Hillcoat secures his own future
Director John Hillcoat tells Evan Fanning how he struggled to adapt the work of one of the greatest living novelists
John Hillcoat is a man in demand. I'm sitting waiting for him in a plush Mayfair hotel while he takes an important call. He joins me in a flurry of apologies but, as soon he hears my accent, he is immediately distracted. "That reminds me," he says. "I must get back to the Cork Film Festival."
It hasn't always been this way, but then the 48-year-old Australian Hillcoat hasn't always had a film like The Road to talk about, to tour with, and ultimately to bring the weight of expectation down on his shoulders.
Adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel can never be the easiest process but The Road seems like a particularly difficult undertaking. It was a project Hillcoat got involved with prior to the book's release in 2006. When McCarthy's post-apocalyptic vision of one man and his son's struggle to survive hit the shelves and started winning all sorts of prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it formed a knot in Hillcoat's stomach. "I think any book that strikes a chord with people then they are very protective of it. It's a hell of a hurdle to overcome."
The success of the Coen brothers' 2007 adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men -- it won four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director -- tightened that knot. As the awards and praise rolled in for the Coen adaptation, friends and colleagues would ring Hillcoat eager to relay news they thought could only benefit his fledgling film. "Every phone call of excitement I just thought, 'Oh Jesus'."
He also wasn't helped by the fact that The Road had its release put back from its original date of November 2008, a development which caused internet rumours to suggest that the project was struggling and shambolic.
"There was a hell of a lot of pressure on that front with eager fans waiting," Hillcoat says. "You are immediately putting yourself in their gunsights and it was an unrealistic schedule last year. It was over-ambitious. That release date was ridiculous. The way that was interpreted, because of all the fans out there, means there's all this negative expectation surrounding it."
As it turns out, the novel's hardcore fans have nothing to worry about. The Road is as faithful an adaptation as you can imagine, and a startling piece of work in its own right, bringing to life all the fear and dread of McCarthy's words with the loving and heartbreaking relationship between a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his 11-year-old son (played by star in the making Kodi Smit-McPhee). The film also stars other Hollywood luminaries such as Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pearce.
Hardcore fans and the weight of expectation were only part of Hillcoat's concern, however. There was also the notoriously reclusive McCarthy. The very prospect of transferring his words to the screen would fill anyone with apprehension.
"I talked to Joe [Penhall, the film's screenwriter] and we said that we would not get intimidated. We refused to be intimidated by McCarthy's legacy. Then, when I finally got to speak to McCarthy he really helped relieve me of that responsibility. He was fantastic in that."
So how does one of the world's greatest living novelists go about reassuring a director making just his fourth feature film in 20 years that he is going to do a good job?
"He never asked to see a script," Hillcoat says. "He just said: 'Look, you've got to do
your own thing. I'm here. I'm happy to answer any questions, anything you want to ask. I won't necessarily give you an answer but by all means put it forward on the table.'"
McCarthy, he felt, understood the problems Hillcoat might be having and fully realised the difference in medium between a novel and a screenplay. "He revealed that No Country for Old Men was originally a screenplay and he couldn't get it made anywhere. Years later he turned it into a novel so he was basically saying 'I'm not going to be looking over your shoulder'. He released the pressure valve a bit."
Hillcoat's career began in fine art and has largely been occupied making music videos for the likes of Siouxsie & the Banshees, Manic Street Preachers, Bush, Placebo, Suede, Depeche Mode, Muse, as well as with his close friend and long-time collaborative partner, Nick Cave, who composed the film's score. Cave's recent novel, The Curse of Bunny Munro, was originally written as a screenplay for Hillcoat, but because he was occupied with The Road, Cave turned it into a novel.
As a result of his father being a medical research student, Hillcoat's early life involved a lot of travelling. Born in Australia, he spent a third of his life there, a third in North America, and a third in the UK, where he currently lives in Brighton with his wife, photographer Polly Borland, and their eight-year-old son, Louie. "He was a student with four kids. Can you imagine that these days?" Hillcoat says.
While in the US, his parents were also involved in the civil rights movement. Hillcoat remembers their devastation after Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. "If you were there in America when all that stuff was happening you really believed in it. There was a cultural revolution but they really believed it was going to transform the entire society, until their leaders were assassinated."
If there is a theme running through Hillcoat's work it is of man struggling against the consequences of violence, be it the literal conflict of his previous film, the masterful Australian western The Proposition, or the constant unseen physical menace in The Road.
"I'm interested in violence in a realistic sense in terms of the consequences, and also how people react when they are pushed to that extreme. Unfortunately, I've seen violence and I think in films it is the dramatic extremity of it."
The violence he has seen, he says, "is nothing compared with what many people live through", but dates back to his parents' activism. "I remember some of the riots and the protests and at one point we were going to evacuate because the police had moved into the neighbourhood and they were firing guns in the street.
"There's that and there's also seeing Robert Kennedy's assassination on television and absorbing the shock and horror from my parents' point of view. They were devastated."
"Also I was attacked once in Melbourne and had my jaw broken in a couple of places. It was actually on Christmas Eve and it was completely random. They never found the people. Ironically it was when I was working on Ghosts of the Civil Dead [Hillcoat's 1988 debut feature which he co-wrote with Nick Cave] so I had my jaw wired shut when I was talking to Nick about a script about convicts."
The Road is certainly about violence, or at least about a father's attempt to protect his son from the leftovers of an unspecified global disaster. It's a dramatic masterpiece as well as a true triumph of filmmaking as Hillcoat presents a grey and barren world so grim it is almost excruciating to watch at times.
McCarthy's novel, Hillcoat says, "affected me in such a profound way and it took me by surprise. I had no idea it would have that kind of emotional resonance. It's an incredibly simple story. The more you play up [the disaster which has taken place] the more you subtract from the father-son relationship and that's really where the heart and soul of the book is."
Quite by accident, three days later I am back in the same hotel where I met Hillcoat and across the lobby I spot him with his wife and son. He is helping his child put his backpack over his shoulder and is carrying some toys. Despite the salubrious surroundings of a Mayfair hotel it is impossible not to see the parallels with the movie. I sit and watch for a minute and understand why the book had such a profound effect on Hillcoat.
It's a movie that should move Hillcoat much more into the mainstream. It's hard to imagine him making just four films in the next 20 years. Before I leave him to the many other people vying for his attention he gives me one nugget of information from his conversations with McCarthy, what it was that caused the disaster in his novel. "I shouldn't give this away, but I finally got it out of him that he thought it was probably a comet."
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