Film-Related 2010

The Road - John Hillcoat's Diary

Source: Sunday Telegraph

Filming Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road meant seeking out America's most ravaged landscapes, shooting in sub-zero temperatures and creating a world without sun. The director John Hillcoat kept a diary.

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Image Macall Polay.
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It was a hell of a way to begin our journey on The Road. It was my first American film, as it was for my long-term collaborator, the Australian production designer Chris Kennedy. It was also his first time in America. We were working together in the offices of the financing and production company, way up in a high-rise in Beverly Hills, and Chris had gone out for a quiet cigarette break when there was a sickening thud and a body landed about 20ft in front of him. It was a jumper from another office. Chris was in shock when he came back in; he said the sound would haunt him for ever. Later, our producer, Nick Wechsler, patted him on the back and said calmly, 'Welcome to Hollywood.'

It had all started years before when Nick and I had a meeting in LA where I talked about my love of Cormac McCarthy's writing. In early June 2006 Nick sent me the unpublished manuscript of The Road, about a father and son trying to survive in a world that has been virtually destroyed by an undescribed global catastrophe. I finished it standing on my doorstep in Brighton, with pounding waves and howling wind behind me, having read it non-stop on the train from London. Those last few pages hit me like an emotional tsunami. I went into my home and hugged my own little boy Louie (to whom I have dedicated the movie) long and hard. Later, I was overwhelmed by the task: how could I possibly recreate that depth of feeling and create a world like that? How could I honour such a book? But my greatest worry was how to find a young actor who could pull it off (the child in the book is eight or nine). It was a challenge, but it was a gift, too.

On top of all that, the book was to become an internationally praised bestseller, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And of course there was the enormous success that the Coens had pulled off with another of McCarthy's books, No Country for Old Men. The expectations just went up and up.

July 6 2006

We invited Cormac to see my previous movie, The Proposition. He liked it very much and could recognise the influence from his book Blood Meridian. We've got the rights to the book. Fortunately for us, all the studios ran a mile from the dark material of the unpublished manuscript. So we moved in.


Various screenwriters have been discussed, including some real Hollywood heavyweights, but we have given the job to Joe Penhall, an Australian/British writer, a gifted playwright who has shown great aptitude for movie adaptations. Joe isn't bamboozled by the brilliant poetry of the language; he wants to focus on keeping the dialogue already on the page and extracting the essence of the book in terms of story and character.

June 2007

The first drafts of the script have arrived. Every week, I spend a couple of days going through everything with Joe as it unfolds. During this process I started thinking about casting. I wanted to see if there was a way of protecting the boy, sheltering him from some of the material so he wouldn't be aware of what we were really doing. (I recently found out that the brilliant young actor in Kubrick's The Shining didn't even know that it was a horror film.) But the emotional range required and full engagement in the material is a necessary ingredient.

The Road begins in the aftermath of a global disaster - it could have been nuclear war or an environmental catastrophe - and so I started researching pictures from different manmade and natural disasters, and a combination of both. Chris and I built up picture libraries from a range of varied events. The Road reminds me of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. While looking at pictures by the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange from the Dust Bowl, with ordinary people struggling against the odds to go west to stay alive, I realised that the actor's face that would fit perfectly into that type of world would be Viggo Mortensen's. He is able to reflect struggle without even speaking, and I knew we needed someone who would not hold back.

He was hard to get a response from, as he was exhausted from going from film to film and interview to interview, but eventually we got him on board. He would later use his extreme fatigue to aid his performance.


We set up an online location link for people on our team to seek out and post in photo samples. Chris, in Australia, and I, in Britain, would constantly discuss and update the link with our notes. This went on for months. Meanwhile Chris had been scanning every mile of America on Google Earth from his laptop. Zooming in on any dark patch he spotted, he discovered locations such as the large ash piles and slag heaps of Nemacolin in Pennsylvania, left over from mining.

We went to see the ash piles. It was bitterly cold. We were in a rental van with black-tinted windows, and when we got out, we put on balaclavas. Suddenly a couple of vehicles screeched up with armed guards in them. It turned out there was a new super-max prison opposite. Our location manager calmed them down and eventually we were allowed to proceed. From the ash piles we could see right down into the prison's exercise yard. They were obviously worried we were trying to organise a break-out.

October 9

We started our first wide location scout across eight states - it was our 'Post-Apocalypse Now' tour. We were looking at the states that had the most enticing tax incentives, and luckily it seemed that those states also happen to harbour the most apocalyptic landscapes. A lot of these places were fly-over zones, places run down and abandoned after they had been used up by industry. Chris had found a website called Lost and Abandoned, where someone had posted pictures of the Breezewood turnpike, an eight-mile four-lane interstate freeway that has been closed since 1969. Pennsylvania began to look like the best place to shoot.

