Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.
It's been a bumpy journey on The Road.
But even though bad weather, polluted locations and a yearlong release postponement would normally signal a particularly troubled production, this was all good news for the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's end-of-the-world novel.
"I wanted to be as faithful to the spirit of the book as possible," says the movie's director John Hillcoat (The Proposition). "There was an immediacy and authenticity to Cormac's story, and a great original quality to how it talks about a post-apocalyptic world. In a way, it's a world that we already know, as opposed to a fantasy world. The image of having all of your belongings in a shopping cart immediately conjures up people on the streets of every city."
Pushing that battered cart through a ruined, mostly abandoned landscape under perpetual gray skies are the Man and the Boy, a father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young actor Hillcoat found in their native Australia. They're among the few survivors of an unspecified global calamity, trying to reach the seashore with the vague hope that life will be better there.
But they may starve before they make it. Or, worse, get eaten by one of the bands of armed cannibals who roam the wasteland.
The film, which opened on Wednesday, was shot in the winter of 2008 amid environmentally devastated areas of Pennsylvania, Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Louisiana and in the shadows of the Pacific.
Northwest's Mount St. Helens volcano. Since whatever went wrong had a nuclear winter effect on the atmosphere, the sun - usually the cinematographer's friend - was the last thing director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe (New Moon, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) wanted to see come out.
Consequently, and very much on purpose, The Road looks nothing like such slick, CG destructo-thons as 2012.
"A lot of times I feel that the environments of disaster movies distract from the human story," observes Mortensen, who was made a star by the effects-laden Lord of the Rings films. "But in this, the landscape we were in was so real and so raw, in a way such an open wound, and our feelings had to be on that level, it was kind of a measuring stick. I've never been in a movie where the environment was so consistently a character; even though it was dead or dying, it was very alive."
Sometimes, Mortensen got too into the reality of it all.
"Viggo didn't bathe, he slept in his clothes and got chucked out of places where they thought he was a homeless bum," Hillcoat recalls with a laugh. "You could say Viggo's very Method, but actually there are a lot of things about him that isn't.
"I mean, we did discuss limits," Hillcoat adds. "I didn't want Viggo to starve himself to a point where that's what you're thinking about rather than what's happening between him and the boy."
And that, rather than the spectacle of large-scale destruction or the horror of surviving in a dehumanizing, hostile world, is what this closeup-loving film insistently focuses on.
"It exaggerates every parent's fears about what will happen to their kid if they're not there," Mortensen explains. "But it is that cliche about the journey being more important than the destination. What the Man realizes on his own and, also, in large part by what his son shows him, is that what's most important is what they've had with them all along: each other and the potential to be kind."
Lovely stuff, that, but it's embedded in a grim story with little in the way of thrilling action. The Road's depressing appearance could, potentially, prevent folks who might enjoy it from buying tickets. And when the movie was pulled from its initial release date during last year's award season, box-office watchers suspected that was the reason why.
Even though another uncompromised McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men, had won the 2007 best picture Oscar and did surprisingly good business, the Coen brothers film's confounding of genre expectations was one thing. But The Road's quietly engulfing desperation was suspected to be quite another, less commercial animal.
The filmmakers, though, insist that the release delay was not only creatively necessary, but resulted in a movie even more faithful to McCarthy's downbeat vision.
"Very simply, it wasn't ready to come out a year ago," Hillcoat says. "That date was, quite frankly, unachieveable. The delicacy of the editing balance, what you leave in and what you leave out, was substantial. The more cannibal stuff that's left in, say, the more the movie becomes about something else than the journey."
British playwright Joe Penhall, who wrote The Road's script and - unusual for a screenwriter - worked on through the project's production and postproduction phases, notes that the film is some 15 minutes longer than last year's cut. It also boasts a voice-over narration that incorporates more of McCarthy's original prose.
Still, Penhall acknowledges, "They're still afraid to release it. Who wouldn't be? I mean, there might have been the most minor trepidation, which any intelligent person would have, about when to release a film like this."
"It's not a summer movie, is it?" Hillcoat adds, chuckling.
"The real news is that, after that long postproduction process, we put loads of stuff back in, it wasn't slashed," Penhall continues. "If anybody had wanted to jolly it up, they could have been a lot more heavy-handed. There were questions, people were saying `Could we have a more hopeful ending, could we have this, that and the other?' But anyone could see that we've made the film that we wanted to make. We didn't make a film that we calculated would be a mass commercial success."
Mortensen figures that perceptive audiences will be satisfied by the time they reach the end of The Road.
"What you learn, what's uplifting in a strange way by the close of this film, is that being a good guy isn't just an abstract idea," the actor says.