Transcript: John Hillcoat interview, The Road

I guess it’s a good enough time to publish the rest of my interview with The Road director John Hillcoat. I had the good fortune to speak with him back in September at the Toronto film fest, which led to a cover feature in Fast Forward in November, but here’s the raw transcript, where Mr. Hillcoat talks about the film’s optimism, the trickier aspects of adaptation and why he wanted to avoid looking like Mad Max.

Had you read the book before you were approached to do the film?
I actually got the unpublished manuscript – that’s how it started. I don’ think I would have actually been able to make this film if I didn’t get it unpublished , because once it went on to the Pulitzer prize, I’m sure there would have been half a dozen other people on top of it. So I was very lucky in that sense.
I mean, Blood Meridian was a big influence on The Proposition, my last film, but yeah, it just, when I got the manuscript, it had a huge impact on me.

What was it that connected with you?
It was just the emotional love story. It was so poignant and heart-breaking. It had quite an impact.

Some people talk about it as being a very cinematic book, because of the setting. But plot-wise, there’s huge stretches of just hunger and foraging.
Which you can get away with in a novel. Novels have a different rhythm. You can’t get away with that kind of repetition in film.

Were you at all apprehensive about mapping that atmosphere to a film?
I was also, the idea of just two people on a journey that are in every scene — you’re just with a father and son from beginning to end, so that was a bit of a mental leap, how that was going to work cinematically and how you could keep that emotionally alive. In a book, you can go any place and it’s all in your head, and there’s the poetry of the language. It’s a different medium. But when you physicalize with film, you make it a physical… you become like this witness to… actual people embody those characters, and you witness them and under closer inspection in a way. It’s more laid bare, strangely.

In the book, there’s a great deal of ambiguity regarding both the origin of the Apocalypse and the background of the characters. How much of that did you fill in for yourself during the filming?
I found that one of the most simple and refreshing things about it, because when I heard — I love McCarthy’s work, but when I heard, when Nick Wexler, the producer, said I’m sending you McCarthy’s new book, unpublished, I got really excited. And then when he said “It’s an apocalyptic story about a father and son,” my heart actually sank, because, for me, apocalyptic genre has got such a pre-conceived 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. And one of the things that it did, which was quite ingenious and made it immediately authentic and placed you in the here and now and put the spotlight on the human relationship was simply not making a film all about the event. Because then 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 about what it’s all about that it overrides even the human characters. It becomes such a spectacle, such a roller-coaster ride that you don’t even have a human connection to it, in a way. It’s more like a fantasy film.

I take it you didn’t look to other post-apocalyptic films for inspiration?
Well, I ended up actually looking at films like The Bicycle Thieves, which is a father-and-son relationship thing where they’re really under pressure, and how did they behave as human beings. That kind of thing. And Grapes of Wrath came to mind. So it’s actually, and it also seemed really familiar, the world, the simple thing of a shopping cart with all your possessions, you know, that is the homeless living in every city. So, it just had a much more real kind of grounding, and it was more about America now and the world now than the future. I know that sounds a bit strange.

Some of the filming took place in New Orleans, Mt. St. Helens, some of the most devastated areas you could find. How did it affect the emotions to do the filming in that kind of environment?
Well, that made it more poignant and it also helped, particularly Viggo and Kodi, it really helped them really feel and absorb that extreme pressure and tap into that world. We act off it like you’d react off of another character, or another person, I mean. And I think for actors, that really helped. It made the whole crew, including all the cast, it gave it a poignancy that I think was a really positive force.

Specifically in New Orleans, timing-wise, how close was that to the actual hurricane?
Well, there’s even, we were lucky to find, I tracked down 70mm IMAX footage that was shot two days after Katrina hit. And there’s an image of two ships sitting on a freeway, and that, literally, is all real. 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 – other than those things I mentioned – is real. And then the shopping mall, the abandoned shopping mall, and there were several scenes where the only thing really was the sky, and we had to cut out some of the traffic and things like that in the background. So, in other words, it was still in the process of clean-up, so it ranged between late last year and 2 days after.

