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Scots Hollywood director Michael Caton-Jones on Spooks

He has filmed blockbusters with Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis… So why is Scotland’s greatest Hollywood director making Spooks?


July, 1983

A breeze-block council flat in north London, which contains some basic furniture, faded woodwork and two men in their early twenties.

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One is a hopeful journalist (me), the other, far more colourful, is Michael Jones, a punk film school student who wears a leather jacket, a torn T-shirt and dyed blond vertical hair that could have been cut with blunt scissors. Jones speaks in a strong West Lothian accent and displays an inordinate amount of confidence, which would be easy to mistake for arrogance. Already he’s declaring he’ll make great movies one day and direct the Hollywood greats such as Robert De Niro. Cut to …


Present day

The salubrious High Road House private members’ club in Chiswick, west London. We see the same two men from before but the blond man’s hair is a softer shade and styled. The expensive teeth are testimony to his success, having become one of the most acclaimed film directors of his generation, thanks to films such as Scandal (now out on DVD), Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood, This Boy’s Life and Shooting Dogs. We learn that, in the intervening years, Michael Caton-Jones has slung his arm around De Niro’s shoulders, cold-shouldered Sharon Stone successfully and threatened to snog Leonardo DiCaprio. Having directed two episodes of TV spy drama, Spooks, Caton-Jones is explaining how his 1980s vision became a vivid reality.

‘I’m clueless as to how I come across,” says a smiling Caton-Jones, in an accent scarcely diluted by time. “Some people think I’m arrogant, but I think it’s just confidence. It’s just that when we first met I didn’t see why I wouldn’t become a director. Punk was the catalyst, I think. Suddenly, anything was possible. And when I realised I wouldn’t make it as a professional footballer” – he had trials with Arsenal and Liverpool – “I knew there were opportunities in London, so that’s where I headed.”

Caton-Jones (Caton was his ex-wife’s surname) was confident at school, yet in spite of being a good writer, the intelligence was never noted. When his parents and two sisters emigrated to Canada, the wide-eyed 16 year old opted for London, life in a squat and nine quid a week dole money. But it was the right move. When he landed £3-a-night work as a stage hand in a theatre, Caton-Jones found his natural milieu.

“I loved it,” he recalls of the theatre world. Life, however, switched reels when he took off to the south of France for an eight-week stint, to work on a very cheap horror film.

“I worked on special effects, coming up with gory bits of bodies. And I thought: ‘This is brilliant.’ But as I studied the director, how he’d change the script daily, how he shot scenes, I worked out better angles to shoot so you didn’t see the joins. Then it dawned: I could do that. Only better. Suddenly, I knew what I would do with my life.”

But how do you become a director? What you do is attend night classes in writing and then video filming and make sure you shine by producing some clever scripts. Then when some Islington Council money comes along you direct its community films. You learn to direct as you direct. And you edit all night long. And when you get it right, the BBC’s community programme spots the obvious talent and commissions a public information film in which you learn how to plan out scenes. Then you realise there’s such an institution as film school. But how to beat the thousands of other hopefuls to a place? Well, you come up with the very clever idea of writing a screen play about a young man trying to gain admission.

“It got me an interview, and director Alan Parker [Midnight Express, Evita] liked the fact I was bolshy. ‘Why should we admit you on to this course?’ ‘Why should I bother to come here?’ That sort of thing. Mind you, I was intimidated when I went there. The students were all well-versed in film history and I had spiky hair and came from a council house. But I’d had more life experience. By this time I was married and had a kid, and lots of jobs.”

Caton-Jones set about learning. Hard. He’d take three films a day out of the library and study them. He proved he could not only excel in script-writing but his theatre experience had given him great organisational skills; he could move people around quickly.

So what does an aspiring film director do next to fast-track a career and race ahead of the pack? Simple. He shoots a great first 45-minute film, which gets bought by Channel 4 and shown at European festivals. By the second year he makes another classy, clever short film in Glasgow (starring Ewen Bremner). And during the summer he lands work on Absolute Beginners: The Documentary.

“I thought: ‘What a bunch of cowboys,’” he says of the crew, grinning. “Because of what I’d learned at film school I knew they were wasting so much money and as a result I was a bit superior towards them. Youthful cockiness I suppose, but I felt I knew more.”

The spiky hopeful had the chance to prove it in 1984 when Channel 4 offered him Brond, a three-part political crime thriller in which he worked with producer Paddy Higson and a newcomer, John Hannah (damned, entirely appropriately, with faint praise when described as “a very decent TV actor”).

