Director Tony Richardson on ‘The Border’
Tony Richardson burst onto the Anglo-American cultural scene in 1956 with his stage and film productions of John Osborne’s archetypal angry-young-man play, Look Back in Anger. Six years later, his version of Fielding’s Tom Jones became an international movie sensation, and he remained a prominent, controversial figure for most of the next two decades. After a few years of minor efforts and broken projects, Richardson’s latest movie, The Border – a ravaging, heartbreaking account of the atrocities perpetrated by the immigration system along the U.S.-Mexico border – amounts to a professional comeback. The fifty-three-year-old Richardson, probably still best known for the seduction/eating scene in Tom Jones, suggested we chew over his latest movie at Ma Maison, Hollywood’s favorite restaurant for eating and deal making. The following comes from notes scribbled between bites of broiled whitefish and oysters.
Because you made The Border without any official U.S. government co-operation and the film implicates the border patrol in brutality and corruption, the production must have required a great deal of studio support.
Universal did spend a lot of money, but initially, not many people there wanted it made. I became convinced the border was a great subject four years or so ago, when the Los Angeles Times ran a series on illegal aliens and I did a lot of my own research. I’d been developing another script with [screenwriter] Deric Washburn when he asked me to take a look at an early draft of The Border. It was originally conceived as a project for Robert Blake; after I came on and worked with Washburn, I forced Universal to make a decision. With Blake still attached, they said no. But when I took the project to Lorimar, we lost Blake. I immediately called Jack Nicholson, who said yes right away. I went back to Universal and, with Jack in the picture, they said yes. In their eyes, it became a great script overnight: the budget rose from $4.5 million to $14.5 million.
The credits list three screenwriters. How did the script evolve?
Deric Washburn is very talented, but in his script, Jack’s character [a decent patrolman pressured into corruption] was too much of a macho fantasy figure. David Freeman helped me tone down and complete the shape of the script; Walon Green filled in the holes, redid much of the dialogue and basically made it work.
Jack Nicholson has gone in for a lot of macho fantasies lately.
Jack wanted to return to the style of acting of his earlier performances. I’ve known Jack ever since he made those two westerns for Monte Hellman [1967’s The Shooting and 1966’s Ride in the Whirlwind], and I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’ve never known a single actor to object to a director’s saying, “You’re doing too much,” and Jack was no exception. We agreed at the beginning he’d do much of the movie in reflecting sunglasses – that’s what most of the patrolmen wear – but you can tell by the expressions on the rest of his face that he isn’t wiggling his eyebrows.
Despite all the drafts and the different writers, the movie does have a conceptual unity. Beyond the specific U.S.-Mexico problems, it’s about the gap between the haves and the have-nots everywhere.
That’s it exactly. One reason the story is so fascinating is that the border between the U.S. and Mexico is the only place where a third-world country faces the richest nation on earth.
On the U.S. side of the border, society seems to be held together by materialism.
Yes, the material pressures of the upwardly mobile life. Jack’s character is not that smart; he doesn’t know anything better. Two different worlds face each other in this movie, and they’re irreconcilable. One world consumes everything, the other has almost nothing. It’s a situation that can’t be easily resolved as long as we live with frontiers.
Do the patrolmen need their material comforts partly as a buffer?
The men in the border patrol have the most thankless job imaginable. They’re underpaid and exposed to danger. They’re always rounding up and sending back the same illegal aliens. They can only do something about the problem cases involving drugs and smuggling. The horror is that the situation is routinized — they can’t make it better.
One day while we were shooting, about six Mexicans died in the desert — they fried to death. On numerous occasions, people crossing the border would try to blend in with our own extras. A few retired members of the border patrol helped us out. One of them later went back to the border patrol headquarters and blew his head off.
Critics of the movie say that you celebrate the purity of the Mexicans and condemn the materialism of the Americans.
These people are projecting their own symbolism. Their criticism is based on the scenes with Valerie [Perrine, who plays Nicholson’s wife], but she’s meant to represent a part of Jack’s life that has gone dead. I think she’s a likable character. She does love her man; she’s not simply a materialist – she thinks that their water bed and so on will make him happy. There’s nothing wrong with water beds; I think they’re funny. I slept on one myself while we were making the movie.
But there does seem to be Christian imagery within the film, involving the Mexican mother and her child.
Whatever is there comes out of the material. The newspaper article included a description of a woman who’d been separated from her child. That was the heart of the film. My intent was to show her from the point of view of an ordinary American man whose own life is in flux. He’s the one who romanticizes them.
I gather the ending went through changes.
Originally, it had what I consider to be a more traditional ending: Nicholson bombs the border patrol headquarters and gets sent away to prison. I had never been to public previews of my movies before, but Universal said I had to preview the film, so I went to them’ and really studied the audience. Some people always want to push a film toward what they’ve seen before. They would have wanted even more of a Clint Eastwood ending than the one we had, and what we did deliver was not effective. And to many of the people who liked the movie – it’s always split audiences down the middle, fifty-fifty – the hopelessness of the ending didn’t sit right. I decided it was important to allow Jack’s character to do one good little thing –— that is the message of the movie. We gathered up the cast and crew and shot for a week in the fall. (That’s where Universal was very good.) Some people will still hate this movie, but those who would have liked it should like it more. From now on, I’ll always preview my films. What the audience tells you is often more perceptive than a lot of the reviews.