The two men made Hell in the Pacific (1968) together, but it was Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, that made him a household name – even today, movie buffs still talk about the film’s infamously brutal buggering scene, which leaves very little to the imagination.
Shortly before making Deliverance, for which he was nominated for Best Director and Best Film Oscars, Boorman relocated permanently to Co. Wicklow. Over the past 46 years, he has made some of the finest movies ever to come from these islands, including the Cannes award-winning The General, Excalibur and Hope and Glory, which was nominated for five Oscars.
Boorman also directed Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is often described as one of the worst movies ever made.
Boorman has written several non-fiction books. Now, at 84, Boorman has dipped his toes into the world of fiction with his first novel, Crime of Passion. He has clearly taken to heart the advice to write about what you know best: his highly entertaining novel is the story of a film director and producer who decide to put together a movie that is both sexy and violent enough to deliver them an worldwide smash hit.
Jason O’Toole: Were you a big film fan growing up?
John Boorman: At the age of 15, I was seeing everything that was on at the local cinema and I became very much a fan. I had to join the army for two years at the age of 18. A few months before I went into the army, the National Film Theatre opened on the South Bank in London and they showed all the great silent movies like Intolerance and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. So, I haunted the place. I was steeped in the silent cinema. And then when I came out of the army, I got a job as a trainee assistant film editor. My career developed organically. I didn’t set out to become a film director. I was interested in film – and one thing led to another.
Was your first feature, Catch Us If You Can with The Dave Clark Five in 1965, influenced by The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night?
Yes. It came about because The Beatles’ films were a great success. I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. The odd thing was, when it opened in America, Pauline Kael – who was a very influential figure in film criticism – praised it much more than it deserved! As a result, I started to get offers from the States. So, everything about my career has been a sort of a series of accidents.
The Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank, which is regarded as one of the best film noir movies ever made, came next.
Because of Pauline Kael’s influence, this American producer came to London and gave me this script. He said, ‘What do you think of it?’ I said, ‘It’s terrible!’ He said, ‘I agree with you’. I said, ‘The character is interesting’. So, we met several times and I described how I could see it developing and it touched something in Lee.
Lee was wounded in the Pacific War. But he was also wounded psychologically. He’d been rather brutalised. He was, in a sense, trying to redefine his humanity. And he could see a parallel to his own experience in this story about a man who is shot and left for dead and somehow comes back to life. I think this is what gives the film its power.
I re-watched it last night and it feels like a European art house film.
I was very much influenced by Renoir. And I was very influenced by Harold Pinter in the dialogue.
You had carte blanche on Point Blank too, which is highly unusual for a novice in Hollywood.
When I went out there, Lee Marvin knew better than I did how difficult it was going to be to make the film that I envisaged. So, he called a meeting with the head of the studio and the producers and he reminded them that he had script and cast approval. And they agreed that he had it in his contract. And he said, ‘I defer those approvals to John’. And then he walked out of the room – and these guys were staring at me angrily! Here is this young English director who had total control over the film (laughs). Lee was so supportive of me throughout.
Were you nervous doing such a big Hollywood production?
There was one moment. We were in Alcatraz. We’d flown down from LA on the previous night and I was exhausted from the whole thing and I lost it for a moment: I couldn’t think what to do. And Lee came over to me and he said, ‘Are you in trouble?’ I said, ‘I’m trying to break down this scene’. He then started to act drunk! He started to shout, sing and fall over. And the production manager came up to me and said, ‘Do you see the state Lee’s in? You can’t shoot with him like this’. So, immediately the pressure was off me. All I needed was 10 minutes without the pressure to figure it out – and he gave me that.
Have you ever thrown a tantrum or screamed and shouted on set?
No. I’m quite severe. I prepare very carefully and I give careful instructions to everyone on what they have to do. And if they don’t do it, I have righteous anger!
How did you manage to persuade MGM not to take a scissors to Point Blank?
There was a very good editor at MGM called Margaret Booth. She cut Gone With The Wind. She was a greatly feared woman because she re-cut all their pictures. So, I had to show the film to her and she made one or two suggestions, which were good, and I made the changes. And then I had to show it to the executives and they got up at the end and started mumbling about reshoots. And Margaret Booth said, ‘You cut a frame of this film over my dead body!’ So, that’s how it came about. I was very fortunate.
