Deliverance's duelling banjos were a budget cut
John Boorman, the Wicklow-based maverick director who receives a lifetime achievement award this week from Ifta, casts his mind back over five decades of film-making
SHOULD WE raise an eyebrow at the news that John Boorman is to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Film and Television Academy? Born and raised in suburban London, the director, now a sprightly 77, could never be mistaken for anything other than an Englishman. Well-spoken, with a classless accent, he wears slightly baggy trousers, buttoned-up woollen garments and – most tellingly – one of those semi-cravat, semi-scarf things so beloved of creative figures who emerged during the 1960s.
“The idea of pinning national flags on movies is a fairly frivolous thing,” he muses. “Do you think that Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is an Irish film just because it is directed by an Irishman?”
I guess not. At any rate, Boorman’s credentials as a player in Irish cinema cannot be questioned. Resident in the country since 1969, he has shot films such as Zardozand Excaliburin the forests and valleys near his Wicklow home. Later, he commented explicitly on Irish society in films such as The Generaland The Tiger’s Tail. In the interim, John encouraged domestic production as the head of Ardmore Studios and as a member of the first incarnation of the Irish Film Board. So, he’s paid his dues and deserves his gong.
“My coming here was kind of accidental,” he laughs in his genial way. “I was doing post-production on my film Leo the Lastat Ardmore. It happened to be a good summer and didn’t rain that much. One day this estate agent showed me this house. I didn’t take it very seriously, and the next day I found myself bidding on it in Dublin. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
He’s been lurking in Wicklow ever since. Nonetheless, his fine 2003 autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, still seems to be well titled. In the last half-century, he has directed American classics such as Deliveranceand Point Blank, returned to his wartime childhood in Hope and Glory, dabbled in mythic madness with Zardozand Excalibur, but you still get the sense he is fleeing from suburban post-war conformity.
“Yes, yes. There’s something in that,” he says. “David Lean was from Croydon, remember. That’s not uncommon. All those sections of outer London were very arid. There were all these streets with no shops, just miles of dull streets. We really did think, like John Betjeman in that poem: ‘Come friendly bombs’.”
Come they did. In his touching 1987 film, Hope and Glory, Boorman suggests that the Blitz brought much desired excitement and novelty to suburban kids. The film does admit tragedies, but one’s main impression is of a joyous loosing of inhibition.
“Well the bomb that fell on my school was wonderful. Mind you, if it had fallen a few hours later, when we were there, it might have been a bit more damaging.”
Raised in a lower middle-class locale, Boorman left school at 16 and never seriously considered third-level education. After a spell in the dry-cleaning business, he fell upon a second-hand typewriter, a gift from his mum, and began hammering out pieces for local papers, women’s magazines and, eventually, the Manchester Guardian(as it then was).
Ultimately, he found himself drafted into the documentary department of the BBC. Still rankled by the inequities of the class system, Boorman remembers how he was patronised and belittled as the only member of the team not to have gone to university. Still, mentored by Huw Wheldon, the hugely influential broadcast executive, he managed to forge an identity and, in 1965, to make an actual feature film.
Catch Us If You Can, an attempt to do for the Dave Clark Five what Hard Day’s Nighthad done for the Beatles, was sufficiently accomplished to catch the eye of the New Yorker’sdistinguished film critic.
“Yes. Oddly enough, when it opened in America, Pauline Kael praised it inordinately. You never know with her. Largely as a result of that I started to get a few offers. This producer, Judd Bernard, came to me with a script called Point Blank. He also gave it to Lee Marvin, and we met. Lee asked me what I thought, and I said it was really bad and wondered what we were going to talk about next. We threw it out the window. Judd was furious. ‘All you had to say was the rewrite was going to be great’.”
Released in 1967, Point Blankturned out to be one of the great latter-day noirs. Lee Marvin became a pal – one of the director’s seven children is named for him – and went on to work with Boorman on the fantastically oppressive war film Hell in the Pacific. Leo the Last, a strange sub-Fellini romp starring Marcello Mastroianni, was not a hit, but, in 1972, Deliverancebecame one of the key films of the much-vaunted new Hollywood. Starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight as two members of a group of city boys terrorised by rural maniacs, it should have guaranteed its director unlimited budgets. This was not the case.
