The legendary British director of Deliverance, Excalibur and Zardoz looks back over his extraordinary career.
Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe director John Boorman’s body of work. A career that began in TV journalism quickly took the leap across the pond to deliver a one-two punch of breathtakingly assured masterpieces with actor Lee Marvin in the form of Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific.
With his biggest commercial success following four years later with the still-harrowing Deliverance (after a return to London for the brilliant but rarely screened Leo the Last), Boorman was given carte blanche by Warner Bros to make the film that almost wrecked his career, Exorcist II: The Heretic. By no means a film without its oddball merits, one might be tempted to describe it as the most delightfully bonkers of his career, but doing so would be to ignore the film which preceded it, 1974’s cult classic head-trip, Zardoz.
As gifted a writer as he is a director (his memoirs ‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy’ and ‘Money Into Light: The Emerald Forest Diary’ are two of the best written on the filmmaking process), Boorman’s most personal projects would later arrive in the form of Excalibur and childhood wartime auto-biopic, Hope and Glory. Making his home in Ireland for over 30 years now, it was his 1998 feature on Irish gangster Martin Cahill, The General, which saw him take home Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for a second time. We sat down with the legendary British filmmaker to discuss his remarkable career.
LWLies: You started your career in television. How did that first break come about?
Boorman: I suppose my ambition when I left school at 16 was to become a clapper loader. That to me would have been the height of joy. After being turned down many times in my pursuit of that ambition, I started doing these youth programmes for BBC radio, persuading them to let me interview people at various film studios about their jobs. I was already immersed in film. When the National Film Theatre opened in 1951, I haunted it. I saw the great classic silent films there, which is what they played mostly at the time. There was a definite disconnect between what I was seeing at the local cinema every week and von Stroheim’s Greed or Abel Gance’s Napoleon, so silent film became a real passion for me, and I later made a documentary about DW Griffith for the BBC. After going into the army to do my national service, about which Queen And Country deals, I got a job as a trainee assistant film editor.
I thought at the time that being a film editor would be the perfect life for me, but as time went on ITV began to expand, so I found myself directing and editing short films for them. Everything moved so fast that I soon found myself working for Southern Television, editing a daily programme called Day by Day. I was only 24 years old and found that I had 50 people working for me, at the same time responsible for three hours of television every week. It was totally exhausting. Then I was headhunted by the BBC and went to Bristol to work for them, making documentaries. I was very fortunate, really, because I never initiated any of these stages, they just kind of happened. Making documentaries, I quickly became frustrated by the limitations, the bedroom door always being closed to you, so I began to dramatise them. When they began to get noticed, offers for features started to arrive. I made a film with the Dave Clark 5 called Catch Us If You Can, which when it opened in the States got a lot more praise than it deserved, particularly from Pauline Kael, which resulted in me getting offers from America. It all sort of just happened.
Were you conscious at the time of the influence those NFT trips had on what you were doing, as you were honing your craft?
Griffith was probably the biggest influence, who along with his cameraman Billy Bitzer really invented the grammar of cinema, with Eisenstein developing the techniques of montage. When you think of how extraordinary what Griffith was doing during World War One, in just a couple of years he developed the whole notion of the close-up, reverses, the tracking shot and zoom. What we take for granted now, older people at the time he was working found simply incomprehensible.
You speak in your autobiography about finding frustrating tensions between the word and the image whilst working in TV journalism. As both a writer and a director, do you still find those tensions frustrating? Which tends to win out?
I always thought that film directors always fell into one of three categories; writers, painters and storytellers. For example, Ken Russell is clearly a painter, but Nic Roeg, who’s clearly a brilliant visualist, always had problems with narrative. His pictures often start off brilliantly but then tend to lose control somewhere along the line. His images are so overwhelming that they tend to overwhelm the films he’s trying to make. The best directors possess a balance of all three of those elements. In Ireland recently, I wrote and directed three radio plays, which was a fascinating experience because it was as though I was suddenly blind. I began to realise that I do ultimately think in images.
You also talk about how each stage of the filmmaking process is a battle to suppress the previous stage. Do you find it easy to kill your darlings?
