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What would you do if the apocalypse hit? Where would you go? Would you carry the fire? In John Hillcoat's The Road, his brutal and beautiful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece of a novel, we watch as the Father (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who will be playing "Owen" in Let Me In, the remake of Swedish vampire classic Let the Right One In) fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where everything is dead.
McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book was Oprah-feted upon its release and became instantly canonical (it is easily one of the best books of the waning decade), and the inevitable film adaptation of such an emotional, moving, and existential experience was high profile, to say the least. Hillcoat, an Australian director best known for his third film, the Western The Proposition (adapted from a script by longtime collaborator, multitalented rocker Nick Cave), was the right man for the job. Without relying on CGI, he paints a ruined America where everything is dead and grey, giving space for the relationship between the Father and the Boy—nothing less than a profound portrait of the human spirit and its willingness to survive.
Tribeca Film caught up with Hillcoat at the Regency Hotel last week. He was admittedly zonked, and answered questions as best as possible. (And for those who are into Cave's band Grinderman, apparently the next album is "incredible," to quote Hillcoat.) Mortensen was there as well, running around in a soccer shirt and his stocking feet while running the interview gamut.
Tribeca Film: So how did you get attached to this film?
John Hillcoat: I got [the advance reader's copy] before it was published; otherwise I wouldn't be here. Producer Nick Wechsler in Los Angeles got it to me and it all happened fairly quickly. I had such a powerful emotional reaction to it. It's so rich in so many ways.
Tribeca: How can you adapt a book that's an instant classic, where the author writes with the authority of The Bible? That had to be intimidating.
JH: It was very intimidating at first, even though [his Australian Western] The Proposition is very influenced by [McCarthy's other novel] Blood Meridian. Then, to have this unpublished manuscript with this whole emotional layer to it, that's actually very beautiful and moving, in a great way. It's a love story and they never say "I love you," and yet, every scene they say it, in other words. It's remarkable in that sense. I remember talking to the writer, Joe Penhall, who adapted it, and we both said we can't get intimidated by the legacy of this man because we'll lose—we have to put our blinkers on, roll up our sleeves, and try not to think about all that other stuff.
And then Cormac, when I got to speak to him, also was great. He could not have been a better way of working. He was there to answer any questions at any time, he never asked for a script—we never volunteered—he said right from the get go that a book's a book and a film's a film and they're very different mediums. He kind of released a lot of the burden.
He's very good with words. A great man, and very funny as well, very kind, because his son, this book is all really about him and his son.
Tribeca: How did you find Kodi?
JH: Viggo and I shared that [finding an actor to play the Boy] as the single greatest obstacle, even over and above adapting McCarthy and how you do justice to that kind of writing. It was very late in the day and we were very lucky—luck plays a huge part. I was lucky to get this unpublished manuscript, I was lucky to find Kodi. I thought, well, how the hell do you make this because he's in everything, and everything will fall over if you don't find the kid: mature beyond his years, and also unaffected, not a showbiz kid.
Tribeca: Because child actors can be a little creepy and precocious, and that doesn't always translate to authentically being on screen.
JH: Exactly. That's a very good way of putting it. Authentically being on screen. He's always just—you can see that he's thinking, and he's feeling and he's not, and it's effortless, it seems effortless, he's just totally real. So how the hell, I mean, and also with this material, you talk about maturity, he understood the book, he understood every scene, he understood subtext and it's just like...I mean, the cameraman kept whispering to me—Javier, the cinematographer—he kept whispering through the shoot: "He's not of this world." It's like he's from another planet.
And a beautiful kid, just a really great kid, a skateboarder. He's doing the vampire film [the American remake of Let the Right One In] now.
Tribeca: What does Viggo bring? He seems intense.
JH: He brings that, absolutely, but also just a commitment where he'll give 110% and just commit to everything. Because it's quite tough material: there's nowhere to hide, he's in every single scene. It kind of needed someone to do that. There's also an incredible physicality and we needed that, to wrestle with the environment the way he does—to get through it. Again, that authenticity was key.
Tribeca: Do you like working with actors at their manliest?
JH: Well actually, what I like doing with those guys, is see their vulnerable side, their feminine side. Even with Robert Duvall, that was the thing. We know Robert Duvall as this kind of more—in recent times—this kind of tougher, more grizzly guy. To me, it's always more interesting seeing these guys, their vulnerable side. For them too, they're very keen to find roles where they can explore that. I did a similar thing with Ray Winstone, in fact, with The Proposition. There was incredible resistance to having Ray do that part because he's too much of a brute of a man, but he's amazing. He's got such a big heart and is so great. I think it's a lot more interesting to take those guys and let them explore that. Because all of that is a big front anyways.
Tribeca: One of the biggest changes from book to film is the expanded role of the mother (Charlize Theron). What spurred that decision?
JH: We wanted to make every character really empathetic in understanding their point of view, and also their loss of memory and the good times that they had, too. So that the father—it raises the stakes even further in a way that the father has to carry [memories of the mother] with him.
Tribeca: So how did you go about creating the look of the film?
JH: We went on an apocalyptic tour and we went to the tax states, the ones that offered tax money, and they also happened to be the states that are struggling the most. They have problems, like New Orleans. We went to the places where they're still cleaning up Katrina. With Pennsylvania, actually, that was very seasonal as well. There are the aspects of strip mining and the abandoned interstate freeways and stuff like that, the industry's dried up. There's also those woods that are deciduous trees in winter. It's harsh, and it's overcast a lot, but in fall it's stunningly beautiful, the colors of the leaves.
Tribeca: There was also the lack of color in the film. How did you get that?
JH: Mainly that was in camera with the wardrobe and environments. Occasionally if there was green, the green pine needles, then we'd have to get rid of the green. If the sun came out—it was inverse logic, we were all in high spirits when it was miserable weather and overcast, but when the sun came out we were blue. Beautiful blue sky—that was tough on us, and when we really struggled. Sometimes it would be just removing the color of the blue sky, but sometimes we'd have to replace the sky with CGI (in post).
Tribeca: What was the process of editing the film? Was it a rush to hit those release dates? [The Road was originally scheduled for late 2008.]
JH: Just the normal process of distilling it down to get the right balance. We did shoot more than what was needed, [but] it's not like a complex ensemble drama where there's only so many ways you can go. There's an episodic quality, and it's a road journey and repetition is a major part of it. But that often translates differently into film. So we wanted to make sure we got the right balance and the right levels of pressure, and yet really, it was all about that emotional journey.
You want to talk about why it wasn't released last year? That was an unrealistic release date. While we were editing, we had to stop and go back to locations to film because they were too inaccessible with snow, like Mount St. Helens. That protracted things a bit. But it was ready earlier, we could've released it earlier, but we couldn't have made last year. I couldn't have said that publicly, because they were a little overambitious with that release date, which was a shame. But they realized it too when they saw the film. They realized we wanted to get it right, and release it at the right time, not in the summer time. Thanksgiving is perfect.