Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father …
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
Erie, Pa. -- Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, takes place in a world that, because of some unexplained catastrophe, has just about ended. The sky is gray, the rivers are black, and color is just a memory. The landscape is covered in ash, with soot falling perpetually from the air. The cities are blasted and abandoned. The roads are littered with corpses either charred or melted, their dreams, Mr. McCarthy writes, "ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts."
For the crew that has just finished filming the movie version of The Road -- a joint production of 2929 and Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films, set to open in November -- that meant an upending of the usual rules of making a movie on location. Bad weather was good and good weather bad. "A little fog, a little drizzle -- those are the good days," Mark Forker, the movie's director of special effects, remarked one morning in late April while the crew was shooting some of the final scenes in the book on a stretch of scraggly duneland by the shore of Lake Erie here. "Today is a bad day," he added, shaking his head and squinting.
The sky was blue, the sun so bright that crew members were smearing on sunscreen. A breeze was carrying away the fog pumping feebly from a smoke machine. Even worse, green grass was sprouting everywhere, and there were buds on the trees. Some of the crew had hand-stripped a little sapling of greenery, but the rest of the job would have to be done electronically by Mr. Forker, who was also in charge of sky replacement.
The Road began filming in late February, mostly in and around Pittsburgh, with a later stop in New Orleans and a postproduction visit planned to Mount St. Helens. The producers chose Pennsylvania, one of them, Nick Wechsler, explained, because it's one of the many states that give tax breaks and rebates to film companies and, not incidentally, because it offered such a pleasing array of post-apocalyptic scenery: deserted coalfields, run-down parts of Pittsburgh, windswept dunes. Chris Kennedy, the production designer, even discovered a burned-down amusement park in Lake Conneaut and an eight-mile stretch of abandoned freeway, complete with tunnel, ideal for filming the scene where the father and son who are the story's main characters are stalked by a cannibalistic gang travelling by truck.
The director of The Road is an Australian, John Hillcoat, best known for The Proposition, and many crew members were Aussies as well. In conversation the Mad Max movies, the Australian post-apocalyptic thrillers starring Mel Gibson, came up a lot, and not favorably. The team saw those movies, set in a world of futuristic bikers, as a sort of antimodel: a fanciful, imaginary version of the end of the world, not the grim, all-too-convincing one that Mr. McCarthy had depicted.
"What's moving and shocking about McCarthy's book is that it's so believable," Mr. Hillcoat said. "So what we wanted is a kind of heightened realism, as opposed to the Mad Max thing, which is all about high concept and spectacle. We're trying to avoid the clichés of apocalypse and make this more like a natural disaster." He imagined the characters less as Mad Max-ian freaks outfitted in outlandish biker wear, he added, than as homeless people. They wear scavenged, ill-fitting clothing and layers of plastic bags for insulation.
The script for The Road, by Joe Penhall, is for the most part extremely faithful to Mr. McCarthy's story of a father and son traveling alone through this blighted landscape and trying to keep alive the idea of goodness and civilization -- the fire, they call it. The script does enlarge and develop in flashback the role of the man's wife (played by Charlize Theron), who disappears quite early from the novel, choosing suicide rather than what she imagines will be starvation or worse. And of course the script lacks Mr. McCarthy's heightened, almost biblical narrative style.
Some of that could be suggested by the look of the film, Mr. Hillcoat said, but mostly the nature of the bond between the man and the son, who in the script, as in the book, speak to each other in brief, freighted moments, would have to come out in the performances.
Viggo Mortensen, who plays the father, said the same thing. "It's a love story that's also an endurance contest," he explained, and quickly added: "I mean that in a positive way. They're on this difficult journey, and the father is basically learning from the son. So if the father-son thing doesn't work, then the movie doesn't work. The rest of it wouldn't matter. It would never be more than a pretty good movie. But with Kodi in it, it has a chance to be an extremely good movie, maybe even a great one."