You have to. You have to be hard on yourself. I remember when the Los Angeles film critics gave me awards for best script, best director and best picture for Hope and Glory, which I’d written, directed and produced. I went up to collect the first award and said that I’d written a great script that was ruined by the director. Picking up the director award later, I said that I’d have directed a much better film if I didn’t have this awful producer on my back.
So what are the defining factors in whether you’re going to produce a picture yourself? You mention in Katrine’s documentary that you always want absolute control, but that certain films may have turned out better if you’d collaborated to a greater degree instead.
What I discovered early on is that as a director, you’re blamed for everything. So you might as well take on all the authority yourself. I always try to come in on budget and on time, I think the only time I didn’t was on The Emerald Forest. As Billy Wilder said, who ever went up to the box office and asked for a ticket to ‘that film that came in on budget’?
How did you first meet Lee Marvin?
He was in London doing The Dirty Dozen, and an American producer, Judd Bernard gave me and Lee a terrible script that would later become Point Blank. When we eventually met, Lee asked me what I thought oft it, and I told him that I didn’t think it was up to much. So he asked, ‘What are we gonna do about it?’ We began talking about the script and about life in general, and what I understood rather quickly was that Lee had been brutalised by his war experiences in the Pacific. He was 18 years old, killing Japanese, and was completely dehumanised by the experience, as so many were. Acting for him was a way of recovering his humanity, and exploring different parts was his way of re-entering the world. So I shaped the part based on those initial meetings, the story becoming a metaphor for his own life. Walker is shot, left for dead and he comes back. He’s searching for the money that’s owed to him, that money being a metaphor for humanity. That’s what I think gave the film its power, or at least certainly gave Lee the desire to do it.
Was he easy to direct?
He was fantastic to me. Because the film was rather daring by Hollywood standards, stylistically, he knew how difficult it would be to do. He called a meeting with the head of the studio and the producers, reminding them that he had script approval and cast approval and said, ‘I hereby defer all approvals to John’. He was very daring, never flinching at an acting challenge.
The colour scheme in Point Blank is extraordinary.
It was my first colour film and I didn’t really know how to handle it, so I decided to shoot each scene in one colour. I rigidly enforced this, but the head of the MGM art department wrote to the head of the studio saying that this film will never be released. He said there’s a scene in a green office, with green walls and seven men all wearing green shirts, green ties and green suits and would thus be unreleaseable. I found it extraordinary, coming from someone who presumably has a background in art, as on film some of those greens would shift towards brown, some towards yellow. It was never commented on by anybody in the end, you just got this sense of a single colour at work in each scene, giving it a kind of coherence. I started with very cold colours to correspond to his emotional state, silvers and greys, before moving up the spectrum.
It’s pretty stripped back in terms of everything else though.
Well, we shot it on an anamorphic 40mm lens, the first Panavision had produced. It’s wide-angle, which allows for these terrific open spaces. We shot one of the early scenes at the airport, with Lee pounding down the corridor, the idea being to introduce him as a kind of avenging angel. I wanted it completely stripped of everything, so that it was just bleak and empty, and I pursued that throughout the rest of the film.
Did you ever see Mel Gibson’s take on the story, Payback?
I was in America promoting something or another, and he sent me the script. Knowing it was going to be made, journalists kept asking me whether I knew anything about it. I told them that when Lee and I had been given the lousy initial script for Point Blank, Lee said to me that he’d do this picture with me on one condition, and he threw the script out of the window. I said that having read this script that Mel Gibson was planning to do, I could only imagine that a very young Mel Gibson was passing under that window that day and picked it up out of the gutter. I told the story a few times, until Mel called me and said, “John, you gotta stop telling this story, the studio’s getting really nervous”.
Your early love of silent cinema must have played a big part in the film you made after Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific. Was it as stripped back as it finally appears from its inception?
The premise was always in place, two men stranded on a desert island, but it was the most difficult script I’ve ever worked on. There were so few elements and you’re right, it was like a silent film for much of it. I had a Japanese writer, Shinobu Hashimoto who worked a lot with Kurosawa, as well as an American writer. We had three offices, and we’d discuss various scenes before individually going off to write. Then we’d come back, translating back and forth. It was an arduous process. Later, I was in Japan and Hashimoto introduced me to Kurosawa. I hadn’t resolved the ending at the time, in fact I never really did, but I told Kurosawa what the film was about and asked if he had any ideas for the ending. He thought for a long time, seeming to growl under his breath as he did, before finally declaring, “They meet a girl”.
