It's been a long journey for The Road
, the adaptation of the bestselling Cormac McCarthy novel about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) eking out a desperate existence in a treacherous American landscape after an unspecified cataclysm wipes out nearly all traces of vegetation, wildlife and the human race. Rights were snapped up before its first 2006 printing, and director John Hillcoat, on the strength of his brutal and unflinching Australian western, The Proposition
, was tasked with bringing its colorless nightmare to life. A seemingly endless game of scheduling roulette followed -- first the Weinsteins pushed it ahead a full year, then gave it incremental nudges, until it finally landed a release date of November 25th. The final insult? A trailer
that played up the story's end-of-the-world appeal, "enhanced" with the kind of stock disaster footage you imagine Roland Emmerich using as a MacBook screensaver. I saw The Road
at a TIFF screening this morning (a review is forthcoming). Still shaken and slightly pallid from having spent my breakfast hour with a lovely gang of roving cannibals, I chatted with the actually quite affable Hillcoat about the unyielding material, his young acting discovery, and those unforeseen film biz hiccups that can get in the way.
Are you a fan of horror survival films? Zombie films? That kind of thing?
I love a lot of it but I don't go out of my way to see them. I'm very picky about the horror films I see. This really was an extreme world that just amplifies that special relationship [between the Man and the Boy], and that's what I tried to focus on. But certainly you're right, in terms of genre, there's more horror elements than apocalyptic. The setting is apocalyptic, but it's less futuristic, less about the big event, and is more about things we're already familiar with. Like carrying all your possessions in a shopping cart -- we've all seen that in the homeless. Carrying around your only possessions and sleeping rough. And we've all seen many apocalypses, just obviously not on a global scale.
So the culture of the homeless was a conscious reference point for the characters in The Road?
That was certainly referenced, and also in the book there's this incredible immediacy. For me, it works on many levels, even though it's very simple. The apocalyptic thing for me is just tapping into a parent's worst fears, and all of our worst fears about the future, and how we pass on to the next generation how they'll be when they grow it. That's really the dynamic the film's operating on.
I bet you hear the word "bleak" a lot in describing the film.
Yeah. There is that, but I mean what struck a chord with the book is not that, and hopefully what moves people in the film is not that. It's the love story. I can see why that word comes up, but that's not what the film's about.
You bristled a bit at the description.
Yeah. I mean, even Cormac said, this book is about human goodness. And I thought, yeah, of course, that's right. It's just by setting it in that bleakness and that paranoid world, extreme environments bring out the best and the worst in people. So what we're actually seeing is the best. Because the Boy becomes the moral compass -- he's born into this world, he doesn't even have the benefit of experiencing what we once had. And yet he's still human, so he teaches the father in the end. I think it's very moving in that way. One generation has to pass the fire to the next generation. To me, that's the essence, and I always try to go back to that in the film.
Early on in the film there's a pretty difficult scene involving the threat of suicide. What were some of the challenges with directing Kodi in material like that, and also in finding and maintaining an appropriate mood on the set?
Certainly working with a kid was my biggest fear, and I almost didn't want to go ahead with this project just because of that. How does a child actor pull that off, and how can you expose them to all this as well? We did see kids who were 7 and 8 years old and they were too young, and the whole dynamic -- especially the transition at the end when he begins to stand on his own two feet -- you wouldn't buy that with a 7 or 8 year old.
Kodi was mature beyond his years, and that was an influence of how he got cast. I had asked for a very neutral scene from all the kids for their auditions, but his tape came from Australia, and his father is an actor and played the father in the scene. And it was the scene you just brought up. So that was basically saying, look, my kid can handle this. But then I had to meet the kid, because I was also concerned.
The rare parental interference that worked out.
I was worried about that. I was skeptical, because chemistry is so important. But when I met him in L.A., I was down to four kids, and I saved Kodi for last. I had an instinct that this was going to be the right kid. Sure enough, it turns out that his father had already read him the whole book. They're a serious acting family. [Kodi] could clearly see the line between fiction and reality.
So what we did on the shoot, we used a lot of black humor, and Kodi was a kid whenever he got a chance. I encouraged him when he wasn't working to hang out with other kids from the shoot, to counter the set. He needed the contrast. He is extraordinary. Two great gifts came my way -- the book, before it was published, and Kodi. He's incredibly professional, incredibly intuitive. All the other actors were just like, wow.
There was some controversy over the film's first trailer, and the fact that [Dimension Films and The Weinstein Company] had chosen to insert scenes of destruction that had nothing to do with the film. I wonder if you could talk about that?
Well, yeah -- there was controversy. From me as well.
What was their justification to you?
Well, I'll tell you. Look -- it's a hard, big, difficult film to market, and we always discussed a two-pronged marketing attack. Which was one, for the people who hadn't read the book. Their argument was to give them a little more context, and try to show the more genre elements to that audience. And then, in time, with other stuff -- there are going to be a few more teaser trailers to come -- they were going to refer more to the book. So it's those two [approaches], and I can understand that from a marketing point of view.
Personally, yeah, that was a tricky thing. Even music, I can understand why so many trailers don't even utilize the score of a film. I have issues with all trailers. I think trailers need more variation and more imagination and be more truthful to what the film is.
It seems using footage you hadn't shot crosses some kind of line.
I would think. I was worried, and I'm actually relying on you guys, in fact -- and I think they know this as well. I personally think it doesn't make sense to use footage that you haven't shot.