Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Commentary Tracks - Deliverance

Deliverance (1972) with director John Boorman

On casting
Originally, the studio said, “Look, we'll do this picture if you can find two stars.” So I went out and found two stars. Then the studio said, “Well, it's going to cost too much with these two stars so you'd better go and make it really cheaply with unknown actors.” So I went all over America looking for actors in theatres, and I found two, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Neither of them had ever made a film or done television or anything. But I couldn't really find unknowns to fill the two main roles and so I got onto [Jon] Voight, and Voight resisted the picture. He had just made a film called The All-American Boy and it was a mess, he was trying to salvage it. He was thinking about giving up acting. I eventually persuaded him to do the role and he said I saved his life, and then spent three months trying to kill him. Then I went to Burt [Reynolds] and fortunately I didn't know, coming from the outside, that Burt had done three TV series that were unsuccessful. I didn't know anything about that so I put him in the picture.

On the music
You'll see in the first sequence of the film, the two cars with the canoes come up to a little filling station, and there they encounter this boy who seems to be retarded. He plays a banjo and Ronny Cox, with his guitar, they play this Duelling Banjos, which is a traditional piece, and that was always written into the script. But the studio demanded that I still cut more out of the budget. I'd intended to use Duelling Banjos as a theme through the film, so I decided to dump the composer and the orchestra and use Duelling Banjos as the entire score. I spent two hours in a recording studio with a banjo picker and a guitarist and we recorded the whole thing. When the picture opened I tried to persuade Warner Records to bring a record out and the head of the Warner Records gave me this lecture. He said, “Let me tell you something about the music business. This is not rock and roll. If radio stations don't play it, it won't be successful. It's not rock and roll, it's not middle of the road and it's not country music, so nobody's going to play it.” I persuaded them to bring it out in a small test area and it turned out that every radio station played it, and it became a number one record. It's become famous, of course. Whenever anybody finds themselves in a dark wood or a savage river, they hum that tune.

On James Dickey
We did a lot of rehearsal and a lot of training, because they had to learn to canoe, and archery and so forth. During that period of training James Dickey, who wrote the novel, a wonderful poet and an intimidating man, I invited him to come up to the rehearsals in Clayton, Georgia. He drank a lot and he really spooked the actors because he insisted on calling them by the characters they were playing. When I first went to meet Dickey he took me to one side and said, “I'm gonna tell you something I've never told a living soul. Everything in that boat happened – to me.” Well, I was so shocked, you know, and I had my production manager with me. Since I'd been sworn not to tell a living soul, of course I couldn't wait to tell someone. I told my production manager and he said, “Yes, he told me the same thing.” When we were up there he took each of these actors aside and told them the same story. When I got in a canoe with James Dickey and he capsized it, I realised that absolutely nothing in this book had happened to him, and I'm much more impressed with a man who could invent this story than a man who lived it.

On shooting the river
This scene where they finally see this river is very powerful. Behind it is this notion that the river is going to disappear, is going to be flooded, and the beauty of it is going to be lost. It's a metaphor, really. A dam is going to produce electricity for the air conditioners in Atlanta, and to do so the river is killed. I searched and searched for a river to shoot this picture on. I wanted it to be as wild and savage as possible, and wherever I looked and took photos of them, you know, the film stock we use makes everything look pretty. I found this river, which has these jagged rocks and canyons and rapids, and it's one of the most dangerous rivers in America for canoeing, and it still looked pretty. So what I did was, all the scenes on the river were desaturated, so we took some of that colour away. You see now how the green is muted. I wanted to dispense with that prettiness.

On costume design
I was speaking earlier about how, in a film, the casting and the behaviour of the characters tells you about them and you don't need tedious scenes showing them with their wives and families, and so the costuming becomes very important. You see Burt there with his sawn-off rubber jacket exposing his biceps, and you see the blandness of Ed with his grey sweater there, and Ned with his pork pie hat and football jersey. Selecting their clothes is a way of building the characters and the costume sessions with actors are always very interesting. I made a couple of films with Lee Marvin and he was always very meticulous about his costumes and his props. Good film actors recognise that they can say a lot with what they wear.