So you blew them up instead?
There were certainly moments when I wished I’d taken his advice.
How was the ending finally decided upon?
The one I originally had, I must say wasn’t a fantastic one. They’d put their uniforms back on, becoming enemies once again, then somehow going their separate ways. I’d always said ironically that the film needs to end not with a bang, but with a whimper. But the producers superimposed this explosion. I found it so depressing that after everything the characters had been through, they’d just be killed off with a stray bomb. It was too nihilistic.
How was working with Toshiro Mifune?
When we were writing the script, we suffered terrible writer’s block at one point. Hashimoto, a terrible gambler, wanted to go to Las Vegas and asked if he could go off to work on a draft by himself for a couple of weeks. He wanted to gamble at night and write during the day. When he came back, he presented me with this new draft, which whilst the scenes were all still there, he’d changed the Mifune character into something of a buffoon, much like he was in Seven Samurai. Having had it translated, I told him I thought it was completely wrong for the character, and we quickly reverted to the previous draft we’d been working on. But when the first day of shooting arrived, Mifune immediately began playing his character just like a buffoon. Whether maliciously or accidentally, Hashimoto had given his own draft of the film to Mifune.
With a Japanese crew, largely made up of Mifune’s own people, it was a terrible loss of face for me to be constantly correcting him. We’d do a take, with him playing the part according to Hashimoto’s draft, then discuss it after, with me making the necessary adjustments, but he would just continue to play the part exactly the same way. We’d go back to the ship on which we were living during filming, arguing and talking about the character for three or four hours, often until 2am. Everything would finally be agreed, until we’d get onto the set the next day and he’d play the part just as before. It went on and on like this, painfully so, until it became a kind of war.
Finally, after I was badly injured out there from coral poisoning, the producers went up to Mifune and said, ‘You’ll be relieved. We’re going to replace Boorman, he’s too sick to carry on.’ Mifune told them immediately that he would never agree to that. ‘But you don’t like him!’ the producers replied. To which he said, ‘No, but I agreed to make this film with him. We went to the tea house and toasted our agreement. It’s a matter of honour.’ The bewildered producers told him that it was a Hollywood production, that honour didn’t come into it, but he wouldn’t budge.
After your experience with Mifune, Marcello Mastroianni must have come as quite a relief.
Marcello was so wonderful. I’d learnt a lot from Lee Marvin about screen acting, particularly the physical aspects. Marcello did everything with his face. We’d constantly be dropping lines because he’d make them redundant through his expressiveness. There was just no need for them. He was like a factory worker, he’d arrive in the morning, put on the costume and the character, then six o’clock would come, he’d change back into his own clothes and never give it another thought until the morning.
Leo the Last was a film that really stood out for me as I was re-watching your films, it’s very experimental…
The sound montage idea was something that I fell in love with straight away. There’s a lot there that I’d learnt from watching all those silent films and wanted to put into practice. The sequence I like to call the ‘Economic Miracle’, where he’s watching the money changing hands, all the stuff through the spyglass too. It all harks back to those days spent at the NFT. I watched it again recently at a retrospective, for the first time since I made it in 1969, and I thought it had improved a lot in the interval. It was much better than I remembered.
After Leo the Last came Deliverance. How did you first come into contact with James Dickey, on whose novel the film is based?
Warners had his book and they hired me to write the screenplay. Dickey had already written a kind of screenplay, but he’d largely just copied out pages from his book. I went to see him and he took me aside to say, ‘John, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a living soul. Everything in that book happened to me.’ It wasn’t long after though, when I went up to the river and got into a canoe with him that I realised that nothing in the book had actually happened to him, although it didn’t stop him from taking everyone else aside to tell them the same thing. We had a lot of disagreements about the screenplay.
