Forty years ago John Boorman shocked audiences into never taking a canoe trip with his brutal outdoors thriller “Deliverance.” Released in 1972 and starring a cast of (at the time) up-and-comers that included Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, “Deliverance” is best known for the unflinching male rape scene that sets off a series of events from which the four leads can never look back. Despite the controversial subject matter, the film went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and became one of the year’s highest grossers.
In honor of the anniversary, Warner Bros. today is releasing a new Blu-ray edition of the classic that boasts a new making-of documentary and a 42-page commemorative book with behind-the-scenes photos and rare insights into the production [go HERE for more info on the set and for this week’s DVD/Blu-ray picks]. To coincide with the release, Cox — whose character Drew is best remembered for the ‘dueling banjos’ scene at the outset of the film — has released a memoir, aptly titled “Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew,” which recounts his time spent making the film.
“Deliverance” marked Cox’s first on-screen role. Prior to working for Boorman, Cox was a stage actor hoping for a break. He got it with “Deliverance.” Since wrapping the film, he has since gone on to appear in over 145 movie and television productions, including two sci-fi hits by Paul Verhoeven — “RoboCop” and “Total Recall.”
Indiewire caught up with Cox to look back on “Deliverance” in honor of the milestone.
Given your theatrical background, it’s kind of ironic that “Deliverance” was shot chronologically. Talk about a smooth transition from theater to film!
Both Ned and I thought that was how films were made. Burt came to us and said, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” Fims are never made that way, for several reasons. “Deliverance,” first of all, went from point A to point B, so you were never in the same location twice, so you could afford to do that. The other reason why it was propitious to shoot in sequence was because since we were doing all our own canoeing and stuff, the easy rapids were at the beginning of the film and the rapids get harder and harder as we go through the film. So by the time we got to the really hard rapids, we had had canoe practice and had been on the water for five or six weeks of six or seven, eight hours a day. So by that time we were all really good canoers. It made a lot of sense to shoot that film in sequence.
Did you feel very fortunate that Boorman chose to shoot it this way, being that this was your first film?
Well yes and no, because the very first thing we shot was dueling banjoes. So can you imagine, this is the first time you’re ever in front of a camera and you’re doing this iconic scene for the first four days of your life. You’re playing stuff that’s really hard technically to do and hard acting to do too.
That scene is so iconic to this day. Did you play live, or was the music incorporated later?
I was hired for the picture because I play, but I’m not a blue-grass picker. I don’t play that kind of guitar. The young boy, Billy-Joe Redden, couldn’t play the banjo at all. So we pre-recorded the song and matched the playback. I’m sure you know what that’s like. They would start the recording and we just matched the fingering to it. So we did it that way. We shot that scene over three or four days.
What was that like for you going from performing on stage to shooting a film of this scale on location?
Completely other worldly. I went from having this kind of life over here on the left to having a completely sort of different thing. Everything about my life was completely changed. I had never made more than $6,000 in one year as an actor. All of a sudden I’m down in Georgia on location, they fly us down first class, they put me up in posh surroundings. I can’t tell you how my life changed! It was so dramatic.
How did you handle that transition?
Well first of all we had a lot of stuff to do. As an actor I had a lot of things to sort out, to pull off — each one of us did. So that keeps you grounded. And also, when you’re out there you’re in the canoes all day — there’s nothing glamourous about that. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. It was like being on a boy scout trip in a lot of ways. You’d even forget you were making a movie sometimes because we doing these terribly exciting things. But we had things to do. We had rehearsals to do every day, I had to work on learning that piece on the guitar. People had archery lessons. We had canoe practice. It was sort of work from beginning to end. Happily! We were doing the work happily but it was arduous.
If the film was made today I doubt the four leads would do the majority of their own stunts.
We all did all of our own stunts!
There was one stunt man in it. There’s a shot of a guy doubling for John Voight going down the waterfall and he’s outside of a canoe, just sliding down. That guy is a man named Ralph Garret. Every other thing in that film, you will not find a stunt man any place else.
So how did John sell you on that? Even though you were excited to take part you must have been nervous to take on that aspect of the film.
First of all, you gotta realize that it’s white water. The places that are really the most dangerous never look dangerous. We had an agreement going in that anything we didn’t want to do, no questions asked, “I’m not going to do that.” No questions asked. But invariably the places…you can have the most horrendous looking set of rapids and often times they are a peace of cake to row because once you get the canoe in the right line it just shoots through there. There are other places that look pretty innocuous, and those are invariably the places where you get in trouble.
