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On "The Road" With John Hillcoat

It is hard to imagine a more suitable director than John Hillcoat to bring Cormac McCarthy's gritty Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road to the screen. Since his 1989 AFI-nominated debut feature Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, the Brisbane-born filmmaker has specialised in telling stories set in extreme worlds.

Even so, next to the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road, the maximum-security prison of Ghosts, the unpredictable and violent jungle environs of Papua New Guinea in To Have and To Hold, and the brutal 19th-century outback of The Proposition look, almost, like paradises.

Hillcoat agrees that the new film has "taken the extreme to the extreme". However, calling The Road "dark" makes him bristle. This, he insists, is far too glib a description for a film in which life-affirming sparks of love and humanity (more of which later) pierce the sepulchral atmosphere of its deathly setting. "So this whole dark thing just drives me nuts," Hillcoat snaps. He immediately apologises for his sharp tone, explaining that he's "a bit stressed". And hungry, too. Though not as desperate, I'm happy to say, as the cannibals that constantly threaten The Road's protagonists.
By placing characters in extreme situations, Hillcoat's films test them against their environment, each other and, often, their own moral values. Driving people "back into themselves" by stripping away the "habits and rituals of daily life" helps to reveal their core, forcing the question: who are you really? "When we're pushed to extremes there's certain qualities that come up that wouldn't otherwise come up, and it's those kinds of environments and those kinds of situations that really expose a kind of inner humanity," Hillcoat explains. Watching his tough and sometimes harrowing oeuvre leads one to conclude he has a rather gloomy opinion of what lies beneath our, arguably, thin veneer of civilisation. 

It's a feeling strengthened by his citing of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as an influence on his second feature film, To Have and to Hold, a rich stew of tormented passions and social commentary in which expat lovers Tcheky Karyo and Rachel Griffiths's romantic dream is transformed into a nightmare of obsession and violence when he tries to turn her into the image of his dead wife.

"I do think humans have an incredible weakness and are very self-destructive," Hillcoat says. "That's why I think it's amazing that there are also moments of brilliance and compassion and incredible human strength. Extreme pressure brings out really dark qualities in some people, whereas other people, in the face of the most horrendous circumstances, show an amazing resilience and more positive sorts of qualities." Even the act of filmmaking, he has noticed, "brings out the best and worst in people. To me that's really interesting; sometimes exhausting, sometimes very rewarding, sometimes not."

Born in 1960, Hillcoat, 49, had a transient upbringing that took him to the US, Canada and Europe. He started out painting and drawing but gradually gravitated towards the moving image. He enrolled at Melbourne's Swinburne Film School where he produced two short dramas, The Blonde's Date with Death and Frankie and Johnny. For anyone creative, it was the perfect time. "There was a whole kind of music, art, film culture thing that was going on, very vibrant, in the late 70s-early 80s, in Australia. It's since been called punk but I think there was more going on as well. Because I was brought up in America for a lot of my life, I was raised on blues, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, that great renaissance of music during the 60s and 70s - it was also the last great age of cinema - and from all that influence I was doing these student films."

He and the singer-songwriter Nick Cave gravitated towards each other, sowing the seeds of an artistic relationship that has continued to this day (they're practically neighbours in Brighton, England, where Hillcoat has lived for nine years). "We realised that we loved a similar sort of music, books, literature. Nick really liked Frankie and Johnny, so he was quite keen to collaborate on something." The result was Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, which Hillcoat wrote with others including Cave, who appeared in the film and co-wrote the music.

The film garnered nine AFI nominations, but it would still take Hillcoat seven years to make his next film, To Have and To Hold (in between films Hillcoat has a separate, very different career in music videos). The nominations were "a little bit token", Hillcoat told me in 1998. "They're very political, the awards. They wanted to prop us up as the kind of alternative, whereas the ones that actually picked up the awards were like Dead Calm, so it was very much just an industry thing. Initially there was no support for Ghosts ... , and it wasn't until it had a really good response overseas that it started to get a much better response here. But even so, it still scared a lot of people off. It's great to make strong powerful films but in terms of people wanting to finance those sorts of films, it does almost the opposite."

That he and McCarthy would one day come together seems inevitable in hindsight, given that the author's notoriously brutal Blood Meridian (now being adapted for the cinema, although not by Hillcoat), from 1985, had been an important influence on Hillcoat's Cave-scripted 2005 breakthrough feature, The Proposition.

