The Road Again

Source: Premiere (France)

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003prem_road.jpg
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
 
A sad day: the weather's beautiful. John Hillcoat, is relaxed but amused and ironic about this stroke of bad luck. The blinding sunshine on this early spring day is a menace, for him and for the production of his film The Road, in which all the action takes place on gloomy days - i.e. the total opposite of today.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, the story follows the wanderings of a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic world. Sensing a worsening in the climate, the pair, somberly named in the novel only as "the man" and "the boy" make their way to the coast, where better weather may permit them to survive. And just as these characters flee their winter, John Hillcoat tries to escape the spring.

A film-maker raised in the US, Canada and Europe, Hillcoat made his debut in his native Australia, filming music videos, notably for Nick Cave, with whom he has had ties for years. His first long film, Ghosts...of the living dead, in 1990, still has a reputation as the most intense prison movie ever filmed. After the forgettable To Have and To Hold, in 1996, with Tcheky Caryo, Hillcoat came back in 2005 with The Proposition, an Australian western written by Nick Cave, with Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Emily Watson. A first-class movie, but not released in France.

The Road is his first American film. It came together pretty quickly due to the reputation of the author of the novel, Cormac McCarthy, (whose novels had already been adapted for the screen, by Billy Bob Thornton in All the Pretty Horses, and by the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men). Hillcoat is a long-standing fan of the writer, such that McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian (1985) heavily influenced The Proposition. Just before the publication of The Road in the USA, in 2006, Hillcoat read a review which captivated him: "I love extreme worlds, and as always with McCarthy, the environment and the landscape are essential characters. The difference may be that The Road is a little more personal and emotional." In the time it took for scriptwriter Joe Penhall to write the script and Hillcoat to get financing, the project got the green light.

A Devastated Setting

Just as the book remains very vague about the cause of the disaster, (a few lines describe a recollection of a blinding light followed by a fireball) the film-maker decided to omit any explanation, opening up the way for theories: nuclear war, industrial accident, natural catastrophe, or maybe all of these at the same time.

The result is that the planet is dying. There are no more reserves of energy, no trees, almost no animals. The survivors get their nourishment from whatever has not already been pillaged.

It goes without saying that for this film, the set is a major factor. John Hillcoat has stuck to using real countryside as much as possible. With his chief set designer Chris Kennedy, he criss-crossed Pennsylvania, Ohio, Louisiana, Washington State and Oregon to find the necessary devastated plains, dead trees, abandoned freeways, and houses in ruins. "In removing all traces of life," explains the film-maker, "we get to a world which is almost monochromatic, except for bits of plastic." He adds "But it's a poisoned world, polluted with ashes and debris.We would like to make it as crude and visceral as possible, yet also with a lyrical quality."

The place where we are filming is situated in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Having fallen victim to de-industrialization, its inhabitants abandoned the place en masse in the 1980s, leaving two-thirds of its buildings empty. There, a scene is being filmed in which the central theme is the man finding his old home. In this morning's schedule, is a sequence in which the boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) believes he has spotted another kid of his own age, and sets off in pursuit, until his father catches him and tells him he was dreaming.

The landscape is utilised as it is. The production team add to it a good layer of artificial ash, replenished for each new take by a dumptruck. Since the beginning of the shoot in March, the cold, the rain and the snow have favoured the movie. But on this 28th day (out of 50),the spring weather foretells of increasing difficulties. The actors have to look as though they are cold (it may be necessary to add a trail of mist on the breath coming from their mouths in post-production) and they are finding it more and more uncomfortable to wear their multiple layers of clothing. Even worse, the leaves are coming out on the trees.

What's important for the visual is just as important for the aural: the twittering of the birds is incongruous in a lifeless desert, just as much as the sounds of a train or of a police siren. The sound engineer, who had similar difficulties on Sean Penn's movie Into the Wild, has to make do with uni-directional microphones. To add to the atmosphere, Hillcoat will later add wind, and what he describes as "the vibrations of a traumatised earth."

