The Road Production Notes
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
The Road is a movie that had to get made. On the surface, a story about the Earth's end-game scenario that includes cannibalism and brutality and other unsavory elements is not exactly the right material for a popcorn movie. And though some studios initially passed on the project for these reasons, the producers, the director and the talent who were drawn to it were motivated by an absolute belief that Cormac McCarthy's novel would make an incredible picture.
Producer Nick Wechsler, a huge fan of the author, got beat out when he tried to buy the rights to McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, which went on to win the Oscar™ for the Coen Brothers, so he alerted literary agents to let him know when the next Cormac McCarthy book became available. He and producing partners Paula Mae and Steve Schwartz took advantage of competitors' skittishness and optioned the property when it was in manuscript form. "The great thing about this particular book was that it was so challenging that all of the studios and other producers were cautiously approaching it, weren't sure whether it could be made into a movie," he says. "That gave me an opportunity to seize the moment, outbid everybody else with the help of my partners, the Schwartz's, and acquire the material."
Like all the other filmmakers involved in making this movie, Wechsler was deeply moved by the experience of reading McCarthy's page-turner. He saw instantly, he says, that it would be great movie material. "I read the novel the evening that it was given to me and I thought it was an extremely powerful, emotional experience -- the story of the father and the son and the journey they take and the passing of the fire, the passing of the idea of humanity from one to the other and back again.
"And I also thought that there were some good genre elements as well. The suspense and tension of the need to survive in an extremely hostile world -- really obvious elements to make into a movie. I wasn't worried about the challenging aspect at all. I thought that an apocalyptic world is challenging and cannibalism in an apocalyptic world is challenging but that the emotional core of the piece was so fresh and so powerful that that's what would shine through in the making of a movie."
When Wechsler invited Rudd Simmons to come aboard as the film's executive producer, his choice of John Hillcoat to direct was already established. Simmons hadn't seen Hillcoat's film The Proposition, but when he did, he too was hooked on the director. "I was quite taken with John's film," he says. "What was interesting to me was what he did with the landscape and how much the characters seem to come right out of the landscape. The Road is a fairly simple story in a way but it's mythic and the characters seem to just come right out of the earth. So, I talked to John and he and I got along great."
Another thing that impressed Simmons about the director's process was how prepared and how focused Hillcoat was on exactly how he was going to transform this great novel into a great movie. "At the very beginning John wrote a position paper -- and I've never had that on any of the movies I've done," he says. "It was about three or four pages of what he was looking for, the themes that he was interested in, it had to do with genre and the overall look he wanted for the movie, and along with it were a lot of photographs.
"It was a pretty great thing because we gave this to everyone who came onto the project and right off the bat we were all on the same page. We knew exactly what he was looking for. We knew exactly what it was he saw in the story," he says.
"What makes a really good adaptation is if the filmmaker finds something in the book that he is passionate about and tells the story from that point of view," Simmons adds. "And we knew what that was for John."
Some of Hillcoat's statements do read like a manifesto, but in hindsight, the director was analyzing the movie thematically, even philosophically, much as a professor of cinema studies might do. Here are two paragraphs from Hillcoat's position paper that illustrate this:
"The movie will operate on a number of different levels, where it can be viewed as a more mythic metaphoric journey of the soul, a fable, an adult fairytale about the passing of one generation to another, that inescapable reality of mortality and the archetypal parent's greatest fear, guilt and heartbreak in leaving the child behind (and by extension everyone's fear of being left behind utterly alone). On another level is the morality tale, an urgent wake-up call to us all where kindness, trust, hope and faith must prevail against all odds in the face of impending destruction and horror. On another is the immediate visceral reality of a dark epic adventure filled with terror and tenderness.
"As we all bear witness to a new age of violent global conflict together with the specter of apocalyptic environmental catastrophe, The Road manages to tap into our collective psyche with the force of a universal nightmare. It evokes our deepest and darkest fears -- and with prescience and lucidity addresses what matters most."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
In adapting the book, the filmmakers took great pains to retain the simple, gut-wrenching directness of it while bringing in some universal truths about this collective psyche so that a science fiction story about the end of the Earth could jibe with some of the most common fears of our post-9-11 era -- global warming, high gas prices, economic uncertainty and the real possibility of a monumental natural catastrophe due to mankind's abuse of the planet. However, Hillcoat is very clear to point out that what actually happened to the world doesn't truly matter to this story. "What I loved about the book is you don't even know what happened. If a disaster of that scale occurred, whether it's nuclear or a comet or whichever way it goes, from that day on, it would be irrelevant about exactly what happened and what caused it. From that day on, people are fighting to cope with the radical change."
In scouting locations, the filmmakers gravitated toward natural disasters that wiped out huge swaths of territory, leaving it in a ravaged state. Prepping the film, Hillcoat embarked on a long journey with Simmons and his longtime production designer Chris Kennedy, in which they sought out places around the country that had been ravaged in that way, knowing that the locations would connect the audience with a modern-day horror story that could happen here. These distressed landscapes would tap into the collective American psyche by referring to some major traumas that devastated parts of this country.
"What was great about the book was that incredible, visceral reality to it," says Hillcoat. "Neither Chris or myself have ever really liked apocalyptic films that much as a genre. But this felt so different from anything else. So we immediately thought this story seems to tap into experiences of natural disasters and man-made disasters-so why not utilize all of that.
"So we immediately began doing a lot of research in which we were basically looking at man-made and natural disasters that have occurred, and that's what led us to things like New Orleans post-Katrina, and Mount St. Helens in Washington and mining in central Pennsylvania and around Pittsburgh where that industry left a kind of man-made disaster area in terms of the landscape -- what's left of it. So the process was about utilizing all those things and gradually piecing it all together. It was like this huge tapestry."
