took me into making a film about the atomic bomb [his third feature, “Fat Man and Little Boy,” 1989]. We were living with atomic bombs—we have kind of forgotten now how they’d just sit there like great black vultures, sort of waiting. It’s rather wonderful that they weren’t used, but nonetheless, how did that come to be? Why was atomic technology used in the way that it was? That to me becomes the germ of the story, and then it becomes fascinating to learn that the lead scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, was not picked because he was brilliant—which he was—but he was picked because he was weak. That says something metaphorically about the relationship of the military and that of the industry to science and how science works. Science is a great human voyage, and therefore, it becomes very important for us to understand: we have to think about where the money is being invested in science, why those choices are made this way, and that, for me, becomes a subject.

Film director Roland Joffé | Leo/Film Talk

Your films are compelling, you make a statement, and religion is a theme that often returns in your films. Can you explain why?

Yes, I’m very fascinated by religion because so many dismiss it that they don’t know what they’re dismissing. I’m not religious, by the way, but when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I ask them, ‘What is it you don’t you believe in?’ They then describe a God that, of course, you wouldn’t believe in because He’s so archaic. If science is teaching us that we really don’t understand what reality is, doesn’t that mean that we can’t answer the question whether there’s a God or not? But science shows us that our idea of God is wrong, and why shouldn’t our ideas about God be changing; why should God look like us? Of course, we can’t quite understand what God is, and ancient philosophy, particularly Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, understood that. And therefore, if anybody is dismissing something, it is maybe because there’s more to it than we think. And that usually attracts me. In “There Be Dragons” [2011], for instance, I have the story of a priest and a very pragmatic man, and as the film comes to its closure, they’re actually one person. The priest and this other person are one: it’s the story about people who separated themselves off so that one has decided he’s good and the other one has decided he’s evil. They’re actually one and the same thing because you can’t have one without the other. So while you think you’re watching the story of two people, you’re really watching the story of one because the priest in some sense removes a part of himself which he finally can’t really do. And many people who are not religious are removing a part of themselves as well. And that was rather fascinating: what is a full human being? It concerns a fundamental thing for me, because, like it or not, we all make choices, and we’re making many choices all the time. We can’t avoid a moral connection; it’s absolutely unavoidable. We don’t think about it, we pretend it doesn’t really happen, we surround us with the small man we don’t count, but we know from physics that the movement of one grain of rice in a huge leap of rice can create a rice avalanche, the movement of one flake of snow can create an avalanche on a mountain. So each human being, though we really don’t know it, is part of a most extraordinary chain where we are responsible and not responsible at the same time. That, to me, is the quintessential exciting thing about being a human being. So my move is trying to take the audience to an emotional place where suddenly something happens, and you’re stuck. In “The Mission” [1986], we all love the Indians—I don’t really know anybody who likes the film and doesn’t love the Indians—and they’re confronted with this extraordinary dilemma, which is both ways of defending and the Indians appear to be right. Both. And the movie is saying at that moment, you see, it’s your choice, it just comes to that. There is no ultimate right of what you commit to. There can’t be a final right. In “There Be Dragons,” something happens in the film—I’ve seen it with an audience—where their entire moral structure completely falls apart when Manolo Torres [played by Wes Bentley] shoots Ildiko [played by Olga Kurylenko]: the audience doesn’t know what to make of that because it could be so many things. The movie takes you to a point where it says, ‘It’s not that simple.’ Whenever I can in my movies, I’d like to have a point where the audience is taken to, like what if I jumped into the sea, and the water is cold and rough and, my God, what will I do? That, for me, is the moment of a movie. So I’d like to take an audience to a point where suddenly the movie is sending them out of the cinema not quite knowing. That way you respect the audience. It means you are a choosing being: you may choose not to choose—that’s a choice—you may choose not to think—that’s also a choice—you are gifted by your very humanity with the power of choosing.

“The Killing Fields” (1984, trailer)

With that in mind, how do you do your casting?

There’s one thing I do that is very crucial to me. I play with the actors: I play games, I tell stories, and I write letters and dialogues. I don’t give psychological notes. To give you an example, in “Vatel” [2000] I had a young actor Murray Lachlan Young who hardly ever acted before—he played the part of ‘Monsieur.’ One day I told him I had found a letter in a museum. I gave him a facsimile of this letter, telling him it was very important and I asked him to read it. It wasn’t true, I hadn’t found it in a museum, because I had written it myself. It was a letter to his son, and it said, ‘My dear son, when you read this letter, it will be after my death or what is said in this letter, will not be said until after my death. And when indeed I am dead, many will come running to you to tell you what kind of person it was, that I, you father, was. They cannot know. Indeed, I cannot know. It is said, my son, that the worst thing for man is to be born outside his time. But there’s something far worse, it is to be born inside your time, but second. When I realized I was to be but the younger brother of the King, I decided that those women who weep our faiths would be confronted by me, by a smile when hatred was expected. When a smile was expected, they’d be confronted by hate. Where kindness was wanted, they would find cruelty. Where cruelty was thoughtful, they would find kindness. It is true, my son, I haven’t been but a butterfly. But who is to say the life of a butterfly is worth less than the life of a king. Your father.’ So I gave it to him and said, read it every night before you go to sleep. If those things work, you never have to give him a note on the set because the character’s been born with the actor. If you take the actor to the place where he becomes someone else, then you got the character he created.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
April 8, 2013