“Getting the money to make movies is never, ever easy,” he says. “Take Deliveranceitself. Warners really did not want to do that film. I cut it down to the bone, but never cut it down enough. It was a funny thing. The reason I did that score everyone remembers, with the duelling banjos, was because I had to cut the budget for a big score.”
In the years following Deliverance, Boorman’s fascination with mythology and antiquity began to reveal itself through a stream of defiantly odd films. Zardoz, a futuristic variation on The Wizard of Ozstarring Sean Connery in a nappy, divided critics into appalled disbelievers and willing enthusiasts of ironic lunacy (count this writer in). Almost nobody liked Exorcist II: The Heretic, a barmy sequel to William Friedkin’s horror smash. But Excalibur, his spooky, Wagner-heavy retelling of the Arthurian myth, firmed up his reputation as a singularly gifted eccentric.
That 1981 film helped launch a new wave of Irish talent – look for Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Garrett Keogh and Mannix Flynn among the credits – and it provided a great deal of work for local crew.
By now, Boorman had already been drawn into the murky, always unstable world of domestic film production. His first significant post was as head of Ardmore Studios. Justin Keating, the late, greatly admired Labour TD, was instrumental in luring Boorman towards the job.
“Yes. I had made Zardozat Ardmore, and while we were there the studio went bust,” he explains. “We were pressing the government to save it, and Justin agreed to take it on, provided I agreed to be chairman of the studio. There were seven hard years of trying to get films into the studio.”
Later Boorman was drafted in as a member of the Irish Film Board, and became embroiled in a controversy that, nearly three decades later, still causes punch-ups at the nation’s movie jamborees. Boorman had employed a young Neil Jordan, then still known as a writer of fiction, to shoot a documentary on the making of Excalibur. When the Film Board gave a loan toward the production of Angel,Jordan’s first feature, a number of experienced film-makers, noting that Boorman was listed as an executive producer on the project, cried foul at very high volume.
Protests were organised when the film screened at the 1982 Celtic Film Festival in Wexford.
“There were a number of disgruntled film-makers around making documentaries without support,” he says. “I was on the board. We had a certain amount of money, but we didn’t have any submissions at that point, except for Angel. I retired, because I was involved in it, and it was given some money – about £100,000 I think. Then I was vilified. I was, apparently, lining my own pocket. But I didn’t take a fee or anything.”
Then the press got stuck in. The Sunday Tribunewrote a “scurrilous piece” accusing him of trousering public money. He decided to sue.
“Then they published a piece of praising me – a hagiography, in fact. It was like an obituary. They said: ‘Is this all right?’ I said: ‘No. It’s a bit too late now.’ So they then asked me if I wanted take shares in the paper, and I wasn’t interested in that. Another week went past and they asked if I’d take the paper itself. I didn’t want their paper. A week later it went bust.”
Does he suspect that some of this vilification resulted from his being English and being (from time to time, at least) a Hollywood player? “Yes. I think that’s probably what it was,” he says cautiously.
Yet he stayed. He must have occasionally been tempted to storm off to England or America? “At that time I was tempted. At that time I came very close to leaving. But, in the end, I was glad I didn’t.”
Having been in Wicklow for 40 years – significantly longer than he has lived in England – Boorman has, perhaps, deserved the right to be thought of as a domestic film-maker. His children (among them the television personality Charlie Boorman) were mostly raised here and, over the past decade and a half, he has made two significant Irish features. The last, 2006’s The Tiger’s Tail, an overly ambitious attempt to anatomise the Irish boom, did not set the world alight.
“There was perhaps a little too much for people to swallow in it,” he admits.
The General, his 1998 examination of the career of hoodlum Martin Cahill, was, however, received much more warmly. Boorman picked up the best director prize at Cannes, and the film stands as the definitive (among many) quasi-fictional treatments of Cahill’s strange life.
“Not everybody loved it,” he says. “But I was very happy with it. Huw Wheldon always said that it’s a mistake to make a film about a reprehensible character, because film is fundamentally celebratory. It doesn’t matter who the central character is. You just can’t avoid celebrating him, and that’s what a lot of people were upset about.”
As the new decade kicks off, Boorman seems to have his hands full. He has been working on an animated version of The Wizard of Ozfor several years. A film based on the Emperor Hadrian is still under development. And he seems confident that he will soon get to shoot a script he wrote with Neil Jordan a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps it’s a bit early for a lifetime achievement award.