The first third of the book is about the four characters in Atlanta, exploring their comfortable but somehow unsatisfactory lives. I wanted to start it with their arrival in the mountains, which I did. He felt that I’d changed it into a mere adventure story, without the depth of his novel. He didn’t understand the nature of film really. I told him that the audience would come to know these characters by their actions, their reactions to the things that happen to them. We had huge arguments about it, particularly the ending too. He spent the last several years of his life trying to get it re-made, he went to all the studios with his version of the script. He’d stand outside theatres telling people in the queue, ‘It’s better than the book,’ but then all the old resentments would come flooding back whenever he watched it.
After directing three huge stars in your previous three films, what were the challenges you faced working with the four leads in Deliverance? Two stars and two first-timers…
Warners had no faith in the project, they said there had never been a film without women in it that had been a hit. They agreed to do the picture if I could find two stars, so I got Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando to agree, before they finally became too expensive. Then they said I would have to make it with unknowns, so I went all over America looking for unknown actors. Eventually I found Ned Beatty, who’d never been in a film or on television, but I still struggled to find the two lead roles, until I managed to persuade Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Jon had just made a film called All American Boy, which was a complete disaster so it was never released. He was ready to give up acting altogether and was in an incredibly depressed state, so it took a lot of work to get him to do it. He’s always said since that John saved my life and then spent eight weeks trying to kill me.
That must have been a pretty tough first gig for Ned Beatty.
He was incredible, he just knew that role. I had to help him technically but he never put a foot wrong. I almost never had to correct him in terms of the acting.
Didn’t Kubrick want to use Bill McKinney [who plays the rapist] for a film at one point, but was too afraid to meet him?
Stanley called me to ask what he was like. I told him he was a marvellous guy, a tree surgeon when he’s not acting and a wonderful man, really into his meditation. Kubrick said it was the most terrifying scene ever put on film, and that surely he’s got to have that part in him somewhere to be able to play that character. I said of course not, he’s just a marvellous actor. So Stanley cast him in Full Metal Jacket. When Bill was at Los Angeles airport he was called over the tannoy. Kubrick didn’t want him to come, he’d recast the part because he couldn’t face him.
Were you and Kubrick close?
Yeah, we spoke on the phone for years. We were both working at Warners. His method of communication was flat-out interrogation, he would just ask a series of questions, constantly on the look-out for information. He never wanted to go anywhere. I remember coming back from doing The Heretic and we went out for dinner. I’d told him that I’d meet him at the restaurant so asked him where he wanted to go. ‘I’ll let you know’ he said, ‘I’ll pick you up’. He was worried I might tell someone else which restaurant we were going to. It was all pretty paranoid. So he picks me up in his new Mercedes but before we go anywhere he says, ‘Watch this,’ and he activates the central locking. It was something every car had fitted as standard by that point but he was very impressed with it. For someone who gathers all this information, there’d be little things like that of which he had no idea. He didn’t know about ordinary life really. He was so cut off.
Water is a recurring motif in all of your films…
Well I grew up on the river and it goes very deep with me. I’ve always felt at home in such places and never felt any fear of it, something I tried to communicate to my actors on Deliverance. There were moments where I’d say something like, ‘Right, you’re going to get in those canoes, go through that cataract and we’ll shoot from the bottom,’ which I’d say in a very matter-of-fact way, and often they’d simply turn and walk away, a little mutiny. What do you do as a director if the actors simply stop.
What was the initial reaction to your script for Zardoz?
Nobody wanted to do it. Warners didn’t want to do it, even though I’d made a shitload of money for them. Finally my agent at the time David Begelman, an extraordinary character who had this marvellous air of authority and sincerity about him, went to the new head of 20th Century Fox and said, ‘Do you want to make a film with Boorman?’ They said yes, to which he replied, ‘Come to London, we’ll give you the script and you’ve got two hours to read it. It’s either yes or no. You have no approvals, and it’s a million dollars negative pick-up,’ which meant I had to borrow the money to make the film and they give me it back afterwards. The Fox guy came to London, and I was very nervous, so we went for lunch whilst he read the script. When he finally came out of the office his hand was shaking, clearly with no idea of what to make of it. Begelman went straight up to him and said, ‘Congratulations!’ He never gave the poor guy a chance.
How did you get Connery?