For producer Paula Mae Schwartz the story was eminently filmable because of its inherent hopefulness and the tender emotional core of the novel. "We admired Cormac McCarthy very much, thought he had an original voice, and this particular book captured a unique love story between a father and son," she says. "We felt that the power of the love between the father and the son was palpable - so strong that it helped mankind survive after the apocalypse. So it's the ultimate story of survival."
Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his riveting performance in Eastern Promises, rooted his portrayal in the father-son dynamic as well. And though at the time he was offered the role, the actor was coming off a period of working a lot and looking forward to a break, he says, when he got the script and read the book, there was no way he couldn't do it.
"I thought, 'Wow, it's going to be pretty hard to say no to something like this, this kind of character.' It's one of those books that's hard to put down, once it gets going you want to know how it turns out," he says.
When The Road was first published, the novel was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her influential book list, and that helped get it out there in the universal consciousness, to be accepted by the public in addition to the critics who have always sparked to McCarthy's work. "The reason so many people have read this book," adds Mortensen, "is that it really struck a chord in America. The story is universal. Any parent that cares about their kid, has these feelings, these doubts, these fears, these concerns. What's going to happen when I'm gone? Is my kid going to be all right? If my kid gets sick what's going to happen? But the main one is what will happen when I'm not around."
In this story, Mortensen notes, that basic human concern is cranked up a few notches because it takes place in a bleak universe where every human certainty is gone. "It's taken to an extreme," he says. "It's not just that I'll be gone and his mother will take care of him or his aunt, extended family or just society somehow. There's nobody. Zero. If I'm gone he's alone in the world. As extreme as that is, it still connects for people with their own families. Any mother, any father, how they feel about their child, what they worry about.
"So, all those things are worth exploring," he says of his preparation for playing The Man in this movie of McCarthy's dystopian saga, "I realized that I had that inside of me. I needed to just sort of look inside to play this."
The story of The Road is simple, yet compelling, and though there are other characters, it's really about the father and the son. Mortensen says the deep questions the book raises were what led him to find the soul of his character. "Because of what the story's about, and because of the thoughts I had when I first read the script and the book,' he says, "It made me think about what's happening, what does the future hold? When we are no more, what does it mean?
"In a way, that's what this story is about. What happens when everything is taken from you? I mean everything. These two people, this man and this boy, that's what's happened. And when you think nothing else can be taken, the boy loses everything. Even more. That's a pretty good recipe for a drama, if it's handled right. What happens when everything is taken from you? How do you behave, how do you react? How do you deal with people who you fear might take more things from you? Or people who have things that you don't have. And when you're tired, when you're afraid of them, how do you react. Do you act aggressively? Sometimes. Do you try to stay away from them? Probably. If you think you can, do you take their things? Sometimes you do, even if you think of yourself as a good guy. All those things happen in the story, all these tests. The tests of: what happens when you think everything's been taken from you. That's what carrying the fire means, even if you think they've taken everything from you, the fact that you're sitting here, thinking about it and complaining about it means they haven't. You're still here. Until you're not here, they haven't taken everything from you."
Mortensen adds that the film's title is more than ironic. "I knew that if we did it right, it would be a challenge emotionally. I would have to go on a journey."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
For director Hillcoat, there was never any question that Viggo Mortensen should play the father. During the concept stage of pre-production, he says, his vision for the father was one of stolid strength heartened by a palpable inner vulnerability. His ideal for the role would be someone on the order of Gregory Peck. "It became clear that Viggo could be an everyman but also could have the intensity and the physicality the role demands. His character goes through a range of emotions."
If anyone could survive in a post-apocalyptic world, the director says, it would be Viggo. "It's such a challenging and extreme survival world that he has to do things that have to be credible," he says. And yet, the role requires not only physical verisimilitude, but the ability to show tenderness and inner strength. "For some actors it might be a stretch that they're so tender and sensitive to a child and yet be able to physically do what he has to do. Viggo's very intense and very wound up, and that is what the father is all about. He's so haunted by the suicide of his loved one - his wife and partner - and yet he has this incredible protective relationship with his son. It is a love story, and in such a challenging and extreme survival world, he has to do things that have to be credible."
When Mortensen committed to the role, he began a period of intense preparation involving researching the character and the extreme milieu of the story. He immersed himself in the world of the novel and its extreme hypothetical situation. His research took him not only to books and materials, but also to noticing the patterns and habits of people in our times who must exist by their wits, scraping the refuse bin of society -- the homeless. The actor also had some conversations with Cormac McCarthy, mostly about McCarthy's own relationship with his young son John Francis, to whom he dedicated the novel. "We talked about his relationship with his own boy and I talked about my son and how he was at the age of the character in the book," he says. "I thought about what I felt about my own family, my relations. A lot of chapters have ended as I was starting to shoot this and while I was shooting this. It's made me think about things, from years ago that I hadn't thought about. In terms of my son, when he was the age of the character of the boy now."
But for this movie, a science fiction tale about two isolated people walking thousands of miles across a dead planet, the actor's preparation would have to be about a lot more than internal geography. Mortensen has been described as a physical actor who incorporates his surroundings into his method, and this is another reason why he was perfectly cast to play the father. When the elements, the weather and the terrain get tough, Viggo gets going.
"Different actors have different processes that they use. What I've seen with Viggo is that he is able to use the environment more so than any other actor I've worked with before to put him where he needs to be emotionally," says producer Simmons, who had a lot to do with the physical setup of the film and its locations. "And maybe it's pouring down rain, and he'll walk away from umbrellas, raincoats. He'll walk away from any tent that's being offered or any blanket to be intentionally cold and wet, and it seems to take him to a place that's quite remarkable. I've seen it happen over and over again in the snow, the rain, cold, the fog - anything that he is able to use that puts him in the world of the character. He's a very physical actor as well, and it's been a remarkable process to watch that. I would imagine it takes an enormous amount of concentration to be able to not let the cold ground or the rocks on the road or whatever it may be break your concentration, but it's taken him to a place that is pretty amazing over and over and over again."
