Australian director John Hillcoat creates a bleak universe on film and brings it to life with an incredible cast in his latest film, The Road, an epic post-apocalyptic tale about the survival of a father and his young son as they journey across a barren America destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm. Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road stars Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and young newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee.
While The Road is a tough movie to watch, it’s an incredible story and something worth your time. We recently had the pleasure to speak with John Hillcoat and our interview is after the jump. He talks about making the film, casting, film stock, why did he shoot in Pennsylvania, working with Viggo, and a lot more. It’s a great interview so take a look:
Q: How did you find Kodi?
JH: Well firstly through absolute luck. That was because I had actually, with my casting director, Francine Maisler, combed across America and Canada. We looked at Britain and very late in the day we had a great short list of kids and then some friends said “Oh, you’ve got to look at this Australian kid.” We went to any sort of drama clubs. We put out flyers in our schools. We looked, of course, at all the agencies and looked at other work, at other kids working in film. We even put it out there by word of mouth for any boys that had certain qualities. It was basically what they call a very wide net – looking at non-professionals, kids just dabbling in drama theater, all the way up to kids that have been doing film work.
What’s crazy is I thought this is an American story and what I forgot, of course, is he can pick up [the accent]. When I was looking in Britain, I was thinking that’s tough, because accents, I mean, the emotion has to be so raw and real. How do you then make a kid have to work with dialogue coaches and that’s why I ruled it out. Of course, what I forgot is that kids in Australia grow up with American television and all of that. They absorb. That’s why Aussies are so good at American accents and now it’s firmly implanted. We had a top dialogue coach, one of the great dialogue coaches in America, work with Kodi. After one hour, he walked out and said, “You’re wasting your money. I don’t need to come to set. He’s fine.” So he didn’t have a single dialogue coach on set at any point. Again, that’s a great gift.
The fact that he looks like Charlize (Theron), just the physical resemblance, is incredible. It was again an added thing. But, I had heard he’d done a film in Australia, “Romulus, My Father,” and I saw the trailer and thought he looked interesting. I got him to put something on tape because we were going to audition these kids with Viggo (Mortensen) and see how they work. He put all this extra material on tape that I would have never asked any kid to do. His real father is an actor and his sister is an actor – they’re like this acting gypsy family. His real father played the father on the tapes and did scenes that – it was like “Whoa!” To me, it was obviously a message saying “Hey, my kid can handle this” or it’s “ring Child Services” (laughs) and I was like “Oh, which way?” Then I talked to other people in Australia because he had done this film. It’s just one of those things where some kids are mature way beyond their years.
When he arrived, his father had already read him the whole book. He understands on a level like drama and yet he’s a kid. We encouraged that on set the whole time. Viggo was teaching him all the sword moves from “Lord of the Rings” and he’s into skateboarding. He was really unaffected. I mean, he understood in a profound way what the scenes were about.
Q: There’s a remarkable and consistent look in this film, but to get that rich a palette of grey in an ostensibly color film, lighting conditions have to be pretty specific. You must have had the strangest fights with the weather while filming this?
JH: It was tough. Yeah. It was a huge challenge. Javier Aguirresarobe, our Spanish DP, is a very fiery, passionate man. He would be charging out like it was the happiest day in all our lives when it was just raining sideways, horrible weather. And then, when it was beautiful, stunning blue sky and sun amongst this Pennsylvania winter, he would be just beside himself, cursing, because he had to then block that sun out. Then, we had to use visual effects to get rid of the blue sky. It was a nightmare.
Q: Did you have to use any special kind of film stock?
JH: No, no. He did underexpose it a little just to get a lower contrast because the idea is sun is all about contrast so we did do [that] but nothing too forced. Even though it feels like it, we did actually depart from the book in the sense that everything in the book was literally covered in ash and grey is used over and over — grey, grey, grey – and there’s more of a heavy black. He talks about in the middle of the day even, it’s almost semi-night. Obviously we couldn’t take it that far and I think it would have been too much visually, so there are some bits of color in there and we really protected that little bit whether it was the plastic bottle or… We tried to get it in camera first. The locations were the key. Then we had physical effects – spraying some biodegradable grey paper around and dressing. We had a brilliant production designer, Chris Kennedy, who is a legend in his own right throughout all of Australia, and another Aussie, Margot Wilson, did the wardrobe. Our references were the homeless. I mean, that was the thing about the trolley and all the possessions. In fact, I was actually surprised that that hasn’t been used in apocalyptic films because of course that’s what you would do.
Q: Where exactly did you shoot in Pennsylvania?
JH: Well, we did go to Lake Erie. We went to Breezewood. That’s where the interstate is with the abandoned tunnels. The irony is that’s where we actually found – and it says something about technology which is a bit scary – but my production designer, Chris Kennedy, in Australia in the countryside saw it on his computer and found 90 per cent of those locations while we had all these location scouts. That Breezewood one he found on an obscure website called “Lost and Abandoned” where people just send in photos of things that are lost and abandoned. And then he also used Google Earth and he literally spent 3 – and I’m not exaggerating – 3 weeks full time scanning America with Google Earth – like finding and zooming in. It’s unbelievable the information because you can see the dark patches and that’s where he came across the – he actually discovered those huge ash piles outside. I’m trying to remember. Again, it’s outside of Pittburgh but quite deep into Pennsylvania. Then we went to Lake Erie as well but that was towards the end of the film.
Q: So the Lake was the ocean?
JH: Yes. We didn’t want all that big, bustling sea, like Oregon, those big waves rolling in. We wanted a kind of stillness as we get to the end to focus it straight on to the kid and the father.
Q: The book has no explanation as to what disaster has happened and the characters have no names. How important was it to you to keep that in the film?
JH: Both were essential because I think that’s one of the great things about the book. And again, that actually focused the spotlight onto the father and son’s relationship because the more you go on about the big event – and to me actually it finally unlocked the key of why. I actually had my own gripe about apocalyptic films, so much so that when I heard this unpublished manuscript by one of my favorite authors of all time was coming my way, my heart sank as soon as they said it’s an apocalyptic tale of a father and son. I just thought “Oh no! Cormac, what have you done?”
But then, when I read it, I realized I carried all that baggage of the big spectacle and the thing I realized in analyzing it is, the bigger that spectacle, the less there is of the human dimension and then it becomes more just about spectacle. Also, it becomes irrelevant because if you ever did survive something like that, it’s about the here and now and how do you get through the next stage. It’s not about analyzing and discussing.
Also, I interpreted it as a kind of projection anyway of humanity’s worst fear and every parent’s worst fear and every individual’s worst fear, which is coming to an end and how do you move on and are your loved ones prepared. How do you leave things when it’s your time? So, it’s all that.
Also, because it’s those themes, it had this strange mythical quality because it didn’t give people specific names or say it was a nuclear war and this is Frank and George and Carrie and all that. Do you know what I mean? It just gave it a more… Like Cormac says, it’s like a parable about human goodness and it kind of preserves that quality because then everyone can feed into their own interpretations. And yet, it felt really familiar and very specific. There are two incredible tasks that I think the book managed which was this macro vision and yet an incredibly intimate, personal journey and there was this non-specific mythic thing and yet very specific everywhere you go.
Q: Was Viggo a part of it from the very first?
JH: Yeah, he came to mind. We were trying to get in touch with him. Of course, in these situations, you always need a couple of people. I was trying to — I kept going back to his face in that and something about “The Grapes of Wrath” and in the Dust Bowl heading for California, there’s something about I can just see him. To me, that’s apocalyptic, it’s similar. And then I looked at father and son relationships and I was amazed that in film there’s very few. There’s mainly tyrannical or absent fathers.
Another great source of inspiration was “The Bicycle Thieves” and again the face of that character reminded me of Viggo. I forget the actor’s name. [Lamberto Maggiorani] I’m terrible with names. What an amazing film. Again, that’s a father and son under incredible pressure and it’s about human goodness where the father – because when people are under pressure, it brings out the best and worst and the child does save the father.
Q: We heard Viggo lost a lot of weight and spent 3 months walking barefoot and also didn’t bathe to stay in character.
JH: Yeah. He slept in his clothes. He got chucked out of places. “Who’s this homeless bum. Get out of here.” They called in security.
Q: What was your stance on this? Did you support him in this?
JH: I support him. Look, I think what actors have to do, what performers have to do to emotionally get to that place and have a camera and have your face 20 feet high on a screen, is such an incredible thing. There are different schools. There’s the Method. You could say Viggo is very Method and yet actually there are a lot of things about him that aren’t. The more I work with actors, the more I’ve realized that as much as every person has a personality, there’s that many approaches to acting, so it’s a way of just how do they get to… I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous story from “Marathon Man” of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. They’re both valid. They’re both right because in that film they’re both unbelievable. So, to me, it doesn’t matter. You need to support and find a way of just getting there.
I mean, we did discuss limits. I didn’t want Viggo to starve himself to a point where it would become distracting and that’s what you start thinking about rather than what’s happening between him and the boy and all of that. It’s an intense experience when someone’s diving into a winter ocean with dangerous currents and signs everywhere saying “Do not swim” and having stunt guys on ski jets and him not wearing a wire. All that’s pretty hairy. But, it’s that level of commitment that you can see in the performance. It’s unbelievable.
Q: This movie was originally scheduled to come out about a year ago and it’s been changed some since then. Can you tell us what those changes were?
JH: Well, very simply, it wasn’t ready to come out a year ago and I’m a little frustrated that release date ever came out because that was unachievable. It was overambitious because of the momentum of the book — but hang on, we’re making a movie here, and the end of May we discovered one of our locations, Mount St. Helens, was 20 feet under snow. So, we had to start editing and then go back again at the end of July. It was tough – fighting the weather and then CGI. That was our last resort but we had to go there so many times because it’s amazing, no matter all these places you go to, there’ll still be jet streams of jets in there or birds and all that stuff. And then, in the edit, there’s the delicacy of the balance of getting what you leave in and what you leave out and to protect that journey. The more cannibal stuff, the more that journey gets overwhelmed and becomes something else. For all those reasons and to get the film right, we couldn’t have released it. It simply wasn’t ready.
Q: That had nothing to do with Oscar campaign strategies?
JH: No. To be honest, we always thought the perfect time of year [would be] in the fall. It’s not a summer movie, is it? (Laughs) Actually I cannot think of a better date than Thanksgiving given the themes of the film and giving thanks for what we have. That’s the whole idea of why we enhance the flashbacks and put a bit more in just as a reminder. It’s kind of bizarrely lucky because when they choose a release date, it’s about what they’re going up against. So, it’s actually the other films and the other circumstances and we just happened to land on Thanksgiving, which I think is pretty great and fortuitous.
Q: I wondered about the boy in relation to this Method acting approach. Did he go back to the hotel at night and…
JH: …and sleep in his clothes. (Laughs)
Q: I can’t imagine that he did, but how did he relate to Viggo doing this?
JH: It was like the way they both reacted to being in these locations. It was like it gave a reality to something. He would have had a hellish time trying to get those emotions and get to that place if it was a green screen comfort studio. Actually it gave it a visceral reality. But Viggo, by the way, this is where the Method departs and we encourage this — when we stopped filming, he would be teaching Kodi how to swordfight from the “Lord of the Rings” so there was all that going on as well. Kodi was more into the sword moves than your toenail’s bleeding, and I think the level of commitment is something that actually brought them together on screen in a dynamic way. But they worked very differently. Kodi was just like in and out of being a kid and then just like “Oh yeah, this scene. Of course, I remember losing my dog.” A great thing happened just to illustrate Kodi though. He was trying to get his head around the Duvall scene. The night before, he and his father saw this mangy dog that was blind in one eye. Kodi is such a gentle, kind kid that he was feeding it and throwing some fries to it and his father pointed out “That’s it,” and the next day he treated Duvall like this kind of strange disadvantaged dog (laughs) because he was so unfamiliar with how to inter-relate and Duvall was like this kind of damaged animal.
The Road opens in theaters on November 25th. Hillcoat is currently in development on Joe Petrosino with Benicio Del Toro attached; The Wettest County in the World, with Nick Cave writing; and Mob Cops with Terence Winter writing.