Australian director John Hillcoat’s films are possessed of a spartan poetry – gruff, elegiac, macho lyrical. It began with Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in 1988, a high-tech prison drama about feuding gangs, but his form found its most eloquent expression in 2005 with The Proposition, a savage, sun-bleached western set in the ‘fresh hell’ of colonial Australia. It was The Proposition’s mixture of mordant beauty and simmering violence that put Hillcoat in the hot seat for a planned adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as he explained exclusively to LWLies at the London Film Festival.
LWLies: They’re working you hard at the festival, right? At least that means you’ve got something good on your hands.
Hillcoat: Yeah. I’ve been in other situations where I’m like, ‘Hello!’
The Road is linked to The Proposition by the idea of benighted landscapes, hopeless worlds. Is that something that you’re conscious of, those thematic parallels?
They’re both extreme worlds, I wouldn’t say necessarily hopeless, you know, because there is life out in the desert, I mean, at that point in time with The Proposition it’s more about too much sun, blasted landscape and for the people in it at that point it’s a frontier story so it was extreme conflict. But the environment does impact on them. In this sense The Road is, yeah, very much an extreme environment and impacts on the characters.
It’s a new frontier as well isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s almost like when you put characters… I mean, that’s what I love about westerns – there’s the extreme environments and it’s a blank slate, in a way, that you put these characters into. And especially if they’re at odds with that place. Obviously for the Aboriginals in the desert it’s not seen in that way and it’s not this huge obstacle, it’s actually a totally different perspective. But we were presenting the conflict of the English colonialists and empire building and the odds and the sort of savagery that that situation creates. With the post-apocalyptic thing, it’s almost the polar opposite where there’s not enough sun, it’s freezing cold and… I kept thinking of it as strangely familiar, and that’s what I loved about the book. It wasn’t this CGI spectacle, it was a very poignant thing as simple as people carrying all their possessions in a shopping cart, you know?
The idea of familiarity is fascinating in book and film. What you’ve got is civilisation reduced to the beginnings of things. So you’ve got the psychological effects of rebuilding when you’re surrounded by reminders of the world that you’ve lost that’s now out of your reach.
The fact that those things are also the things that we place so much importance on now can be totally obsolete, and corporations like Coca-Cola to someone born into that new world are completely meaningless. It’s about something else, it’s just a bubbly fizzy drink.
There’s no brand message, no new age lifestyle philosophy.
Corporations are completely dinosaurs in this world. And that was, yeah, that was great exploring that avenue. But The Man needs… Because he has of course the haunted memories of what all these things once meant. But The Boy, you know, it’s like reading a kid a story about dinosaurs or Romans, you know? It’s incredible when you look at places that have experienced either man made or natural disasters how quickly things devolve as opposed to evolve. And we’re deliberately making… We got in a reference there where The Boy picks up these things and they’re like bottle caps and one is an actual arrowhead that he’s found.
I don’t know if this is true but I’ve read that the only surviving relic of Genghis Khan and that entire civilisation is a stone tortoise in the middle of the desert. So it’s interesting how civilisations can come and go. And I think actually that is something that Cormac, the way he’s so tapped into science, he’s also making the point that, you know, there’s a real arrogance to humans and the way they dominate and try to control everything when actually we’re one of many species. So there is that kind of warning sign in terms of the corporations and the corporate world of shopping malls and all that kind of thing. And yet what he’s really focussing on is what makes us innately human no matter where we are, like the child being drawn into this without this knowledge. The Boy doesn’t have all that other world in his head and yet he’s still got fundamental things, you know, human aspects to him that make him very special.
With The Boy you can argue the religious point.
Well the story can work on… The story definitely and consciously… Cormac’s brilliant at that. It works on many different levels. I mean, you can see it as a kind of myth or parable, but definitely if you’re religiously inclined – or not – you can still see how that can translate. I actually approached it from more of a basic human level.
Talking about the corporations, do you think that’s why we’re about to land with a number of post-apocalyptic movies?
I know there’s been cycles of this since forever. It’s a projection of your worst fears but I think in recent times more than ever before a lot of this stuff has landed on our doorstep. I think we’ve been in a bubble for a long time and the bubble’s now popped to some degree. Certainly, for me, the environment is the biggest by far, it overshadows everything. But, you know, with 9/11 that’s another wave of terrorism where the chickens have come back to roost. And economically the chickens have come back to roost now. There’s wave after wave of things that are getting our attention now because we’ve buried our head in the sand for too long and I think that’s what’s brought about this cycle, I think people are just more conscious now.
The environment makes you more conscious of Cold War paranoia. Before, because nuclear war didn’t happen it seemed inevitable that it never would. But with the environment, you start to understand the fear because all of a sudden we just don’t know. It might not come to the worst, but it might do. And hopefully in 50 years we’ll look back on this period of fear and find it ridiculous. Touch wood. But we don’t know.