The film you’re most fondly remembered for is probably Deliverance.
Warners said they would do it if I get two major stars. Jack Nicholson was on the up at the time and I got him. And he said, ‘Who’s going to play the other part? What about Marlon Brando?’ I went to Marlon and I spent the day with him. It was just before he made The Godfather. He agreed to do it. I said to Marlon, ‘Ok, who’s your agent?’ He said, ‘I don’t have an agent anymore. I’m not in the business!’ He said he hadn’t worked for years. And he was considered box office poison. I said, ‘How much do you want for doing this picture?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do: pay me the same that you paid Jack Nicholson’.
So, why weren’t Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando in Deliverance?
I went to Jack’s agent and I said, ‘What do you want for Jack to do the picture?’ He said half a million dollars! Now, I knew that he never been paid more than $50,000 for a picture! I said, ‘That’s outrageous. He hasn’t done a big picture’. He said, ‘Well, that’s what we want. He’s going to be a great star’. I went to the studio and I said, ‘You wanted me to get two stars. Here they are: Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando’. And they said, ‘Jack is up-and-coming and we’d like to do a picture with him. But Marlon Brando! Who cares about Marlon Brando? He’s finished!’ So, I said, I think they’d match up very well’. He said, ‘What does Brando want?’ I said, ‘I agreed to pay him the same as Jack’. And that killed it because Ted Ashley, who was running the studio, said, ‘If I paid Marlon Brando half a million dollars I’d be laughed out of town’. So they said to me, ‘Make it with unknowns, for a very low price’.”
How much did you pay Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight?
Very little. Burt got $50,000 and Jon got $75,000. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox had both never made a film or been on a TV show. I made the film very cheaply. They kept beating me up about the budget and I cut everything back. I didn’t even have an art director on the film. And then they still needed me to cut the budget. I had the money for a composer and an orchestra, so I cut them and I got two musicians to make the score – and that’s how I got down to a budget of $1.7million. Of course, the picture went through the roof and they made millions out of it.
You’re not credited for it, but did you do a lot of work on the script?
It was James Dickey’s novel. He did a draft of a script before I came into the picture and then we worked together on a new draft. And then we fell out over the direction of the script and I took it on myself and wrote the final draft. But since it was based on his novel and they were his characters, he got the credit. The Writers’ Guild were intent on protecting writers from producers – they gave him the credit. But that was OK because it was very much his story, his characters – and he deserved it. When the film was finished, Dickey was thrilled with it and told everyone, ‘It’s better than the novel’. But in later life, he disowned the film and sent his script to every studio, trying to get them to remake it.
There’s a story that you fought with Dickey onset – and came out of it badly.
Absolutely not! He’s supposed to have knocked my teeth out – but miraculously I still have them!
Do you think, as Burt Reynolds character says, that it’s justifiable homicide to murder a rapist?
They debate it: whether they should go to the police or not. And they decide to bury the man and say nothing – and that all comes back to haunt them. What do I think (laughs)? It doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s what the characters thought that matters.
So what was going through the characters’ minds?
You had Ronnie Cox as the moral compass of the group, and he was all for reporting it to the police; Jon Voight was hesitant, he didn’t know which way to go; and Ned Beatty sided with Burt because he didn’t want this whole thing getting around – being buggered. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) desperately wanted the experience of killing a man. He felt that his view of masculinity was that he had to go through fire – you had to experience these things – and the ultimate was to kill a man. So, they all had their different views. Voight was the indecisive character: the one who never really committed to anything, didn’t really stand up for anything. So, he becomes the one who eventually has to take the harsh decision. He’s the one who’s most changed by it. That’s the heart of it.
If you were in such a horrifying position, do you think you would’ve been able to draw the bow and arrow?
No, I couldn’t have done that. I have a shotgun, and many years ago there was a rather drunken burglar trying to break into my house and I got the loaded shotgun and confronted him. And I thought, ‘What am I going to do (laughs)? I don’t want to kill him. How shall I wound him? And where would I shoot him? Maybe in the feet or the leg?’ And I knew the guy! He was a local labourer. And I thought, ‘I can’t shoot him in the leg because that would incapacitate him. He wouldn’t be able to work as a labourer!’ I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him or wound him. But the threat of the gun was sufficient and he went off.
Your house was broken into by Martin Cahill, aka The General.