Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter travels to the backwoods of Georgia for John Boorman’s Deliverance commentary track.
Deliverance is one of those ’70s films that feels every bit of its decade despite being timeless in many ways. It’s a tale of men outside their comfort zone, men who represent change and “progress” that’s far from universal, and it’s a thrilling tale of survival to boot. British-born John Boorman may have seemed like an odd choice to adapt the novel, but the results speak for themselves. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for 1972’s Deliverance.
Commentator: John Boorman (director, producer)
1. Warner Bros. initially told Boorman he could only make the film if he found two name stars to headline. He did just that, at which point WB said the movie was now going to cost too much because of those stars. They then decided to produce the film on a tight budget with four unknowns, so Boorman scoured the country’s theater scene and found Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.
2. Jon Voight initially resisted doing the film as he had just completed The All-American Boy (1973) “and it was a mess.” He was struggling to salvage that film and considering retiring from acting altogether, but Boorman persuaded him to star in Deliverance. “He says that I saved his life and then spent three months trying to kill him.”
3. WB kept insisting that Boorman cut more and more from the budget, and one of the things that went was a traditional composer and orchestral score. He instead used “Dueling Banjos” as the base for the entire score, spent two hours in a recording studio with a professional banjo player and a guitarist, and that was it for the score.
4. He tried to persuade the head of Warner’s record label to release the score commercially, but the suit told him that if radio stations won’t play it the album wouldn’t be successful — so there was no chance they’d be releasing it. Boorman pressed the man and convinced him to release it regionally where it found success, spread across the country, and became a best-seller.
5. The “hillbillies” at the gas station scene are actual locals from this mountain community in Georgia where they filmed. Boorman discovered that their inbreeding was due in part to being descended from white settlers who mated with Native Americans and were subsequently ostracized for it. “They had to turn in on themselves.”
6. Billy Redden plays Lonnie, the boy who shares the banjo duel with Drew (Cox), but while bright and talented he couldn’t actually play the banjo well enough. His left arm in the scene actually belongs to a second boy who’s crouched behind him. “I hope you’re not disillusioned.”
7. He calls author James Dickey a “wonderful poet and an intimidating man.”
8. Dickey visited the set and in addition to drinking a lot, “He really spooked the actors because he insisted on calling them by the characters'” names. The cast eventually asked Boorman to send Dickey on his way, and while the author complied he insisted on saying goodbye first by telling the actors “It appears that my presence will be most efficacious by its absence.” Reynolds replied saying, “Does that mean he’s going or he’s staying?”
9. Dickey took Boorman aside, made him promise not to repeat this, and said, “I’m going to tell you something I never told a living soul, everything in that book happened to me.” The director later learned that he did the same with other members of the cast and crew. “When I got into a canoe with James Dickey and he capsized it, I realized that nothing in this book had happened to him.”
10. His goal in finding a river to shoot on was to find one that looked dangerous and rough, but through the camera’s lens, they always looked pretty. He finally found one filled with jagged rocks and a dangerous reputation, but as it still looked beautiful he desaturated the footage to drain some of the life from it. “I wanted to dispense with that prettiness.”
11. They destroyed five canoes over the course of the production.
12. The river scenes are shot low from within a rubber boat, and it was only ever Boorman, a grip, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shooting from the craft.
13. The film’s popularity drove an uptick in tourists canoeing the river despite its dangerous degree of difficulty, and several people apparently drown. Boorman was asked if he felt responsible, and he replied that he made the river look incredibly dangerous so anyone who went forward knew what to expect.
14. Reynolds and Beatty did well canoeing for the most part, but Voight and Cox “made a lot more mistakes.” That said, their worst experience was when Beatty went under and was stuck for nearly a minute. Boorman asked how he felt when he was trapped, and Beatty replied that his first concern was if Voight would be able to finish the film without him.
15. “I had no doubles, no stuntmen,” says Boorman. “I don’t like the idea of stuntmen because if a shot is dangerous enough that you need a stunt man then you shouldn’t be doing it.” He acknowledges that there are exceptions including one instance where Voight was doubled (while Reynolds insisted on doing his part himself), but in general he prefers doing the scenes with the actual actors.
16. Lee Marvin (Point Blank, 1967) was meticulous about his costuming and props, as “good film actors are.”
17. Boorman doesn’t typically use second-unit directors. It’s partly due to his desire to be involved with it all, but he also thinks that “every image should have the same kind of integrity, the same style as everything else.”
18. His psychological intent with the aggressive hillbillies — the rapists, in particular — was that “they were the sort of malevolent spirits of the forest, of nature, and that this was a kind of nature’s revenge on these men.”
19. The studio had them shoot alternative takes for later television broadcast, and that included softer language. The infamous “Squeal like a piggy” line was originally crafted as one of those alternatives to a much harsher line, but Boorman decided it was actually more powerful than the more vulgar option.
20. This was Beatty’s first feature, and he spent the rest of his career hearing fans and passersby yell the line to him. His response varied, but he did pen an opinion piece in the New York Times on the subject.
21. The toothless attempted rapist is played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward who Reynolds first met while working at a dude ranch.
22. The “censors” — either at WB or at the MPAA — wanted to trim both the rape scene and Bill McKinney’s death scene, but Boorman held fast in his refusal.
23. The scene where they all get tossed from the canoes was filmed at a different part of the river and controlled with a dam — they turned off the water, added rails to the river bed and a net further down, and then released the water again. This is where Voight used a stunt double.
24. That’s a lamb bone sticking out of Reynolds’ pant leg, and he’s also glad to see you.
25. The child in Ed’s wallet photo is actually Boorman’s own son.
26. While Reynolds preferred to move quickly through every scene, Voight challenged almost every decision in need of explanation and reason which dragged things out. Voight would also require three minutes before shooting scenes where he’s meant to seem exhausted because he would run around the area to tire himself out. Reynolds, by contrast, would spritz his face to simulate sweat and then breath hard. Boorman found the two to be good influences on each other.
27. Some people apparently think the arrow Ed fires is the one that goes through his side. Some people are silly.
28. Boorman shoots very little beyond what’s necessary as he rehearses and plans out his shots with precision. “When I made Point Blank at MGM, I had the lowest ratio of film of any director of the last twenty years.”
29. Some at WB felt the film should have ended as the surviving trio row up to civilization, but Boorman believes the scenes that follow are not only necessary but also the best in the film.
30. The ambulance attendant in the window at 1:34:06 was shot and killed shortly after production wrapped.
31. He acknowledges that he’s used a variation of the same shot — a hand rising from the water — in several of his films, most notably here and in Excalibur (1981). The water typically represents the unconscious, and the thing rising out is something buried forcing its way back into the light. Brian De Palma told him the hand rising from the grave in Carrie (1976) was “an homage” to Deliverance.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“When anyone finds themselves in a dark wood or a savage river, they hum that tune.”
“That was also a lie.”
“This river is really only canoed by kayaks.”
“When we lose our connection with nature it breeds neurosis.”
“Every time I look at those shots of water coming down there I feel terrible guilt.”
“Well, we got to the end of it didn’t we.”
Deliverance remains a thrilling and engaging tale of survival, fragile masculinity, and capitalistic greed. Boorman’s take on the material shows a firm grasp despite its backwoods American setting, and his reflection on it all is both informational and entertaining. It’s a recommended listen for fans of the film and filmmaker.
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