Roland Joffe is fond of digressions. If he were to write a novel about our meeting in the lobby of Raffles hotel, it would, he says, have to go like this:
The digression would need to be a chapter about the hotel, he says. It would need to mention how it was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and then how it was occupied by journalists before that, he says. It would go into the time when it was a hotel originally, and before that there was the French military and all this went on within that space that was turned into a hotel…
“…Which is of course so metaphorical of our time as we turn everything into a hotel including countries,” he ends, in a final gasp.
Joffe is known for his Academy-nominated films The Killing Fields, the Cambodia-based classic that chronicles the experiences of two journalists (one American, one Khmer) and The Mission, but his oeuvre encompasses a range of Hollywood hits and misses from There Will Be Dragons, the 2011 historical-epic about the founder of Opus Dei to (in the same year) Finding T.a.T.u, a drama telling the story of two girls who fall in love at a T.a.T.u concert.
The spiralling range of interests is not surprising from a man who grew up in a London household which played host to the sculptor Jacob Epstein - “a grandfather figure” – and a busy cast of other characters. At his childhood lunch table he had every level of society communicating, and it stuck in his mind, he says. “We had such wonderful conversations.”
His latest work: a short story set in Phnom Penh called Hearts and Mind, written for the collection Phnom Penh Noir, launched this weekend, is a thriller that digresses as the author builds up a picture of a pulsing web of lives and crimes within the NGO world - a tangled web that is, also, he says, so metaphorical of our time.
British filmmaker Joffe and actors Charlie Cox and Wes Bentley pose during a photocall for There Will Be Dragons in Buenos Aires. Photograph Reuters
Actor Haing Ngor, who played Khmer Rouge survivor Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. Photograph Reuters
Were you happy with your short story for Phnom Penh Noir: Hearts and Minds?
Yes. I was surprised by it. I didn’t really mean to write that story and that to me is a very good sign. I meant to write a different story which was more magical in a way but then as the characters started to do their thing and have conversations and that’s the moment I look for: I’m desperately trying to get it all down before I forget it. And that’s lovely.
There’s a lot in it. Which I thought was quite important, even for a short story. But the whole story is a metaphor for: ‘We have to let Cambodia sort Cambodia out.’ Why do we still think we should be lecturing to Cambodians about what to do? It’s about Cambodia fighting their way through the mess of the barangs.
The title is about the latest neurological research which proved that the heart instructs the mind on emotional matters.
What does ‘noir’ mean to you?
For me noir means looking for the worm in the apple. You have to love the apple or else you won’t have a story. It can’t be all black.
What do you think of this idea of dark mystery in Cambodia?
It’s not that there’s a deep dark mystery in the Orient, but that behaviour is controlled by different techniques. When we were shooting The Killing Fields there was a scene where Haing Ngor [who plays Dith Pran, the Cambodian hero] planted a tomato plant and it gets pulled up by some children. Two minutes into the scene Haing started crying. We stopped filming and he said: ‘How can you do this to me? You know what I went through with the Khmer Rouge, why would you bring a Khmer Rouge onto the set?’ I said: ‘That girl can’t be Khmer Rouge, Haing, she’s ethnic Khmer but she’s Thai. There was a kind of a pause and he said – but her face!
We did the scene again and I saw when she picked the plant up this look came over her and it was really the look of the Khmer Rouge it was like there was a coldness and hardness - amazing.
For another experiment we were training kids to be the Khmer rouge. We had this very good British guy, Terry, ex-SAS and one day he came to me and said I’m a bit worried about this, I’m a bit worried about these children. He said, ‘Well, they’ll do whatever I want.’
At that point, David Puttnam, who was the producer, was walking across the set and Terry gave an order to these kids who were all toting M16, they knocked David flat on the ground and pointed their guns at him and Terry said fire and they all pulled the trigger. Terry said I know those guns weren’t loaded but those kids didn’t.
What is your relationship with Cambodia now?
