Watching Deliverance the first time around, you may not have noticed what a beautiful film it is. Try to push past the mental block your poor, traumatized brain put up because the movie is well worth a second viewing, and John Boorman’s Director Commentary is extremely thoughtful and interesting. He’s a wonderful storyteller who shares insight into the minds of his actors, and enigmatic author, James Dickey. The film also delivered up great performances by two actors just starting out, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, as well as a a brilliant turn by Jon Voight, and a serious role for Burt Reynolds.
1. Deliverance is based on James Dickey’s first novel, which consistently appears in top 100 lists of English language books. Dickey wrote the screenplay, provided guidance and intimidation during production, and made a cameo appearance as Sheriff Bullard. Director John Boorman (Excalibur, Hope and Glory, The Tailor of Panama, The General, Point Blank) said Dickey drank a lot and spooked the actors, insisting upon only addressing them by their character names. When Boorman first met Dickey, the author said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told another living soul. Everything in that book happened to me.” Boorman was shocked. The director was later alone with his Production Manager (Wallace Worsley) and even though he’d sworn not to tell a living soul, Boorman told Worsley—who responded that Dickey had told him the same story. Turns out while Dickey was up there, he’d also confessed to each actor, individually. Boorman said when he got into a canoe with Dickey he realized none of it had happened, and the director was “much more impressed” that Dickey could play that he was someone who had lived the story.
2. Warner Bros. agreed to do the film if Boorman “went out and found two (unnamed) stars,” so he did, and then the studio said it would be too expensive with the people he found—so he’d “better go and make it cheaply with two unknown actors.” The director went around watching musical theater and discovered Ned Beatty (Bobby) and Ronny Cox (Drew), neither of whom had done film or television. Boorman “couldn’t really find two unknowns for the main roles;” so he went to Jon Voight (Ed), who “resisted the picture.” Voight had just filmed The All-American Boy, “It was a mess and he was trying to salvage (it); he was thinking of giving up acting.” Boorman persuaded Voight, who later said Boorman had saved his life, then spent three months trying to kill him. The director lastly went to Burt Reynolds (Lewis), who had done several unsuccessful television series. The studio still wanted a cheaper production, Boorman had to cut more money and pare it down.
3. Boorman meant to do a score with full orchestra, but because of the budget constraints, he simplified the music. He had always intended to use dueling banjos throughout the film, so he went into a studio with a guitarist and a banjo player. They “recorded the whole thing in two hours.” When the movie came out, the head of Warner Records told Boorman, “This isn’t Rock and Roll—if radio stations don’t play (the music), it won’t be a success. This isn’t Country, it isn’t middle of the road, so no one’s going to play it.” But the director persuaded them to put out the music in a test area and every radio station played it. It became the number one record. “When anyone finds themselves on a dark road or raging river, they play this tune.”
4. Filming took place in Georgia, and parts of North and South Carolina. “The woman character’s home—the way they lived there—was just exactly how it was. It was not set up, just us peering through the window with a camera. The old man who dances and many others were hillbillies.” Boorman commented on the “…notorious inbreeding in these communities…because these are the descendants of white people who married Indians; they were then ostracized by both Indians and whites, so they had to turn in on themselves. The community grew up around that history and you can see in some of the faces the traces of that history.” Boorman searched for a kid in the local community to play Lonnie in this scene. “The boy (Billy Redden) actually is quite bright, but because of the way he looked, he was treated as retarded by the community.” Redden couldn’t play banjo, so they found another kid who could. The hand you see is not Redden’s, it’s the other kid crouched behind him. “We used his left hand and made extra sleeve on Redden’s shirt. Redden is doing the strumming, the other boy (who never get credit because ‘We were not anxious to reveal this fact’), the fretting.”
