On the road
From a tale in which some only saw desperate bleakness, Australian director John Hillcoat saw a powerful love story that inspired him to take on Cormac McCarthy’s best selling novel and turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster - which, he tells Paul Whitington, isn’t all dark
At several points during my interview with Australian director John Hillcoat, and almost on cue, his young son wanders in to wonder aloud how much longer his dad will be detained by this tiresome business.
And, as Hillcoat points out, his interjections are most appropriate when you consider that the film we are discussing is centred on the remarkable relationship between a father and his son.
In The Road, which is based on Cormac McCarthy's bestselling 2006 novel, Viggo Mortensen plays an unnamed man who wanders the devastated eastern seaboard of the United States in the aftermath of an unspecified disaster, trying to protect his young son from the horrible consequences of a total social breakdown. Nature has been decimated and gangs of cannibals stalk the sunless landscape as the father and his boy struggle south towards the sea. Hillcoat does a wonderful job of bringing McCarthy's grey and colourless post-apocalyptic world to the screen, and even succeeds in retaining the novel's bleak beauty. But, as he explains, it's an opportunity he could all too easily have missed.
"I knew Cormac's work well," he tells me, "and was a big fan of his writing -- I'd even tried to get the rights to his novel Blood Meridian way back." And when Hillcoat released his acclaimed 2005 Australian western The Proposition, McCarthy noticed his work too. Which is why Hillcoat got to read The Road just before it was published.
"I was sent the unpublished manuscript," he explains, "and if I hadn't, I would never have got to make it -- there would have been a queue of far better-known directors in front of me. Once it came out it became a huge bestseller and got rave reviews, and went on to win the Pulitzer, and then came the Coen brothers and No Country for Old Men. The trajectory was extraordinary, but by then we'd committed to doing it."
Others might have been put off by the sheer bleakness of McCarthy's story and the daunting prospect of visualising its gloomy world, but Hillcoat was inspired.
"The power of that emotional story, the love story between the father and son, just floored me -- I couldn't get it out of my head. So, as daunting as it was, I thought, 'well, it's better to jump off a cliff and to be able to work with such amazing material than to turn your back on it'."
English playwright Joe Penhall handled what Hillcoat describes as "a tricky adaptation".
"It was all about not getting seduced or bamboozled by the poetry and by what is specific to literature. And yet Cormac's writing is full of startling images and beautiful dialogue and deceptively simple stories that resonate on multiple levels. So when you're attacking the story, you have to make sure that somehow you get those other levels."
For Hillcoat, the challenge was to faithfully render McCarthy's ethereally beautiful descriptions of an ugly, brutal world, and from the start the director was determined to avoid CGI as much as possible. "To me, the relationship between the man and the boy is so nuanced and intimate that if the world they wander through is not believable, or is a CGI world, the whole thing will fall to pieces. So we tried to get everything in camera, and CGI was really just the last resort."
This approach meant that finding the right locations became key to the film's success. "My production designer, Chris Kennedy, has done all of my films," says Hillcoat, "and has a very keen eye for detail. And so me and him set off on what we called the post-Apocalypse Now tour of America. On a practical level, we looked at the states that had the best tax breaks for filming, but also at the ones that had the best post-apocalyptic locations. There was Pennsylvania, with all the leftovers of the mining industry, and some rundown parts of Pittsburgh, New Orleans because of what happened there, and of course we found the abandoned freeway -- the Pennsylvania Turnpike."
Hillcoat explains that on a more general level, homeless people were a constant reference point for the film's look. "We started looking at the homeless, their possessions and their shopping carts, and the way their clothes wear from constant exposure to the elements." The result of all this is a film drained of colour, all muted browns and greys, and in creating this post-apocalyptic look, good weather was a constant worry.
"The worst thing that could happen to us was the sun coming out! Overcast skies were great, because you were trying to create a world without sun, with low contrasts and a kind of constant haze. So a blue sky was very alarming. To do the close-ups we would block out the sun, and then we would have to shoot the wider shots either first thing at dawn, or at dusk."
Viggo Mortensen's extraordinarily intense performance dominates the finished film. He was always Hillcoat and producer Nick Wechsler's first choice, but for a time it was touch and go as to whether they were going to get him. "Viggo was going from film to film to film at that time, and when he wasn't shooting he was doing non-stop junkets, so it was very hard to get him to read the material. He'd actually said to his agent, 'that's it, I want a break', and they said, 'well, you've got to read this', and he'd say, 'no I can't'."
In fact, there were even rumours that Mortensen was planning to retire from acting altogether.
"I think those rumours surface when people get really fried and need a break, and then as soon as they've had a break they can feel the creative juices start to flow again. Actors that take on big, heavy roles like this can get very emotionally drained. But when Viggo eventually read the story he realised it was very special. He also realised that the exhaustion he was feeling would help him with the role."
Once committed, Mortensen gave his all to the project, and brought some pretty extreme method techniques to the party. "Viggo used the cold and the grime to make himself more vulnerable and raw," says Hillcoat. "He would get the special effects department to hose him down with cold water, you know, in the middle of winter, and he was sleeping in this wardrobe and he was starving himself, and I knew that was one of the reasons we'd wanted him because he's one of those actors whom, once committed, will not hold back.
"Obviously, with a role like this there was really nowhere to hide, and he had absolutely no vanity about what he was being asked to do. But of course his partnership with the boy is really the essential element in the film, and we were very lucky there as well."
Thirteen-year-old Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee came to the project relatively late in the day. "I'd seen hundreds of boys in America and Canada and had a shortlist and hadn't even thought to look back in Australia, when some friends of mine tipped me off about Kodi. I thought the accent might be a problem, but I'd forgotten that Australians are very adept at picking up accents, so with Kodi we didn't even need a dialogue coach, he just got it straight away. He was terrific."
Cormac McCarthy was very supportive of the film. "He never asked to see the script," says Hillcoat, "though we would never volunteer it either! And yet he was always available for advice and conversation." And the author was apparently very happy with the finished result, though Hillcoat admits, "there was a moment where we got worried and thought we'd blown it all because he disappeared out of the screening for 20 minutes, so that was nervewracking -- but then he came back and he loved it and we had a seven-hour lunch."
The film has been mentioned in terms of Oscar nominations, but Hillcoat doesn't hold out much hope. "I do fear that there's a real push to go with more overtly popular films for the awards season this year." But he doesn't agree that his film is necessarily depressing. "I actually think there's incredible heart in The Road. I mean, primarily it was always a love story, so for me the positive far outweighs the bleaker aspects. Anyway, for me, the really depressing movies are the bad ones."
The Road opens nationwide today