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John Hillcoat

Q&A with the director of The Road

By Lee Gardner | Posted 11/25/2009

Australian director John Hillcoat won the hearts of hard-bitten Western fans everywhere with his 2005 cult hit The Proposition, based on a Nick Cave script full of vengeance and filth in the dusty outback. For his next project, Hillcoat wound up with the job of bringing to the screen a then-unpublished new book by a still relatively obscure American novelist named Cormac McCarthy. The best-selling breakout of McCarthy’s The Road, and the box office, critical, and award-season success of a subsequent McCarthy screen adaptation, No Country for Old Men, suddenly transformed Hillcoat’s follow-up into a high-profile project. The story of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his unnamed 11-year-old son (newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) traversing a post-apocalyptic waste, looking for food, and avoiding cannibal gangs, wasn’t necessarily a Hollywood no-brainer, though. When releasing studio Dimension Films bumped Hillcoat’s The Road from the Oscar-bait fall line-up in 2008, it didn’t bode well for its fortunes; a trailer released this past summer that appeared to be hyping an action-thriller rather than McCarthy’s brooding tale, didn’t either. But The Road managed its voyage to the screen surprisingly intact, now that it’s finally arrived, with McCarthy’s terse narrative, Hillcoat’s vision, and Mortensen and Smit-McPhee’s intimate performances complementing each other well. The affable Hillcoat recently sat down to chat by phone about the book, the movie, how they differ, and how those expecting a grim experience get it all wrong. (Lee Gardner)

City Paper: Which was tougher to bring to life properly, Nick Cave or Cormac McCarthy?
John Hillcoat: The thing about McCarthy is, his legacy is that the fans are so fanatical. And I understand, when a book strikes a chord like that, every rifle will be aimed at you. I think that was a tougher task. Plus, Nick I’ve known since I was a teenager and we’ve collaborated endlessly, so there’s an advantage there.

Certainly the trajectory of what happened with The Road and No Country, that created a lot of expectations, which, you know, in some senses one can never fulfill.

CP: The film’s numerous delayed release dates and a trailer released earlier this year that bore little resemblance to the book or your film have become a side story all their own, and then there were the creative challenges of the making the film itself. Did you expect to have something of a hard time with this project when you took it on?
JH: I was focused on my own emotional reaction to it, when I read it. I got it before it was published, otherwise I wouldn’t be having this conversation. Once I embarked on it, of course, I was feeling pretty terrified [about] adapting McCarthy, but I also didn’t want to be intimidated by that or distracted by that. Likewise, [screenwriter] Joe Penhall, who was adapting the book, one of the first conversations we had was agreeing to do that. And then it got published and went on to do what it did. And all the more so, I had to keep my blinkers on so I wouldn’t get tripped up. ’Cause [the hoopla is] something no one can control or influence.

CP: Charlize Theron appears in the film in a role that was all but non-existent in the novel, namely the man’s wife, who’s no longer around during the main action of the story. Why did you expand that character for the film? I have my own idea, but I’d like to hear yours.
JH: There are two things. I wanted to get the sense of the loss of her, what the man—and the boy—had to carry throughout [the story]. The memory [of her], I thought, needed to be more present. Also, I thought she needed to be expanded enough to present a solid rationale for her decision. So yeah, it was for two reasons—to remind us of the world that has been lost, and how precious those brief moments are and how often we take those for granted, and then, jumping ahead into everyone’s worst nightmare, she comes up with one hell of an argument that is pretty tough, but . . . the goal was to make her empathetic.

What was your interpretation, then?

CP: Bringing her in more, with her view of the situation and what she eventually does, sets up a dynamic where she’s wholly of the old world, before the catastrophe, and unable or unwilling to face the new world, whereas the boy is wholly of the new, having known nothing else and being better adapted to it than even his father realizes. And the father is of the old world, but he’s sort of the bridge between the two, staying alive to keep his son alive despite his painful memories of what he’s lost.
JH: Yes. Yeah. They’re from three very different positions, and I think each position . . . you needed [each] to understand each position basically.