John canoed the whole river himself. He never asked to do anything that he hadn’t done himself. But I saw an interview with John where he said that sometimes after I got into it, he did feel guilty about some of things that he got us into. I almost drowned once. Ned almost drowned once. Burt bruised his hip pretty badly. A the end of the film there’s a canoe that’s broken in half — they didn’t have to do that, we did that for them [laughs]. Wait…you almost drowned?!
Right above the fall there where Drew gets shot and goes out of the canoe and he doesn’t have a life jacket on. The way we could do it was to have two canoes run into each other and they could break the canoe in half there, and I’d go out of the water. Well it was below a damn and they’d release this amount of water, and there was so much water coming down through there, it almost swept us out. I was in the water myself. When I went into the water I hit my shoulder on a rock right below the surface. It didn’t do any permanent damage but it sort of paralyzed my shoulder and I couldn’t swim. And there’s so much water that’s sweeping down towards that waterfall and they have a rope strung across and I’m going along and I’m supposed to grab the rope. I grabbed the rope with my good hand but there is so much pressure that it swept me off of that. And there was only one other rope across another 30-40 feet down. If I miss that one I go over the waterfall and I’m dead. So I grabbed it and there was too much pressure it swept me off of that, and luckily a prop guy had just tied some rope around his waist and he jumped in the water and grabbed hold of me and kept me from going over the waterfall.
Talk about dedication to your craft!
How did the crew react when instances like these happened on set? You said this happened more than once.
There was such a bond, but not just between the actors but between the whole crew. We were out there sort of by ourselves. This river was so pristine they had to use four wheel drives and sometimes Caterpillars to get us in at point A. We were out there isolated and alone and by ourselves all the time. When things went wrong we had to get them right ourselves or with the crew.
So going from this onto your next production, it must have no doubt been a shock?
It was! [Laughs] My very next production, luckily was a play that I had already done off-Broadway. So I already knew that character backwards and forwards because I had already done a production of the play. I played the character for five or six months. I don’t think it threw me quite as much as if I was going into a regular script, because I knew this script backwards and forwards. But it was quite different.
Has any experience ever compared to your first one?
No. Not even close. Everything about that film was new, different, and life changing to me. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book. Because I’ve carried these stories around with me for 40 years and in someways they are as fresh to me as they were 40 years ago.
Have you all remained close?
Pretty much. Sometimes we’ll go two or three years without seeing each other. But when you put your life in somebodies hands in an experience like this, when we get back together it was although we were brothers and very little time has gone by. There’s a real affection and bonding that happens with this.
It’s funny that despite your performance in “Deliverance” — in which you play the nicest guy of the bunch — you’re now best known for your villainous roles. What do you account that to?
[Laughs] I’ll tell you the truth: In many ways I ascribe that to “RoboCop.” After “Deliverance” came out I spent about the next ten or twelve years playing nothing but the moral guys. It wasn’t until I got cast in “RoboCop.” For some reason, because I had this backlog of people expecting me to be this decent nice guy, when he was evil he was like the worst evil. Someone said, “Ronny, you play this guy like an astronaut gone bad” [laughs]. And I have to tell you, playing the bad guys is way more fun than playing the good guys. You just get to make all these much more interesting choices as an actor.
How does working for Paul Verhoeven compare to working for John?
They’re completely different. John is the most calming and supportive, and I’m not saying that Paul is not supportive, but he is volatile. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s prickly and mercurial whereas John is not…he’s unflappable.
You must have heard that “RoboCop” is being remade.
Well first of all, I happen to think that the first “RoboCop” is pretty damn good. I also think that “Total Recall” was pretty damn good. I don’t know why they’re remaking it. I happen to hate remakes, not remakes as much as I hate sequels. I can only think of one sequel ever that was as good or better than the original. “Godfather II” I think is a really really great film, but that’s about the only one I can think of of two that was good.
Given that you’ve worked with Paul on two of his most adored works, is there any hope of you two reuniting anytime soon?
I would love to do another film with Paul. I don’t know if you know this but Paul has a PhD in chemistry. My late wife had a PhD in chemistry and there was sort of that connection to Paul. I really like working with Paul a lot and I would give anything to work with John Boorman again. I don’t know that he’s making many films these days.