To close out the 2012 summer movie season with a bang, we have LAWLESS, whose story was adapted (by musician Nick Cave) from the historical fiction known as "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant, whose grandfather and great uncles are at the centerpiece of this prohibition-era drama. Shia LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, while Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke play his brothers. The cast also includes such heavy hitters as Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, all under the direction of John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION; THE ROAD).
The film is particularly violent and gritty as we see deputies (led by as especially nasty Pearce) wage war on the moonshining trade of southern Virginia, in particular the Bondurant boys. This is the first time Matt Bondurant has worked in the movie business, so on his recent trip to Chicago, we discussed why telling this story was important to him, his time on the set, and learning not to be too precious about your source material when your novel makes to transition to the big screen. Please enjoy my talk with author Matt Bondurant…
Capone: Hi, how are you? It’s good to meet you.
Matt Bondurant: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: So, is it kind of neat being here in the hub of the prohibition criminal element?
MB: [Laughs] I didn’t think about that. That is neat. I just got here at noon, so I haven’t had time to really consider that, but that’s cool.
Capone: There’s probably a tour that you could take…
MB: I’m sure. You know, this is actually my first time in Chicago.
MB: I know, that’s weird. I’ve been to every other city in this country except for Chicago for some odd reason.
Capone: And you are here for a couple of days, so do you get to do a little exploring?
MB: I got to walk around for lunch. I had a pizza and I plan on eating one of those famous hot dogs at one point. At some point, I’m going to get out there on the beach.
Capone: Excellent, well this is a good time to be here. And the name Al Capone is evoked in the movie a couple of times, I don’t know if it is in the book.
MB: No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think I ever do refer to Al Capone, no. The movie has that whole Chicago element, but in the book there’s no Chicago element.
Capone: Because I have not read the book, but I’ve heard you talk about it in a couple of interviews that I have read. I realize it’s a fictionalized account of certain elements of your family's history; you’re not saying this is non-fiction. At the same time, how much of this story is pretty dead in the book?
MB: Well, what’s dead on is that the incidents related did happen; the way that I’m specifically portraying them is a guess. In some cases, it’s an educated guess where there are clues. For example, the shoot out at the bridge in December 1930, which is the sort of climax of the book and the film, there is documentation on that in the form of newspaper articles about it, there were eyewitnesses, there was court testimony that talked about it, so we knew a few things. For example we know that Charlie Rakes, after he shot my grandfather, said, “I thought you Bondurants were some hard-boiled sons of bitches,” which is a line that does make it into the film, but I think it’s delivered at a different time.
Another example, my grandfather was shot right sort of here [shows a place in the lower stomach], and the testimony says that when Rakes pulled the gun on him, he didn’t have a gun in his hand, and his hands were actually going up and he shot him. Forrest started towards him, and Rakes shot him pretty quickly, and then was going to shoot Howard, but another deputy knocked his arm down, because he was starting to assassinate everybody. So you take clues like that. We think we know some of what was said between them, and I’ve incorporated them, but there are a lot of other things that were clearly said at the time and minor actions that I had to create.
The biggest thing to create was, how did the three of them, the brothers, come to be there at that bridge with these cars full of liquor, with a deputy and all of these other officers who had blocked it--this was a normal route for them out of the county--and Charlie Rakes was there waiting. Clearly there was a huge animosity between them, and Charlie Rakes clearly wanted to kill him. How did that come to be? Nobody knows the real truth to how that came to be, but what are the things we do know? Well we know, for example, that the Bondurants were a known group, they were notorious, people were apparently afraid of them. Rakes was a deputy; he was one of the guys involved in this racketeering scheme, which involved taking bribes or what they call “granny fees.” So why would he be upset with these Bondurants so much? Well because they would cooperate, so that’s the information that we have on how that actually went down.
One of the opening scenes in the book, and it’s early in the film, when he comes to the gas station and he basically says, “This is the new deputy,” that’s completely fabricated. I have to introduce them at some point. Of course in the book, the special deputy is actually a guy name Jefferson Richards, he and Charlie Rakes are partners, so in the book the two of them operate together, and Charlie Rakes is the one of course that’s more volatile and gets more upset, so in a way what they did in the film is they condensed these two guys and then made them from Chicago, and then had Guy Pearce just turn him into this complete freak. [Laughs]
Capone: He was bizarre. How are these people, these family members, looked at within your family structure through the generations? Are they proud of those stories? Are they a little embarrassed by them? Growing up, how were they introduced to you?