CP: Did you rehearse this material much?
JH: The rehearsal period became more about me, the writer, Viggo, and Kodi going through the script and talking at length about every scene and the meaning of every conversation and relating it to their own experiences, finding connections that they could then explore and tap into, because it’s such an emotional, nuanced thing. And I showed them loads of visual references and pictures of the locations and where the journey was going to happen and, visually, how it was going to unfold, and we all mutually agreed to save the actual physical and the huge emotional outpouring of all this stuff for when we were in those actual locations. So it was to do all the stuff and talk about all the stuff and explore all the stuff we wouldn’t have time for on a set, especially out on location. We wanted to keep it as fresh and real as possible.

And also, those locations . . . [the film is] 80 percent exterior and 15 locations, and there’s a huge reality to those locations they were in. They were able to work with them like a third actor. It’s like a three-hander—you know, Kodi, Viggo, and the landscapes.

CP: I have to say that I wasn’t expecting it to feel like such a positive story on screen. I have two young sons and found reading the book to be a very anxious experience. Did the material you were working with ever freak you out?
JH: But then you end up hugging your sons instead of freaked out. Well, probably a bit of both. [laughs] I have a beautiful 8-year-old boy, and actually, to me it’s the opposite. I personally found it so moving, in the positive sense, rediscovering how much you can learn from your own child. Cause it’s the child that ends up saving the man, not the other way around. The man starts out to save the child, to always be protecting him, but in the end to his detriment. I took so much from it, life lessons, in a very positive way. To me, it made me focus on what’s important.

CP: Are you worried that people might come into it expecting something more grim and come out baffled by its relatively positive trajectory, or somehow suspecting studio tampering? I mean, the book has a happy ending, but . . .
JH: It’s actually very faithful to the book. Ninety percent of the dialog is just straight verbatim, edited down. There’s very little invented, and the main outcomes and turning points are all there. It’s such a personal book—it’s McCarthy’s first real love story. He has a young son who calls him “Papa,” and that’s where it came from. And because of that connection, when you embody that world and see these actors actually take on these lines, there’s a humanity there that was always in the book, but instead of bouncing around in your head, you’re actually witnessing it with other people living that. Maybe that’s what gives it a little more . . . lifts it, in some way. And yet I think, essentially, that’s all there in the book.

I think what you’re talking about is the people who focus on the backdrop as opposed to . . . even Cormac says, this is a book about human goodness. That’s Cormac’s words. He understands what he wrote. Cormac’s also unflinching and doesn’t shy away from the darkest elements of humanity under pressure. It’s a massive projection of our worst fears as a human race, which is the apocalypse, or our worst fears, personally, which is our own mortality. If you focus on the base nature of humanity, that was all just there in order to highlight this love story, and make that bit of hope, and make that ending and that leap of faith all the more special. And that’s what Cormac was doing. And I would argue that for those people, they actually misinterpreted the book. I know this because I’ve spent so much time now with McCarthy, and I know what he was aiming at.

Do you know what I mean? I’m getting a little defensive, because . . . the people who don’t know the book, when they hear about it, they jump to the bleakness, you know.

CP: So, having made The Proposition and The Road, it seems you’re duty-bound and well prepared to next adapt McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
JH: The problem with Blood Meridian is that, right now . . . the book is all about fear, which closes off possibilities, and the first stages of fear are defensiveness and overreaction. The economic downturn is only a sidebar, because of modern technology . . . basically what’s happened in the music business has now hit the film business, only because of the economics, it’s 10 times worse. What that means is an overreaction, and that means anything like Blood Meridian is just 100 percent off limits. Even Spielberg would have zero chance of making that film now, even if he wanted to.

However, I predict in 18 months time there’s going to be all these people out there that want more than a 3-D brand, and those people are going to be so hungry in 18 months time for anything but a 3-D brand, that maybe that’s going to be the moment.

CP: So what are you working on next?
JH: Well, Nick Cave’s written me another great script that’s based on a book in a genre I love, the gangster movie. It’s like a rural Goodfellas set in the backwoods of West Virginia. So, we’ll see. It’s weird times out there. But I am itching, after The Road, to make something with color and energy. [laughs]

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