The Lawless director explains how on-set tension provided the spark for his bootlegging drama.
Over the last seven years, John Hillcoat has directed two brutal dramas that draw raw emotion out of their chosen environments. The Proposition, a grimy pseudo-western set in the oppressive climes of the Australian Outback, was Hillcoat’s third feature, made in 2005 after a near-10-year hiatus from filmmaking. His 2009 adaptation of 'The Road', Cormac McCarthy’s austere post-apocalyptic novel, saw a man and his son traipsing through the embers of civilisation.
Now he's turned his eye to Prohibiton-era America for his gut-punching bootlegging drama, Lawless, which Hillcoat laid bare when he visited LWLies HQ back in June.
LWLies: The shoot itself is often cited as the hardest part of the filmmaking process. Is that true in your experience?
Hillcoat: Yeah. In terms of burning resources, it’s the most pressurised in terms of time and money. That time and money equation haunts all filmmakers, and that’s where it really comes to the fore. Because in pre-production and post production you have less crew, and you’re not demanding all of the equipment, et cetera.
How much does extreme location shooting – the Outback’s 45-degree heat in The Proposition, for example – inspire those extreme, intense performances?
The location really becomes like a character that the actors work off of or react to. It’s more like working with another member of the cast, and they all sort of fire, because they’re all upping their game a bit, because they’re all out in it together.
Lawless isn’t set in as extreme a climate. How did you capture that intensity this time around?
Well, true. Climate-wise, it wasn’t extreme. What was extreme was it was the tightest schedule I’ve ever been involved with, and likewise with the cast and the crew, so that was a different sort of pressure. Being in remote Georgia, the backwoods of remote Georgia, had its own kinds of challenges. Less climate and more environmental. Finding decent food was a little challenging! But I had a great relationship with the actors, and they were very supportive. We all had this huge challenge of trying to get the scenes done in a very short time. So there was a sense of urgency and focus while on set, but I’ve learned that when you have Alpha Males, you need a really strong woman there, and Jessica [Chastain] was enormously helpful.
Did that pressure ever boil over from the performance to the on-set rapport?
Actors certainly tend to echo some dramas off-screen, and there were some of those. Including Shia [LaBeouf] trying to court Mia [Wasikowska], and that not working out. The brothers. A very intense and close relationship between Jason and Tom and Shia. So yeah, there were moments, definitely. The research! These guys did their research, so when it came to moonshine, that was a problem!
As a director, how do you control that drama?
The key is rehearsals. That and research. Some actors really like it, the prep. We had a rehearsal where we had Nick Cave come in. And he, being the writer, being there with the actors, was really helpful and useful. Nick showed up like a rock star every day – three piece suit, jewellry, and leather shoes – while the actors rolled up in t-shirts and tracksuits. So there was a great period where we all got to know each other in that rehearsal room, while we were going through the script. All airing our views. It was the time to discuss stuff that you don’t have time to on the set. And then, I learn very quickly through that process how each actor works and what their needs are, and every actor is as different as we all have personalities. So in other words, there are general methods or approaches, but every single one is actually different from each other, and I’ve tried to work out whatever it is that gets them there.
There’s a famous story about Marathon Man, that fantastic film with Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier. Dustin Hoffman was a marathon runner, and his background came from method and he was relentlessly running around... really pushing his body. And Lawrence Olivier, finally, one day, turned to him and said ‘have you tried acting?’ And that’s very much the Lawrence Olivier approach, which is trained theatre technique. But, if you look at that film, they’re both fantastic. It’s one of Dustin Hoffman’s best performances. It’s also one of Lawrence Olivier’s best performances. And so, certainly some approaches are easier for everyone to work with than others, but I’ve developed enough respect for what an actor has to do, which is be truthful in that moment under all this pressure, and not seem to be acting. To really drag up the emotions in that way, in front of everything, I think it’s so amazing. And it should be respected, so I try to run with whatever it is.
But the Marathon Man shoot, quite famously, wasn’t exactly relaxed. Is there tension when actors use different approaches on set?
There definitely is. However, the rehearsal period was the thing that broke that down. Sometimes those things would bubble up in the shoot, but there was a mutual respect that we found in rehearsals. As soon as you get the mutual respect, then you’re all in it together. If someone wants time listening to their music as a trigger, that’s what they get. I remember that on The Proposition, too. Ray Winstone would be having the whole crew in stitches, and then within literally seconds of rolling, he would be in one of his most intense internal moments. Whereas Emily Watson, she just opened herself up and let all of her defences down, and we all had to be incredibly respectful and we’d need to lead her in and she would go. Both were mindblowing. So it keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure. But I’ve found if actors are seeing the results, and work off of those, that’s where there’s an excitement and if anything they start to protect each other and nurture each other. That’s when it gets really magical. That’s my favourite moment, when actors can do that.
Does that happen often?
It’s like pulling teeth, those moments! I was very fortunate, because people knew the pressures. They knew we had to get things within a few takes, so that really ramps up the focus. But then you’re also finding all these other technical issues - is it in focus? Did we get sound interference? Or is the weather turning? Are we losing light? And all that kind of stuff. Luck plays a huge part of it. Most filmmakers bizarrely don’t talk about it, but it is huge. It’s very rocky. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride, except that you can’t get off.
What’s the best way to guard against potential disaster, then? Is it professionalism?
Yeah, I think if there’s this kind of common effort, then I think that they want to raise each other’s game. They feel invested in the characters, and what we’re trying to do, and the world. That’s where the environment is great, because if they’re out on location, they feel it. I don’t know how the hell those actors that spend a whole film in the green screen studio do it. It’s just beyond me, how they do that.
So it’s sort of like a pooled, joint effort. And the reason we go through all this hell, actually, is for when that creative spark happens. That’s what we’re all in it for. If you’re not in it for that reason, you don’t want to work with those people again. They’re the ones you want to avoid like the plague, because it’s that creative spark that makes it so exciting. If there wasn’t that, it would be like, why bother?