Desolation Road — Interview with John Hillcoat + post-apocalypse sidebar
Even within the pantheon of post-apocalyptic fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, is bleak. The book’s heroes are an unnamed father and son, both perpetually verging on death in an inhospitable America. An unexplained disaster has drained the colour from the sky and left a coating of ash over the ground, transforming the landscape into greyscale. Derelict buildings and lifeless forests serve as pale reminders of the way things used to be. The book’s villain is not some contrived cult or band of malevolent mutants, but hunger and the lengths to which men will go to stave off starvation.
Even McCarthy’s prose is stripped of any embellishment. Entire pages pass without an unnecessary flourish, not even so much as a comma. The starkness of the language seems essential to the story, bringing a poetry to long stretches that consist of little more than hunger and endless hiking. How the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 is obvious; still, it doesn’t seem like obvious fodder for multiplexes.
Although the Coen brothers have proven that McCarthy’s books could succeed both critically and commercially with their Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men, it’s understandable that director John Hillcoat had trepidations about filming The Road. Even beyond capturing the author’s singular voice, there was the issue of doing something new in a post-apocalyptic world, a genre with well-established trappings.
“When [The Road’s producer] Nick Wexler said, ‘I’m sending you McCarthy’s new book, unpublished,’ I got really excited,” Hillcoat recalls. “Then when he said, ‘It’s an apocalyptic story about a father and son,’ my heart actually sank, because, for me, the apocalyptic genre has got such a preconceived idea, and I’ve got the same baggage most people have when you say that. And then I realized when I read the book, of course, it immediately turned that on its head.”
As Hillcoat explains, McCarthy’s decision to skip over the actual apocalyptic event kept the book from bogging down in genre conventions. The Road, both in film and book form, is concerned with the human aftermath, not big explosions and the end of the world.
“I realized, actually, that’s the thing about apocalyptic genre that I don’t like — or I can appreciate it in a different way, but it’s not my kind of thing — is the event becomes so much what it’s all about that it overrides even the human characters,” he explains. “It becomes such a spectacle, such a roller-coaster ride, that you don’t even have a human connection to it. It’s more like a fantasy film.”
Hillcoat’s film is no roller-coaster, but it is a spectacle in its own way. The director realized that without McCarthy’s language to carry the story, the weight of the film would fall on the visuals. Rather than rely on computer wizardry to create the devastated landscapes that Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee wander through, Hillcoat chose to film in real-world locations that had undergone their own small-scale apocalypses. Coal fields and a burnt-down amusement park in Pennsylvania and the slopes of Mount St. Helens required only minor digital tweaking to suit the director’s vision, and one of the film’s most impressive shots came from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“There’s an image of two ships sitting on a freeway, and that, literally, is all real,” Hillcoat says. “The only thing we did is blend it into our world, which meant no blue sky, so we replaced the sky and replaced some of the colour. But the actual objects and everything in that frame is real. Reality sometimes outstrips fiction. There was just such an authenticity and reality to the book, and it was so vast, we had to really go to those examples. Otherwise, it would be back in that post-apocalyptic world that I’ve seen enough of.”
The director’s aversion to post-apocalyptic fiction likely stems from the genre’s ties to Australia. Though he spent his childhood in Hamilton, Ont., Hillcoat was born in Queensland, Australia, and he has directed three feature-length films in his home country, including the Nick Cave-scripted western The Proposition. It’s only natural that the director wanted to distance himself from the conventions of a genre that was codified three decades ago by his countryman George Miller in the muscle-car-and-studded-leather classic Mad Max.
“At the time, Mad Max was extraordinary, but it was more a samurai film,” Hillcoat says. “It was an adventure film — it was more pure genre. This kind of takes the genre in a different place. In [McCarthy’s] book, there was an army of people with chains, including slaves and masks and boiler suits that we actually chose not to go to, because of Mad Max. We tried to just ground it more in reality, but I think ultimately, that was the spirit of the book as well.”
For inspiration, Hillcoat instead turned to films like John Ford’s dust-bowl parable The Grapes of Wrath and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, set in post-Second World War Italy. While neither film’s setting is quite as dramatic as The Road’s wasteland, their focus on family relationships is closer to the heart of McCarthy’s novel than any adventure story could be.
“For Cormac, he said it’s a book about human goodness,” the director recalls. “It’s really about what we take for granted — it’s a wake-up call to say how special and fragile things are, and under pressure you get to see what we’re really made of.”
“The thing I’m most happy about is that Cormac himself loved it,” he continues. “When he saw the film, he felt there was nothing missing from the book for him…. He felt we picked the essence.”
John Hillcoat may want to distance himself from the big screen’s post-apocalyptic tradition, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Here’s a brief introduction to some classic (and not-so-classic) cinematic wastelands.
On the Beach (1959) — Even in the ’50s, Armageddon always seems to happen in Australia. In this adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins face the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Planet of the Apes (1968) — Even with the cheesy costumes and Charlton Heston’s teeth-gritting overacting, the original is still worlds better than Tim Burton’s 2001 remake.
A Boy and His Dog (1975) —One of the strangest post-apocalyptic films out there stars a young Don Johnson and his telepathic dog, and the plot revolves around an underground sect that wants the virile Johnson to impregnate their women.
Mad Max (1979) — Before The Passion of the Christ, before the buddy-cop comedies, even before the sex symbol status, Mel Gibson was Max, just a humble cop avenging his family’s murder. Followed by The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, with a fourth film rumoured for a 2011 release.
The Quiet Earth (1985) — Zac Hobson awakens to find that the rest of the world has disappeared. One of the better last-man-on-Earth movies out there (see also: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007), all based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend).
Doomsday (2008) — After a deadly virus forces the entirety of Scotland to be quarantined, the populace quickly embraces feudalism and cannibalism. Blatantly rips off everything from Mad Max to Escape from New York and Aliens, and has a lot of trashy fun in the process.