Quint chats with THE ROAD director John Hillcoat about adapting Cormac McCarthy, cannibals and more!
Published at: Oct. 21, 2009, 5:44 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with my half-hour chat with the director of THE ROAD, one Mr. John Hillcoat.
I got a chance to speak with both him and the star of the movie, Viggo Mortensen, while attending the incredibly fun Telluride Film Festival. If you missed my initial review of THE ROAD you can catch up by clicking here, but the short version is that I really dug it. It’s a different experience than the book, but I don’t think it lacked any of the emotional punch of the book. I loved the detail of the world and all the performances.
When I met Hillcoat I told him how much I enjoyed an earlier film of his called THE PROPOSITION and we talked a bit about the Telluride Film Festival. One of the good things about this fest is that the filmmakers are free to see some films. It’s not all just junkets and stress. The filmmakers get to intermingle with the average fest goers.
I was told the beautiful and totally crush-worthy Carey Mulligan went to see his movie at the fest and that’s where we begin, with Hillcoat trying to decide what films he can see in his short time at the festival.
A bit of warning for those not familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s book… we discuss some key points about the journey this father and son duo undertake and at the very end of the interview we discuss the last few moments in the film. So, spoiler alert. I’ll make sure to run a spoiler warning before we talk about the finale, but here’s your first warning.
Enjoy the chat!!
John Hillcoat: I just don’t get to see the films, but I try. I’ve got my shot at it later on.
Quint: You’ve got one slot and you are trying to figure out what to see?
John Hillcoat: Maybe two, but we will see…
Quint: BAD LIEUTENANT is super fun, but it’s going to have a bigger or biggish release. AN EDUCATION is very much more of a film festival movie and it’s more emotional I would say and you probably owe Carey [Mulligan] since she went to see your movie, so…
John Hillcoat: Yeah. (laughs) I was going to try to catch it in Toronto, but I’ll see what I can do.
Quint: I just came from your movie, I saw it this morning and yeah…
John Hillcoat: This morning? Wow, now that’s interesting morning viewing. (laugh)
Quint: And I’m a big fan of the book, too. I found them to be two, not completely different experiences, but there is something in how Cormac McCarthy writes that’s such a pure literary experience, but I thought you did a very good job of making the visual version of that. I have to expect that whenever you signed on to do this, that that was probably the giant scare factor for you.
John Hillcoat: Absolutely, because I love his writing so much and it is so beautiful and poetic and how do you translate that? BLOOD MERIDIAN was quite an influence on THE PROPOSITION, but I was most concerned, actually, about the boy, because that was the wild card, because they are in every scene together. I got it when it was unpublished as this great gift that landed in my lap and it totally had a huge profound impact on me and my life, but then it just grew and grew every time… This is before the Coen brother’s films and before the Pulitzer prize and Best Seller in The New York Times, before Oprah and all of that, so all of that created a huge responsibility and pressure, but I try not to think about that. Ever. (laughs)
Quint: So you were on from the very beginning then?
John Hillcoat: Yeah, yeah. The producer that got me the book, Nick Wechsler loved THE PROPOSTION and he saw that that was another extreme world that had characters under pressure and the environment and the landscape were a major part of that. And in this case, instead of distance past, this is near future, although the references for this were all picked up… In some ways the book of THE ROAD is so beautifully simple and the realism of it, just makes so much sense, because with there being so many mini-apocalypses under our noses and just that simple thing of “of course a shopping cart” and the way the homeless sleeping rough, of course that’s where you would be when things break down, so it’s those sort of links that he made that are just so simple and kind of obvious in retrospect, like also this shock of not really knowing what actually happened, but again when you think about it, that made so much sense and it made it so immediate and also pulled you into the father and son relationship, which is the heart of it and the key.
John Hillcoat: So yeah, that was a daunting task, the whole thing on every level; top to bottom. We are talking about technical, emotional…
John Hillcoat: Everything.
Quint: I think one of the things that grabbed me the most about the book was the way that McCarthy wrote it was almost hypnotic, if you know what I mean, like it had a certain rhythm to the conversations and a certain rhythm to the scenarios. Was that something you tried to pick up on and try to incorporate?
John Hillcoat: Yeah, and their dialogue in the film, we really just boiled down… Joe Penhall’s whole take was not to get complicated with it, it’s all on the page, so just edit it down and distill it down for a hundred minute film.
But the repetition in the book, that kind of grind day in and day out, I think is very much something that is more novelistic. The actual script had much more of that routine of going in and out of places and the constant fear and all of that.
Quint: There’s also that constant struggle with the man trying to pull the boy out of his shell a little bit with engaging in conversation like in the beginning of the book where he pretty much asks the question and just gets “Okay…” in response.
John Hillcoat: What we found was when you physicalize it and make it concrete and you are witnessing that story, repetition suddenly becomes harder and harder to take in the way that you can take it in the book, but not in film.