Nick Wechsler concurs. "Viggo has the perfect qualities as a man and as an actor to do this part. He's got incredible depth of soul. He so immerses himself in a particular character you think, 'Wow, that is the character. That's not an actor playing the character.' And that's what we wanted for this part -- somebody who submerges himself into the role as well as any actor I've ever worked with."
Though the role of the father was sought after by many leading actors in Hollywood, there was never a question in the minds of the filmmakers that if they could get him, he would define the character. "Viggo was born to play this part, and he's absolutely riveting," says producer Steve Schwartz. "Part of the challenge for an actor doing a movie like this -- where the material is so challenging and where there is so much sadness -- is to stay in role amidst the tumult of the set. There's a lot of stuff going on on this set. There's stuff being moved, there's noise, there's rain and horrific weather -- a lot of diversions. I was overwhelmed by the actor's ability to stay focused and stay in role. And I hope I'm not saying something out of school here -- and I don't know how Viggo will feel about this --but for the first few days of the shoot, he slept in his clothes to stay in role. He paid attention to every detail. If his shoes weren't wet enough, he would spray himself. He was totally absorbed and obsessed with the part. He became The Man."
The producer continues, "As a result of that, I would say that this probably wouldn't be described as a particularly chatty set because when Viggo and Kodi were in the zone, people didn't want to mix it up with them. So, I don't know how Viggo and Kodi felt about being ignored sometimes, but when we saw them in that zone, we gave them space. And Kodi had his own way of staying in his zone. It was very impressive."
In order for The Road to come together, it was clear to the filmmakers that casting the role of The Boy would be crucial. As grueling as the shoot was for Mortensen and the crew, the pre-teen actor who plays the son would have to be both a survivor and a great natural actor to keep up. After a series of casting sessions, they found that actor in Kodi Smit-McPhee, scion of a thespian family whose father Andy is an acting coach. Kodi's portrayal of another son opposite Eric Bana in Romulus, My Father brought him to the attention of the filmmakers.
Though the casting process was thorough, encompassing a few hundred boys from around the United States and in Canada, an audition tape that Kodi's dad had sent from Australia was the one that won out. Wechsler explains that Kodi was the obvious choice. "This movie rises and falls with how well the actor does that plays the boy," he says. "And Kodi survived the challenge of all those boys and ultimately was the one that we had to go with because he had a soulful quality to him. He had charisma if you can attribute that word to a young boy. We knew that he would pop. We knew that he was the one."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
The choice of Kodi Smit-McPhee made sense for many reasons, not the least of which was his affinity with the camera. The producers -- and Mortensen, his co-star -- were taken aback by the young actor's talent, professionalism and work ethic. "What does it mean to have talent as an actor?" says Simmons. "You look at Kodi and he can get to these moments that are real. It's a remarkable thing to see from take to take. He'll be working on something and all of a sudden he'll hit it and it just rings true. The thing I'm most impressed about with Kodi is his discipline - his concentration.
"I mean he's an 11-year-old boy. I remember what I was like when I was 11. I was running around playing army, doodling cartoons, and all of that. But Kodi comes in -- Kodi works nine hours a day. He comes to set in the morning, goes through make-up and hair, he's on the set and he's focused like an adult actor. He has a presence that's quite remarkable. And then he'll turn right around and run off the set and play with another 10-year-old boy, and they're out there playing cowboys and Indians and it's a great thing to see. And then when he's done with that he comes back on the set and he's this amazing actor again."
To hear Viggo Mortensen tell it, the movie will be memorable not because of anything he might have done, but because of the extraordinary talents of his child-actor co-star.
"He's an extraordinary, extraordinary actor," Mortensen says. "I think that his performance will be a historic performance. Honestly, I think it's going to be one of those that people remember for years ... for years."
Were it not for the young actor's intensity, he adds, the movie would be a good movie, but with it, it'll be a real film. "When I read the script, I thought 'Well they need to find the best child actor ever, or the best young actor in the world to play this part. With an actor as good as Kodi it could be a really good movie. I have really enjoyed being on the ride with him."
And like the father in the saga who learns from his son, Mortensen says that working with Kodi was a revelation as an actor. "Kodi has great instincts, great presence and most importantly he has the gift of being able to relax to the point where he's always in the moment. He's almost never out of the real moment that's happening, not the script but what's really happening on the set, what's happening between the two of us. Most of the story is these two people -- a man and a boy. They are pretty much always wearing the same filthy clothing. They don't talk much. The weather is uniformly terrible. It's brutal, very hard core. But if it works you can go on a real emotional journey, you could use the word spiritual journey."
The interaction between the boy and his father is what carries the story and elevates it above mere science fiction. While in the novel, there is much description of how the two interact with the tortured landscape and the battered environment, in a movie, which is a visual medium, all that must be conveyed with nuance and acting alone. Mortensen is convinced, he says, that the core of this inspired exposition in The Road comes from Kodi.
"The book has some vivid descriptions of these barren landscapes, of this inhospitable weather, it's very beautiful," he adds. "But we don't use that. What you get though, that you can't get in a book, is all the subtleties of the interaction of the character with their environment and most especially of the Man and the Boy, how they relate to each other. So much happens between the words, and that is especially true because Kodi is such a fine actor. He's very attuned to what's going on, anything that happens, any error that happens. He welcomes the little accidents that happen. Kodi always goes with it so there is something extra.
"Each scene that's already on the page looks likes it's charged with emotion and you think, 'Well, how are we going to there,'" Mortensen says. "I think without exception, thanks to Kodi's way of working, we've always taken it a step further. There has been another layer, there's been something unexpected that came out of him or that happened between us. It has been a great ride, I can honestly say that in all the movies I've been a part of, all the scenes, all the rehearsals with actors from all over the world -- I've been lucky, I've been able to work with some very good performers -- I have never had a better acting partner, ever. That's from the oldest most experienced decorated performers to newer, younger, raw talent. I have never worked with someone who is so consistently in the moment, so consistently there with you. His performance will make this one of those movies that you watch years from now. I really think that."
