The Director Who Confronted (and Survived) ‘The Road’

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I have yet to meet a fan of the novel “The Road” who thinks it can be adequately transferred to the movie screen. They talk about the sparse landscape, the stripped-down dialogue, the poetic prose, and wonder how in the world such a work could ever be captured in images, without making some serious concessions in the process. I’ve actually seen the question posed: Is “The Road” an unfilmable book?

Well, I love the book, and I’ve seen the film, and I’m here to tell you: Director John Hillcoat is no compromiser. This post-apocalyptic father-son travelogue – starring Viggo Mortensen and opening in theaters Wednesday – is still plenty dark and dreary, its dialogue is still minimal and mild, and its cannibalistic hordes are every bit as terrifying here as they were on the printed page (or in the dark recesses of our mind). Hillcoat, who turned Australia into an otherworldly cauldron of vengeance in “The Proposition,” has taken on Cormac McCarthy’s black opus and survived to tell the tale – to us.

Techland sat down with Hillcoat a week ago, to talk about how he managed to throw the world into a gray cloud of misery, what it was like to hang an entire film on the performance of a child actor, and just how difficult it is nowadays to get Hollywood excited about making such a daring film as this.

You seem like one of the few directors who could get this tone just right – when I was reading “The Road,” I kept visualizing the vast open spaces of “The Proposition.”

Well there’s a lot going on here, and I don’t think it’s all entirely dark, but yeah, it’s an extreme landscape to be sure. “The Proposition” was actually heavily influenced by “Blood Meridian,” another great McCarthy book, and the irony here is that I tried to get the rights to “Blood Meridian” way back, but couldn’t get them, so it led me to make “The Proposition” instead.

And that helped you finally find your way to a McCarthy adaptation?

Well, after “The Proposition,” I went to L.A. and talked to a lot of producers about genres I liked, and I talked about how Cormac was an inspiration and it turns out that Nick Wechsler, one of the producers I discussed this with, had been independently trying to get the rights to “No Country For Old Men.” That was quite ironic as well because Cormac had actually written that as a screenplay, but couldn’t get it made and so he then turned it into a book instead. Wechsler couldn’t get “No Country,” but he was tipped off when the next book was ready, and so that’s how all of a sudden I had a manuscript of “The Road.

Way before the Pulitzer and Oprah, and all of that.

And that’s the irony, because once all that happened, the studios would have wanted a bigger name, but at the time no one cared and that’s how we managed to get ahold of it. Cormac had seen “The Proposition” and liked it, and obviously saw that I connected with that sort of material.

Was Cormac intimately involved in the production?

In the first conversation we had he released so much of the burden. He talked about the differences between the mediums, and he obviously understood this was a movie, and he brought along this beautiful 10-year-old boy, and he called him ‘Papa,’ and you could see it right there, where this story came from. And Cormac was always willing to help, but he trusted us to run with his work.

I think fans of the book will be startled by how accurately you capture McCarthy’s texture of a broken world. Things are always gray, things look demolished and ravaged. How did you even start to tackle this problem, of how the film should look?

It all goes to my production designer Chris Kennedy. This was our first American film and we did lots and lots of location research. In the book, it all starts with that image of a shopping cart, and that’s a familiar image when we talk about places where homelessness is a problem. We tried to take other cues from places where an apocalypse has occurred – Hiroshima, Katrina, Chernobyl, the second world war, Mount St. Helens. We tried to replicate this, that’s why we went to Mount St. Helens to film, because it has big clues about what this sort of world would look like. In New Orleans they were still cleaning up from Katrina, so that was particularly poignant. But our goal was that we wanted this all to look familiar but non-specific. We used Oregon for the gray beach because that’s volcanic sand. In the fall, rural Pennsylvania is stunningly beautiful, but in the winter it’s overcast and pretty harsh. We wanted there to be a gradual mix of reality and special effects – we’d resort to special effects only as a last resort. There’s a scene where there are two big tankers on the freeway, and even that was actually real 70mm footage from an IMAX film shot two days after Katrina hit. All we had to do was change the sunny blue sky.

What was the hardest day of filming?

The most challenging part actually was the sun. We’d constantly be rigging the shot to block out the sun and then moving the rigs as the sun crept across the sky. We shot the film in 55 days, and we had to work around the kid who could only shoot nine hours a day – and three of those were spent in school – so we had short days and sometimes we only had a few takes, and we had to get it right.

Speaking of the kid, how did you find this boy that the whole movie basically rests on? How did you find Kodi Smit-McPhee?

We were very worried about finding the right person to play the part, not just to do the lines but to be able to convey so much more in all those unspoken moments. I had been tipped off about a child actor who had just finished a film in Australia – his father’s an actor too, he plays one of the cannibals in “The Road” – and I met him and he was very grounded. This isn’t your standard showbiz family. He arrived and it was clear that he had already read the book and understood the story and got the subtext of what is this kid thinking the whole time. And I think it’s because he took the time to really understand it that he was able to be so expressive without always relying on words. He could deliver in all those moments between the lines.

How do you even prepare a child for something as dark as this? What was the hardest moment – I’m assuming the moment when he finds the cannibals and that prison cell?

The emotional nuances were the really harrowing things. Like when he sees the other kid for the first time – those sorts of scenes where it’s not really the words but the emotional energy that’s needed and we have such limited time to get that level of emotion. Sometimes we’d only have one take; I remember one important day of shooting that really helped the bonding between Kodi and Viggo. It happens right after a shooting, and Viggo is washing Kodi’s hair in the river, and water is absolutely freezing, which we didn’t realize. He started crying and I was just about to yell cut but then he found the lines and started working the scene and Viggo started going with him. And thank god we were shooting with two cameras because it all worked perfectly, in this traumatic moment. But it said so much about him, that he could stay focused in the moment, and it took their relationship to a whole different level.