On "The Road" with John Hillcoat

The Aussie director talks about Viggo Mortensen, Coke, cannibalism and adapting Cormac McCarthy's bleak parable

Published November 30, 2009 2:01AM (EST)

John Hillcoat
John Hillcoat

John Hillcoat spent many years honing his craft with music videos and struggling to get feature projects launched. So his emergence in 2006 with the stylish, startling and violent Aussie western "The Proposition" -- scripted by singer-songwriter Nick Cave, an old friend and current neighbor -- wasn't as sudden as it appeared to be. (It was actually his third feature.) That film's depiction of a memorably harsh environment brought Hillcoat to the attention of producer Nick Wechsler, who was planning an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic father-son parable, "The Road."

Hillcoat's resulting film (scripted by British playwright Joe Penhall) has already been touted this year as an Oscar contender, which is remarkable when you consider that its characters have no names and its color scheme -- a few momentary digressions aside -- features steely gray, dark gray and pale gray. Indeed, the sun-baked 19th-century outback of "The Proposition" is like a summer garden party on the Seine compared to the world of "The Road," which has been devastated by an unexplained nuclear or environmental catastrophe that has killed off nearly all life, plunged the planet into endless winter and reduced human society to pure atavism.

A nameless man, played in Hillcoat's film by Viggo Mortensen -- he is literally called "The Man" in McCarthy's novel -- struggles through this forbidding landscape with his son (remarkable newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee), a boy on the verge of manhood who has no memories of our world, the one of color and commerce, trees and flowers and cities. Not only must the Man try to protect the boy from the ever-present danger of kidnapping, murder, rape and cannibalism -- hazards the film and the book make all too clear -- he must also provide him with a reason to keep on going. As I suggested to Hillcoat when I met him in New York recently, this is the same challenge the story itself faces: how to convince its audience that the emotional rewards of this harrowing journey will be worth it.

Literary adaptation is always a tricky affair, and admirers of McCarthy's hypnotic, pseudo-biblical prose may have mixed feelings about the Penhall-Hillcoat adaptation. They have stuck closely to McCarthy's story but stripped out its inessentials, producing something leaner, more muscular and closer to an action movie: "Mad Max" in slow motion mixed with "28 Days Later," set in a landscape that resembles the final stages of the Donner Party, or the end of the Civil War. For most viewers, of course, the movie will be the only version they encounter, and Hillcoat reveals himself again as a genre-film visionary in the mode of Sam Peckinpah, a connoisseur of gorgeous bleakness who creates images of soul-searing intensity.

Hillcoat was more than an hour late meeting me at a hotel bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side, but he had a pretty good excuse -- Cormac McCarthy, a legendary talker, had been holding court at his hotel nearby, and the director couldn't tear himself away. "It's like doing mental gymnastics," Hillcoat said. "He's so completely lucid that he challenges you at virtually every minute."

So what made you think that "The Road" had a movie in it? McCarthy's book is on the one hand so literary and on the other hand so painful. It doesn't strike me as the best combination for cinema.

In that pain, there's also something -- after I read it, I couldn't stop thinking about it for a long time. And it does have that effect of, you know, making you hug your child, reminding you about what is so special in life, what should be protected. I found it very moving, in a positive way. It's positive pain, as opposed to negative pain, shall we say. And I also realized that the dialogue, the conversations, are just so fantastic, you can literally just take them off the page.

The story is deceptive -- if you take away all that beautiful prose poetry, you have a very simple tale. And the tale is actually like some ancient parable: To set a man and his son on a journey to the coast, in hopes of finding something. It reminded me of "The Grapes of Wrath." Where, you know, human goodness is tested and there's this journey through this apocalyptic world in hopes of finding something better. And also that idea, human goodness, where does that come from? The boy has been born into that world, so he has no reference to the world as we know it. Yet he is the one who gives the man back his humanity, and who takes a leap of faith, which is extraordinary against those odds. If you simplify it down to that, that's when I thought, well, this is the most filmable of Cormac's books.

Joe Penhall, who adapted it, his approach was more like editing, rather than trying to change anything. We talked to other writers, and they were almost bamboozled by the poetic prose. Joe's very pragmatic. He was like, "It's all there on the page." The scenes and the conflict are riveting, and Cormac's a master of action. Any action that happens is always startling and terrifying and has an ingredient of reality that feels very fresh. He puts characters in such jeopardy, yet there's always something interesting that he's trying to say about people and how we behave.

How much or how little was McCarthy involved with the film?

Cormac was very helpful. In the first conversation I had with him, he explained, "A book's a book, it's a totally different medium." He didn't ask for a script, and we never gave him a script. He let us run with it, but he was always there to answer questions, he came on set and so on. The ruthless bit, the tough bit, was editing it down: What bits do you keep in, what do you take out? Now what we have are the key scenes from the book, the turning points. There's a lot of repetition in the book that we had to get rid of.

It strikes me that this movie poses a really stiff challenge, first of all for you and then for the audience. When we're watching it, we have to make the same decision the characters do in the story: Is it worth it? Can I stand to keep on living in this world where everything is dead or dying?

Well, yeah. But I agree with Mr. Ebert on this: There's never been a good movie that's depressing. The only thing that's depressing is bad films. I grew up watching films in the '70s, and, you know, that was like a renaissance. Films had the freedom to explore real drama, and I think there's been a return to that in recent years. "No Country for Old Men" is much more nihilistic, much bleaker, than this story. It's got the action element, it's a thinking man's action film. But there's a nihilism in that villain that doesn't exactly conclude well, you know?