On the rape scene
My intention with these mountain men, the underlayer psychologically, was that they were the malevolent spirits of the forest, of nature, and that this was nature's revenge on these men who represented the people of Atlanta who were killing the river. The famous expression “squeal like a pig” came about in a very interesting way, because when I was shooting the picture the studio demanded that I shot alternative scenes for television, including language. Nobody liked doing these TV alternatives, it was a drag, but I think it was Rospo Pallenberg who came up with “squeal like a pig” which was to take the place of a more powerful kind of language, but it was so good I decided to keep it in the main version. Ned was marvellous in the way he acted this scene out, and he and Bill McKinney spent a lot of time together before we shot it, because everyone was nervous of it. I didn't know how to shoot it until, as is often the way with me, until I found a setting. This setting, with these brown leaves and these laurels, with these acid green leaves and the tangled wood, as soon as I found this setting I knew how to shoot it. You'll notice that it's all really done from the point of view of Voight, we're seeing what he saw, from that distance. Ned, you know, all his life he's had to endure this; every time someone sees him on the street they say “squeal like a pig,” and he wrote a very interesting piece in The New York Times many years ago, when they were doing a whole feature about rape, and he felt like a rape victim. The censor wanted to cut some of this this, as you might expect, and I resisted it, but I suppose this hadn't been seen in cinema before. I met somebody just the other day and he said to me, “I saw that film of yours, Deliverance. I walked out halfway through, and I've never been to the cinema since.”

On the rapids crash sequence
This we shot on another piece of river where there was a dam, and we were able to stop the water higher up and then release it. We were able to build underwater rails for that canoe to go on when it collapses, and it was all triggered. Then we rehearsed it and the water came down in a kind of dribble, so I said, “Okay, open another sluice gate,” and they did and we got rather more river than we really intended. This is the one shot that has the double for Jon Voight, but Burt comes down this himself. The canoe comes clattering down, the wooden one is completely lost at this point, and I had a lot of angry actors at this point because I really let too much water down and it was raging. Here's Burt doing that shot himself and he injured his back. We had a net just below that as there's another vast, deep fall, and I'm screaming here on the radio mic, “Stop the water!” Every time I look at those shots of the water coming down I feel terrible guilt that I put these men into more danger than I should have.

On shooting and editing
The film editor is called Tom Priestley, the son of J.B. Priestley, and I'd done a film with Tom before. He had great concentration, but I shoot very little film and very few takes – of course with stuff like this I couldn't shoot many takes. There are some passages, particularly the discussion after the death of the mountain man, that I shot it in one shot, but then I got nervous and decided to cover it from other angles, and that was tremendously well cut by Tom Priestley. But for the most part, my method of shooting is to shoot very little, I mean, when I made Point Blank at MGM I had the lowest ratio of film of any director for the last 20 years. I prefer to spend a lot of time rehearsing and getting things right, and I try to get everybody realising on the film that every time the camera is rolling it's going to be in the movie. If you shoot from loads of different angles and lenses the feeling gets to the actors that this shot is probably not going to be in the film, and I try to raise the tension by making the actors know that if my cameras are running then it's going to be in the movie.

On acting styles
Voight is such a tremendous actor. He was very much an actor in the Brando tradition of reality, and everything was a struggle for Jon at that time in his life, he questioned everything. Burt was completely different, Burt just wanted to get it done and he would always find a way of getting through a scene. Jon would challenge it all the time, challenge everything, “Why am I doing it this way? What am I doing?” So he was a good influence on Burt because he pushed Burt to be more thoughtful, and Burt pushed him to be more spontaneous. Voight is a method actor, I suppose you'd have to say, so if we're doing a scene where he's out of breath Jon would say to me, “Okay, I need three minutes warning before the shot so I can get out of breath.” He would then run, sprint for three minutes to get himself sweating and out of breath. Burt would say to me, “I need 20 seconds warning before the shot,” so Jon would come running back, puffing, and Burt would squirt some spritzer onto his face for sweat and [imitates panting] breathe. That was indicative of their two methods of acting.