“Everybody on the set thought I was an arrogant f***wit,” he says of the by now familiar accusation, “but I was just confident. I knew what to do, how to make this series, even though the storyline never made any sense to me.”

Colourful invective apart, Caton-Jones was being talked about for all the right reasons. In 1987 he was offered a Play For Today, an Andrew Davies comedy called Lucky Sanil, featuring a young Michelle Collins and future Taggart star Alex Norton, and then a year later Palace Pictures proferred the opportunity to direct Scandal, the story of the John Profumo affair.

“The producers thought I was an overly cocky piece of shit as well,” he adds, laughing. “I hadn’t learned how to over-enthuse about everything, to say their script was brilliant. But I made it work.”

Not half. Scandal became a great movie, with a great finale, with Caton-Jones providing a definitive directorial flourish with his final shot, the slo-mo exploding cigarette ash on carpet – a metaphor for lives destroyed.

“Here’s the real story of how this ending came about,” he says. “We didn’t have an ending for the movie until I got stoned one weekend on a big fat joint and went to an Imax and saw a moonshot film. And one shot of a rocket taking off with all the ice falling away seemed gorgeous to me and so I stole the idea. To film it we used a medical camera from Oxford University and it took a whole day. But it worked. I really liked that movie.”

Iconic film director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) once claimed: “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sychophant and a bastard.” By the time of completing Scandal, Caton-Jones had developed most of those skills. The star, Joanne Whalley, had recently married Val Kilmer and assumed movie star status by association, which manifested itself in her refusal to be filmed naked.

“I liked Jo very much but I felt she held back a lot, and not just in not showing her tits. Anyway, I got a body double, and you couldn’t tell. It was annoying though. She had read the scripts.”

Scandal hadn’t hit the theatres by the time the Scot hit Hollywood and began working on his 1990 bomber pilot-buddy movie, Memphis Belle, starring Matthew Modine and Eric Stolz. Thankfully. It meant he discovered how the ratings system worked. “I was just ‘the boy’ in the early meetings,” he recalls. “Then a few months later Scandal came out and I learned those people who wouldn’t give me the time of day were suddenly all over me like a cheap suit. Baskets of flowers, cases of beer … They were all sent to my house.”

And did he avail himself of the gorgeous girls on tap? “No,” he says, grinning. “I could have and should have, but didn’t, to my lasting regret. I was just a dull but very focused nerd.”

The nerd’s Scandal movie took more than $65 million in the US alone. Memphis Belle proved to be a directorial masterpiece and Caton-Jones’s name now carried some clout. And so he moved to Los Angeles, to make his next studio film, Doc Hollywood.

The former “grimy sweaty sock from up the road” discovered he was now “an exotic flower”. “Hollywood was liberating, you could be whatever you wanted to be. I could be me.”

Not half. His “me” wore a fez and carried a riding crop while working. “It was practical,” he says, grinning, of his props. “The hats allowed me to be seen in crowd scenes and the crop was something to do with my hands. And the funny hats kept the actors loose, not feeling exposed or vulnerable. I’d learned the importance of that back in theatre.”

Doc Hollywood became a minor classic and its star, Michael J Fox, was a delight to work with. In Hollywood, though, failure is always waiting round the corner to smack you on the face with a copy of last week’s Variety. Ironically, Caton-Jones’s next film, This Boy’s Life, proved to be his best – but a box-office dud. Tobias Wolff’s story of teen abuse, however, was one the director was desperate to make. Robert De Niro’s bullying, self-obsessed stepfather was a man he recognised from Broxburn. “Just an accent away.” Caton-Jones admits he was “shitting himself” at the idea of working with the screen legend.

“I had to step up my game because Bob has the greatest bullshit barometer ever. He’s great on nuance, on gesture, getting a truth. Why wear this costume today? Why this wallpaper in his house? All of that. But while I knew De Niro was the money, the film was about the boy.”

The director reveals how he rigged the screen tests in a bid to make sure the inexperienced Leonardo DiCaprio, then 16, landed the main role. “I had interviewed around 400 kids, an exhaustive search, and eventually got it down to 10 boys including Leonardo and Tobey McGuire. At that point I knew who I wanted and Bob agreed. So what I did was get Leonardo back in and record him on tape over and over again until I had some great material. Then I filmed two other actors who hadn’t done such great work on film and put them either side. Then I showed it to the producer and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?’ And of course he said, ‘The blond kid. The one in the middle.’ The reason? I knew I could work with Leonardo. He was such a nice kid and I knew he was the key to this film. And I worked hard at keeping him loose, and I sort of became his big brother.”

