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Acclaimed English documentary filmmaker John Furse reveals the unique process of turning a unique story into a remarkable feature film, about two Brits held captive for over four years in Lebanon. This process started at a remote cabin in Ireland with six bottles of Spanish wine, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

On meeting Brian Keenan, shortly after Keenan’s release from four years in captivity in Lebanon at the end of the 80s with John McCarthy, acclaimed English documentary filmmaker John Furse suggested they go “somewhere really peaceful and just fly blind and see what happens,” as a way to engage with the extraordinary story of these two hostages, on the way to making a film about their experiences. They chose an isolated cottage on the West coast of Ireland, “miles from anywhere, with no television, no telephone, no newspapers – and we spent every waking hour together for six weeks.” That proposal also gave birth to the film’s title.

In the six weeks, with Furse bashing away by the window at an old Golfball typewriter, Brian Keenan told the whole story, as a Van Morrison tape of Motherless Child played in the background. “It’s beautiful music and I thought instinctively it might help emotionally…and psychically. We played it constantly – he loved it.” 

It started well, with the two men sharing six bottles of Spanish wine on the first night, talking about their mothers. “I told him I didn’t want to know what happened out in Lebanon…let’s do 10 days on and four days legging about. But first I just wanted to know about his childhood and growing up. Because if I don’t know how you were before, I won’t know how you were transformed.”

"a strong communicator"

Furse, who was a guest of the 2004 Sydney Film Festival to introduce the film, is at once intense and yet smiles quickly; his voice is soft, steady and low, but he speaks quite fast. The thoughts are ready formed, eloquent but simple; he’s clearly a strong communicator.

“Within a couple of days it quickly emerged as a movie…the way I was writing it, scene by scene, I was selecting and probing…and writing a full scale film treatment. It was very long, at 74 pages, covering the whole story from beginning to end. It was very moving, very powerful, even then.”

Keenan and McCarthy remained close to Furse and the film throughout, not only as collaborators but also as production consultants, helping Furse, the actors and the designer.

But Furse is adamant he was never interested in it as a hostage story. “What interested me very rapidly was the story of two men who open up to each other emotionally and with great intimacy in a way that men don’t normally do – and women constantly complain about. Brian was like a super male, armed with his Republican beliefs, very macho… we men tend to use that as a way of defending ourselves. And all of that being stripped away by his encounter with somebody who’s the opposite, quite a feminine man, in the sense that he’d surrender. John McCarthy didn’t want to fight or assert himself… a totally different personality. This struck me as riveting.”

What struck Furse visually, though, was the image of these two men being dropped into a hole in the ground by their captors, “which seemed to me like being returned to mother earth, the womb…And I thought that was an extremely powerful metaphor. It gave me the clue - their necessity to return to their childhood to discover the men they were.”

"the process of turning into dramatic film"

That was the process of turning into dramatic film the true story of Brian Keenan (Ian Hart) and John McCarthy (Linus Roache), who are taken hostage in the Lebanon in 1986. They spend four and a half years together in the captivity of Muslim fundamentalists. Total opposites, the two men discover deep truths about each other and themselves – and even come to find compassion for their captors.

Indeed, the first thing Furse made clear was that he would not be party to a film that was or could be seen as anti-Arab. The two men had already discussed that and agreed wholeheartedly; they too, would refuse to do anything that would suggest that.

When the process began 13 years before the film got made, Furse was the producer. But he ran out of directors. “They either weren’t attracted to the subject matter, couldn’t find a way to do it or felt that it was so clearly seen by me that they couldn’t find a way to insert themselves…people like John Borman, Peter Weir, Nic Roeg… Nic was actually one of the first to say I should direct it. So once we made that decision I could approach actors…and really, there are very few candidates.”

His first choices for marketing purposes were Robert Carlyle and Joseph Fiennes, “who was then very hot from Shakespeare In Love. He appeared on my doorstep within days of my leaving the script with his agent…but then they both had to pull out for various reasons.” 

A decade earlier, when the project was still new and Danny Boyle was one of the two directors who’d expressed real interest (Roman Polanski was the other), Linus Roache had come up for consideration. “But I now discounted him, because it’s 10 years later and he’s 40 now. But then I saw a poster of him and his agent sent me a recent picture, and he looks much younger than he is. When I met the guy, I knew within 30 seconds…He’s perfect.”

Furse and his cast began filming (in Glasgow and later Belfast, with some exteriors in Tunisia) without rehearsals, and without script or motivational analysis. Yet the script is highly detailed. For Furse, “the art of scriptwriting is what’s not there…the absent things like gestures, silences, so much of it is the non verbal….”

Despite the clarity of his vision, Furse encouraged the actors to interpret the characters in their own way, not mimic the real guys. And even improvise. 

"I never realised how naked the director feels"

But what surprised Furse was how vulnerable a director is. “I never realised how naked the director feels. Of course I realise how vulnerable actors have to be to deliver their stuff properly and I ensured the set was very safe for them…. So they could feel secure and not be afraid to make mistakes.” That includes the Lebanese, who were all non-professionals. 

“And,” he adds with a flourish, “it’s bloody hard to find Lebanese in Glasgow! They’re all working in restaurants…” 

Footnote: Prior to its Sydney Film Festival screening, Blind Flight was selected for the London Film festival (October 2003) and nominated for an international critics (FIPRESCI) prize. It had a Centrepiece Gala premiere at the Dublin Film Festival in (February 2004). It was to have been released in Australia only on DVD, until response to the film in Sydney encouraged distributors to plan a limited theatrical release. The DVD release has been re-scheduled to October 2004.

Published: August 12, 2004

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John Furse


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