Exactly. It’s a wake up call as well because there’s got to be changes that are made, like with the Cold War. So I think in that sense it can be a very positive thing because it engages you on a more realistic, constructive level.
There are some people who believe that The Road is crying out to be made into a film, but the thing that makes the book beautiful is the prose – the language. How do you as a filmmaker translate a book like this?
The primary thing for me, over and above all of that, was the emotional story of the father and son, and a lot of that came out of the circumstances they were in. Like, if you get rid of all that poetry and you see just the pressures and the choices that they have to face, and then you hear their conversations and the incredibly moving things that they said, that’s when I thought, ‘Hang on, this can be a film.’ And we’re very faithful to those conversations – it was more an editing job over all to some degree. And yet there was that lingering thing of the beautiful poetic quality but Cormac understands that they’re completely different mediums, and he also helped release me of the burden. Our very first conversation was, ‘You’ve gotta do your thing.’ But I think all you can do… I mean, what I was trying to do is just be as faithful to the spirit of the book, the themes, the emotion, and then in the visual world and the music try to create a lyrical poetic quality in its own way. Hence getting this Spanish DP who would have a sensitivity and more of a poetic quality than certain other DPs in America for instance. And the music too that could add a sense of beauty. You know, I’m talking about the bits that add not just a sense of foreboding and suspense, it was more the other stuff that was about loss and beauty and all those things. But they are different. At the end of the day, they are different mediums, and the poetry works in a different way.
Do you think faithfulness can be a red herring in a way?
A red herring?
It can lead you to make wrong choices for the wrong reasons.
Well it can, but I actually think that either you do something really different, like Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness and setting it in Vietnam. Or if you can find a way to remain faithful then I think that’s a positive thing. The mystique…
This is the first conversation that Joe Penhall, who had to adapt the book into a screenplay, and I had: we realised that the legacy of McCarthy we wanted to put right to one side, and not actually feel intimidated by it. So we did actually change some key things, and yet I think it still captures the scene. A simple example is, for instance, the cannibal house. In the book they’re actually already out on the field when all that happens and there was a huge spatial change, whereas in the film they’re trapped in the house in close proximity. There’s basic things also that would never work, that are ludicrous, in the book, when you make them physically a reality. Like, running through the woods with a shopping cart in the snow… There are lots of basic things like that but I think there is a way of trying to distil what’s important. I guess that’s what it all comes down to – you find what’s important and that’s what I mean by the spirit of the book, as opposed to the red herring of being too literal.
How do you recreate a post-apocalyptic world without copying what’s gone before? Because you don’t want to make Mad Max 5 or The Postman 2. Were you worried about that?
Oh very. So much so that when I heard that Cormac… Blood Meridian was a big influence on The Proposition, when I heard that he had written a post-apocalyptic book, my heart actually sank for that very reason. All those worlds, the Mad Max, all that stuff came flooding in. But it had such an immediacy and an authenticity, you know, like the shopping cart with the possessions, and actually where we did depart from the book, even though strangely enough a lot of people say, ‘That’s exactly how I imagined it,’ and yet in the book everything is literally covered in ash. And it’s semi night in the day and it’s like that all the time. There’s no variation. So actually by putting it in to post-Katrina, into Mount St Helens, into these places, there’s a lot more familiar, recognisable imagery in there than actually, I mean, if we were really literal with the book it would be like a black-and-white world. There’s a lot more subtlety and changes of, you know, even the sun pokes through at times. Not everything is covered in ash all the time, there’s toxic spillage…
It’s anchored in our world.
And we got rid of, for instance, things like the army with the prisoners, we made it much more… And the boiler suits, we got rid of all that because, again, that felt too familiar if you visualise it so we made it more like little gangs. Deliverance was an inspiration on that level.
There was a rumour in Toronto that you and Viggo found it tense on set because of his method acting.
Came out of Toronto?
That’s what I heard… That it wasn’t the easiest environment.
That’s true. He is a very intense actor, method, and it was enforced method for all of us because we were in the middle of winter, and in actual fact when the sun was shining we were like, ‘We’ve got real problems,’ but when it was miserable weather that’s when we’d be out filming. And emotionally for him, though, it was an incredibly naked, raw journey. He and the boy were in every scene in the film. That was also a separate challenge. Like, when I read the book I was like how the hell are you going to have any engagement or momentum? So that put a strain on him and he was starving himself, you know? He was on a diet of just red meat and chocolate. But there were moments also of great humour to release all this that we all shared in. He got us all addicted to dark chocolate. And Kodi was remarkable. The one thing Viggo and I always discussed, and the whole crew, was to create a protective family for him.