I'm sure some audiences just go to the cinema to shut down their mind, but I love being transported into other places. I also think that there's a lot of humanity in this story. In terms of all the heaviness of the story, I think that's greatly rewarded. My great reference was to films like "The Bicycle Thief," where the father and son are under unbelievable pressure, just in terms of day-to-day survival. And how often do you see a positive love story between father and son that's realistic? You have to go back to "Bicycle Thief," almost. Mostly in film you see tyrannical or absent fathers.

You know, the more I thought about this film, the more I saw it as a parable about the relationships between fathers and sons, the things we all deal with. And when you look at it that way, the background becomes more allegorical than real. Maybe it's not about this unimaginable world after the apocalypse. Maybe that's a metaphor for ordinary life and how difficult it can be.

Right, and even if you don't have a child, you've had a father. It's a generational story. One generation must take over from the last. We've been going through a whole decade of being reactive, reacting to fear. The older we get, often the more fearful and rigid we become, and it's the new generation that has to challenge that. That's what the story is doing: There comes a point when the younger generation becomes the teacher, instead of the other way around. We need that challenge. It's that cycle: One generation has to hand the fire to the next. So I think there's very much an allegorical element.

And yet, what's amazing about the book -- I love genres, and I love to find something new in the genre that no one's seen before. What Cormac does, and what we tried to do in the film, is show a world that's familiar but that we've never seen before. Having all your possessions in a shopping cart -- we've all seen that with the homeless. Living their day-to-day existence, and in their own way living the apocalypse. Yet we've never seen that in apocalyptic films, where it tends to be about the big event, the spectacle.

There's plenty of violence and terror in your film, but in fact you don't go quite as far as McCarthy's book does, in terms of describing some of the things the man and boy come across. There's a scene in the book where they find a ...

You're talking about the baby. We filmed that. We had all those ingredients. But what happened is -- in film it has a different effect, and at that point in the story it was almost redundant. It was almost like, "Oh, we're going back to the cannibal threat, I thought we'd been through all that." At that point the story is more about their relationship changing, and the kid standing on his own two feet. So it just felt structurally inappropriate, it just didn't work. And some things magnify a lot more in your mind when you visualize them. It has a different effect. It's about the emotional journey -- the more you put that stuff in, the more it overwhelms the rest of the story and turns it into something else. The more you describe the big event, the less relevant the present-tense, day-to-day journey becomes.

Speaking of the big event: There are hints and allusions about what horrible event has happened, but it's never explained. That's completely true to the book, but I wonder whether some viewers will feel frustrated.

What I find is that as you go along you become accepting of that. You read more into it. The whole book works like that -- the man is the Man, the boy is the Boy. They don't even have names. And then there's just the realistic aspect. Apocalyptic films tend to be all about the big event, and we're actually making the point that 10 years later you're just thinking about the next day, and getting through what you have to get through. If you look at people who survived Katrina or Mount St. Helens or 9/11, they're not thinking about the context: This happened for such-and-such a reason. That's the last thing on their mind. They're just thinking about how they're going to get through the next day, the next hour. Even in a car accident, you're not analyzing how it happened. You're thinking about: "How am I going to get out of here? Am I OK?"

This isn't exactly a comic movie, but the moment when Viggo's character finds a can of Coke and gives it to his son is funny and tragic and weirdly upsetting. If there's one product that will taste exactly the same 15 years after the end of the world, that's it.

What I love about that is that it's also making a point: At the moment there's nothing more powerful in our world than corporations, and we're all suffering from corporate cannibalism. But in this world, they have zero meaning and zero power. They're finished. And the boy doesn't even know -- he's responding to the actual ingredients, and has no idea what the significance is.

There are people who've seen that scene and thought, "Hang on, what is this product placement?" And we had to beg Coca-Cola to let us do this. It took Viggo Mortensen to talk the head of Coke into it. We filmed the scene with five other soft drinks, and none of them would agree. It's the exact opposite of product placement. They let us do it, without giving us a cent, and it was really to make a point. I think most people get it, even people who haven't read the book.

One area where you depart from the book, at least in a sense, is with these little snippets we see of the man's previous life, from his dreams. It's probably only a couple of minutes of screen time, but it's extraordinarily painful to see the regular world, our world, in natural color, in the middle of this dreadful gray landscape.

Yeah, that world, our world, is sprinkled through the movie. Again, how do you translate a book that's very much inside the mind of a character? There are cinematic tools that can do that, like memories and flashbacks, which are internalized states. And there's also use of voice-over, very sparingly, whenever we need to get inside that character's head. We needed more of that in the film in order to remind us what the man has to hide from the boy. What the man can never really share, even when he teaches him about this world. It's also a reminder for all of us, of just how precious those little moments are that we all take for granted. The influence and inspiration there is actually William Eggleston, the great American photographer, with his vivid colors, his heightened little familiar snippets of life.

Viggo Mortensen has become so famous for his methodology, for his intense preparation and immersion in characters. But how did he go about creating a character who has no name, no history, no job? We don't know any of the things about this guy that you'd know about a character in an ordinary motion picture.

I mean, Viggo fully embraces things, but this was quite a challenge. There was nowhere to hide. He's in almost every frame of the film. We had a long rehearsal period, but it was about discussing the text, not actually about blocking scenes. He did talk to McCarthy, but more about their shared experiences, more about the fact that they both have sons. Since his character is an Everyman, it was about getting to the emotional truth in those moments. At the end of the day it was about understanding the meaning and point of each scene. Being out in the real environment helped. Viggo went off and created his character, he slept in his clothes, he talked to homeless people, he did all that stuff. But it really came down to baring his soul when the moment came, reacting to the environment and reacting to the boy, Kodi, who was his partner in the story and in the film. We talked more about that than anything else.

"The Road" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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