The main subject of The Road press conference at The London Film Festival was that everyone from the writer and director to the grips and the make-up team, all stayed true to the book. With a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s novel in their back pockets, director John Hillcoat, screenwriter Joe Penhall, and the star of the film Viggo Mortensen all gave themselves to the honesty and the truth of McCarthy’s dark and dreary world.
With no intentions of changing anything, Penhall spoke about how he did his best to simply rewrite the novel into a different format, Hillcoat placed his crew in situations that were not unlike the book in order to make it feel as real as possible, and Viggo, being the ever intense actor that he is, had to open up to the vulnerability, fear, and danger of living in post-apocalyptic world where man and nature are no longer wanted.
Here’s what they had to say below….
John, the look of The Road, you would off thought would be vastly different from the last vision you gave, The Proposition, and yet while I was watching it I was struck by the similarities between the two. What drew you to the material?
John Hillcoat: I love heat and sun. I’m from Australia. [Both films] are polar opposites and yet they’re both extreme worlds. I’ve always been interested by extreme environments; the way that environments impact people. My first film Ghosts of the Civil Dead was a pretty old interior prison film, but as simple as that where it’s a character for the other characters to react from. I think we all do that.
You shoot in freezing cold weather, without many luxuries and in many different locations. Was that hard for you and the cast?
John: I love travel and I love to unwind in the middle of winter. I hope this happens on an end that it adds the pressure that I’d hope. I think this is true that the performers — our amazing cast — react off of the environment, and it helps add a reality. As Kodi (Smit-McPhee) said, for him, it’s a lot easier to be a bit cold than to act cold on top of the informational stuff. So as a crew, I think it helps focus everyone on what sort of world we’re trying to enter into. To me, working in a green-screen studio is much harder than actually — it’s much tougher.
Where did you mainly shoot? And how did you get an empty freeway?
John: That was to do with the abandoned freeways there [Pennsylvania], the citrus trees and the leaves and strip lighting. We also went to places like New Orleans for the aftermath of Katrina — the cleanup was still going on. And Mount Saint Helens and also Oregon for the grey leaches.
Joe, how do you make the book play a part in your screenplay?
Joe Penhall: My usual bad tricks like dialogue, plot were quite irrelevant, it was really all about the environment and about the landscape. I loved John’s film The Proposition where the landscape is the character. I really enjoyed taking my hands off the steering wheel and being guided by someone else really. Writing a film that relied on the landscape, relied on the epic business and the elements and didn’t rely at all on dialogue.
In a script with little dialogue, how detailed are you?
Joe: You have to write every weed, the color of the sky. That was what was so fun about it: the descriptions of the landscape. Some of them were half-a-page long and I really enjoyed that. It was incredibly detailed and it really paid off.
You also got amazing human beings for characters.
Joe: I love stories like that and the stories that I’ve done in the past always been about one person on a mission. I find it quite hard to run lots of characters so this was great for me. It is as it is in the book. I did my best to put the book into a different structure.
Did you know who was going to play the father? Did you have a character in mind? An actor in mind while writing it?
Joe: Yeah, I think John wanted Viggo (Mortensen) right from the start– really, really early on. That made it easy for me. They say when you write you shouldn’t have an actor in mind, but I often do. I’ve worked with Ray Winstone, Daniel Craig and now Viggo. The delight of it is that they always do almost exactly what I dreamt and hoped that they’d do.
[Joking] Well, because tell them to do it in the script…
Joe: Yeah, but well, they’re professionals, aren’t they?
Viggo let’s talk about getting this part. What was your first approach to the script? Had you read the book?
Viggo Mortensen: I’m a fan of Cormac McCarthy. I read all of his books except “The Road.” Even though “No Country for Old Men” won oscars and is quite well-known, “The Road” is still the most far-reaching work because it’s straight ahead, it’s easily understood. I hadn’t got around to reading it, just out of stubbornness. I was going to read it and I kept changing in and our of airports and so forth, and watching the Oprah Winfrey show, I just hand’t read it. I read the script and I thought it was a great story and I was honored to be playing this role. And then I ran to the store and got the book.
The script was a very good adaptation, which only became better and better as it became time to shoot. I think it’s the most faithful — not just in spirit, but in letter — adaptation. It’s very much like the book. I was drawn to it because — well any character that I play I always want to find (sooner or later), I want to find ways of coming out of hiding. And in this case, there’s a line that McCarthy has in the book, the frailty of everything revealed at last. I think he’s referring to nature and to people.
I like the journey. For one thing, in an actor, you’re only as good as who you’re with. First of all the landscape was so real, so truthful that he had to live up to that. He had to reflect and his behavior had to very real and emotional. I was worried when I got cast, I thought, Well this boy, in the story, in the book shows a great job. I didn’t find that boy, luckily Kodi was amazing in the movie. He’s an extraordinary individual, I think the matter is not just his talent but his humanity. He would be joyful everyday at work like a kid.
You have children yourself don’t you? Did that come into play in your role as a father?
Viggo: Yeah, to a degree. I think John also being a father and having a son was a way in initially. But you don’t have to be a parent to understand this story. It was a way in like other things that you might be able to do physically, but it really came down to being quite naked from inside, being very honest. It had to be that way or it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work if I didn’t have partner like Kodi, who could pull certain things out of me and then I would return it. I think that complicity and that relationship that was forced through hardship and also through having a good time, probably, is felt in the screen. And the journey, as hard as it is, has to be that difficult to earn what happens at the end, which I think is strangely a good thing and quite beautiful when everything is stripped away.
As the character says in the voice over, “If I were god, I would make the world just so…” I think any story that has a chance of inspiring you to feel that this life, no matter how complicated it is, this world, no matter how messed up it is, is good and beautiful in some way. That it’s worth while and you wouldn’t trade it for anything even if you could. That story’s done its job. I think this movie does its job.
Can you tell us about the process that you went through to become the Man?
At first because I wanted to seem somewhat healthier. He underwent certain things externally, obviously I couldn’t look extremely rough so I lost some weight, ate less. After a certain point it was more about being afraid for everyone involved. I think that’s why I like working in the movies, I like going to movies because in movies, there’s a shot there’s a close up, a conversation, there’s a look on someone’s face that’s beyond technical explanation, no matter how technologically advanced movie making, there are some things that are beyond explanation. In a case like this where the crew carries copies of the book around the whole time — what you felt accorded where everybody was trying to get there, on this journey.
Yes, I lost some weight. Yes, we thought about the logistics. You know, John shared movies that he was inspired by, in terms of the look of it. We talked about certain literature. Just those things that get you in a mood, but much less about the externals and far more about reveling yourself from the inside which is part of the attraction.
Why are you so fascinated with the story?
Viggo: One thing his pro-descriptions, he has the dialogue is quite spared in the story and at times it becomes about the unspoken, the reactions are emotional reactions to the story. Difficult circumstances, I guess. I like to expose descriptions in the book a lot. My favorite is “Blood Meridian,” I know John likes that book and I think that was his inspiration. His descriptions in that book, like in “The Road” they just stop me cold from reading along.
Read my first response to the film now to get a feel for what you can expect in theaters November 25th.