MB: They weren’t, that’s the thing. These stories were not talked about. I didn’t learn about the shooting. Most of the events were completely unknown, and I discovered through research. Well they were known, but people weren’t telling. My own father didn’t know these things, and he didn’t know for example that his father had been shot. My grandfather was still alive at the time--he lived to be 91--and a year or two before he died, we started finding all of this stuff. My dad asked him, “You got shot at this bridge? What was going on here?” And my grandfather was like “Oh yeah,” and he showed the bullet hole
But there are no real stories. They’re not a storytelling people, much the way they are depicted in the book and then to some degree in the film, like Forrest is really a man of few words, stoicism, that’s kind of the way the Bondurants operate. But also these were things you didn’t talk about, and still to this day, you don’t really talk openly about moonshine. I’m sure there was some level of “It’s impolite to air dirty laundry”--our criminal past--but I think mostly there’s the long-standing tradition where you don’t talk about these kinds of things
I had a general knowledge that my grandfather was involved in moonshine, when I was a teenager, but I thought he was just a guy that maybe had a still and made some here and there; I didn’t know. Then Forrest though, in my young 20s, I think my father told me the story about the throat cutting, but that was something that was well-known, that was more of a legend of the county almost where people knew about that one. But Forrest also, the rest of his life was a hard-case. He was a known tough guy. My dad knew him and remembered him as a young boy, and Forrest was always involved in sketchy things.
This restaurant that he owned always had stuff happening there, and he lived with this woman, Maggie, nobody really knew who she was, and she was kind of a mysterious person, and they never had children. They lived a very strange, unconventional life for those days. We found out later after he died that they were secretly married. So he had some legendary things going on, I’d say a medium-level legend status, but when I uncovered the rest of the stuff, like for example him getting shot, and then in the book later on this rival drops a load of lumber on him, which happened in real life and crushed most of the bones in his body, he survived that too.
Capone: Did any of the research you did involve going through family documents or memorabilia? It doesn’t sound like there was a whole lot available.
MB: There wasn’t and unfortunately there’s no real family documents. There are no letters, no memoirs, no journals, nothing like that. We had a few pictures, and that helped to a great degree. It helped form not only character but also even situation. For example, there are two pictures of Jack at that time, and in both of them, he’s sitting on his car, which is all decked out, and he’s got the hat and he’s got a cigar in his teeth--he’s trying to look tough. He’s got his gloves on and a long coat and he's trying to look like a gangster figure, and that helped me create the character, and also knowing my grandfather and how he was, that he was a guy that wanted to be known, wanted to be seen as somebody dangerous, and exciting and wealthy--the same kind of stuff that most 18-year-old boys want today. They want a car and they want the girl and they want money.
Then there’s a picture of my grandmother in a pair of overalls and clearly a man’s floppy hat, and behind her you can see a large summer eden-style still--this very big still. And she’s smiling and walking toward the camera. So she was clearly at the still, and in 1930, this was right when they were courting and about to get married at the end of that year, so this is right at that period. So I created the scene where Jack takes her to the still, and then from there, it’s this “What i…f” game that you play as a fiction writer. “What would happen if he did that? Well things are going to go bad, it’s going to get them in trouble.” So that’s how small bits of historical record can inform and blossom.
Capone: Does having certain touchstones that you want to include in your book make it easier or more difficult to write? If you are working within parameters, sometimes having those restrictions makes it a little easier, because you know you have to keep it within a certain framework.
MB: Right, and I knew where it was going. I knew that it was going to go to the bridge. So yeah, in a way having the touchstones and connecting them together was easier. There were parts of the story that were basically handed to me in a way that normally aren’t handed to you as a fiction writer.
On another hand, trying to match things up and then all of the decision making that goes into it, when I’m trying to create the scene and I’m trying to stay true to the records as best as possible, then it becomes either unwieldy or incongruous or disrupts the chain of plausibility. I have to sort of account for these things to lead up to that point, whereas if it was just my own complete fabrication I wouldn’t have to worry about that. So that was all out of management and decision making that was difficult times too. I can’t really say that it was easier than the other two novels that I have written; I think it was about the same. It was easier in some respects, but more difficult in others.
Capone: So tell me about Hollywood coming to call, or I guess it was this Australian coming to call. What was that experience like?
MB: It was very cool, but it was happening mostly at a distance, with agents calling me and saying “People are interested.” We started shopping it around, and sold it before the book came out actually. I forget how much time passed before Hillcoat and Cave and Shia Labeouf signed on, but it was pretty quickly. My first assumption was “That’s great, but it’s never going to be made,” just because that’s what happens the vast majority of the time, and then when they get attached though it’s like, “Oh, that’s pretty exciting. That’s pretty good.”
But then it went into turnaround, and they were involved with it and then other actors were attached at different points, including Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Gosling and various people. They would come and they’d go and they’d drop. Then Colombia Pictures actually dropped it, and it went into turnaround and then all of these other companies and some independent financiers picked it up, so it became an indie film at that point. So still at this point, I’m thinking, “Well this is not really going to happen, it’s just going to go back and forth and get tossed around like a lot of these things do, and it could go on forever. Then in 2010 when Tom Hardy got onboard…
Capone: Shia was always onboard?