There is a pivotal scene in The Road which illustrates the bonding that took place between the two actors. During an encounter with a member of a roving gang, the father has to shoot the man to protect his son. Later, he takes the boy to a stream and attempts to wash the boy's hair in the freezing-cold water. "Now, that stream is snowmelt, so that stream is probably forty-five degrees - it's really cold," says Rudd Simmons, who along with an astonished crew watched the scene in awe. "The man takes the boy in his arms, and he dips his head in water -- the blood and the gore from the gang member is splattered all over the boy -- and he very gently rubs away the blood, and the boy comes back to life. Now that's the way it's scripted."
Simmons continues to explain the scene: "What happened was Viggo picked up Kodi, dipped his head in water, and the water was such a shock to Kodi, it literally jolted him alive. And he started to cry because it was so painful, and he couldn't stop. And so Viggo took him in his arms and cradled him, and literally brought him back to life in that moment. It's a remarkable scene. Viggo picked him up in his arms and took him over to a clearing right away from the stream in the sunlight. And he put him down, and he just cradled him and rocked him in the sun.
"Kodi's dad, Andy, came over and -- if that had been my son, I would have jumped right in to see what I could have done. But Andy's a wonderful actor, he's a wonderful director, he's been working with Kodi as an acting coach. And Andy knew to step back and let Viggo and Kodi as actors have that moment together, where Kodi has gone to a place -- a bad place -- and Viggo is now helping bring him back. It was a remarkable thing to see. I think from that moment on, their relationship changed, and they became inseparable for the rest of the movie. They became like father and son to each other."
Mortensen picks up the story of that pivotal scene from his own generous point of view: "It was quite cold, there was still snow on the ground, and when I had to wash Kodi's head in that stream it was really, really cold water -- there was still ice on the edges. And it was one of those moments that actually could have gone different ways, but the way it went was that when I pulled his head out of the water on the second take he was almost in shock, his head was hurting so bad from the cold, and I didn't realize how much it had upset him until I looked right into his eyes, right in the middle of the take, and he wasn't gone but he was really in real pain."
The actor, who has played opposite some of the seasoned greats -- Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Cate Blanchett, Robert Forster, Armin Mueller-Stahl - speaks of his young co-star in tones normally reserved for some icon of the Actor's Studio. "And I just looked at him, but he stayed in character, this is the kind of actor he is," Mortensen says, "And he called me Papa and he's crying there for real, but he played the scene, yet I knew that it was really him. He's a brilliant young actor. He has a presence, he is appealing to look at and he is consistent from take to take ... pushing himself, pushing himself, pushing me ... pushing everybody."
It is both a tribute to Mortensen's own generosity and to Kodi's talents that Viggo's assessment of Kodi's performance is so effusive. "That day, it was almost like something broke and expanded inside him as an actor," he continues. "I've seen Romulus, My Father, the movie he won awards for in Australia, and he's very good in that movie -- really good -- yet I think, however, that in this movie he goes way beyond what he did in Romulus. He had already done that by the time we were done shooting the scene by the stream. But that day he kind of stepped it up, he went into another gear and most importantly, I think the connection between us really was cemented somehow, in that moment and in the aftermath of that take. His father Andy is really good with him and he's also an actor, so he's very grounded and he has a real understanding of the process of preparing from day to day and what goes into a scene. There have been many, many moments like that that have led us deeper into the story than you would expect when you read the script, and closer to each other as people too."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
While the novel The Road is a pas de deux, a solitary journey by two main players in which other people are either hazards, horrors, flashbacks or ancillary players, the movie version of the story called for a shift in emphasis in the human universe in which they live. So the filmmakers made a conscious decision to expand some of the key roles in the telling of the story. The characters known as The Woman (Charlize Theron), Old Man (Robert Duvall), The Veteran (Guy Pearce) and The Thief (Michael K. Williams) took on a much more important aspect in the film's development process. And once the word got out about an adaptation by the producer of Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Player (Wechsler), the director of The Proposition (Hillcoat) and the writer of Enduring Love (Joe Penhall), the short list of world-class stars became much shorter.
"It was very easy to cast this movie because the book had achieved such popularity," says Wechsler, "and the other roles, even though they might be small, they each packed a lot of punch -- they each had a very specific purpose, and were very important to the movement of the piece. So any actor that was going up for one of these parts knew that that part would be a very fulfilling experience. So the casting came together quite well -- the actors were willing to move around their availabilities and tried to get the producers of shows they might have been working on permission to carve out some time so that they could do a small part in our movie."
A notable departure from the way the story is told in the novel is the presentation of the man's wife, who commits suicide when she fears that whoever is out there will come for them. "Sooner or later, they will catch up with us and they will kill us," she says. "They will rape me ... and they will rape him. ... They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won't face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen." The man's choice is to take his son after this tragedy and go out on the road in hopes of somehow finding a better future for the boy, if not for himself. In the book, the wife's choices are told starkly and pragmatically, against the backdrop of horror that has befallen them and the entire human race.
The relationship between The Man and The Woman is told in flashbacks, which the man returns to in daydreams, often -- especially in the earlier scenes from their marriage when things were more upbeat -- clinging to these vignettes like some elixir, the only bits of humanity he can grasp that keeps him going and reminds him of why he is on the road. One lyrical passage from the book illustrates this: "From daydreams on the road there was no waking. He plodded on. He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar folds of the drapes at either side of the stage. She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze the frame. Now call down your dark and cold and be damned."
In the movie, this scene is described without narration or dialogue, just cinematically, with sight and sound. While recounting the ups and downs of their life together, the flashbacks also serve to provide some elegiac moments of light, sun, music and happiness in an otherwise bleak world.