We decided that city locations were problematic, primarily because we felt urban iconography was overly exposed within the apocalyptic genre. This was a road movie, and a book that has a keen sense of the earth being in a state of trauma. Mount St Helens in Washington State was a key location (half the mountain exploded in a volcanic eruption in 1980) for setting the scene in a mountain wilderness for the opening section of the movie. We also went to New Orleans; it was a very sobering experience to see how much was still being cleaned up after all this time.


Nick Wechsler and I met Bob Weinstein (whose company Dimension would be distributing in the US), in the Weinsteins' offices in New York City. (I had met him a year before in London for breakfast where he had only ordered four Diet Pepsis.) He and his brother Harvey are infamous for good reasons: both are very driven, intense men with real passion for movies, power and money. Bob sat down in their boardroom, soaked in sweat in a grubby T-shirt having walked straight out of the gym. He shared the emotional response we had had to the book.

Francine Maisler, our casting director, has been searching America and Canada for the boy, looking at school drama clubs, amateur theatre groups, and generally spreading the word. We already had a shortlist of strong kids, but I had heard about an Australian boy called Kodi Smit-McPhee, who had recently turned 11.
I hadn't thought to look in Australia, because of the added pressure of learning an American accent (it later transpired that he didn't even need a coach). Kodi had just done a film called Romulus, My Father with Eric Bana, and I saw the trailer. He looked interesting, so I asked him to audition on tape. I had picked a neutral scene for him to do, to get a sense of what he was like.

Kodi's audition tape was quite a surprise - his father, Andy, was playing Viggo's part with him in the scenes. Andy, also an actor, is 6ft 6in with a handlebar moustache and covered in tattoos (we later got him to play one of the scariest of the road-gang cannibals). They did extra scenes as well as the one I'd asked for, including the one scene I was most troubled by - where the father is teaching his son how to take his own life with a gun rather than be taken by cannibals. I took this as a message to me that his boy could deal with this - either that, or that they were completely insane. I got them to come to LA, where we were working through the shortlisted boys with Viggo, to see what the chemistry was like. I discovered that Andy had read the entire book to Kodi on the plane over and Kodi seemed unaffected.

I talked to him about skateboarding and he was clearly a really great kid. There was also no sign of showbiz parenting lurking, which was another of my fears. Kodi's mother is a tattoo artist, and a wonderfully grounded woman, Kodi's sister is a talented actress; they are a close-knit family.

The age range of our shortlist ran from eight to 11. But when I saw the dynamic of the younger boys working with Viggo, it suddenly changed the meaning of all the scenes into being purely about the poor little boy in jeopardy - it felt too much of a leap that a child so young becomes the moral compass in the relationship, stands up to his father and hands him back his humanity and finally is able to carry on when he is left alone. But with Kodi, the dynamic felt complex in an interesting way; you could really see how this child could challenge his father and come through the other side.

The other thing that I instantly noticed in Kodi was that his instincts and his understanding of the material were quite profound. That was surprising and very reassuring. He also has an ability to be in the moment the whole time; in between dialogue you can see/hear his thoughts. As great as the other young actors were, they would switch off and on in these moments.

December 4

We have got Charlize Theron on board to play the boy's mother. By sheer luck Kodi closely resembles Charlize physically. In my first wonderful conversation with Charlize, she made it clear that for her it wasn't about the number of lines that her character had, it was about the content and quality of the material.

January 2008

We reassembled to put together the rest of our crew: I wanted Javier Aguirresarobe, a master of natural light, to be the director of photography. Our approach was trying to get everything 'in camera', only turning to VFX (digital visual effects) as a last resort, so we needed a large special effects and physical effects team - smoke, fire and ash - on location.

We're staying in apartments in a converted cork factory by the river in Pittsburgh. Javier and I have spent days talking about how we're going to create a world without sun. Our mantra has become 'The sun is our enemy'. We can film during the winter for the overcast skies, but if the sun is there we have to block it out with large screens, and save all wide shots for the end of the day when the sun is low and distant. Continuity with weather over long scenes is a killer; if it rains then stops during a half-finished scene, then we have to bring in rain towers to finish it.


Robert Duvall is one of my all-time favourite actors so I was excited to get him on board. He plays the old man whom they meet on the road. We talk on the phone about Boo Radley, the boy in To Kill a Mockingbird, which was his first film role, and how he captured such vulnerability. In his more recent performances, Robert has personified a tough and powerful sensibility, so we talked about returning to his more vulnerable side.