5. As rehearsals went on, the actors came to Boorman wanting him to ask James Dickey to leave. The director had already cast the sheriff, but he went to Dickey and told the author he wanted Dickey to leave, but come back to play the sheriff. Boorman: “He raised up and glared at me. I thought he would hit me. Dickey said, ‘Before I go, I want to see the boys.’ He stood there and glared at the actors and said ‘It appears my presence would be most efficacious by its absence,’ and he turned on his heel and he left. And Burt said, ‘Does that mean he’s going or he’s staying?’ Eventually he left. He was angry; he said, ‘I ain’t coming back, get yourself another boy.’ But he came back and he played the sheriff. When the film opened in Atlanta, Burt was standing next to Dickey and a radio reporter said, ‘Mr Reynolds, I understand you had problems with Mr. Dickey’ and Burt said, ‘Well yeah, I did say that, but I also believe Mr. Dickey is one of America’s greatest poets.’ The reporter asked, ‘What do you say to that, Mr. Dickey?’ Dickey said, ‘Well I don’t know how many of America’s great poets Mr. Reynolds has read.’”
6. The four characters are four parts of James Dickey’s personality. Ed (Voight) is the careful, ad executive, which was Dickey’s occupation. Lewis (Reynolds) is the macho man concerned with idea of survival, and he likes to think of himself as an outdoorsman when everything else collapses. Drew (Cox) was Dickey’s sensitive, artistic side. Bobby (Beatty) was aggressive and cowardly, which Dickey also was. An author, who was writing Dickey’s official biography after Dickey died, called Boorman; the director was telling him that Dickey had the air of a tough frontiersman. Boorman said Dickey didn’t have anything to prove—after all he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war. The biographer said, “That was also a lie.” Boorman prefers to call it invention or imagination. (Dickey did serve as a radar operator/navigator with a fighter squadron during World War II and the Korean War.)
Dickey’s son Christopher (a Bureau Chief and Regional Editor at Newsweek) wrote a piece for The New Yorker (summary) about his father, following the film. The first time they went on the river together, their canoe capsized and they started back over bad terrain. Dickey got ill; he was a diabetic and started to foam at the mouth. His son, twelve at the time, was very upset by the experience. Boorman said Jim (Dickey) saw himself as completely different person from the one he really was. (Christopher Dickey also penned Summer of Deliverance, about his father and the film.)
7. The director shared his view on the story “…about a river that’s going to be dammed and killed; four men want to canoe it before the river disappears.” Boorman wanted the first shot of the river to be very powerful, “Behind it, there is this notion the river is going to disappear and its beauty lost.” He searched and searched for a river, wanting it to be as wild and savage as possible. “Film stock always makes everything look pretty. Well I found a river (The Chattooga River) which had jagged rocks and rapids—one of the most dangerous rivers for canoing—and it still looked pretty. So in all the scenes of river, Boorman desaturated the color and muted the green. He wanted to “dispense with prettiness.” The river was usually only canoed with kayaks. Boorman noted that all rivers are graded for degrees of difficulty; this was the worst.
8. The film was shot “more or less in sequence, very rare for films.” Two canoes were used by the characters, one aluminum—which got all smashed up—and one wood (five were actually destroyed during filming). Boorman spoke to the question, “How do you get actors to do this kind of thing? My method is to talk about it simply; ‘I just want you to go down this piece of savage river.’ The actors turned their backs on me, their faces were white.” Boorman and Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter, The Black Dahlia, Jersey Girl, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) shot most of the river scenes from a rubber boat. They left the crew behind, took lunch in a plastic bag, would shoot the rapids and then the crew would pick them up at another point. Boorman had canoed the whole river himself, his other method of getting the actors to do it. The director said he loved rivers and boats his whole life. Boorman, Zsigmond and the cameraman “Fell several times; ‘Zsig’ desperately tried to keep the camera above water.” They had a technician who stayed up nights trying to repair and dry out cameras.
After the film came out, a lot of people wanted to canoe this particular river and several drowned. Boorman was questioned as to how he felt about that—did he feel responsible? The director felt he was able to say he’d made the river look as threatening as possible, so anyone who canoed it must have known what to expect.