For this character, the filmmakers required not only a powerful actress but also a versatile one. "The thing in the book about The Woman is that the character's reality is very abrasive and harsh. And it is, and we keep that," says director Hillcoat. "But we wanted to really try and enrich that character and present her argument for making that choice as very sound because of the context of what is happening in the world."
The role demanded an actor who brought her own substantial talent. "What is great about Charlize," he continues, "is we wanted to try to find someone that had a real kind of gravitas, an emotional kind of depth to show that transition of life from the world that the privileged few are accustomed to and take for granted, and then having that all stripped away. We wanted to show the emotional damage that is inflicted by this global catastrophe. Her refusal to accept the new world is a huge shift, an emotional shift. So, Charlize is someone that has already shown incredible range. Her transformation in Monster was pretty astounding. She seems to be one of those actresses that really is able to transform and go to real emotional depths."
Another pivotal casting choice was the use of Robert Duvall for The Old Man, a character The Man and The Boy meet on the road and spend some time with, who provides another more philosophical perspective to their journey. Coincidentally, says Hillcoat -- and this is one of a number of serendipitous coincidences about the production -- "He knows Cormac McCarthy, he's so familiar with that world -- that was really helpful."
Duvall's presence on the set was not only a link to the novelist's world view, it provided an opportunity for deepening the story, and inspiring the crew in the telling of it. And the actor brought some of his own magic to the piece under truly daunting circumstances.
"He did something that was quite extraordinary under extreme pressure," Hillcoat observes. While for most film crews, a sunny day is a good thing, for the makers of The Road, a story about a world without light or warmth, the values were topsy-turvy. "We were plagued by weather problems. It was a day when the sun was out and the sun was our enemy. And that's been a running joke throughout the whole film that when it's actually beautiful weather that most people love we all get depressed, and when it's miserable we all get excited and run out into it.
"And that happened with Robert that we had just this bright, sunny day that was just a disaster for the landscape we were in where there's a huge coal ash pile of remnants of mining debris and a scarred landscape. We ended up being really pressurized for time. We talked about trying something where he would bring an extra bit of history to the character. In terms of that pain and damage, because his character's an old coot -- everyone's wondering how the hell did he survive and where did he come from, and he's a very enigmatic sort of a Samuel Beckett-type character. And so within a couple of takes, he just came up with the most extraordinary bit of improvisation in the middle of the scene that was just heartbreaking and kind of helped shape the scene in a very quick time. That was great. It was hard to work under those conditions, and when you have actors with that kind of wealth of experience, you kind of wish you had more time to do stuff. But he rose to the challenge and beyond."
The producers draw their own parallels between the casting of Duvall, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, and the job of their respective characters with regard to the theme of the story, about "carrying the fire," through a world of adversity into a future of hope. The scene around the campfire with the Old Man, The Boy and his father, says Paula Schwartz, "has three generations of actors in it. There's Kodi Smit-McPhee - the budding star, the boy - there's the father - Viggo Mortensen, an established star - and then there's the legendary star - Robert Duvall. So it's very symbolic to me -- there is a message in this. It is not a tutorial, but there's the continuity, there's the evolution, and there's this continuation: carrying the fire. And the fire is the symbol of life, the symbol of survival, which is what the movie's all about. The boy is carrying the fire. The father is protecting the boy. And that was very touching."
On the day they filmed the scene, the set was hushed, and everyone knew that something magical was transpiring. "It was an incredible, very touching scene," Paula Schwartz continues, describing the setup where Robert Duvall's character "has accepted an invitation to sit by the campfire with The Man and The Boy. And it's very poignant because you can see the admiration for this old man, who has withstood the catastrophe, the apocalypse, and both the father and the boy listening to his wisdom about why this happened and will people ever survive. It was memorable because Robert Duvall is 77 years old now and he has tremendous wisdom and energy in his voice that is catching. It was a magical scene."
Rounding out the cast of supporting characters who were only ciphers in the book were The Veteran, a rugged survivalist, one of "The Good Guys" who becomes the ultimate protector of the boy once he nears the end of his journey, and The Thief, a crafty man who steals everything from the boy and his father.
"I'm really thrilled with the cast that we managed to get and the variety of different characters," says Hillcoat. "I couldn't think of anyone but Guy Pearce as the veteran and we were just very fortunate that we were able to get him. We wanted to convey that there are all these people wandering around this new world fighting for survival and Guy certainly, like Viggo, has some similar qualities -- you can imagine him surviving. Adding to the mixture of personalities, Michael K. Williams brought a great kind of more urban, street thing to the thief, whereas Garret Dillahunt, who plays one of the road gang truckers, added a kind of more country, hick, backwater-type thing to it. And Molly Parker (Motherly Woman) was just great for the ending I think -- a very difficult role to pull off, because she ends the film with Kodi. And really for them the challenge was to get across their damage in a fairly short time, screen time, to give you a sense of where they've come from and the kind of emotional damage - that they've all endured."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
Mortensen says the production was fortunate indeed to get some strong acting talent so that the entire film is not just about him and Kodi. "John has cast the movie well, it's not just the two of us," he says. "Obviously Guy Pearce, who played the main role in The Proposition for John Hillcoat, plays a pivotal role towards the end. Very interesting character, he did that really well. He and Kodi interacted well. Molly Parker, Michael Williams is great. Everybody that's come in to do these sequences where the father and son actually run into people have been great, have been perfectly cast. We've been lucky ... lucky in a lot of ways."
For Hillcoat and his team, the mission was to convey the horrific aspect of a ravaged world without resorting to well-worn clichés from the end-of-the earth genre. His main go-to people in this respect were the editor John Gregory, the production designer Chris Kennedy and the costume designer Margot Wilson -- all of whom he'd worked with before and had the comfort level and filmmaker's shorthand to get the job done.
