“Movie-making is the process of turning money into light. All they have at the end of the day is images flickering on a wall.” Thus announced British director John Boorman as a preface to his book Money Into Light (1985), which is his own diary account of his very difficult, intensive but ultimately rewarding three-year preparation for and filming of The Emerald Forest (1985) which, while not a perfect film, nevertheless went more than a little way to returning the great director to critics’ esteem.
Boorman had fallen from grace, following his superb Point Blank (1967) and magisterial Deliverance (1972) with the disappointing Zardoz (1973) and the quite frankly appalling Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and, while the critics warmed a little more to his version of Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, Excalibur (1981), Boorman was aiming to ensure that his next film would make a similar mark as his earlier masterpieces. Money Into Light tells the story of just how tough the process of “turning money into light” and back into money again can be, in riveting and dramatic fashion.
Boorman made an impressive casting decision at the outset – the film was based on the true story of a father’s search for his son, with Powers Boothe playing an American dam engineer in Brazil, whose son Tommy, later Tomme, is kidnapped by a rainforest tribe and raised as one of their own. Boorman had wanted C. Thomas Howell for the role of the young kidnapped boy who reaches manhood with the tribe, but he was unavailable, so he decided to cast his own son Charley in the role, to considerable acclaim. In the end, Boorman’s film at least reasserted the director as being a stimulating visual stylist, with the traumatic three years he spent making it in Brazil’s rainforests translating into ravishing scenery and Boorman’s archetypical imaginative use of visuals.
The film as a whole can be seen as a tribute to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with breathtaking imagery that compensates for its somewhat slender narrative. And the inspiration for Boorman’s quotable quote and the book’s title apparently came from the reaction of one of the local Indians involved in the making of the movie, namely his understanding, which he articulated to the director, of what Boorman and his team were doing. And doubts that you may have about whether you will be interested enough in a movie made 27 years ago to read a book about its making should quickly be dispelled – in fact, the story is about so much more than this particular film.
Boorman’s account ranges over topics as disparate as Brazilian culture, the destruction of the Amazon, the gulf of many thousands of years that divides our culture from the rainforest natives, and modern man’s loss of the mythic to add meaning to our ‘civilized’ lives in the West – a theme which, interestingly enough, also links Emerald Forest with his earlier films Deliverance and Excalibur.
Boorman, while providing some details of the shoot, is nevertheless far more concerned with his own motivation, ideas, problems and solutions, and his insights into the creative process also provide startling contrasts between the natives’ lives and our own: “Tribal life follows unchanging patterns. I saw that for us, in our world, change is the only imperative: fashion, novelty, progress, news. We crave them. They feed us. Stasis is death and so we hurtle on, faster and faster towards…what? Film-making is an expression of that neurosis of novelty, that process of inventing impossible problems for oneself and failing to solve them… The Indians, with their music, dance and ritual, are constantly striving to escape their material lives into the spirit world. In making a movie we take the material elements of our society and transmute them into a stream of light flowing on to a wall, hoping that it will contain something of our spirit.”
From money, to light, to spirit – would that other directors were as profound about their art.