So what we tried to do then is distill that down, so that the emotionally etched scene had a subtle development in their relationship, so it kept growing and the cannibal world wasn’t… You know, once you really got to know it and it did its thing, it didn’t overwhelm it, because the emotional story was the key, so it was a constant battle in that sense of balance.
Quint: I think you did a really good job in keeping the cannibal angle scary throughout the whole film, where it’s not like you are inundated with it and then you are used to it by a certain point. I think the most striking point for me is after The Man shoots the wanderer that tries to take The Boy and then they return later to pick up the cart and see the remains. The guy was literally treated like a deer by his group, his entrails are out there and his head is just kind of thrown off and they ate what they could eat. There’s just something really striking about that. It could have gone really exploitation is what I was thinking.
John Hillcoat: Yeah and heavy-handed. We did try and I was very like Cormac in the way he treats these subjects, very matter of fact and unflinching, but not sensationalistic about it and it was also trying to have a bit of restraint, because I think with all of this sort of material in cinema especially we have all of the tricks and tools and it’s so seductive. You can get so carried away and again it always came back to the relationship, because it’s fundamentally a love story, over and above anything else, and it’s very personal to McCarthy. (We had) his son on set and it was just amazing, because the boy called him “Poppa” just like from the book.
I think that’s also why the book struck such a deep chord and has such a fanatical sort of fan base, that emotional story is something… we can all relate to that loss and it’s also every parent’s worst fear, but most and above all is what under extreme circumstances, it brings out the best and worst in people. Cormac himself said, “Look, this is a book about human goodness” and that had to be kept alive, you know? Protecting that fire, so it wasn’t going to be snuffed out and in that way it’s meant to be almost like a wake up call for us, because we recently, since the Bush-era everything in the entire world has gone into fear mode. Everything is reacting to fear. The most recent example is the economy, that’s all about fear and that becomes such a negative and this, in a way, you can just see this as a parable of exactly what is happening now in that sense and how fear can shut out possibilities that can actually save us.
Quint: It’s so funny how everybody describes the book and the film as well as this bleak tale, but… Somebody even at the Q & A with Viggo was like “I liked it, but are you going to do something that has hope in it?” He was like “I think this movie is full of hope.” You watched that story and that’s what it’s all about. Viggo’s character could have, without the boy, he probably would have gone over to that side, you know what I mean?
John Hillcoat: Absolutely. The boy was his teacher and moral compass.
Quint: Especially by the end of the movie.
John Hillcoat: He had learned more from him and he takes that step that every new generation needs to take for the sake of mankind, without being too melodramatic, but it really comes to that.
Quint: Honestly, the hope of finding other people that will carry the fire, if he did find one family that still has the same moral belief system, that not everybody is a crazed murderer or almost feral… The tale is all about hope to me.
John Hillcoat: Absolutely.
Quint: You have to contrast it with the horrors of the situation obviously. Without that, it doesn’t mean as much.
John Hillcoat: We have sort of made it a bit more of the flashback thing as a reminder of that as well just to remind us of what we stand to lose and what we do take for granted that we haven’t. Hopefully that will strike a chord as well.
Quint: The first shot of the movie is green plants and sunlight. Was that just to cement the audience going “This world isn’t some abstract thing. This is something that could happen and we could have this.”
John Hillcoat: That’s right and that’s what we stand to lose and that also doesn’t work in these festival environments, but the end roller basically goes back to the sound, like the music dies away and the sound is just everyday life carrying on to make it go full circle. I hope that gets through, because I get a bit frustrated by… I mean, even THE PROPOSITION, which has lots of light and dark, lots of shades, it frustrates me how reductive people are and closed people are to just being a bit challenged. I think Cormac has an unbelievable unflinching look at the way people really are, which I think is really refreshing, even in the actions of the darker qualities, but also in this case he tackles, which he’s never done before, real love.
Also, with fathers and sons in cinema, if you look back there are few exceptions, like THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a reference for me, but mostly they are tyrannical fathers or they are absent fathers, so I think it’s really refreshing to see a genuine tenderness and a genuine love between a father and son.
Quint: In most other stories or anything, it would have been the mother having protective instinct and the father being the one who cracks.
John Hillcoat: I think it breaks that taboo and it breaks the general accepted things o on one hand the father and son thing is refreshing, but on the other hand yeah there is that shock that under extreme pressure you know the maternal instinct can fall into trouble. It does happen…
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about the construction of the world, because originally the movie… I was talking to Liz (the publicist) and she was say that the movie, when it was scheduled to come out that end of last year, it was pushed because the effects needed more time to be realized.
John Hillcoat: It was more than that. It was also… The actual release schedule for last year, I always complained about it as unrealistic, because also what happened were things like the locations… We shot in fifty different locations and in several different states and at the end of May, we had hoped to finish shooting and we found out that Mount St. Helens was twenty feet under snow still, so we had to wait until into July and so all of that was new material that we had to incorporate into the film and there was the visual effects and there as also this delicate balance between… as we were saying earlier, we had a lot of material. We had over four hours of stuff.
Quint: You had a four hour assembly cut?