“The Mission” (1986, trailer)


THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) DIR Roland Joffé PROD David Puttnam SCR Bruce Robinson CAM Chris Menges MUS Mike Olfdield ED Jim Clark CAST Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, Bill Paterson, Athol Fugard, Graham Kennedy

THE MISSION (1986) DIR Roland Joffé PROD David Puttnam, Fernando Ghia SCR Robert Bolt CAM Chris Menges MUS Ennio Morricone ED Jim Clark CAST Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson, Bercelio Moya

FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY (1989) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Tony Garnett SCR Roland Joffé, Bruce Robinson (story by Bruce Robinson) CAM Vilmos Zsigmond MUS Ennio Morricone ED Françoise Bonnot CAST Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, Bonnie Bedelia, John Cusack, Laura Dern, Ron Frazier, John C. McGinley, Natasha Richardson, John Considine

CITY OF JOY (1992) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Roland Joffé, Jake Eberts SCR Mark Medoff (book by Dominique Lapierre) CAM Peter Biziou MUS Ennio Morricone ED Gerry Hambling CAST Patrick Swayze, Pauline Collins, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Ayesha Dharker, Santu Chowdhury, Imram Badsah Khan, Sam Wanamaker

THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Roland Joffé, Andrew G. Vajna SCR Douglas Day Stewart (novel by Nathaniel Hawthrone) CAM Alex Thomson MUS John Barry ED Thom Noble CAST Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall, Lisa Andoh, Edward Hardwicke, Robert Prosky, Roy Dotrice, Joan Plowright, Malcolm Storry

GOODBYE LOVER (1998) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Joel Roodman, Chris Daniel, Alexandra Milchan, Patrick McDarrah SCR Ron Peer, Alec Sokolow, Joel Cohen (story by Ron Peer) CAM Dante Spinotti MUS John Ottman ED William Steinkamp CAST Patricia Arquette, Dermot Mulroney, Ellen DeGeneres, Mary-Louise Parker, Don Johnson, Ray McKinnon

VATEL (2000) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Roland Joffé, Alain Goldman SCR Jeanne Labrune (English adaptation by Tom Stoppard) CAM Robert Fraisse MUS Ennio Morricone ED Noëlle Boisson CAST Gérard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Julian Glover, Julian Sands, Timothy Spall, Murray Lachlan Young, Hywell Bennett, Richard Griffiths

CAPTIVITY (2007) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Leonid Minkovski, Gary Mehlman, Mark Damon SCR Larry Cohen, Joseph Tura (story by Larry Cohen) CAM Daniel C. Pearl MUS Marco Beltrami ED Richard Nord CAST Elisha Cuthbert, Daniel Gillies, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Michael Harney, Laz Alonso, Maggie Damon, Carl Paoli

YOU AND I (2011) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Leonid Minkovski, Sergei Konov, Stephen Nemeth SCR Shawn Schepps, Luke Goltz, Andrew Cullen (novel by Aleksey Mitrofanov, Anastasiya Moiseeva) CAM Philip Robertson MUS Jeff Cardoni ED Richard Nord CAST Mischa Barton, Anton Yelchin, Shantel Van Santen, Alexander Kaluzhsky, Charlie Creed-Miles, Helena Mattson

THERE BE DRAGONS (2011) DIR – SCR Roland Joffé PROD Roland Joffé, Guy J. Louthan, Ignacio Núñez CAM Gabriel Beristain MUS Stephen Warbeck, Robert Folk ED Richard Nord CAST Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Rodrigo Santoro, Jordi Mollà, Derek Jacobi, Golshifteh Farahani, Geraldine Chaplin, Unax Ugalde

THE LOVERS (2013) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Dale G. Bradley, Grant Bradley, Ajey Jhankar, Catherine Vandeleene, Paul Breuls, Guy J. Louthan SCR Roland Joffé (story by Ajey Jhankar) CAM  MUS  ED  CAST Josh Hartnett, Bipashi Basu, Tamsin Egerton, James Mackay, Alice Englert, Simone Kessell, Abhay Deol

THE FORGIVEN (2017) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Roland Joffé, Craig Baumgarten, Zaheer Bhyat SCR Michael Ashton CAM William Wages MUS Zethu Mashika ED Megan Gill CAST Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Jeff Gum, Vince Vaughn, Morné Visser, Terry Norton, Rob Gough


‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE (1980) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Richard Broke SCR (play by John Ford) CAM Nat Crosby ED Chris Wimble CAST Bernard Archard, Anthony Bate, Rodney Bewes, Suzanne Burden, Heather Canning, Jeremy Child, Kenneth Chanham, Colin Douglas, Cherie Lunghi


TEXAS RISING (2015) DIR Roland Joffé PROD Darrell Fetty, Herb Nanas, Joanne Rubino SCR Darrell Fetty, Leslie Greif, George Nihil CAM Arthur Reinhart MUS Bruce Broughton ED Don Cassidy CAST Bill Paxton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olivier Martinez, Thomas Jane, Crispin Glover, Jeremy Davies, Rhys Coiro, Christopher McDonald, Kris Kristofferson, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta