The On the Road director talks improvisation, adventure and the tension between freedom and family.
It's been a long and restless journey for Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles from the movie that first caught Hollywood's eye, 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries, to the film he's been desperate to make ever since he started out in the business, On the Road. LWLies sat down with Salles back in May at the Cannes Film Festival to get the inside track of how he went about bringing a literary icon to the big screen.
LWLies: Tell us a little bit about the journey of On the Road.
Salles: When I did The Motorcycle Diaries we really went back on the same tracks that Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado had followed to travel from Buenos Aires all the way up to Venezuela. And that was easy to do because the Latin American landscape is like wild frontier still, but North American geography has been so homogenised by Wall Mart and fast food chains that sometimes you can drive a thousand miles and find the exact same architecture. So we had to go way further and drift away from freeways to enter the backroads and find the last frontier that they were aiming to reach. This took us in different directions in North America.
We shot in several deserts in Arizona, California. It took us to New Orleans, for the Bull Lee part; to San Francisco, which was such an important part of the journey. But to find the true virgin territory was entered northern Canada and Mexico and eventually Patagonia to catch the heavy snows there. That was an extraordinary part of this adventure because we could actually drift in a territory I knew well because of The Motorcycle Diaries, although I had refused to shoot there because it reminded me too much of New Jersey when we did the location scouting. So when we were looking for snow in New Jersey [for On the Road] I knew where to find it.
Did the experience differ this time round, travelling with a much bigger crew and with a greater budget at your disposal?
The fact that we were in the Hudson most of the time – the car that they use – really gave us a freedom that we wouldn’t have if we were shooting in an open set. Many times the Hudson became like a second unit. It was more than a vehicle, we rehearsed in it and it became a place where we would talk about the script and improvise. There’s a moment in the film where a hitchhiker sing a song a cappella; he’s this guy called Jake La Botz, who’s a great composer but also an actor who was in Steve Buscemi’s early films. Buscemi was the person who made the link between him and us. There’s an improvisation in that moment, when he sings in the car, that we were able to shoot independent of the rest of the crew. So the fact that you’re doing a road movie somehow allows you to escape from the weight of a large production. I come from a documentary film background, so the lighter the set the better it is for me. When you’re shooting in Canada or the United States where you’re obliged to follow certain rules you sometimes end up with a crew that is large than you had dreamt. What you have to try to create is a sense of family in which everybody is looking in the same direction.
How important was it for you try to capture the spontaneous tone of the book?
Very because the book is so infused with jazz and the cult of spontaneity, which we had to try and find on the spot. It became our main goal. So whenever an actor wanted to change a line or try something out we were always very open to that. When Viggo Mortensen arrived in New Orleans to play William Burroughs [Bull Lee] he not only had some incredible research about what he wore but he had brought the typing machine, the Underwood, that he used. And he also brought a second typewriter and the guns that he owned and last but not least did some research into what he was reading at the time. This allowed for improvisation that were not in the original script: there’s a whole bit with Celine and how translation becomes treason which made it into the final edit but was not in the script. So at some point the actors became co-authors of the narrative.
I’ve always been much more attracted by the things I don’t know yet rather than the things I’ve already confronted. In many ways I’m much more tempted to travel to a place I’ve never been to before than to stop and read poetry for a while. I used to live a very nomadic life. I travelled a lot in my life and moved around a lot. Now I have two children – three and five years old – so I don’t live that way anymore, even though the urge for adventure is still there. I have two options facing me: to live a quiet life close to home with my family, or to buy them little backpacks and take them with me.
On the Road started way before my children were born, and I think honestly I would have given it a second thought if I had started it now. But the attraction I have for the unknown isn’t going away. I don’t like repetition; I’m always looking for the next thing. On the other hand I’m fascinated by the fact my children are now discovering the possibilities of language. I’m witnessing something I have never witnessed before, which I them discovering a brand new world. The key to life is curiosity. If you don’t keep that alive then there’s nothing to live for.
Which film in the last five years do you wish you’d made and why?
What is your greatest professional regret?
I think you’re always confronted by little decisions and small regrets throughout your life. Sometimes turning down a project can be very difficult, especially if people expected you to do it because you aren’t able to fulfil that expectation. I was once invited to do the second installment of a very popular action franchise with a very bright actor who I greatly admire. I didn’t think I could do it as well as I needed to do it, but when I saw the film when it was done I realised it was the right decision because I don’t think I would have done it as well. If I could go back and change anything it would be to have had the courage to say no more often.
What is your most memorable moment on set?
After principal photography finished we took the Hudson all the way from New York to Los Angeles on a second unit journey with five people, including Garrett [Hedlund], and retraced the journey of ‘On the Road’. In doing that we were really able to immerse ourselves fully in the book, but it also allowed us to improvise as freely as possible because we didn’t know where we were going to sleep or how many miles we were going to drive before the next stop. The only thing we were sure of, being in a ’49 Hudson, is that we would meet a certain number of mechanics along the way.
Who is your idol?
Pep Guardiola. Not only because of the brilliant strategist that he is in his field, but also the humanity that he brings to the sport and the courage to say no in moments of extreme pressure. Football is by far my main interest outside of cinema.
What will you be remembered for?
It’s interesting because you’re asking me to really analyse myself here. I think people tend to be remembered not only by what they do from a professional standpoint but what they do in moments of silence and intimacy. I recently lost a very dear friend and somebody told me that part of us died with him but a part of him continues with us, and I think that’s true. We’re remembered directly by the friends and loved ones that we shared our lives with, and as a filmmaker I guess I’ll be remembered by the public through the films I’ve made. I think that too many aspects of our lives are public. Again, a reason I admire Guardiola is because he’s granted himself the time to study, to develop professional goals, but also he’s looking after his personal future by taking time away from the game.