Bits and Pieces

The fascinating thing about the inbreeding which is so notorious in these communities, the thing I discovered up there, is that these were the descendants of white people who married Indians, and then they were ostracised by both the Indians and the whites. So they turned in on themselves and this strange, hostile, inwards-looking community grew up around that history.

Look at this character now, this woman. Look, the way they live there. That was just completely how it was, that was not set up in any way. It was just us peering through the window with a camera.

When the film opened in Atlanta, at the premiere, Burt was standing next to Dickey and a radio reporter came with a microphone and said, “Mr. Reynolds, I understand that you had problems with Mr. Dickey?” Burt said, “Yes, I did say that, but I also believe Mr. Dickey is one of America's greatest poets. What do you say to that, Mr. Dickey?” Jim Dickey said, “Well, I don't know how many of America's great poets Mr. Reynolds has read.”

Somebody called me who was writing his official biography after he died, and I was telling him how Dickey had this air of the tough frontiersman. I said, “He didn't have anything to prove. After all, he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war.” And the biographer said that was also a lie. I prefer to call it invention, imagination.

After the film came out a lot of people wanted to canoe this river, and several were drowned. I was asked how I felt about that and if I felt responsible, and I was able to reply by saying that I made the river look as dangerous and life-threatening as possible, so anyone who canoed it must have know what to expect.

The worst thing that happened was that they had a wipeout and Ned was in the water and he disappeared, and he didn't come up for just over a minute. I had a diver with me always and he went in to find him, and we searched and searched and it was just dreadful. Eventually he popped up and we got him out, and I said, “Ned, what did you think when you were on the point of drowning?” He said, “I thought, how is John going to finish the film without me?” And then his second thought was, “He'll find some way to finish it without me, I know he will,” and that's when he got determined to live and he got to the surface.

Vilmos Zsigmond was the cameraman. He's Hungarian, you know. He got out of Hungary in 1956 when the Russians moved into Budapest, and he shot the footage we saw of the Russian tanks and the students throwing Molotov cocktails. I thought, a man who has done that, being fired on by Russians, is the kind of man I need for a film like this.

See when he looks back there? I said to Voight, “Just look back at that point.” He said, “Why would I look back like that?” I said, “Well, because it improves the composition.” He said, “I can't do that because there's no reason.” I said, “Okay, you hear a noise,” and he said, “Oh, fine, okay.” That's how I got him to look back and got this marvellous composition.

Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward, the man with the missing teeth, Burt Reynolds found him. Burt used to work in a dude ranch with Cowboy Coward and he suggested him for the part. We were staying at this motel, and Cowboy's idea of a nice evening was to get two dozen bottles of beer in a bathtub, with a lot of ice, and he'd sit on the toilet seat and work his way through them.

Final Thoughts

It's the first time I've seen this film must be ten years at least. When I watch one of my films, I think most directors would agree with this, shortly after having made it, all you can see and remember is the pain you suffered in doing it and all the things you could have done better. After a period of time – in this case 20 years since I made it, 10 years since I looked at it – the wounds have healed and the pain has diminished, and I can see its quality. It has a great power to it. What I do remember with pleasure is the comradeship, the actors, the crew, Vilmos Zsigmond, Rospo Pallenberg, everyone who helped me do it. This film was an adventure and the people who shared it have a bond which has lasted ever since. Those actors are all my friends and we see each other, and it's like meeting someone you fought in a war with. You look at each other's eyes and you say, “Well, we did it.”