Joe, our screenwriter, arrived for the rehearsals. We went through the script with Kodi and Viggo and explored the subtext and meanings in a way we wouldn't have time for when out on location.

I then got Kodi to record the entire script so that Charlize could listen to him on her iPod and get to know how he sounds. I encouraged Viggo to hang out with Kodi as much as possible, and Viggo took him to the Bodies exhibition in Pittsburgh, which is made up of hundreds of specimens of dead human bodies. They later found packages of edible dried insects in a local shop - crickets and maggots in either chilli or salt and vinegar flavours. We decide to use the chilli crickets for the movie.

Margot Wilson, our wardrobe designer, had been studying images of homeless people and began to construct and age various outfits from ill-fitting clothing. (Later, Viggo would sleep in his outfit. When he went into a local shop one day, security was called to remove him from the premises, thinking he was a homeless bum.)

February 27

Shooting has begun. There are roughly 50 locations, and we had to make a complete schedule change at the last minute because of an impending snow storm.

March 3

We shot an emotional scene today. When the boy is recovering from their first cannibal encounter, his father (who has shot the cannibal in the head) is cleaning blood and brains off his son with river water. It was an extraordinary scene for everyone, because suddenly Kodi started to cry for real. The whole crew were looking at me, this was my ethical moment of truth as a director, but just as I was about to call 'Cut' I heard Kodi, through his sobs, continue to play the scene, with Viggo tenderly responding and comforting him. (It turned out that Kodi did not mention just how cold he was getting, and the water was absolutely freezing.) While Viggo was holding Kodi, Andy stepped in but then did the most extraordinary thing - he stopped and backed off. He later explained that as terrible as this was for him, he realised this was a key moment for the two of them to bond. He was right. This was only a few days into the shoot, yet their relationship was enriched from that point on. After that we made sure that Kodi informed us if he ever became too cold. Both the actors were working off the environment, although Viggo deliberately immersed himself much more physically: he would refuse heat packs and even have the special-effects team spray him down with water. This was in temperatures as low as -6C.

March 8

The weather has improved with blue skies and sun - it is hell. Everyone has had to work twice as hard to try to block out the sun. When it is overcast and miserably cold we are on top of the world.

Next up was the scene where the father and son stumble across a house with people locked in the basement - the cannibals' store cupboard. We had advertised for skinny people and amputees for this scene. And everyone had to be willing to lie naked on a cement floor covered in filth. This became an endless source of black humour.

March 10

Back at the ash piles, Robert Duvall's presence on the set seems like a real link to McCarthy's world and has inspired us all. But the dialogue for the campfire scene, great as it was, felt a little cerebral. I quietly talked to Robert about trying to bring something extra, to make it more painful and personal somehow. So we opened up the last take to him and Viggo to run with. Robert came up with the most extraordinary and heartbreaking bit of improvisation in the middle of the scene, about having once had a son. After calling 'cut' we all broke into spontaneous cheers and applause. It was the magic you are always in search for when shooting.

March 27

We shot the scene when a whole wood falls down, cutting down only trees that needed to be felled. We shot with multiple cameras, some buried in the ground, some attached to the falling trees. Our woodcutters were impressive with their accuracy. We were told if something went wrong not to run, but to watch what direction the tree was coming from and then to sidestep it.

April 3

We were wondering how to shoot the book's memorable Coca-Cola scene (when the boy and his father find a last remaining can of Coke in a vending machine; the boy has never tasted the stuff before) because it was necessary to obtain corporate clearance. The official response was that family brands do not want any association with cannibalism! Also Coca-Cola has a policy never to allow its product to be shown in an R-rated movie. We had to shoot the scene over and over with a variety of soft drinks, including Coke, in the hope that one of them would come around. Then Viggo took up the challenge and directly contacted the Coca-Cola executive in charge of the decision - and got the approval we needed.

April 17

We have moved to Lake Erie. The thief scene is the emotional climax, where things finally come to a head and the father oversteps the mark: as his morals slide from beneath him, his son confronts him. In the script the boy breaks down completely after seeing his father lose his humanity while dealing with the thief (Michael K Williams). Yet take after take, Kodi just couldn't get there. (This was after doing the death scene at the end, which he nailed in two takes.) He finally revealed he just felt anger, and not like breaking down and crying again - his instincts were exact. This pressure of him being right on breaking point, the hurt combined with his anger, was what he needed to get it right. And Viggo instantly fired off this. Acting really is about reacting and that's how these two got to where they needed to go.

May 5

To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen - that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

May 10

We have moved to Oregon, to the grey sand dune beach near Astoria. We were very lucky with the weather - it was overcast, cold and raining with ferocious winds. So we were in good shape. Cormac McCarthy came to visit the set with his son John, whom he introduced as the co-author of the book. Kodi was struck by the way his son talked, calling Cormac 'Papa'. He is a great and inquisitive boy, just like in the book.

