Outside of the established and expanding franchises for book series like Harry Potter and Twilight, there don't seem to be a whole lot of literary works that audiences are just dying to see adapted – except perhaps for The Road. Remarkably, Cormac McCarthy's remarkable 2006 story of a father and son making their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape has been successfully adapted for the screen by director John Hillcoat, who eschewed 2012-style spectacle in favor of a more harrowing and humanistic portrait of two people surviving in the harshest possible environment.
Cinematical recently spoke to Hillcoat at the film's Los Angeles press day, where he was wrapping up a long afternoon of roundtables and one-on-one interviews. Thankfully, he rallied for one more short conversation about The Road, and in addition to talking about the challenges of bringing McCarthy's words to life, he spoke about conceiving the scope of the film, and finding the right faces to fill its damaged landscape.
Cinematical: You obviously began with extremely rich source material when starting to adapt The Road. What was the thing you knew you had to get right and then everything else would sort of fall into place?
John Hillcoat: The key to me was going back to my initial reaction to the book. I had it before it was published, but it affected me like subsequently it affected a lot of readers, which was like this emotional freight train hitting you and ideas that made you think about a lot of things. I wanted to go back to that initial reaction that I had and somehow not digress from it or get sidetracked, so it was just trying to remain faithful to that reaction and the material that created that – and figure out how and why [that reaction] occurred. Really the focus had to be on that central journey of the father and son, and all of the apocalyptic cannibal stuff, that's all obstacles that test the characters on their journey; that was all important, but the heart and soul of it was the love story between father and son – so it was to get that right. Also, not to get overwhelmed by the task at hand; once it was published and it grew into this thing, that was just added pressure to strip it down to the essence, because it's all there in the book – the dialogue, the story, the characters. To not overcomplicate it.
Cinematical: Viggo Mortensen seems game for anything, but how did you maintain a naturalistic balance for these characters? He's a man whose humanity is dwindling because of the horrors he's endured, and at the same time has this deep sensitivity, while the boy is both becoming aware of the tragedies of the world, and is also very innocent?
Hillcoat: I think the key there was to find the right qualities of people to play those parts, and Viggo definitely is someone that has that whole fearless commitment and physicality and can show vulnerability and pressure and paranoia and fear and all of that. But our greatest single fear in all of this was the kid. The only time I ever thought twice about 'should I say no to this material' was if the kid ain't right, everything falls over. So I was incredibly lucky, because Kodi is kind of unaffected; he's not a showbiz kid. So there were certain innate qualities about these guys, and then it was just looking at those scenes very carefully, because they're in it together in every scene, to make sure all of those things you mentioned come out in different ways at the right time.
There had to be a real connection. I mean, the kid becomes the teacher; he becomes the moral compass and he saves the father because the father's fear is what makes him slide into that area where he's crossing lines. The father understandably starts from the pressure to lose his humanity, and the kid gives that back to him.
Cinematical: Did you face any pressure to explain things any further, either in terms of what happens with Viggo's character's wife, or even what leads to this holocaust?
Hillcoat: That was also what the book did that was kind of fresh, the fact that it didn't explain the big event, for two reasons: it was about the here and now of these two characters, and anyone that survives an event like that, whether it's Katrina or whatever, it's about the here and now and how do you get through the next day. And that's my problem with apocalyptic films as a genre – it tends to become such a big concept that there's no human dimension so you can't even transport yourself in it. You're just in a rollercoaster ride and it ends up being eye candy almost in a kind of perverse way – which is interesting, but the book just made it very here and now. It felt familiar, and it didn't even feel futuristic, so for all of those reasons. Of course that came up and that was discussed - how much context does an audience need? But we wanted to honor the book and keep true to the spirit of the book in that regard, but just also in the world of the film, even forgetting the book, is [the fact] that's the whole point – its spotlight is on the father and son and it's about the here and now and their relationship as opposed to almost like getting distracted by the scenery. And yet that world is also a big character and is something they react off of all of the time, so I don't want to diminish it in that regard.