Which meant getting him in head locks and beating him up? “Sometimes I’d even wind him up and say, ‘You’re so gorgeous I could kiss you, with tongue,’ and watch him run.And because of that he gave me a nuanced, sophisticated performance and worked so hard. And he’s kept those skills since.” He adds, grinning: “I think I should tap him for some money.”

Then there was talk of Caton-Jones directing the next Bond movie, but that faded. However, a trip back home brought about the next project, Rob Roy, “a western set in the Highlands”.

“It was a real Scottish film, compared to Braveheart, which was very plastic,” he says. “And Jessica Lange brought a fantastic quality to the film. She was so real. She’d pee in the field behind a sheet with the rest of them.”

The romance of the Highlands faded quickly with the realisation that the making of his next film could have been a Hollywood script in itself. A horror. In 1997, The Jackal began life as a low-budget, arthouse-type film starring Liam Neeson and Matthew McConaughey, then it became a $40m blockbuster once Bruce Willis had signed on (for $20m) and Richard Gere joined the cast. But while it had stars, it had no finished script, a writer who only wrote at night and three weeks into production the new head of studio threatened to fire everyone unless Gere removed his goatee.

“A compromise was reached; Richard agreed to shave the beard if he could get time off to meet the Dalai Lama, which cost us an extra $5m,” says Caton-Jones. “Then Bruce had to leave at weekends for Idaho in his private jet. I took up boxing during this film, and I overdid it. I was exhausted. And at the same time my marriage was breaking down.” Caton-Jones’s wife and two daughters, Daisy and Molly, returned to London. “I was not a happy guy. The film turned out all right, but it didn’t have feeling. It was industrial.”

And the relationship with Willis? “He was great before it started, a **** during filming and a nice guy when it was over. But I think he gets nervous, and actors sometimes strike out in all directions. With actors, everything is predicated upon fear; fear of being found out, of being exposed. Gere, however, was a good bloke.”

The Hollywood bubble had burst. Caton-Jones had had enough and took off for New York, to be “part of human life”. The next seven years saw him dip into television, with a blockbuster series, Trinity, and meantime he married again, to producer Laura Viederman. In 2002, film opportunity knocked again with City By The Sea, starring De Niro, but it was a trying period, money was tight for filming and Caton-Jones faced intense time pressures. In the meantime, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Romy.

The traumatic experience informed the director’s next decision. He secured an English agent with a view to making smaller, more intimate films and the result was Shooting Dogs, a BBC film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The £3m film turned out to be the cheapest he’d ever made – but the most satisfying, proving to be a humbling experience. “I had to use every trick I’d learned in Hollywood to create a film that looked as though it had a budget; the wide lenses to get a sense of panorama, reusing crowd scenes to make shots look busy, everything,” he says.

But six months in Africa working for next to nothing meant the Caton-Joneses were broke. So the day after he finished Shooting Dogs the director began work on Basic Instinct 2. “When I got my strength back I re-read the script and knew I had to redo it. I later learned the script had been around Hollywood for years, and the movie was a deal-film, which means that nobody really gives a monkey how it turns out, but a lot of people make a lot of money as soon as it’s made. It was a disaster. I wanted to get out of Dodge, but I’d have been sued to death.”

Sharon Stone lived up to her reputation as a Hollywood monster. “Sharon lives in a zone inside her own head,” Caton-Jones says. “She’s had to do everything to get up the greasy pole, and having reached a certain age then wonders what to do. Again, it’s all about insecurity and fear. And to show she was the star she’d turn up late, not know her lines, she’d make appointments to have her nails done on a day of filming. There was no point in getting into a fight with her, though.”

He was right. He knew the star and the attraction that was her knickerless crotch wouldn’t be replaced; it would be the director. He used psychology: let her think she could do what she liked. It worked. Stone’s panties dropped and Caton-Jones’s bank account soared skywards. But where to go next? The one-time punk with lots of attitude was worn out by the film process, the politics, the unfairness.

In recent years, he’s looked at developing small-scale projects. This year, the director agreed to film Spooks for the BBC. Caton-Jones, however, has mixed feelings about the experience. “I really liked working with the actors,” he says of the likes of Nigel Lindsay.

Would he do more of the same? “Not under the same circumstances,” he says. “Not on a series where you get the scripts the day before shooting. And then when you want to fix it, there’s so much debate. You think: ‘Why hire me?’ It’s like buying a Ferrari and keeping it in the garage.”

It’s certainly not arrogance, you realise. It’s self-confidence. Caton-Jones just happens to see the bigger picture.

Spooks is on BBC One, Mondays at 9pm.

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