9. Boorman on his Cinematographer: “Zsigmond is Hungarian; he got out in 1956 when the Russians moved into Budaphest. He shot footage of Russian tanks, and students throwing Molotov cocktails at them. I thought, “The man who’s seen that and been fired on by Russians is the kind of man I need for a film like this.” There were enormously difficult to shoot sequences; I owe a lot to Zsigmond, no shot was impossible for him. The bigger the challenge the better he liked it. Nothing could phase the man who had been shot at by Russian tanks.”
10. Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds “Did very well on the rapids, they had the better canoe (aluminum). Jon Voight and Ronny Cox “… made a lot more mistakes. The worst thing that happened is they had a wipeout, and Ned disappeared and didn’t come up for just over a minute. The group had a diver with them—always—he went in and tried to find Ned, it was dreadful.” Boorman asked Ned what he thought when the actor was at the point of drowning. “Beatty said he first thought, ‘How is John going to finish the film without me?’ And his second thought was, ‘He’ll find some way to finish it without me. I know he will.’ Then he was determined to live and got to the surface.”
11. The director proclaimed, “There were no stunt doubles used.” Boorman doesn’t like the idea of stunt men; “If the shot is dangerous enough to need a stunt man, you shouldn’t be doing it.” There was though, one split-second exception shot, a double for Voight when the men get injured and their canoe collapses.
12. The film was fairly true to Dickey’s novel, though Boorman felt the opening introductions to the mens’ lives in Atlanta was unnecessary to show. Dickey argued with Boorman over that choice, but the director told him “… these men, how they speak and react, you know enough to understand the film and where they come from.” Lewis (Reynolds) wanted the experience of killing a man, thought they needed to test themselves. Ed (Voight) wasn’t sure that was necesary, but when Lewis is injured, Ed becomes a primal man, a hunter. “The film is about basic masculine urges and how they are surpressed by modern, civilized life. Men have an underlying need to express deeper urges. Which is why the madness of war, why war is so exciting to many men. Spending a night by the river, Ed has a line: ‘Doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world, no one can find us up here.’ He expresses that they’re free, delivered form all the cares of the world. Yet, we as audience, know something nasty is going to happen and that’s why it’s menacing. There are double meanings in the dialogue in many scenes.”
13. The famous scene of the mountain men coming to attack was rehearsed most of the day and done in one four-minute shot. Boorman described the camera up to this point as very rhythmic, but now—to increase tension—it just sits there. It took a day to shoot the entire sequence because of all the many moves; the actors all stay in frame or move out and come back in. The director’s intention about the mountain men is “…that they were malevolent spirits of nature; nature has its revenge on these men who resented the people of Atlanta who were killing the river.” The studio demanded Boorman shoot alternative scenes for television, including language. (“Fucks couldn’t be used on television.”) “So we all tried to think of (on the spot) alternatives. Ross Berg (crew) came up with ‘Squeal like a pig’ to take the place of a more powerful kind of language, and I thought it was so good he decided to keep. (Note: “Ross Berg” is the name I interpreted Boorman saying. I can find no such name in the imdb credits, nor a similar name. There are other stories claiming that Ned Beatty came up with the line, but Boorman clearly said it was a crew person.) Ned was marvelous. He and Bill McKinney (Mountain Man) spent a lot of time together—everyone was nervous. I didn’t know how to shoot it, until I found the setting; brown laurels with the acid green of the leaves, the tangled wood… As soon as I found the scenery, I knew how to shoot it. It was all done from the point of view of Voight, with that kind of distance. Ned has felt all his life, he’s had to endure this. Every time someone sees him, they say ‘Squeal like a pig.” He wrote a very interesting piece for the New York Times many years ago—they were doing a feature about rape—he felt like a rape victim. Someone told me they walked out half way through Deliverance and had never been to the cinema since.”
14. The censors wanted to cut scene of Mountain Man dying; they didn’t mind the scene of a man shot, but the dying went on too long. Boorman felt Lewis (Reynolds) should have to confront the reality of killing someone, it wasn’t just entertainment, this reality had to be faced. “McKinney had tremendous discipline and control of his body. He held his breath and kept his eyes from blinking for two minutes—he’d trained himself specially for this shot. He was completely convincing as dying man. It’s all about gesture and discipline.”
