Writers & Company

A life in movies: John Boorman on Point Blank, Deliverance and his new memoir, Conclusions

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the British filmmaker reflects on the primal power of storytelling — and how modern cinema has evolved.
John Boorman is an English filmmaker who is best known for his feature films such as Deliverance, Point Blank, The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Image)

In his new memoir, Conclusions, English filmmaker John Boorman looks back on an award-winning career that spans 50 years, making movies that are both idiosyncratic and classic.

His 1972 Hollywood feature, Deliverance, is widely regarded as a landmark film, acclaimed for its tough exploration of masculinity. Starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, and adapted from U.S. Poet Laureate James Dickey's novel, the movie was nominated for three Oscars including best picture and best director. 

Earlier, his 1967 film noir thriller Point Blank — starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson — was praised for its bold style and European-inflected existentialism. Described as a masterpiece, it's now considered a cult classic. 

Hope and Glory, Boorman's autobiographical feature from 1987, won the hearts of audiences around the world. Inspired by his experiences as a boy in London during the Blitz, it received five Oscar nods, won the Golden Globe for best picture, and was awarded best picture, best director and best original screenplay by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  

Boorman's most recent film, Queen and Country, is a follow-up to Hope and Glory, picking up his story as a young man when he was conscripted into the army. 

In Conclusions, the 87-year-old filmmaker offers a mix of reminiscence, advice and reflections from his wide-ranging career. The book is a continuation of his 2003 memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy

Boorman spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Ireland's Wicklow Hills. 

A boy during the Blitz

"The war was a great excitement. With my gang, we were able to explore the bomb sites. There were houses with the whole front or back destroyed; you could look in and wander around people's furniture. It was a strange and weird experience.

"During that time, the men disappeared to the war. They became soldiers and off they went. It was a time, really, of women. The women blossomed and took over everything and ran things. 

It was a time, really, of women. The women blossomed and took over everything and ran things.

"We children generally had the run of the place. After a bomb dropped on the house next door, our house got lots of cracks in it and it wasn't really safe.

"We had to move out. My mother took us to Shepparton on the River Thames, where she had spent her childhood. So for the last part of the war, we were there. We had the most wonderful time. There were no adults to interfere with our play.

"Schools were often shut for lack of teachers or extended holidays. So we ran wild. It was wonderful."

A breakout cinematic hit

"Lee Marvin was in London making The Dirty Dozen. This producer gave Lee a script. He gave the script to me, too. It was awful. Lee and I arranged to meet for lunch anyway. He asked me what I thought of the script. I told him it was awful. We agreed, however, that the character was interesting. 

The plot of what became Point Blank was a metaphor for him trying to recover his humanity.

"Subsequently I had a number of meetings with Lee and talked about what this could be.

"What really transpired was that this script echoed his own life; he had been a rather sensitive young boy who joined the army and the Marines and went through the Pacific War.

"He was brutalized by war. He was in situations where he was killing Japanese soldiers. When he came out of the war, he had a problem of re-discovering his own character. The plot of what became Point Blank was a metaphor for him trying to recover his humanity.

"That's what gave the film its power."

The power of Deliverance

"The film studio sent me the manuscript to read before the novel was published. I saw immediately that it would make a terrific picture and I agreed to do it. When I went to visit James Dickey at his house, he took me aside and said, 'I'm going to tell you something I've never told a living soul: everything in that book happened to me.' 

"I was shocked. Dickey had made me promise not to tell anybody. Of course, I couldn't wait to tell somebody. I told my production manager and he said Dickey told him as well. Dickey had told everybody who would listen to him. When I eventually got into a canoe with him, I realized that nothing in that story was true. But he was a great figure, a great character. I had some great times with him.

I wanted to start the film when they were going up into the mountains together and forget the first half of the book.

"The first half of the book is the four men in Atlanta in their lives and in their work and their families. They all had this feeling of disappointment or that their lives are unfulfilled. Particularly, Lewis was a man who wanted the experience of killing someone and it's something he does achieve in this story.

"I wanted to start the film when they were going up into the mountains together and forget the first half of the book. A film is different from a novel — what happens in the film is that their characters emerge during the course of the film as they relate to each other.

"Dickey couldn't really accept that. But I insisted on doing it that way." 

The allure of cinematic storytelling

"The filmmaking process is closer to writing a poem than a novel. A typical film is less than two hours. So what you leave out becomes as important as what you keep in.

"With a poem, you're keeping a consistent tone; you're telling a story that is not just a story, it's something where the scenes resound on each other. What we're always looking for with a film is an ending which has been earned and it's satisfying — and that's always very difficult.

"When you're writing a script, you're trying to get the words in exactly the right order. That's what happens when you see a really good film. The commonest comment that people make about a film is they say, 'Oh I liked it very much, but it's too long.'  

A typical film is less than two hours. So what you leave out becomes as important as what you keep in.

"When you see a terrific film your reaction is the reverse; there comes a point where you're saying, 'I don't want it to end.' In a great film, every scene and every frame is intended; all the dross has been cut away.

"Only what is essential is in that film."

John Boorman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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