Hillcoat wanted to make an American film next, and went to LA and New York and "met loads of producers", including Nick Wechsler. "I was particularly interested in dark and challenging material," says the director, "and basically just talked to him about how I like to make genre films but elevate them, or find something new about them. We then discussed McCarthy, actually, because I was just talking about American writers that I love and influences."

Although the meeting was positive, Hillcoat did not hear from Wechsler again and got on with other projects. Then, out of the blue, the producer contacted him about a new McCarthy book. Wechsler had been beaten to the rights for No Country for Old Men, so as soon as The Road became available, he and his producing partners optioned the property. Hillcoat received it as a still-unpublished manuscript.

Wechsler's alacrity worked in Hillcoat's favour, the filmmaker recalls, because "the studios were all over it as well", though its grim details meant that "they also ran a mile from it". Of course it might have been a different story, he concedes, after the Pulitzer and the Oscar success of the Coen brothers' No Country adaptation.

Hillcoat candidly reveals that despite being a "raving McCarthy fan", he was "actually dreading reading the book". When he heard it was an apocalyptic tale, he says, "I went, 'Oh Jesus, that is not what I am looking for.' Just imagine all the cliches." With images of Mad Max - the kind of film he definitely did not want to make - possibly racing around his imagination, he thought, "Give me sci-fi, give me the gangster genre, give me romance, give me anything but that".

Happily, his initial reservations were quickly swept aside; he was "floored" not only by the power of McCarthy's simple yet thought-provoking story, but also by "an emotional layer that was so real and intense and moving that I hadn't experienced in his other work".

Set after an unexplained cataclysm, and inspired by McCarthy's relationship with his young son, John Francis, and his fears for the kind of future in which the boy will grow up, The Road chronicles the nightmarish odyssey of a nameless father (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) and son (Romulus, My Father's Kodi Smit-McPhee) through a barren America rife with cannibalism, paranoia and violent death. Heading south to escape the encroaching winter that will almost surely kill them, they struggle not only to preserve their physical selves but also their humanity: "the fire", as they call it.

The author sets their love against the nihilism of the world around them, and it is this, Hillcoat argues, that burns through the darkness. "I agree with McCarthy that what he is trying to do is highlight human goodness, and that light is all the more bright and the more relevant the more it is surrounded by fears and adversity."

Having a son of his own - eight-year-old Louie - meant the story struck Hillcoat on a personal level. Moreover, he found the protective, fearful father of McCarthy's book a refreshing contrast to the "tyrannical or absent father" types he says generally appear in films. "To me this was really moving in a beautiful way."

Looking at The Road in the context of his other films, it has drawn him to a love story "that for me works much better than To Have and To Hold, and actually is about genuine, unconditional love. To Have and To Hold was the opposite. In The Proposition, there is a very special relationship between the Captain [Ray Winstone] and his wife [Emily Watson], and the brothers [Guy Pearce, Danny Huston] in their way, but to me that father-son relationship in The Road was the single attraction. It is a beautiful story about human goodness."

It's about many other things, too, prompting moral and philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life. In a world with no future, for example, what is the point of living? Suicide - the option taken by the boy's mother (Charlize Theron) - is surely the sanest response, isn't it?

Yet death is an inevitability we will all face, so the issue of how one gives life meaning and value in its shadow - in the shadow of our own personal apocalypse - is relevant to everyone. For most of us in the West, life's distractions, including the majority of mainstream cinema, help to push such questions to the backs of our minds. On the other hand, The Road, like, say, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - a play that is also about two characters on a desolate road - creates a scenario where they become unavoidable for the spectator.

This is perfect territory for Hillcoat, who constantly alludes to the 60s and 70s as a period of filmmaking that had a major formative impact on him. He refers to a global dumbing down and suggests that if Robert Altman's Nashville were released today, it would probably struggle to get into an art-house cinema, let alone feature on the cover of Newsweek the way it did.

"I think reality TV, and the cynical manipulation and exploitation of easy money to be made out of it, has really been not helpful at all, and I think people's expectations are so low that they just accept it. I hate to sound like a kind of old fart, but I don't like the complacency and comfort of handing your mind to valet parking," he says, explaining that as a filmmaker and consumer of culture, he wants always to be challenged.

The Road, he says, "makes you consider what is really important in your life. Like what really matters. What is it that really makes us human? And those are just fundamental questions that I think are really important and that most of humanity, like it or not, shares."

