THE QUIET AMERICAN - Q&A with MICHAEL CAINE
You have said that you were surprised to be cast in the role of Thomas Fowler in THE QUIET AMERICAN, as his own life is so different from your own. Is this true?
Well I've had very few young Vietnamese mistresses! And here I was playing a 55 year-old at the age of 68, so that was a bit of a stretch. There was a lot of make up, a lot of hair dying going on. But I was delighted to be offered the part - it was like a great gift from God. I knew it, I knew the book, I knew everything about it. I had been in that part of the world as a soldier in Korea, so I had been interested in Vietnam. I realised later when I read the book that the reason - I thought - we never went into that war was because Greene had cautioned against it. He was in military intelligence in the Second World War and I can't believe that someone didn't ask his opinion.
This is not your first Graham Greene adaptation, you also did THE HONORARY CONSUL nearly 20 years ago. You must have been aware that Greene himself was a stern critic of the film adaptations of his work...
I met Graham on THE HONORARY CONSUL, and it's true he never liked any films made of his work - he told me in no uncertain terms that he didn't like that movie. He didn't even like THE THIRD MAN because Orson Welles wrote that scene in the big wheel. The first version of THE QUIET AMERICAN was directed by a friend of mine, and Greene actually wrote an article called 'The Treachery of Mr Joseph L. Mankiewicz' in which he wrote: 'this is the first time a film director has ever used a film as a weapon to murder an author'. So when Graham didn't like something it got pretty hairy.
Is it true that you actually based your portrayal of Fowler on Greene himself?
I did to an extent. I didn't know him very well but I knew a great deal about him because one of my best friends is Bryan Forbes who was one of Graham's best friends. So I knew a lot by proxy. The story is about a British correspondent of The Times who is in Vietnam with a very beautiful girlfriend when the CIA came in to start doing things politically. Greene was all these things. I just copied something of the way he spoke, and his movements. They were very small movements. Journalists are like policemen; they're always looking for things, their eyes go around all over the place, over your shoulder to see what's happening. Coppers do that. He was that type of upper middle class Englishman, and screwed up like Fowler. Greene was drinking very heavily in Vietnam - I know several people who know him so it's no good anyone lying about it - and screwing around.
You also spent time with a journalist out there, didn't you, what did you ask him?
I didn't ask him anything, I watched him. Once you ask someone about what they do they start to act for you. If you ask people what they're like and how to do something they immediately become artificial. The thing to do is say nothing and they'll be completely natural. But I did learn from him that you can write shorthand and still look at the guy you're talking to.
Yet for all your efforts the film nearly fell foul of the conservative mood in America, post September 11. How did you manage to persuade Miramax to give it the release it deserved?
The man in charge of the whole thing is Harvey Weinstein who's a friend of mine, and I was very surprised when he was going to dump this film in January. The beginning of January is the garbage can of movies in America, directly after all the Oscar contenders have been out. We spoke on the phone and he said he thought there were a lot of flaws in it, and I told him I thought the film was a lot better than he thought it was. I explained that there could be Oscar nominations for the director, the screenplay and - God willing - even I might scrape a nomination. I said: "By the time the Oscars are on I'll be seventy. How many more chances am I going to have to get nominated for an Oscar?" A while later a publicity girl rang and said they were going to take it to Toronto. I called Harvey and said: "If you take it to Toronto and it's crap and the critics don't like it I'll come with a shovel in January and bury it for you". Now he is so completely behind the picture.
The criticism that this is an anti-American film doesn't really hold up, does it?
I have never met an American who talks about 911 who's seen the movie. Once they've seen the movie they don't mention it. For a start I wouldn't make an anti-American film, I'm one of the most pro-American foreigners I know. I love America and Americans. I wouldn't make an anti-American film. But THE QUIET AMERICAN is anti the people who took them into the Vietnam War. As I explain to every American journalist I speak to, by the time that war finished there were 150 million people in America who thought exactly the same and they were rioting in the streets to get out. They'll say to me: "Well why did we go in then?" and I tell them it's because they didn't read THE QUIET AMERICAN.
THE QUIET AMERICAN comes along at a very exciting time in your career. You are as busy as you ever were but the quality of roles seems exceptional. What do you put this down to?
The script, the script, the script. I don't have to work and I'm nearly seventy, I suppose I should retire. But I enjoy working. I don't have my own production company. I did that and it was so boring, you have to keep doing stuff with lawyers and I didn't like it. I just sit and wait for great scripts to come my way. Recently I did LITTLE VOICE, and CIDER HOUSE RULES and then I got THE QUIET AMERICAN. LITTLE VOICE and CIDER HOUSE RULES were kind of half parts, they weren't massive roles in the movie, and then suddenly here was a leading role with degrees of difficulty as they say in skating - there were tremendously difficult things to do in here - and it was such a challenge for me. I sit waiting for things that I can't refuse, I really couldn't turn it down. I thought, there is a God and he's remembered my name!
Being so fond of Asia, and being able to tell this important story in the very place where it was set must have been a great help to you...
Oh yeah, every day someone would say Graham used to sit over there, or he wrote something there, or he used to be friendly with that girl there. Every day I saw these men, these Thomas Fowlers with these young Vietnamese girls and it helped me to add a little something to the character. I felt a tremendous sadness for these type of men who can't deal with a woman of their own age. I went through several phases. First I thought it was disgusting, then I thought it was funny, then I thought it was terribly sad. The one I put on screen was the sad one. But actually being there, every day I would see a dozen Thomas Fowlers with Vietnamese girls.
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