"After my experience with The Proposition, I'd be very happy to work with them for the rest of my days," he says. "What I love about both Chris and Margot is their eye for detail. The richness of their understanding of the material goes so beyond what their official positions designate. Margot really, like Chris, really gets into the characters and why they're doing things, what the themes are and how they show up in their surroundings. What that says about them."
The director notes how the team's sensibility showed up in the interpretation of the material. "We wanted to avoid the Mad Max kind of thing that has defined the post-apocalyptic genre because it was such a landmark in that genre. So we thought about the imagery in the book and what sprung to mind is the shopping trolley and the ski jackets and the grime and all that and plastic bags and taping up runners and stuff. What that immediately brought to mind was the homeless in every major city in the world. This underclass is living that apocalyptic world of day-to-day survival on the streets with no money and no food.
"So that was our reference really. Margot collected loads of pictures and she was keeping an eye out on that whole world of being homeless and surviving on the streets. And hence she took that further where it was plastic lining in the jackets because the world was so cold to keep warm and the way people would recycle bits of clothing. It's just fantastically detailed."
When Margot read the script, she says, she had been sent photographs of some of the locations, and she began to piece together the types of characters that lived in them. "I read it about five times so I could get beyond the sort of sadness and the feeling and from all the emotions that that script evokes," she says. "One minute there's hope and then there's sadness -- it takes you through the whole gamut. That's where I started feeling this love story between these two people, Viggo and Kodi.
"John sent me a whole lot of photographs along with his style notes," she continues. "But a lot of my research came from the homeless, unfortunately, because they're people that reflect what that world would be. They've got no clothing, they've got hardly any food and they just make do with what they've got and really that's what our characters are. The location photos gave me a sense of the bareness, of the nothingness really that we were dealing with and beautiful, stark landscapes. No color and dreary, but poetic at the same time."
Her method was then to think about the characters and make sketches of what they would look like in their improvised outfits. "When I read the script I knew who the characters were and that always helps because you're thinking about who the actors are and bringing them together with the characters, listening to the words that they're saying, developing what type of people they are," she says. "I wanted the audience to look at a garment and see something familiar about it and recognize it as clothing that we wear today."
Once she settled on a look for the character, there were hours of painstaking work, "aging" the garments, many of which were picked up at second-hand stores. Care was taken to use clothing that didn't match -- everything in this world would have been scavenged and adapted for utility -- warmth, shelter from the elements, ruggedness -- not style.
She also came up with a philosophy of life on the road that extended to all the characters. It amounted to portability, layers and a substance that will probably outlast us all -- plastic.
"We had to think about a lot of clothing, obviously, the layers. If you haven't got anything in the world and you are traveling across America to try and find safety, you're carrying your home on your back. So, the layers were incredibly important. For Viggo, we started off with he's brought his tee-shirt from home, he's brought a couple of shirts, a hoodie to keep his head warm, gloves, endless pairs of socks, shoes. But its not like you think, 'Yes, you can put a lot in a bag and we'll just carry the lot.' He had to think, 'What feasibly can I carry around on my back?' They can't be carrying endless luggage around."
That's where the philosophy of costume design interfaces with the mise-en-scene, she says. "You've got to sort of think of it from a minimalistic view, that it's almost like you're going camping and I can only take a certain amount with me and what's going to keep me warm and dry? For keeping them dry we used shower curtains. He's found that somewhere along the road and turned them into a raincoat. So he's had to utilize certain things that he's found along the road.
"With Kodi, when he was born all the shops had gone, there was no electricity, that sort of stuff so I brought in the idea that the father and mother have put together. It was Viggo's pants that they've made shorter, they got one of his jumpers and stapled it together with staples. He's got a bigger shirt on and the coat is a coat that they had, his parka, in the house, the shoes are too big for him, his gloves are far too big for him because they can't just go and buy it. With Viggo's shoes, he's walking across America so we need to get comfortable shoes for him. He just has that one pair of shoes and over the years they eventually start to fall apart so we aged them heavily and then put duct tape around them. He carries a roll of duct tape and mends bits of his clothing with it. He tapes up his wound from the arrow with it.
"All these little elements go together. He carries plastic bags with him and wraps his feet in plastic bags because plastic doesn't break down and it's one thing that keeps you warm, so that came in very handy but I also wanted to show that, I used plastic bags on Robert Duvall's character and also the thief because I wanted to show that plastic, whatever happens to the world, it will be one thing that will survive beyond everything else".
The story of The Road is bleak indeed, but it is about survival, and underneath that is a story of hope for the world where the possibility of annihilation has come so close to all of us that it's nice to know that we could go on even if there was a catastrophe.
For the Schwartz's, as Steve Schwartz says, "There was never a question for us about whether we wanted to make this movie after we read the manuscript. Since the mid-20th century -- since the invention of the H-Bomb -- people have been wondering if mankind has been facing its last hurrah. But it seems since the start of this century, there's even more peril at every turn. People are more and more engaged with the thought of the end of the world. And The Road paints a picture that is -- in its devastation and in its realism that you just can't turn away from. But if that's all it did, we wouldn't be interested. In a sense the world is redeemed by the father and the son and their love, and at the end there is a glimmer of hope."
But make no mistake, he adds, The Road is a horror story, an eco-disaster, post-nuclear apocalypse horror story, but a horror story nonetheless. Since 9-11, people have had good reason to be scared, and "people are going to be scared as they watch this. I hope people will think it's a smart scary movie, and of course if you're smart today, there's a lot to be scared about. But because it is so realistic, it's very scary. And Hillcoat is a genius at creating the kind of tension both on-screen and off that makes you squirm in your seat."
But it is about hope in the end -- carrying the fire. To the boy, that is a process of staying the course. "The boy divides people up into two categories. What he's learned from his father is the good guys are the ones that don't eat people and the bad guys are the ones who do," says Paula Mae Schwartz, "and that's why he says to the veteran -- who he meets after his father does die, 'Are you one of the good guys?' Do you eat people or not?"
"For me, the scary part is these aren't zombies eating people - these are people eating people -- people like us," says Steve Schwartz.
"The earth itself is a cast member," he continues. "We don't signal the cause of the apocalypse, but it's apparent that there have been profound alterations to the planet, and they're not good. That's a simple statement, but how do you execute that? And once we got into the nitty-gritty details of that, you realize that you have to come up with a set of rules for how you're going to alter the planet, and those rules have to be consistent. I was very impressed early on with John Hillcoat's willingness to get his arms around this and to make sure that the new world we created was internally consistent. Hillcoat's vision was always very clear. He had a profound vision and it never varied. He saw this very clearly from the get go, and has stuck to this vision, and I think the resulting film reveals this very coherent visually interesting new world."
"Cormac McCarthy's book starts after the apocalypse. That's intentional, of course," Paula Schwartz adds. "I think one of the real thought-provoking results of that is that people are going to be much more aware of the multitude of causes that could have really caused the end of the earth so that they'd be aware of the environmental cause, the possibility of a nuclear war, the possibility of a planetary event, like a comet, but I think the awareness of the fragility of the earth is very important to the story -- that we all have to be careful."
When he visited the set, McCarthy was very happy with the choices of locations - in particular New Orleans, where there has been an actual natural disaster. Nature and the environment are so important to this film.
"What I really loved about the book," says Hillcoat, "and what I love about Cormac McCarthy is he's so kind of unflinching in exploring the depths of humanity and not shying away from just how scary we really are and how we're our own and the entire planet's worst enemy and always have been and always will be. And yet what is extraordinary about the book that isn't in his other books is that incredible emotional richness and tenderness between the father and the son at the core of the story.
"It is a biblical story," says Paula Schwartz. "The story of the triumph of love over evil, and we feel that it will give people a good feeling when they leave the theater -- that there is hope."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
In a movie in which the planet is a central character, it became crucial for the filmmakers to find a great deal of varied terrain that reflected the changing scenery as the boy and his father made their way from a mountainous region across the country through rolling hills and finally to the ocean. And since the planet is one big disaster area, they had to find many ruined, abandoned or devastated locations as possible.
Over a long pre-production period, more than 50 locations were scouted which suited the production's needs. The majority of these were found in Pennsylvania, with notable detours to the shores of Lake Erie, the Katrina-hit areas of Louisiana and some areas in Oregon.
"Since Cormac never tells us what the apocalyptic event is, we've decided to look around the United States contemporary events that would look like they were apocalyptic events," says Wechsler. "So New Orleans gives us a great opportunity to show what can happen with a natural disaster. There are other areas in the United States that were caused by fire, by volcano, by human decay and the tragedy of society moving from one part of civilization to another part of civilization in terms of the application of money and resources. So we're taking advantage of man-made and natural events around the United States."
"The film crew decided that there were a lot of locations in and around Pittsburgh that could be very useful," Wechsler adds, "especially an abandoned turnpike, which is not far away, as well as abandoned coalmines, surface coalmines, coal dumping areas that would give a quality of blackened earth that we could use. Pennsylvania had some beautiful winter landscapes that were useful and the film commission and the people there were incredibly friendly and incredibly receptive, so it made it a great place to base our film."
For the production designer, Chris Kennedy, the script by Joe Penhall fairly well laid out the course he would take in setting up the long and arduous shoot. "When I read the screenplay, I was pretty impressed by how they had managed to translate it from the book," he says. "Joe managed to pull out all of the key dialogue because really most of the book is the man thinking. It's kind of the ambient sense of the world through his eyes, which was the key to how to think about visualizing it. Plus, we intended to use real locations, so it was pretty much straight away a matter of finding out where they may be. So there was a long search for places across the country that we could use."
When the decision was made to base the production in Pennsylvania, Kennedy was excited by the possibilities. "It's clearly set in America; it's about things American. I did a huge search on the web while I was in Australia before I came out and I pretty rapidly realized that there's a heap of abandoned and destroyed towns, cities, landscapes here, much more so than in Australia. There was a whole collection of things that got me really excited once I realized that the Pennsylvania coal mining areas -- the abandoned turnpike down in Breezewood, eight miles of abandoned freeway -- all those things that are just quite spectacular. It's The Road, so it seemed like this road actually became like a keystone to why to come here in the first place and then searched out from there and found all sorts of things. And here we have deciduous trees, which is a key to the whole theme -- a dead landscape. I kind of covered the whole of America in my research, and the northern areas with deciduous forests in a winter landscape were obviously the place to start.
"Pennsylvania has coal landscapes, devastated mining areas, coal piles, fly ash piles, like blackened landscape. So it's a combination of elements - a depressed socio-economic situation in suburbs like Braddock and Keysport; winter landscape; deciduous trees; devastated landscape."
Kennedy's modus operandi would be to do his research, find likely areas and send photos and notes to his location manager, Andrew Ullman, who by coincidence went to school in one of the Pennsylvania areas where they shot. "They found the area or per se, and we sort of found the places," Ullman says. "Chris was interesting. He kind of fed me some material and said, 'This would be an interesting area to do something like this,' and that's how we came upon a few of the locations."
One of his prize finds was an old theme park in Conneaut, Pa., which served as the setting for some fires and a razed building. The place was a lucky find, according to Ullman. "There aren't a lot of theme parks that show wear-and-tear," he explains, "and this one obviously is a lake park over 100 years old that has gone through some unprofitable restructuring and hence met with decay and abandonment. We were able to make these fires here and they were kind enough to hold off tearing the building down for us."