They are also questions that are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and this is being reflected in the rising number of films - 2012, The Book of Eli, 9 - being made about apocalyptic events and their aftermaths.

"There's definitely a Zeitgeist," says Hillcoat, "in that we're becoming much more conscious of the environment collapsing; and then on top of that the economic collapse, political problems, endless cycles of violence. In terms of the West, those things have come into the bedroom, almost. We've become more aware. So in this way [The Road's] trying to be a bit more of a wake-up call for the things that are important and what we stand to lose."

This partly explains why Joe Penhall's screenplay contains extended flashbacks featuring the man's wife, who now casts a much bigger shadow than in the book. "I was fascinated by her point of view," Penhall told a British newspaper. "Why not just despair? The man is haunted by these simple, ordinary things: his wife, his horse, his piano. The mother's suicide haunts every decision, motivates their living."

Essentially faithful to McCarthy, the film follows the novel in refusing to address the possible cause of the catastrophe that has devastated the planet. "It's almost like inverse logic in that you don't even think about the big event and that you're in the here and now," says Hillcoat. This unknowability, he believes, makes The Road almost unique, "because, for me, the apocalyptic genre films are all about that question. They all are about the big event. So much so that it kind of overwhelms the human dimension. So there's suddenly this authenticity [in The Road] that's quite shocking, and it's so simple".

Authenticity has, in fact, always been a key feature of Hillcoat's films and in The Road has been aided by his decision to take his cameras to America's "apocalyptic zones", rather than use green screen and large-scale CGI effects. "So we filmed in Mount St Helens. We filmed in Oregon, because the sand on the beaches is grey. We filmed in Pennsylvania, because trees lose their leaves [in winter] and there's a lot of mining land that's really stark and depressed areas. There was even an interstate that had been abandoned for decades, with tunnels." 

People often assume that a striking image of two boats marooned on a freeway is computer-generated, whereas it came from 70mm IMAX film shot two days after Hurricane Katrina. "What we had to change, of course, was the bright blue sky. So it was really taking real locations and then adding visuals." Some of these additions, such as plumes of grey smoke taken from September 11 footage, or an allusion to a photograph of bloody footprints in the snow following a Bosnian Serb slaughter of Muslims, were used to tap directly into the subconscious. "We wanted to make the point that, actually, this isn't so much about the future, but is, quite literally, apocalypse now."

He knew that creating the kind of experience he wanted would mean cast and crew working in often difficult conditions. Making The Proposition, however, encouraged him to think people would rise to the challenge. Because they "slipped into the summer months" on that film, which was shot in the central-west Queensland town of Winton for several months from mid-October, they had debated whether to pull the plug on the project. But instead "we all teamed together and it ended up being an incredible bonding experience", he says. "And what was amazing, although it was really tough, is that we all, including the crew, had a much more heightened sense of the sort of film we were working on."

The blazingly hot terrain was like "another great actor" that the cast "fired off", and the same thing happened on The Road. "If you're working in post-Katrina clean-up, and where half your crew lived through that event and are talking about that, for the actors it helps fuel the authentic reaction to this stuff. It's like enforced method [acting]. I think it's actually harder to make that kind of detailed, emotional, nuanced stuff if you're in a green-screen room."

Mortensen went so far beyond the call of duty physically in his bid for authenticity that Penhall has since described him as "mad as a snake". "He was very intense," Hillcoat nods. "He'd be stepping out into the rain in the middle of winter and be hosed down by the effects department. We'd be like, 'What is he doing?' He'd put dirt in the eyes. He went with it all the way."

With The Road now behind him, what's next for Hillcoat? He wants to do something with "a lot more energy and colour", and is "also looking forward to doing a very female-dominated, female-centric film", he says, giving nothing away. There are reports of a film set in West Virginia during prohibition, scripted by Cave, called The Promised Land, but at the time of writing nothing was confirmed.

One thing for certain is that whatever the director decides to do, it probably won't be a barrel of laughs. Indeed, the first Hillcoat comedy looks like being a long way off yet.

"That is a genre that I am in awe of," he says. "I think it takes a comic genius behind a script and-or behind a camera, and that's something I haven't quite got my head around yet." And there's another reason: the comic geniuses he has encountered have often been "some of the scariest, darkest, most unsettling people to be around. So I'd rather stay intact and stick to tragedy."

First appeared in The Australian, 16 January, 2010

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