I remember seeing the shot of the ships and wondering how they could possibly have ended up on top of a road.
See, that’s the thing. Reality sometimes outstrips fiction. But I think 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. It’s too alienating. It’s like just a videogame, in a way, with all that CGI.

Plus, the tradition of Australian post-apocalyptic films isn’t exactly…
At the time, Mad Max was extraordinary, but it was more a samurai film, it was an adventure film. It was more pure genre. This kind of takes the genre in a different place. There were actually elements that — in the book, there was an army of people in chains, including slaves and masks, and boiler suits, and 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, so… And I was pleased to find out that a lot of people who have read the book felt [the film] was similar to the kinds of images they had go through their head.

The Man is pretty far removed from the typical movie hero ‑ he’s constantly considering killing his own child, for one thing, even if it is for valid reasons. Is it hard to take a character like that and make them sympathetic on the screen?
I think the key is, I mean, Viggo was really emotionally throws himself into this stuff, and I think the key is to understand the pressures that he’s in. Actually, it’s the kid that teaches the man. As the man, we all… I think fear is a big part of our world, there’s a lot of fear out there at the moment, and I think it shuts off doors, and that’s what we witness is, under pressure, people start to shut down and their moral compass can start to sway. And we see that, but I think because we see it as a gradual thing, I think it’s a way of understanding why he’s doing that. In a way, if you put yourself in his shoes, which I think happens, then you can accept it. But the boy is, you know, it’s a love story and he really is doing it out of love. He’s doing it with the best intentions, and I think that’s the difference. And admittedly, that starts to be counter-productive, but then he learns from the boy. The boy picks him up on that, and the boy is the one who takes the leap of faith that I think liberates the fear, and to me, that’s the moral of the parable and the tale, is that what makes us human is very delicate and very special, and we have to cling on to that. And sometimes that means taking a leap of faith.

Do you see it as an optimistic film?
Absolutely. I mean, that’s the thing that, it’s a little bit frustrating because I just think it’s so emotionally clear, but people get distracted by the literalness of the apocalypse, and it is a projection of our worst fears as parents and as humans, facing a potential ending, and then how does one generation move on to another? And really, that’s what it is. For Cormack, he said it’s a book about human goodness. It was very personal, it was dedicated to his own son, and in that sense, it’s incredibly — I looked at a lot of father-son films, and was amazed at how many are tyrannical or absent or dysfunctional, and so I think in this way, it’s a very positive… and 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 fact that the man learns from the boy, in a way is saved, emotionally, or you can see that as spiritual, any way that you want to read it, the point is, there is a shift. And that shift is extremely hopeful — and actually the essence of what hope is, I think.

It isn’t until they embrace hope that they can stop being two isolated people and join with others.
Exactly. Exactly. And I think that Cormack is so unflinching in his examination of how people behave, and I think that’s why it’s so poignant, and it really makes you think because it’s so adept at showing that. To me it was a beautiful love story, and same to Viggo and the boy, Kodi, and everyone involved, actually. We all saw that, and we always tried to protect that as well, because you could get overwhelmed. If you put in too much stuff, the other stuff, then the balance is shaken.

One scene in the book that didn’t make it into the film that surprised me is the one where The Man finds the apple husks. To me, the enourmity of that small victory really captured the characters’ lot. How do you decide which scenes make it in and which don’t?
To me, the Coca-Cola scene was like that, and finding the bunker was even more so, and the insects that they found, that little bit of munching — we tried to get a balance. We actually filmed that, the apple…
There’s also, the most controversial scene of the book [baby-eating], we found the world was so defined by that point that it was like over-doing it. It was too much, because it was physical and real, it was just too much, like we were trying too hard, almost.
The thing I’m most happy about is that Cormack himself loved it, and when he saw the film, he felt there was nothing missing from the book, for him. Apart from four lines that were very special that we did film, and that we did put back in. All those other scenes and events, he felt we picked the essence.

Which four lines?
When the boy simply says ‘What would you do if I died,’ and the father says ‘I’d want to die, too.’ ‘So you could be with me?’ ‘Yes, so I could be with you.’ So it’s just this beautiful exchange that actually mirrors what’s to come… Foreshadows as a mirroring. And it’s a beautiful kind of thing to say.
All those other scenes and events, he felt we picked the essence.

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