The legacy of Cormac had loomed all through pre-production but as we approached the shoot I had some long conversations with him. He never asked to see a script (and we didn't volunteer one); he had such a firm grasp and understanding of the differences between the two mediums. He basically said, 'A book's a book and a film's a film, I've done my book and now you've got to do your film.' Yet he remained available to answer any questions, apart from the odd one regarding things best left open to interpretation. He reads only non-fiction, and is very interested in science. He's got this incredible precision and unflinching view of humanity, like a scientist has, and yet he's also a great poet. This is a special combination. He's also a kind man, and a great ally.

I couldn't think of anyone but Guy Pearce to play the Veteran. He is so nuanced and precise. We wanted to convey that there were still all these people wandering around this dying world fighting for survival, and you can imagine Guy surviving, like Viggo. The role of Motherly Woman, played by Molly Parker, was a very difficult one to pull off: both of them had to get across their own history and the emotional damage they've endured in limited screen time.

May 17, Portland

Charlize Theron (who appears in the film only in flashback) has arrived on set like a soothing, fresh breeze. Her resemblance to Kodi is amazing, and we intensify this by having her wardrobe being passed down to Kodi in the film. Kodi, like the rest of the cast and crew, instantly fell for Charlize. Her sharp wit and inner strength shines brightly, and Kodi followed her around everywhere like a puppy, completely smitten; he even attempted the odd chat-up line.

May 20

End of principal photography. Our final location, for the entire opening sequence - Mount St Helens - is still 20ft under snow, so access is impossible. We will have to come back in July.

July 27, Mount St Helens

Sections of road have collapsed and slid down the mountain from excess snow, which is good for us because it helps to create our crumbling world. Everyone was in very high spirits, especially when they saw these gigantic first-generation trees that had been ripped up from the 1980 blast and were still lying stripped bare across the mountainside. The water from the lake was blown completely out and up the mountainsides then washed back down, dragging ripped up trees as it went. It was quite humbling to observe the sheer force of nature.

As post-production moves forward we get closer to getting the balance of the material right, always protecting the love story between father and son. We also choose not to follow the Coens' example from No Country for Old Men, which had no music. I have already discussed a basic plan for the soundtrack with my old friends and collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

October 16

We are lucky to have only two test screenings with the public in New York. It's always great to be sitting with an audience watching your film - you can get a sense of what's working - but test screenings have become a pseudo-science full of major flaws, yet are being used more and more as marketing forces continue to hijack the industry. It's down to the processing of information and how it is used where it gets most slippery. Thankfully, we come out intact.

November 6

Today was the day of reckoning. Joe Penhall and I went to New Mexico to show the movie to Cormac McCarthy, who lives in Santa Fe. Cormac pulled up in an old beaten-up Cadillac and we went into this strangely empty massive hi-tech studio. When the lights came up afterwards, Cormac didn't say a word. He excused himself to go to the men's room and was gone for 20 minutes, and we were thinking, 'This is not good...' Finally, he came back and said, simply, 'It's really good. This is like nothing we've ever seen.' When I started to press him for details, he cut me off, saying, 'Look, I didn't come all this way to blow smoke up your ass.' Then he took us out for a seven-hour lunch. The only thing that he missed from the book was four lines of dialogue, which luckily we had filmed, and put back in. He loved the movie.

September 3 2009

The Road is not a summer movie, so we decided to sweat it out until the autumn to release it. We premiered it in Venice, and Viggo and Kodi came along with Joe, the Weinsteins and me. We got an incredible reaction. There was an 11-minute standing ovation, people were in tears, and eventually, not knowing what else to do, we started to shuffle out.

Epilogue, December 2009

The joke on set and in the edit suite was that we had to get this movie out before it became a reality. Ironically, the movie industry itself now faces its own apocalypse. The perfect storm has arrived in Hollywood: a global economic downturn combined with piracy and the increase of downloading on the internet - what happened to the record companies years ago but with much higher stakes. The reactionary first phase has kicked in - few films in development, many films put on hold or shut down.

My own new project - with a much-loved script by Nick Cave and a dream all-star cast - has fallen apart. The finance company that we began The Road with has also fallen apart, having to radically downsize to one remaining staff member. The great divide has begun, with only very low-budget films being made or huge 3-D franchise films - the birth of brand films such as Barbie, Monopoly: The Movie - who knows what's next, Coca-Cola: The Movie?

I end the year appropriately - gazing into the apocalypse of my own industry.
Last edited: 5 January 2010 05:09:55
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