The lake park, he says, "is a dinosaur. Nobody comes to lake parks anymore. This was for the people that couldn't afford to go anywhere else. They would hop on a train, and they'd come up here, and they'd summer here or spend a week or two weeks. This was for the coal miners, the working class."
The parameters of his job on The Road were quite different from what he's used to. "Normally I look for bucolic, beautiful, you know, or something interesting, and it was interesting of Chris -- and John -- to find these iconic images, these graphic images in these ruins."
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films/MGM.
Another topsy-turvy aspect of the filmmaking was the quality of light the crew needed to simulate a planet devoid of bright sunlight. "We need overcast weather for subdued lighting," says Kennedy. "We're talking about a post-apocalyptic world under a nuclear winter or an equivalent. So, direct sunlight is a problem. In fact, Javier Aguirresarobe, the cinematographer, says, 'The sun is our enemy.' Both here and in Oregon another aspect of why it's good to shoot there is the amount of overcast days in the period that we're there."
While other film crews would rejoice at a bright sunny day, that is when The Road crew got depressed and went inside to shoot interiors. "Working out in the snow in extremely cold weather and in mud and in awfully difficult conditions -- if it's snowing or raining, then it's great. We rush out into it," Kennedy says. "I think it took people a while to get that into their head that actually this is an environmental film that's set out in a real environment, and what we want is the drama of that, not a nice, clear day."
Mortensen, who is such an intense incorporator of the environment into his method, describes the day-for night quality of the shoot as a test of the subconscious. On the set in Oregon, after most of the grueling weather scenes are behind him and he's preparing for some flashback scenes with Theron, he muses about the effect of the weather on filming. "We started out the whole shoot almost all the exteriors; we've had snow, mud, rain," he says. "We are inside now shooting interiors so we don't have to worry about it. It's this beautiful late spring day here in Oregon. And this morning was the first time in the shoot where I actually sat down for a second in the grass and I just looked at the green, watched a bird. I am someone who enjoys being outdoors, I like the change of seasons. I like to learn about trees and flowers. I am interested in places and natural places, but because of this movie I've ended up thinking always about no green, no sun, no anything.
"Mostly we've been lucky with the weather in that way," he continues. "So in a way, for the first time in my life, I've denied the coming of spring and I have denied life in a way. That's what talk in the story about carrying the fire really means to me. You can read that many ways, that idea, being someone who is a leader in a way is someone who carries the fire also. But carrying the fire means carrying some life force, and because everything is dead around us it's on us to keep that hope of life, of spring, whatever you want to call it, alive. It's been interesting that today I just realized I've been going to some quiet beautiful places, but looking but not seeing the natural environment, and I have never done that. Today, I am starting to let go a little, and look, it's very nice!"
The task of translating a world totally devoid of sunlight into the grey-toned brush strokes that were nonetheless photographed in color, the desolate yet exciting world that's up there on the screen, fell to the director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe, a veteran of 35 productions, including The Others and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
"A dull land is very difficult visually to bring to a film. So my life became more enriched with this film but also more difficult," Javier says. But to hear him tell it, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think the most important thing for me as a director of photography is finding new aspirations, new places, new spaces that are absolutely different for me. I encountered this with The Road. It really is the film of my dreams, because in part of the book Cormac McCarthy portrayed an apocalyptic land, a land naked of sun."
An early decision by John Hillcoat was to keep the use of CGI -- computer generated imagery -- to a minimum. If anything, the processing of the film stock to take out some of the colors that might have made their way into it was the primary use of digital manipulation on The Road.
"On the technical side, I have to say that I've experimented a lot with different techniques," Javier says. "The film will be treated in different ways in the lab to get the film visually to the point where it's looking where we want it. I found a fantastic team that I have worked extremely well with and to whom I am very close and frankly I'm ecstatic to have been a part of The Road. I think it's an incredible project and it was worth the effort even with the many challenges. This is day number 59 and that's a lot of days. I'm not so much tired as much as I am particularly satisfied with a job that I believe in visually, and I feel confident in saying that. The Road is definitely the high point of my professional life and I think it's also the biggest of all my films"
The biggest challenge for a cinematographer, he says, was working with the weather, and maintaining visual continuity over more than 50 locations and 60 days of exterior shooting. And maintaining the "confidence to do the job correctly. Because this is an exterior film, we're always outside and dealing with the different climates and the changing weather. I came up with two sayings on the film that became popular with the crew. One is, 'The sun is the enemy' and the other is, 'Anything is possible on The Road.' We were actually very lucky with the weather in the end and the sun stayed away most of the time.
"In this movie, the sun doesn't exist and the earth is apocalyptic. The color green doesn't exist; in fact colors don't exist cinematically either. At night the only light and color is from the red fire. We ended up using a lot of fireballs to create the light. They illuminate the sky and give the film an authenticity, realness.
"In this film, there isn't a manipulation of lights or a manipulation of things that are real," he adds. "For me I need the people when they leave the theater to have an impression of what can happen to this earth and that this can happen to them. I want them to feel while they watch the film that it's real and sincere. I think the biggest victory will be if the audience can believe in the reality of the story while watching it in the artificial world of the theater -- that they see there is a truth to this story.
"In reality it's a recreation but it also morphs with reality and the photography is there to serve that. To create true light and the truth of the apocalyptic world; that is my role."
After a long and difficult shoot, Javier says he is blessed to have worked on The Road. He tips his hat to the two people who carried the burden of filming -- and the fire.
"Another reason I feel very satisfied on this film is because of a lot of people, but in particular two people," he says. "One of them is Viggo Mortensen and the other is Kodi, the principal protagonists. In creating this sort of reality I think I have also benefited from their performance because their acting form is truly natural. It's an extremely lucky coincidence having two extraordinary actors for this film. I think this is another of the many circumstances on this film that lead me on a path to great satisfaction, making a film that a lot of people are going to remember. I am truly convinced of that."
Last edited: 10 October 2009 12:53:54