Boorman commented further on McKinney holding his breath while being carried, not moving—this was before CGI—“People are so cynical they assume something’s been done in the computer. The computer has brought cynicism about.” The director said he was thinking of putting a note at the end of his next feature that reads “No computer was used in the making of this film.” McKinney had to endure actually being buried and again held his breath a long time, as the earth was shoveled over him.
15. When the four men set off again in the canoes, “Drew has you feel that he is himself a dead man; he’s betrayed himself in some way. Boorman wanted this scene to be ambiguous. “When Drew gets shot and falls, has he really been shot or did he just give up and throw himself in, in despair? He had no heart to go on, he was complicit in murder. Is the (Mountain Man’s) companion watching and following them? For this scene, shooting was done on another part of the river where there is a dam, so the water could be stopped and then released. There was a build on rails to trigger the canoe collapse. When the water was first released, it just dribbled. The second time though, they got more water than intended and when Burt Reynolds came down himself (no stunt double), he injured his back. Boorman said “I had a lot of angry actors because I let down too much water.” Lewis’ (Reynolds) broken leg was achieved by sticking a lamb bone onto Burt’s thigh.”
16. Burt Reynolds brought in Cowboy Coward (Toothless Man), with whom he used to work on a dude ranch. Cowboy would spend his evenings sitting on a toilet beside a bathtub filled with ice and twenty-four beers, working his way through the beer. According to Boorman, Cowboy arrived still woozy, the morning he had to be lowered down the side of a cliff. They rehearsed with a dummy to find a path down and Boorman said to Cowboy, “See what you have to do? You mustn’t move.” Cowboy replied, “Well I guess if he can do it, I can.” Boorman: “Like everyone else in this movie, he did it. Seeing the height, imagine doing this shot without twenty-four bottles of beer.”
17. Boorman, describing the difference between actors Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds: “Voight is method. So if he had a scene where he was supposed to be out of breath, he’d say, ‘I need a three minute warning so I can get out of breath’ and he’d run, so he could be out of breath. Burt would say, ‘I need twenty seconds’ and he’d squirt a spritzer on himself and breathe hard.”
18. Voight did his own fall, the underwater shots where he gets entangled with the dead man was done in a swimming pool. Burt is in the canoe (injured now), they have one more rapid to get through and it’s about finding Drew (Cox). “Ron had this party trick; he’s double-jointed and he can bring his arm around his head. It was so awful, and it tells (the audience) that he crashed again. Now you’d think it was done with CGI—that wretched computer that is ruining everything. It’s Ronny’s turn to play dead. The commitment of acting in this picture is so extraordinary. They attach rocks to him and sink him into the river. All these scenes were rehearsed and the actors practiced holding their breath for long periods of time.”
19. Boorman spoke of Film Editor Tom Priestley (son of Playwright and Novelist J. B. Priestley) having great concentration and a difficult job—Boorman shoots “very little film.” The director claims his Point Blank has the lowest ratio of film of any director, the last twenty years. He prefers rehearsing and getting things right, for everyone to realize that if the camera is rolling, it will be in the movie.
20. The final shot is the hand rising from the river. “Important because of my allegaince to the grail legend. I used it in Excalibur and in several films. The hand is a force of unconscious rising to the conscious world.” A rubber glove filled with water was put over the hand so it would look bloated from being submerged.
“Brian DePalma, my friend who was great admirer of Deliverance, used the image as an homage in Carrie.
Bonus Tidbit: Before Ed (Voight) has to kill the Toothless Man, he looks at a photo of his wife and son; Boorman’s son Charley is the son. This was the start of Charley’s modest acting career (Excalibur, Beyond Rangoon, The Serpent’s Kiss, Travellers), but he has become more famous for his documented travel adventures with Ewan McGregor (“Long Way Down, Long Way Round”).
Cindy Davis has spent her share of time in the woods.