As for the music, it will be very minimalist: "probably no background music" elaborates the director. Musical sections will be very rare and utilized as contrast. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (who did the music for The Proposition) are already working on it.

The Director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others & Mar Adentro, by Alejandro Amenabar) tries out the part where the boy glimpses another kid in the window of a building. But Kodi's shadow on the sunlit road spoils it. The scene is moved ten metres, to a place where the sun has not yet arrived. Hillcoat has time for just two takes and regrets not having more time, to provide more coverage.

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Image Macall Polay/Premiere (France).
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
 
A Hero on Borrowed Time

A tramp comes down the street towards the team. Dressed in rags that look like they have been on his back for the last 6 months, he looks nothing like the remaining handful of occupants of the area. It's Viggo Mortensen, ready to start filming. His clothes are props, but the thick beard and hair are his own. So is his emaciation. Before accepting the role, he was coming out of two solid years of non-stop intense work and had sworn to take a rest. He had arranged a series of exhibitions of his photography, but as soon as Hillcoat got him to read the script of The Road, he understood that he could not refuse the role. And look at the positive side: "I was in a state of physical and mental exhaustion which fitted very well with the role." The only other thing he needed to do was to let his beard grow.

Viggo listened to certain music, read certain poets and writers like Schopenhauer, who had written on the subject of compassion. In addition he went to talk with down-and-outs, who were all different: "Some were quiet, some aggressive, some confused." But they had in common a mentality "in which the important thing was to keep pushing forward."

Viggo likes the book, but thinks that the film with its visual dimension could go even further: "I'm not saying the film will be better than the book, but maybe nearer to the bone, more brutal. There will be nothing there but the revelation of the characters and their feelings. The photography is magnificent, but it's not pretty to look at."

One of the reasons which pushed him to take this role was that notion of compassion. "People are capable of compassion even in the most difficult circumstances. But they can also forget compassion during periods when they are totally stressed. And yet it's not possible to be any more stressed than the characters in the book: they are dying of hunger and despair."

Because his character has a child to protect, he is always on his guard, suspicious of all the people they meet. Yet when the camera stops rolling,Viggo is nothing like this borderline recluse. He gives, unsparingly, indiscriminately, ceaselessly. What's good for him is good for everyone. So the whole team benefits from his yen for chocolate, going through an entire bagful of chocolate bars every day, at his insistence. He has a weakness for a special variety, a mix of bacon and milk chocolate.

He also distributes books of his own photography, poems, his CD (on which he plays piano) and books collected during his travels in Eastern Europe.

By the afternoon, the sun has disappeared, as promised by the weather forecast. Hillcoat can film one of the rare scenes of conflict, during which the father prevents his son from pursuing the ghost-like kid. And during every re-take, the two actors continuously display the same strong emotions. The scene will be filmed from various angles for the rest of the afternoon with the same intensity in every take.

A Child Prodigy

Kodi is phenomenal.He is 11 years old, three years older than the boy in the novel. Multiple auditions were held in the USA, England and Australia. The 8-year-olds were clearly too young: by choosing one of them Hillcoat would have risked losing out on some of the complexity of emotion. In agreement with McCarthy, the director expanded his search and in the end, came across Kodi. The interaction between the young Australian and Viggo is astonishing. His senior cannot find the words to describe the mix of instinct and intelligence that makes Kodi's work consistently, unerringly creative and good. Equally ecstatic, Hillcoat confirms that this is one of the best actors with whom he has ever worked. The film owes him plenty.

Whilst waiting, the battle with the good weather continues. At the end of the day, the team receives the schedule for the second half of the shoot. Apparently, the scenes on Mount St Helens have been removed. Shame for the dead trees.

Behind the make-up trailer, Viggo waves his hand. In their dark sockets, his blue eyes shine with greater fervour than ever.
Last edited: 19 May 2008 10:30:07
© Premiere (France).