MB: Yeah. He had wanted to do a piece like this and he liked the early cript that Nick Cave came up with, and I think everybody wanted to work with Hillcoat too, because people were really excited to work with him. So Hardy signs on, and it seems like a snowball effect at that point, everybody jumped on board. So that was really exciting, but you still think it’s not really going to be made until money is being spent. It wasn’t really until I went down to set to visit with my father for a couple of days to watch the filming that it really struck me. It was like “Wow, this is actually happening,” because they built all of these sets, and there’s Tom Hardy and these other people walking around playing the characters. That was when it struck me, “Okay, this is really happening.” It was a very surreal experience.
Capone: When you hear that Nick Cave is writing this, and he’s worked with John before, do you find yourself distancing yourself from the material a little, so that it doesn’t bother you too much when you start to see the drastic changes? I mean he took out the whole storytelling element of the newspaper reporter, right?
MB: Sherwood Anderson, yeah. They take all of that out. Yes, and I think I started mentally preparing for that right when we sold the rights, just in case that they did make it, I had to start thinking about it as not mine. It could be something awful they could have made; anything could have happened. They could have changed it really radically. So yes, I was trying to do that and I was able to do that to some degree. Watching it the first time was kind of tricky, but it got better the second time and third time when I could relax and remember that distance: “This is somebody else’s vision based on my book.”
Capone: You kept telling yourself “Hopefully this will drive people to the book. This movie will make people want to read the book.”
MB: Of course. [Laughs] That’s why I’m here, man. This is why I traveling around doing this. I mean it’s a lot of fun obviously, but yeah I’m hoping it does bring people to the book and I hope it brings people to my new book that just came out in January, THE NIGHT SWIMMER, which is kind of getting lost in he shuffle here, but that’s a good problem to have. But I’m hoping that it does draw more attention to the books.
Capone: Did you familiarize yourself with Hillcoat’s work?
MB: Yeah. I knew THE ROAD and I loved it, so I was really excited from the very beginning, and then when I saw THE PROPOSITION I was even more excited, because I was like, “Okay, this guy can definitely do it,” and I wasn’t aware that Nick Cave did screenplays at the time, but I was familiar with him as a musical artist. So from the very beginning I was very excited about those choices with director and writer.
Capone: You said that going to the set was weird, seeing it all coming together, but thinking more along the lines of seeing the time and the place brought to life…
MB: It was very impressive. My father was very impressed with it, and the level of detail they went to replicate it was fantastic. They had a car there that was the same car that my dad learned how to drive on, this little Model A. It was really astonishing. They built the whole Bondurant filling stattion building and they used it for a lot of scenes and a lot of interiors and everything,. They built that, and inside there were rooms. It was all a big functioning building, and they had all of these people climbing all over it of course and all of this equipment. I remember just feeling unworthy of it, like, “Wow, this is a lot of expense and time and money and people’s lives and jobs. Are you sure you want to do this?” So I felt really humbled by it, like “Wow, I’m a very fortunate person that all of this trouble is going on. I mean to think that people were willing to spend this time and money and everything else on a story based on my story.”
Capone: Yeah, it certainly doesn’t feel like an indie film. It feels like a film with a sizable budget.
MB: I think the way that they trimmed it down helped. In the book, there are a lot more scenes that take place at night and also in the snow, for example. When I talked to John about that, like “How come there's not more snow.” He’s like [rubbing his fingers together] “Money,” because night is obviously more expensive and then of course making snow…
Capone: I can imagine. With the title changing a couple of times, was that a little disheartening since it doesn’t have the same title as the book?
MB: It wasn’t really. I think from the very beginning, I felt personally before anybody said anything about it, I thought THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD was kind of a weird title for a movie.
Capone: It doesn’t really fit on the marquee comfortably.
MB: Yeah, I think it’s a great novel title, but for a film it just seems strange. Then they started going with WETTEST COUNTY, I would have been happy with it of course, but I didn’t think that was particularly a good title either. So I was anticipating a change.
Capone: Have your other books sold for possible films?
MB: No. My first book came out in 2005, and it was shopped around. It was an international best seller and sold a lot of copies, but I think it’s a little bit unwieldy and strange. The third book is still being shopped around, and of course the agents feel confident, as they always do.
Capone: Do you still have family in Franklin County?
MB: Oh yeah, lots.
Capone: How often do you get down there?
MB: I only get down there about once or twice a year these days, because I live in Texas.
Capone: How are you received down there now that you have exposed the secrets of the region.
MB: I’m received pretty well. I did a reading down there for the book at the Franklin County Historical Society, and they had 50 books available, and we sold 150, and there were about 200 people there. I had to stand out in the porch and do a talk. So fortunately, there’s the buffer of distance in that everybody is deceased, and so most people feel interested and excited about it, and Franklin County has a little burgeoning tourist industry going on, on it’s moonshining past, and a lot of people there are really excited about that, and a lot of people there are really excited about the way this movie is going to help that. I’m happy that that’s happening.
Capone: I can see why. Well I’ll see you later. It was great talking to you.