Kodi is Kodi Smit-McPhee, an 11-year-old Australian who plays the son and bowled everyone over when he tested for the part, greatly reducing the anxiety filmmakers feel when casting a child. Some of the crew privately referred to him as the Alien because of the uncanny, almost freakish way that on a moment's notice he switched accents and turned himself from a child into a movie star. Days after the filming of a climactic, emotional scene, people on the set were still marveling at Kodi's performance. A couple said they had puddled up just from watching the monitor and needed to sneak a tear-dabbing finger behind their sunglasses.
In the novel the father and son have a relationship that is both tender and businesslike; they're trying to survive against great odds, after all, and there isn't much time for small talk. Both on and off the set Mortensen and his co-star behaved much the same way. In Erie, while Kodi's father was away for a bit, Mortensen, who has a grown son of his own, moved from his suite to Kodi's room, a double, where they jumped on the beds together. During filming Mortensen, protective of Kodi, worried, for example, about yanking or dragging him too hard, but also treated him as an equal, a fellow professional who happened to have a very different way of working.
Once he emerged from his trailer, Mortensen more or less stayed in character all day -- bearded, gaunt, wound up and intense, going off by himself every now and then to smoke a cigarette. Kodi, on the other hand, wearing a ratty sweater, a wool cap and a pair of pants much too big for him, wandered around and hummed to himself between takes. He also engaged in lengthy fencing and stick-breaking contests with Jimi Johnson, a video assist operator.
For a scene in which the father, carrying the son on his shoulder, chases down a sandy road after a man who has stolen their belongings, Mortensen did wind sprints and jogged in place to make himself seem breathless and exhausted. Kodi simply turned limp on cue, and Mortensen snatched him up like a sack.
The next scene -- in which the father and son catch up to the thief, and the father forces the man to take off his clothes, leaving him naked and freezing -- took forever to set up. Like neighbors at a barn raising, the crew members erected a canopy over the road to cast an end-of-the-world shadow, and a while later, when the sun had moved, they had to reposition it. While waiting, Mortensen came back and fretfully studied the monitor. Kodi, meanwhile, dug for sand beetles, showing an especially plump one to Mortensen.
"Looks like good eatin'," Mortensen said, and it wasn't entirely clear whether he was joking or talking as a man who was supposed to be starving.
The thief was Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar on The Wire), one of a string of brand-name actors who turn up briefly in the film. (Robert Duvall is an old, dying man, and Guy Pearce is another father wandering with his family.) Williams brilliantly improvised while taking off his rags and plastic bags, pleading for his life in a way that causes the boy to take his side. When the first take was over, even before a wardrobe assistant could get there, Mortensen rushed over to help Williams pick up his clothes and get dressed again.
"He's a good actor," Kodi said.
Mortensen said, "Yeah, he's good, isn't he?"
The rest of the day ticked by slowly, in a way that was a reminder that filmmaking may be the last vestige of 19th-century artisanal labor: hours and hours to capture what on screen would last just a few minutes. When Hillcoat called it a wrap, a weary Mortensen headed for the makeup trailer, where he served wine from a stash he kept there. A while later, his face scrubbed of grime, his cheeks flushed a little, Kodi gave Mortensen a hug before heading out. Mortensen kissed him on the forehead.
"It was hard to get a rhythm out there today because of the sun," Mortensen said on the way back to his trailer, decorated with a Mets banner, a Montreal Canadiens jersey and the flag of the San Lorenzo soccer team of Argentina. "But Kodi was unflappable, as usual. I don't even think of him as a kid. There are things he's done on this movie that I've never seen anybody do before. And there are many adult actors who never have a moment like he has every day. I can't say I've ever worked with a better partner."
He stopped to snatch a hamburger, no bun, from the catering table, and after wolfing half of it, he added: "I think of Kodi as a friend. We're kind of like an old married couple. That's what our relationship is."