Connery had just stopped doing the Bond films and he wasn’t getting any jobs, so he came along and did it.
Geoffrey Unsworth, who shot Zardoz, was something of a pioneer in cinematography, he invented the so-called ‘indirect lighting’ technique.
When black and white was the norm, you would use lighting to separate the planes. You’d backlight objects to make them stand out against what was behind. When colour came in, cameramen just kept lighting in the same way, which made the colours even more garish than it was in reality, it was oversaturated with colour. Geoffrey changed it completely. He would bounce the light off of polystyrene, then shoot with fog filters behind the lens, opening the aperture of the camera completely, which diffuses the light. With some fog on the sets too, he’d create this incredible impressionistic cinema. It was fantastic, but very difficult to do and lots of imitators have tried. The problem was, that when huge releases were reliant on multiple prints, thousands at a time, the process simply fell apart through the duplication, and it was finally outlawed by the studios. You had to have a hard negative, it wouldn’t stand up to the printing process.
What are you feelings now on the film of yours that got an especially rough ride on release, Exorcist II: The Heretic?
Most films fail. If you’re unlucky enough to have a famous failure, which this was, it can be career threatening.
So what made you decide to do it? Didn’t you describe the first film as ‘repulsive’?
I did. Warners had asked me to do the first one after Deliverance, when they were offering me everything. To me it was a film about the torture of a child. I admired it in many ways but I didn’t like it. When they asked me to do the sequel, they gave me carte blanche, so I foolishly decided to make, not a sequel but a kind of riposte. The audience was, of course furious. They weren’t getting what they were expecting, which was more of the same. They threw things at the screen and demanded their money back. It was rather painful and stopped me in my tracks.
How do you define success as a commercial filmmaker? Is about numbers, or simply ending up with a film you’re happy with yourself?
A disaster like The Heretic just makes it very difficult to make your next film, so it’s important in that respect. It didn’t actually lose money, because it had been pre-sold. A success like Deliverance was what allowed me to make Zardoz, but after The Heretic I didn’t work for a while. It took me a while to recover and wait for people to forget it.
When you say recover, was it your confidence that took the hardest knock?
Yeah, of course. My judgement was severely dented, it felt that my relationship with the audience was completely skewed. David Lean said to me, ‘Make the films to please yourself, but if they don’t please the audience, then give up.’ So according to his advice I guess I should have given up a long time ago.
Was that the period in which you began prepping The Lord of the Rings?
No, that was much earlier. After I’d finished Leo the Last, I went to United Artists and told them that I wanted to do the Arthurian legend of the Grail, to which they replied that they had the rights to Lord of the Rings, so why didn’t I do that instead. I started work on it with Rospo Pallenberg, who I’ve worked with a lot, and we spent months not only writing it, but trying to research how we were going to do the effects, to make those little fellows work. By the time we’d finished, United Artists had lost a bunch of money and simply didn’t have enough to make it.
Lord of the Rings is one behemoth to attempt to wrangle, but narratively, the Arthurian legend is on a different scale entirely. How did you begin to wrestle Excalibur into shape?
I started by reading all the source books, TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and all the scholastic writing on the subject. There are basically three legends though: ‘La Morte d’Artur’, ‘Lancelot du Lac’ and ‘Parzifal’ by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which is so modern and racy. I was determined to do the whole span of the story, from the birth of Luther Pendragon and Arthur, right through Camelot and ‘The Waste Land’, up to the quest for the Holy Grail. It was a huge amount to try an encompass in one film, but I felt that to do the whole span of the story gave it enormous power, even if it meant overreaching myself.
It’s been an important story to you since childhood, and elements of it crop up in many another of your films. What is it about the legend that resonates with you so deeply?
First of all, a myth like that which has survived, can go through so many versions and interpretations and yet still remain itself. In the early part of the narrative, it’s about the emergence of man from the beast. It moves through the beginnings of civilisation, the loss of the sword and the Grail plunging the land into Waste. It’s ultimately the story of all civilisation. It has always fascinated me. I think that Deliverance is my most complete film, in that it works cleanly, every shot in the right place, counting for something, but Excalibur is much more ambitious. It has its moments where it falls down, but I’m very fond of it.
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