Oh yeah, and then the woman. I should have had a coffee (laughs). Well, we actually fleshed that out a bit more deliberately, but we wanted to present her as an empathetic character who's got a hell of a point, or I think, a hell of an argument. I don't know how you felt...
Cinematical: I didn't judge her one way or the other.
Hillcoat: Right, right. also we just wanted to have that reminder of what the man has to carry in his head and he can't share with the boy, because, one, the boy can't understand, and two, he doesn't want to overwhelm him and wants to protect him in every way he can.
Cinematical: Did you ever have to resist the impulse to indulge that kind of spectacle, just from a purely visual standpoint?
Hillcoat: Actually you just hit upon one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned in being a filmmaker – I have to do it almost on a daily basis, like even designing shots and how to move a camera. You can kind of do anything with film now, so the filmmakers I admire most are the ones that show the most restraint. I mean, that said, I think the content kind of needs to match the style; there needs to be a synchronicity somewhere there. And I think because this was such an intimate love story, and this journey [is] an adventure – there's obstacles that are quite thrilling and it's scary and all of those things, but I wanted to try because of the nature of that material to reflect that in the style.
But I do especially when it's images of destruction, and that's something I will never forget; when I first saw Apocalypse Now and that's such an appropriate title because the apocalypse in war zones, there's something about the spectacle of mass destruction, and that's what I think Coppola really nailed in that film is that there's a hallucinatory, almost seductive power to spectacle, and it's horrifying and yet it's also strangely beautiful, and that's what McCarthy, when he describes these incredible landscapes and yet you can't get seduced by that and it's so easy and I think that is what's happened to the apocalyptic genre, is it's been seduced by the spectacle. It's almost like falling in love with your villain because we all love the villain.
Cinematical: How did you decide how to shoot this film in a way that balanced the spectacle with the sense that everything that happens with these people is still just another regular day in their lives?
Hillcoat: There's that road trip journey, day-in, day-out kind of. There's this great quote Cormac told me about this architect who used to say that God is in the details. But again it was like to bear witness, so the camera wasn't moving around too much and there was a stillness, and also in that stillness there was not only sort of a bearing witness but also a way of creating a dying world. That restless energy was more saved for literally the moments of suspense and the thrill that horror brings. So again it's just matching the content, and also being very specific; I mean, the thing I love about wide shots is the spatial thing of putting characters into context in relation to the force of nature, the bigness of things, because when you're caught up in exciting close-ups, which ironically the bigger the budgets, the more they do that, you lose perspective of where that person is in relation to the rest of the world.
That's why I love deserts – you really feel that you're just a grain of sand, which I think is a healthy thing. But then when you go to a close-up it has real significance. So that was the key, really, picking that kind of distance and stillness; I don't know if you noticed, but there's little moves, just tiny little moves and stuff. And then of course there's the more classical kind of frenetic energy when they have to get out of there. So it was really playing those two elements together.
Cinematical: You mentioned parallels to Katrina and other disasters. Do you think there is a specific thematic idea that this film is exploring, or that you wanted to examine?
Hillcoat: The book did this weird thing where it felt really familiar and yet it was unspecific, even to the point where the man has no name and none of the characters have any names. There's no identifiable [landmarks]; New York's not there with the Statue of Liberty. So it was that kind of thing where it was kind of like this is the rural America, there's the suburban America, there's the edges of the city, and yet we kind of wanted to deliberately tap into that feeling that we have seen this, like a homeless [person] with a shopping trolley. And we took that to the degree where the smoke in the background is literally 9/11 with the big, towering smoke; the two ships on the freeway is IMAX source footage that shot two days after Katrina happened.
I mean, we did then replace the blue sky and green grass and put it into our world, but this is where reality outstrips fiction. That idea of two ships just sitting on a freeway, I couldn't have come up with, so all of our references had nothing to do with other apocalyptic films, we just looked at places where things have occurred and where things break down – the flyover zones of America. [But] really, the apocalypse is just a projection of our worst fear as a human race, and everyone's time comes, so in that way it's just a projection of fears so we wanted to keep those fears alive as opposed to just pointing it all towards a nuclear attack. We wanted to keep all of those balls up in the air just to give them a really hard time (laughs).