I’ve come here quite frequently, I’m a patron of the Cambodia Trust, which I co-founded in the ‘90s. We’ve passed that over to a Cambodian who runs it and runs it very well. So these issues [in the NGO world] that are very much alive to me.
What I was trying to do in my story is to ask within the NGO world what actually goes on? And just because you work for an NGO it doesn’t excuse you from being a human being, so what kind of human being are you? Why are you here? What are you here for? We do have to get to a point where we’re saying to Cambodia you went to year zero in the most shocking way unfortunately with ideas imported from the west and you’re now re-growing in a rather weird world.
Your story carries so much detail about what it’s like to live here.
Directing’s a very strange thing: I’m partway between a magpie and a sponge. My job is about putting yourself as an observer. You can’t direct an actor unless you really understand what you are doing. I give actors dreams and diaries.
I’ll give you an example. With Josh Hartnett in the film I’ve just been working on: Singularity [in post-production, due for release next year.] Josh plays a modern diver in 2025, and he also plays an officer in the East India Army in 1778.
I wanted to give him a certain sort of sadness. He had a lover who died when he was 18 in Scotland and in the page in his diary said: ‘When I lie next to Laura and I hold her in my arms and I feel the beating of her heart next to my chest, how much the more I love her for the realization this heart can’t beat forever and how strange it is, isn’t it, that when we really love we long for it to be forever, but the fire comes from the fact that it can’t.’ And I’ll just give him [Josh] that and a point will come when we’re acting that will trigger that as a memory so the reaction Josh gets is part him and part the story. It’s a great performance.
Tell me about the screenplay you’re working on at the moment.
In a strange way it’s just a story about knowledge. It’s about how we attach importance to all kinds of things, but the real thing of importance, the real loadstone is knowledge. It’s basically about the fall of Singapore. It’s about political games, spying and how during war one or two things happens: either people reveal who they are or they hide who they are, under extreme pressure. It’s as though during conflict you begin to see who people are and who they aren’t in a way you don’t normally see.
That seems to be a theme of yours.
I like examining people under pressure. We only really know who we are when things fall apart. When they are sticking together we just don’t know why they’re working. That’s why failure teaches us much more than success. I remember in reading the Gnostic Gospels my great delight was when Christ said God was not interested in the person who’d lived a good life, because they’d have no story to tell Him. As a comment about life that is so extraordinary: live your life as richly and fully as you can even if it’s all wrong. That’s kind of linked with the idea that the word sin, actually means to miss the target, it’s not about being a bad girl or a bad boy it just means what you aimed for you missed.
Do you believe that idea when looking at your own career?
Yes, not only in my career but my whole life. I think for all of us really our life is our own work of art – and I really mean work of art. There’s nothing wrong with thinking: I want to look at this painting and think, oh I didn’t get that bit right but I really tried for this. Life is finite. There are edges to the canvas, so you can only cram so much in and that’s very important I think to look at one’s life without regret but with a real sense of where one’s boobed, where one’s done well and to see the whole thing as a mountain range with peaks and troughs.
Is that something you’re thinking yourself more and more as you get older?
No I think I thought it very early on in life. I was adopted by my stepmother’s family so I was part of the family and at the same time not part of the family. My step-father committed suicide. I think it hit me at the age of 13 or 14 that life was not - I’m trying to find the right childhood words for it - that life was fragile and you have to cling on to every moment of it. And in my childish way that made me very determined.
But it came from a realization that you have to put everything into life because it can just disappear like that. At the last moment of life one wouldn’t want to disappear just like that and just before the black you think: ‘Wow I really didn’t do anything.’
You mention the importance of cultivating a sense of where one’s made mistakes and done well in life. Which elements of your life and work do you think fall into these categories?
Booboos…Well in all honesty I must admit to having made many. But I am not certain enough of whether my conclusions are correct to publicly name them. Though the public at large, should they have any interest in doing so, are quite free to have their own opinions.