John Hillcoat: Four and a half actually. We had to boil that down. There were a number of things that made that release schedule impossible and then once we crossed over that into the next year, everyone knew that this sort of a film needed a fall release.
Quint: This has been done for a couple of months now, right?
John Hillcoat: Yeah, and also at the beginning of the year… There’s several hiatus periods, where everything shut down, so yeah although it was frustrating, it would have been great to hit that deadline, but it was unrealistic.
Quint: Yeah, but after you miss it… It was ready in June. Is that right?
John Hillcoat: Yeah.
Quint: This movie wouldn’t work as a summer movie. It doesn’t make any sense, but as a fan of the material, I’m sure you can understand why there were a bunch of people who were taking those as warning signs and going “Oh my God, what are they doing to the book?” You get that knee-jerk reaction.
John Hillcoat: Oh yeah, I understand. That was very unfortunate and we had a fantastic momentum last year and it was disappointing and frustrating and in a way I guess, it’s just that thing where often… The film business always works that way where you want to hit these goals and things keep sliding and in hindsight it would have been much better to say right from the get go “It’s 2009” and leave it at that.
Quint: Ultimately the movie is going to speak for itself.
John Hillcoat: I’m hoping now that it’s starting to get shown, the word of mouth will get out there to reassure those fears that people have which I understand. I totally understand it and if I wasn’t in the center of it I would be thinking the same things, especially with certain elements like the Weinsteins. They are the distributors, not the producers, so there’s that and we are all ultimately trying to be as faithful to the book as possible.
Quint: I don’t think anybody can argue that you didn’t capture the world of the book. It’s certainly what I had in my mind, the same color palette and everything that I envisioned when I was reading it… the constant grey and blacks and how everybody is so filthy throughout the whole movie….
John Hillcoat: Except when they get to the bunker with that cleansing, the relief of washing all of that stuff off.
Quint: I had the same feelings as I did in the book, when the father is like “No, let’s go. This isn’t safe.” I’m like “Yes, it’s safe! Stay! You have found your place!”
John Hillcoat: Yeah. Also the performances I am just thrilled with and they are so critical, because they are so exposed as well. A road movie with a father and son in every scene is very… everything is out there. Then each character that you come across is so vital, because if one of them isn’t quite right, then the whole thing kind of falls over.
Quint: I thought Robert Duvall was amazing.
John Hillcoat: Transcendental. He was brilliant. He did something miraculous, which was that scene in the book and the script was quite a philosophical conversation. Again when you physicalize these things and you are seeing it in the situation and trying to believe it as real people that you are seeing, there’s something that felt a little bit contrived and pretentious or literary about it.
I actually asked him if he could just try to use the same material, but personalize it in some way and all of that he came up with like with having his own son and losing him and not wanting to talk about it and all of that, he just ran with that in one take.
Quint: I noticed you had a different filmmaking style for that scene. I might be talking out my ass, but that scene, it seemed like you were closer with the camera. You went closer to Robert and you went closer to Viggo and it became more about their faces.
John Hillcoat: Well, there’s something iconic about it and also incredibly human, because there are three generations, and it is the first kind of interaction that they have in a meaningful way with someone for the first time in the whole film. So it was a key scene and I think it also is the turning point where the boy has made this connection and the man is too standoff-ish and afraid to really let that develop. He kills the potential of it and hence they have that first little disagreement and then of course the next encounter it goes a step further with the thief. Michael K. Williams I think is amazing as well…
Quint: He was awesome in that scene.
John Hillcoat: Then of course it goes even further with the arrow thing, which was more about those people that are so paranoid of each other that this is the absurd degree that they… in another world they could be really supporting each other…
That Duvall scene was very key, hence that was why we went in in that way. Also another key moment that was really tricky I thought was the veteran, but Guy (Pearce) again was great, because when he first comes where you are thinking “Oh no.”
WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW!
Quint: It’s still fairly ambiguous, it was to me until I saw the family.
John Hillcoat: Yeah.
Quint: I think that’s exactly how it should be.
John Hillcoat: Yeah, you knew then he wasn’t lying about his own kids and also I think the key with that family is they couldn’t be just this dream family, they have to be a credible family that survived all of these things, like the boy and the father.
Quint: At that point it’s kind of interesting with the man gone, it’s almost like the audience feels or at least I did, almost felt like “I’m the one looking over the kid now,” and I’m almost in that distrustful position as well, but the fact that there had been, throughout their whole journey, there had been pieces of those guys following, whether its hearing the dog or seeing the boy or whatever and not knowing if it was a vision. You just kind of know that they were there and if they meant harm, they could have…
John Hillcoat: And obviously other people had the same idea, which was head south to the coast, there’s other like-minded people, hence that’s what’s so critical about not letting fear take over your life, which I think is the single biggest danger we all face.
With that he had to run off to do the post-film Q&A at the final screening of THE ROAD at Telluride.
Hope you guys enjoyed the chat! I’ll make sure to get the Viggo interview up soon! Keep an eye peeled!
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